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Problems with Catalyst 8.10: Part 1

Radeon HD 4870 X2: Four Cards Compared

When it comes time to benchmark, we usually use the generic graphics driver from the AMD’s Web site unless an early release forces us to go with a beta release. Generally we recommend against using the driver that shipped with the card on its software disc, as it’ll often be quite old and serve up different (generally worse) results. AMD has made a significant effort to show a new driver release every month, which complicates presenting scores with the latest release but also puts the latest bug fixes in the hands of enthusiasts immediately—a good thing.

When you start mixing reference software with vendor-specific apps, the door opens to complications. For example, Asus ships its Smart Doctor utility with the card, which allows manual adjustment of clock rates and fan settings. In its standard setting, the software only shows the current data of the graphics card. Extended configuration information has to be changed manually. Because the bundled software is also important when testing products, the Smart Doctor has to be installed either before or after the installation of the Catalyst package from AMD’s page. This is where we started encountering issues. The fan settings of the Radeon HD 4870 X2 start to behave very strangely with both apps co-existing. In 2D mode, the noise level rises up to 46.2 dB(A) at 42% fan speed. Without the Smart Doctor, but with Catalyst 8.10, the noise was only 37 dB(A) at 27% fan speed. If you assume that this difference was intentional, it means you would essentially trade higher fan speed and noise level for lower temperatures: 45°C (with Smart Doctor plus Catalyst 8.10) looks better for 2D mode than 78ºC (with only Catalyst 8.10).

But serious issues arise with the combination of Smart Doctor and Catalyst 8.10 in 3D mode. Under load, the temperature exceeds 90°C. The maximum value shouldn’t exceed 85°C, which is why the high load test had to be aborted several times. The reason for the high temperature lies in the low fan speed, which should actually limit it to 85°C, but the fan didn’t even start to speed up at 90ºC. Because this is only a test, we eventually decided to let things rip and let the cards fall where they may—we expected to fry the two graphic processors, but the fan surprisingly decided to speed up at a temperature of 96°C, which of course is way too high.

Another issue we noticed occurred when starting the high load tests. The fan speed was different each time: 2700 RPM, 2100 RPM, and in the worst case 3700 or 3900 RPM. Independent of the actual temperature, it took more or less time until the maximum temperature of 96°C was reached. Whatever the error is, when using only the Catalyst 8.10 without Smart Doctor, we didn’t experience any difficulties. The problems only occur with the combination. So you’ll have to make a decision: either use an older graphics driver version and Smart Doctor from the CD, or use the current Catalyst 8.10 from the AMD homepage, but without Smart Doctor from the CD.

Interestingly enough, in upgrading from 8.10 to 8.11, fan speeds on the Radeon HD 4870 X2 stuck at 50%, generating a ton of noise. On another system with a fresh installation of Vista and no previous driver installations, the issue disappeared. Just remember to always uninstall previous versions of the software before you install something new.

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