Nvidia Quadro FX vs. ATI FirePro: Professional Graphics Accelerators Roundup

Professional graphics cards for performance workstations occupy a completely different market niche than the gaming solutions, even though they are manufactured by the same developers. Today we are going to check out the performance of these graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia in popular CAD/CAM systems for professionals. Especially since both manufacturers now have new card series on contemporary 55 nm chips: Quadro FX and FirePro.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
07/21/2009 | 06:49 PM

Engineers and developers who use 3D modeling and computer-aided design systems very well remember the times when it was a real problem to buy a special graphics accelerator because of extremely high price of these solutions. Luckily, things have changed a lot since then and you absolutely don’t need to rob a bank in order to afford a professional graphics accelerator. As a result of convergence of professional and gaming 3D graphics solutions markets, the developers of gaming GPUs took over the leadership in production of graphics solutions for engineers and 3D designers.

 

When big guys like 3DLabs and Matrox stepped away from the development and production of high-performance graphics solutions, all contemporary professional graphics accelerators turned into analogues of the gaming cards. Long-term existence of special professional solutions was erased by overall unification: now both – gaming and professional graphics cards – use the same exact graphics processors. Crazy “armament drive” in the gaming GPU market stimulated intensive growth of the GPU performance making them capable of coping just fine with engineering and designer tasks.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that the conclusions we made in numerous gaming graphics card reviews can be simply applied to workstation products as is. Contemporary market of high-performance workstation graphics accelerators is still quite different from the gaming solutions market. Although Nvidia and AMD took over production of professional graphics solutions, there are no products from the popular GeForce and Radeon families here. Instead, Quadro FX and FirePro rule the professional segment. And it is not because gaming and professional solutions from AMD and Nvidia differ greatly in their PCB and cooling systems design as well as formal specifications.

3D modeling applications and computer-aided design systems that are the primary application field for professional graphics accelerators, create a completely different type of work load that is totally not like the gaming load. Therefore, professional graphics cards require special drivers that accelerate specific 3D functions that are used mostly for these particular applications. These special drivers are blocked from being used on gaming solutions by their manufacturers that is why the price of typical professional graphics cards is higher than that of gaming accelerators. Moreover, manufacturers offer services of completely different quality for professional graphics card users, such as faster and more user-friendly technical support, longer warranty and faster replacement of failed components.

Therefore, from time to time we pay special attention to professional graphics accelerators on our site, too. Today the time has come for a new round of tests. We are going to introduce to you a new generation of workstation graphics solutions from AMD and Nvidia that became widely spread after 65 nm and 55 nm processes had been introduced into manufacturing. So, our today’s roundup will be devoted to the latest Quadro FX and FirePro solutions and their performance in professional applications. And even if you have a good idea of the situation in the gaming graphics cards market, the results of our today’s session may be somewhat unexpected for you anyway: the software optimizations can change things dramatically.

Professional Graphics Cards from AMD

ATI FirePro V3700

We would like to start our discussion of the professional graphics solutions from AMD with FirePro V3700 card. It is currently the cheapest workstation graphics card in AMD’s lineup. Its price is extremely democratic even in gaming terms: you can get a FirePro V3700 for less than $90. However, it is not much more expensive than a gaming Radeon HD 3470, which looks very similar to FirePro V3700 in hardware aspect.

FirePro V3700 is based on RV620 graphics processor and the card itself is equipped with 256 MB of GDDR3 video memory with a 64 bit bus. Although the working frequencies of this professional card are a little higher than those of its gaming relative: 800 MHz for the core and 1900 MHz for the memory. But nevertheless, if we compare the formal specifications, then FirePro V3700 will lose quite significantly to its predecessor - FireGL V3600. You can see the same tendency in the test results: they are overall lower than the results demonstrated by the youngest professional AMD solution in our previous test session.

So, it is important to understand that despite fully-fledged support of DirectX 10.1, OpenGL 3.0 and Shader Model 4.1 as well as certification from the leading CAD/CAM developers, FirePro V3700 accelerator can only offer minimal performance in professional applications. And although FirePro V3700 can perform just as good as top gaming solutions in a numbers of 3D modeling and CAD suites, we tend to consider this graphics accelerator only as the simplest professional option, which you can only go for “out of desperation”.

FirePro V3700 has pretty predictable looks. Its PCB is almost identical to that of the gaming Radeon HD 3470. The differences only pup out on the connector panel: the professional solution offers two Dual-link DVI outs supporting up to 2560x1600 resolutions. Besides, it is equipped with a more efficient copper cooler instead of the aluminum one on the gaming card. It will prevent critical GPU overheating even if the fan fails. However, the cooler only works for the GPU. The memory chips on the back of the PCB do not have any cooling of their own.

