AMD’s Enduro Switchable Graphics Levels Upby Jarred Walton on September 6, 2012 3:00 AM EST
It’s been a long road for AMD’s switchable graphics drivers, but if AMD can deliver everything they’re promising, we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
There have been two major frustrations over the past couple of years for us: first, we just haven’t seen much in the way of AMD mobile GPUs for review. That’s not because the systems aren’t out there, but most of the OEMs using AMD GPUs have been hesitant at best to sample them to reviewers. That’s a problem because when hardware isn’t getting reviewed, it usually means there’s not a huge amount of public interest, which means that the hardware isn’t selling. None of us want the graphics arena to turn into a one sided affair, but NVIDIA’s Optimus initiative has really caught hold since launching and AMD hasn’t had a proper answer—until now.
The second issue with AMD’s mobile graphics solutions has been the drivers. Discrete-only notebooks have been able to get driver updates, but only at the cost of usable battery life; meanwhile the more interesting switchable solutions have received essentially nothing in the way of driver updates from the laptop OEMs—the Sony VAIO C I tested a year ago continues to have most of the same driver problems, and the last driver update from Sony in October 2011 uses 8.850 series drivers from AMD (roughly matching up with the Catalyst 11.5 release). HP’s ENVY 15t-3000 is a more recent offering with an Ivy Bridge CPU and HD 7750M graphics, and the drivers there are 8.951 (Catalyst 12.3) and haven’t been updated in months. If you purchase a laptop with a discrete GPU, presumably you want to use that GPU for gaming or other graphics applications, and that means you’ll want to get driver updates on occasion. Prior to the Enduro 5.5 update that hasn’t generally been possible, and we’re eager to see that change.
Overall, we’re pleased to see AMD taking a serious look at their switchable graphics technology and working to bring it up to the level of the competition. We wish it would have happened sooner, but at least it's not too late to get things headed in the right direction—and we'd suggest that perhaps dropping the monthly driver updates is part of the reason we're finally getting needed Enduro enhancements. Right now, it feels as if Enduro 5.5 is basically where Optimus was back in early 2010, so AMD’s not out of the woods yet, but get us a couple driver updates this year and we’ll be ready to believe that Mobility Radeon users will receive the same level of driver support as desktop Radeon users.
We’ve never really had a problem with the performance of AMD’s mobile GPUs, and in recent years they have often managed to trump NVIDIA on a bang-for-the-buck analysis. Unfortunately, without driver updates we’ve been hesitant to recommend laptops with AMD’s mobile GPUs. The 7000M “London” GPUs (basically GCN/Southern Islands for mobile users) have a lot to offer, and with the updates to Enduro and regular driver releases from AMD, the mobile graphics competition is about to get a lot more interesting. Competition is always nice to see.
For anyone interested in seeing the full set of “Enduro 5.5” slides, the above gallery is available.
Update: Many readers have commented (and there are lengthy forum posts elsewhere) on issues with the 7970M GPU being underutilized while playing games. I ran a few quick tests of my own with the preview drivers to see if things are any better. All tests were run at 1080p, with the games set to either "Medium" or "Maximum" settings. Here are the results:
|Clevo P170EM GPU Utilization|
|Game||1080p ~Medium||1080p ~Maximum|
|Batman: Arkham City||47%||100%|
|Elder Scrolls: Skyrim||54%||60%|
Obviously, the GPU isn't being maxed out in terms of what it can do in many of our test cases, and our complete benchmark results back this up. Especially at lower detail settings and lower resolutions, the HD 7970M isn't scaling to the sort of frame rates we'd expect. Is this a problem with Enduro in general, or just with the current drivers? AMD might also be intentionally scaling down GPU utilization (and thus performance) at lower quality settings, as the difference between 100 FPS and 150 FPS isn't particularly important on a 60 Hz LCD.
That said, in many cases we're seeing slightly lower performance with the preview drivers than the initial drivers, so clearly there's optimization work that needs to be done, and we may see improved results with the public release (most likely in October). While many people are frustrated with the current situation, I maintain that getting regular driver updates is the first hurdle that AMD needs to address; once that's in place, future driver releases can hopefully improve performance (along with GPU utilization).