H.264 Decode Acceleration - As Promised

One of the things that ATI had promised us was that by the end of the year, their Radeon X1000 series of GPUs would have hardware accelerated H.264 decode support; and with Catalyst 5.13, ATI is delivering on that promise.

Starting next Tuesday, Radeon X1000 owners will be able to download, for free, ATI's Catalyst 5.13 driver and a Cyberlink H.264 decoder that hooks into ATI's GPU and enables hardware acceleration of H.264.  More specifically, ATI's Radeon X1000 GPU in combination with the Cyberlink H.264 decoder will handle the in-loop deblocking, motion compensation and inverse transform that occur during H.264 decoding. Unfortunately, ATI only had a beta ready for us in time for this review, so there were some bugs. Right now, ATI is hoping to have the final version available on the 22nd.

The end result is that CPU utilization is reduced, making the playback of H.264 movies possible on lower end systems and have less of a performance impact on all systems.  ATI's work on H.264 decode acceleration today is extremely important because H.264 is the codec of choice for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

So how does it work?  It's all fairly simple. You just install the Cyberlink H.264 decoder, which then lets you play, with ATI GPU acceleration, H.264 content in Windows Media Player.  The bundle also includes an ATI skin for Windows Media Player, but thankfully, you can revert back to the original WMP skin.


Click to Enlarge

The decoder will let you play all H.264 encoded movies, including H.264 Quicktime movies in Windows Media Player, and of course, they are all GPU accelerated.  As you can guess, this only works on Radeon X1000 series GPUs. 

Because H.264 decoding is an extremely processor intensive task, the level of acceleration that you can get varies based on what type of GPU you have.  ATI tells us that the limitations are not artificial, and they are directly related to the number of functioning ALUs on the GPU (in other words, the more pixel pipes you have, the more processing power you have).  The breakdown is pretty simple:

Radeon X1300 owners will be able to get hardware acceleration at up to 480p, X1600 owners get it for 720p, and X1800 owners get full acceleration at up to 1080p.  ATI did mention that they are working on bringing those limits down, but that is a time intensive driver and algorithm optimization process that may or may not happen. 

For our tests, we used a Radeon X1600 XT and paired it with some 720p content from Apple's Quicktime HD gallery.  Unfortunately, due to the beta nature of the decoder, we couldn't get all of the content to work.  ATI has told us that there are bound to be issues with the decoder, thanks to its beta state, but it is at least functional in most cases and the final version should be available next week.

Our test of choice was the third Chronicles of Narnia trailer from Apple's HD gallery.  We used perfmon to record the CPU utilization on our testbed Athlon 64 3500+ and reported the minimun, average and maximum CPU utilization values during the playback of the trailer.  Our reference point is our test bed running the trailer in Quicktime 7, which isn't GPU accelerated, and comparing that to Windows Media Player 10 with the Cyberlink H.264 decoder offloading some tasks to the GPU.  While there are bound to be some differences between the two players, the majority of CPU time is spent in the decoder, so the variance between players is negligible. 

Decoder Min Avg Max
Quicktime (no Acceleration)
18.8% 53.1% 78.1%
Cyberlink H.264 (GPU Acceleration) 9.4% 32.2% 57.8%


The average CPU utilization without ATI's GPU acceleration is a staggering 65% higher, not to mention that the peak CPU usage with GPU acceleration manages to stay under 60% while it otherwise hovers just below 80%. 

While we didn't have a Radeon X1800 XT to test on hand, the benefits there should be even greater, since you can get GPU assisted decode at 1080p as well. 

Index Introducing the Avivo Video Converter
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  • Anton74 - Saturday, December 17, 2005 - link

    Hmm, interesting. In http://www.chip.de/artikel/c1_artikel_17670022.htm...">this article, which apparently talks about a different revision of the same software (looks practically identical, but is entitled "ATi Avivo Transcode Wizard" in the program's title bar, as opposed to "ATi Avivo Video Converter" in the AT article), the author says the GPU hardware is used to speed things up (which is quite believable if the benchmarks are accurate, which show up to a 5x increase with a X1300 Pro assisted transcode versus a sole FX-57 [!!]).

    Something's gotta be up here - I have trouble believing that a very significant speed increase (~2x - 5x) can be achieved without either a GPU assist, or very different output quality (which is why it's very important to not only measure transcoding time, but also compare video quality, as has already been pointed out - otherwise you don't know if you're comparing apples to apples).

    If I may ask, how did you determine that the GPU is not used, especially since the program won't work without one?

