What's the difference between Consumer and Pro graphics cards?

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Nvidia/RedSharkPro or consumer GPUs?

This article was first published two years ago so some of the information is old. But it's a question that keeps getting asked, and it's a great article - so we thought we'd publish it again. How do you choose between consumer and pro graphics cards? Low cost and high performance are compelling with the lower-end products, but compatability and support are better with the professional versions. Oren Payton explores this in depth

Most of us know that in order to run graphic intensive tasks, you need an add-on graphics card. We are also pretty much resigned to the fact that the top-of-the-range examples get fairly pricey, and a few hundred pounds is not unusual for a recently released all bells-and-whistles card. It is a little more difficult to justify why we are required to fork out four or five times more than that for a top of the range professional graphics card.

The Nvidia Quadro K5000 (and there are more expensive Quadros out there) is listed on Scan Computers’ website for £1813 , whereas a roughly equivalent Geforce will set you back around £400. This is especially striking since, according to some sources on the street, they are sometimes almost identical in hardware and use only a slightly modified driver and BIOS.

I'd like to start off by confirming what many think (especially those spending their own personal cash), that in many cases, an expensive professional GPU is not entirely needed. It is important to remember though that in many other cases, a good professional card will make all the difference between working smoothly and efficiently, and having to put up with a lifetime of difficulties. The same arguments apply to both Nvidia and AMD, with Quadro and FirePro cards representing the pro corner and GeForce and Radeon in the consumer corner.

How do you know what you need?

So how do we know when it is sensible to install a pro grade card, and when we can make do with a consumer one? The answer lies with what the pro card does well and how it is different from the consumer GPU.

Pro cards differ from consumer cards in six main areas.

Software Features: Pro grade cards offer specific graphics-related features relevant to the professional graphics applications. These are a result of the different card architecture as well as the different drivers. Some of these features are designed to streamline graphics work, meaning that the same can be achieved without them but with a slower work process. Others enable processes not available via consumer cards. Most of these features are a result of the different tasks these two families usually have - one to play games and one to design them!

Hardware features: Professional cards, especially at the higher end of the range, offer a selection of extra hardware features like hardware frame synchronization, quad buffered stereo or uncompressed video output. These featured, which often require add-on cards, are specifically for niche markets, and require more robust and specialized hardware. They are therefore not available on the run of the mill GPUs.

Support: Because the pro grade cards are designed for business use whilst the consumer cards are aimed mainly at home use, the support structure on each family is different. The professional cards enjoy a far more comprehensive support cover that includes looking at software issues that may have caused incompatibility problems between pro-grade card and pro-grade graphics application. For consumer cards, on the other hand, support only covers correct operation of the GPU hardware. This is important in business environments where resolving hardware-software problems quickly has an impact on revenue.

ISV compatibility: Professional cards are certified to work correctly with most professional graphics software applications, and software vendors in turn tend to require pro-grade cards in their hardware requirements list. This is to minimize the volume of support calls from non-certified hardware. This does not mean that consumer cards will not work. It only means that some features may not work with consumer cards, and there is a likelihood of more frequent problems.

Lifetime and roadmaps: Consumer cards are replaced often. They are always chasing the latest and the fastest technology. Professional ones, on the other hand, are more stable. They enjoy longer development periods, and are replaced less often. This helps large organizations wanting to standardize on hardware in the long term. It also increases long term stability.

Quality and stability: The professional cards are not, as some believe, identical hardware with different BIOS and drivers from consumer cards. They are designed and built from a similar architecture base, but branch off pretty early on in production. The consumer cards are built for ultimate speed whilst the professional cards are built for stability and compatibility - different philosophy for different purposes.

Making the choice

So when should you choose a more expensive professional card over a cheaper consumer card? The consumer cards are not only cheaper, but also sometimes run at higher clock speeds (as expected from high-end gaming). However, this does not always translate into faster performance with professional graphics applications. For one, these applications - Photoshop being a great example, often rely more on CPU speed rather than GPU speed for overall performance. In addition, many pro grade cards perform faster than consumer cards of greater clock speed because of specific features implemented in them. Add to this the extra level of support, particularly relevant to businesses where 'time is money', and you start to get a clearer picture.

Saving on cost and choosing a consumer graphics card for a professional task does not mean your system will crash into repeated blue screens. But, like everything in life, there will be a price to pay. Part of this price is less compatibility, less reliability, lack of certification and in general - less long term security. If this price is acceptable, there are cost savings to enjoy with an excellent range of GeForce or Radeon cards. If not, it's the professional route for you, with Quadro or FirePro.

Tags: Technology

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