AMD Catalyst Omega; Details & Performance

Author: SKYMTL
Date: December 8, 2014
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NOTE: The driver is now live on AMD's download site. However, there have been widespread reports of problems. If you are experiencing any, please post HERE in our forums.

Edit #2: Supposedly Windows Update KB3004394 for Windows 7 which was rolled out not too long ago is at the heart of many of Catalyst Omega's installation issues. This update affects driver installation in general (be it NVIDIA, Intel or other drivers) so the issues aren't AMD-specific. Microsoft has pulled the update and recommends that users uninstall it.

When there’s talk about AMD’s graphics cards in our forums, the subject of lackluster driver stability and game support always comes up. The reports of crashes, installation problems, sub-par Crossfire scaling, stuttering and various other issues litter online forums like confetti at a wedding party. But now AMD is addressing their previous software shortcomings with a new driver dubbed simply “Omega”.

Omega is, in part, an admittance by AMD that previous driver iterations could have been much better. While NVIDIA isn’t immune to latent driver problems, the negativity surrounding the Catalyst package directly impacted AMD’s ability to sell graphics cards and APUs. As they say, when something could drastically affect a company’s bottom line, it gets taken care of right away.

The history behind the Omega driver is actually an interesting one considering many of AMD’s previous staffing cuts bit deeply into their driver development and quality assurance teams. Things started to change when Ari Rauch took over as Corporate Vice President of Software Development and instilled a refreshed focus towards application quality and stability. Coming from Texas Instruments, a company that requires a spotless record in this field due to their presence in healthcare and high end industrial markets, he identified areas for immediate improvement and the Omega driver is the first step towards making the software and hardware marriage work better than it did. Make no mistake about it though: AMD’s various pieces of software functioned perfectly well but there was plenty of room for improvement.

Now Omega isn’t the end-all of drivers either, nor is it meant to address every single one of AMD’s identified laundry list of bugs or provide incredible performance uplifts on their Radeon GPUs. Rather the focus here was to add new features, refine existing technologies, improve the overall user experience, enhance stability and fix some nagging issues. In addition, APUs will be receiving the vast majority of attention this time around but desktop GPU users won’t be left entirely high and dry.

Another thing to take into account is that Omega represents the beginning of AMD’s adherence to a once-yearly major driver update policy. While there will be standard performance updates, bug fixes and patches throughout the year like we’ve always seen in the past, they’re now aiming for broader feature level changes on a more regular basis.

One of the lynchpins to AMD’s new strategy is better community engagement. While there has always been a way to report driver problems in past versions of Catalyst, they’re now pushing the so-called “AMD Issue Reporting Form” as well. This is a quick, easy and intuitive online survey that passes your answers directly to AMD’s internal teams who then compile a list of the most-reported issues and work to prioritize their fixes accordingly. Simply put: don’t complain unless you’ve done your part to help correct the bug.

Above and beyond the go-forward initiatives, in preparation for the Omega drivers AMD’s community managers put together a list of the community’s most-reported issues. This “greatest hits” of game-stoppers were red flagged in AMD’s driver team and every one of them fixed within these new drivers. There are still some noteworthy omissions from this list: the lack of a properly implemented uninstaller to prepare your system for a driver update and the Catalyst installation package is still based around the sometimes-buggy Microsoft C++ runtime. However, for the most part, many concerns have been addressed in one swoop.

From a features perspective, there’s an absolutely epic list of items; one that’s impossible to completely cover in this article. Some of them like Compression Artifact Removal are simply the newest iteration of an existing technology while others like OpenCL 2.0, FreeSync support and Crossfire frame pacing improvements have already been rolled out in AMD’s latest drivers but are nonetheless being called out here again. With that being said, there’s plenty of brand new stuff here as well so keep reading since we’ll go through some of it over the next few pages.

Before we go on though, there’s a bit of editorializing that needs to happen. While I’ve been using these drivers for the last two weeks or so without any major hiccups, the experience hasn’t been without some minor challenges that weren’t present in previous releases. For example, there were random crashes in some games like Shadow of Mordor and Aliens: Isolation, Windows 7 boot times were roughly doubled and sometimes the Catalyst Control Center refused to open despite its process running in the background. These may be system-specific but until the gaming community gets their hands in Omega, there’s no way to know for certain.

While alone none of those problems prevented me from using the system or playing games, they point towards a trend we’ve been seeing a lot: items being fixed but others getting broken somewhere along the way. The last thing AMD wants to get into is trying to fix a boat that’s constantly springing new holes, especially when drivers are such an integral part of the GPU landscape.

Given what I’ve seen so far, it sounds like AMD is making all the right noises when it comes to talking about driver development. There’s a huge amount of hope on my part that a corner has been turned and a promising new path travelled. However, marketing bullet points and a single driver don’t amount to an effective long-term commitment so while there’s reason to be excited about what you will see on the next few pages, only time will tell how well these plans move into fruition.

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