ATI Catalyst 7.1 for Vista - Software improvement and Crossfire!

AMD is about to release their newest Vista Catalyst driver and it comes with stacks of new features and improvements!

Published Sat, Jan 27 2007 11:00 PM CST   |   Updated Tue, Nov 3 2020 7:04 PM CST
Manufacturer: none


ATI Catalyst 7.1 for Vista - Software improvement and Crossfire!

Saving all for the last minute?

Windows Vista has been out in the wild for a long time now and it's about to be officially released. Beta testers have had copies in form of RC1 and RC2 for some time now and others may even be using fully fledged business versions which were released in November of last year. But have they been able to run their graphics cards at full potential, as they usually would in Windows XP? Heck no!

Both nVidia and AMD have had Vista drivers out for their respective GeForce and Radeon graphics cards for some time now but they've been extremely crippled in terms of the features and performance from what you would normally expect in Windows XP. Sure, Vista drivers are more challenging to produce since they are working with a new operating system and different driver techniques (DX10) but should that really be an excuse? These big companies should really be on top of it.

From what we have seen and how we feel, AMD are ahead of nVidia in terms of Vista driver development with more updates and support for their full range of graphics cards (including their most high-end Radeon X1950XTX). Even still, AMD's previous Vista driver releases have not had Crossfire support and skipped features like an OpenGL driver. nVidia meet harsh criticism in many online forums for poor and lackluster Vista driver development. While there may be some floating around in the wild, to this day, nVidia still does not have a public Vista driver for users of the new GeForce 8800 series and don't even think about SLI.

In one day or so depending on where you are sitting, Microsoft is set to release all versions of their latest operating system into the consumer world. AMD's ATI driver team in Canada has seemingly saved all for the last minute. They sent us their Catalyst 7.1 graphics card driver for Vista to check out last week and have promised not just DirectX 3D performance and stability increases over the previous release but also an improved Catalyst Control Center, HD-DVD and Blu-ray support through AVIVO, a new installer and Crossfire support for the full range of X1000 series Radeon cards.

We'll examine the changes in the WHQL driver going through the PDF presentation which they sent to us and then run some 32-bit based benchmarks under Vista Home Premium to try and backup their claims. Let's get started and see if AMD finally have a Vista driver for their Radeon cards, which is actually worth installing and using.

New features in Cat 7.1 for Vista

New features in Catalyst 7.1 for Vista

On the top of the list is support for Blu-ray and HD-DVD playback which means that not only will you be able to playback such next-generation content but also have your Radeon off-load work from the CPU to the GPU and improve image quality through AVIVO. During our testing we checked the control panel for AVIVO settings and discovered all the usual options such as de-interlacing and pull down detection. If you're running the 64-bit version of Vista, you'll need to wait for Cat 7.3 in March for this feature.

Probably the most important feature included in Cat 7.1 for Vista for gamers is support for Crossfire dual graphics. Until now both nVidia and AMD have lacked dual graphics supports in all their previous Vista drivers and it's great to see AMD has taken care of this missing feature. During our testing with the driver, we used a couple of Radeon X1950PRO cards on an Intel P965 motherboard and everything worked perfectly.

In this release, there is only support for DirectX 3D Crossfire - OpenGL Crossfire support is coming in a future ATI Catalyst release but it is not a bad start at least for the new OS. Crossfire Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR) mode is not ready yet but it's coming soon for Vista and is to be enabled by default for all applications. If you're a gamer, Cat 7.1 for Vista is going to make your life a little better. It's clear though from not just AMD but nVidia as well that the drives are not fully refined yet and each intend on improving with new releases.

AMD promised performance and stability improves in Cat 7.1 for Vista and we can confirm that the driver works well in DX3D games and performance has improved over the previous release but we'll cover that later in more detail in our benchmarks.

For a little while now AMD has had a new install manager for their Vista drivers (you won't see these changes in XP, Vista only) which doesn't offer much new functionality, at this stage, but looks good, as you can see above. In the future, AMD plans on giving users of their cards and Vista the ability to use their upcoming download manager allowing you to download new drivers, without visiting their website. And talking about driver updates for Vista (as with Windows XP) AMD plans on releasing a new Vista driver every month - great news for gamers.

New features in Cat 7.1 for Vista Continued

New features in Catalyst 7.1 for Vista Continued

Probably the second most notable feature in this release driver for us is the highly improved Catalyst Control Center (CCC). CCC has long annoyed many end-users for its slow loading times and really was quite horrible. AMD said they have taken advantage of the NET 2.0 architecture and dramatically improved start up time. Not only that, it is said to use less system resources by merging the three CLI.exe files into one. During our testing using the new CCC, we loaded the task manager and noted that CCC was only using around 3MB of memory and that's much lower than usual. Take a look;

Users of Windows XP will need to wait for Catalyst 7.2 for these improved features.

