A friend recently sent me a link to PCPartPicker which listed his choice of components for building a new PC. He wanted my feedback on the parts he’d selected, and so I went through the list and shared my opinion on a few items, but stopped when I came to the line for video cards.
Since I began working for a custom PC builder a few years ago, I’ve come to realize that few topics get geeks worked up like a video card comparison. Tensions run high and are magnified by the fact that only two companies control the vast majority of the video card market: NVIDIA and AMD. And while most other PC components evolve slowly over time, video cards can provide substantial performance improvements from one generation to the next making for an especially heated battled between companies and fans.
This week I’d like to take a look at the video card (GPU) market and see what’s happening today. I’m going to look at two major areas that depend greatly on GPU performance and see if I can uncover some trends that may be valuable the next time you build or recommend a system.
Mainstream vs. Professional Grade
Both NVIDIA and AMD offer popular gaming and workstation cards. In general, NVIDIA cards tend to be the most popular brand while AMD offers great performance in an often more affordable package. Unlike the CPU where Intel dominates AMD in most areas, the GPU market is incredibly competitive with both NVIDA and AMD often leapfrogging each other in performance with each new product release.
Unless you’ve been working in CAD or performing post-production work you might not be familiar with workstation cards like the Quadro line from NVIDIA or the FirePro line from AMD. While built to provide excellent performance, you typically won’t find Quadro or FirePro cards that have been overclocked to squeeze out the last few framerates like you do with gaming cards. Workstation cards include features such as ECC memory, OpenGL optimizations and rock-solid drivers to provide a reliable platform professions can count on.
But not every workstation card is optimized for all tasks. The Quadro and FirePro are often optimized for very specific workloads and applications. For example, we tested a number of NVIDIA and AMD cards at Puget Systems to see which provide the best performance while running Adobe Premiere Pro. Our tests concluded that NVIDA cards appear to be optimized to the task better than AMD cards. We wanted to see if Adobe Photoshop also favored NVIDA cards so we ran another batch of tests and were surprised that many of the consumer grade cards from both companies performed quite well.
AutoDesk creates the most popular 2D and 3D drafting software available. One might assume that a company would optimize its software to a single GPU line, but we found that wasn’t the case when we tested GPU performance on both AutoCAD 2014 Professional and Maya 2014 Professional. In our testing, AutoCAD favored NVIDA cards while Maya performed best AMD cards.
If you know that your application support NVIDIA’s CUDA parallel computer platform, you will want to utilize a GeForce or Quadro card for the best performance. NVIDIA keeps a list of CUDA supported applications on their website.
The main takeaway to keep in mind when purchasing a workstation graphics card is to check with your software provider to see if their product has been optimized for a specific model of GPU. It’s also wise to share this information with your IT department or PC builder so they know how you’ll be using the card and can determine if any further driver optimizations are required. Both the Quadro and FirePro have drivers built for specific applications such as AutoCAD and 3ds Max.
NVIDIA and AMD have aggressively released so many new gaming cards recently it’s nearly impossible to keep them straight. The two companies enjoy a healthy rivalry that often feels more like a rugby match than a business rivalry.
AMD’s Radeon line of cards are well respected for both their performance and “bang for the buck”. Their high-end R9 line is like the Dodge Viper of cards in that it’s big, loud, and outrageous. We used to see more driver problems with AMD cards, but over the last few years, things have stabilized.
NVIDIA produces the GeForce line of cards that tend to cost a bit more, but have proven to be incredibly stable and reliable. They also run cooler compared to similar AMD models and use less energy. It’s hard to fault either company for the work they’ve done recently on producing high performing gaming cards at many price points.
Lately both AMD and NVIDIA are taking a book out of the workstation business and optimizing their GPUs for specific games. This can be very frustrating for gamers because some games are being created to take advantage of GPU specific features. For example, last year, Ubisoft licensed NVIDIA TXAA and ShadowWorks technologies in order to provide a range of graphical enhancements to items such as lighting, smoke, and textures.
As you can imagine, AMD was furious and accused NVIDIA of employing tactics that make it impossible for companies that license NVIDIA technology to include similar graphical enhancements for AMD cards. NVIDIA denied that was the case, and both went back to their corners.
The good news today is that most games are well-supported by both Radeon and GeForce cards. The top NVIDIA gaming card today is the GeForce GTX 980 and the top AMD gaming card is the Radeon R9 290X. Both are fantastic cards that nearly any gamer would enjoy for quite a while.
Like clockwork, you can expect both AMD and NVIDIA to release new gaming GPUs by the fall. New workstation cards don’t follow as aggressive release schedules so we might have to wait a while before we see any major changes in the Quadro and FirePro lines.
As for what the future holds, NVIIDA is working on a line of GRID computing products. NVIDIA GRID for the Enterprise allows companies to virtualize desktops and applications. Imagine being able to outsource your GPU intensive tasks to a server while still working from your laptop. GRID also includes support for streaming 3D games to any device. GRID is still new with a number of kinks to work out, but it’s promising technology.
Some people say that desktop computing has stagnated, and that all the excitement today surrounds mobile products. I invite those people to take a look at what’s happening to desktop graphics because it’s as competitive and vibrant as any market you’ll find.
Top photo credit: Appaloosa via Wikimedia Commons