A few summers ago ATI released the Radeon 9700 Pro graphics card. It was the first consumer graphics card to feature significant technological advancements such as a 256bit memory bus*, 8 pixel-pipelines, and full support for Microsoft's DX9 API. It was a remarkable piece of hardware that couldn't be touched by anything else available during it's time on the market.
Kick-starting the Radeon 9700 Pro was ATI's new Catalyst driver suite, a set of video drivers from ATI that, very unlike their previous driver efforts, earned high praise from reviewers and end-users alike. Along with the 9700 Pro, these drivers helped ATI turn a corner that immediately launched them to the top of the 3D graphics heap.
New versions of the Catalyst drivers were released over time (and pretty much on a monthly basis) that added new features and introduced new capabilities, fixed bugs and compatibility issues, increased performance, and to the chagrin of users even introduced new bugs that never before existed.
Late last summer ATI released a huge new update to Catalyst in the form of a new interface which they called the Catalyst Control Center (it was know as ACE for most of its development cycle). CCC marked a huge overhaul for ATI's driver interface that looked and worked completely different than what they offered previously. It's built on top of Microsoft's .NET framework and features a customizable interface, is easy to use for novices but at the same time powerful enough for advanced users, and has several features that aren't found on the old Control Panel. For a more complete look at Catalyst Control Center, our launch day preview can be found here.
You've probably already heard that today ATI has released the newest 5.6 version of the Catalyst drivers. This new driver set marks the introduction of some fairly significant features and improvements to Catalyst and the Catalyst Control Center in particular. I'll be going over those features in this article and doing a performance comparison to earlier Catalyst releases and, thanks to an unprecedented release from ATI outlining their future plans, I'll also be looking forward a couple releases to see what else ATI has in store for us.
* Technically speaking, Matrox's Parhelia was the first consumer graphics card that featured a 256bit memory bus. The Parhelia preceded the Radeon 9700 Pro by a few months, but because it lacked some seriously needed technologies (namely some form of bandwidth saving technique), it pretty much flopped hard as a 3D graphics card. Therefore, in my short revision of history, I will mark the Radeon 9700 Pro as the first true 3D graphics card to have a 256bit memory bus. :)