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NVIDIA Quadro CX Pro Graphics For Adobe CS4
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Date: Mar 19, 2009
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Chris Connolly
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Overview

Adobe, the software development powerhouse behind Photoshop, Premiere, and dozens of other content creation suites, has finally embraced the power of the GPU. Amazingly, until Adobe's CS4 suite of graphics software came out this year, the company which has nearly built their empire on graphics related software, relied entirely on the system's CPU for processing. Despite major advances in the performance and infrastructure which surrounds the GPU market, Adobe's software was never written to take advantage of the newer programmable hardware. No matter how fast of a graphics card you had, nothing would make Adobe software run faster than higher clocked processors, more memory, or faster hard disks. Until now, the graphics card has been completely secondary in the Adobe world with the exception of a few custom filters, only being used for display output rather than using the graphics processor for its intended purpose, accelerating on-screen graphics.

With Adobe's newly launched Creative Suite 4, the game changes completely, and there are some pretty interesting repercussions because of this change. Many applications in Adobe's new CS4 suite, specifically Photoshop, After Effects, Acrobat, Premiere, and Bridge, are now supporting GPU acceleration. Now, adding GPU acceleration to the mix is not a cure-all for performance, and suddenly doesn't throw all of the graphics processing on to the GPU. These applications, as system intensive as they are, are still programs which work and live in a 2D world; there is very little true 3D interaction in these programs, which is typically where GPUs thrive. However, through the use of OpenGL, Adobe can effectively use your system's GPU to accelerate some 2D drawings on-screen.

If your system has a graphics processor internally (and well, at this point, it's very likely that your system does), this means that Adobe's Creative Suite 4 will run a bit snappier if you enable the OpenGL drawing / GPU acceleration features. This also means that graphics card companies can start showcasing how their individual products can help improve your Adobe CS experience, something which has been previously off-limits due to the nature of the Adobe suite. Just how much a faster GPU will help and where GPU acceleration plays into your daily Adobe workflow are the two big questions lurking--which we help to answer today.

Nvidia is betting that there is a market for Adobe CS accelerators, and their first foray into this area is what we're looking at today, the Quadro CX. This is not a daughterboard which works with your standard graphics card, this is a full-on, pro workstation graphics card which just happens to have a link with the Adobe CS suite through software for accelerating specific content types, similar to the QuadroFX for 3D content creation software. It's a new product segment which the rest of the market is still somewhat confused as to how to address, but Nvidia is taking their first step towards getting Adobe software running through their GPUs in order to run them faster. Let's see if it's paid off...


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Specifications

Nvidia's first generation QuadroCX product is, at its core, a GT200-based graphics card, the same architecture which powers the GeForce GTX 280 and the QuadroFX 4800. Under the cooling system lies the same massive 1.4 billion transistor, 65nm graphics processor which has been part of Nvidia's high-end lineup since mid last year. The GT200, while not the most fresh and exciting part on the market, is still one of the most powerful graphics processors period, and its raw number crunching power should not be underestimated. This is a big, huge, chip. Obviously, Nvidia thinks that CS4 acceleration requires a lot of horsepower, as they could have easily made their first generation QuadroCX product on any of their existing GPU architectures. They chose the GT200.

  • Nvidia GT200 Graphics Processor

  • 65nm Manufacturing Process

  • 602 MHz GPU Clock Speed

  • 192 Stream Processors

  • Shader Model 4.0 and OpenGL 3.0 Support

  • 1.5 GB of GDDR-3 Memory

  • 800 MHz GDDR-3 Clock Speed

  • 384-bit Memory Controller

  • 76 GB/s Memory Bandwidth
  • PCI Express 2.0 x16 Connector

  • Dual Slot Copper Cooling System

  • Standard Length Card (EATX Not Required)

  • 2 x DisplayPort, 1 x DL-DVI Outputs

  • Stereoscopic Output

  • Genlock/Framelock Compatible

  • 2-Way Nvidia SLI Multi-GPU Connector

  • Supports Windows XP and Vista 32-bit and 64-bit, Linux 32-bit and 64-bit, Solaris


QuadroCX Hardware Details (yes, you also can enable PhysX physics if you wish)

If these specifications look familiar to you, there's a reason. The QuadroCX, in its current form, is a carbon copy of the QuadroFX 4800 graphics card which we reviewed a few months back. Both cards use the same 192-core GT200 graphics processing unit, 1.5 GB of memory, and both cards carry the same clock speeds and features. Nvidia is effectively manufacturing one PCB and one GPU and delivering two product lines with it. We don't have any problem with this, as long as the feature set and prices are addressed properly.

