Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gamers’ Guide to AMD(ATI) Catalyst Control Center

When I decided to buy a laptop, I made sure it was a gaming powerhouse. Sure enough I didn't bother configuring the driver software of its ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870 video card anymore. But give a year or two and history will repeat itself, back when I was frequently optimizing the settings for my aging desktop computer.
Catalyst Control Center

All AMD(ATI) card owners, myself included, are compelled to be familar with the settings found in Catalyst to determine the best settings for their current video card. It helps prolong the card's usability before seeking for a replacement.

If you either just bought a new AMD graphics card or simply want to update its Catalyst driver to the latest version, the folks from AMD have prepared a concise guide to ease the process of the upgrade/update.

Once installed, the Catalyst software can be launched through the Start Menu or at the system tray.  The latter method can also be used to set all graphics settings to "optimal quality" if your video card can handle the load and still dish out blazing fast frames per second.

Catalyst Settings Gamers Should Know


The Catalyst Control Center recently underwent a facelift; the ATI name is no longer present, replaced by its 2006 acquirer AMD company. Despite the streamlined user interface, the software is still jam-packed with features that it's easy to get lost. Various settings relevant to gamers are explained below with instructions on how to find them in the control center.

Catalyst Control Center Advanced View

Note: While the Standard view provides a simple categorization of features, gamers will find the Advanced view a better option. Feature navigations described below also have the Advanced view in mind. Just click the Preferences button at the upper right to switch between views.

The settings from Anti-Aliasing to Triple Buffering in this list are found in Gaming > 3D Application Settings.

Anti-Aliasing


Anti-aliasing (AA) is a technique in graphics rendering that smoothens jagged or pixelated edges commonly found in 3D game objects. Affected pixels in your screen display will have surrounding pixels blend in similar color to produce a blurry image when enlarged but appears smooth at higher resolutions. Increasing the number of samples taken per pixel produces a smoother image.

There are four filters for anti-aliasing:


  • Box is the standard setting which provides the fastest performance but with the most jagged look because of anti-aliasing samples only within the current pixel.
  • Narrow-tent expands sampling around surrounding area of the current pixel.
  • Wide-tent is similar to narrow-tent but at a higher degree although not beyond 1.25 times the radius distance from the current pixel.
  • Edge-detect differs from the previous three by not producing any softened or blurred areas in edges of 3D objects. An effective sampling level for this filter is 4x, matching the AA CrossFireX (AMD/ATI's use of multiple video cards) configuration of 12x.

The sample levels and filters available depend on what video card you have. For instance, my ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870 has all filters listed above and up to 8x sample level.

Left 4 Dead 2 without Anti-Aliasing


Left 4 Dead 2 without Anti-Aliasing


Left 4 Dead 2 with 8x MSAA


Left 4 Dead 2 with 8x MSAA


Anisotropic Filtering


Some 3D applications and games reduce the visual quality of objects that appear far away from your perspective. Through anisotropic filtering (AF), their quality can be preserved. You can compare this to a nearsighted person being able to see far objects through eyeglasses. At higher settings, some game scenery such as mountains and jungles are very detailed and appear realistic.

Tessellation


Tessellating 3D objects is another means to improve their quality through GPU acceleration while not sacrificing too much graphics memory, bandwidth and CPU cycle. Enhancement is done by increase the number of polygons used to render a 3D object.

Characters, like in the image above, and objects in video games can benefit greatly from tessellation. With it, you get well-defined face features instead of blocky ears and noses.

Tessellation

Catalyst A.I.


Enabling the Catalyst A.I. finds the optimal balance between 3D application performance and image quality. There are two choices, namely, Standard and Advanced. The former attempts to optimal results without affecting performance while the latter brings insignificant loss as much as possible in exchange for better optimization.

Mipmap Detail Level


Exclusive to select graphic cards, mipmapping is a technique in texturing to preserve features of 3D objects through the use of optimized image collection of a source image. These "maps" in various texture resolutions are stored in memory  and are selectively called according to the required detail level.

AMD recommends the setting to be performance-optimized for a smooth animation of 3D images and quality-optimized when surfaces of 3D objects require higher detail.

Wait for Vertical Refresh


If you often notice screen tearing, a visual artifact that happens when the display is out of sync with the graphics card, you can enable Wait for Vertical Refresh to prevent the card to modify anything visible in the video memory until the screen display has finished its refresh cycle.  This feature is also known as vertical synchronization.

Anti-Aliasing Mode


Three modes are applicable when using anti-aliasing for DirectX and OpenGL applications: Super-sample anti-aliasing (SSAA), Multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) and the balance between the two known as Adaptive anti-aliasing. When MSAA, the fastest of all three, merely manipulates the pixels near polygon edges, SSAA affects the entire screen. The latter obviously requires a bigger graphics processing demand and only the latest cards can deliver.

Triple Buffering


Applicable when Wait for Vertical Refresh is enabled, Triple Buffering improves the frame rate of 3D applications whose default rate are lower than v-sync refresh rate. However, triple buffering can actually worsen the frame rate if video memory is low, in which case there won't be enough usable memory for geometry data and texture. At this point, the feature is automatically disabled.