ATI FirePro V3750

Although the model name of FirePro V3750 graphics card differs from the previous solution only by the third digit, this professional graphics solution can offer a completely new level of performance. It is determined mostly by the fact that it is based on a faster new graphics processor – RV730. Nevertheless, AMD positions FirePro V3750 as an entry-level professional graphics accelerator, so this solution can in fact offer a much more attractive price-to-performance ratio. Average retail price of the FirePro V3750 card is about $150, while its theoretical performance is 10 times higher than that of FirePro V3700.

If we try to make an analogy to the gaming graphics cards, then we could say that FirePro V3750 is coming from the image of Radeon HD 4650. However, the professional solution does differ dramatically from the latter. The graphics processor on FirePro V3750 works at lower 550 MHz frequency, while the memory – at higher 1400 MHz frequency. Moreover, the professional graphics accelerator is equipped with only 256 MB of GDDR3 video memory, which is considered way too little for gaming graphics cards of comparative price. Nevertheless, despite lower amount of onboard video memory, the professional card, just like its gaming counterpart uses 128-bit interface. I have to stress that this graphics card turns out more than twice as fast as V3700 in certain applications due to the new GPU with 320 shader processors and 8 raster units.

The mere looks of the FirePro V3750 card indicate that it is a much more serious solution. It uses the same PCB as Radeon HD 4650. It means that they implemented not only Dual-link DVI out but also two Displayport outs, which, however, support only 2560x1600 maximum resolution.

Note that due to fact that professional AMD cards use the same unified design as the gaming ones, there are connectors for building CrossFireX configurations. However, it is important to remember that the existing FirePro drivers do not support this technology.

The cooling system on FirePro V3750 is not any different from the Radeon HD 4650 cooler. It is an exact same small copper cooler with a fan that gets pretty loud in 3D modes. The cooler covers both: the GPU and the memory chips. So, the only distinguishing feature on the front of the FirePro V3750 is the color of the external cooler casing. However, when we look at the back side of the PCB we immediately notice that it has less video memory: there are a few empty spots for GDDR3 SDRAM chips.

We got our hands on a retail boxed version of FirePro V3750 graphics card. So we can state that among the bundled accessories the users will also get two adapters: DVI→D-Sub and Displayport→DVI. Besides that, there are also a CD disk with drivers and a small marketing booklet. This modest accessories bundle from the gaming graphics cards standpoint will hardly surprise professional users: they would most likely be puzzled rather than thrilled if they got a couple of free games with their graphics accelerator.

ATI FirePro V5700

FirePro V5700 professional graphics accelerator is positioned as a mainstream solution. However, it is pretty hard to find differences between FirePro V5700 and FirePro V3750. At first glance, FirePro V5700 looks exactly like FirePro V3750. At least if you look at the front side of the card.

However, if you turn FirePro V5700 around, you will immediately notice its unique distinguishing features. Since there are GDDR3 memory chips on the back of the card, it means that FirePro V5700 is equipped with 512 MB of video memory. However, it uses the same RV730 graphics processor supporting the same 128-bit memory interface. As a result, if we compared FirePro V3750 with Radeon HD 4650, it is more logical to compare FirePro V5700 with the gaming Radeon HD 4670. And in this case the professional and gaming solutions match not only in the GPU type but also in the amount of onboard video memory, PCB design and even some frequencies. The FirePro V5700 graphics processor works at 700 MHz and its memory works at 1800 MHz.

Since FirePro V5700 has twice as much video memory and 25% higher working frequencies than FirePro V3750, the manufacturer could position it as a mainstream solution. As a result, FirePro V5700 is priced quite high: its MSRP is $400. Frankly speaking, it seems to be a little unfair especially compared with the prices of the lower-end solutions we have just discussed, because this card can’t boast a significant performance advantage over FirePro V3750 in real tests.

In terms of supported interfaces, FirePro V5700 also has not advantages over a lower-cost solution. Since both these cards are based on the same PCB design, FirePro V5700 has exactly the same monitor outs: one DVI and two Displayport.

ATI FireGL V7700

Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to get our hands on the latest professional solution from the 7000 series – FirePro V7750. Instead we got only the previous generation FireGL V7700 based on the 2007 GPU, as you can see from the “FireGL” model name it still uses.

Nevertheless, in terms of its formal specifications, FireGL V7700 doesn’t look too bad at all. It is based on RV670 chip, which we are familiar with from the gaming Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards. So, FireGL V7700 boasts 320 shader processors and 16 raster units. Since its graphics core frequency is 775 MHz, we can conclude that it should offer higher theoretical performance than FirePro V5700. The memory subsystem also proves up to the mark here. The card is equipped with 512 MB of GDDR4 graphics memory with 256-bit interface. This memory works at 2250 MHz frequency that is why its bandwidth reaches the impressive value of 72 GBps.

