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I recently purchased a Dell XPS-8300 (i7-2600|16 GB DDR3 RAM|64-bit Windows7) which I intend to use primarily for GIS programs. I bought a refurbished model because it was much cheaper and because I am able to choose a graphics card of my own.

I am currently in the process of purchasing said card, but I haven't really seen much information about what kinds of cards are optimal for ArcMap or QGIS rendering as opposed to Battlefield 3 or Skyrim.

I am currently looking at an XFX AMD Radeon HD6870 PCIE 2GB Dual Mini or an XFX AMD Radeon HD 6870 900M 1 GB DDR5 DUAL MINIDP HDMI DUAL DVI PCI-E Video Card

The 2 GB model is about $40 more than the 1 GB.

I have a 460 watt power supply and do not know if the extra ram affects power consumption. The 1 GB model, from all reviews, should work fine with my system, so I am hoping the 2 GB would work fine as well.

However, since I already have 16 GB of onboard ram and have read that GPU RAM isn't really important unless you go under the amount needed for a given program and settings, I am wondering if this extra GB would be worth it for my purposes:

For example if I have a parcel dataset with hundreds of thousands of polygons, would that extra GB of GDDR5 RAM significantly improve the time it takes to render the polygons when I scroll/zoom in on ARCmap/QGIS; or does it mostly worthless due to the fact that I already have 16 GB that can be used?

Also are there any specific advantages/disadvantages to using a ATI vs NVIDIA card for GIS display programs in general?

Thanks in advance!

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I wonder, would you see any significant performance gains for 3D pseudo-GIS products such as Goole Earth? –  RyanDalton Jan 13 '12 at 21:44
Yeah, GE definitely runs better with a faster video card, but of course, the law of diminishing returns applies and you don't really need that good of a video card to run it well. If you want to enable anti-aliasing and display an entire city with building models then a <$100 video card might not cut it. –  blah238 Jan 14 '12 at 0:56
I installed a Sapphire HD 6870 yesterday with three monitors and I'm very pleased so far. Two things worth noting: Firstly, the setup instructions recommend a 500W PS or higher. Mine is 414W only, but I hope that since I'm not gaming, the unit will not draw much power. Secondly, I can confirm that drawing speed does not increase with this card, compared to my previous, less powerful one. –  Günther Jan 22 '12 at 18:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Any old video card will work for the 2D display functions. The video card's 3D capabilities only come into play when using specific 3D GIS features such as ArcScene or ArcGlobe in ArcGIS Desktop. If you aren't planning on doing 3D visualization then it does not matter one bit.

I would spend the extra money on an SSD instead.

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+1 A very good point is implicit in that last statement: look at the whole system when deciding where to spend money. Often the bottleneck is the data I/O. –  whuber Jan 13 '12 at 21:13
I never thought about that, I always figured 7200 RPM was about as fast as would ever be necessary. Wouldn't the hard drive bottleneck only apply when reading and writing from a file? I mean once you load a shapefile into arcmap, isn't what you are viewing essentially held in memory. I mean if I scroll/zoom in on a parcel dataset arcmap doesn't need to read the file from the hard drive again to accomplish that task. –  THX1138 Jan 14 '12 at 2:36
An SSD is the most overlooked part of the system. I am glad to see you mention it. –  Devdatta Tengshe Jan 14 '12 at 4:50
Interesting presentation abstract located here: 2011.foss4g.org/sessions/… for the application of SSDs on GIS servers. (very relevant even for desktop GIS users). Slideshow for presentation here: slideshare.net/kastl/… –  Michael Markieta Jan 14 '12 at 6:07
+1 Indeed I've heard that a cheap 2D video card can often render 2D images faster than a more expensive 3D card. That was 10 yrs ago though, so things may have changed. –  Kirk Kuykendall Jan 19 '12 at 22:03

I used to benchmark cards against ArcView performance 10-15 years ago. A decent 2D card would perform at least as well as the high-end 3D cards, exactly as expected: panning and zooming around in a map doesn't use the 3D capability. I don't think this has changed any. (Two years ago, when fine-tuning a new workstation, I benchmarked the low-end Nvidia NVS 295 against the mid- to high-end Quadro FX 3700, costing ten times as much, and found the 295 was just as good for the 2D stuff.)

More interestingly, there have been moves to exploit the GPU processors in the cards for speeding up GIS analysis. Manifold was the first: they have built-in capability to use the Nvidia CUDA technology. Even the lower-end cards, like the cheap business graphics-oriented NVS 295, offer a handful of floating point coprocessors. The higher-end cards will get you up to 512 FPUs. You can install several of them if you want and get your raster processing done with a couple thousand processors at once :-).

I am aware of research proposals and small business startup proposals for developing similar technology for other GIS platforms, but have not seen any of them funded yet.

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So if I have a giant 500,000 parcel dataset with many complex polygons, having 2 GB GDDR5 vs 1 GB GDDR RAM would have essentially no effect? Aren't video cards supposed to speed up rendering of complex shapes? –  THX1138 Jan 14 '12 at 2:44
In general 2D is not hardware accelerated; it is all rendered in software and the entire image is sent to the video card for display as a single bitmap. That is why it doesn't matter what video card you have -- onboard or on-die (CPU-based) video is fine for ArcMap. –  blah238 Jan 14 '12 at 9:37
+1 for Manifold. I had heard the name before, but I had no idea that they actually use modern computing technologies. –  jvangeld Jan 19 '12 at 20:52

Aside from performance, something to consider for a GIS workstation is multi-monitor support. If you want to run three monitors, then this card supports it through "Eyefinity" technology. Just be aware that one of your monitors must support Display Port or you need a DP to DVI adapter.

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