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Tea, drivers and biscuits with Ben Bar Haim
Ben Bar Haim, ATI's software supremo took a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer a set of questions provided by us regarding the software behind one of the most performance-critical components in your computer.

Note : Ben did not miss out any of the questions asked and had no influence over how the questions were structured.

Could you please introduce yourself to our readers.
BEN > I'd like to start by thanking you for this great opportunity. It is nice to be able to answer questions about ATI and CATALYST in particular. As Vice President of Software at ATI Technologies, I am responsible for all the software ATI produces for desktop PCs, notebooks and multimedia products. This basically covers CATALYST, (ATI's software suite,) which is made up of our display driver, our Hydravision (multi-monitor software), Multimedia Center (our multimedia application) and Remote Wonder Software, as well as the driver for the Linux and Mac operating systems.

How important are drivers to the final product?
BEN > Drivers are at least 50% of the product. (I would say 75% but my hardware guys could be offended.) Roughly half of our engineering team works in software development. At ATI, we pay unbelievable attention to driver quality, a term that to us includes: features; usability; performance; stability; and compatibility with applications and operating systems.
Has this importance increased for ATI over the past few years with your main rival, NVIDIA, getting a large amount of credit for their drivers?
BEN > In our industry, one can ride on past glory quite a long time. Also, one tends to "discover" software when one does not have top-notch hardware to go with it.

At ATI, we have made software quality a strategic objective for almost two years. The result? Our CATALYST software suite, which includes our unified driver, is leading the industry in quality, stability, performance and compatibility.

As far as I know, ATI's drivers are the only drivers in the industry that are routinely subject to a complete and lengthy Stress Test before being released to market. Our comparative position in Microsoft's Online Crash Analysis (OCA) database is a source of pride to our employees, and a source of goodwill with our partner Microsoft. We release WHQL certified and fully tested quality CATALYST suites about eight to 10 times a year.

We were the first in the industry (and so far the only one as far as I can tell) with fully compatible and certified DirectX9 drivers. We are proud of our achievements. Yet, we also recognize that the entire PC industry needs to do better in terms of software quality and compatibility. We are fully committed to making this happen.
ATI used to have a relatively poor reputation for driver stability in the past. What have you done to change this?
BEN > This is ancient history. To make this statement today is equivalent to saying you would rather play games with a Rage 128! Today's ATI's software is second-to-none in terms of quality.

But don't just take my word for it. I urge your readers to insist that software quality be made a key criterion in every review of new graphics solutions. I urge you to speak with those in the industry who monitor quality very closely (try Microsoft). Finally, try us out. You will be pleasantly surprised!
Last year, ATI launched their Catalyst range of drivers. What were the main goals of this?
BEN > The objective of the CATALYST program is to release to the market a complete and certified software suite eight to 10 times a year. The intent is to make the end user's investment in hardware last longer by providing them with frequent software improvements and to permit ATI to connect directly with our end users.

I hope your readers would agree with me when I say that the CATALYST program has been a great success for ATI and for our customers.
Do you feel that you have reached these goals a year after setting them?
BEN > We have reached many of the goals we have set a year ago. Namely:

  • We currently release CATALYST software suites eight to 10 times a year;
  • The performance of our drivers is increasing with each CATALYST posting;
  • Our drivers are WHQL certified;
  • The level of "escapes" (i.e., those bugs which escape our QA organization and are reported by the users) has gone down by 50%; and
  • The turnaround time to fix critical user bugs has decreased dramatically.

    And I want your readers to pay attention to the fact that we are not done yet. We will continue to improve quality. We will continue to improve performance. We are working hard to earn our customers confidence and respect and we will not stop until we become recognized as the standard for quality in our industry.
  • How important is WHQL certification for your drivers?
    BEN > This is an excellent question. I know that many of your readers regard Microsoft in general and Microsoft WHQL certification in particular with a great deal of cynicism. Let's be realistic here. There is only one widely accepted standard of driver quality in our industry, and that is WHQL.

    WHQL certification has improved tremendously over the last year or so. It now checks for three areas: (a) compatibility with APIs, and OSs, (b) graphics quality, and (c) stability through the need to pass stress tests. A WHQL certified driver is a driver that meets these minimal quality criteria. Unfortunately we see in the industry too many drivers that are not WHQL certified. While in principle these drivers could be of acceptable quality, more often than not these drivers are not WHQL certified because they do not pass the minimum quality bar. To your reader I would say this: go ahead and experiment with such drivers, but don't be fooled - something in that uncertified driver could be very wrong!
    Could you explain, from your point of view, what WHQL certification means.
    BEN > Windows Hardware Quality Lab (WHQL) certification is a Microsoft sponsored certification of Windows-based products. In our case, to obtain certification, we subject our drivers to a lengthy set of Microsoft released and controlled tests and reports the results back to Microsoft. Once the results are deemed satisfactory by Microsoft, we obtain our WHQL certification.
    What does WHQL certified drivers mean for users?
    BEN> To the end user, a WHQL certified driver means a driver of recognized quality. On the other hand, an uncertified driver is an unknown quantity. The image quality is unknown, the stability is unknown and the compatibility is unknown. Look at it like FDA approval of a new drug. In principle, a new medical treatment could be effective even if it is not FDA approved, but it could also kill you…
    How often do you submit drivers for WHQL certification?
    BEN > At ATI, we create new drivers frequently. While CATALYST-based drivers are posted roughly every six weeks, many of our OEM customers require much more frequent updates. In principle, every production driver we release is WHQL certified.
    There are/were stories that WHQL certified drivers perform slightly lower than non-WHQL certified ones. Is this true?
    BEN > This is exactly the point. A non-certified driver could include "cheats" that would permit it to run faster - at the expense of image quality or compatibility or stability. Using the FDA analogy again, one could create very potent medicine, if you are not concerned about it killing you.
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