Videoguys' DIY – GPU

Picking the right graphics card for your NLE workstation

One of the most often asked questions we get asked on our tech support and sales lines (as well as in emails, online forums and user groups) is what is the best graphics card for NLE. The answer is actually pretty simple, once you understand why. It all depends on the NLE software you plan on running, what kind of video work you do and if you are also going to be using any additional hardware in your system.

Before we get into the specifics of which card is right for you, lets take a little history lesson on graphics cards and video editing.

Both nVidia and ATI make great graphic cards with very good Open GL support. These are the two top brands we recommend for video editing. OpenGL has become very important for video editing.

quadrofx540_board-bob.gifnVidia and OpenGL
nVidia has gone the Quadro FX route. These are special versions of their graphics cards optimized for OpenGL. nVidia works very closely with software vendors and workstation giants like HP to make sure they are delivering as much OpenGL power and that the software guys have the opportunity to take advantage of this. So you see Avid, Adobe, BorisFX, Magic Bullet and other video software tap into the Quadro performance more and more. Animation and compositing software engineers have also optimized their code for OpenGL

ATI and OpenGL
ATI has actually taken a very different route. Back in the early 2000s (I feel funny typing that), ATI realized that they could allow an NLE to tap into their graphics card for additional performance and features. Initially they were going to develop their own NLE plug-in technology for the graphics cards. At about the same time they started working very closely with Pinnacle. They worked with Pinnacle to deliver the customized graphic chip for the Pro-One card that delivered the real-time 3D transitions and effects. At the same time they kept working on ways to allow software developers to tap into their GPUs. The first real-time hardware for Edition was a customized ATI graphics card. Over time the Pinnacle (now Avid) guys figured out how to fully tap into the graphics card for real-time performance with Liquid. While nVidia cards also worked, an off the shelf ATI 1800/1900 series gaming card outperforms an nVidia Quadro card costing significantly more with Avid Liquid.

Matrox and OpenGL
When Matrox was developing the Axio and RT.X2 they planned on tapping into OpenGL for real-time features. Matrox chose to copy the Pinnacle/ATI method rather then the pure OpenGL approach of nVidia. Which is why they also recommend an ATI gaming card over a Quadro. The funny thing here is that Matrox has a graphics card division, and they are NOT recommended for use with these new cards. Why? Because Matrox graphics cards have poor OpenGL support. We do not recommend Matrox graphics cards for video editing because they are so weak when it comes to OpenGL

Graphics card technology moving forward
So today we find ourselves at a crossroads. ATI gaming cards have the "hooks" to allow NLE developers to tap into the performance of their cards. nVidia Quadro cards are tweaked out for the best possible Open GL support. So the software developer has a tough choice to make; go for the semi-proprietary ATI method or develop for the OpenGL standard and nVidia tweaks. Of course the answer we all want is both, but there are only so many man-hours of time that can be dedicated to this. So we have to make our choice in graphics card based on the software we will use.

Down the road I'd love to see the encoding engines tap into GPU as well as CPU. We're all delivering content in multiple formats now. From iPod Video to youtube, to DVD to eventually HD. That's alot of encoding - anything and everything that makes that go faster is a big benefit to us.

Now that AMD owns ATI we don't really know where this is going. Will this evolve into an ATI/AMD vs Intel/nVidia situation? Lets not forget about SLI & Crossfire. If we can have our NLE tap into GPU, why not eventually tap into 2 GPUs for even more performance!?!

Picking the right GPU for you

That's it for our graphics card history lesson. Now lets get into the meat of the article. What is the best graphics card for your NLE workstation? I’m going to answer this question based on the software / hardware solutions you use.

  • Adobe Premiere Pro and the Adobe Production Studio
    Premiere Pro editors should use a QuadroFX card. The card you select will depend on how much compositing, 3D transitions and After Effects work you plan on doing.

    The QuadroFX540/560 cards are great choice for budget editors. You can use the breakout box for real-time playback to a TV monitor in either SD or HD directly from the Premiere Pro timeline. This is a very cool feature!!

    The FX1500 card also has the breakout box and it is a better choice for you if you plan on using After Effects and creating videos with lots of 3D effects and transitions. I feel the FX1500 is worth the extra investment for Adobe Production Studio users.

    If you are going to be working with the Cineform Aspect HD the FX540/560 or FX1500 is the way to go!

    After Effects power users will want to go with the QuadroFX3450 card or higher. The more AE work you do the more benefit you’ll get form a more powerful QuadroFX card.
  • Matrox RT.X2 or Axio & Adobe Premiere Pro
    If you are going to be integrating the Matrox RT.X2 or Axio LE hardware then the best choice for you is the ATI1900 series cards.