Just take a look at the claimed figures above - during our testing we were running a higher-end system then the one above and the new optimized CCC loaded and started in just one second and that's a vast improvement over the previous Vista driver, which took near enough to six seconds to load.

We're really impressed with the changes and it does make CCC a whole lot more pleasant to use as us enthusiasts do want everything to be quick and snappy and not make us feel like we are using a 486 PC. Good job but it is about time!

AMD has not just improved start up times but they've also changed the 3D preview when you are adjusting settings. The new preview makes it much easier to see the changes in your desired new AA or AF settings and even allows you to pause and zoom in on the image for a closer and more detailed look.

As far as other features go, Overdrive is supported in Cat 7.1 for Vista when you're using a graphics card which supports it. We didn't try any overclocking but we can confirm the feature is there. Now that we've covered all the new features of the drivers, let's move onto the benchmarks and see if AMD has been able to improve performance in their first official Catalyst driver for Vista.

Benchmarks - Test System Setup and Performance Notes

Test System Setup

Processor: Intel Core 2 Extreme E6700 at 2.66GHz (266MHz FSB x 10)
Motherboard: Gigabyte P965-DQ6 (Supplied by Gigabyte)
Memory: 2x 1GB Kingston DDR-2 PC-8000 at 1:1
Hard Disk: 320GB Seagate 7200.10 SATA-2 (Supplied by Seagate)
Graphics Card: PowerColor X1950 Pro (Crossfire - 512MB total) / PowerColor X1950 Pro 512MB (Supplied by PowerColor)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista Premium Home (build 6000, final)
Drivers: Intel INF, Catalyst 7.1 for Vista and Catalyst BETA

Alright then, we've finished checking through the PDF document and it's time to check out the performance of the driver.

We had limited time for testing which meant that we couldn't test with our usual full range of Radeon graphics cards but we did manage to test Crossfire. As mentioned, 7.1 is the first Vista driver to support Crossfire, so we are really only providing these numbers, as confirmation that it actually works.

We've compared a single Radeon X1950 Pro 512MB from PowerColor with 7.1 and BETA (previous public driver) to see what has changed in the first official release Vista driver from AMD. During our testing we needed to download several .dll DX9 files (such as d3dx9_30.dll, d3dx9_29.dll and d3dx9_28.dll) since Vista comes natively with DX10 and misses a bunch of these files that some games ask for. All you need to do is Google the filename and download the file and copy into your Windows/system folder and then you're good to go!

Before we continue though, it's important to discuss OpenGL testing. We opted against providing any OpenGL benchmarking (such as PREY or Quake 4) since the previous public driver lacked OpenGL support. Cat 7.1 brings OpenGL support (but not in Crossfire mode) although performance is not as great as it will be in the future.

As you can see from the image above, D3D performance should be somewhat similar to XP but OpenGL performance is not the focus in the first release driver and at this stage the aim is to just provide a stable gaming experience. AMD intend on improving OpenGL performance in future releases. In a future article and once both AMD and nVidia release their next set of official Vista drivers, we'll compare gaming performance in Vista and XP and see how both fair.

Let's move onto the actual benchmarks now!

Benchmarks - 3DMark05


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 130
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

3DMark05 is now the second latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and above.

For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here.

In our first benchmark we can see that the new Cat 7.1 for Vista drivers provide a slight performance increase over the previous public driver. Crossfire is working well, too.

Benchmarks - 3DMark06


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 110
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

3DMark06 is the very latest version of the "Gamers Benchmark" from FutureMark. The newest version of 3DMark expands on the tests in 3DMark05 by adding graphical effects using Shader Model 3.0 and HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) which will push even the best DX9 graphics cards to the extremes.

3DMark06 also focuses on not just the GPU but the CPU using the AGEIA PhysX software physics library to effectively test single and Dual Core processors.

Next up we have the latest version of 3DMark and the Cat 7.1 drivers improve on the performance lead here.

Benchmarks - Company of Heroes

Company of Heroes

Version and / or Patch Used: Demo
Timedemo or Level Used: Built-in Test
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

Company of Heroes, or COH as we're calling it, is one of the latest World War II games to be released and also one of the newest in our lineup of benchmarks. It is a super realistic real-time strategy (RTS) with plenty of cinematic detail and great effects. Because of its detail, it will help stress out even the most impressive computer systems with the best graphics cards - especially when you turn up all the detail. We use the built-in test to measure the frame rates.

Moving into our first real-world gaming test we have COH which shows big improvements over the previous driver in single card mode.

However, when we enable Crossfire (and it's not a typo!), performance is very bad. It's clear that AMD has not optimized for this game under Crossfire mode just yet. Hopefully this will be fixed in the next driver release next month.

We got an update from Andrew at AMD about this and he said that this performance is a known issue and will be fixed in Catalyst 7.3 in March.

