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It has been a bittersweet few months in workstation graphics. On the one hand, long-time leader 3dlabs has finally thrown in the towel, as owner Creative ‘refocuses on the growing mobile graphics market’. But while it’s sad to see one of the founding fathers of professional 3D acceleration bite the dust, it also indicates something much more positive: that the products from the mainstream brands are now just as good, if not better.
One of the key brands in 3dlabs downfall has been ATi’s FireGL, the latest generation of which has just arrived. The V7300 and V7350 both use technology derived from the X1800 series of consumer cards, although customised for the professional workstation market. The FireGL V7350 is particularly notable for being the first mainstream accelerator to sport a whopping 1GB of on-board memory, while the V7300 offers a more mainstream 512MB.
The primary benefit of the 1GB of RAM on the FireGL V7350 is that it allows extremely large texture sets, which can be very important in 3D animation. However, both FireGL cards can support absolutely stupendous resolutions. If you thought Dell’s 3007WFP was massive, its 2,560 x 1,600 is still behind the V7350’s maximum capabilities. The FireGL card can support monitors with resolutions up to 3,840 x 2,400 via dual-link DVI, and it has two outputs. However, the ATi can only maintain this resolution at 48Hz, so 2,560 x 1,600 at 60Hz is a more realistic maximum, which nVidia’s Quadro FX 4500 can match. This may sound like overkill, but if you’re working on film-resolution 3D frames at 4,000 pixels across, the higher your native desktop resolution the better.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that now the volume consumer market drives the development of new GPUs, professional workstation cards from ATi and nVidia lag behind their gaming products by a few months. As a result, while the consumer is now basking in the glory of the X1900XTX using the latest R580 GPU, the FireGL V7300 and V7350 use a GPU derived from its R520 predecessor, which was so horribly delayed in the consumer space it nearly came out after its successor. So the V7350 has just 16 pixel pipelines and eight vertex pipelines. In contrast, nVidia’s G70-based Quadro FX 4500 has 24 and eight pipelines respectively. Still, the ATi card runs with higher clocks, using a 600MHz core and 1,300MHz memory, where nVidia’s Quadro FX 4500 operates at 470MHz and 1,050MHz respectively, offering some compensation.
But although the rapid development of gaming GPUs has swept the professional market along in its wake, the two worlds do still have different needs. Whereas gaming now focuses on shading to create the eye candy in the latest titles, professionals rely on raw geometry and texturing power. So while ATi’s latest R580, with its 48 shader units, is an absolute champ at accelerating Direct3D games, it’s questionable whether it would be so effective in the workstation market. This is presumably why ATi hasn’t skipped a generation with the FireGL and gone straight to the R580 core. The R520 might be more appropriate for this market anyway.