Eyefinity


Turn multiple monitors into one giant monitor with AMD Eyefinity. Together, all screens display a single desktop with a larger resolution. If speakers are positioned at the front and back of your seat to create a surround sound experience, Eyefinity brings you, as what AMD calls it, "surround-sight."

Dirt 2 on Eyefinity


This feature may not be for everyone as the costs for multiple monitors as well as accompanying graphics cards can be really heavy. Also, each monitor must have identical resolution, screen size, and be properly arranged. Using one particular brand and model for multiple monitors is therefor ideal.


Overdrive


Going beyond the default GPU and memory clock settings set by the manufacture requires overclocking techniques, known as Overdrive for AMD cards. However, a possible scenario involves overheating issues which requires upgrading your PC rig with a custom cooling solution. Notebooks are therefore not recommended for this feature especially in warm places.

The control center provides information regarding your GPU's temperature, activity and fan speed. All three indicators must be monitored in order to avoid going too much over the limit and risk hardware malfunction.

Catalyst Overdrive

You can find Overdrive in Performance > AMD Overdrive.


PowerPlay


Found in Power > Power Play, this feature allows you to select between maximum performance or longer battery life for two occasions: when the computer is plugged in and when it is running on battery. Obviously this feature is only available in notebooks, not desktops.

Driver Information


To find out more about your video card and its driver, you can go to Information. Properties and details in Software include Catalyst version, whereas Hardware shows the what AMD/ATI card model your computer is currently equipped with. These are two indicators to know when to upgrade your card or to update its driver.

Control Center Tips


Use application settings


Settings in Catalyst can be overridden via settings found in video games. For instance, you can enjoy the best performance in all other games but want to smooth out the sharp edges in a single game. In order to do so, you must tick the checkbox Use application settings of Anti-Aliasing.

Pinned for shortcuts


If you find yourself tinkering too much with the features in Catalyst, you can pin the ones you often change. That way, you can easily go to the Pinned category and find all your frequently-altered settings.

Presets for profiling


Different games require different settings. With presets, you can, say, easily switch between two profiles if you have two games currently installed, one of which requires better performance while the other plays well even at higher quality settings. This saves you time from changing the whole performance settings when you play between the two games alternately.

Regular update checks


Every month or two, AMD releases a new driver version for its video cards. Various fixes and performance increases are provided, the latter of which is usually noticeable in high-end cards. Be sure to visit game.amd.com regularly and update your Catalyst.

Optimal Settings According to Gamer Type


Each type of gamer have different demands in graphics performance. Here are some tips on what configuration should their Catalyst software driver package be.

Kid gamer


If you have a child who is too innocent to be exposed to realistic gory and bloody scenarios, use the lowest setting possible so that images are pixelated. Or better yet don't introduce mature games to them! Instead, you can let them play games where there are cuddly animals whose cuteness can be intensified at higher quality settings.

Retro gamer


The retro gamers cannot be bothered by the immense graphics of today's video games. Instead, their choice of fun in video games is found in the simple graphics and gameplay of old school video games. They aren't also bothered by things such as anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering, because they won't even notice any difference in their games at the lowest possible setting!

PacMan Best Retro Game Ever

Casual/midcore gamer


When budget is an issue or too much time simply can't be wasted for video games, a casual or a midcore gamer is born. Their gaming rigs are not top of the line, but just good enough that any game can be run at acceptable frame rates. In other words, it's average settings for an average computer.

Newbie gamer


At some point in a gamer's life, having to learn too many settings, terms, and whatnot can be overwhelming. That's the noob phase, so to speak. Many video games can determine what hardware currently comprises the computer and consequently find the best level of visual settings these games can run on. So heed my tip and let Catalyst use application settings. Even better is to set the Standard 3D Settings (set in Control Center's Standard view, found in Gaming > Gaming Performance > Standard 3D Settings)  to Balanced.

Hardcore gamer / Professional gamer


When gaming is your entire life, video games cannot be if they fail to provide you an escapist's world whose detail is as realistic as the real world. More importantly, if you have found serious money opportunity in games, focus is the most essential factor. The ability to delve right into the game itself without getting distracted by awful graphics is a must.

As expected, your computer is always upgraded for the latest specs and can therefore render games seamlessly at the highest settings. Especially if you want to play games like Crysis 2:

Crysis 2 Purely Awesome


Mobile gamer


Laptops are prone to overheating after prolonged gaming use. That is why you can't afford to tinker with Overdrive. You can't also set settings higher because this generally causes a problematic increase in system temperature. Find a cooling system for your computer first! Remember, the laptop form factor is harder to open and have parts replaced than their desktop PC counterparts.

Bear in mind that as you raise each feature up a notch or toggle them on, the performance of your graphics card will be generally lower. If the latest games are run at a painfully slow frame rate even at the lowest or performance optimized Catalyst settings, then perhaps the time is ripe for a video card upgrade.


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