Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 5 (May 2010)


Quadro FX 3800

Nvidia’s Quadro line of professional graphics cards is always one of the best on the market. The cards push the limits of what workstation graphics can do.  The cards run the gamut from entry level all the way up to some of the fastest graphics hardware available. The Quadro FX 3800 is Nvidia’s top midrange card, and it offers some new features and a significant performance boost over the previous-generation card. 

The Nvidia Quadro FX 3800 has double the GPU memory as the 3700, its predecessor, making it a good choice for graphics and video encoding, thanks to an optional SDI video add-on.

The Quadro FX 3800 is full length (be sure your motherboard has clearance) and occupies a single PCI Express slot. The card is a little thicker than a standard card, and the entire top of the card is covered with an attractive aluminum heat sink and fan. Additional power through a standard six-pin connector is required. The card is Energy Star-compliant, however, so it won’t use this additional power unless required. Connectors on the card have changed a bit.  This iteration has only one dual-link DVI connector (as opposed to two on the Quadro FX 3700) but adds two DisplayPort connectors, which is the emerging standard and also adds DRM to the mix.  

The card runs fairly quiet. Nvidia rates the card’s noise level at below 40 decibels. This can be very nice for those of us who like our systems to be seen but not heard, particularly those who also do audio along with their video. Once the card was installed inside a case, I found it to be very peaceful—not a peep from the card escaped the computer case. The card also runs fairly cool, so additional cooling fans for the case are not required, again keeping noise to a minimum.

The Quadro FX 3800 is configured using Nvidia’s control panel, which gives users robust control over the card and OpenGL settings. One of the nicer features is the option to let the 3D application decide the appropriate OpenGL settings for the card. This is driven by Nvidia’s Application Configuration Engine (ACE), which automatically configures the graphic hardware for whatever software application is chosen. If you’re switching between applications, such as a CAD program and a 3D authoring package, you won’t have to reset your settings every time you start a new application. Other features of the control panel include options for color correction and application-specific overrides to the default OpenGL settings. For those using Autodesk’s 3ds Max, the card comes with a special set of drivers used to accelerate that application.

As for the guts of the card, the specifications of the Quadro FX 3800 show the inevitable march toward more, better, and faster—which is standard practice in the graphics card business. Compared to its predecessor, the Quadro FX 3700, the 3800 doubles the GPU memory to 1gb of GDDR3. The QuadroFX 3800 also increases the number of processor cores to 192, and adds the option of an SDI video add-on, which allows for high-end professional video output in 8-, 10-, or 12-bit formats.  
The SDI daughter card can be used for real-time broadcast applications, such as greenscreen and weather reports, but also for real-time compositing and other applications. The fact that SDI is available on this level of graphics card is also nice from a budget standpoint. 

Those who are using the card for video applications will not only be happy with SDI, but also with the additional processing power of the card. The extra GPUs give the card power that can be used for graphics as well as for other tasks, such as video encoding. For artists who do a lot of video editing and encoding, Nvidia is offering Elemental Accelerator, which is a video processing plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro CS4. The application leverages Nvidia GPUs to dramatically speed video decoding, processing, and encoding to H.264 and MPEG–2, with acceleration up to 10 times that of CPU-based encoding. This is one place where the parallel processing power of the GPU really shines through.

The Nvidia Quadro FX 3800 has double the GPU memory as the 3700, its predecessor, making it a good choice for graphics and video encoding, thanks to an optional SDI video add-on.

For those running multiple operating systems, particularly people on the OS X platform running parallels, Nvidia’s SLI Multi-OS can be helpful. This is a new SLI feature available on the FX 3800 that allows users to run multiple operating systems concurrently, while maintaining graphics performance. By installing two graphics cards and linking them via SLI, each card can carry the graphics load for its own operating system, while driving the same displays.

The Viewperf benchmarks show that this card is a solid performer and extremely fast. The card is almost twice as fast as the previous generation, and the card’s speed is creeping up close to that of the Quadro FX 4800. This makes it hit the sweet spot in terms of price and performance.

Of course, benchmarks are synthetic tests; real-world performance can differ considerably. So, I tossed the card in one of my production machines and used it in day-to-day production for more than a month.  The card was rock-solid and fast. As a test, I loaded an extremely heavy Autodesk Maya scene from a production my studio was animating. The scene ran noticeably faster than it did on the Quadro FX 3700 that was previously in the machine. I also ran a test of H.264 video encoding in Premiere CS4.  With Elemental Accelerator turned on, the speed increase was a factor of eight at minimum, sometimes more, depending on the content. This speed increase alone can make the card worth the investment for any studio doing a lot of encoding.

Overall, I really liked the card. It offers a lot of power and performance for the price, and represents the best value in the Nvidia line. For those who have a serious need for graphics power, this is a quality card that will serve you well.