Not The End, Merely A New Beginning – AMD Launch Catalyst Omega

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅09.12.2014 07:27:57




Today marks the reveal of a new driver set for AMD, but not any old 'point' increment. Dubbed Catalyst Omega, the new driver update (available from http://support.amd.com/en-us/download) implements performance and an extensive set of new or heavily updated features sufficient to draw the eye of the most jaundiced of commentators. Read on, as we take you through what you can expect from Omega.

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AMD's Catalyst package was first released in 2002 (under the ATI banner), a fixture through updates that included ATI CrossFire, OpenCL support for GPUs and CPUs, Eyefinity and Mantle. It’s therefore been critical to AMD’s status in the graphics market, providing GPUs which are not only powerful but also feature-rich. Up to 2013, 11 years into its lifespan, the software had been downloaded over 80 million times from official sources; that of course doesn’t included alternative distribution.

By any measure therefore it’s been a pretty fruitful package for consumers, but there’s a dual side to packaging in these features for every user of AMD GPUs. At a fundamental level developers can have the confidence that software-integrated features will have a guaranteed potential user-base. This has been shown rather starkly recently with Mantle, and now over 100 developers have signed up to the Beta program.

So, that’s Catalyst in a nutshell, just what’s happening? Well, today ushers in the era of Catalyst Omega, a special edition update to the driver which doesn’t just bundle in performance improvements but also adds support for new consumers and developer features.

Consumer Features - Not Just Gamers

Modern graphics cards don’t only render game engines in a reasonable time, they also perform video decoding on the fly, frame-by-frame quality improvements and more. Catalyst Omega brings a host of benefits not only for the game, but also mainstream consumers of video content and high-resolution corporate environments.

Headline developments are hard to pinpoint, so let’s simply start with enhancements to video.

AMD Fluid Motion is a new feature exclusive to BluRay content access through PowerDVD 14 which uses GPU compute to interpolate frames, reducing judder. Primarily intended for low-power APUs of the 35W+ 7x00-series, but also compatible with R7 and R9 discrete GPUs, it appreciably improves the viewing experience on HTPC systems.



Next up are a trio of improvements to video content which is either low quality or (relatively low resolutions. Contour Removal reduces perceptible artefacts in compressed video, whilst new algorithms provide upscaling improvements to 1080p and 4K displaces from sub-1080p and 1080p video respectively. AMD APUs (including Athlon SKUs) benefit from the contour removal technology, whilst higher performance APUs and most discrete GPUs are necessary for the more complex upscaling algorithms. Enhancements to upscale video from 1080p to 4K are the sole province of AMD R7 260 and faster GPUs.



Considerably less mainstream in its target audience are improvements to Frame Pacing for dual-graphics setups. A critical issue on GPUs from all vendors, AMD took the bull by the horns some years ago with regular updates to address what they saw as a core weakness of such high-end systems. Catalyst Omega claims to reduce time/frame significantly, not only to improve raw frame rate but also significantly reduce variance in frame rate which is perceived as micro-stutter.



Virtual Super Resolution is a second feature (currently) exclusive to those with high-end AMD setups, and is brand new. A driver-level super-sampling anti-alisasing technique exclusive to R9 285 and R9 290-series GPUs, VSR aims to match NVIDIA’s Dynamic Super Resolution which is currently restricted to GTX 800-series GPUs. Both techniques render the game at a resolution higher than the monitor’s native, and then downsample the frame to 1080p. The effect is a frame with superior anti-aliasing, but the performance impact is hefty. We’ll have more on this impact soon, but suffice to say that only the most cutting-edge of AMD systems will be capable of 4K VSR in modern titles.

Recently Samsung announced their 2015 monitor lineup including two new models which will support that most long-awaited of features: Freesync. A technology we’ve been waiting for since it was announced earlier this year, Freesync finally sees implementation within Catalyst Omega ready for the new supported monitors due for release early next year. Most importantly, this technology is available for all GCN-series graphics products, including 7x00-series APUs, most 7000-series GPUs, and all the R7 and R9 cards.

Ever thought that 4K was just not enough ‘K’? Well AMD now bring 5K support with Catalyst Omega, now capable of [email protected] through dual-Displayport 1.2. Obviously more suited to professional environments (as indicated by it a FirePro driver package highlight), higher resolution support will nonetheless be critical as panel technologies improve and manufacturers continue with the resolution ‘arms race’.

Finally comes news that Eyefinity is receiving a UI overhaul, and will now support up to 24-displays in Windows (with four 6-output GPUs). A distinctly niche use case if ever we saw one, it’s nonetheless great to see AMD continue to support Eyefinity to a high level independent of 3rd party hardware and software.

Improvements for Developers – Mantle and More



As we mentioned AMD’s Mantle program, with ‘close to metal’ alternative rendering techniques driving reductions in CPU overhead, now has over a hundred developers signed up to the Beta. These developers will be integral to improving Mantle as an open API standard, and their early inclusion will allow them to become accustomed to these and similar rendering techniques before DirectX 12 enters the market.

Of course, it’s one thing to have engaged developers, it’s quite another to see games being released with this technology under the hood. It’s noteworthy therefore that four different game engines and yet more individual games have shipped with Mantle, whilst the number in development puts the total over 20 to July this year. That’s no mean feat given the API hasn't seen its first year anniversary, and shows great confidence despite early teething pains.