So, the retail price of about $700 for this card is not surprising at all. Despite rather significant age in gaming graphics card terms, FireGL V7700 performs well enough in professional applications. The absence of formal support for OpenGL 3.0 and Shader Model 4.1 doesn’t mean much for the 3D modeling and computer-aided design applications. All these new advanced technologies are used primarily in games, but CAD/CAM systems usually draw a lot of simple lines and apply some primitive texturing or shading. Only the latest versions of Autodesk 3ds max and AutoCAD suites started using special software shaders.

AMD decided not to invest into unique PCB design for their FireGL V7700 solution. This graphics card looks very similar to Radeon HD 3870. Although there are a few differences that you can notice right away. For example, the professional card has no connectors for CrossFireX bridges, but is equipped with a connector for a daughter card with Genlock/Framelock functionality. Moreover, FireGL V7700is equipped with totally different outs: one Dual-link DVI, one Displayport and a connector for stereoscopic glasses.

The professional card we are talking about here is pretty power-hungry and that is absolutely logical, as you can see from the additional 6-pin power connector as well as cooling system configuration that has dual-slot design and exhausts hot air outside the system case. Note that FireGL V7700 cooler is of slightly different size than the cooler on Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards. Its heatsink is a little narrower and the centrifugal fan is of slightly smaller diameter. As a result, the noise from FireGL V7700 cooler created during work under heavy load becomes very acoustically uncomfortable.

FireGL V7700 is bundled with three types of adapters for display devices. Besides the standard DVI→D-Sub adapter and Displayport→Dual-link DVI adapter, there is also a composite adapter for HDTV devices.

ATI FirePro V8700

The top representative of the AMD’s professional graphics accelerator lineup is FirePro V8700. This graphics card is based on RV770 chip, which once again indicates that the graphics cards market for 3D modeling and CAD applications is extremely inertial. The latest AMD GPU known as RV790 hasn’t yet found its way into professional graphics solutions. And it is not because of some production issues or something similar: the new equipment certification for designer and engineering systems takes a while to complete. In other words, a professional solution on RV790 will appear, but we don’t know how soon.

Therefore, we let’s focus on FirePro V8700 that definitely is a close relative to Radeon HD 4870. At least, the looks of this graphics solution indicate exactly that: it uses almost the same PCB design as Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Just like other professional AMD solutions, you can only notice the differences between them on the connector panel: instead of two DVI connectors typical of most gaming solutions, FirePro V8700 is equipped with a Dual-link DVI and two new Displayport connectors supporting up to 2560x1600 resolutions. There is a connector for stereoscopic glasses right next to them.

The cooling system on FirePro V8700 differs only by its color. The same dual-slot coolers with exhaust are installed on high-end gaming AMD graphics cards. By the way, although gamers often complain about the noise generated by this cooling system, we have to say that the new flagship professional AMD solution has become much quieter compared to its predecessor – FireGL V8600. However, this is actually not surprising at all: the use of a 55 nm processor has definitely paid off. Nevertheless, FirePro V8700 power consumption didn’t reduce too much, because you still need to use two additional 12V 6-pin power cables. As for AMD, they recommend to use at least 550 W PSU in a system with FirePro V8700.

FirePro V8700 accessories bundle is hardly any different from the bundles of other professional solutions. Besides the card, you also get the drivers, a small booklet and a standard set of three adapters.

As for the formal specifications, FirePro V8700 is not too different from Radeon HD 4870. Its GPU works at 750 MHz and GDDR5 SDRAM works at 3400 MHz effective frequency and supports 256-bit bus. Since FirePro V8700 is the top solution in AMD’s professional graphics cards lineup, it is equipped with 1 GB of video memory.

However, this number is kind of modest in the contemporary professional graphics accelerators market. For example, Nvidia offers graphics solutions with 2 and 4 GB of video memory onboard. That is why it is important to understand that the top professional graphics solution from AMD that is currently selling for about $1000 is, in fact, only a mainstream product. Unfortunately, dual-processor accelerators in the high-end gaming segment do not have any professional analogues. And it means that Nvidia has an excellent opportunity to offer a more diverse product range in the professional segment. So, let’s see how well they managed to exploit this opportunity.

Drivers

The drivers AMD offers for their ATI FirePro and FireGL graphics card families are very similar to the gaming drivers. It uses the same Catalyst Control Center.

I have to point out two peculiarities of the professional graphics card drivers. First, you can’t load an existing settings profile optimized for a certain professional application. It is explained by the support of AutoDetect function, which chooses the most optimal profile automatically depending on the active application at that particular moment. It is a very useful function especially for professionals working with numerous CAM and CAD systems, however, it is also not quite ideal. In particular, the user can’t create his own settings profiles for applications that the driver may not be familiar with.

