Tuesday, September 9, 2014

State of Legacy Drivers 2014: AMD vs NVIDIA


While they are both categorically in the legacy cards section of their respective manufacturers as of the date of this post, the cards I have do not provide for a completely fair comparison: ATI (AMD) HD 4350 (PCIe x16) vs NVIDIA 8400GS (PCIe x1).

The AMD card (GPU release date 30 Sep 2008) is one generation ahead of the NVIDIA one (17 Apr 2007). Not only that, the 8400GS is handicapped by its PCI-E x1 1.1 bus interface (HD 4350 has a PCI-E x16 2.0 interface). Everything hence shows that the AMD card is way superior, and it truly is.

Technology 55nm 80nm
Release Date Sep 30, 2008 Apr 17, 2007
Transistors 242M 210M
Bus Interface PCI-E 2.0 x16 @ x16 2.0 PCI-E 1.1 x16 @ x1 1.1
Memory Size 512 MB 256 MB
DirectX Support 10.1 / SM4.1 10.0 / SM4.0

Drivers - Availability

Knowing that the AMD is a superior card, how does its drivers compare with NVIDIA's? A graphics card cannot function without its drivers after all.

With the 8400GS, it was as easy to install drivers as it is for the latest NVIDIA graphics cards - GeForce drivers 340.52 thus installed without a fuss. AMD have have dropped the HD 4350 drivers from the latest drivers distribution. It directed me to its legacy drivers page and the latest version happens to be 13.4 BETA! A quick Google search seems to suggest that 13.9 is simply the WHQL'd version of 13.4. So I downloaded v13.9 and installed it. All good so far.

Drivers - Quality

I'm basing my assessment off a Direct3D 9 Shader Model 3.0 Video Renderer I wrote -- Media Player .NET (MPDN). The reason I'm doing this is because I know what my code does intimately and how it should work.

Let's get onto testing the cards then. Both cards were tested with the MPDN default settings on a 1280x1024 monitor at 50Hz. The NVIDIA card ran without any issues (render time of ~19ms). The AMD card however, kept causing Windows 7 to complain "Windows has detected that your computer's performance is slow" and if MPDN kept on playing, Windows reverted back to the basic colour scheme (turned off Aero mode). Turning on MPDN's on-screen player stats, it was immediately obvious: render and present times were all over the place! However, once full screen exclusive mode was activated, render time immediately settled at ~10ms.

I was baffled. As it turns out, AMD drivers have a problem with 50Hz monitors. Even without running MPDN, you could see Windows 7 DWM dropping frames as you move just a Windows Explorer window (it was visibly jerky)! I then switched the monitor to 60Hz to see if it exhibits the same problem -- Not at all! At 60Hz, it ran fine, mostly. Occasionally render and present times still shot up and caused MPDN to drop frames (which did not happen on the NVIDIA card), but it mostly ran fine.

Without spending more time into my investigations (although I did ran several other versions of legacy drivers from 12.11 HotFix to 13.1 modded ones to no avail), I'll have to point my fingers at AMD. Among the three major GPU vendors, AMD have the worst drivers. Yes, Intel is one of the three vendors and they have much better drivers than AMD! Oh how the tides have turned in recent years!

I have no evidence to suggest that this bug affects all of the AMD HD 4000 series GPUs but given they were based of the foundation chip RV770, I would not be surprised if the entire line suffers from this very bug. Furthermore, with AMD's track record (i.e. absolute disinterest) in fixing bugs in their legacy drivers (and even drivers for their latest GPUs), it is likely that this will never get fixed.

On my test PC, the Catalyst drivers face an even more daunting task - they need to get the graphics card to coexist with an Intel GPU (i.e. Main monitor is hooked up to the Intel GPU while a secondary monitor is hooked up to the AMD card). This particular setup worked beautifully with the NVIDIA 8400GS. With the AMD HD 4350, however, it would always cause Windows 7 to revert to basic colour scheme when you have it render the frames but present it on another GPU (i.e. rendering is done on the AMD GPU and then gets presented on the Intel GPU in windowed mode). On the other hand, both Intel and NVIDIA drivers worked well either directions (rendering on Intel, present on NVIDIA and vice versa).

This particular setup cannot be considered unorthodox in this day and age. Unfortunately, AMD cannot seem to get their drivers to work properly under any circumstances besides the monitor refresh rate set at 60Hz and on a single GPU setup. You have been warned: Deviate at your own peril.


While the AMD HD 4350 card is definitely a superior card to the NVIDIA 8400GS, it suffers from abysmal driver quality. This makes it completely useless as a HTPC card where you would want to set your TV frequency to match the video being played. In the recent releases of MPDN, the AMD card is also exhibiting artefacts running PixelShader code that both Intel and NVIDIA GPUs have no problems running. I have yet to investigate into this issue so this will be an article for another day. Given my experience as a software developer, I would stay away from AMD graphics cards if I were you.