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Graphics Cards and the Quadro DCC Explained

John Edgar Park not only delves into the history and purpose of graphics cards but also reviews nVidia's Quadro DCC, the latest in graphics cards.

The latest workstation graphics card from nVidia, the Quadro DCC, has been designed with the professional 3D artist in mind. The name DCC stands for Digital Content Creation. Anyone who spends their days and nights making 3D models and animation for film, broadcast or video games fits that description and will very likely find the Quadro DCC to be an excellent choice of graphics card.

Based upon the GeForce3 architecture, nVidia has designed this 64MB reference card for real-time 3D content creation. This gives the 3D artist instant feedback when creating, texturing, lighting and animating large models and environments. "We develop a core chipset architecture and then find ways to leverage that architecture," says Brian Burke of nVidia. The GeForce3 has been extended into the PC and Macintosh markets as a hardcore gaming card, the NV20 is the version found in the upcoming Microsoft Xbox and now the Quadro DCC is the professional workstation version. What separates the Quadro from its gaming cousins is full support of OpenGL and Direct3D functionality in high-end applications like discreet 3ds max, Alias|Wavefront Maya, Side Effects Software Houdini, Avid Softimage and NewTek Lightwave.

The Quadro DCC. Courtesy of and © nVidia.

Graphics Card Basics

What does a graphics card do? Essentially, graphics cards are the gateway between your computer's motherboard and your monitor. In 1987 IBM created the VGA standard which gave us 256 colors on screen. Next came the SVGA standard, providing us with our current palate of 16.8 million colors. But the graphics processing still took place in the CPU of the computer.

Since then, major evolutionary steps have taken place, allowing users to quickly manipulate large graphic files. By offloading the graphics processing tasks to the graphics card (now sometimes referred to as graphics processing unit or GPU) the CPU is free to handle other tasks. GPUs like the Voodoo and TNT chipsets were among the first to gain wide acceptance in gaming and the Permedia and Oxygen were two early workstation class chipsets. What the GPU does is draw the polygons that are formed by vertex sets, attach textures to these polygons, calculate the lighting values in the scene and then paint those pixels onto your monitor.

So, the GPU is really a co-processor that handles the heavy polygon crunching tasks and sends signals up to the monitor. The Quadro DCC can add special effects to the image in the form of nfiniteFX programmable pixel and vertex shaders. These effects can render environment reflections, bump maps, multi-textures and others in real-time without ever taxing the CPU. Think of Terminator 2-style liquid metal (without ever having to click the render button) and you'll get an idea of what it's like.

The chameleon's changing skin illustrates just a few of the many stunning effects possible with GeForce3's nfiniteFX engine. Courtesy of and © nVidia.

Installation

I installed the Quadro DCC into a 1.7Ghz Pentium 4 workstation with 768MB of RAM running Windows 2000. It fits in the AGP slot of the motherboard and then connects to a CRT (standard VGA D-shell 15 pin) or digital flat panel monitor (DVI-I), as well as a TV through the S-Video port. Next comes the drivers dance as Windows 2000 and the Quadro DCC try to decide on which driver to install. After a few different tries, I found one that worked. The nVidia Website now has the latest ones available for download.

Also provided with the Quadro DCC is an application-specific driver for 3ds max called MAXtreme. This driver is fully optimized for 3ds max and allows it to do things that are otherwise impossible, such as real-time fog and realistic transparency. If you are running an application in OpenGL, such as Maya, Softimage or Lightwave, the Windows Display Properties nVidia panel has specific presets to enhance performance in those applications.

Performance

I ran some standard benchmarking tests that indicate viewport framerate under a variety of simulated working conditions (i.e., wireframe, shaded, textured and lit models and animations). The results were in keeping with the published stats for the card which is to say, very good numbers. But the real proof is in actually creating models and animations and seeing how things run. I used 3ds max 4.2 and Maya 4 to build and animate complex polygonal, NURBS and subdivision surface models, add textures and lights, navigate around scenes and place cameras. In this typical workflow the Quadro DCC felt very agile.

Maya's interactive paint and sculpture tools were responsive and fun to use, thanks to the Quadro DCC's fast redraw speeds. Dense polygon meshes with over 20,000 faces were quick to update, and only a tessellation to 50,000 polygons stressed the card and caused stuttering framerates.

The performance in 3ds max was also excellent across the board it's no wonder that the Elsa branded version of this card will be offered directly from discreet resellers. Normal modeling operations and viewport navigation ran very smoothly, and the ability to anti-alias wireframes through the MAXtreme control panel provides some relief from eyestrain. Scenes can combine RGB Multiply materials, transparency, colored lighting, specular maps, fog and particles -- making 3ds max look more like a next-generation game than a 3D program.

Hardware Shaders

Both 3ds max 4 and Maya 4 take advantage of nfiniteFX pixel and vertex shaders. 3ds max 4 uses the Hardware Shaders plug-in, while Maya allows you to use any texture as an environment map. This effect is impressive, and is useful in evaluating the surface of a model. More effects should make their way over from gaming as time goes on. One neat trick already possible in Maya 4 is realtime shadow casting. Man is it neat to see real-time shadows before you render! However, using too many spotlights with depth map shadows slows down performance.

These effects are the first of what will hopefully be a large variety of useful real-time shaders. Available on the development area of nVidia's Website is the NVEffects Browser that lets you preview some of the effects that programmers have built, such as cartoon shading, real-time refraction, fur shading and real-time glows. Unfortunately, until these are ported to the 3D applications, you can look, but not touch. (Looking at pre-release versions of Houdini 5 and Softimage xsi 2.0 at SIGGRAPH indicates that they too will take advantage of these nVidia effects.)

If anything was going to test a graphics card  it was Final Fantasy. Image courtesy of nVidia. © 2001 FFFP. All rights reserved. Square Pictures, Inc.

Conclusions

The Quadro DCC is a well-balanced, high-quality graphics card. It displays fast, accurate 2D performance in applications like Photoshop and After Effects. Its polygon pushing power is immense, as was demonstrated at SIGGRAPH where it was used to run scenes from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in real-time. One thing worth getting excited about is the future of pixel and vertex shader effects; it's just too bad that more of them aren't readily available now.

Without doing a side-by-side comparison with the Quadro DCC's main competitors, like the 3Dlabs Wildcat II 5000 and the ATI FireGL4, it's impossible to declare a winner in the workstation graphics card war. AWN will review those cards in the future and provide a graphics card roundup. That said, I strongly recommend the Quadro DCC to any 3D artist who wants fast performance and access to time-saving real-time effects.

Currently, you can get your hands on the Quadro DCC through nVidia's technology partner Elsa in the form of the Elsa Gloria DCC for $999.00. It is also available as an OEM option on the Hewlett-Packard HP Workstation x2000 and x4000.

John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.

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