There is one difference with the QuadroCX product, besides a different name tattooed on the cooling unit and a different name in the driver, and that's the software bundle. The QuadroCX board is bundled with a plugin for Adobe Premiere Pro, dubbed RapiHD, which allows for GPU offloading and acceleration for content encoding. While this plug-in was a standalone product, it is now only bundled with the QuadroCX lineup. The plugin's developer, Elemental Technologies, claims huge performance benefits when encoding media on a GPU compared to a traditional dual or quad-core CPU. The plugin is tied to the GPU on the driver level, too, so only Quadro CX boards are able to enable the plugin. 





H.264 Media Encoding with RapiHD

With effectively the same hardware as a QuadroFX 4800, but with a GPU acceleration plugin for Premiere Pro, the Quadro CX should, in theory, cost a bit more than the QuadroFX 4800. A quick scan of prices today shows the QuadroCX card for about $1950, whereas the normal QuadroFX 4800 card retails for $1570. This means you're effectively paying an additional $380 price premium for the GPU encoding plugin, which limits this board's appeal to serious users of Abobe Premiere Pro. If you are a heavy user of this application, the extra speed could certainly be worth the additional price premium, which we'll showcase later.  For now, enjoy the video above for a little taste of what's to come.

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The Hardware

While the QuadroCX hardware is not extremely surprising, as it has identical specifications as the QuadroFX 4800, we're still dealing with some heavy duty hardware here. With a price tag of over $1,500, we would expect nothing less. This is a high-end workstation graphics card which just so happens to be targeted at creative users, but still, the hardware here can be used for any workstation-related task.


The QuadroCX card is a double-slot card from a height perspective, and a full-length card from a width perspective. The card will extend beyond the length of a standard ATX motherboard, so it's best suited in an Extended ATX class chassis, although one isn't specifically required. The card utilizes a PCI Express 2.0 interface and requires a single 6-pin PCI Express power connector.


Output Ports


Cooling Fan and Power Plug

The board has an array of outputs which should please most workstation users. The card has one dual-link DVI port on the top right, capable of handling displays up to 2560x1600 resolution. On the bottom row, there are also two DisplayPort connectors, which can run at this same resolution (and beyond), but also can take advantage of the Quadro CX's 30-bit color support, as long as you have a 30-bit color equipped display (there aren't many of you out there). On the top left, there is a 3-pin stereoscopic output port, and a small set of airflow exhaust vents in between.

The cooling system relies on a single cooling fan which sits on the right side of the board, sucking in chassis air, running it over the GPU and memory, and exhausting it out the left side of the board. The card is equipped with an airflow shroud which helps move this cool air in the proper direction, letting it breath out by the edge of the chassis. The cooling system is very quiet by default, even under heavy loads. During the majority of our testing, the fan on the Quadro CX was spinning at under 1,500 RPM, which made it nearly inaudible, which is definitely a positive for the workstation-environment.


SLI Connector


Airflow Vents

If one monstrous GT200 chip isn't enough to satisfy your pixel crushing lust, you can equip two of these boards in an SLI configuration. It's extremely unlikely that potential QuadroCX customers will want this functionality, and even more unlikely that Adobe applications would even make use of multiple boards in SLI (at this time, they do not), but hey, the functionality is there if you need it for other tasks.

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CS4 Acceleration

Curious as to what parts of the Adobe Creative Suite 4 (CS4) are accelerated via offloading processing onto the GPU? Here is what to expect, with a few video examples...


Acrobat 9

GPU processing of page display zooming, panning of PDF through OpenGL drawing.


Photoshop CS4

Smooth (animated) zooming, even at non-standard zoom levels. Smoother rotation of large images. Hardware accelerated pixel grids. GPU color conversion. GPU-based brush drawing.


Bridge CS4

Preview and display of images is accelerated through OpenGL drawing. Slideshows and reviews can now display effects quicker.


After Effects

3D depth of field controls, blending modes, adjustment laters, effects, anti-aliasing, motion blurs, lights, and shadows can be offloaded onto GPU for faster performance.


Flash 10

Video playback speedup through GPU offloading. GPU acceleration in Flash also lays the ground work of true 3D in Flash, although it's yet to be truly exploited.


Premiere Pro

Page curl, refraction, and ripple effects accelerated via GPU. GPU based output rendering/encoding with RapiHD H.264 plugin (up to 10x speed boost).