The second peculiarity is the ability of this driver to support 10-bit color representation instead of the standard 8-bit one. This improvement expands the color space and may be very useful for creation and processing of monochrome images. Note that for modes with 10-bit color support you need to have a special monitor with extended color gamut. And since 10-bit color support increases the data flow transferred from the graphics card to the monitor, the use of Displayport interface on AMD graphics cards becomes absolutely justified.

Professional Graphics Cards from Nvidia

Nvidia Quadro FX 380

Nvidia, just like AMD, has a sort of professional graphics card with minimal performance and corresponding price point. It is Quadro FX 380 based on G96 graphics processor still manufactured with 65 nm process, but nevertheless, supporting all contemporary standards, such as DirectX 10.0, OpenGL 3.0 and Shader Model 4.0. Moreover, in this case they even use a “lite” version of the GPU with only 16 shader processors and 8 rater units. However, this appears more than enough to make Quadro FX 380 offer even greater theoretical performance than FirePro V3700, which gives Nvidia every reason to price their solution a little higher: it is retailing for $130.

I would like to remind you that G96 graphics processor is also used in gaming graphics cards, such as GeForce 9400 GT, where it is configured in exactly the same way as in Quadro FX 380. Nevertheless, Nvidia decided to introduce new PCB layout for their professional graphics accelerator. It looks like they were trying to lower the production costs this way, because the layout looks very primitive.

G96 graphics processor on Quadro FX 380 works at 450 MHz frequency, which is lower than that of gaming graphics cards. The same is true for the memory: the card is equipped with 256 MB GDDR3 with 128-bit bus working at effective 4100 MHz.

The GPU of Quadro FX 380 graphics card is cooled with a very compact cooling system that consists of an aluminum heatsink and a pretty noisy small and fast fan. Note that since the card uses 65 nm GPU, this solution consumes more power than the competing offering from AMD.

This card is equipped with two Dual-link DVI outs supporting monitors with 2560x1600 maximum resolution. Besides, the card is bundled with two D-Sub adapters.

Nvidia Quadro FX 580

If the performance and specs of the Quadro FX 380 leave you unimpressed, but you do feel the need for an inexpensive professional graphics card, you should turn your eyes to the Quadro FX 580. Although based on the same G96 chip, it differs from its junior cousin in a number of ways and is theoretically two times as fast as the latter. The Quadro FX 580 costs about $180. It is positioned as an entry-level solution like the FirePro V3750.

The Quadro FX 580 and FX 380 share the same GPU but look completely different. The Quadro FX 580 employs a more complex PCB that has no counterparts in the gaming world. These dramatic external differences are due to the FX 580 having two times as much graphics memory and, unlike the FX 380, being equipped Displayport interfaces.

These are not the only differences between the two cards, though. The Quadro FX 580 features a full-featured version of the G96 with 32 rather than 16 shader processors. This explains why the Quadro FX 580 is faster than the junior model while having the same GPU frequency of 450MHz. The FX 580 is equipped with GDDR3 memory clocked at 1600MHz and connected to the GPU via a 128-bit memory bus. Thus, it is superior to the competing AMD FirePro V3750 in technical specifications as well as in most benchmarks.

The cooling system looks different, too. It uses a heavier aluminum heatsink that covers not only the GPU but also the memory chips. Unfortunately, this heatsink is only cooled by a small centrifugal fan that does not sound nicely at high speed.

Like the more expensive professional solutions, the Quadro FX 580 has two Displayports and one Dual-Link DVI connector. It means you can connect two monitors with resolutions up to 2560x1600 to this graphics card. To avoid any inconvenience, there are Displayport → DVI and DVI → D-Sub adapters included into the kit. By the way, Displayport and DVI have different signaling protocols, so an adapter from one into another contains active electronics and is rather expensive. So, the manufacturer shows its care about the user by including such an adapter into the kit and saving him the extra expense until monitors with Displayport interface become widespread.

Nvidia Quadro FX 1800

Nvidia started its transition to 55nm tech process later than its opponent. Therefore quite a lot of Nvidia’s professional graphics cards are based on 65nm cores. Particularly, the Quadro FX 1800 is based on the well-known G94 chip with 64 stream processors and 12 raster back-ends. This GPU is also installed on the gaming card GeForce 9600 GT.

Like its gaming counterpart, the Quadro FX 1800 is a mainstream solution. It costs about $450. This money will buy you a graphics card that delivers decent performance in 3D modeling and CAD applications and is equipped with a generous 728 megabytes of GDDR3 memory. The card’s GPU is clocked at 550MHz (the shader domain frequency is 1375MHz). The memory is clocked at 1600MHz and has a 192-bit bus.

This combination of characteristics makes the Quadro FX 1800 an original product that has no direct counterpart among gaming graphics cards. That’s why, like the other Quadro series models, it has a specially designed PCB whose face side is completely covered by the cooler. The cooler occupies one slot only, though. Take note that the Quadro FX 1800 does not require that you connect additional power to it because its GPU frequency is lower than that of the gaming cards.

