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When building a workstation, one corner often cut is the video card. Sometimes, builders may opt to install only the most basic consumer video cards available, or not install one at all. In the latter case, onboard graphics do provide basic video functionality, but typically do not make the cut when high performance is required. So what should you look for when purchasing a dedicated workstation video card? We discuss the five criteria you should consider.

Memory Size

The amount of memory a video card features impacts how well it renders large resolutions. So what function does memory on a video card fulfill? It serves in a similar capacity as Random Access Memory (RAM), storing textures and images needed to render an image. It can affect the speed at which the computer can render a three dimensional model with textures, as the textures will need to be read from the storage drive instead of the quicker video card memory.

How much memory a workstation requires varies on the task at hand. Whereas a computer used primarily for browsing the Web will not need more than 1 GB of video memory, one used to perform render operations or multimedia editing will need much more—up to 4+ GB, depending on resolution. High-end workstation video cards can have up to 8 GB or more. One particular card is the NVIDIA Tesla K80, which features a total of 24 GB of video memory. In many cases, however, 2 to 4 GB of video memory will suffice for most purposes.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

A specialized processor not entirely dissimilar from a CPU, a GPU differs in that it executes graphics-related tasks. GPUs feature speed ratings that serve as performance metrics like CPUs. However, there are other technical details that can affect GPU performance as well, such as the design or “architecture” of the video card.

Two competing video card GPU manufacturers currently dominate the workstation video card market: NVIDIA and AMD. Choosing a video card with a GPU from either NVIDIA or AMD means that different drivers will be required and software compatibility will be different. When choosing between the two manufacturers, you may want to look at which one offers a GPU that better supports the software and tasks you need it for.

Clock Speed

Once you’ve chosen a GPU line, whether NVIDIA or AMD, you need to consider clock speed. Like how the speed of a CPU, a GPU’s speed determines how fast it performs tasks. As for how fast of a video card you need, it depends on the architecture of the card. For example, a 1 GHz video card can perform just as well as a 2 GHZ video that has inferior architecture.

Where it becomes a useful metric is when you compare two video cards utilizing the same GPU architecture. In that comparison, GPU clock speed becomes a primary metric for choosing between the two cards.

Multi-Monitor Capabilities

In the past, we’ve discussed adding support for multiple monitors. When purchasing a video card, you need to decide how many monitors  you will be connecting to the computer. If you need a video card that supports two monitors, there are many models available at relatively low prices. However, to support more than two screens, you will need to either buy multiple video cards or purchase a multi-display video card.  In the latter case, some cards can support up to six monitors.

Consumer vs. Workstation Video Cards

One question often asked about video cards is what differentiates a consumer video card from a workstation video card. For instance, what makes a Quadro K5000 or FirePro  W9100 better suited for professionals than a GeForce GTX 980 or Radeon R9 290X? After all, workstation GPU architecture is almost always based on consumer variants. But the differences lie primarily in the quality assurance and manufacturing processes, not the design.

First, you need to know that video cards can vary in terms of manufacturing quality—specifically the quality of the chips used in the GPU. Workstation video cards are built with top-quality parts and held to stricter QA standards. This leads to fewer errors and issues for the end-user. In addition, workstation video cards often utilize different software drivers than consumer graphics cards. These differences lead to better optimization to meet the stricter demands of professionals and content creators.

When choosing a video card for a workstation system, keep the above five considerations above in mind to speed up your decision making process. Consider the amount of memory required, the best GPU that suits your needs, the GPU level of performance you need, number of monitor outputs, and whether you need a workstation- or consumer-grade card.


So which workstation video card do you use in your everyday workstation?

Image by GBPublic_PR, from Flickr Creative Commons
Buying a Workstation Video Card: Five Things to Keep in Mind
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Buying a Workstation Video Card: Five Things to Keep in Mind
Buying a video card for a workstation isn't the same as purchasing one for a PC. We discuss what you need to know before buying a workstation video card.
Wallace Chu

Author Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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