By Mike McCarthy
AMD has released the WX8200 high-end professional GPU as part of their Radeon Pro line. It’s based on the Vega architecture, with 3,584 compute cores accessing 8GB of HBM2 memory at up to 512GB/sec. Its hardware specs are roughly equivalent to their $400 Vega 56 gaming card but with professional drivers tuned for optimized performance in a variety of high-end 3D applications. AMD is marketing the WX8200, which is priced at $999, as an option between Nvidia’s Quadro P4000 and P5000.
Some background: I really haven’t used an AMD GPU before, at least not since they bought ATI over 10 years ago. My first Vaio laptop (2002) had an ATI Radeon 7500 in it, and we used ATI Radeon cards in our Matrox AXIO LE systems at Bandito Brothers in 2006. That was right around the time ATI got acquired by AMD. My last AMD-based CPUs were Opterons inside HP XW9300 workstations around the same time period, but we were already headed towards Nvidia GPUs when Adobe released Premiere Pro CS5 in early 2010.
CS5’s CUDA-based, GPU-accelerated Mercury Playback Engine locked us in to Nvidia GPUs for years to come. Adobe eventually included support for OpenCL as an alternative acceleration for the Mercury Playback Engine, primarily due to the Mac hardware options available in 2014, but it was never as mature or reliable on Windows as the CUDA-based option. By that point we were already used to using it, so we continued on that trajectory.
I have a good relationship with Nvidia, and have reviewed many of their cards over the years. Starting back in 2008, their Quadro CX card was the first piece of hardware I was ever provided with for the explicit purpose of reviewing, instead of just writing about the products I was already using at work.
When I was approached about doing this AMD review, I had to pause for a moment. I wanted to make sure I could really do an honest and unbiased review of an AMD card. I asked myself, “What if they worked just as well as the Nvidia cards I was used to?” That would really open up my options when selecting a new laptop, as most of the lighter weight options have had AMD GPUs for the last few years. Plus, it would be useful information and experience to have since I was about to outfit a new edit facility and more options are always good when finding ways to cut costs without sacrificing performance or stability.
So I agreed to review this new card and run it through the same tests I use for my Quadro reviews. Ideally, I would have a standard set of assets and timelines that I could use every time I needed to evaluate the performance of new hardware. Then I could just compare it to my existing records from previous tests. But the tests run in software that is changing as well, and Premiere Pro was on Version 11 when I tested the Pascal Quadros; it’s now on Version 13. Plus, I was testing 6K files then and have lots of 8K assets now, as well as a Dell UP3218K monitor to view them on. Just driving images to an 8K monitor smoothly is a decent test for a graphics card, so I ended up benchmarking not just the new AMD card, but all of the other (Nvidia) cards I have on hand for comparison, leading to quite a project.
The first step was to install the card in my Dell Precision 7910 workstation. Slot-wise, it just dropped into the location usually occupied by my Quadro P6000. It takes up two slots, with a single PCIe 3.0 x16 connector. It also requires both a six-pin and eight-pin PCIe power connector, which I was able to provide, with a bit of reconfiguration. Externally, it has four MiniDisplayPort connectors and nothing else. Dell has an ingenious system of shipping DP to mDP cables with their monitors that have both ports, allowing either source port to be used by reversing the cable. But that didn’t apply to my dual full-sized DisplayPort UP3218K monitor. I didn’t realize this until after ordering mDP-to-DP cables, which I already had from my PNY PrevailPro review for the same reason.
I prefer the full-sized connectors to ensure I don’t try to plug them in backwards, especially since AMD didn’t use the space savings to include any other ports on the card. (HDMI, USB-C, etc.) I also tried the card in an HP Z4 workstation a few days later to see if the Windows 10 drivers were any different. Those notes are included throughout.
Once I had my monitors hooked up, I booted the system to see what would happen. I was able to install the drivers and reboot for full functionality without issue. The driver install is a two-part process. You first you install AMD’s display software, and then that software allows you to install a driver. I like this approach because it allows you to change your driver version without reinstalling all of the other supporting software. The fact that driver packages these days are over 500MB is a bit ridiculous, especially for those of us not fortunate enough to live in areas where Fiber Internet connections are available. Hopefully this approach can alleviate that issue a bit.
AMD advertises that this functionality also allows you to switch driver versions without rebooting, and their RadeonPro line fully supports their gaming drivers as well. This can be an advantage for a game developer who uses the professional feature set for their work but then wants to test the consumer experience without having a separate, dedicated system. Or maybe it’s just for people who want better gaming performance on their dual-use systems.
The other feature I liked in their software package is screen-capture functionality called RadeonPro ReLive. It records all onscreen images or specific window selections, as well as application audio and optionally microphone audio. It saves the screen recordings to AVC or HEVC files generated by the VCE 4.0 hardware video compression engine on the card. When I tested, it worked as expected, and the captured files looked good, including a separate audio file for my microphone voice while the system audio was embedded in the video recording.
This is a great tool for making software tutorials, or similar type tasks, and I intend to use it in the near future for posting videos of my project workflows. Nvidia offers similar functionality in the form of ShadowPlay, but doesn’t market it to professionals since it’s part of the GeForce Experience software. I tested for comparison, and it does work on Quadro cards but has fewer options and controls. Nvidia should take the cue from AMD and develop a more professional solution for their users who need this functionality.
