Feature-stuffed Catalyst Omega reinvents AMD's approach to graphics drivers

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Let’s be honest: Most of us don’t update our graphics drivers religiously.

Okay, maybe you do, Mr. Hardcore #PCMasterRace enthusiast, but a vast swath of gamers fiddle with drivers only when they absolutely have to—when something breaks, or when a new game is acting funky. AMD’s new “Catalyst Omega” driver and its underlying philosophy are designed around that behavior.

Catalyst Omega marks the beginning of a new driver release schedule for AMD. The usual game updates and bugfix drivers will continue to roll out continuously as before, but going forward, AMD plans to reveal a major release brimming with new features once per year, to entice even the most stubborn of holdouts into updating their software. Catalyst Omega is just such a goodie-stuffed driver—and it’s also the start of a new era of quality assurance for the company, according to Robert Hallock, AMD’s technical communications lead.

But it also appears to be the potential dawn of a more ominous age for AMD enthusiasts, because the vast majority of Catalyst Omega’s new features aren’t available for one-generation-old Radeon 7000-series graphics cards, nor the current-gen R9 280 and R9 280X (which are basically rebrands of the older Radeon 7950 and 7970). When asked whether some of the features might hit 7000-series cards in the future, Hallock said “This driver is focused on R9 and R7.”

AMD’s Catalyst Omega is scheduled to roll out today. I’ve been testing the drivers for a couple of weeks now. Let’s dig in!

Virtual Super Resolution

As you may have guessed from the name, Virtual Super Resolution is AMD’s rival to Nvidia’s Dynamic Super Resolution, and it’s new in Catalyst Omega. When VSR is enabled, your graphics card will render games at a higher resolution than your monitor natively supports, and then downsample the image to native resolution when it’s sent to your monitor. Virtual Super Resolution supports resolutions up to full 4K, even if you’re using a 1080p monitor.

The technology gives you far smoother edges and textures than you’d see at your native resolution, as well as a much wider field of view—though that can occasionally wreak some havoc in games with small interface elements, as highlighted in the AMD-provided comparison below of Civilization: Beyond Earth at 1080p with VSR disabled (left) and enabled at 4K resolution (right). Downsampling also negates the need for anti-aliasing.

catalyst omega virtual super resolution

AMD Catalyst Omega's Virtual Super Resolution in action.

Actually using AMD’s Virtual Super Resolution technology is much more seamless than using Nvidia’s Digital Super Resolution, in my opinion—at least if you don't let Nvidia's software automatically 'optimize' your in-game settings. While Nvidia’s DSR settings are buried inside its GeForce Experience software, AMD’s technology lets you simply select higher-than-native resolutions via in-game options after you’ve enabled VSR in the Catalyst Control Center.

If your system supports it, that is. The first iteration of Virtual Super Resolution requires scaler hardware found only in a handful of graphics cards: The R9 285, R9 290, R9 290X, and dual-GPU R9 295X2. Sure, the price of Radeon cards has plummeted recently, but those models are still on the beefy end of the spectrum. Fear not, budget gamers! AMD hopes to release a driver that enables VSR in the rest of the R-series lineup using software tricks sometime in early 2015—which, admittedly, takes some of the shine off Catalyst Omega’s “ONE DRIVER PER YEAR!” pitch.

It’s also hard not to feel a wee bit disappointed that this feature is limited to current-gen Radeon hardware alone, as Nvidia rolled DSR out to GTX 500, 600, and 700-series cards after establishing it in the new GTX 970 and 980.

catalyst omega vsr monitor support

The monitor resolutions and timings supported by Virtual Super Resolution, along with the virtual resolutions available on that hardware.

Your monitor’s resolution and refresh timing also need to be supported for Virtual Super Resolution to function, though the most common resolutions are. If your monitor doesn’t meet spec, the option to enable VSR won’t even be available in the Catalyst Control Center, as I discovered when I tried using Catalyst Omega with a 30-inch, 2560x1600 monitor. Also note that full virtual 4K resolution is available only with the R9 285.

It’s great to see graphics vendors actively supporting downsampling after years of leaving it to third-party solutions like Peter "Durante" Thoman's (stellar) GeDoSaTo. Technologies like Virtual Super Resolution are a smart way to utilize the extra horsepower of modern high-end graphics cards with monitors that gamers actually use—especially when you consider how screen resolutions have been largely stalled for the past decade.