Thankfully though, us consumers aren’t being left rudderless with all this power but unable to take advantage of it when streaming and recording. Catalyst Omega and the Raptr game client finally unlocks Mantle for GVR for over 15 million users worldwide, and includes a basic video editor to start producing your videos right away. Streaming support outside of dedicated hardware was one of the impediments to Mantle entering the gamer consciousness, and AMD hope that better support will lead to more people showing just how it can improve their gaming experience.

But that’s not all. Developers will be buoyed by news that there are new versions of TressFX and support for OpenCL 2.0 in the new SDK.



TressFX 3.0 is the third iteration to AMD’s hair rendering API, and this update provides tools for more extensive support for fur within the existing framework. Furthermore, AMD provide not only both libraries for use with the new Maya plugin, but also the full source code, walking the walk when it comes to their commitment to open standards.

Meanwhile, new and veteran developers can now make use of the OpenCL 2.0 SDK. Claimed to be the most complete SDK currently available, it includes sample code and a comprehensive programmers guide too. OpenCL 2.0, which AMD have naturally contributed to the development process of, is core to the ongoing implementation of heterogenous computing; extensive baseline support is crucial to AMD’s long-term ambitions in the field. Naturally, sample code is also provided for Linux environments, enabling the SDK to be as platform-neutral as possible.



For details, see the OpenCL 2.0 reference guide here.

Co-inciding with OpenCL updates are two updated analysis tools: CodeXL 1.6 and AMD PerfStudio 3.1. CodeXL 1.6 gains a realtime power profiler, operated via command line or GUI and including analysis tools. By contrast AMD PerfStudio adds a shader analyser for GCN hardware. These two features are really beyond the scope of this article, but developers for AMD hardware will want to get up to speed with this new software, available as a plug-in for Visual Studio and via independent application respectively.

Ongoing Updates – Getting the community involved

On September 5th AMD began to solicit direct feedback from the AMD community via a form at www.amd.com/report, encouraging them to respond with their top issues and concerns. Despite the ever-increasing number of in-house test cases AMD can run it's impossible to garner the sort of man-hour and hardware resources necessary to look at every case. Making use of the top ten most requested bug-fixes, including a couple we have also experienced, AMD prioritised fixes in Omega.

As promising as that sounds, it would be easy for AMD to use this as a sop for the Community. However the feedback process is ongoing (and llikely to be pressured still further by this major release) and should have fixes which are incorporated into each incremental driver update.

Full Catalyst Omega Update List

- Compression Artifact Removal 2
- Detailed Enhancement 2
- Frame Rate Conversion 2.0
- Virtual Super Resolution
- 5K x 3K Display Support
- Dynamic Refresh Rate (FreeSync)
- Frame Pacing for Dual Graphics
- AMD CrossFire™ Frame Pacing improvements
- OpenCL 2.0
- Driver support for CodeXL 1.6
- OGL ES3.0
- Faster Display Mode Enumeration
- Color Gamut Remap
- VAAPI support for Phase 1 Decode
- Rotated Eyefinity Support for Radeon™ R9 285
- Windows Installer Updates
- Windows Autodetect Software Utility
- Linux® Distro Specific Packaging
- Configurable UVD Sessions
- AMD CrossFire™ Frame Pacing improvements
- Display Mode Enumeration
- Configurable UVD Sessions
- Rotated Eyefinity Support for AMD Radeon™ R9 285
- VAAPI support for Phase 1 Decode
- Acceleration API (VAAPI) for Linux®


Summary – Empower Customers, Enable Developers.

We hope that you come away from this article with one thought in mind – AMD appear to be stepping up their game when it comes to driver support, but know that this is just a further step on a long road. The words ‘Special Edition’ conjures images of features here to grab the headlines, only to be left on the sidelines as core performance remains king. However AMD state that this is the new baseline from with all further updates will be drawn, and Special Edition merely just denotes its significance.

Performance figures are all well and good, but these days we expect more value from our GPU. NVIDIA have rolled that in with GeForce Experience and GAMEWORKS hardware specific features, but have drawn the ire of AMD and gamers alike for the relatively closed nature of their APIs and impact that has on the game launch. AMD’s approach is refreshing, even as they don’t have the market penetration to bring all barrels to bear.

Of all those listed, we’d have to say that FreeSync and Virtual Super Resolution are the most exciting features, even if we’re still waiting on retail hardware for the former. Many questions remain when it comes to FreeSync, but news that Samsung are on-board for 2015, and confirmation of existing models in the wild already (unofficially) supporting it via firmware update, allay fears we had not all that long ago.

VSR will be important not only for improving the visual quality high-end CrossFire gamers, but also (as we mentioned when discussing NVIDIA’s DSR) will help consumers make the decision of whether moving to a native 4K panel in their game of choice is viable. The horsepower required to push that many pixels is considerable, and with highly variable requirements in older but popular games, being able to ‘try before you buy’ could save a lot of time (and no small amount of money).

It’s also good to see AMD capitalise more assertively on their community by more actively soliciting feedback for driver bug-fixes and improvements.

You can download the Catalyst Omega drivers http://support.amd.com/en-us/downloadhere[/url]. A more comprehensive article walking through the features and performance improvements from Catalyst Omega will follow later this week.

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