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Do New Drivers Really Boost Performance?

Madness And Myth, Or Hidden Performance?

If you believe the most emphatic gamers, a graphics drivers update is good for—what, 10 or 15 percent additional performance? As a result, running benchmarks on Catalyst 8.6 when 8.8 is out automatically invalidates those other numbers and clearly indicates bias. All kidding aside, how much truth is there behind the assumption that every new driver update delivers untold performance enhancements?

AMD brings out a new Catalyst driver every month and if there’s a sales push for a new graphics chip between releases, additional beta drivers are released to the press. At Nvidia, the cycle between the official WHQL driver versions is longer. However, beta drivers containing minor changes are available at irregular intervals.

Logically, it’s clear some of the performance claims must be exaggerated. AMD and Nvidia release numerous driver builds every year. If each of these drivers were to increase 3D speed by 10 percent, the graphics cards would double their performance in a few months. But that’s not the case, as even new graphics chips are struggling to outshine their predecessors by up to 50 percent. If the claim that every graphics driver brings more speed were true, no one would ever buy new 3D hardware again because the driver updates would deliver greater benefits.

In practice, the first beta drivers are optimized for speed for the purpose of 3D tests and aren’t necessarily perfect. The first “official” versions are more stable, which, for some games, costs a little in terms of performance. The greatest speed increases for new products generally come within the next three months, when more errors are found and corrected, and adaptations are made to meet current game requirements, ensuring the basic level of 3D performance. The subsequent three months see additional optimizations for benchmark games to achieve better test results. Then adaptations are made in favor of new games, with the drivers additionally optimized for CrossFire (AMD) and SLI (Nvidia).

Over the entire product life cycle of a graphics card, we might be able to expect as much as a 30 percent overall performance increase due to driver updates. Greater individual results are possible, but these usually result from errors in memory adaptation or poorly optimized games—for example, Flight Simulator X with Nvidia cards that have less than 512 MB of graphics memory or Crysis, which remains a constant source of changes as frame rates yo-yo depending on the driver version used.

In this evaluation we aim to determine how much of a performance increase could be seen between the Catalyst 8.6 and the Catalyst 8.8. Tests were conducted using a Radeon HD 4870.

There’s another rumor tied to the Radeon HD 4870 running in CrossFire mode: only beginning with Catalyst 8.8 is the performance of two cards running together properly supported.. The GeForce GTX 280 with the ForceWare 177.39 driver is apparently not very well optimized either—a recent test with the GeForce 177.92 beta driver showed up the differences.

All tests also were carried out with an overclocked CPU. This is the only way to determine how much potential could be seen in the fast graphics chips. The GeForce 9600 GT was tested as a control group with both the ForceWare 175.16 and the GeForce 177.92 drivers. As a series chip, it has the longest possible period of driver optimization and serves as the lower performance limit for the CPU power test.