Benchmark System, Drivers, And Software
Our Benchmark System
Choosing the supporting hardware to benchmark with put us in a bit of a quandary. The dual-CPU workstation based on a pair of AMD Opteron 4284 processors (Valencia, 3.0 GHz with Turbo Core) that we used last year turned out to bottleneck the higher-end graphics cards in this round-up. The same went for a system with two Intel Xeon E5-1660 processors running at 3.3 GHz. Under both platforms, the top-end boards we benchmarked landed very close together in the SPECapc tests, along with apps that didn't benefit from heavy threading, but instead needed big instruction-per-clock throughput from the host processor. Differences between the lower-end cards were much smaller, indicating the bottleneck.
We finally settled on a desktop-oriented processor with a high clock rate and fast memory. This might not reflect the average workstation very well (though Intel does sell a Xeon E3 configured very similarly that's often used in workstations), but it does give us a less constrained look at the differences between high-end graphics cards, some of which went from almost identical performance to huge performance deltas after transitioning to the new machine. In the end, the fastest cards sped up almost 20 percent in my new benchmark system than in the old workstation.
|CPU||Intel Core i7-3770K (Ivy Bridge), Four Cores, Eight Threads, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, Overclocked to 4.5 GHz (Water Cooled)|
|RAM||32 GB Corsair Dominator Platinum at 2133 MT/s|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte G1 Sniper 3 Rev 1.0, Z77 Express, BIOS F7|
|SSD||2 x Corsair Neutron 480 GB|
|OS||Windows 7 Ultimate x64|
|Driver||Depending on Application|
Our Driver Selection
Driver selection is easy when it comes to benchmarking desktop graphics cards in games. Generally, we simply use the latest driver. Increasingly, this involves using beta software, since AMD and Nvidia are both trying to stay ahead of each other and the latest game titles before their software can be WHQL-certified.
This is done differently in the workstation space, and our round-up reflects that fact. Professionals pay more for these graphics cards because they need drivers certified by application vendors, guaranteeing the best possible reliability. You won't always get the best possible performance, but the certification does ensure proper functionality. Naturally, that's imperative, since any error can cost a company far more than the price of the hardware. Stability trumps performance in this space.
The same narrative applies to AMD and Nvidia equally, so our results don’t just speak to the theoretical performance of each GPU, but also to both companies' driver optimization. That can be more important than the raw potential of a card, creating interesting benchmark results that wouldn't seem to make sense otherwise.
Our Benchmark Software
We believe in a healthy blend of synthetic tests (for isolating specific performance attributes) and real-world application benchmarks. It’s also important to make sure that the selection of metrics is balanced so that the results don't get skewed toward one card vendor or the other. Finally, our selection of professional applications is limited to those for which we're able to attain legal licensing. I tried to include all of the titles that our readers wanted to see, and was mostly successful. There are some exceptions, though. For example, V-Ray’s makers never got back to me, so we aren't including their software. Also, some applications check the graphics hardware and simply won’t work with desktop cards.
Otherwise, we're only limited by time. Testing one card takes up to about 10 hours, which is to say an entire day. Clearly, putting this piece together was a labor of love.
A quick word on reading the graphs: the red bars always represent AMD's FirePro cards, and the green ones are always Nvidia Quadros. The black bars are reserved for the desktop graphics cards. We didn’t use different colors for the Radeons and GeForces because they mostly amount to a footnote when they're compared in professional applications.