The Quadro FX 1800 is in every respect a big step forward in comparison with the previous-generation professional cards from the 1000 series. Particularly, this refers to the amount of graphics memory because not long ago 512 megabytes used to be installed only on top-end professional solutions.

The demurely designed Quadro FX 1800 box contains the card, a small user manual, CD with drivers, and two adapters (DVI → D-Sub and Displayport → DVI).

These adapters are needed because the card has three outputs: one dual-link DVI and two Displayports. This is a standard selection of connectors for products of this class. Like other such solutions, the Quadro FX 1800 supports resolutions up to 2560x1600 and allows to connect two monitors simultaneously.

Nvidia Quadro FX 3800

Although Nvidia offers even more expensive professional graphics cards, the 3000 series is touted as delivering high performance at an optimal price. The Quadro FX 3700 model we reviewed previously proved to be a very appealing solution for 3D designers and engineers but now Nvidia can offer an even more attractive product. The appeal of the Quadro FX 3800 is that, priced at about $800, this card is based on the GT200b processor which is manufactured on 55nm tech process and has earned a good reputation in the gaming series GeForce GTX 200.

The Quadro FX 3800 can be viewed as a professional equivalent to the GeForce GTX 260. This card’s GPU has 192 stream processors and 16 raster back-ends. The GPU’s main and shader domain frequencies are 600 and 1200MHz, respectively. The memory subsystem is somewhat different from the gaming card’s. The Quadro FX 3800 has a cut-down 256-bit bus but the total amount of memory is increased to 1 gigabyte (in GDDR3 chips clocked at 1600MHz). Even with these specifications, the Quadro FX 3800 is competitive to AMD’s top-end professional models.

The exterior of this card does not give you any inkling as to how much power it contains. We are accustomed to massive dual-slot coolers and paired power connectors on high-performance gaming solutions, but the Quadro FX 3800 is different. It has a large, yet single-slot cooler made from copper and aluminum. And it has only one additional power connector. As a result, this card is most appealing in terms of power efficiency. Its specified peak power draw is 108W.

It should be noted that Nvidia has been spending much effort in developing its professional product series. The company not only boosts performance in straightforward ways, but also introduces interesting innovations. For example, the Quadro FX 3800 series supports SLI Multi-OS technology. If you install two professional cards into one system and deploy virtualization software, this technology will allow multiple virtual machines to work with the two cards in parallel. In other words, you can use SLI Multi-OS to have two full-featured virtual machines with independent monitors out of a single workstation. Besides, the Quadro FX 3800 can be used with an SDI daughter card (Serial Digital Interface) to output HD video in real time with an overlay rendered by the graphics card.

The Quadro FX 3800 has a standard selection of outputs: one dual-link DVI and two Displayports. The kit includes adapters for monitors and a power adapter that can be used if your PSU does not have 6-pin 12V power connectors.

Nvidia Quadro FX 4800

The next model up Nvidia’s professional product series is $500-600 more expensive than the Quadro FX 3800 but is based on the same GPU. Why? Because the Quadro FX 4800 has no AMD opponents and is therefore unique.

But if you compare the Quadro FX 4800 with the FX 3800, you can see that they have quite a lot in common. The GT200b processor (the fastest GPU Nvidia has at this moment) is clocked at the same frequency of 600 MHz (and 1200 MHz for the shader domain) on both models. There is no difference in terms of unified shader processors: the Quadro FX 4800’s GPU has 192 of them, too.

The single notable difference in the configuration of these cards’ GPUs is the number of raster back-ends. The more expensive model has 24 RBEs. This seemingly small (8 RBEs) difference can be important for a professional card because it is the raster back-ends that are loaded heavily when you are working in projection windows of 3D modeling and CAD applications. So, professionals who work with shaded or textured models have a reason to prefer the Quadro FX 4800 to other graphics cards.

The Quadro FX 4800 also offers a more advanced memory subsystem. It carries 1536 megabytes of GDDR3 memory with a 384-bit bus and a clock rate of 1600MHz. Thus, like the Quadro FX 3800, the FX 4800 has no exact counterpart among the gaming cards. It has a narrower memory bus and a reduced number of pipelines even in comparison with the GeForce GTX 260. However, it has a large amount of memory and a higher core frequency. As a result, the Quadro FX 4800 is a rather economical product with a peak power draw of 150W and, unlike the gaming GT200b-based products, has only one additional 12V power connector.

The Quadro FX 4800 is visually far more impressive than the Quadro FX 3800. It has a massive dual-slot cooler similar to those you can see on gaming graphics cards. This cooler has heat pipes and a copper heatsink with centrifugal fan covered under an opaque casing. It has proved its efficiency on top-performance graphics cards, and on the Quadro FX 4800, which has a cut-down GPU configuration, this cooler is even surprisingly quiet.

