No hardware is better than its weakest link. And often that is the software. A company that has taken some really big steps forward with their drivers is ATi. We took the opportunity to talk about ATi’s drivers with Terry Makedon from ATi…
No hardware is better than its weakest link. And often that is the software. A company that has taken some really big steps forward with their drivers is ATi. We took the opportunity to talk about ATi’s drivers with Terry Makedon from ATi.
[NH] First of all we’d like to welcome you Terry to this interview. Please introduce yourself and the company you are working for.
[ATi] Hi, thanks for taking time out to talk with me. I am ATI’s Senior Product Manager of Software, which basically means I am responsible for the CATALYST software suite in terms of what new features will be in it, as well as educating customers about what it is. Of course we look after many different areas within ATI’s portfolio but the most fun for me is the desktop PC area (due to the high end gaming experience available.)
[NH] ATi has really improved their reputation when it comes to driver quality over the past two years or so. What would you personally point out as the key factors behind these improvements?
[ATi] June 2002 changed the landscape for us. At that time we launched CATALYST, which was widely regarded as a major stepping-stone for Visual Processing Unit (VPU) software. In fact we invented the concept of a VPU software suite (combining more than just graphic card drivers), along with other innovations (that was also the first time a simple slider let the user choose the performance/image quality). So enough with the history lesson, how did it happen?
As a company, we were not satisfied with the state of our drivers. They were plagued by problems, were not being released frequently, and got a little stale in the feature department. We regrouped and decided that VPU software was a core for focus for ATI, and we were determined to take the necessary steps to attain market leadership. Clearly we wanted to be the innovators (and not the imitators) in that field. After considerable investment in people, tools, process, and a shift in mindset, we embarked on the CATALYST voyage. Which brings us to the present day, with recent user poll resoundly indicating that ATI has vastly improved software performance.
[NH] How do you prioritize what games/applications should get the most attention? Do you simply go by sales figures, the graveness of the problems or perhaps some other preferences?
[ATi] CATALYST CREW is key in assisting in this process. We usually go by the number of reports a certain bug has. For anyone that does not know, CATALYST CREW is a key component for driver feedback. . It is a web-based form that lets users enter problem reports (or even feature suggestions). We read each and every one of those reports and run them through a database that spits out reports of problem reports per application. That way we can easily isolate the most pressing issues our users are facing, and take the steps to resolving them. Below is a link to it and I suggest everyone use it.
[NH] How much code/work can the OpenGL respectively the Direct3D parts of the drivers share?
[ATi] Currently not much. We only share our code compiler between the two API’s. We are looking to leverage more in the future.
[NH] Are there still hardware features left that aren’t supported/exposed in current drivers? If so could you give us any hints of what they might be?
[ATi] No not really. Everything that we plan on releasing has been exposed very early with CATALYST drivers. Of course if we find something new that hasn’t been thought of as of yet, we would investigate. New features will be software based rather than hardware based.
[NH] Do the FireGL drivers share much code/work with the Radeon drivers?
[NH] In very general terms, how long does it take to maximize driver performance? Is there for an example still substantial performance to squeeze out of the R3x0 architecture?
[ATi] This depends on whether it’s an existing game or a new one. In my opinion there is no simple answer but I would say anywhere between 1-6 months. For the R3x0 there could be some performance boosts but of course we won’t release them if they impact image quality in any way.
[NH] ATi and very much you personally have been very active in the hardware enthusiast community (communicating on forums for an example). Has this been an initiative taken by ATi or by you guys personally? Whatever the reason please tell us a bit more about this as I’m sure this is something that is highly appreciated among our readers.
[ATi] I started checking out forums and decided that participating was a great means to get in touch with our users. So I simply registered and started posting. So I guess it was my own initiative. I think there is great value to let the end users talk directly to the company representatives. As a consumer I would love to be able to go to certain forums and talk to the guys running the show directly. At this point I have registered user ID’s in at least 8 different websites I can think about. I post by the name of “catalyst maker” so if you see me there make sure you say hi.
[NH] How much performance is gained by drivers supporting SSE2 and other CPU instruction sets? Will you be supporting SSE3?
