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The REAL difference between workstation and desktop GPUs

The REAL difference between workstation and desktop GPUs


Recently, Icrontic got to visit AMD Markham, which is where the ATI brand (their graphics division) is headquartered. While there, we sat down with AMD Senior Marketing Manager Alexis Mather and approached him with many questions regarding workstation graphics cards to get real answers from the source.

Alexis explained that there are five major markets that AMD targets: Digital Content Creation (DCC), Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD), financial markets, oil and gas, and scientific (which includes medical and research). DCC is arguably the most well known market thanks to VFX-heavy films and computer animation, but this hardware plays a vital role in the other target markets as well.

Take oil and gas, for instance. At face value, it is difficult to understand why that market would need expensive hardware like this, but the answer makes sense. Oil companies use extremely high-resolution imaging to analyze possible oil fields. Workstation hardware is then used to process this imagery so engineers can assess the quantity of raw material in potential deposits, locate new deposits, and make decisions on where to start drilling. The process is similar to the scene in the beginning of “Jurassic Park” where they used subterranean imaging to locate raptor bones on the excavation site. The point is—you’re alive when they start to eat yo–err… The point is: Many different companies rely on workstation hardware to make very important decisions.

The big questions that so many people ask are: “Can’t I do these things with an equivalent consumer grade desktop GPU purchased at a fraction of the price?” and “what is so different about workstation hardware?”

The hardware

These questions are understandable given that GPUs like the ATI Radeon HD 4870 and the ATI FirePro v8750 appear to have the same GPU (RV770) and hardware configuration, but Alexis explained that there are several significant, but unapparent hardware-level differences.

First and foremost, workstation GPUs are different from desktop GPUs at the ASIC and board level. If you were to place a workstation ASIC (the actual GPU chip) in the equivalent consumer grade board, the card would exhibit different behavior. In other words, the GPU dies are not simply interchangeable.

Alexis continued by explaining that workstation hardware offers features that can’t be benchmarked, but really matter to users and cannot be had on desktop hardware. Such features include 30-bit color depth, framelock/genlock functionality, and hardware stereoscopic output. There are also brand-specific features that carry over from consumer grade GPUs to professional level: Where the ATI FirePro has exclusive technology like Eyefinity, NVIDIA has features like 3Dvision and SLI Multi-OS (the latter found exclusively on NVIDIA Quadro workstation boards). In some cases, both vendors have different implementations of similar technology, like SDI sync.


One of the major differences that doesn’t get talked about much is the stability and reliability of the hardware. Workstation GPUs are developed to operate under serious strain for long periods of time. With a workstation card, your system will simply be more stable in high-stress operating environments like 3D rendering. To an artist that must make a deadline, reliability can mean the difference between completing a shot, and losing a significant amount of money (not to mention time).


One of the final differences that Alexis explained to us is the high level of support given to workstation GPU owners. From a development standpoint, AMD works very closely with ISVs and software vendors. This close relationship between software developers and workstation teams assures that software changes won’t compromise hardware performance, and vice versa.

Workstation users also have access to a 24/7 phone support line, so when an artist is pulling overtime and waiting for that final render in the middle of the night, they won’t be left alone when support is needed. This kind of support goes well above and beyond that of the consumer level.


Often you will hear people say that drivers alone make the workstation GPUs. Though that is hardly the only difference, workstation drivers do, in fact, receive a significantly higher amount of developmental time and resources. The hardware performs as well as it does because the drivers are finely optimized for many different professional software packages. But what goes into refining the drivers for the professional?

Alexis explained that there are many engineers on the team that work to optimize the hardware’s performance in different graphics packages, and they specifically tweak the hardware to function in a manner that best fits the needs of the professional artist and other target markets.

For example, he talked about the OpenGL engineers and their process of developing the driver. Engineers will actually capture every OpenGL command that is sent to the driver during an application’s operation and then analyze the log to see what the application is trying to get the GPU to do. During analysis, engineers will tweak things like the instruction order to optimize the way a program is interacting with the GPU’s architecture. Studying these nuances allows the driver to achieve outstanding optimization for software performance.


So that brings us to the last big question: Why is workstation hardware so expensive? Despite workstation boards sharing similar hardware configurations to their desktop counterparts, the price may be increased significantly, in some cases four-fold. If manufacturing costs are as similar as alleged, are these companies price gouging and taking advantage of the professionals in the industry?

Alexis explained that the additional cost comes from all the exclusive features we have been talking about. It takes an incredible amount of people and time to work so closely with the ISVs to analyze and optimize the software. The resulting certifications are not cheap, Alexis told us, and there are many of people in the background making that process happen. Quite simply, these people need to be paid.

