Preparing for 2016 - AMD Release Radeon Software Crimson Edition
The Radeon Omega driver set, released this time last year and featuring a new raft of performance benefits, was one of the most successful driver launches of all time for AMD. It has been downloaded over 60 million times to date and led to a bump in customer satisfaction by 19%, not least down to the improved performance over the previous best. By most measures therefore it’s certainly worthy of a follow-up.
Today we finally transition to the next step in AMD's software development program - Radeon Software Crimson Edition, which for the sake of brevity we’ll henceforth refer to as Radeon Crimson. Conceived as a replacement for the aging Catalyst Control Center (the software back-end for AMD & ATI products with its foundations in the design principles of 2002) Radeon Crimson is a fresh take that puts the user experience at the forefront. Sounds good, but what does that mean?
Catalyst Control Center is powerful, but relatively slow and difficult to use. In particular finding specific features is often un-intuitive, which can mean that the end-user isn’t able to get the very best from their hardware. That’s not acceptable, whether you’ve spend $400 on an R9 390X or $60 on an entry-level APU, and Radeon Crimson sets out to change that. From today you can download Radeon Crimson for yourself and find out how large an improvement has been realised.
Radeon Crimson seeks to be a ground-up refresh of the software that complements AMD hardware, released in advance of the paradigm shift to DirectX 12 and VR everyone is expecting in 2016. In addition to the user experience AMD are concentrating on three additional pillars: Features, Performance and Efficiency. Much of this is implemented by leveraging features that are already a part of AMD hardware such as Frame Rate Target Control and FreeSync, whilst introducing new headline technologies such as LiquidVR is also important.
Radeon Crimson has been developed using the Qt cross-platform application framework, rather than the .Net framework of CCC. As a result the software can be run on multiple platforms without appreciably changing the code-base, which will keep the experience consistent wherever it is used. Naturally this will help AMD on both Linux and Apple, but could also have an impact in other areas such as mobile computing in the future.
As important as features are to the software it’s nothing with stability, and that’s especially important to software so fundamental to a user’s experience. As large as the step taken during the transition to the Catalyst Omega driver set was, Radeon Crimson goes further. The number of automated test cases has doubled, whilst 25% more manual test cases should serve to eliminate more idiosyncratic issues. Fifteen percent more tests system configurations are also included, although in fairness AMD haven’t specified a baseline number that this is base on.
Perhaps most importantly from a public-facing perspective is an increase in the number of full WHQL driver releases scheduled for 2016. AMD will only release three WHQL patches in 2015, the most recent of which was the 15.7.1 drivers that coincided with the launch of Radeon Fury X graphics in July. New beta releases have followed with (and often prior to) the release of new games, but AMD recognise that they need to pick up the pace to stay competitive. Currently they are planning up to six in 2016, although we have to raise an eyebrow at ‘up to’; still, any improvement in this aspect of driver releases is most welcome.
As with Catalyst Omega AMD have also reached out to the community to address their top-10 primary concerns, although this time around the concerns are curiously specific. Looking ahead, AMD will retain the bug reporting page at AMD.com/reports, and they urge users to make full use of it especially in the weeks following release.
Speed – Radeon Crimson is just plain faster than CCC (AMD claim 10x faster), but that has to be viewed within the context of the system configuration in question. In this respect the benefits are most seen at the entry-level, specifically low-power APUs/SoCs, where start-up times tend to be dominated by auto-launched software. Displays are also initialised more quickly, which definitely helps with system fluidity.
Smaller memory footprint – Obviously if you’re utilising 8GB or more RAM the size of the utility footprint won’t be a huge concern, but even so it’s eye-opening to see AMD’s software only occupying ~25MB of memory on a fresh startup. Over time that figure will need to be analysed for memory leaks as other applications are launched and closed, but when you consider that NVIDIA software will often balloon well beyond this (even if it is ostensively more feature-rich) and it’s possible to see how big a step forward this has been for AMD.
More intuitive UI – You’ll be able to play with the software yourself from today, but we think you’ll agree that it’s far more natural to use. Having had a few days in advance to use it we can safely say that it’s far preferable to CCC, but will require a certain amount of re-education if you’re expert with the previous software.