[ATi] I don’t actually have any performance deltas available, but yes we did some specific work for SSE2. If there are similar advantages for SSE3, we will then be sure to write some optimized code for SSE3.
[NH] An option for WMV acceleration has been seen in some OEM driver sets. Is this feature fully implemented in the official Catalyst sets yet?
[ATi] Really, I didn’t know that. It shouldn’t be there. We have hardware acceleration for Windows Media Video coming, but we need Microsoft to provide an update to Windows first. Our code is complete in the control panel option, but the deblocking code is not functional yet, due to the Microsoft dependency. Unfortunately we didn’t get all the dependencies we needed, so as of this time it’s just a hidden checkbox which does nothing.
[NH] ATis deblocking feature and other post processing feature were touted as important parts of the R300. We haven’t heard much on FULLSTREAM and Video Shader since. What happened? (To our knowledge only RealOne and The DivX Player support these features.)
[ATi] Well we support Real One, DivX Player, and Windows Media is coming. Between those three apps I am sure we cover 90% of the market. FULLSTREAM is a feature that is standard for us now, so no need to make too much noise about it. I hope people know about it and if they don’t please refer to this:
The latest advancement in video processing technology, is a hardware accelerated filtering method that improves the performance and visual quality of streaming video playback.
[NH] What’s the size of the staff working on Windows, MacOS, Linux and FireGL drivers respectively?
[ATi] I don’t have a specific breakdown, but I can tell you that, we have over 400 software professionals working on PC software, and a variety of applications under Windows variants, MacOS and Linux.
[NH] ATi doesn’t seem to like custom resolutions all that much. For example 1400×1050 is not supported in your current drivers and if you add it with a third party application the support is still lacking compared to standard resolutions. (Omega drivers seem to have some workaround though.) Do you plan to make it easier for us who run custom resolutions or is there any special reason behind the current situation (other brands doesn’t seem to suffer from these issues and even have tools for adding customs resolutions built into the drivers etc.)
[ATi] We support whatever resolution your monitor supports. If there is a need to break the monitor’s “rules” then I would suggest one of the many 3rd party mod tools. (Not that I would recommend going to a mode your monitor does not support). I do plan on trying a few things with mode support in the future though.
[NH] There’s been a lot of speculation as to why ATi separated the control panel from the drivers. Is it simply to keep download sizes smaller or is it, as rumours imply, because your control panels have features that wouldn’t pass WHQL for whatever reason?
[ATi] It just made more sense to have them separate as they are separate things anyways. Size is one advantage that separating them provides. Also lots of people may not want the control panel. The WHQL thing is incorrect, as Microsoft tests the driver, not the control panel.
[NH] Do you plan support of “expanding” the taskbar to a secondary display?
[ATi] Not really, but we certainly can add this feature if there is market demand. To be honest, this is the first time it has been asked about it. What are the benefits in your opinion other than just a neater looking desktop?
[NH] Please tell us a bit about your beta program. How many applicants, how many are actively a part of it, what countries are best represented etc?
[ATi] We have over 4500 applications at this point. There are currently 100 spots in the beta program (because that is the number we have determined gives us maximum benefit). Beta testers that are not contributing to the program are replaced frequently. As for representation, we have participants from all over the world but I would say oddly enough most of them are European based. Greece seems to have good representation in the beta program 😉
The readers questions:
[NH] How come ATi doesn’t support Windows 64 bit editions yet while so many other companies do?
[ATi] We do support Windows 64 bit. CATALYST drivers are included in the Operating System itself (with no Open GL support – since Microsoft does not ship OGL in Windows). We also support Windows 64 bit by providing beta drivers to our beta testers.
CATALYST is based on the concept of top quality. Just like we didn’t release beta drivers for 32 bit Windows to the public we took a consistent approach with making 64 bit beta drivers available. Our philosophy is that the challenge of testing incomplete software should be put on us (and our select beta testers), not to the general public. I guess that comes down to difference in philosophy between us and other companies. We will release them once we are comfortable that users will not have a poor experience using them.
[NH] How come ATI doesn’t support Linux for AMD64?
[ATi] Again, we do support it. We just do not have anything ready for public release yet.
