Although as a hardware site we here at AnandTech devote most of our focus to the features and performance of new hardware, in recent years the impact of software has grown to where in some cases the line between hardware and software has been heavily blurred. We already see this fairly regularly in the video card sector, where upwards of every single month a new driver comes out that has a notable impact on performance, or fixes some bug that was previously causing headaches for its users. As can be a painful lesson in the computer industry, hardware is as only good as the software it works with and much can change long after a piece of hardware is manufactured.

This is the first part in a series of articles taking a look at the software side of the performance/usability equation, as we hope to establish a guide for advanced/enthusiast users for what makes for good software and what software packages are critical towards getting the most out of your system. As an inherently subjective process we will not be awarding software like we do hardware - enthusiast-level software often is a smorgasbord of features that fails to neatly fall in to categories like hardware - but we will be identifying those notable software packages that are of best design and most use, and what strengths and weaknesses they may possess.

Starting off this series, we are taking a look at video card utilities for ATI and NVIDIA's product lines, dealing with both the first-party utilities included in the drivers along with the third-party utilities developed to replace or augment the first-party utilities. Both ATI and NVIDIA have taken flak in recent years for the significant revision of their respective utilities, as doing so has unarguably added bloat to software that's often used to increase the performance of a system and achieving the opposite of the desired goal in some cases. This has pushed several third-party utilities to a prominent position as they're equally or more capable than first-party utilities with only a fraction of the footprint.

This is not to say that first-party utilities are useless, but designed to meet the needs of basic users all the way up to advanced users, the usefulness of such utilities for advanced users is sometimes sacrificed to meet others needs. Overclocking, cooling, feature settings, performance tweaking, and stability testing are all important aspects for getting the most out of an enthusiast level video card, and some utilities are better than others at handling these needs. Unfortunately most video card utilities are tailored for one side or the other, complicating matters as a good utility for a GeForce card may not even be usable on a Radeon card and vice-versa.

In the next few pages, we'll take a look at the most popular utilities, what they work with, what they work best at, and what's still lacking. Getting the most of your system requires not just the right hardware, but the right software to go with it.

ATI Catalyst Control Center
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  • takumsawsherman - Friday, July 6, 2007 - link

    AMD/ATI and NVIDIA are totally out of control. It's like they put 13-year olds in charge of the design, and State Government bureacrats are the programmers. I will focus on ATI, though NVIDIA seems to want to follow in their footsteps.

    1. Huge resource hog - the article mentions this, but one has to sit and time it themselves to realize what garbage this software is. Insane load times, just to switch output to a TV, or make basic adjustments. My trusty old Matrox G400Max 8 years ago in a matter of a few seconds, and the image looked better on TV as well. Speaking of Output to TV (or another monitor), under the old control panel, it was a check box. Now, one has to drag an icon of a TV into a box. Genius.

    2. Speaking of 13 year olds, what is with the cartoon characters dominating the interface. Am I supposed to get excited seeing that? Is it supposed to reward me for my waiting? And the stupid buttons that are harder to see than normal buttons, on top of brushed metal? Awesome, dude! Why not have a nice control panel, that has all of the controls within an intuitive system, somewhat like what Matrox used to have with Powerdesk? Hell, with that system, I could increment the refresh rate until I reached the limit of my Viewsonic at 116hz. That is power, and control.

    There is more that I could detail, but I need to get back to work. But no apologies should be made for the teams that design these monstrosities. They are not suitable for basic users. Basic users would think that perhaps their computer was not working, based on the load time. They are not suitable at all, and they should literally be thrown in the garbage. The people responsible for approving these designs, and team responsible for creating the design and basing it on .NET, should be fired. Then maybe somebody like Andy Hertzfeld should be brought in to lead the new teams.

    I thought that with AMD's purchase of ATI, this outcome would be fast-tracked. Unfortunately, whoever was in charge probably still is in charge.
  • PrinceGaz - Friday, July 6, 2007 - link

    Good article, I think I'll have a look at ATITool as that sounds ideal for my needs (I already use nHancer and have used RivaTuner in the past).

    My question is why are there no links to any of the third-party utilities you are so enthusiastic about? I know they're easy enough to find with a quick search, but it seems strange that you don't provide links to their official site. I assume it isn't because in at least one case it would mean linking to a site which probably competes with AT for ads and visitors? :)
  • Spoelie - Friday, July 6, 2007 - link

    Specifically, getting it to do all the clock/voltage/fan changing (auto 3D overclocking feature) instead of the standard drivers, made my x1950xt with even the standard HSF a very pleasant card.

    2d clocks standard 500/600 @var fan (minimum 29%), now 300/400 @22% constant fan.
    3d clocks standard 625/900 @var fan (up to 70%+), now 625/900 @59% constant fan.
    + fcourse voltage changes

    For older games that do not need as much grunt, you can set an exception so it uses the 2D clocks, for completely silent gaming. Configuring the fan at a constant not-too-loud speed that is sufficient to cool the GPU at the 3D clocks, gets rid of the fan winding up and down during gaming annoyance.

