New drivers appear regularly from AMD’s kitchen, and this is something that we’ve always appreciated about Radeon graphics cards. It’s one of the best ways to let your buyers know that they are being covered in terms of technical support and that they won’t be left on their own after they’ve purchased your product. Simply put, if something isn’t working properly, or you’re encountering trouble with a specific application, chances are that the next month’s driver revision will amend it all. What’s even more useful is opening the release notes of the new driver revision and reading the list of improvements, particularly performance jumps in certain games, which ranges from a few percent to a few dozen percent.
This list used to be rather short back in the day, but has increased ever since, and with both manufacturers at that. It seems that the same games keep appearing all over again from release to release, and since the percentages seem to be increasing as well, we were interested in whether the actual improvements are as big as they claim them to be. Simply enough, we’ve been unable to evade the impression that manufacturers have found another path for marketing their cards with sometimes ridiculous performance improvements announced on various websites, without a hint at the conditions under which the new results have been recorded and in what resolutions/at what detail settings. We’ve therefore decided to have a first-hand test of just how much improvement different driver revisions show for one of the most popular AMD graphics cards - Radeon HD 6870.
We’ve chosen this particular model because it’s based on the VLIW5 architecture and because AMD seems to quote it the most in the release notes of each subsequent driver revision. Besides, it’s not a new card, as it was released simultaneously with the appearance of driver version 10.10. On the other hand, AMD quotes their 11.4 as the most drastic performance update. In order to get the best overlook of the progression through time, we’ve also picked an intermediate revision, namely 11.2. This made the task more arduous, but also more thorough. As for the actual games used for testing, we’ve picked the ones quoted most often in the notes, again. Other than that, we’ve also chosen a few randomly picked tests from our usual battery, none of which have been mentioned in the notes, just to check how well the improvements scale across all applications, outside of what AMD has targeted specifically. Nothing has been changed during testing other than the drivers used, and the specific card we’ve been using is Radeon HD 6870 1 GB GDDR5 in AMD’s own referent version. This means that the clocks are referent as well, of course, with the GPU clocked at 900 MHz and the memory at an effective 4.2 GHz. In order to get results as usable as possible, we’ve tested in the two most commonly used resolutions today: full HD (1920x1080) and the most popular 16:10 resolution of 1680x1050. These two resolutions are what we believe to be a universal benchmark, as most users nowadays are running monitors with one of these being native. Furthermore, the detail levels have always been kept maxed out. Some tests have been done with anisotropic filtering and antialiasing, and some without. Therefore, we believe we have covered the maximum number of possible configurations and all common usage scenarios. Let’s see what the results have to say.
|CPU||Intel Core i5-750 @ 4.0 GHz|
|RAM memory||2 x 2GB Kingston HyperX DDR3 2133 MHz|
|GPU||AMD Radeon HD6870 1GB GDDR5|
|Power supply||Cooler Master Ultimate Power 1100W|
|Operating system||Windows 7 64-bit|
After a careful look at the results, we’ve reached the conclusion that the improvements stated in the release notes hardly reflect practical gains. As you can see, certain tests have not only ignored the driver change entirely, but also shown better values in favour of the older versions on a few occasions. Things have definitely improved with Catalyst 11.4, but not nearly as much as stated by AMD. The games that have seen the most benefit are Dirt 2, which has made a performance jump of over 10% from 11.2 to 11.4. Lost Planet 2 has also seen much improvement, but all the other games have remained entirely “immune” to new Catalyst revisions. Just to make it clear, the chart results are still very beneficial, as the main purpose of updating drivers is complementing graphics card functionality and removing incompatibilities, with performance improvements as nothing more than an added bonus.
Should we update regularly? Most definitely. You won’t be seeing doubled framerates any time soon by simply upgrading your drivers, but some games may profit as much as 10%. Besides, Catalyst updates always bring a new feature or remove a potential problem, and the only way to remain immune to this sort of problems is to update regularly. Furthermore, new versions have even introduced automatic updating, making this process even simpler for the end user, but our main question was - should you pay much attention to the numbers in the release notes? Not really, as the chances that you’ll get the same performance jumps stated in the notes are very small, i.e. your PC is unlikely to meet exactly the same criteria and conditions for such a thing. It’s true that you never know, though - perhaps you really do have Eyefinity across three monitors in a CrossFireX configuration.