Final thoughts

When you buy a workstation GPU, you’re buying a lot more than just the hardware. You’re buying the peace of mind offered by hardware you know will be stable and reliable, hardware that has been tried and tested not only by its maker and hundreds of engineers, but by the creators of the software you’ll be running on it. That is something that cannot be expressed in terms of dollars.

Workstation GPUs are certainly not for everybody, and for that reason, the general public doesn’t need to know–and rarely knows–the real differences between workstation and desktop hardware. But professionals know that there is so much more to a workstation card than just fast numbers on a spec sheet. When there are thousands on the line in money and expectations alike, these professionals get serious about their tools, and when it comes to graphics hardware, workstation GPUs are worth every single dollar.


  1. faun
    faun brilliant and informative. A real conundrum for an art student/gamer such as myself, ive no idea what route to take now
  2. lordbean
    lordbean That was a good read. Clarifies a lot of things about workstation GPUs that aren't usually well known or understood by the general public.

    I have to say, if I was going into any kind of graphics production, I'd be thinking a lot more seriously about a workstation card after reading this article. Bobby has done an excellent job of shining the spotlight on what makes these cards worth the money.
  3. photodude
    photodude Another wonderful article discussing The reality of the difference in the workstation Cards vs consumer cards. This is a great follow up to the benchmark articles showing the difference with the DCC programs. too bad ATI and Nvidia's marketing departments haven't figured out how to explain this difference. If they did Businesses might quit wasting money on cheap junk that costs them more money in the long run with lost productivity and hardware replacements.

    With any type of engineering or Graphics related work, a Workstation Graphics card is a must. (if you game get a mobo that will take two cards have a workstation card for work and a gaming card for games)
  4. Leonardo
    Leonardo Very informative, very interesting. Thanks!
  5. peter I've recently purchasedIntel Core2Duo E4700 2.6GHz
    4GB DDR2 RAM
    Seagate 150GB HDD 7200RPM
    PNY Quadro FX 1700 512MB Graphics Card
    Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit
    19" DELL 1280x1024 LCD

    and play games just fine. L4D Maxed out 35-50fps,20 fps is the lowest i've sunk.
  6. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx I take it you're a 3D artist, Peter? How's the performance of the FX 1700 in applications?

    I haven't been able to test any mid-range Quadros, but I've heard good things about the FX 1700.
  7. Michael There's one thing I've always wondered about that wasn't answered, can workstation cards play games? I've heard that they were incompatible.
  8. Thrax
    Thrax Yes, but at about half the speed of desktop GPUs that are 1-2 generations older.
  9. photodude
    photodude in some cases workstation GPUs will have issues running games because the drivers and hardware are not optimized for game performance.

    The reverse is also true that desktop GPUs will have some issues running DCC/CAD applications (maya, CAD, Photoshop, solidworks, premier, etc) because the drivers and hardware are not optimized for DCC/CAD performance.

    in both cases the cards are capable of running programs they were not optimized for, but like thrax said, there is a performance hit for running it in a non-optimized environment
  10. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx I did some simple tests in games for our article on the FirePro v8750

    The FirePro v8750 ran at about 30-40FPS in TF2 at maximum settings while the GeForce 8800GTX rarely dropped below 60FPS at the same settings, despite the v8750 having significantly higher specs and is almost 2 generations newer.
  11. U A It's the same chip.

    It's a digital output.

    It's artificial market segmentation.
  12. primesuspect
  13. ardichoke
    ardichoke He must work at Brool Story, Co.
  14. mausman One should understand that Alexis Mather, AMD Senior Marketing Manager, is in the business of doing exactly what his job title suggests: saying whatever he is paid to say. This is not to imply that what Alexis is paid to say is necessarily untrue, rather that the truth (or falsity) of his statements has nothing whatever to do with his making them. Marketers are professionals antithetical to the profession of the philosopher -- seeking truth. Our system relies upon marketers, in business, in politics... (ever hear of 'damage containment'?). The people who manage 'damage control' projects are, essentially, marketers in the business of marketing political 'spin'.

    Alexis was told to say some things that make a lot of sense (whether or not they are true). For example: 24/7 support; certification; rigorous tweaking techniques employed in the development of drivers; the costly maintaining of symbiotic ISV-GPU planning and development.

    But when it came to the GPU itself, Alexis was put by his puppeteers into a very tight spot indeed. For either the GPUs are the same, or they are not the same. Hardware, of the GPU sort, cannot be different, 'sort of'. Either they are different, or they are not different. In fact, Alexis never actually said they were different. Alexis simply said that if you removed the GPU from a workstation board and placed it into its Radeon counterpart, they would function 'differently'.