    And all the other goodies, for icing on the cake ^^
  • yacoub - Thursday, July 5, 2007 - link

    ATITool would be perfect if its dynamic temperature-sensor-based fan throttling worked on more cards. It's hard to tell if the issue is with card hardware or with ATITool's developer, but either way it's frustrating to have a high-end GPU and yet not be able to have the fan throttle with detected temps per user settings. This worked perfectly on my 9800Pro and X800XL, but does not work at all on my 7900GT and apparently doesn't work right on X1900 series ATi cards not 8800 series NVidia cards either.

    It's a shame, because ATITool is such an awesome little program otherwise. It's by far much more user-friendly and easy to configure than something like RivaTuner (last I checked, which was a while ago).
  • Spoelie - Friday, July 6, 2007 - link

    Ati tray tools has the support you mentioned for the X1xxx range of cards, try that for a change.
  • yacoub - Thursday, July 5, 2007 - link

    "not" should be "nor".

    Also I should add that SpeedFan manages to do this temp-based fan throttling wonderfully for my CPU and has for a couple years now. I want this ability for my GPU as well, as I was able to do with older gen GPUs.... how can we LOSE this feature when things are supposed to IMPROVE with newer generation hardware?

    It's especially troublesome since the latest GPUs all seem to run a really low setting in Windows and FULL BLAST in 3D gaming. It's an on/off switch instead of a dynamic throttle the way ATITool is capable of doing (with older cards).
  • strikeback03 - Friday, July 6, 2007 - link

    Speedfan has not worked with either of the hardware combos I have tried it with. I'm gonna see if any of these GPU utilities can keep my video card fan from turning on randomly though.

    I'd be happy if the nVidia utility would let me disable the popup message about "SLI is disabled" every time the computer is turned on, considering the motherboard does not support SLI and there has never been a second video card.
  • The Boston Dangler - Thursday, July 5, 2007 - link

    yeah, speedfan is great. try rivatuner for controlling vid fan speeds.
  • The Boston Dangler - Thursday, July 5, 2007 - link

    Although you state that AMD and Nvidia need to do much better, you were way too soft on them. Perhaps your experiences have been much better than my own.

    No mention of Coolbits or NVTempLogger? Maybe because they are XP-only?

    I dumped ATI years ago due to their weak hardware, CCC + .NET was the last straw. That, and the media thingy was nothing more than WMP with ATI's skin. Pure garbage. At very least, it let me have ANY video source as wallpaper, about 5 years before Vista's Dreamscene or whatever it's called.

    That leaves Nvidia. Under XP, the old control panel was excellent. Coolbits added freq adjustments, RivaTuner did not integrate. All other settings were easily laid out for me to tinker with, and very functional. However, the new-fangled control panel had only about 10% of the settings as the old one. The nTune utility was 100% fatal to my motherboard, freezing up the moment the .exe was run. This was on an Asus A8N32-SLI, the premiere mobo of the day. So sad...

    Now that I've regrettably installed Vista, I'm stuck with the moronic new control panel. After manually enabling visibility of every possible setting, I'm left with a tiny fraction of the settings I had under XP. Many of these will do nothing, some will break apps or the entire machine. nTune now works under Vista, although the one and only thing it does is monitor and log vid temps. I look at the screen shots AT posts and I wonder "Where the Hell did my settings and monitoring go?"

    Although you didn't get into PureVideo in this piece, I'd like to bring it up. Where do they get off charging me for a driver, for the hardware I already purchased? Unlike Creative, support was stated, and it's functionality was promised. "Now with PureVideo technology" and "Free PureVideo support in this driver release". I, and many others, interpreted that to mean the PureVideo software was included. WRONG. It remains $20 - $50. I tried the demo, and what does $20 - $50 get you? Crap. After much fiddling, I was able to match the PQ I had without PV. It works with only this player and that file type, which covers about zero of my PC vid watching. For DVD's, my Denon DVD player whips PV and AVIVO's asses, every goddamn time. It isn't worth "free", nevermind $50.

    Excuse me if I drifted into a rant, but it's frustrating. The disparity between the quality of hardware and software seems to be growing right across the board, no pun intended.
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, July 5, 2007 - link

    There's a common misconception between PureVideo the hardware, and PureVideo the software; this was a poor choice in naming by Nvidia. The entire suite of PureVideo hardware features can be access by any application using the DXVA interface and some knowledge of what features are available. The latest versions of PowerDVD and WinDVD have no problem here.

    The problem is that when Nvidia was shipping its earliest PureVideo hardware, the support from Cyberlink(PowerDVD) and Intervideo(WinDVD) wasn't where Nvidia wanted it, so they created their own MPEG2 decoder in order to showcase what the hardware could do. They eventually called this decoder the PureVideo Decoder, and this was their mistake. Thankfully this problem is slowly going away; I've heard there won't be any more updates to the PureVideo Decoder so it will ultimately be discontinued.

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