Choosing the right graphics card for your 3D application

Choosing the right graphics card can make or break your experience within a 3D application. The GPU is mostly responsible for driving your viewports, and choosing the wrong one can quickly leave you frustrated as you wait for lines to redraw and experience sluggish navigation. This can lead to you having to turn off many of the bells and whistles such as Maya’s Viewport 2.0, LightWave’s VPR or 3ds Max’s Nitrous Viewport and therefore experience sub-par visual quality.

The choice between NVIDIA and AMD can be difficult at the best of times, but with each quoting specifications in a different manner and throwing acronyms like CUDA and OpenCL into the mix, things quickly get even more complicated. We have benchmarks on the latest generations of both the FirePro and Quadro cards, representing the professional lines from both manufacturers.

Before we get into the benchmarks, a word on consumer level cards. Many people use cards such as NVIDIA’s GTX range or AMD’s Radeon cards within their 3D applications without any problems, and these cards are certainly much cheaper than their professional counterparts (even though they are often based around similar hardware). The reason for the price difference is that the professional cards are engineered to a far higher level than the consumer models. They support higher visual fidelity through hardware antialiasing and superior hardware texturing and also have software drivers optimised for 3D applications rather than games; these enhancements can make a huge difference to performance and stability. For those reasons we would not recommend consumer cards unless your budget holds you back – even a low end professional card will often outperform a high end consumer card.

Benchmarked Tests

We have benchmarks using a range of Quadro and FirePro cards using SPECviewperf, Cinebench 11.5 and 3ds Max 2011. The 3ds Max test was performed by playing back a pre-set animation in the viewport with realtime animation turned off, forcing the card to draw every frame, then we timed how long each card took to complete this animation. The SPECviewperf benchmark contains tests using both Maya and LightWave, so between all of these benchmarks all of the major 3D apps are covered. Note these benchmarks were performed on a Windows-based machine so the results may not transfer to other operating systems due to differences in the drivers.

The below graph shows the benchmark results and there are some surprising outcomes, with the FirePro cards looking to punch well above their weight, particularly in CINEMA 4D and 3ds Max.

GPU Benchmark Results Table

If you’re not familiar with benchmark graphs: the bars represent benchmark scores which I’ve normalised, so essentially it’s a case of size matters – the graph is linear so a double size bar is twice as fast and so on. It’s worth noting that the benchmarks are based on real world applications not synthetic benchmarks, making them much more relevant.

Conclusion – Price isn’t everything

The FirePro cards from AMD are priced extremely aggressively with the V5800 beating the Quadro 5000 – a card more than five times its price – in the CINEMA 4D test, and coming close to it in the 3ds Max test. The NVIDIA cards are priced so highly because of their CUDA/OpenCL credentials but this isn’t always relevant when you are talking about rendering your viewports. It may become more important in the future however, as GPU renderers such as iray and V-Ray RT become more prevalent. My thoughts and recommendations for specific software packages are below:

Maya: For ultimate performance there is no contest here: the current Quadro cards are simply the best. Since these tests were done, NVIDIA have released the Quadro 2000 which is based on the same Fermi architecture as the 4000 and 5000 models, but with fewer CUDA cores. This will likely make a good budget alternative for those who can’t afford the 4000 model as it is priced slightly cheaper than the FirePro V7800, which it should outperform.

3ds Max: The waters are a little more muddy here. If it’s sheer viewport performance that you are interested in, then the FirePros look significantly faster (and cheaper to boot). It’s worth noting that both NVIDIA and AMD offer performance driver plug-ins for 3ds Max. Claiming 50% boosts to viewport performance, these performance drivers were not tested here – although as both manufacturers offer them I don’t believe they would significantly affect the rankings. I would highly recommend using them though, as they could speed things up greatly and are one of the main reasons to go with a professional card over a consumer model.

There is one big caveat though. In 3ds Max 2011 (for subscription customers) and 2012 (for all customers), Autodesk include the iray rendering engine. While this has nothing to do with the viewports, it does allow you to use the GPU to speed up final renders. Like V-Ray RT, this means you can get near-interactive photorealistic images, making iteration much faster and meaning much less waiting for preview renders. The catch: it only runs on NVIDIA CUDA-capable cards. This alone is enough to buy an NVIDIA card over AMD and is where the Quadros, with their larger amounts of RAM and CUDA cores, start to justify their high price.

LightWave:  The Quadros again have the advantage here, although it seems like the Quadro 4000 performs just as well as the 5000 – which is twice its price – so I’d recommend putting your budget into more CPU cores rather than a high end GPU here.

CINEMA 4D: Here the FirePro cards really shine and I wouldn’t recommend the Quadros here at all due to their price. The performance of the FirePro cards seems to level off at the mid-range making the V7XXX range seem like the sweet spot for all but those dealing with massive data sets.

Final Thoughts
I’ve focused on viewport performance here because, as mentioned above, there are some GPU-based renderers starting to come of age (most notably iray and V-Ray RT). V-Ray RT makes use of OpenCL, so should technically run on AMD or NVIDIA hardware, although the NVIDIA cards seem to have the edge over AMD in OpenCL performance at present. Many of the other GPU rendering engines, such as iray, run exclusively on NVIDIA hardware so I would recommend NVIDIA to anyone wanting to make use of such render engines.

We’ve also found that NVIDIA’s consumer cards seem to be just as fast as their Quadro counterparts with a similar number of CUDA cores when using V-Ray RT. So there’s potential to use one or more cheap consumer cards to accelerate V-Ray RT and get away with a lower end Quadro to drive your viewports. There can be issues around the limited RAM on GTX cards with a setup like this, but it’s certainly worth looking into.

For more information on graphics cards and benchmark tests, visit our Modelling and Animation page. You can also call us on 03332 409 306 or email

Call us: 03332 409 306

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *