The Difference Between Gaming Vs Professional Graphics Cards

When buying a new graphics card for your desktop computer, brand and model aren’t your only choice. There are two different kinds of video graphics cards available, known generally as “gaming” and “professional.” As the names imply, each is customized with its target audience in mind; gaming cards are meant to play computer games and video at the highest settings possible, and professional cards allow 3D programs like computer-aided design to operate quickly and efficiently.

Graphics Card Hardware

Both of the major United States graphics card manufacturers have gaming and professional card lines. Nvidia’s GeForce cards are designed for gamers while professionals get the Quadro line. AMD/ATI consumers get the Radeon gaming and FireGL/FirePro professional cards. Some specialty manufacturers like Matrox also make specialized professional cards. Physically, there’s not a lot of difference between gaming and professional cards — manufacturers release new versions of both that take advantage of new processors and RAM technology. The cards differ in size and potency, but generally speaking, newer, more expensive cards are more powerful in both gaming and professional applications.

Graphics Software

While gaming and professional cards are roughly equal in terms of physical hardware, software is a different matter. To understand these differences you need to know about software tools called Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs for short. APIs allow software makers to build upon an established and standardized base of code to take advantage of hardware. In Windows, the most popular gaming API is Microsoft’s DirectX, while the standard professional 3D API for programs like Maya and 3dsMAX is OpenGL. The different drivers written for gaming and professional cards are designed to maximize effective use of the DirectX and OpenGL APIs respectively. While both gaming and professional cards will work on basic settings on all 3D programs, gaming cards work best for games and professional cards work best for 3D creative software — usually by a wide margin.

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Prohibitive Cost

One of the biggest practical considerations when choosing a graphics card is cost. Even though the hardware on gaming and professional cards is very similar, professional cards are much, much more expensive, with most costing over $1,000. Even the most powerful gaming cards are in the $500 to $600 range, while top-of-the-line professional cards can cost over $3,000. The reasons for this are two-fold: one, professional cards have access to OpenGL optimized drivers, specialized software that is costly to make. Secondly, 3D professionals are expected to have powerful computers with extremely expensive creative software packages. Compared to a $5,000 computer running a $2,000 software package, an expensive video card isn’t such a big issue.

Which Card is Right For You?

If you enjoy computer games and don’t use professional 3D modeling software, there’s no reason to consider a professional graphics card. Not only will the specialized professional drivers be a hindrance on video game performance, the extra cost of a professional card will essentially be wasted. Gamers are better off buying the newest, fastest gaming card they can afford. If you intend to use professional 3D modeling software, a professional card is ideal — but the high cost may be an issue. If you’re just starting out on professional 3D modeling, or if you simply can’t afford a professional card, you may want to consider a cheaper gaming card. 3D programs may be sluggish and/or aliased, but they will render and output eventually.