AMD Kills Monthly Graphics Driver Updates, Enthusiasts Out in The Cold?

Yesterday, AMD announced that it would cease offering monthly driver updates, and instead issue Catalyst versions only "when it makes sense." That statement would be a good deal more comforting if it didn't "make sense" to upgrade AMD's drivers nearly every single month.

Before we go down that road, we want to acknowledge that AMD's announcement just puts an official company stamp on a de facto situation. From 2010 through 2011, AMD released a new Catalyst driver every month like clock work. Starting last summer, however, AMD began having trouble with high-profile game releases that performed badly, were visually corrupted, or both. Rage was one high-profile example, but there have been launch-day issues with a number of other games, including Skyrim, Assassin's Creed, Arkham City, and Battlefield 3.  

The company responded to these problems by quickly releasing out-of-band driver updates. These beta/preview/performance/pre-certified drivers (we've seen them called all of the above in the past nine months) have always had an unclear relationship with their validated brethren; when AMD released the 12.1 Catalyst series on January 25, it warned everyone playing Rage that they'd have a better experience if they stuck with the preview driver released three weeks previously.

ATI fanboys will protest that Nvidia also releases beta drivers on a regular basis, but the patch notes that accompany these releases show a very different pattern. Both companies devote a considerable amount of time to fixing multi-GPU bugs and edge configurations, but AMD's Catalyst 12.6 beta driver mentions random BSODs on the desktop, poor Crossfire scaling in Skyrim (forcing a return to 12.3 settings), and random hangs in Crysis 2 in DX9. AMD, in other words, is still working to resolve some important problems in games that launched more than six months ago. It's hard to put a positive spin on slower driver releases given just how often those releases are necessary.

AMD executives have openly announced that they intend to pursue a different competitive strategy -- one that doesn't rely on head-to-head competition with Intel. It's possible the company is mulling a different, APU-centric graphics strategy as well. Sunnyvale has never seen much net profit from its GPU activities, as shown below.

AMD has no plans to get out of the graphics business; GPU development is essential to the success of its APUs. With NV having recently one-upped AMD with Kepler, however, it's possible that Sunnyvale's CEO is taking a long, hard look at whether the discrete GPU business is a long-term winning bet. At the very least, we're certain Read wants to see the company's net profits improve on these parts. Companies like Imagination Technologies, meanwhile, have demonstrated that you can build incredibly successful mobile parts without offering desktop graphics.We took these questions to AMD, and the company affirmed that while it's not going to submit as many drivers for WHQL certification, it'll continue to release beta drivers as often as it needs to.

If AMD continues a rapid-fire beta driver release program, with only occasional WHQL updates, nothing much will change. If, on the other hand, this demonstrates how company resources are being directed elsewhere, we'd expect to see driver updates drop off, period. It all boils down to how much Rory Read wants to be in the high-end graphics / workstation business, versus how much he thinks the company would benefit from allocating more resources to APU software development. Short term, nothing is going to change, but keep an eye on AMD's Fusion summit and future executive statements.