Who Needs Professional Graphics?
It is true, it may seem at first glance that professional graphics solutions are not so widely spread. Their high price of a few thousand dollars per card and absence of traditional advantages typical of gaming solutions may scare away even experienced users. Nevertheless, the professional graphics card market not only continues its successful existence, but is gradually growing over the past few years.
Professional graphics accelerators are usually used in high-performance graphics workstations in very diverse fields of industry. I would like to note that the general notion of “professional graphics solution” doesn’t provide a definite product description. In fact, the main attribute of professionalism may be the specific positioning of the solution for special applications used by high-end professionals. Therefore, we can easily assign the “professional” tag not only to the 3D graphics accelerators reviewed today that serve for work in digital content creation, 3D modeling or CAD applications, but also to the 2D accelerators that may be used in television, non-linear video editing and in stock exchange systems. However, 2D graphics cards are not so interesting from the technological standpoint so we usually do not review them.
The users believe the main difference between 3D gaming and professional applications to be the API they employ. Most gaming applications work via DirectX, while professional 3D modeling and CAD applications use mostly OpenGL. At the same time, there are also OpenGL games, such as Quake 4, for example. However, the FPS rate in this game doesn’t in any way correlate with the professional applications performance, which indicates dramatic differences between gaming and professional applications. Top gaming graphics cards that can easily deliver excellent gaming performance in Quake 4 and other OpenGL games with maximum image quality, may turn out absolutely helpless in 3ds max, Maya, Lightwave or AutoCAD. And the problem is not in the OpenGL API these applications employ, but in the type of workload created by professional applications that is completely different from the one created by games.
No matter how crazy it sounds, but all scenes in contemporary computer games are relatively simple. Judging by the professional applications standards they consist of comparatively few polygons that, moreover, do not change their position in relation to one another that much. And the impressive looks of the gaming applications comes primarily from colorful textures and different effects, including shader effects, of course.
Professional applications load graphics accelerators in an absolutely different way. The scenes employed by 3D engineers and designers usually use by one, two or even three orders of magnitude greater number of polygons. However, professional applications hardly use any effects or even texturing. Professionals fell more like working with wireframe models or Gouraud shading leaving the fully-fledged image to the final rendering stage that is performed by the system CPU and doesn’t at all depend on the graphics card capacity. Moreover, professional applications require high geometric performance of the graphics accelerator, which is essential for deformation of objects that are being frequently used by the professionals.
So, the key parameter for professional graphics accelerators is the geometric GPU performance, while for the gaming graphics cards texturing speed and shader unit performance are more important. Besides, professional accelerators may often have hardware anti-aliasing support and a number of other similar functions aimed at improving the display of 3D models that aren’t required by gaming solutions and hence are absent there.
Another additional peculiarity of professional graphics solutions is the special OpenGL drivers optimized for corresponding applications. Professional graphics adapters are designed for specific tasks, which allow applying slightly different approach to driver development. In this case not only the performance during polygonal models processing, but also their impeccable display matter the most.
In other words, designer, 3D artist or animator needs to see the correct picture on the monitor, displayed without any omissions or simplifications that often occur in games for the sake of acceptable FPS rate. It means that professional graphics card drivers will never sacrifice quality for performance – this is their principal difference from their gaming 3D accelerator drivers. Besides, professional hardware and software solutions from graphics card manufacturers need to be certified by the 3D application developers in order to ensure that they will work flawlessly in these applications at all times.
This way, professional graphics accelerators may be regarded as a unified hardware-software complex that includes not only the graphics card itself but also an OpenGL driver specially optimized for particular applications as guaranteed by the developer of professional 3D software suite.
Besides everything we have already said, contemporary professional graphics cards acquired a number of features that are absence by the gaming graphics solutions. Most professional cards, especially the ones from the high-end category, are equipped with a slightly different set of output ports and connectors. First of all, I would like to say that DVI ports on professional graphics cards often support Dual-Link technology. Thanks to this technology, they can support 9-megapixel monitors with gigantic resolution of 3840x2400. Secondly, professional graphics cards often come equipped with an additional stereo out for stereoscopic glasses that have never become widely spread in gaming environment.
It is also important that the latest professional graphics card generation support GenLock and FrameLock technologies. The first one serves to synchronize the signal generated by the graphics card with the external source, which is used a lot in video transmitting applications. The second one implements cluster visualization principles and allows independently synchronizing the channels from numerous workstations and creating a large virtual display managed by the numerous systems cluster for the sake of higher performance.
Now that we have introduced to you the application and general peculiarities of professional graphics it is time to take a closer look at the actual testing participants of our today’s review: Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 and Nvidia Quadro FX 4600 graphics cards.