AMD’s Catalyst Omega Driver

The biggest driver drop of the year…

AMD Cataylst Omega Overview

Today AMD is launching the Catalyst Omega driver or 14.12. Unlike normal Catalyst releases AMD is billing this Omega driver as the biggest release of the year. More than that though AMD has committed to providing at least one Omega driver, like this one, per year going forward. So what exactly is in this Omega driver? FreeSync support, 24 monitor Eyefinity support, OpenCL 2.0 support, 5K support, better frame pacing, virtual super resolution support, new VCE and UVD features, bug fixes, and of course performance enhancements. In terms of pure feature count this is definitely a driver drop worthy of the Omega name and it’s easily the most important driver since AMD introduced frame pacing near the end of last year.

AMD Cataylst Omega Testing

On of the key improvements in this driver over the 14.9 release is the amount of stability testing AMD performed on it before releasing it. They did 65 percent more automated testing, 12 percent more manual testing, and looked at 10 percent more system configurations and display types. AMD has also taken to dog fooding its own drivers during their internal testing process by allowing its employees to get pre-release access to them. AMD has also been making a big effort since the release of the 14.9 driver to solicit more feedback and bug reporting via the Issue Reporting Form. If you’ve found a bug they’d love to hear about it.

For the sake of transparency I was pre-briefed about this driver by representatives from AMD and given access to a pre-release version of AMD’s Catalyst Omega driver just before Thanksgiving. For this article we tested the driver package to ensure the features that AMD was promoting were present. Our testing hardware was an A10-7850K and an R9 290X both provided to us by AMD for prior reviews.

AMD Cataylst Omega Bug Fixes

As part of these efforts to ensure stability and squash bugs AMD believes that they’ve knocked out the top ten most reported issues with their Catalyst 14.9 driver. A meaningful effort to find and fix bugs is praise worthy accomplishment, but as always AMD needs to prove that this is a sustained effort rather than just a one-time deal.

AMD Cataylst Omega Features List

Here’s the full list of twenty features that AMD is delivering with this Omega driver. We’ll go through each one in more detail in the rest of this article.

AMD Cataylst Omega Features List 2

AMD is updating its frame pacing software to provide smoother performance for CrossFire configurations. Smoothness in CrossFire configurations was already a strong point for AMD so this improvement won’t alter the competitive landscape, but it does give AMD a more robust claim towards having the best multi-GPU support. Improved display mode enumeration is another change that while not ground breaking, will certainly be appreciated by end users. In our anecdotal testing we found that time between plugging in a display cable and the monitor actually displaying an image was perceptibly shorter with AMD’s Omega driver installed.

OpenMP 3.1 support on HSA APUs is something is largely irrelevant to most of AMD’s user base. But its importance in enabling developers to port their high performance computing applications to AMD’s HSA enabled server chips like the Opteron X-Series cannot be understated. If AMD wants to promote the use of HSA and GPU compute on its platforms then there is no better way than to support the programming languages and tools aimed at doing just that.

AMD is also bringing better Eyefinity support to the R9 285. As the first chip in the next wave of AMD GPUs Tonga, the chip at the heart of the R9 285, has had some difficulties due to the maturity of AMD’s drivers for its architecture. A clear is example of this is users reporting that running games under Mantle results in performance losses compared to the DirectX 11 version of that game. Hopefully AMD will continue getting driver support for the R9 285 in order with this release and its follow ons.

For Linux lovers you can take heart in the knowledge that AMD has added support for accelerated video decoding with the VAAPI through its driver. For all our readers that are using Linux-based HTPCs this should make things a bit easier.

Similarly AMD is now supporting the acceleration of up to twenty simultaneous video streams. For some applications this could be a game changer, but it’s hard for me to get all that excited about better video surveillance systems.

AMD Cataylst Omega Features List 3

Color Gamut Remap also OEMs, and hopefully users at some point, to remap how images are colored when they display on your screen. In a perfect world the goal here would be to enable OEMs to perfectly replicate the sRGB color space which is what the vast majority of images are colored for. Mismatches in color spaces can create odd-looking images where a bright shade of red is replaced with a dull red leading to an entirely different aesthetic when images created in one color space are display by applications or on monitors that are using a different color space.

Most monitors are  unable to display all the colors in the sRGB color space, let alone the expanded Adobe RGB, or ProPhoto RGB color spaces. Most of the time monitors can display more colors in some parts of the visible spectrum and fewer colors in other parts. Thus one way to guarantee that you are seeing as close to the sRGB color space as possible, despite have a monitor that can display more is to limit what colors are assigned to pixels the GPU. AMD’s color gamut remap API allows OEMs a modicum of control over this process.

OpenGL ES3.0 support on both Linux and Windows is a boon for mobile game developers. Mobile platforms like Android has long used OpenGL ES APIs due to their support by mobile GPUs. As AMD chips like Mullins move into the tablet space support for the most modern OpenGL ES specifications is going to be necessary to compete with the likes of Imagination, Apple, and Qualcomm on feature parity.

