Apple, Companies, Graphics, Reviews

NVIDIA Quadro 4000 for Mac Reviewed: A Silver Bullet

As far as my professional experience goes, graphics solutions for Mac computer have always been rather "modest", to say the least.

Contemporary applications such as Adobe’s Creative Suite 5.5 harness the power of GPU in a big way and that was the trigger in our decision to test the new Quadro 4000 for Mac. Since even the latest Mac Pro is exclusively being powered by ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics cards (note to Apple: AMD shut down the ATI brand and now consumer products are exclusively known as AMD Radeon), harnessing the real power of the GPU in Adobe’s suite was simply not an option.

In this article, you’ll see what difference does the new GPU in an older top-of-the line Mac Pro. Why spend thousands of dollars on a new Mac Pro system when you need to spend additional money to get the GPU power going…

NVIDIA Quadro 4000 for Mac
NVIDIA Quadro 4000 for Mac and Old-school GeForce 8800GT for Mac
NVIDIA Quadro 4000 for Mac and Old-school GeForce 8800GT for Mac

NVIDIA GeForce and Quadro cards were the default option for Mac Pro computers in 2008 and 2009. With the switch of key technical people from AMD to Apple, the tide began to change and Apple solely offers Radeon cards today (not even the professional AMD FirePro line).

In order to address the needs of numerous users of Mac Pro computers, NVIDIA released Quadro 4000 for Mac, the card with identical capabilities as its version for PC users.

Quadro 4000 is based on NVIDIA GF104 graphics chip, with 256-enabled CUDA cores, 256-bit memory controller connecting to 2GB GDDR5 memory. The bandwidth is set at 89.6GB/s, which is quite an impressive jump from the initial 57.6GB/s offered by the GeForce 8800GT. Bear in mind that fastest offered graphics card on spankin’ new Macs offers 128-bit memory interface and 76.8GB/s of video memory bandwidth.

In order to deal with single-slot cooling limitations, NVIDIA opened a hole at the back of the card - every bit of fresh(er) air helps.
In order to deal with single-slot cooling limitations, NVIDIA opened a hole at the back of the card – every bit of fresh(er) air helps.

As you can see in an image above, the cope with the heat produced by the GPU which usually ends up paired with a dual-slot heatsink, NVIDIA used the trick from GeForce GTX 480 – open a slot at the back which takes the extra air in. Even though it did produced fair share of heat, GeForce 8800GT comes without the mentioned opening.

The Test System
Our intention was to see the difference between NVIDIA GeForce 8800GT, the original card which came with our 8-core 3.0GHz Mac Pro. Tested system had 8GB of FB-DIMM DRAM with four HDD’s and internal three-disk RAID0 with roughly 260MB/s real-world writing speed. This was the best Apple could offer in winter of 2008 (all options were maxed out), and the system aged well – handling tasks just as well as the new Mac Pro (which is another story altogether).

This was connected to our 42" Panasonic Plasma TV and Dell 2408WFP displays. All displays were hardware calibrated using Datacolor’s Spyder3Elite. In this test, we’ll only use Quadro 4000 for Mac. Further testing will involve running Quadro 4000 for Mac both as Master and as Slave card in DaVinci Resolve software.
Final Cut Pro and GPU: Mix well? 
As far as current Final Cut Studio is concerned, Apple looks like still mostly deaf, dumb and blind with harvesting today’s GPU power and performance enhancements were poor. With Final Cut Pro, Motion and Color, the only performance difference worth mentioning was in Color and we doubt it had more to do with 2GB of ultra-fast GDDR5 memory, rather than the GPU optimizations themselves. Apple recently released the new version of Final Cut Pro, the X version – but the performance and capabilities leave a lot to be desired. You can see a video from producers of Conan O’Brian commenting the FCPX. We belive FCPX is far from being ready and the users are now paying for what is essentially a beta.

Adobe Creative Suite 5.5: 3rd Gen GPU Support
Adobe invested heavily in GPU development with the CS4.0 and 5.0, the initial versions offered limited amount of GPU-assistance. The arrival of CS5.5 marks a more polished, better performing piece of software than their competition. Adobe used all the right ingredients and We focused on video pipeline using Adobe Premiere CS5.5.
The difference between the original system and the Quadro 4000 for Mac was more than obvious. First we used the 1080p footage scaled down from original 4K footage shot on our RED One camera, converting it to Prores 4444. It was a pleasure to see 12 filters stacked on one high definition video and all in real time. Very nice indeed.

Two layers of 1080p Prores 4444 with 10-11 filters on each clip thrown just for testing purposes and it all rolls in realtime, not too shabby.
Two layers of 1080p Prores 4444 with 10-11 filters on each clip thrown just for testing purposes and it all rolls in real-time, not too shabby.

Just for kicks we added the second layer and used "Basic 3D" to re-arrange them in space and the new Quadro card really showed its potential, allowing for real-time work and less fuss. There is no way this could have been achieved with 8800GT or any non-CUDA based GPU (we also use 3870 and 5770), it would choke. This doesn’t mean "any" type of filters, which people often forget. Some types of filters draw more, some less juice. We focused on color corrections, blur/sharpen and also used basic 3D – it works like a charm.
It was a really pleasant experience seeing real-time Gaussian blur adjustments even with 10 filters stacked underneath it. The amount of filters added in Premiere CS5.5 was even an overkill for what one does in an edit suite, because for more stuff you’ll go to different software anyway.

With h.264 situation is almost the same – excellent performance all-round. The performance is reduced compared to Prores workflow, but only by roughly 10-20 % – stacking filters of the same kind, which is still a great achievement, considering the processing power required to chew through H.264.

4K Workflow: Still Needs Redrocket
It is important to mention that for fully unlocking the potential of Quadro in raw .r3d 4K workflow you will need a RED Rocket card. You won’t get rea
l-time 4K RAW with just Quadro. We did our test without this card and the improvements are still visible, though. With raw .r3d you get a slight boost, not major but noticeable. How usable, depend on one’s own style of cutting. After that we converted RAW RED One footage to ProRes LT 4K 16:9 (4096×2304). The reason for choosing LT and not 4444 ProRes to be less dependent on RAID disk performance.

First we chose to be smartasses and leave the "playback resolution" to "full", although our preview monitor is 1080p. 3-4 filters work really fine, but when turning off the "smartass" mode and reducing playback resolution to half, (which is still more than the 1080p monitor can show with 4096×2304/2 being 2096×1152)… this card shines even working with 4K… 10 basic filters without a sweat. Wow.

For conclusion of this first part in series, if you have set finances aside for a new Mac Pro and still run 2-3 year old Mac Pro, the ideal choice to spend the $$$ will not be a new Mac Pro, rather opt to spend only $749 for NVIDIA’s Quadro 4000 for Mac and a RED Rocket card (if 1080p resolution is your primary thing, you don’t need a Rocket card.

To get back to that question at the beginning of the article – Can the Quadro 4000 for Mac make a three year old Mac workstation a much stronger beast for video workflow?

The answer is a most definite yes.

BSN* Editors’ Choice 2011: NVIDIA Quadro 4000 for Mac
BSN* Editors' Choice 2011: NVIDIA Quadro 4000 for Mac