Testing AMD’s HD 7970M Enduro Hotfix

@ 2012/10/03
I just posted the full review of the Clevo P170EM from AVADirect, but there’s a ton of content specific to the Clevo notebook and I know many of you are waiting to hear more about AMD’s Enduro 5.5 driver updates. Let me start by pointing back to our overview of AMD’s Enduro technology. I had some back and forth discussions with AMD, and that took long enough that the public Enduro 5.5 update is now available. As I noted in the beginning of the first Enduro article, my initial impressions weren’t particularly good to say the least, and my first encounter with the P170EM didn’t assuage my concerns. Thankfully, AMD has been working to improve/fix the technology, and the public Enduro 5.5 driver at least installs and updates the UI for Enduro, with the promise of future driver releases.

There were many comments on the Enduro article, and in general most of those comments weren’t particularly favorable towards AMD or the HD 7970M, but my experience suggests that (nearly?) all of the problems can be fixed with driver updates. One complaint in particular is with GPU underutilization—that the 7970M in some games is only running at 50-70% utilization, and thus delivers lower than expected frame rates. The public 12.9 Beta drivers still have this problem in many games, but AMD knows this and is working to fix things. Let me first describe what’s happening before getting to the fix.

When you max out the details in most games the 7970M will still get above 30FPS, which is good. Unfortunately, in some titles the GPU utilization will drop well below 90% (around 60% in some games) and this results in a very perceptible drop in performance. So for example, a game like Battlefield 3 might go from a smooth 40+ FPS down to 20FPS for a second or two, then back to 40+ FPS—lather, rinse, and repeat. As you can imagine, that makes serious multiplayer gaming a real problem, and at lower detail settings (with higher frame rates), the GPU utilization is even worse (sometimes even lower than 50%). Going through our current gaming test suite with the public drivers, in some of our test titles we only get slightly improved frame rates despite dramatically lower complexity. Owners of 7970M notebooks have expressed a great deal of frustration with AMD over the situation, and the lack of driver updates has only heightened the irritation.

Thankfully, AMD is set to address the driver updates issue with their new Enduro Catalyst program. What’s more, AMD is aware of the GPU underutilization problem and they’re working to address that as well. The initial 12.9 Beta driver still has underutilization problems, but AMD plans to release a Hotfix in the next week or so that should hopefully clear things up. Whatever the root cause (possibly the problem is related to the copying of frames over the PCIe bus, as the problem becomes more pronounced in games that hit higher frame rates), AMD says the issue can be fixed with drivers. To prove this, AMD gave us advanced access to the Hotfix drivers, and we’ve run them with our current test suite. You can see the full performance breakdown in the Clevo P170EM review, where we look at performance with three sets of drivers to show how things have/haven’t changed since the 7970M launch, but we wanted to provide a short summary outside of the notebook review.

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