    As I mentioned earlier, Matrox has taken the ATI approach for GPU acceleration and as a result you will get better performance with an ATI1900 series vs an nVidia card at the same price level. I do have one exception here. If you are going to use the RT.X2 and you are a heavy after effects user, then you will find the QuadroFX 3450 card the best choice. You are going to need the added OpenGL performance for your compositing work.
  • Avid Xpress Pro & Avid Media Composer
    If you are going to be setting up a workstation for either Avid Xpress or Media Composer the best advice is to select one of the QuadroFX cards recommended by Avid. While I realize at times this may result in selecting a card that is slightly older, it will save you headaches down the road.

    For video editing that would be the Quadro FX1400 card. I’m a big fan of the new FX1500 card with the video breakout box. The box allows you to output your timeline in SD or HD to a video monitor with component inputs. The Quadro FX1500 card is not currently approved by Avid, but our customers are having good success with it.

    For Avid editors who will also be doing a lot of compositing, you should consider stepping up to the Quadro FX3450 card. It has even more OpenGL performance and you will be glad you mad the extra investment. This is also true for Avid editors who plan on adding the Studio Toolkit which includes Avid FX (Based on Boris Red) and Avid 3D (nased on Softimage 3D animation software).

    For those on a budget, the Quadro FX540 and FX560 cards can be used with Xpress Pro. They do not have as much memory or performance as the FX1400/1500 series, but they will get the job done.
  • Avid Liquid
    Liquid was the first NLE to take advantage of GPU performance and it leverages the GPU more than any other video editor. As a result, it also means that for the best Liquid editing experience, you have to give it the GPU power it craves. As I mentioned in our history lesson, Liquid hooks into ATI the best. If you’re going with Liquid, put an ATI1900 card in your system for best results. If you are on a budget, a less expensive ATI gaming card like the X800/900 series will also work. Keep in mind that for HD work, Liquid depends on the GPU for a lot of the lifting, so get at least 256 megs of RAM.

    A little side note on Dual graphics cards and Liquid: As of this article Avid has no official support for dual graphics cards, either SLI or crossfire. I’m not buying it - if any NLE program can and should benefit from dual graphics cards it’s Liquid. I know of several users who have experimented with dual graphics cards and they all report improved performance. It just seems to me that Avid should be able to optimize Liquid to tap into both GPUs for an added level of real-time HD editing beyond anything else possible without customized hardware.
  • Canopus Edius
    For Edius and Edius NX you will want to get a pretty good graphics card with at least 128 megs of RAM on board. It doesn’t really make a difference if it is ATI or nVidia. In the past Canopus had plug-ins that tapped directly into the graphics card for accelerated rendering. I’m not sure how or if they plan on expanding this technology in the future.
  • Sony Vegas
    As of the latest release - version 7 which just started shipping, Sony Vegas does not utilize GPU performance in any way. So there is no reason to spend more than $300 on a graphics card unless you need it for other applications or plug-ins. You can use the break out box in the QuadroFX541/560/1500 to drive a television monitor while you are editing.
  • Plug-Ins
    It isn't just the NLE software vendors that are writing code optimized for GPU and OpenGL. Some of the leading NLE Plug-In companies are also tapping into this power source.
  • Boris FX
    With the introduction of Boris Red 3 GL, the engineers over at Boris have been optimizing their software for OpenGL and specifically QuadroFX cards. If you’re a Boris user, then you want at least an FX1500 card. If you depend heavily on Red or Blue, then it’s worth going for an FX3450 or higher card.
  • Red Giant
    Red Giant software engineers have been optimizing both Magic Bullet and Knoll Light Factory for GPU acceleration and even real-time playback. They take advantage of both nVidia and ATI based OpenGL solutions. In the latest release of Light Factory 2.5 they are achieving real-time playback with Quadro FX3450 or higher and ATI 1800/1900 series cards.


Selecting the right graphics card for your NLE workstation is one of the most important decisions you will make. When in doubt, I suggest getting a little more GPU power than you need. It won’t hurt you today, and it will most likely save you money down the road, because you won’t have to upgrade your graphics card if additional OpenGL performance is needed. Odds are that you’re going to be using more than one NLE and perhaps many different plug-ins. Over the next year or two I expect to see more GPU related features added and more software optimized to take advantage of OpenGL and GPU.

If you are planning on going with a laptop editing solution, there is good news for you. Today you can configure laptops with advanced ATI and nVidia mobile graphics solutions that provide OpenGL support. You won’t be able to get the same levels you can from a dedicated PCIe card in a workstation, but at least it won’t hold you back.

For more information on building your own DIY workstation, make sure you read our DIY4 dual core face off article that compares AMD vs Intel dual core machines, and our upcoming DIY5 Intel Core 2 Duo (Conroe) workstation.

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