So over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to test the NVIDIA Quadro ® CX, a new high-end workstation class graphics card. This is basically the next generation successor to the Quadro FX 4600, with double the memory at 1.5GB, and the addition of 10bit capable DisplayPort outputs. The primary marketing buzz surrounding the new Quadro CX is its support for hardware acceleration of the Adobe Creative Suite® 4 line of applications. There are many different aspects that I will be covering between NVIDIA’s new hardware and Adobe’s new software, so this will be the first in a series of three related posts. Stay tuned over the next couple weeks for the rest of the information.
The CS4 applications that will see significant performance gains from hardware acceleration, are After Effects, Photoshop, and Premiere Pro. The improvements in After Effects and Photoshop will also be evident with any other previous generation high end GPU, while the new hardware accelerated H264 encoding support for Premiere Pro is specifically tied to the new Quadro CX card. NVidia has also recently announced the Quadro FX 4800, with basically identical hardware specifications to the Quadro CX, and which retails for about $200 cheaper. The extra cost is buying you access to the CUDA based RapiHD H.264 encoder, that is available in no other form besides in conjunction with the Quadro CX card. If you have no need for accelerated H.264 encoding, you could consider saving $200 with the FX 4800, but I envision the possibility of NVIDIA releasing more CX-only tools for creative professionals, since that card is targeted towards that specific market. Not to be overlooked, NVIDIA has also released the Quadro FX 5800, with an incredible 4GB of memory, but that should only be needed by applications with the most intense processing requirements, and is a class above NVIDIA’s previous Quadro products. The Quadro CX is compatible with the same HD-SDI output daughter card that the previous Quadro FX 4600 and 5600 cards used, for broadcast and post-production applications. Hopefully we will see more software applications directly supporting that interface card in the near future. The Quadro CX is based on the same core architecture as the new GTX 200 series of consumer cards, while the Quadro FX 4600 was based on the same technology as the GeForce 8800GTX, which is now two generations out of date. It is to be expected, that there is an all around performance increase with the new cards in almost any application, but Adobe has been specifically adapting their software to leverage the power of these graphics processors.
Of the many applications in Adobe’s new CS4 Suite, After Effects is the one that most fully and effectively integrates the power of GPU acceleration to increase processing power and application responsiveness. Many of these features are not new, but by nature of the way they are designed, grow more powerful as GPU performance increases. OpenGL allows most of the 3D processing required for advance compositing to be offloaded to the GPU for dramatic increases in performance and responsiveness. There are also many plug-ins and effects that specifically take advantage of GPU power. Synthetic image generation like noise and fractals, as well as artificial 3D blurring are some of the best fits for effective GPU acceleration in AE. Many of these improvements are only implemented for faster previews unless the user specifically selects OpenGL exporting, due to a possible loss in quality based on the lack of precision of OpenGL, but certain effects such as the new “Cartoon” vectorizing filter, that experiences dramatic (30x) rendering improvements with GPU processing, utilize GPU acceleration both for rapid previews and for accelerating the final export render. In most of the synthetic object (Noise, fractals, shapes, blurs, etc.) previewing tests I did in AE, OpenGL acceleration with the Quadro CX provided a ten fold increase in performance over CPU based rendering. This is the difference between an interactive experience, and a plan-next-move-while-rendering workflow. While any graphics card with OpenGL support can accelerate processing in After Effects, as compositions and projects become larger and more complex, the benefits of the Quadro CX’s increased memory and processing power will come into play. Complex projects will experience a greater increase in performance than simpler ones, when upgrading to a higher end GPU.
The next program in the CS4 suite to experience major performance improvements through GPU acceleration is Photoshop CS4. Most of these improvements come from newly added implementation of OpenGL processing, and therefore, like After Effects, they are not specifically tied to the new Quadro CX. But the power of the new Quadro CX makes the benefits of these improvements more dramatically obvious, especially on larger images. These improvements in Photoshop are fairly extensive, and I will review them in detail in the next posting in this series. As far as the Quadro CX is concerned, with its large 1.5GB cache of onboard memory, it is more than capable of handling the largest and most complex operations that almost anyone would attempt in Photoshop.
Adobe’s Premiere Pro CS4 also takes advantage of the GPU in a few less significant ways, for basic effects. The one totally new aspect that the Quadro CX brings to the table is accelerated encoding, specifically encoding to H.264 with the new RapiHD encoder from Elemental Technologies. This is the primary marketing piece specific to the CX card, and my third and final post in this series on the Quadro CX will be about CUDA and its implementation in this new encoder.
After all of the Adobe tests, I had two other programs that utilize the GPU that I wanted to try on this new high end card. The first was Iridas SpeedgradeDI, which is specifically programmed to run on NVidia’s Quadro cards. The base version running with DVI or 8bit DisplayPort attached monitors worked great, and nothing I could do with my limited knowledge of the program could even get it to drop a frame. The real test for that application would involve connecting the optional SDI daughter card for true 10bit output. Hopefully the 10bit color depth supported by the DisplayPort will eventually allow that level of monitoring without the high priced SDI daughter board. The highest-end customers will still require an SDI output in order to use SDI interfaced external waveform and vectorscope tools, or live broadcast outputs.
Lastly, I ran my favorite program, Battlefield 2 to test out the card’s 3D rendering capabilities. BF2 was released over three years ago, and therefore is not a cutting edge test, but it is my most recent high performance game. With all of the settings maxed out, at maximum resolution on my 30″ LCD, I was able to get 99.9 FPS about 90% of the time, with the occasional dip into the low nineties for complex scenes. Anyhow, the Quadro CX should be more than up to the task for those late night “stress relief” sessions with any modern 3D “application” if desired.
Once I had thoroughly tested the Quadro CX’s acceleration capabilities, I endeavored to verify the capabilities of it’s newly supported output interface. I hooked my HP Dreamcolor LCD to the card via the new DisplayPort interface, hoping to get some taste of 10bit color output. Unfortunately, currently none of the major applications I currently have installed are programmed to take advantage of this capability. I do have a small utility from NVidia that displays 16bit TIFF files in 10bit color depth, and I can confirm that yes, there is a difference, and yes, the combination of the Quadro CX and the HP Dreamcolor does give you full hardware support for 10bit color display. Hopefully in the future we will see updates and plug-ins that will unlock this feature in useful ways. There is a 10bit capable SDI plug-in that NVidia released for After Effects 7 quite a while back, as a simple demonstration of their new SDI capability, and I am hoping to see an equivalent DisplayPort version for both After Effects and Photoshop, especially since NVidia and Adobe seem to be working together more closely these days.
Anyhow, if you are in the market for a new high end GPU, the Quadro CX has all of the processing power that most people could possibly need. At its currently available price of about $1800, it has directly replaced the Quadro FX 4600, and no question is a superior product. Now if you already have a 4600, the jump to the CX is not immediately necessary unless you are currently pushing your system to the limits, or you encode a lot of footage to H264. The Photoshop and After Effects GPU support in CS4 will work nearly as well with a 4600, but there is a difference. With any other previous generation card, you should see a significant all around performance increase with any application that leverages GPU processing power.
That information should give you a good general idea of what the new Quadro CX card is capable of, and I will be detailing the improvements in Photoshop CS4 and the RapiHD encoder in my upcoming posts.