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OpenGL Workstation Graphics - Market, Audience And Features

Workstation-Shootout: ATi FireGL V7600 vs. Nvidia Quadro FX 4600
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Looking at the workstation section of Nvidia's website, buyers will find a large variety of products. Aficionados will also discover several inconsistencies, though. For example, in some cases, the same product is associated with several market segments in the whitepapers. Additionally, the site lacks any information that would help differentiate between the current product line and last year's models - the model numbers alone give no indication of the what performance class the card actually belongs to.

While ATI's product naming scheme is not much more helpful or informative, it helps that the company's website differentiates between the 2006 and 2007 model years. While we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, we'll say at this point that buying the 2007 model is the better choice, regardless of what company you opt for.

To alleviate the problem of the confusing numbering scheme, and to help you tell the newcomers from last year's models, we have created the following table. Here, we attempt to group the cards into performance classes based on their real-world performance.

Performance Classification for professional Workstation Graphics Cards
Market Segment Nvidia ATi
Ultra-High-End Quadro FX 5600 FireGL V8600/V8650
High-End Quadro FX 4600 FireGL V7600
Mid-Range Quadro FX 1700 (FX 4500*) FireGL V5600 / (V7300*)
Entry-Level Quadro FX 570 / FX 370 (FX 1500*) FireGL V3600

Key: * Graphics chip from last year's generation

Before we get to the tests themselves, let's recap the genealogy of the workstation cards. From a hardware perspective, professional cards are not really separately developed products. Instead, they are derivatives of mainstream and gaming cards, making them almost identical to their non-professional counterparts. However, as you probably know, mainstream cards are a lot less expensive.

Now, the resourceful buyer may be tempted to simply choose the cheaper alternative, but the graphics companies take steps to prevent this, by making small changes to the workstation cards' BIOSes and graphics chips. The drivers are then written so that a mainstream card only delivers very meager performance in workstation tasks. Thus, only a Quadro or FireGL card can come close to its theoretical maximum performance in OpenGL.

Workstation Cards and their Mainstream/Gaming-Equivalents
Workstation Model Based on Chip Fab Process Mainstream Equivalent Video Memory
ATi FireGL V7600 R600 80 nm Radeon HD 2900 512 MB GDDR3
ATi FireGL V7300 R520 90 nm Radeon X1800 512 MB GDDR3
Nvidia Quadro FX 4600 G80 90 nm GeForce 8800 768 MB GDDR3
Nvidia Quadro FX 4500 G70 110 nm GeForce 7800 512 MB GDDR3

In the past, clock speeds were a relatively good indicator of performance, but today, you should focus more on the chip's technological details. With current cards, clock speed comparisons are only valid across the same chip generation - if you compare different generations, the numbers may quickly mislead you. One important criterion should be the shader model supported by the card. Our recommendation is to choose a card using shader model 4.0.

DirectX and OpenGL used to be competing APIs for software developers. Although OpenGL still dominates the workstation segment, DirectX is gaining more and more support as well. For example, 3D Studio Max 9.0 is a typical representative of workstation software. The application gives the user the choice between DirectX and OpenGL, but to achieve optimal shader performance, Tom's hardware recommends using DirectX in this case. Other software is increasingly using this API. Moreover, even the SPEC website includes DirectX results in the reference scores.

Important Features at a Glance
Workstation GPU Memory Bandwidth DirectX OpenGL Shader Model Core Clock Memory Clock Engine
ATi FireGL V7600 51.0 GB/s 10 2.1 4.0 500 MHz 510 MHz 320 SPUs
ATi FireGL V7300 41.6 GB/s 9.0c 2.0 3.0 600 MHz 650 MHz 16 P / 8 V
Nvidia Quadro FX 4600 67.2 GB/s 10 2.1 4.0 500 MHz 700 MHz 112 SPUs
Nvidia Quadro FX 4500 33.6 GB/s 9.0c 2.0 3.0 430 MHz 525 MHz 24 P / 8 V

Key: SPUs = Stream Processing Units, P = Pixel Shader, V = Vertex Shader

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  • 0 Hide
    tipoo , April 13, 2009 6:54 PM
    Is there any reason why these applications couldnt run on a Geforce or Radeon card? Why spring over 1000 bucks for cards with seemingly tame specs?
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , February 23, 2012 6:59 AM
    @tipoo : I've thinked aboute the exact same things!