Like the Quadro FX 3800, the Quadro FX 4800 supports all of Nvidia’s functionality-enhancing daughter cards like the Quadro G-Sync II and Quadro SDI Capture. Thanks to this feature, the Quadro FX 4800 can be viewed not only as a 3D modeling and engineering solution but also as a multimedia processing platform for cinema and television. A daughter card is plugged into the special slot you can see near the SLI connector.

The Quadro FX 4800 offers two Displayports, one dual-link DVI output, and an output for stereo glasses. The maximum supported resolution is 2560x1600. In other words, the capabilities of the Displayport interface are not utilized fully by Nvidia’s top-end cards, either. The box contains all the necessary adapters for connecting a D-Sub or a second DVI monitor and an additional mounting bracket that is necessary to fix the card securely in workstation cases.

Nvidia Quadro FX 5800

The Quadro FX 5800 is the senior professional solution from Nvidia targeted at high-performance workstations. It is a third card for professionals based on the 55nm version of the G200b chip. One might expect the Quadro FX 5800 to be comparable to the most expensive gaming cards in its characteristics but Nvidia’s developers have instead put a stress on the capabilities for visualization of massive models. So, the key feature of this card is not in its frequencies or performance, but in the amount of graphics memory – 4 gigabytes. The Quadro FX 5800 is actually the first and only graphics card to have that much memory on board. You have to pay for this exclusiveness, of course. The average retail price of this card is over $3000.

The amount of memory is not the single advantage of the Quadro FX 5800, though. Using GDDR3 chips clocked at 1600MHz and accessed via a 512-bit bus, the FX 5800 is only second to the FirePro V8700 in terms of memory bandwidth (and the difference is very small). In other words, the Quadro FX 5800 is the best solution for processing large amounts of graphical data.

The card’s GPU configuration is good, too. It has all of its 240 unified shader processors enabled, but the amount of RBEs is reduced from 40 to 32. The GPU frequencies are 610 and 1300MHz for the main and shader domains, respectively. So, even without the unprecedented amount of memory, the Quadro FX 5800 has no close counterparts among gaming products.

The Quadro FX 5800 is visually similar to the simpler Quadro FX 4800. It only has two distinguishing features. First, there are two 6-pin power connectors – an expected feature considering the card’s specs. And second, it has one Displayport and two dual-link DVI ports. There is also a socket for stereo glasses nearby.

It is unclear why the top-end professional card has fewer Displayports but its two large DVI connectors leave less room for the cooler’s exhaust. As a result, the cooling system of the Quadro FX 5800, although formally no different from the Quadro FX 4800 cooler, drives the air inside the case rather than exhausts it. Considering the high heat dissipation of the card, this may be a problem.

Like the Quadro FX 4800, the Quadro FX 5800 supports daughter cards Quadro G-Sync II and Quadro SDI Capture as well as SLI technology. The connectors necessary to implement these features are located at the top of the card under a decorative cap.

The accessories to the Quadro FX 5800 (at least, to its version provided by PNY) are not numerous but standard for Nvidia cards. Besides the card, the small box contains adapters and a mounting bracket to fix the card securely in workstation cases.

Drivers

The drivers for Nvidia’s Quadro FX series resemble the ForceWare software you may be familiar with by the company’s gaming cards. The control panel has the same user interface and almost the same settings. The only difference is that the settings profiles mostly refer to professional rather than gaming applications.

Nvidia’s developers follow a somewhat different approach to driver optimizations than their colleagues from AMD. Nvidia’s professional drivers cannot change the active settings profile automatically depending on what application is running at the moment, leaving this task to the user. This should not be a problem as professionals usually work with only one software suite. But if you’ve got several applications, switching between them is going to be an inconvenience. However, Nvidia users can access all the settings and can edit or create new profiles.

It should be noted that the basic drivers are not the only thing that Nvidia provides for its professional cards. You can download two more Quadro FX optimized products from the company’s website: MAXtreme 3D and Powerdraft. These are special Performance Drivers for graphics acceleration in Autodesk 3ds max and Autodesk AutoCAD. With these drivers professional cards get an additional, and quite substantial, performance boost in the mentioned CAD applications.

Testing Participants Technical Specifications

Before we move over to performance of above discussed professional graphics accelerators, let’s sum up their technical specifications. It will help us interpret the obtained performance numbers better:


Click to enlarge

Testbed and Methods

We tested professional graphics cards on a workstation built around the today’s fastest quad-core processor – Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition working at 3.33 GHz frequency. Also this workstation used a mainboard on Intel X58 Express and 6 GB of high-speed DDR3 SDRAM.

