I've attempted to write this series of posts in a way that will be accessible to everyone. It may seem a little boring and geeky, but you'll be better prepared in making purchasing decisions, or when asking questions or for advice. Also please note that the recommendations given here for specific products are not exclusive - there are too many usage scenarios to cover every option.
VIDEO GRAPHIC CARDS
The "video card" is also referred to as a "graphic card" or as the "GPU" (Graphic Processing Unit).
There are two main types of GPUs: "discrete" graphics, or "integrated" graphics. Discrete is a video card installed in a desktop or embedded in a laptop motherboard. Integrated is when the GPU is integrated into the CPU itself. Discrete graphics generally provides better performance, and you'll almost certainly want to have a computer with discrete graphics to take full advantage of all of Revit's graphic display features.
The GPU is the equivalent of a CPU on the video card - the engine that processes data from the computer to your display screen.
There are two main GPU providers: NVIDIA and AMD (formerly ATI). They typically sell their GPU (chipsets) to other manufacturers who then package them into video cards (or embedded into laptops) that you actually buy (or are provided to computer makers like HP and Dell). It's a lot like how Intel sells CPUs but you can't actually purchase a computer from Intel.
Nvidia has a consumer (gaming) line of video cards known as "GeForce" and a professional (workstation/CAD) line known as "Quadro".
AMD has a consumer (gaming) line of video cards known as "Radeon" and a professional (workstation/CAD) line known as "FirePro".
The other major supplier of GPUs is Intel itself. Many of their new CPUs actually have a GPU integrated into the CPU (i.e. integrated graphics). Though Intel's latest integrated GPUs are much faster than the old days, they are still much slower than what most users will need for Revit - so you want to avoid relying on these. One very recent development (June 2013) is the release of Intel's new "Haswell" CPU's, some of which have an integrated Intel "Iris" GPU, which is a significant step up in performance from previous generations of Intel integrated graphics. It still is not on par with the recommended GPUs listed below, but theoretically, Iris could do in a pinch. We'll have to wait for someone to actually test Revit with Iris to know how well Iris works in practice.
When looking at laptop specifications, be aware that a number of laptops come with both the Intel GPU and a discrete AMD/Nvidia GPU. This offers the best of both worlds. The laptop uses the faster discrete GPU when using apps like Revit, and the integrated Intel GPU the rest of the time to save battery life.
Video Memory (Video RAM)
According to Autodesk, the minimum requirements for a video card for Revit 2013 are fairly low... 256MB video RAM, DirectX 10 (DX10), and Shader Model 3 support. Unless you have an ancient video card, you don't need to be concerned about these minimums - all video cards of the last few years meet these minimum requirements. Also, DX is completely backwards compatible - so even if your video card indicates it has DX11 or higher, it's still compatible with DX10.
1 GB video RAM is recommended for typical usage, and Autodesk claims 2 GB of video RAM is required for very large models (though my current experience is that more than 1 GB does not provide any benefit for Revit no matter how large the model).
Most new video cards (including those in laptops) come with at least 1 GB of video memory, which is still plenty for Revit.
If you have an older video card with only 768 MB or even 512 MB, that's still enough for most projects. While 256 MB may work, it may result in performance problems or even crashing.
One of the reasons Intel's integrated graphics are slower is because they don't have dedicated video memory of their own - they share the system RAM. Even if you have lots of system RAM, this system of sharing memory is much slower than dedicated video memory.
More video memory will not make Revit run faster. Also, don't concern yourself with the different speeds of video memory (unless that's part of a specific recommendation that someone has made) - just focus on getting the best card within your budget, and the tech jargon will take care of itself.
Video card drivers are necessary for the operating system to work with the video card. Finding a driver version that will work flawlessly with Revit isn't always easy. If you do find one that works really well, you'll probably want to stick with it until it doesn't (new versions of Revit can bring you back to square one). This is one area where always having the latest updated driver isn't necessarily a good thing... new drivers may perform worse than older drivers. If you're working with two different versions of Revit, sometimes it can be a frustrating situation where one driver version works better with one version of Revit, while another driver version works better with a different version of Revit. In that case, you'll just have to make a choice.