I used the card with both my main curved 34-inch monitor at 3440×1440, and my 8K monitor at 7680×4320. The main display worked perfectly the entire time, but I had issues with the 8K one. I went through lots of tests on both operating systems, with various cables and drivers before discovering that a firmware update for the monitor solved the issues. So if you have a UP3218K, take the time to update the firmware for maximum GPU compatibility. My HDMI-based home theater system on the other hand worked perfectly and even allowed me access to the 5.1 speaker in Premiere through the AMD HDMI audio drivers.
10-Bit Display Support
One of the main reasons to get a “professional” GPU over a much cheaper gaming card is that they support 10-bit color in professional applications instead of just in full-screen outputs like games and video playback that are supported at 10-bit on consumer GPUs. But when I enabled 10-bit mode in the RadeonPro Advanced panel, I ran into some serious issues. On Windows 7, it disabled the view ports on most of my professional apps, like Adobe’s Premiere, After Effects and Character Animator. When I enabled it on a Windows 10 system to see if it worked any better in a newer OS, the Adobe application interfaces looked even crazier and still no video playback.
I was curious to see if my Print Screen captures would still look this way once I disabled the 10-bit setting because, in theory, even after seeing them that way when I pasted them into a Photoshop doc, that could still be a display distortion of proper-looking screen capture. But no, the screen captures look exactly how the interface looked on my display.
AMD is aware of the problem and they are working on it. It is currently listed as a known issue in their newest driver release.
The time then came to analyze the card’s performance and see what it could do. While GPUs are actually designed to accelerate the calculations required to display 3D graphics, that processing capacity can be used in other ways. I don’t do much true 3D processing besides the occasional FPS game, so my GPU use is all for image processing in video editing and visual effects. This can be accelerated by AMD’s GPUs through the OpenCL (Compute Language) framework (as well as through Metal on the Mac side).
My main application is Adobe Premiere Pro 12, and it explicitly supports OpenCL acceleration, as does Adobe After Effects and Media Encoder. So I opened them up and started working. I didn’t see a huge difference in interface performance, even when pushing high-quality files around, but that is a fairly subjective test and fairly intermittent. I might drop frames during playback one time, but not the next time. Render time is a much more easily quantifiable measure of computational performance, so I created a set of sequences to render in the different hardware configuration for repeatable tests.
I am pretty familiar with which operations are CPU-based and which run on the GPU, so I made a point of creating test projects that work the GPUs as much as possible. This is based on the clip resolution, codec and selection of accelerated effects to highlight the performance differences in that area. I rendered those sequences with OpenCL acceleration enabled on the WX8200 and with all GPU acceleration disabled in the Mercury software playback mode, then with a number of different Nvidia GPUs for comparison.
Trying to push the cards as hard as possible, I used 6K Venice files and 8K Red files with Lumetri grades and other GPU effects applied. I then exported them to H.265 files at 10-bit Rec.2020 in UHD and 8K. (I literally named the 8K sequence “Torture Test.”)
My initial tests favored Nvidia GPUs by a factor of at least three to one, which was startling, and I ran them repeatedly to verify with the same result. Further tests and research revealed that usually AMD (and OpenCL) is about 25% slower than Adobe’s CUDA mode on similarly priced hardware, verified by a variety of other sources. But my results were made worse for two reasons: Red decoding is currently more optimized for acceleration on Nvidia cards and rendering at 10-bit ground the AMD-accelerated OpenCL renders to a halt.[
When exporting 10-bit HDR files at “Maximum Bit Depth,” it took up to eight times as long to finish rendering. Clearly this was a bug, but it took a lot of experimentation to narrow it down. And the Intel-based OpenCL acceleration doesn’t suffer from the same issue. Once I was able to test the newest Media Encoder 13 release on the Windows 10 system, the 10-bit performance hit while using the AMD disappeared. When I removed the Red source footage and exported 8-bit HEVC files, the WX8200 was just as fast as any of my Nvidia cards (P4000 and P6000). When I was sourcing from Red footage, the AMD took twice as long but GPU-based effects seemed to have no effect on render time, so those are accelerated properly by the card.
So, basically, as long as you aren’t using Red source and you use Premiere Pro and Media Encoder 13 or newer, this card is comparable to the alternatives for most AME renders.
[Statement from Adobe: “Premiere Pro has a long history of supporting multiple GPU technologies. Adobe works closely with all hardware partners to ensure maximum performance across the wide range of systems that may exist in creative workflows. For example, Adobe has been at the forefront of GPU development across CUDA, OpenCL, Metal and now Vulkan. In the case of OpenCL we partnered with AMD and provided deep access to our code base to ensure that the maximum performance levels were being achieved. It has been, and will remain to be our policy to deeply collaborate with all vendors who create high performance hardware/ software layers for video and audio creatives.”]
Is the RadeonPro WX8200 Right for Your Workflow?
That depends on what type of work you do. Basically, I am a Windows-based Adobe editor, and Adobe has spent a lot of time optimizing their CUDA-accelerated Mercury Playback Engine for Premiere Pro in Windows. That is reflected in how well the Nvidia cards perform for my renders, especially with Version 12, which is the final release on Windows 7. Avid or Resolve may have different results, and even Premiere Pro on OS X may perform much better with AMD GPUs due to the Metal framework optimizations in that version of the program. It is not because the card is necessarily “slower,” it just isn’t being used as well by my software.
Nvidia has invested a lot of effort into making CUDA a framework that applies to tasks beyond 3D calculations. AMD has focused their efforts directly on 3D rendering with things like ProRender, and GPU accelerates true 3D renders. If you are doing traditional 3D work, either animation or CAD projects, this card will probably be much more suitable for you than it is for me.
Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.