By George Maestri
In a short time, Nvidia's graphics technology has become a staple for content creators and 3D animators. The company's cards are reasonably priced and perform well. Still, until now, most of its professional cards have simply been faster versions of the consumer cards. But with the introduction of the GeForce4 chipset, Nvidia has taken the professional line in a new direction.
The cards come in three flavors. The Quadro4 900 XGL reviewed here is the top-of-the-line card, with 128mb of RAM. The Quadro4 750 XGL is a little slower, but also has 128mb of RAM. The Quadro4 700 XGL is the same as the 750, but with 64mb of onboard RAM. The company also ships the NVS line of Quadro cards, which are geared toward multiple display applications such as video editing.
The Nvidia 900 XGL reviewed here is not available through retail channels. Instead, it comes bundled with workstations from vendors such as HP, IBM, and Dell. Almost identical versions of the card are available through PNY, which has taken over the Quadro line from recently bankrupt Elsa.
|The Quadro4 900 XGL generates quite a bit of heat, so the large fan comes in handy. |
With the Quadro4 series, Nvidia seems to be branching off from the consumer cards. Unlike previous versions of Quadros, which were almost identical to the company's consumer cards, the Quadro4 cards use a different chipset with a higher transistor count. While the Quadros have all the same features of the GeForce4, the Quadro4 cards include additional OpenGL functions not found in the consumer GeForce4 cards, such as hardware overlay and clipping planes.
The 900 XGL takes up a standard AGP slot and is about the length of the card cage. The card's fan is hefty, because the Quadro can get warm when put through its paces-typical of high-end graphics cards. If you have room in the case, it's best to keep the first PCI slot open so the card gets circulation.
Along the back of the card are two DVI connectors for LCD displays, which can also be used to connect analog VGA monitors using an adapter. All the Quadro4 cards support multiple displays. And on most multiple display cards, elements such as popup dialog boxes get split across both screens, making them hard to decipher. To avoid this, Nvidia provides a utility called nView, which allows you to manage the way dialog boxes appear on the screen. Dialogs can be constrained to a specific screen, to the screen where the application lives, or to the screen where the mouse cursor is sitting.
There have been a number of technical improvements to the card over the previous GeForce3-based versions. Like all GeForce4 cards, the Quadro4 cards have additional vertex and pixel shading features. The biggest performance boost comes from the updated Lightspeed memory system, which adds more efficient Z-buffer compression as well as quad memory caches.
For those who use Discreet's 3ds max software, Nvidia includes the Maxtreme drivers, which work only on the Quadro based cards. These drivers offer Max users many additional features on top of Max's standard OpenGL drivers, allowing you to optimize the viewports for speed or quality. The drivers support three levels of transparency, and five levels of texture mapping. They also are fine-tuned for performance, and allow the card to squeeze out an extra 10 percent more speed at the fastest settings. I ran a few performance tests of the Quadro4 900 XGL against last year's GeForce3-based Quadro DCC card on a 1.4ghz Pentium III machine with 1.5gb of RAM. OpenGL speed was tested using Viewperf, where the 900 XGL turned in an AdWavs score of 76.85 compared to the Quadro DCC's 60.66. This represents a 25 percent improvement in speed. The ProCDRS test showed a remarkable in crease in speed, with the 900 XGL turning in a score of 64.62 compared to 14.94 on the Quadro DCC.
I tested speed in 3ds max using a shot with several textured objects moving in front of the camera. The Quadro4 came in at 41 frames per second, while the Quadro DCC's speed was 34 frames per second.
Overall, the Quadro4 cards are a nice upgrade from the Quadro DCC cards. Of course, the extra boost in performance comes at a premium, and top-end Quadro4 cards will cost two to three times as much as Nvidia's consumer Ge Force4-based cards. This added premium buys a moderate boost in performance and some extra OpenGL features. Users on a budget might be wise to look at the consumer cards, while those who need absolutely top performance should opt for the Quadro4-based cards. Either way, Nvidia provides excellent quality cards that will make any graphics professional more productive.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
Nvidia Quadro4 900 XGL
Price: Approximately $1100
Minimum System Requirements: Intel-compatible PC running Windows NT/2000/98/XP or Linux; Maxtreme Drivers require 3ds max 3.x/4