So, here is the list of hardware and software components used during this test session:

The graphics cards were tested in professional applications in 1920x1200 resolution with disabled Vsync unless stated otherwise.

Performance

SPECviewperf 10

When we test professional graphics cards, we first run SPECviewperf, which has become an industry standard for benchmarking top-performance graphics workstations. Modeling rather primitive operations, this test shows the geometrical performance of the graphics card in the OpenGL environment which is determined by the card’s hardware features as well as driver optimizations.

This test works by feeding the graphics driver predefined sequences of OpenGL instructions that are typical of specific professional applications. The scripts integrated into the test simulate a user working in projection windows of the following applications (the names of the corresponding subtests are given in brackets): 3ds max 3.1 (3dsmax-04), CATIA V5R12 (catia-02), EnSight (ensight-03), Maya 6.5 (maya-02), Pro/ENGINEER 2001 (proe-04), Solidworks 2004 (sw-02), UGS Teamcenter Visualization Mockup (tcvis-01) and UGS NX 3 (ugnx-01).

It must be noted that SPECviewperf results should not be viewed as highly accurate. Most of the applications simulated by this benchmark are outdated, and you may have completely different results in newer versions of the same applications. Besides, professional graphics cards have become so advanced that many SPECviewperf subtests are limited by the CPU rather than the graphics card as is indicated by the results of the 3dsmax-04 and ensight-03 subtests.

As for the other diagrams, it is easy to see that you must choose a professional graphics card basing on what applications you are going to run on it. For example, ATI’s FirePro series are far faster in Maya, VisMockup and UGS NX but Nvidia’s Quadro FX are ahead in CATIA, PRO/ENGINEER and Solidworks.

SPECviewperf offers one more interesting opportunity. It allows to measure the performance hit provoked by full-screen antialiasing (FSAA). The diagrams below show how the cards’ SPECviewperf results change when we turn FSAA on.

The Quadro FX 380 is not present here. This cheap professional graphics card could not ensure problem-free operation with FSAA. Interestingly, you cannot use FSAA higher than 8x on the AMD cards in the OpenGL environment.

We’ve got predictable results. It is the memory bandwidth that affects the card’s performance in FSAA modes. That’s why the graphics cards with wider memory interfaces have a smaller performance hit than their opponents with narrower memory buses.

SPECviewperf can give you some notion about the performance of professional solutions in OpenGL applications but it gives you no clue as to the cards’ speed in DirectX. However, the DirectX API has been getting popular on the market of CAD and CAM software. Microsoft’s API is already supported by 3ds max and AutoCAD, for example. And anyway, other real-life applications used by 3D designers and engineers use newer OpenGL libraries than those used by SPECviewperf. So, this benchmarking suite cannot replace tests in real-life programs. Let’s proceed to them now.

3ds max 2009

The latest versions of Autodesk 3ds max run faster when using DirectX. Besides, when you choose DirectX, you will be able to use extra features including hardware shaders. That’s why we preferred this software interface for our test. Nvidia offers a special driver for 3ds max that helps boost performance in projection windows. The manufacturer claims the driver can speed some functions up twofold and more! So, we installed that driver for the Quadro series cards.

Nvidia’s professional solutions are head above their AMD’s opponents in this test. The software optimizations implemented by Nvidia in the 3ds max Performance Driver (previously known as MAXtreme D3D) produce a positive effect. It is clear than the Quadro series achieves its advantage by being faster at processing carcass models and effective at texturing and lighting. The solutions from both GPU makers are roughly similar at executing shaders and processing models with shaded invisible edges. Anyway, if you are looking for a graphics card suitable for 3ds max, you should consider Nvidia’s professional products in the first place.

AutoCAD 2009

Like in 3ds max, DirectX is the priority API in Autodesk AutoCAD. Moreover, the newer versions of this CAD application do not even have a standard OpenGL driver. Nvidia, on its part, offers a special AutoCAD Performance Driver (previously known as PowerDraft) that features hardware support for software Gooch shaders necessary to render technical images. Thanks to that, the driver accelerates performance by up to 500% (according to Nvidia). The test results confirm this.

Even the junior model of the Nvidia Quadro FX series is capable of delivering higher performance than the senior representative of the ATI FirePro series. This is due to the excellent optimization of Nvidia’s drivers for Hidden and Conceptual rendering modes in which invisible edges are hidden in models. In the other two modes, Wireframe and Realistic, the performance of the cards from AMD and Nvidia is proportional to their pricing.

Maya 2009

Everything is normal here except that Nvidia’s senior model is slower than the Quadro FX 4800. Otherwise, the choice of a graphics card for Maya should be based on its price. It should be noted that the transition of the Quadro FX series to new graphics cores has improved its performance in this particular software suite. We used to recommend AMD’s solutions for Maya as they delivered higher performance. But now we can’t give specific recommendations because Nvidia’s and AMD’s solutions are roughly equal.

