During the course of our review of the new Sapphire Nitro R9 390 8GB card earlier this week, a question came up on driver support. For testing the R9 300-series as well as the Fury X cards, AMD provided a new Catalyst 15.15 beta driver. The problem is that these drivers would not install on the Radeon R9 200-series cards. That's not totally uncommon on new GPU releases but it does seem a bit odd considering the similarities between the R9 390 and the R9 290, for example.
That meant that in our review we had to use the Catalyst 15.5 beta for the Radeon R9 290X and the Radeon R9 290 GPU while using the newer Catalyst 15.15 beta for the Sapphire Nitro R9 390. Eyebrows were raised as you would expect as any performance differences between the new cards and the old cards would have to take into account the driver changes as well. But since we couldn't install the new driver on the old hardware, we were stuck, and published what we had.
Since then, a driver with some INI modifications that allows Catalyst 15.15 to be installed on Radeon R9 290X/290 hardware was built and uploaded from the Guru3D Forums. Today I installed that on our XFX Radeon R9 290 4GB card used in our R9 390 review to re-run a few game tests to see what changes we saw, if any. This would help us address any concerns over the updated driver causing performance changes rather than the hardware changes.
(Note: I realize that using an INI hacked driver isn't exactly going to pass QA with AMD, but I think we are seeing results that are close enough.)
First up, let's look at Grand Theft Auto V.
In GTA V we see that the average frame rate at 2560×1440 goes from 39.5 FPS to 40.5 FPS, an increase of about 2-3%. That's minimal but it is interesting to see how the frame rate consistency changes as we move down the sliding scale; pay attention to the orange and pink lines in the FPS by Percentile graph to see what I am referencing. As you move into the slower frame times in our testing, the gap between the 15.5 and 15.15 driver begins to widen slightly, indicating a little more frame time consistency in 15.15 release.
But what about BF4 or Metro: Last Light?
In Battlefield 4 there is no difference in performance on the R9 290 4GB card when moving from the 15.5 driver to the 15.15.
The same is true for Metro: Last Light – performance is essentially identical between the new and older Catalyst beta driver on the Radeon R9 290.
So what's the take away? While in Grand Theft Auto V there is some performance delta between Catalyst 15.5 and Catalyst 15.15 with the R9 290, that is not the case in Battlefield 4 or Metro: Last Light. (Note: the results at 4K testing, which I did run, showed identical behavior to the 2560×1440 testing shown above.) It makes sense that GTA V would see some improvement in gaming experience with a newer driver as it is still a new title getting updates and fixes from both AMD and NVIDIA. BF4 and Metro: LL are quite a bit longer in the tooth and thus the lack of change is expected.
But, there does not appear to be any kind of smoking gun to point to that would indicate AMD was purposefully attempting to improve its stance through driver manipulation. And that's all I wanted to make sure of with this testing today and this story. I obviously didn't test every game that users are playing today, but all indications are that AMD is in the clear.