    What baffles me is why the representatives of AMD-ATI Corporation did not tell Alexis to say simply:

    'Of course the processors are identical! That is why the identical naming protocol has been applied to each. What IS different is... '

    And then go on about drivers, support, testing, etc. What's wrong with that? Why does the corporate community ALWAYS feel obliged to fudge the truth?

    The mystery of staggering differences in some benchmarks has a concise explanation, surely. Why does not ATI turn on the lights so that all can clearly see the cause? If the contentions about customer support and the research that goes into driver development, and so on, really are presenting honest reasoning for the vast price difference between the two boards (which, to me, seems entirely credible), the explanation concerning wide benchmark discrepancies would be received, not with anger but, rather, with fascination.

    In short, I really do not think that the question as to WHY certain benchmarks are paradoxically different has been answered, at all.
  15. chrisWhite
    chrisWhite I like that perspective Mausman, the more I've been thinking about it since this article first went live the less I really care if the hardware is identical (and I'm not saying it is). It's not like AMD or NVIDIA are going to reserver super special tech for their high-end professional cards and I really don't see why paying for very focused drivers and tweaks for pro performance is a bad thing.

    Then again, I've been quite happy running game cards on my personal systems for a while now. In a studio setup I do prefer workstation cards with the full support, there just isn't enough time to dick around with a gaming card when something goes wrong.
  16. DigiDucky ATI does not give 24 hour support by mail at least.

    And why can't the FirePro or Quadro cards run the gaming drivers or emulate gaming drivers for other software? You should be at least able to play games on your Pro card just as well as the consumer card. Not loose the ability to play games. As far as I know there are several different profiles in the Command Center for different CAD 3D etc. programs. Why can't they make a profile that simulates the consumer drivers as well?
  17. Latika Janardhan Of course there are differences between GPU's on professional and consumer graphics cards. The GPU on either platforms are "differently enabled". For a more detailed analysis, see this article: www.nvidia.com/object/quadro_geforce.html. It is sad that Alex didn't go deep into this.
  18. sfaz I still think that they take advantage of people that need this cards the price is just too high compare to a regular gaming gpu. but its an exclusive market.
    and if u need a workstation card, u can probably afford it.
  19. UPSLynx
    sfaz wrote:
    and if u need a workstation card, u can probably afford it.

    Exactly. Not to mention, these GPUs (espeically the high end ones) are not really tailored to individual users, but rather suited for professional use in studios and such, where a big company will probably buy in bulk.

    If a single user really wants a powerful workstation GPU, they're probably best off buying a full workstation with the GPU included, like the HP Z series workstations or a Boxx workstation.
  20. Miguel Once the research and all the work of the engineers is done it can be implemented in all the cards with no aditional cost (it could be done by changing only firmware and driver).

    For me the real question is why they do not give the option of drivers and firmware for ALL the cards? This way, any one would have both options, games or DCC optimization and swap at anytime.
  21. primesuspect
    primesuspect Not necessarily, Miguel. If you read/watched the videos, you'd know that there are actual board level changes that go into workstation cards.
  22. DeeDee sfaz, Lynx, don't forget there are a lot of freelancers in this business for whom every dollar spent on hardware is a dollar that comes off their paycheque. Whether or not one can get away with a consumer grade GPU is important in that situation.
  23. Mike Miguel, you're absolutely right. He goes on to talk about "differences" at the board level and ASIC in that manner that makes him seem vindicated and the issue addressed, however: popping certain traces on an ASIC (which makes him feel smart to say) doesn't cost an extra arm and leg.

    If you want to quit hearing ridiculous junk "explanations" about "better support" and "more engineering" and "teams of people" then just "pretend" you're hearing this instead:

    "We don't do any of those things for the consumer boards."


    That should shut 'em up, but it won't bring the price down.
  24. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx ISV certifications alone are a big reason for the higher price tags. Co-ops with software vendors that go well above what their consumer counterparts have in compatibility and functionality. Consumer graphics cards don't get tested on each individual game (just think back to how often there are problems with one model of graphics card on any game out there. It has happened to all of us).

    But you are right - consumer boards don't have those things. You don't have 24 hour support because to a gamer, they don't need it. They don't have expanded compatibility testing because there isn't millions of dollars at stake.

    Workstation hardware is for professionals. Environments where deadlines can make or break a company. Environments where needing tech support on a renderfarm at 4am can save a studio from losing an entire days worth of work. The places that need workstation hardware do things that you don't do, and because of that, their needs are far, far different than what all the gamers and enthusiasts of the world think they need.