Video card drivers are generally provided in three ways: by the manufacturer of the chipset (i.e. Nvidia, AMD or Intel), or by the manufacturer of the video card (e.g. Asus, EVGA, etc.) or by the manufacturer of the computer (e.g. Dell, HP, etc.). In my experience, it's best to start with whoever made the chipset, i.e. Nvidia, AMD or Intel. Nvidia and AMD update their drivers every few months... and computer and video card manufacturers often stop updating their versions of the drivers after a year or two. With desktops, you can use whatever supplier you want. However, laptop video cards may require a driver provided by the manufacturer of the laptop - in that case, you may not have much of a choice.
After installing a new or updated driver, make sure to power OFF your computer (and it doesn't hurt to give it a few seconds before turning it back on) - don't simply restart it using the Windows "Restart" button! (while this may not be necessary for every brand and model of video card, it's better to be safe than unsure whether the driver you just installed is actually working as intended).
Links to drivers on Nvidia/AMD (ATI) websites (USA):
Nvidia Reference Drivers
AMD Reference Drivers
Revit does not use the video card to process renderings. It's entirely based on the CPU (and available system RAM). However, there are a number of third party apps that can make use of the video card when rendering. GPU rendering uses the GPU on the video card to process the rendering... and because the GPU is so specialized at what it does, it can process realistic renderings much faster than the CPU can. While it's beyond the scope of this post to thoroughly examine GPU rendering via third-party software (iray, Octane, Indigo, etc.), the basics are: many GPU renderers use a method involving "CUDA" which is currently only supported on Nvidia video cards. Also, GPU rendering needs lots of fast video memory. So, if you want to do GPU renderings, you'll want the fastest Nvidia card with largest video memory you can afford... and two video cards can be even better than one (they don't need to be identical or in an "SLI configuration").
Currently there's no super easy way to get your Revit model into third-party software in order to take advantage of GPU rendering. It requires exporting the model into other software, and a bit of extra setup before you can actually create a rendering. The vast majority of users will not bother with the extra work and software involved. If it is something you're interested in, don't hesitate to start a new thread on the subject (or join one already in progress).
Just like CPUs, you can compare the performance of video cards through benchmark testing. Most benchmarks focus on video games, and Revit is not a video game (as much fun as that might be), so don't take benchmarks too literally as they apply to Revit. Performance differences may be more subtle. However, they do provide a guide as to where a video card is in the performance pecking-order.
Tom's Hardware Benchmarks
“Autodesk/my reseller/unnamed CAD expert says I should only use "Professional" (workstation/CAD) cards with Revit. But then I read here that lots of people use and recommend "Gaming" cards for Revit. Who is right?"
Despite what you may have been told, consumer (gaming) video cards can work just as well with Revit as professional video cards.
"Come on, there's got to be more to it than that! Those "Pro" cards cost way more - they must be better in some way?"
Yes, there is more to it than that, though "better" is open to interpretation. Officially, Autodesk only "supports" professional video cards. In very simplistic terms, what that means is that Nvidia/AMD "validate" specific drivers (for their Pro cards) to work with specific versions of Revit (and other specific CAD apps). If you're using a supported card with a validated driver with the version of Revit that it's been validated for, you can be very confident that you're not going to have compatibility problems. You are paying for that assurance. Furthermore, you have some assurance (but no guarantee) that the next few versions of Revit will likely also be compatible with your Pro video card.
"That's it? You're telling me that the $250 "Gaming" video card has the same performance as the $750 "Pro" video card?"
"But what about other CAD software like AutoCAD, 3ds Max, SketchUp, etc.?"
Well, I can't speak for every CAD app out there, but generally speaking, the same goes for those mentioned.
"I'm still having a tough time making a decision which way to go... Any final thoughts on this?"
