BACK IN 2013, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) made a conscious decision to focus on software as much as it did hardware, claiming that in the future, performance gains would be based on software optimisations rather than just churning out new silicon.
After deciding to use games bundles to sell its Radeon HD 7000 series graphics cards at the time - and looking to its independent software vendor relations teams to optimise software in order to keep its products competitive - AMD told The INQUIRER that it was concentrating more than ever at optimising its Catalyst GPU drivers to get more performance out of its APUs.
The idea behind doing this - working with the top game titles as they come out rather than simply designing new silicon - was said to put AMD the position of "being in the heart and soul of the gaming market from multiple dimensions" because it meant those drivers were shared across an array of products that consumers might buy and carry with them for several years.
"Our exception is to go much deeper with that to work with the game playing community, not just with the games developer community," the company said.
Since then, AMD has continued to push into software optimisation, and it has paid off, with updates to its Catalyst graphics drivers yielding noticeable performance improvements in a number of popular games.
As developers have used AMD hardware to design games, the growing popularity of the software that has been designed alongside has meant future titles have been automatically optimised, making lives easier for gamers and developers alike.
It's no surprise then that AMD has wanted to knock this up a notch, or ten, with the release of completely new, overhauled software to replace its decade-old Catalyst driver. This looks to not only encompass all of the above, but to make its software even more crucial to the success of the games that run on its hardware.
As we have heard from the company's head of VR marketing at the Radeon Technology Group, Sasa Marinkovic, AMD has completely revamped the whole software experience with the launch of a new edition to its graphics software: Radeon Software Crimson Edition (RSCE).
Replacing the firm's Catalyst Driver and working alongside the standalone Radeon Technologies Group (RTG) chip division, announced a month ago as a dedicated focus for amateur and professional gamers on virtual reality and augmented reality, RSCE is touted as being so feature-rich that it is "a mini graphics operating system".
"For more than a decade, AMD Catalyst graphics drivers software has been boosting performance with new features and capabilities and enhancing the reliability of AMD based drivers at no additional charge," said Marinkovic, giving contact in the lead up to the launch of RSCE.
"For instance, the AMD catalyst Omega first special edition driver launched last year delivered double-digit performance, packing more than 20 new features and improvements and bug fixes, based on user feedback. Millions downloaded AMD catalyst Omega driver and the subsequent drivers and customers surged by almost 20 percent and so this was one of the most successful catalyst releases in history."
However, Marinkovic admitted that while the Catalyst driver had done a lot a lot of good things in the last decade, releasing one a month in the past, and moving to releasing three in 2015 - one Omega and two Windows 10 drivers, with nine additional beta releases - he said "the trust is, the customer needs are somewhere in between".
"So we are committing up to six major releases and six beta releases in an as-per-need basis," he added. "In 2015 our drivers really took to the next level in terms of both performance features and stability, and in 2016 we are planning to continue that trend."
With that, AMD introduced RSCE as its new software strategy and new name for AMD software, calling it "the new era of software" at AMD.
"The drivers over the past years have really evolved, it's not just a driver anymore, it's a set of tools, libraries, and effects and everything else, which makes this like a mini operating system, and this is what Radeon Software is; it's more than just a driver.
"This first iteration is going to be the biggest software release we've had in our history."
RSCE is a reimagined version of Catalyst and is said to offer 'Redefined, Refined, and Supercharged' drivers for the AMD Radeon GPU. It is named after a shade of red as the firm intends to change this shade in the following years to represent the annual releases.
It is touted as a completely redesigned brushed-metal user interface which refines performance and features and increases power efficiency.
"The foundation of the Radeon software is stability," explained Marinkovic. "We have spent countless hours in making sure that this driver is reliable and stable and bringing the best experience to the users, and we took it from there to build on these four pillars and user experience is definitely number one."
If AMD's claims are genuine, its new Radeon software will bring instantaneous start-up, a much more compelling look and feel, features that bring performance to optimise that is already in the market from a new gaming perspective, and power efficiency "that really takes the whole story to the next level".
It claims to offer ten times faster start-up of the user interface, up to 20 percent more performance and up to 1.8x power savings when compared to the latest edition of catalyst driver.
"We improved our quality assurance resourcing in equipment compared to Omega, so there was or double the automated test cases that we checked against," explained AMD's manager of AMD Software strategy, Terri Makedon. "There was 25 percent more manual test cases - dudes sitting at a computer and plugging away doing what users do, 15 percent more system configurations than what we had for Omega and we also latched on to the latest and greatest newest technology, like 4K and head mounted displays or VR headsets."
Makedon explained that AMD asked its gaming community to tell it what their number one issues were with Catalyst and what was bothering them the most in an aggressive push to get feedback.
They then made a top ten list of issues and went and fixed each one to make sure they were all resolved.
"But we didn't just fix the top ten issues," added Makedon. "We fixed a whole bunch of others too; anything with more than two or three reports. Generally, if it's less than a few reports out of a 60 million user base then it's probably just system noise or system configuration or some type of incompatible memory power supply. More than a few, quite likely a driver issue and fixed these."
"We checked them off one by one and this is something we will continue to do."
As a result, the overhauled RSCE - which has been rebuilt in the Qt software development framework with modular cross-platform libraries and tools - not only works much better and fast, but it generally makes much more sense.
"Essentially, we started this project from scratch using users, developers, press to fix issues.
"Start-up [of Catalyst] was painful and took 10-12 seconds depending on the system, which of course is unacceptable in the modern times," said Makedon.
On an HP Pavilion DM1 with an AMD-E350 APU and 3GB of RAM, for example, AMD Catalyst took around eight seconds to start up, with Radeon Software Crimson the settings could be adjusted just 0.8 seconds later.
"The other thing I found was that navigation and discoverability of where to find things weren't up to standards," added Makedon. "And the reason that happened was the catalyst control centre, as new features were introduced in the GPUs year after year, finding a home for those in an already established framework means you have to compromise and put it in a place that doesn't make sense as that's the only option."
Therefore, AMD started from scratch when redesigning. It completely retired the Catalyst display centre and replaced it with something called Radeon Settings, hiring a new guy for this job alone.
Once in these settings, users can change the software to set overclock settings for games so they can run the video card at higher speeds than the factory defaults, and the ability to launch a game with different preset graphics settings so they run at their optimum.
RSCE's main thrust is to power gaming, display and video, but also virtual reality (VR) experiences.
"We have been talking since March about our Liquid VR initiative, which that allows developers to plug into our drivers and use our features and applications and helps our ecosystem partners such as Oculus and HTC to take advantage of the hardware features," added Makedon.
At this point, he explained that Liquid VR is now part of Radeon software and is incorporated into the driver to enable the ecosystem to" light up VR" as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, especially in gaming and perhaps future consoles.
AMD's new software will arrive by the end of the year, available on Windows 7, 8.1 and 10, and has a feature set for all types of user, whether a dedicated gamer or developer. It will support AMD Crossfire in DirectX 9 games and AMD Freesync technologies. µ
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