AMD Releases New Catalyst Drivers; Reveals Upcoming Features of Catalyst 10.3

Generally speaking, driver updates are rather staid affairs whether you prefer yours red or green. It's been years since the release of a driver series that could be expected to boost performance more than 10-15 percent or so in nearly any game.  The benefits of a driver upgrade tend to be more specifically focused on adding new features these days, but that's a trend, not a fact. With its new Catalyst 10.2 and upcoming 10.3 drivers, AMD is baking in a range of new functionality that should both improve performance in existing games, reduce GPU power consumption, and introduce new features and capabilities.

Set and Spike: Catalyst 10.2 and 10.3
A fair number of the goodies we'll discuss today won't be available until Catalyst 10.3 drops in March, but several key ingredients are already integrated into Catalyst 10.2, which is available for download over here. These improvements include:
  • Crossfire Support for Eyefinity: Up until now, Eyefinity mode could only be driven off a single video card, which limited its usefulness considering how much horsepower it takes to drive 2-3 displays simultaneously. In 10.2, this limitation is lifted; CrossFire configurations can now split the strain of Eyefinity rendering.
  • Power Reduction: 10.2 improves AMD's power management system when a GPU or GPUs are idling. AMD claims a drop of around 12W; we check this below.
  • Crossfire Profile Updates: This is a feature that sounds great on paper but we'll have to wait to see how well it works in practice. Up until now, AMD has always eschewed NVIDIA's SLI profile system in favor of once-monthly updates delivered with each new driver release and invisible to the end user. This strategy hasn't served the company particularly well; Crossfire has developed a certain reputation for supporting fewer games and delivering less performance from the addition of a second GPU. Starting with driver 10.2, AMD will deliver XML profile updates as needed over at By decoupling the process, AMD believes it can update Crossfire support much more quickly and make the changes available immediately rather than waiting for a driver to drop. Those of you hoping for an NVIDIA-like experience, however, will still be disappointed. While this new system will allow AMD to roll out updates more frequently, the profiles themselves will not be user-editable and there will be no option to create your own game profile.
  • DisplayPort Audio: If you're one of the six people who own DisplayPort-compatible monitors and actually the standard, congratulations. You may now stream audio data directly into your display's lousy speakers.
  • CrossFire Rearchitected: We don't know exactly what this means yet, but AMD has indicated it will enable better compatibility between upcoming Llano devices and various discrete video cards.
And here's what's coming in March with Catalyst 10.3:
  • Improved 3D Stereoscopic Support: Primarily applicable if you're one of the dozen gamers regularly playing in 3D. Consolation prize: You're twice the size of the gamers using DisplayPort and can actually raid a 10-man instance in World of Warcraft without pugging any of those loser 2D people.
  • Mobile Driver Support: All we can say is finally. With 10.3, ATI will release OEM drivers for mobile products based on the HD 2000, 3000, and 4000 products. This is supported by "most" OEM/ODM manufacturers—we'll have to wait to see just how comprehensive the list actually is. Since most OEMs update their driver packages at a pace best described as 'glacial', this could be very good news for anyone frustrated by their GPU's performance.
  • Display Bezel Compensation: This is pretty cool. As the image below demonstrates; bezel compensation allows you to seamlessly align an image over two or more displays. This feature should subtly improve multi-monitor gaming—properly implemented, it allows the eye to more easily ignore the break between two panels. Catalyst 10.3 will also allow users to individually set brightness and contrast per monitor.

AMD is pushing multi-monitor support at all levels and for both 2D and 3D use.

Power Reduction At Work:
Now let's switch gears and take a look at power consumption. Radeon 4000 cards were criticised in the past for not being particularly efficient in idle mode. Moving to 40nm technology has improved AMD's standing vis-à-vis NVIDIA, but there was clearly room for improvement software-side. We used our dual-5970 Origin testbed for our power measurements, our original review of the system can be found here. We measured idle power at the desktop after waiting 15 minutes and used a Kill-a-Watt wall meter to record total system power draw.

When testing under Catalyst 9.12, we found that removing the second Radeon 5970 altogether cut idle power consumption by 64W. When we switched to the 10.2 driver series and measured the single 5970 again, we saw an 11W improvement. This is within 1W of what AMD indicated we'd see. When we plugged the second card back in, however, things got interesting. When both cards were in the system and connected (but Crossfire was turned off in the 10.2 driver), the idle power draw was actually 275W. Enabling CrossFire in the driver actually reduced system power consumption by another 10W, bringing it down to the 265W we listed above. The "cost" of adding the second Radeon under Catalyst 10.2, in other words, is just 40W, or just 60 percent as much as what we saw under 9.12.

AMD is hitting these lower targets by aggressively downclocking a card's GPU and memory when it's not actively being used. According to the overclocking utility included in the Catalyst drivers, the primary display GPU runs at 137MHz (GPU) and 300MHz (memory). The other three GPUs are at least partially powered down. Your mileage will vary here depending on the type of card you have, but reductions in idle power consumption tend to have the greatest impact on device power use over time.

AMD has put together an interesting suite of features in Catalyst 10.2 and 10.3. The new options won't necessarily bring immediate performance gains above and beyond the typical month-to-month tweaking we've seen in the past, but some of the multi-monitor and individual display customization options are quite attractive to anyone using more than one display. Overall, we're excited to see what AMD has coming in future driver iterations—hopefully the changes to Crossfire profiling will improve AMD's standing compared to NVIDIA when using multi-GPU configurations.