The Great Graphics Debate

As a Technical Consultant in the CG industry, I have noticed that a large amount of people starting out in this industry overlook the importance of graphics kit. Seems silly to me. Especially as it is a large part of any visualizer's or 3D operator's workflow.

Generally speaking, NVidia's Quadro FX cards dominate the industries we serve, but why exactly? Part of the answer lies in the exceptional quality and spec of their professional range of cards, but the software used in this industry also plays an important part.

Over the years, the viewports of software like Maya, XSI, 3D Studio Max and others have become more and more graphically intensive. In order to support higher poly models, more complicated geometry and hardware-based workflow, many software companies work with the likes of NVIDIA to produce certified drivers.

This effectively means that each software package will have a driver that they consider to be, "tried, tested and true". The advantage that this gives the software companies is that they can design their software to work best on each platform. Using a specific driver for each graphical chipset means that it is easier to provide support and ensure best possible usability for the artist. The downside is that people using unsupported graphics units, may find only too late that they their hardware is not up to the task.

A professional graphics card is much more expensive than the entry-level, box-standard type card that comes with the average workstation. Technically speaking, our industries demand much more than your average end-user, which can result in problematic workflow for users on unsupported or non-certified hardware.

This doesn't mean that cheaper graphics cards don't work properly, and cannot be used with most software packages. It just means that they may not work and perform as well as expected. For example, a large number of users who experience sluggishness with large scene files may have to do things like working in wireframe as a workaround - which is less than ideal

The upshot of all this is that it pays to be extra vigilant when purchasing new kit. While the above may be fairly obvious to the seasoned professionals, less savvy budding artists need to be sure that they understand what they are buying.

2 Comments Dan Young

Posted by
Dan Young
Thu 30 Apr 2009: 3:44pm

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  • Lee Danskin:

    To be honest the Mac is a PC now under the hood, same graphics cards as PCs same processors as PCs etc… The bigger issue is OSX. Developers have always seen OSX as a poor cousin due to its lower market share, which means that most apps are developed on Microsoft operating systems (this is even worse with linux).

    In the past Macs running the G series Motorola chips were woefully underpowered for rendering, and 3D graphics in general. Now however, they only have one issue left, and that's price. Paying for gorgeous design for a box that sits in the machine room is hard to justify. Final Cut Pro has changed the way lots of people deal with video. Apple are slowly, but surely, making headway into that vague area known as motion graphics in a very similar way to how they came to dominate the DTP market.

    What you need to do as a designer is think about what you are aiming to do in the future and worry about the toolset (apps) and not what OS you run. The OS is irrelevant. At its most base level it moves files around and gives people dev tools to write apps. What is important is what you intend to do and what applications suit the workflow/business you intend to enter. For VFX and working in the film industry, it is an understanding of Linux, Maya, Nuke, Shake, Houdini, Photoshop and Zbrush (yes OSX, Windows). For a motion graphics guy, it is Photoshop, FCP, Motion, Shake, After Effects, Illustrator, Flash, Maya on an OSX environment due to FCP only being available on the Mac. These toolsets are only examples and there are lots of alternatives but the choice depends on what you intend to do with them or where you want your career to go.

    By the way, as far as videos are concerned, it doesn't get much better than viewing them with Quicktime on the Mac! And Macbook Pros with a tri-boot on OSX, Windows, Linux are just gorgeous... if a little pricey.

  • Michael Lynch:

    How does the Mac compare to the standard PC graphics card? As a designer, I find working on a Mac easier but know all too well that graphics and animations, more often than not, display and operate better on PC's.

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