Well, let's be clear - I'm not trying to talk you into anything. There is no "right" or "wrong" here. If you've got the budget, there's not much to be lost by getting a "Pro" card. It's just that what many users with experience in this area have found is that there's not much to be gained either. Personally (and many have shared the same experience), I've had just as many issues with "Pro" cards as I've had with "Gaming" cards. It's not uncommon for a new version of Revit to be released, and suddenly the video card that worked great with the previous version doesn't work so great with the new version. No matter what card you're getting, your best bet is to get a video card that other users have had success with.
“I do a lot of rendering. What's the best video card for rendering in Revit?”
By far, the most common misconception is that the video card processes renderings in Revit. While completely understandable, it’s simply not the way it works… at least in regards to Revit. Rendering performance in Revit relies solely on the CPU (and available system RAM).
"I noticed you qualified that last answer to Revit. What if I do a lot of rendering in 3ds Max or other rendering apps?"
See the "GPU Rendering" section above.
"Are you sure there's no GPU rendering in Revit? Maybe you haven't seen the new "ray tracing" visual graphic style in Revit?"
Yeah, I'm sure. The new "ray tracing" in Revit does not use the GPU - it's still relies entirely on the speed of the CPU.
“Does Revit need a fast video card? How fast?"
In the old days of Revit, a super fast video card wasn't particularly useful. These days, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Getting a $500 "Gaming" card or a $1,500 "Pro" card is almost certainly a waste of money - money much better spent on a faster CPU. Despite all the 3D graphics, Revit doesn't require the resources of the latest video games. All that 3D modeling is actually "computed" by the CPU. However, Revit does offer some specific graphic features where you'll really notice the difference with a fast video card - features like "Realistic View", "Shadows" and "Ambient Light". How fast is very relative - recommendations are given at the end of this post.
“But what about spinning around the model and changing views?”
Again, if you have all the Shadows, etc. turned off, it doesn't matter what video card you have - it’s actually the CPU that is generating the geometry that is seen on your screen, whether in plan view, elevation, or 3D. However, if you turn on graphic options like Shadows and Realistic View, a fast video card can make a HUGE difference in processing those parts of the view. While the video card doesn't compute the underlying geometry, it does compute the Shadows, Realistic View textures, etc.
"Someone told me that SLI or CrossFire will double the speed!"
SLI and CrossFire are great for the latest video games, but it's of no use at all for Revit. At least it's never been demonstrated. If you want to give it a try, be my guest. ;-)
"I know you said 1 GB of video RAM is enough, but I'd feel better if I had 2 GB."
Okay. 2 GB will probably be the new standard soon enough anyway. But frankly, it's more of a marketing thing than an actual need. Revit really doesn't need very much video memory. 1 GB should be more than enough for the next few years. Graphic options such as Shadows really don't use up very much memory, and you would have to have an insane amount of "materials" in Realistic View to push the memory constraints. You can have literally dozens and dozens of windows open and not use up 1 GB of video memory. Keep in mind that there's a huge difference between Revit and a video game like Crysis. Note that some GPU utilities have shown Revit to use all the available video memory, even on very small projects - however, there isn't any evidence that Revit is actually "running out" of video memory, or that it actually affects performance.
"Will more video memory make the video card go faster?"
This was already addressed above, but it bears repeating because I see this misconception all the time - the amount of video memory has almost nothing to do with the speed of the video card in regards to Revit. To make a car analogy: the amount of memory on the video card doesn't affect the speed of the video card anymore than the amount of fuel in your car affects the top speed of your car.
"How do large resolution displays and/or multiple displays affect graphic performance?"
Technically, benchmarks show that the lower the resolution, the faster the benchmark. This is actually observable by resizing the Revit application window to be small (or changing your display resolution to be very low). However, what has not been demonstrated is whether a faster video card will relatively improve overall system performance.
"So, if I want the fastest graphic performance, I should get the fastest GPU?"
Well, not quite. There are diminishing returns. Graphic performance does improve with faster GPUs up to a point, but then perceivable improvements in performance level off. This leveling off in performance is reflected in the GPU recommendations below.
Choosing A Video Card
Both Nvidia and ATI cards can work great, so this should be easy, right? If only it were that easy. There are a number of issues that need to be considered.