    It's a night and day difference in what these cards are designed to do and who they're for. They're in entirely different markets, and entirely different leagues.
  25. michael I'm still skeptical. I'm a game art and design student. I run maya on both a home gaming PC with an intel dual core CPU and one ATI 5870 card, and in the design lab at school where all the machines have xeon processors and workstation cards. Maya is a pretty light program for most of what we use it for, and if it runs any faster in the lab I can't tell. Granted I've never tried rendering out feature length films and comparing the times - maybe the lab would be faster there. But who cares, if I needed to do a long render at home I'd run it while I sleep. As I see it the real benefit of the workstation cards is the tech support. If you're a company or a studio, the extra cost for that peace of mind may well balance out. For a student, amateur, modder, gamer, go with your favorite consumer gaming graphics card - preferably one with a long warranty.

    Also the workstation cards can run games just fine - the lab has steam, and most of the valve games installed on every station. I've played Vindictus on it, and a lot of people used to play WOW and LOL in there between classes. Performance did not seem noticeably better or worse than on my home PC.

    Almost forgot - never had any problems with Maya crashing at home. At school crashes were frequent on some machines/for some users. Noticed during modelling class and then animation class the next semester (25-30 students doing the same thing on nigh identical machines). Professors had to waste a lot of time trying to figure out problems (which you really can't) when they should have been teaching. It was noticeably disruptive. So I don't know what they mean about having better drivers on workstation cards. The lab PC hard drives are actually VMs run off a server and get wiped and reset to default config on reboot (weekly if not daily). So I doubt it was a problem with the individual machines (they are all identical, and my own lab workstation had no crashes through either semester - and frequent crashes were in the minority I should clarify, maybe for or five out of thirty machines).
  26. Rob-Merritt
    Rob-Merritt From my experience, packages like 3Dmax and Maya can get by on consumer gaming cards. However the second you step into CAE country and start running Solidworks or ProE you need a workstation video card. Solidworks in particular is rather picky when it comes to videocards and drivers.
  27. Thrax
    michael wrote:
    I've played Vindictus on it, and a lot of people used to play WOW and LOL in there between classes. Performance did not seem noticeably better or worse than on my home PC.

    Games that would run just as well on a toaster.
  28. Sonorous
    Sonorous Firstly, great article.

    Secondly, I think in the case of the gamer who dabbles in graphic design and animation and high end desktop card is more than adequate. I have been using 3DSMax for almost ten years for personal renderings and all of my desktop cards have preformed at least to my expectations with only a few problems here and there. That being said I have also used workstation cards to render some of the same scenes as well as different ones. I would consider myself to have a limited working experience with such software but I can tell you that workstation cards that I have used preform far better with the software I have used. I can't give you an exact figure on things like crashes and program lock ups, but the difference is enough to be noticeable. The data is there to support the fact that desktop cards and workstation cards preform better for different applications. The old adage "never mix business with pleasure" defiantly applies to your choice in picking a graphics card for your needs.
  29. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx Glad you enjoyed it, Sonorous.

    This is the bottom line on the matter - If you're a gamer, and you're using your machine for at-home pro graphics uses in addition to hardcore gaming, then you're already outside the realm of customer base for workstation GPUs. Workstation cards don't care about the gamer, and consumer cards don't care about the professionals. It will never matter if one will play games better than the other, or if one will animate better than the other (they do, btw), it's about buying the right tool for the job. Giant studios and architecture firms buy workstation cards because the benefits that differentiate matter to them. They don't care about having fast OpenGL performance - they want things like perfect uptime and 24/7 support.

    This is like buying a Dodge Stratus and trying to enter it into a high performance motor sport rather than buying a BMW 320si. Sure, they're both cars with 4 cylinder engine and they both technically are capable of doing the same things, but one was clearly made for the track, and the other was clearly made for the commute.
  30. fatcat
    fatcat LOL at Stratus vs 320si

    I think UPSLynx means:

    Workstation GPU =

    Gaming GPU =
  31. Thrax
    Thrax As an authority on gaming GPUs, I mean:

  32. fatcat
    fatcat I think you mean CrossfireX ;)
  33. Sonorous
    Sonorous mmmmmmmm.... a Zonda....:respect::respect::respect:
  34. TheWhiteRose000 if the hardware is potentially the same in general, couldn't one simply modify the cooling system on it for better performance, and tweak the workstation software to work on a GTX590 ect to get the exact same thing but in a sense "Jail Broken"?


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