    Either way, these X1000 GPU's are looking more and more attractive, despite not quite keeping up with their competition some of the time in pure gaming performance (for similarly priced cards, of course).
    Reply
  • OCedHrt - Monday, December 19, 2005 - link

    Maybe it makes use of GPU assisted decode, but not encode. Reply
  • Calin - Monday, December 19, 2005 - link

    I thought about it too - but the decode isn't so much faster by GPU assisted, compared to decode by software. There was at most twice the speed of decoding using GPU, and encoding time should be greater than decoding. Reply
  • irev210 - Friday, December 16, 2005 - link

    I just picked up an X1800XT and I had a bad fan out of the box. Luckly I ordered two, so I just put in the 2nd one while I replace the first and install it in a friends machine. I called ATi to RMA because their website was 1/2 broken 1/2 working at the time, and the guy wouldnt RMA it over the phone, which was pretty sad.


    I guess I got unlucky, but the 2nd card I got had a bent bracket. Took me about 15 minutes to get the card installed even after taking off the bracket and straighting it the best I could do.

    VERY happy with the cards actual performance though. The AVIVO sounds great. I have a replayTV and I record a lot of shows. Using DVARCHIVE, I store them to my PC and shrink/encode them to watch them on my pocketPC phone on the subway. I would love to speed that process up with AVIVO.


    ATI guys-- if you read this, do something about your retarded tech support, and try to make sure that when the dude in china puts together this card that the fan works. The guy wouldnt even just send me a fan. He then argued that I had to call the computer company that my X1800XT came inside. I was like, you do know that ATi sells video cards under their own label right? He put me on hold after giving him my serial # and said, "YES, you have an ATI card, go to ATI.COM and create an RMA" even though I asked to do it over the phone because I was having problems accessing the ATI website. I then told him I wanted this 2nd card to put in a computer for chirstmas and he said "oh Im sorry, RMA takes around 10+ days".


    Anyway, RECAP:

    Cards performance is MUCH better than expected (switched from 7800GTX 256 SLI)

    NO it doesnt match SLI performance, but it works great.

    This will hold me over till the next gen graphcis card
    Reply
  • Generic Guy - Sunday, December 18, 2005 - link

    In other words: ATI's reduced warranty and crappy customer service rears its ugly head, once again. Especially right before Christmas, yeesh.

    I've had two ATI Radeon products, plus a Rage-128 before that. I've been more or less happy, but been a victim of the "bad drivers" days and remember these types of issues to this day. It really seems to be getting to the point where ATI is bound and determined to kill themselves off with stupid paper launches of non-existant products, and horrendously worthless support on premium-priced products.

    Sorry ATI. I'll just keep my Nero Recode and choose not to buy your products any longer.
    Reply
  • LoneWolf15 - Tuesday, December 20, 2005 - link

    Bitter much?

    I had the Rage 128 too (Rage Fury Pro AGP) and yes, it bit. And drivers were lousy. So was support. And I sent it back, and went with a TNT2-Ultra based card instead.

    But if you're basing your opinion on a card released in late `98/early `99, you're not living in today's world. ATI has made major strides. Drivers are no longer an issue, and haven't been since (at the very latest) the Radeon 9xxx lines of cards.

    Also, I haven't needed support on either my Radeon 9700 or my Radeon X800XL. They've worked right out of the box, without issue. Your current complains about support (for BETA software no less) don't seem germane to the article.

    If you want to gripe, have a legit one. Paper launches I can understand. Not supporting the earlier Radeon X-series of cards (X8xx for example), I can also understand; they're quite recent, and I'm a bit disappointed myself by that. But complaining about the past when it isn't representative of the present just doesn't fly.

    P.S. While I happen to have the three-year ATI warranty as opposed to the reduced one, I've never had to use the warranty on any of their products I've purchased (VGA Wonder 512k, Graphics Pro Turbo, on up to my current cards and a TV Wonder PCI as well). If a card doesn't die in the first year, it's not likely to die at all, unless it is pushed (i.e., overclocked).
    Reply
  • Hacp - Friday, December 16, 2005 - link

    This makes me want to get a X1300 SOOO bad. Do they make a AIW card with theater550 in it??? Reply
  • Rys - Friday, December 16, 2005 - link

    Theather 550 has a problem (communicating with the GPU over the VIP) which stops it being used on AIW boards. Reply
  • Chadder007 - Friday, December 16, 2005 - link

    What they lack in releasing of hardware on time, they come through on features, and quality drivers now. Still waiting for AGP X1000 cards.. :D Reply
  • Jedi2155 - Friday, December 16, 2005 - link

    Excellent!! It looks like something is finally going right on the ATI side of things!!! Now if only they can get craking on making the R580 appear!!! Reply

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