Benchmarks - Half Life 2

Half Life 2

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest through Steam
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

By taking the suspense, challenge and visceral charge of the original, and adding startling new realism and responsiveness, Half-Life 2 opens the door to a world where the player's presence affects everything around him, from the physical environment to the behaviors even the emotions of both friends and enemies.

We benchmark Half Life 2 with our own custom timedemos as to avoid possible driver optimizations using the "record demo_name" command and loading the timedemo with the "timedemo demo_name" command - For a full list of the commands, click here.

Even though the regular Half Life 2 is quite old now, we have included it to see how older games perform under Vista with the new driver.

As you can see the new Cat 7.1 driver provides quite a big performance improvement but since the game isn't all that graphics intensive anymore, Crossfire doesn't provide much of a benefit here even with the graphics quality settings turned up as far as possible.

Benchmarks - Half Life 2 - Episode 1

Half Life 2 - Episode 1

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest through Steam
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

Episode 1 or EP1 for short is one of the latest additions to the Half Life 2 series and is much more intensive than the regular game including more impressive visuals using features such as High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting and so on.

We benchmark Half Life 2 with our own custom timedemos as to avoid possible driver optimizations using the "record demo_name" command and loading the timedemo with the "timedemo demo_name" command - For a full list of the commands, click here.

Under the more intensive EP1, we see that once again the new Cat 7.1 drivers for Vista improve performance by a small margin and Crossfire is able to show its power of dual graphics again showing that it is working well.

Benchmarks - Serious Sam 2

Serious Sam 2

Version and / or Patch Used: 2070
Timedemo or Level Used: Greendale
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

Picking up where Serious Sam: Second Encounter left off, Sam has rocketed off towards the conquered planet of Sirius, the new home of the notorious Mental. While en route, the Great Wizards Council of the nearly eradicated Sirian civilization telepathically contacts Sam to aid him in his quest to destroy Mental and help restore Sirius. He is then sent on a quest to find the fragments of a mystical medallion scattered throughout the galaxy that will bestow Sam with the power to defeat Mental.

While Serious Sam 2 is not one of the most intensive games in our benchmark suite, we can stress the system by enabling HDR.

Under Serious Sam 2, there is hardly any difference between the drivers in single card configuration. Crossfire proves to be working quite well here offering a big performance improvement.

Final Thoughts

As far as 3D performance goes for Catalyst 7.1 WHQL over the previous public release, it's not huge deal but some games see gains of almost 40%. We expected stability issues with gaming in Vista even though these will be the first official release from AMD but we didn't have any issues except for the poor performance of Crossfire under Company of Heroes but according to AMD that will be fixed up in the March driver. AMD said themselves that OpenGL performance will not be great in 7.1 for Vista but at least there is support for it and you can look forward to performance improvements in each new monthly release.

We are glad to see that Crossfire dual graphics is finally supported under Vista for the full range of Radeon X1000 series graphics cards and performance is quite good at this stage - I bet nVidia is a little jealous about that. It's not quite up there compared to Windows XP but it's working quite well nonetheless. You can expect performance increases in this aspect of the driver in future months as AMD fine tune everything.

Besides performance, AMD's ATI Catalyst 7.1 for Vista driver offers a whole bunch of new features and improvements just in time for the launch of Windows Vista. Besides Crossfire support, you've got the ability to playback HD-DVD and Blu-ray content which is accelerated through AVIVO, a new Catalyst installer and a highly improved Catalyst Control Center. No longer does it take forever to start up CCC, the improvement is huge and AMD did a great job here in improving their software and making it much less annoying. There's also a new 3D preview which makes it easier to distinguish the difference between various 3D graphics quality settings and soon you'll even be able to update your drivers through the install manager without visiting any websites.

AMD are clearly very serious about their Vista driver development and it was always our opinion that they were doing a better job than nVidia since testing and release candidate versions of Vista were released. Catalyst 7.1 goes a long way to backing up that statement with not only full support for their latest range of cards but also Crossfire dual graphics that works well and improved features. nVidia will have a new driver out tomorrow (which supports the GeForce 8800 series) in time for the launch of the new OS but we're not sure if that will even come with SLI dual graphics support to the public.

Don't get us wrong though - ATI Catalyst 7.1 for Vista is by no means perfect and the driver team in Canada still has a lot of hard work to do over the following months to continue improving performance for Vista gamers as well as adding features and improving them. For one there is no OpenGL support when running in Crossfire mode (and AFR mode is not ready yet) and performance is still anywhere from 1 - 10% slower than Windows XP in various games.

If you're using Windows Vista, ATI Catalyst 7.1 for Vista will be available for download from the ATI website very soon, so keep an eye out for it and have fun with Vista if you're making the jump to the new OS.

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Cameron founded TweakTown in 1999 after it originally started off as his personal homepage. Cameron was once, many years ago, the only person at TweakTown producing content, but nowadays, he spends his time ensuring TweakTown operates at its best in his director position.

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