New monitor support galore—including FreeSync

Speaking of displays, Catalyst Omega also enables support for AMD’s FreeSync technology. FreeSync is similar (yet again) to Nvidia’s G-Sync: Both technologies force your graphics card and monitor to sync their refresh rates, alleviating the pesky screen tearing and stuttering issues that can pop up under normal circumstances. We’ve seen Nvidia’s G-Sync implementation in action, and the result is stunningly smooth.

catalyst omega amd freesync

FreeSync prevents the screen tearing sometimes seen when your GPU and monitor refresh at different rates.

Catalyst Omega paves the road for AMD’s response. The first FreeSync monitors have yet to hit the streets, but Samsung recently announced FreeSync support for a whole line of 4K displays, and Hallock says at least three other display vendors will be showing FreeSync-compatible monitors at CES 2015. The initial FreeSync monitors are expected to be released next year, with Samsung’s UD590 and UE850 4K displays launching in March.

dell 5k monitor

Dell’s 27-inch UP2715K in its (rendered) 5K glory.

But the first 5K monitor is already here, in the form of Dell’s 27-inch UP2715K. Catalyst Omega includes support for the display and its eye-popping 5120x2880 resolution, though your graphics card needs at least a pair of DisplayPort 1.2 connections to power such a beastly screen.

And if you’re running an insanely beefy system, Catalyst Omega boosts AMD’s Eyefinity multi-monitor support all the way up to a ludicrous 24 simultaneous displays in a quad-GPU setup, along with a tweaked Eyefinity interface. In a word: Damn. If you get a glorious setup like that up and running, be sure to shoot us a picture!

Gaming performance enhancements

Catalyst Omega also includes the in-game performance enhancements that are the bread and butter of graphics drivers, though they’re mostly a secondary focus behind the new features and QA enhancements. As Hallock told me, “We’re not promising the world here.”

Indeed, AMD’s supplied performance stats even compare Omega against launch-day Catalyst drivers for APUs and GPUs, rather than the most recent drivers. That makes a bizarre sort of sense, though, as Omega’s targeted toward people who rarely update their drivers.

AMD APUs—which combine an AMD CPU with Radeon graphics on the same chip—see the biggest benefit here. Per AMD’s supplied statistics, several titles see frame rate increases in the double-digit percentages compared to the launch-day Catalyst 14.2 driver. (I don’t have an APU system on hand to test myself.)

catalyst omega apu performance

You may also see some frame rate boosts when you’re using discrete Radeon graphics cards, but even AMD’s supplied stats (which compare Catalyst Omega against the older Catalyst 13.12 driver) show modest improvements.

catalyst omega gpu performance gain

In most of our testing suite—comprised of Metro: Last Light Redux, Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition, Alien: Isolation, Ryse: Son of Rome, and the Unigine Valley and 3DMark 11 Firestrike benchmarking tools—frame rate improvements were negligible over the Catalyst 14.11 beta drivers. Bioshock Infinite’s average frame rate indeed improved drastically, however, leaping from 51.4 fps to 61.7 fps at 2560x1600 resolution, on Ultra settings with Diffusion Depth of Detail enabled.

Catalyst Omega has another nifty trick up its sleeve: It brings the frame pacing enhancements previously available for multi-graphics card CrossFire setups to AMD Dual Graphics configurations, which is basically AMD’s fancy-pants way of saying an APU paired with a Radeon processor. Better frame pacing means less drastic leaps in minimum/maximum frame rate rendering, giving games a far smoother, less jittery feel.

Again, I don’t have an APU on hand to test the claim, but here are AMD’s supplied stats from a system pairing an A10-7850K APU with a Radeon R7 250 processor, with both games run on medium graphics settings at 1080p.

catalyst omega frame pacing

Catalyst Omega (the red line) shows tighter frame pacing than Catalyst 14.9 in systems with an APU and a Radeon GPU.

Catalyst Omega also includes frame pacing improvements for a handful of memory-intensive games being played in a CrossFire setup: Tomb Raider, Hitman Absolution, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry 3.

Video enhancements

Games aren’t the only media getting a boost from Catalyst Omega. The new driver aims to give video playback a shot in the arm through the introduction of several new features, which is especially great news for folks who tapped AMD’s Radeon-bolstered APUs for a home theater PC.

