Your computer is never fast enough. That's just one of those basic facts of life for anyone who creates images and graphics for a living. These professionals certainly need raw speed, but they also need stability and compatibility with a wide range of professional FCC applications, such as CAD, 3D modeling, simulation, and game design. These applications require good support for OpenGL and the ability to handle large data sets. These requirements are different from those of gaming cards, so professional graphics cards, such as Nvidia's Quadro series, are a much better choice for these tasks.
At SIGGRAPH 2010, Nvidia announced a whole new line of professional workstation graphics cards. These are the first to use the new Fermi architecture, which debuted in Nvidia's high-end gaming cards about a year ago. These cards represent the state of the art in professional graphics performance for workstations.
Nvidia's workstation cards have undergone a slight branding change since the last generation's Quadro FX cards. Gone is the "FX" designation, leaving the new cards with just the "Quadro" name and model number. This is probably because "FX" suggests the cards are for special effects, which they can certainly do, but they also have a lot of roles outside of entertainment, including architecture, engineering, and anywhere else large amounts of data need to be displayed. The new cards are the Quadro 4000, with 2gb of video memory and 256 cores; the Quadro 5000, with 2.5gb of memory and 352 cores; and the top-of-the-line Quadro 6000, with a whopping 6gb of memory and 448 cores.
The Quadro 5000's Fermi architecture is an evolution of Nvidia's CUDA core, which has made each core more CPU-like with the addition of fully supported integer functionality. This further blurs the line between the GPU and CPU, allowing the graphics card to take on tasks normally reserved for the CPU. This new architecture allows for a lot of new functionality. Probably the most notable example of this is the Mercury Playback Engine, which is part of Adobe's Premiere Pro CS5 video editing application. The Mercury Playback Engine, when combined with a suitable Nvidia card, significantly speeds up editing, color correction, and compositing. Editors can now work with HD footage with multiple layers and effects, in real time. This allows desktop workstations to approach the speed and functionality only previously found in high-end film edit suites. Other Adobe applications, such as After Effects and Photoshop, also offer Nvidia GPU acceleration.
Real-time raytracing has also seen a lot of improvements with the new architecture. Nvidia's new iray engine leverages the Mental Ray rendering technology that Nvidia acquired when the firm acquired Mental Images a few years ago. This has become part of Mental Ray 3.8 and should hopefully find its way into the 3D and CAD packages that support Mental Ray.
Moving to the hardware, the Quadro 5000 itself is a double width card, with a hefty heat sink and fan taking up the top of the circuit board. For power, the card uses a 6 pin power supply connector and needs about 150w to run. The back of the card has a dual link DVI port as well as two DisplayPort connectors. Those with newer monitors will be able to use the DisplayPort connectors, which resemble HDMI cables, but offer much higher resolution. While the card technically has three monitor connectors on the back, only two can be active at a time.
Also on the back is a 3D stereoscopic connector, which is becoming increasingly important with the boom in 3D content. The Quadro cards now support 3D Vision Pro, an upgrade to the current 3D Vision technology that allows for longer range, less crosstalk, and bidirectional communication, so the hub will know if the glasses are working.
The card also has a connector on the top that can be attached to an SDI daughter card. This solution can both capture and display eight-, 10-, and 12-bit SDI video streams. This allows for real-time processing of video for such applications as keying and special effects. The new card goes even further than previous versions by allowing capture and playback of stereoscopic SDI video on parallel left/right connectors.
Another nice hardware feature is the ability to tie multiple monitors together as a single display. Nvidia Scalable Visualization Solutions will allow multiple cards driving up to eight monitors to appear as a single display to the operating system and work with any application. While Nvidia has supported this on its QuadroPlex external boxes for a while, the company is now allowing SLI Quadro customers that same functionality.
As for performance specs, the card contains 352 CUDA processors and 2.5gb of memory running at 120mb/sec on a 320 bit bus. This new generation of cards now supports ECC memory, which adds a layer of error correction that will prove valuable in mission-critical applications.
All these features are nice, but of course, the real test of a graphics card is the performance. We configured the card in a dual Xeon workstation with 8gb of RAM and ran Viewperf 11. As with all benchmarks, the tests are synthetic and will give a general idea as to the speed of the card in various 3D CAD and content creation applications. But the bottom line is that it's just a test of one computer at one point it time, so every number is relative. The test covers most of the popular CAD apps, such as Dassault CATIA and PTC Pro-E, as well as popular 3D modeling apps, such as Autodesk Maya and NewTek LightWave. The resulting numbers were excellent, and this certainly performs well in benchmark. The results are as follows :
1. CATIA 39.2
2. EnSight 36.4
3. LightWave 42.1
4. Maya 68.3
5. Pro/Engineer 9.6
6. SolidWorks 47.8
7. Siemens Teamcenter Visualization Mockup 39.1
These numbers are quite impressive, but the real test of the card is to use it in production. One of the more impressive production tests was using the card in Adobe Premiere Pro to composite several layers of HD content. The card actually allowed for real-time playback with effects. Other applications, such as Maya, also showed a nice bump in performance.
Overall, the Quadro 5000 is a terrific card and certainly one of the fastest and most capable on the market. As always, the absolute fastest graphics cards will cost you a premium, so the high mid-range cards are usually the sweet spot when it comes to raw price/performance. The Quadro 5000 is on the high end of this range, but the additional cost is worth it for anyone involved in high-end graphics production.