Speaking of Linux, AMD is also going to start offering separate driver bundles aimed at perfect compatibility with the Ubuntu and Red Hat Linux distros. This should alleviate a common pain point for a significant portion of Linux users.

About two months ago at a LAN party I was hosting a good friend of mine mentioned to me that he had quit using AMD’s Catalyst software packages. When I asked why he cited his struggles with repeated crashes by AMD’s Catalyst install manager and AMD’s decision to include the Gaming Evolved app as part of the default installation. Instead of AMD’s official software packages he was now downloading and installing only the graphics driver and leaving the Catalyst control center and related services out on his Windows 8.1 system.

I too have experienced those problems with AMD’s driver installation process in addition to confronting the fact that the install manager window is un-resizable. It may not seem like a big deal but when you have a dozen GPUs to test and the driver install manager either isn’t usable because it won’t display correctly on a 640 by 480 screen and is un-resizable or keeps crashing for some arcane reason things can get really frustrating.

AMD is not talking about install manager stability or error handling improvements with this release but it does take less clicks to install their drivers and the install manager window is now, after all these years, resizable. Additionally AMD is promising improved hardware detection support which may help some users prevent install manager crashes. All things considered the ability to resize this windows is probably my favorite improvement in the Catalyst Omega driver.

AMD 24 Monitor support

With the Catalyst Omega driver release AMD is finally going to support 24 display Eyefinity configurations. Eyefinity support took a massive step forward in June of this year with support for mixed resolution display groups and the ability to align displays of differing sizes. It only seems natural then that AMD is continuing to push the boundaries of multi-monitor madness by supporting an even greater number of monitors. Now if only I could afford that many displays…

AMD Freesync

FreeSync is finally here, or at the least is now officially supported by AMD’s drivers. Almost a year after AMD showed the first demos of its Gsync competitor we can finally see that they are going to bring it to market. FreeSync and Gsync are the biggest thing to happen to PC gaming in the last decade which is why it’s so cool to see GPU vendors and monitor manufactures alike hopping on board the train to smooth Vsync-less displays.

AMD Virtual Super Resolution

Virtual super resolution is AMD’s counter to Nvidia dynamic super resolution. Both features allow your graphics card to render a game at a higher resolution than your monitor supports and then scale that image down for display. The effect is similar to that of super sample anti-aliasing but the games being super sampled are entirely unaware of what’s going on and do not have to explicitly support this feature. The only downside is that UI elements like in-game menus may not scale well to higher resolutions. In any case if you’re willing to take the performance hit VSR is one of the highest quality ways to perform anti-aliasing.

AMD Frame Pacing Enhancements

In addition to working on their frame pacing for CrossFire configurations AMD has also updated their frame pacing algorithm for Dual Graphics configurations. Earlier this year we looked at the usability of Dual Graphics on both laptop and desktop systems and came away with a rather negative impression. While this update will certainly help users of those configurations its unlikely to change the conclusion from our initial review.

AMD 5K support

With the launch of Apple’s revised iMac last month it was clear that AMD would at some point begin offering support for 5K displays. Well that day is here as AMD is announcing support for 5K displays like this Dell unit at 60Hz using a pair of DisplayPort 1.2 cables. Resolution mania is finally starting to get rolling in the desktop world. I for one welcome our new 5K display overlords. (sRGB compliant, 144Hz, and FreeSync please)

AMD 1080P Upscaling

Much like its Virtual super resolution technology for game rendering AMD is launching a 1080P to 4K video up scaling feature that uses AMD’s fluid motion, detail enhancement, and adaptive upscaling technologies. For those of you with 4K displays and only 1080P content to watch this will ease your pain.

AMD Fluid Motion Video

AMD is updating its Steady Video technology with the release of Fluid Motion Video which reduces jerky movements in videos by analyzing camera movements and displaying interpolated video frames to smooth out motion in video streams. This is a really neat technology that will likely offend some movie fans as some of the frames you’ll see with this technology aren’t cannon.

AMD 1080P Detail Enhancement

AMD is also offering detail enhancement processing and upscaling for videos with resolutions of less than 1080P to the full HD standard. There’s not a whole lot to say here other than AMD’s video quality enhancement and upscaling features make low quality videos look better. Whether that’s a must have feature is up to you.

AMD Contour Removal

Finally we come to AMD’s Contour removal technology which removes common video compression artifacts. Yet another one of AMD’s video play back enhancement technologies.

AMD’s Catalyst Omega driver is easily the biggest driver update I’ve ever had to write-up. Looking at it based purely on the sheer number of new and improved features it offers it’s clear that it’s also one of, if not the biggest driver update that AMD has ever released. AMD says that we can look forward to seeing one update on the same scale as this Omega update per year going forward. This is great news as it gives everyone something to look forward to now that AMD is releasing drivers on an as need basis. This is exactly the kind of forward momentum and big feature drops that AMD needs to prove that not only are its drivers good, but that they might even be better than Nvidia’s.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.