Contour Removal more efficiently removes those blocky little compression artifacts so common in compressed videos. Contour removal is supported on 25W or higher APUs and R7- or R9-series Radon graphics cards only (but not on the Radeon R9 280 or 280X).

catakyst omega contour removal

AMD's Contour Removal compared to a still from a video that wasn't optimized with the technology. (Click to enlarge the image for full effect.)

1080P Detail Enhancement hits a similar note, improving the clarity and sharpness of compressed, low-resolution video when you’re playing it at 1080p resolution. This technology’s supported on AMD 7x00 A-Series APUs and only the Radeon R9 285 graphics card, which is powered by AMD’s new Tonga GPU. Since the R9 285’s GPU is so fresh, presumably this feature will be supported in wider fashion whenever AMD’s next-gen R9 300-series graphics cards appear.

catalyst omega 1080p detail

1080P Detail Enhancement versus a non-enhanced still.

FullHD to UltraHD Video performs the same action but for beefier hardware, by using processing trickery to improve the clarity of 1080 video when it’s blown up on a 4K display. To use it you’ll need a AMD 7x00 A-Series APU, any R-series Radeon GPU of R7 260 or higher, and—of course—a 4K monitor. (It seems a bit odd that this is supported by the R9 280 and 280X but not Radeon 7000-series cards.)

catalyst omega fullhd to ultrahd

Finally, Fluid Motion Video “uses GPU compute to interpolate inferred frames with real frames,” according to AMD, making playback smoother. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to test the tech because it’s available only in insanely specific scenarios.

catalyst omega fluid motion video

Beyond requiring an 35W or higher AMD 7x00 A-Series APU or a Radeon R7 260 or higher R-series graphics card (again, sans the 280X and 280) on the hardware front, Fluid Motion Video works only when you’re watching a Blu-ray disc with Cyberlink PowerDVD 14. And even then, you have to enable it manually in the TrueTheater/Hardware Decoding submenu, which is hidden in the Video, Audio, and Subtitles submenu of PowerDVD’s Player Settings options while you’re watching a Blu-ray. Whew, that’s a lot of caveats.

Quality assurance improvements

I started this article with a call for honesty, and if we’re being honest, AMD’s drivers have long had a reputation—fair or not—of being not quite as stable as Nvidia’s. With Catalyst Omega, AMD tackled the issue head-on, a fact that Hallock stressed repeatedly.

Compared to previous drivers, AMD performed 65 percent more automated QA testing on Catalyst Omega. Beyond letting machines do their thing, AMD also engaged in rigorous internal “dogfooding” of the driver, performing 12 percent more manual testing on Catalyst Omega, across 10 percent more system configurations and 10 percent more display types. All told, Hallock says the team engaged in hundreds of thousands of tests, which found—and fixed—several hundred issues before Catalyst Omega’s release.

catalyst omega top bug fixes

A list of the top bugfixes found in Catalyst Omega.

That’s all well and good, but AMD still has a way to go before it wins over skeptical gamers. To that end, AMD’s been actively asking for quality feedback from its users. Catalyst Omega fixes the ten most devastating driver bugs mentioned by those users, which you can see below. The company’s maintaining a dedicated bug report page and plans to focus on squashing the top community-reported bugs going forward.

And much, much more

Those are only the key consumer features included in Catalyst Omega. The full list of new goodies is too long to list in full, but here are a few more highlights:

  • The hair-enhancing TressFX 3.0 adds support for animal fur.
  • AMD’s Gaming Evolved client now includes Mantle support for game streaming
  • OpenCL 2.0 and OpenGL ES3.0 are now supported
  • AMD CodeXL 1.6 and HSA Runtime support for developers
  • Catalyst packages for the Red Hat and Ubuntu Linux distros
  • Streamlined Catalyst installation and faster hardware detection
catalyst omega full features

A full list of the new features found in AMD's Catalyst Omega drivers.

Sure, we’re still eagerly awaiting AMD’s Radeon hardware response to Nvidia’s masterful 900-series graphics cards. But Catalyst Omega shows AMD’s still fighting on the software side of things, too—and you can expect that whenever all those new Radeon R9 300-series graphics cards do start showing up, they’ll take full advantage of the slew of features buried within this driver.

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