Easier to update, uninstall and reinstall – Keeping up to date is always a bugbear with drivers. Radeon Crimson streamlines the process of notifications and installation, and also includes an updated uninstaller tool (AMD Clean Uninstall Utility) which will completely eradicate AMD software from your system if necessary. The tool is also available separately from http://support.amd.com/en-us/kb-articles/Pages/AMD-Clean-Uninstall-Utility.aspx.
FreeSync low frame-rate concerns addressed – Framerates below a monitor’s FreeSync minimum (typically ~35fps) caused the monitor to default to a low frame rate mode, artificially limiting performance and providing a poorer experience than strictly necessary. Now monitors with a FreeSync refresh rate range >2.5x the minimum refresh will see frame rate compensation thanks to the driver injecting repeated frames at a high frame rate. As usual, as soon as a new frame is rendered the screen will be updated, but this should greatly improve the experience when performance dips below the low-end of the threshold. Unfortunately it's not available on systems with a narrow FreeSync range such as the 35-75Hz models, but hopefully a solutions for them will be found soon.
Frame Pacing Improvements – now implemented for DirectX 9 games, which in particular will benefit AMD Crossfire systems.
Improved framework for new features – The layout and underlying codebase of Radeon Crimson will make implementing new features straightforward, rather than the somewhat haphazard means AMD have had to integrate it into CCC.
A more in-depth look at Radeon Crimson will follow in the coming days when we’ve had a chance to test it against previous driver versions. With that in mind, here are our tentative thoughts on the new utility.
Usability - It's now far easier to browse hardware options with the improved UI. Catalyst Control Center was a maze of tabs, drop-down menus and checkboxes, and finding specific features was a chore for any newcomer. AMD specific features did see some development from a UI perspective - Eyefinity for example - but Radeon Crimson's UI is both sleek and fast without overly reducing complexity.
Overclocking - Baked-in overclocking tools feel more professional, but it's difficult to test them effectively without robust GPU overclocking hardware. The UI suffers somewhat from needing plenty of prior knowledge to be confident with using the tools, especially in the case of the Power Limit/GPU Clock space that's presented to the user. It would also be great to see Crimson incorporate custom GPU fan profiles if possible.
FRTC - Frame Rate Target Control, a means of limiting your FPS without enabling V-Sync, is now vastly more simple to use effectively. Previously relatively difficult to unlock as it was buried in the CCC options, it’s now easy to navigate to and a controlled via a simple slider. Huge improvement.
VSR - Enabling Virtual Super Resolution is now as simple as an on/off toggle, with expanded resolutions available in-game. Although superior to the previous implementation it’s not quite as flexible as one might like, and may be tripped up by non-standard aspect ratios. Something to keep an eye on.
Tooltips and Communicating Options to the User - More concise explanations for specific features could be included in UI tooltips and via the ‘more…’ option than are currently. It's pretty good for a first release but could still be better, especially if simple images can be incorporated into the 'more...' section.
Profiles - Game profiles are perhaps overly general, rather than going down specific settings (for example 8x MSAA, 8x AF etc.). Naturally this may be stepping on the toes of the Raptr software which also comes bundled with Radeon Crimson.
Performance - In-game performance has definitely improved in the transition from Omega to Crimson, but we're not yet comfortable putting a figure on it. It's possible that the benefits will be chiefly seen in DX12 and VR applications, but even DX10/9 titles see a modest bump. We also cautiously report an improvement in synthetic benchmarks.
General - We're not a fan of the panel being translucent by default, nor with Banner adverts always being enabled. Additional user customisation of the visual features for Crimson, especially in terms of adding contrast in UI buttons/sliders etc., would be great.
In essence, the Radeon Crimson software is a fantastic step forward for AMD, and is certainly a tool through which they can expand functionality beyond what’s currently available without forking their development along the way. That’s not to say it’s perfect – the UI has obviously been a focus but both AMD could help to educate mainstream users by explaining both primary and tertiary features more comprehensively – but at the very least it provides a framework through which these aspects can be improved.
So, in advance for a more thorough investigation of the software, Radeon Software Crimson Edition gets a large thumbs up from us. We’re looking forward to seeing just where AMD will go from here.
You can read AMD's take on the new software at the following link, which goes into more depth surrounding the development of the package and its place within AMD Radeon Technologies Group: https://community.amd.com/community/gaming/blog/2015/11/19/introducing-radeon-software-crimson-edition.