AMD Catalyst and Windows XP: Unleashing performance with Intel Sandy Bridge

Radeon 6970

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we saw newer AMD Catalyst drivers mysteriously lowering performance in games on Windows XP. Those test were done on a no frills Core2 Duo system, resembling what many people ran when those games were new. But now we’ll set up a monster overkill XP gaming system with LGA 2011, a 3.6GHz six-core Sandy Bridge-E Xeon E5-1660 processor, quad channel DDR3-1600 memory, PCI-e 3.0, an SSD, and see if that changes things.

The tests were performed in the same manner as in previous posts, using the same software, and the same settings. I measured the framerate after loading a save from several games, and also ran a few automated benchmarks.

Radeon HD 6950

Catalyst 12.4Catalyst 13.4Catalyst 14.4
Fallout 3603434
Far Cry 2918485
Stalker: Clear Sky135108108
Clear Sky bench726265
Far Cry 2 bench118111112
Radeon HD 6950, frames per second

Except for Crysis, all the games tested saw a performance drop when going to drivers newer than Catalyst 12.4. This is the same pattern that we saw on the Core2 system, except this time performance was higher overall. To be fair, most games remained playable even with the later drivers, but Fallout 3 saw a huge drop in performance and this kind of performance hit should not happen from updating drivers. At least I don’t remember reading driver release notes where it says “KNOWN ISSUES: Fallout 3 performance is cut nearly in half for no good reason.” So even with an overkill test platform, you’d want to avoid not only the last official 14.4 driver but also any driver much newer than 12.4.

Radeon HD 7970

Catalyst 12.4Catalyst 13.4Catalyst 14.4
Fallout 3605959
Far Cry 2908887
Stalker: Clear Sky130139140
Clear Sky bench717372
Far Cry 2 bench122120120
Radeon HD 7970, frames per second

With the Radeon HD 7970, we finally see the difference an overkill XP system makes – Fallout 3 performance didn’t drop like a rock after updating to newer drivers! Of course, you also have much higher frame rates across the board. And as we saw with the Core2 system, the other games maintained mostly consistent performance across all the drivers, with only minor gains or losses. However, let’s look at the GPU utilization.

Catalyst 12.4Catalyst 13.4Catalyst 14.4
Fallout 3999999
Far Cry 2526158
Stalker: Clear Sky618584
Radeon HD 7970, GPU utilization %

GPU utilization is higher in the 13.4 and 14.4 driver. Is that a big deal? Well, consider that both Fallout 3 and Borderlands have an in-game frame rate limit of around 60-62 fps, and in both games we have GPU usage that’s higher than in Crysis! This is another one of those things that should not happen. It’s an indicator that something is not working correctly in the driver. Whether or not it matters is a personal choice.

So in the end, what did we learn? That if you’re using a Radeon HD 5000 or 6000 series graphics card in a Windows XP system, then avoid drivers from 2013 or 2014. For HD 4000 series, stick to drivers from 2010 or 2011. And if you’re using a Radeon HD 7000 graphics card in Windows XP, then you’d better have something newer and faster than a Core2 processor, or else your only option is drivers from 2012, and even then you’re still wasting performance due to severe CPU limitations. But if you’re using an overkill Sandy Bridge processor, then the HD 7000 series is actually the best choice, because you do not suffer major performance losses from newer drivers.

Bonus Content

While the Intel LGA 2011 X79 platform may seem like the ultimate Windows XP gaming machine, I found that the SpeedStep and Turbo features of the processor don’t function in XP. Normally, the Xeon E5-1660 processor is supposed to idle at around 1.2GHz, and ramp up to 3.6 – 3.9GHz under load, depending on how many cores are being used. But remember when I said I used a 3.6Ghz processor? That’s because it was running full blast at 3.6GHz on all cores, even at idle. This resulted in a ridiculously high power consumption of about 200W at idle, and a toasty CPU temperature of about 55-60C, at idle, with a tower cooler running a 120mm cooling fan. Under Windows 10, the same system behaves normally, and adjust clock speed as needed. But under Windows XP it’s not a viable choice for a gaming system, unless you also need your gaming PC to double as a room heater.

The board I used was a Gigabyte X79-UP4 with the latest bios, so this isn’t some no-name Chinese board hobbled together from used parts. I tried tweaking a bunch of BIOS settings, and adjusting the power scheme in control panel, and all my efforts only made it worse – I made the system run at 3.3GHz, which reduced performance for the Radeon HD 7970, but still running unacceptably hot and power hungry. I then had to reinstall Windows XP to get it back to 3.6GHz. I’ll have to test if this problem also occurs in LGA 1155 Sandy Bridge systems, because until now I was under the impression that LGA 2011 was the ultimate Windows XP gaming rig, and now I begrudgingly have to admit that with this kind of ridiculous heat output and power consumption, it’s not a good choice at all.

Related Content

Part 1 – AMD Catalyst Drivers for Windows XP: Newer is NOT Better
Part 2 – AMD Catalyst Slow Performance in Windows XP: The Mystery Deepens

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