First, and this is to put it diplomatically, Revit has a checkered past with video card compatibility (though it's gotten a lot better in the last couple years). Unlike all other computer hardware, Revit sometimes has trouble with certain brands or models of video cards. Revit might crash, or weird "graphic artifacts" may randomly appear on the screen, or the Ribbon might start acting funny. Sometimes it’s just a matter of updating the video card driver, and sometimes it means you need a different video card.
Also, unlike a CPU where increasing performance is very linear, graphic performance in Revit can be rather subjective, where differences in performance can sometimes be a fraction of a second, and sometimes spending twice as much on a video card doesn't buy you any more performance... so read on...
Autodesk Revit Graphic Hardware Support Site
So, now you need to pick the video card model. For starters, you may want to check out the official Autodesk Revit Graphic Hardware support site:
You'll find links to the official "Graphics Hardware List" and a FAQ.
Unfortunately, Autodesk only lists support for "pro" cards, so many of the most widely available "consumer/gaming" GPUs aren’t listed. So, if you want to stick with a GPU supported by Autodesk, that's the place to start.
There are many brands of video cards that incorporate Nvidia and ATI chips onto the video cards. If you buy a retail computer, such as an HP, you’re going to get whatever they give you, likely with an HP sticker on it (they just contract out the card from another manufacturer). So, is there a difference between brands? For the most part, you get what you pay for. If you're buying a video card as an add-in (e.g. from amazon.com or similar), read the reviews, do a little research. A number of users have had consistently good experiences with these top tier brands:
Many others probably work fine – I’d be particularly interested to know brands that users have had good or bad experiences with (though, keep in mind that even the best brands have failures).
When shopping for a new computer or video card, consider the following video cards:
AMD Radeon: HD 7750 or better, HD 8670 or better, R9 270 or better.
AMD FirePro: W5000, W7000, W8000, W9000
Nvidia GeForce: GTX 550 or better, GTX 650 or better, GTX 750 or better.
Nvidia Quadro: 2000, 4000, 5000, 6000
AMD Radeon: HD 7730M or better, HD 8770 or better.
AMD FirePro M8900, M4000, M6000 or better.
Nvidia GeForce: GT 650M or better, GT 750M or better.
Nvidia Quadro: K2000M or better, K1100M or better.
Note: For GeForce cards, the first number, e.g. 7xx, denotes the "series" (higher numbers are more recent), but it does not denote performance. It's the second number onward that indicates performance level. For example, the GT 620 is MUCH SLOWER than the GTX 560. If you're unsure, do a little research or post a question.
Note: For Radeon cards, prior to the "R" series, the first number, e.g. 8xxx, denotes the "series" (higher numbers are more recent), but it does not denote performance. It's the second number onward that indicates performance level. For example, the HD 8350 is MUCH SLOWER than the HD 7870. However, in Fall 2013, AMD changed its naming convention. Now, new cards are denoted first with a performance series number, R5, R7, R9, followed by a three digit performance number. If you're unsure, do a little research or post a question.
To be avoided outright:
Nvidia Quadro NVS
Intel integrated graphics ("Haswell" caveat described in a previous section above)
There are lots of video cards that will perform just fine with Revit, but here are what should be some safe bets without spending more than you really need to:
Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 / GTX 650 Ti / GTX 660 / GTX 660 Ti / GTX 750 Ti / GTX 760
Nvidia Quadro 2000 / 4000
Nvidia GeForce GT 650M/750M / GTX 660M/760M
Nvidia Quadro K2000M / K3000M
Note: I have not personally tested all of the listed GPUs in this article nor can I give assurances to compatibility with Revit - they are recommended based on shared user experience, specifications, and educated guesswork.
Additional Resources (Wikipedia)
Comparison of Nividia GPUs
Comparison of AMD (ATI) GPUs
I've been a computer enthusiast for over twenty years. I know a lot, but I don't know everything. Drop me a PM with suggestions, or if you spot any errors, or think something needs further clarification, or feel free to take it up with me in the forums. And please *post* those questions, requests for advice, and solutions!