As you can see, a lot of applications see enhancements and speedups through GPU offloading, although it's definitely not across the board with the CS4 suite, and we're only seeing the GPU interact with bits and pieces at this point. This is more or less laying a foundation for future releases to use the GPU more frequently, and I'm sure in the CS5 suite we'll see more features being offloaded onto the GPU or being built for the GPU from the get-go.


Adobe After Effects CS4 with GPU Acceleration

One thing to note is that Adobe's CS4 GPU acceleration support is not limited to the QuadroCX card. Any system with a modern GPU (DX9+ level) with OPenGL support should be able to enable these features and see enhanced performance. However, the Premiere Pro GPU media encoding functionality is limited to the QuadroCX only at this time.

In terms of our real-world experience, here's how it goes. As heavy Photoshop users and a photographers who shoots primarily in RAW at 4000px+ resolutions, the GPU acceleration effects in Adobe Bridge were immediately noticeable and definitely helped the smoothness of our system. As for GPU acceleration in Photoshop CS4, it really does seem to be hit or miss. Some aspects of the software seem quicker with GPU acceleration, although some areas tend to actually lag a bit more with it enabled. We should also note that the number of open, OpenGL accelerated documents is limited by available frame buffer memory.  For example, with a 1GB GeForce GTX 280, 18 OpenGL accelerated documents can be open at one time.


Adobe Photoshop CS4 with GPU Acceleration

If you're already running on a fast system, a fast dual-core or a quad-core, you're not going to see that big of a performance boost. If you're on a slower system, offloading onto the GPU will definitely help, especially when dealing with large files. It is not a huge cure-all for slow Photoshop performance, but it can come in handy at times.

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Testbed and Cinebench
Test System Details
Specifications and Revisions

  • Intel Core i7 920 (2.66 GHz) Quad-Core Processor
  • 6 GB Kingston DDR3-1600 Memory (3 x 2 GB)
  • Asus P6T Motherboard, Intel X58 Chipset
  • Western Digital VelociRaptor 150GB Hard Disk (SATA-II, 10,000 RPM)
  • Plextor DVD+/-RW Serial ATA Optical Drive
  • Corsair HX620W 620W Modular Power Supply
  • Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (x64 Edition)

  • Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT 512 MB
  • Nvidia QuadroFX 4800 1.5 GB
  • Nvidia QuadroCX 1.5 GB
  • ATI FirePro V8700 1 GB

Cinebench R10 Synthetic OpenGL Rendering Performance
Higher Scores Are Better


Before we get into the real-world tests, we wanted to see how the QuadroCX stood up in a basic OpenGL workstation-class rendering benchmark. As the QuadroCX is based on the same hardware as the QuadroFX 4800, it's not surprising that we see these two cards giving virtually identical numbers. Both cards are slightly bested by ATI's new FirePro V8700, but easily best the GeForce 9600 GT (thrown in to showcase what a "basic" graphics card can handle today, in comparison to these high-end workstation cards).

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Premiere Pro Encoding
Premiere Pro Video Encoding Performance
Lower Times Are Better



Just as expected, media encoding is extremely fast on the QuadroCX, when using the bundled RapiHD GPU offloading plugin. Of the cards in these test, the QuadroCX is the only one which is able to use this plugin, and we see encoding times drop significantly across the board. Our 1080p encoding test shows nearly a 50% drop in encoding times, which can be a huge benefit if you're rendering content which is anything more than a few minutes long. If you're rendering content which is in the hour+ range, this performance difference will indeed make this card a necessity.

If you don't use the RapiHD plugin, the QuadroCX will perform on par with these other cards, as the encoding is offloaded onto the system's CPU, which showcases why all the other cards show virtually the same numbers. Let there be no doubt though, when the RapiHD plugin and GPU processing get into the mix, we see a major shift forward in video encoding speed.

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3D Studio Max 2009, Maya 2009
3D Studio Max 2009 - Modeling / Texturing Performance
Lower Times Are Better


Maya 2009 - Modeling / Texturing Performance
Lower Times Are Better


The QuadroCX card isn't a slouch in high-end 3D modeling applications, either. Both 3D Studio Max 2009 and Maya 2009 showcase the card favorably. Maya 2009 tends to prefer Nvidia's high-end solution, where as 3D Studio Max 2009 tends to run a bit quicker on ATI's latest generation hardware. In any case, the QuadroCX will be an excellent card for this type of application as well, even if it's not the card's primary focus.

