To mark the consumer release of Windows Vista, the Microsoft desktop operating system that promises so much, AMD have released their first non-beta WHQL Catalyst drivers for all of their supported desktop SKUs. Catalyst 7.1 (denoting its release in January 2007) for Windows Vista therefore drives R3-, R4- and R5-series desktop hardware, enabling full support for the Aero Glass hardware accelerated desktop and other related Vista-only technologies via the new Vista graphics driver model (WDDM).
With a corresponding release for Windows XP, we've taken the current Radeon pinnacle and tested it on both operating systems to see if early promise is to be found. AMD's accompanying press materials for Catalyst 7.1. for Windows Vista make mention of many an improvement, so we investigate the biggest points.
As the section heading says, Catalyst 7.1 supports that straight away on Radeon X1K-series hardware with HDCP protection and acceleration via compatible players (and boards with HDCP). We don't have a PC-based Blu-Ray or HD-DVD drive to test with (nor a HDCP-protected display) to verify this correct implementation of Vista's PVP-OPM, but we will hopefully have the required bits soon so we'll keep you updated.
Firing up the new installer shows a slightly unpolished basic user interface that guides you through the process of installation on Vista, asking you if you want an Express or Custom installation, and a folder to install to if you wish.
With the right WHQL certificate present, Vista asks you if you want to install the signed driver, and also if you wish to "always trust software" from "ATI Technologies, Inc", to save you the click on the dialog box during future Catalyst installs. It remains to be seen if AMD will get their name on the certificate at some point, resetting things as far as that goes.
Catalyst Install Manager (CIM) then detects your hardware and goes about the business of installation. Progress bars show little meaningful information here since they reset and start from zero more than once, but the process doesn't take long. When install's done you're given the option of viewing an installation report and then, despite having the driver loaded and Aero Glass acceleration enabled (indicating a successful install and initialisation), you're asked to reboot with CIM saying it's required.
The panacea of reboot-free driver installations and upgrades, oft promised by Microsoft with Windows Vista, isn't reached, but evidence says its certainly still technically possible. AMD are likely to make the effort to tune CIM to make it so, but there's no guarantees on a timeframe for that.
This initial release of AMD's Catalyst graphics driver for Windows Vista supports their Crossfire multi-GPU rendering technology with the same SKU combinations as on Windows XP (including external cable-free X1950 PRO), but only in Direct3D.
Historically (and somewhat surprisingly), the famed OpenGL rewrite (the program manager for which is no longer at AMD following ATI merging with the company) is part of this initial Catalyst release on Vista. Codenamed Orca, this first run out promises stability and compatibility with OpenGL rather than outstanding performance, which you'll find to be true later in the article.
Arguably too long arriving, Orca's inclusion here fails to set the Vista world alight with poor performance and no compatibility with Crossfire, but it's a beginning and it's probably fair to give AMD a Catalyst release or two to get its OpenGL act together for desktop systems.
AMD have rearchitected Catalyst Control Centre to improve performance when starting up and in-use, reduce memory usage, consolidate their triple-process approach to the application and provide a first-class UI citizen under Vista. On the phone to AMD concerning CCC under Vista, it was mentioned that the app wouldn't come skinned under Vista so as better to match UI guidelines and provide the Aero look and feel. The revision tested didn't co-operate in that respect however, skinned as normal and looking very much ugly when the skin was turned off. Something to look out for we imagine.
CCC certainly starts snappily enough on our Vista test system and performance seems improved versus XP without getting timing code wrapped around it or stopwatches in our hands. It feels faster at least, however much that metric means to you, but we think you'll see it for yourselves. Whether that's down to CCC or Vista's prefetch of the .NET runtime into memory on boot, though, we've no real idea. Catalyst 7.2 is apparently even quicker.
Catalyst for Windows Vista misses the mark in a few cases which will be rectified in upcoming releases a little while down the line. First up is control of adaptive antialiasing which won't appear until Catalyst 7.4, and support for OpenGL and Crossfire which won't come until Catalyst 7.3 in March. AMD also said that a profile manager for Crossfire was still on the cards and should feature in the next few months. Keep an eye out for that, then.
A Linux version of Catalyst Control Center (built using Qt) will show up in a few months too, although it doesn't share any code (currently) with the Windows version. The plan is to have functional equivalence before the end of the year. Full support in the display driver for DirectX 10 is on the way too, when their hardware for that shows up, as you'd expect.
CIM will apparently gain the ability to selectively download what it needs for an update rather than the entire driver package and all that entails. Basically if it's changed (and big bits of the distribution like the interactive settings preview likely won't) it'll come down the pipe to you and if it hasn't it'll be skipped. Cool stuff and a good thing for those on low bandwidth connections. It's supposed to be transparent to the user too, with only the final "hey, there's a new driver, wanna install?" question popping up when needed.
Finally, end-user support for CTM is planned, but that won't show up for "at least a few months". In-house, we debate whether it'll show up publically in 1H 2007 at all, but you never know.
Let's check out performance and discuss any issues we came across next.