[NH] Have ATi considered a better/easier installer for their Linux drivers?
[ATi] We sure have. I may start to sound repetitive here but this is another thing we are working on (but to be honest with lower priority than other tasks). The HOWTO: Installation Instructions for the ATI Proprietary Linux Driver website:
[NH] Will the Linux drivers become a part of the Catalyst program? (I.e. when can we expect Linux drivers with roughly the same capabilities and performance as the Windows versions?)
[ATi] Well the answer to your question is that Linux is already part of the CATALYST marketing umbrella. This means a constant and regular update schedule as well as the same principles of performance, stability, and innovation. However, if I understand your question correctly it should read; when will Linux drivers be as feature rich as Windows drivers? If that is the question, the answer should be looked at in terms of market size. I believe the split is 96% for Windows and 4% for Linux. If you think about it in those terms it is a tough business case to commit resources to make Linux drivers feature compatible with Windows drivers. We still would like to invest more in Linux so we are really going to move forward with it and CATALYST support for it.
[NH] Are ATi working on a GUI for tweaking basic driver settings (AA/AF etc.) under Linux?
[ATi] I would prefer not to comment in depth on future capabilities. Rest assured, I am well aware of user requirements and we will put our best efforts into addressing them.
[NH] How come ATi only supplies Linux RPM packages and not binaries?
[ATi] This is a legacy issue. We have always focused on Red Hat support….we are planning to build a new and better installer that will handle binaries. Again, due to limitations in resources, this will take some time.
[NH] Will ATi better the current profiling system? I.e. will we get per game profiles that work without having to change the settings manually each time?
[ATi] I can’t talk about our future features in depth, but rest assured we have some real innovation coming down the line. CATALYST themes are three clearly defined principles: stability, performance, innovation. So based on that I guess it’s a safe assumption to make, that we have something awesome coming.
[NH] TFT-monitors are gaining popularity, even among gamers. Will there be an option to FORCE the monitor not to scale the image to panel size, that is to bypass the internal scaling mechanism in the TFT-monitor?
[ATi] When a mode is requested by a user we look at the EDID data and if the monitor reports the mode, we drive it using the EDID information.
If the requested mode is non-native, and it is reported in EDID, it means the panel scales the image on those modes. We give higher priority to panel scaling. This means if HW scaling is turned off through our control panel, we still use panel scaling if available. I am assuming that you are requesting a new option to not use panel scaling or graphic ASIC scaling. This however will lead to borders and it does not look good if you have low mode centered on a big resolution panel.
[NH] Do you actively support “modded” driver projects? I.e. do you provide input and feedback, recommendations etc. to Omega Drivers for an example?
[ATi] Some more than others. There are certain “modders” that I would not endorse currently since they do not have a working relationship with us. Of course Omega is very close with us at ATI. In fact on his website you can see a quote he has from another interview that I conducted. I will use it here as well:
”ATI supports the enthusiast community wholly. Omega Drivers are in fact a good example of ATI’s user community at its best. What they are in principle are CATALYST drivers with different settings enabled via registry keys and other such methods. This provides users an alternative to ATI’s CATALYST default settings. While there are a few different modification drivers out in the community our relationship with the creator of the Omega Drivers is of the highest working standard. The author of these drivers is part of the CATALYST beta driver testing team, and also in direct contact with ATI. In fact we would go so far as to say that if a user chooses to go the mod driver route, they go with the Omega Drivers.”
[NH] Just for fun I’d like to throw ten words at you and you just reply with the first thing that comes to mind:
ATi – FanATIcal, CinemATIc, DevastATIng, nATIve, CreATIve… Ok, I admit it not the first thing that came to my mind, but I had a chance to think about it a bit.
Sweden – Colder than Canada?
Overclocking – 9600XT the overclockers dream.
3Dmark – Perfect example of the messenger that got shot
Fanboys – Gamers
Longhorn – Can’t wait
Xbox2 – What’s that?
Linux – Cheap alternative
R42x – You wont be disappointed
Competition – Healthy for the industry
Last but not least I would like to thank you and ATi for taking the time to check in on us up here in chilly Sweden.