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Spec Viewperf R10 x64
Workstation OpenGL Performance
Higher Numbers Are Better




Not surprising to see, the QuadroCX gives nearly identical performance to the QuadroFX 4800 in the industry standard SPEC Viewperf workstation benchmark. Solid numbers across the board.

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Spec Viewperf R10 x64 (Continued)
Workstation OpenGL Performance
Higher Numbers Are Better




More of the same for the rest of the Viewperf suite. Excellent performance in ProEngineer and SolidWorks, as well as Catia and 3D Studio Max.

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3DMark Vantage, Crysis
Synthetic Gaming Performance - 3DMark Vantage
Higher Numbers Are Better


Gaming Performance - Crysis
Higher Numbers Are Better


Hey, the QuadroCX is not that bad of a gaming card, as you can see.  Interestingly, the QuadroCX card scored a bit lower compared to the QFX4800 in our gaming tests. Both of the cards underperformed compared to ATI's FirePro V8700 card, however.

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Power Consumption
Power Consumption
Lower Numbers Are Better



Power consumption appears to be fairly moderate for the QuadroCX card, despite its massive GPU and 1.5 GB of memory. Our quad-core system with 6 GB of memory, along with the QuadroCX only consumed a peak of 282W when the GPU was fully loaded, which seems pretty tolerable considering the amount of horsepower under the hood.

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Our Conclusion

Nvidia’s first product targeted specifically at users of Adobe-based products is somewhat of a mixed bag. The Quadro CX is undoubtedly an ultra fast graphics card which can accelerate 2D and 3D content creation software, however, positioning a product like this specifically for Adobe software seems somewhat dubious. While Adobe’s new CS4 suite can see significant performance gains in some areas with the Quadro CX card compared to lower-end graphics solutions, when compared to mid-range cards, the Quadro CX’s price performance ratio doesn’t seem to quite match up, unless you're specifically using the card for Premiere Pro that is, in which case the RapiHD GPU acceleration is a game changer.



 

In essence, the Quadro CX is a re-purposed QuadroFX 4800 card, bundled with a hardware H.264 encoding plug-in for Premiere Pro CS4. If you were planning on picking up a high-end workstation card anyways, and you’re a heavy Premiere user, the Quadro CX’s value proposition might work for you. However, most CS4 users simply don’t need this type of high-end graphics horsepower, and as such, would get a better value by purchasing a $200 mid-range gaming card and grabbing the RapiHD plugin separately if you need it. In this economy, positioning this card as a CS4 accelerator at nearly $2,000 will be a hard sell, even if it is an extremely powerful workstation card beyond all the CS4 benefits.

We do appreciate that Nvidia is trying to tackle a new market with Adobe CS acceleration though, and we definitely feel that there will be more value in a product like this once Adobe offloads more of their processing onto the GPU. Adobe is just scratching the surface of what the GPU can do with image and video related tasks, and we feel once CS5 or perhaps CS6 come around, there will likely be some killer features that make a higher-end GPU a necessity due to the significant performance benefits offered over any CPU. Today though, CS4 really isn’t tapping the massive amount of horsepower offered by the Quadro CX most of the time.

If you have an older workstation and are using integrated graphics (but still have a free PCI Express x16 slot) or an older pro graphics card, throwing in a newer, compatible GPU will help CS4 and overall system performance significantly. It’s definitely an easier upgrade compared to buying a new CPU / memory subsystem or buying a new box altogether. However, this is obviously a smaller portion of the market, and relying on these customers likely won’t allow the CX line to gain a significant foothold in the short term.

Ultimately, the Quadro CX is a bit ahead of its time considering the amount of GPU acceleration offered by CS4 at the moment.  It’s an extremely powerful card which delivers excellent performance, but the value proposition isn’t quite there due to the premium being charged for the CX. Nvidia would have likely been better served to launch the Quadro CX in a much less expensive form with perhaps a less powerful GPU, especially given the economic conditions facing design and production houses today. With that said, we would love to see the Quadro CX lineup continue and thrive, as GPU accelerated (non-3D) software is becoming a bigger and bigger market, which this lineup could easily tap into.

  • Adobe CS4 GPU Acceleration
  • Premiere Pro GPU Encoding, Very Fast!
  • Excellent Overall Workstation Performance
  • Low Noise Cooling, Flexible Outputs
  • Expensive, Heavy Markup For RapiHD
  • CS4 Acceleration Limited Currently


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