Solidworks 2007

Although Nvidia doesn’t offer special drivers for Solidworks, its professional cards are far superior to the ATI FirePro series. Nvidia’s previous-generation cards were not that fast, but the improved GPU architecture and optimized drivers make the Quadro FX series unrivalled now.

Lightwave 9.6

Lightwave runs equally well on cards from both AMD and Nvidia.

Cinebench R10

Besides real-life applications, we benchmarked the cards in a special benchmarking suite called CINEBENCH R10. It shows the performance of a card in the 3D modeling suite Cinema 4D, which is highly popular among Mac users.

According to this test, AMD’s professional graphics cards are ahead in every price category. That’s a rare picture for today’s test session.

3DMark Vantage

Professional products are but seldom used for gaming, yet we decided to test them in the popular Futuremark 3DMark Vantage suite. It will give you a different view on the graphics cards.

You can see now that gaming load is greatly dissimilar to professional applications. The standings are completely different here because this test needs fast execution of shaders, which are almost never used in professional graphical applications, rather than quick rendering of triangles.

Power Consumption

In this part of our review we are going to show you the power consumption readings we took off complete systems (without the monitor) equipped with different professional graphics accelerators and connected to an electric outlet. The measurements were performed in idle mode as well as under heavy load - during FurMark 1.6.5 test in “Burn” mode in a 1280x1024 window. Like most professional applications this test uses OpenGL and creates substantial load for the video subsystem.

Among the low-end accelerators the most energy-efficient ones are AMD solutions as they are based on more energy-efficient GPUs manufactured with 55 nm process instead of 65 nm process. However, top professional graphics cards from Nvidia using GT200b chip can compete successfully with their rivals not only in pure performance but also in performance-per-watt. And even larger amounts of graphics memory on professional Nvidia solutions from the premium price category barely affect their power consumption.

Conclusion

Speaking of the professional graphics cards market in general, I would like to point out that even though the price of these solutions has been going down lately, it is still several times higher than the price of analogous gaming graphics accelerators with similar technical specifications. And keeping in mind that professional and gaming graphics solutions use the same exact chips, the consumers have every right to question this price difference. Therefore, we must remind you one more time that high price of ATI FirePro and Nvidia Quadro FX graphics accelerators originates not only from the price of their hardware components, but also from technical support and corresponding software.

You shouldn’t forget that professionals working in 3D modeling and design systems value not only high speed, but also high-quality and precision in drawing lines and surfaces that is performed without any simplifications. The gaming graphics card drivers, however, are optimized for maximum performance at any rate. Therefore, they are often unable to provide the precision professionals need during work in CAD and CAM applications. That is why specialists working in 3D modeling and design systems never question the need for a special professional graphics solution.

Our today’s test session showed that although there is parity between AMD and Nvidia in the gaming market today, the situation in the professional graphics accelerators market is somewhat different. Over the past few years we pointed out over and over again that Nvidia paid more attention to their Quadro FX professional graphics cards family than AMD to their FireGL and now FirePro. And these extra efforts did pay off. Today we can conclude with all certainty that Nvidia graphics solutions won the today’s marathon.

To be more exact, first of all we have to point out that Nvidia currently offers solutions that simply have no analogues in the AMD camp. The architectural and hardware features make Quadro FX 4800 and Quadro FX 5800 faster than any of the available AMD solutions in 3D modeling and computer-aided design systems. Moreover, only Nvidia offers solution equipped with unprecedented amounts of video memory that may be useful for creation and processing of higher complexity 3D models.

Secondly, Nvidia’s driver optimization made even low-cost latest-generation Quadro FX capable of running as fast as AMD solutions from the high-end price segment in a number of applications. This situation takes place, for instance, in 3ds max, AutoCAD and SolidWorks. By the way, do not forget that Nvidia also offers engineers and 3D modelers working in 3ds max and AutoCAD special performance enhancing drivers for these particular applications.

Thirdly, Nvidia pays more attention than AMD to additional hardware features of their professional solutions. Quadro FX series has recently acquired full support not only for SLI in CAD and CAM suites, but also for SLI Multi-OS that allows using different graphics accelerators for different virtual machines within a single physical system. Also Nvidia provided its Quadro FX cards with SDI daughter cards support. As for AMD, they can’t currently offer anything like that.

Overall, we get the feeling that professional graphics cards have become sort of a side product for AMD that hasn’t received due attention for a while. It comes to the point when their design is fully copied off the gaming solutions. This approach led to the unfortunate fact that FirePro cards can currently offer acceptable price-to-performance ration only in very few selected CAD and CAM applications.

P.S.: We would like to thank PNY and Alliance Group for providing us with Nvidia Quadro graphics cards for this roundup.