FAQs for selecting graphics cards

ArcGIS 3D Analyst performance is dependent on the type of graphics card that is used. ArcGIS 3D Analyst requires OpenGL-compatible graphics cards, as OpenGL technology is used for 3D display in the ArcGlobe and ArcScene applications. In the past five years, there has been tremendous growth in the availability of OpenGL graphics cards due to the increased use of OpenGL in consumer games. While ESRI cannot possibly test all these graphics cards, direction on what to look for in a graphics card is provided below.

Which graphics card should I buy?

A good OpenGL-compliant graphics card with at least 64 MB of texture memory is recommended. Most desktop systems come equipped with power graphics cards, but in general, if you are going to use a system for 3D visualization, you will want to make sure it is a workstation class graphics card.

Workstation class graphics cards are discrete (as opposed to integrated to the system's motherboard) graphics card available for desktop and mobile (laptop) systems.

The major graphics card manufacturers (NVIDIA and AMD (ATI)) categorize their graphics card solutions into desktop, workstation, and mobile. Experience has shown that the workstation class graphics cards have better performance and support for professional 3D applications, including 3D Analyst.

What is OpenGL?

OpenGL is an industry standard with a cross-platform, 3D graphics application programming interface (API). Cards supporting this API off-load computation-intensive tasks from the CPU and perform the operations using specialized hardware.

Is there a particular version of OpenGL the card should support?

Yes, the card should support OpenGL 2.0 or higher. Look for cards, and their drivers, that are designed and optimized for OpenGL to achieve the best performance. As more and more consumer games use OpenGL, there are more resources with which to compare various cards' performance. When looking at comparisons, focus on OpenGL technology rather than other display technologies, such as DirectX.

What is texture memory and texture mapping, and are they important?

Texture memory on the graphics card is used to store 3D textures, such as imagery or facades. Texture mapping handles imagery in hardware. Images, such as those from satellites, orthophotos, scanned maps, and raster-based symbols, can be rendered in real time when texture mapping is supported in hardware on the card. Texture memory controls the total amount of imagery that can be used at one time. If you intend to use imagery or raster-based symbols in your 3D GIS applications, you should consider a card that supports this feature. The card should have at least 16 MB of RAM that can be dedicated to the task. This means the total memory of the card needs to be more than 16 MB. Texture memory is particularly important for ArcGlobe, and 32 MB of texture memory is recommended as a minimum.

What is geometry setup?

Geometry setup reduces load on the CPU and graphics pipeline by accepting geometry data directly, rather than requiring preprocessing by the CPU into a card-specific format. Requiring less use of the CPU and the graphics pipeline improves performance. This option should be used if available.

My graphics card has geometry acceleration as an option. What is this, and is it important for ArcGIS 3D Analyst?

Geometry acceleration accepts geometry primitives, for example, triangles; projects them into 3D camera space; clips, illuminates, projects again to 2D screen space; and rasterizes the result. Using this feature is advised, as it significantly improves performance for ArcGIS 3D Analyst applications.

My graphics card has z buffer resolution as an option. What is this, and is it important for ArcGIS 3D Analyst?

Z buffer resolution controls how accurately the card can perform hidden surface removal. The minimum to consider is 16 bit, with the highest and most accurate resolution being 32 bit. For 3D Analyst, a 24-bit z buffer is recommended, but higher and lower values will also work .

What about output resolution, colors, and refresh rate?

These control the size and quality of the resulting display on your monitor—the higher, the better. Be aware that configuring a card to maximize one of its capabilities may diminish its capabilities in other areas. For example, just because a card supports a 24-bit color mode and 1,280 x 1,024 output resolution doesn't mean you can have them simultaneously. Also, depending on the card, increasing one of these parameters may impact memory that is available for other things such as textures.

What if my graphics card meets the recommendations but it still doesn't work well?

Even if your graphics card is new, sometimes display issues can occur, such as textures not appearing on building multipatches. A good method of practice, is to check periodically for updated drivers available for you to download. The steps for updating the graphics card driver will vary depending on whether you work from a desktop or a laptop.

If the graphics card is on a desktop computer, you can generally go to the original equipment manufacturer's website to find an update. The two most common manufacturers include NVIDIA and AMD(ATI).

If the graphics card is on laptop, most often you will need to go to the computer manufacturer's website, such as Dell or Toshiba, to update the driver. Some newer generation graphics cards allow you to update directly from the card's website but generally, you'll have to get the update from the computer manufacturer.

If updating to the most recent driver version doesn't resolve the issue, consider updating to an ESRI certified version of the driver. ESRI certified drivers are available on both the NVIDIA and AMD website, listed below. However please note that certified drivers may not be updated as regularly as the current version.

Click below to launch the website for ESRI certified drivers from the following manufacturers:

What is a display driver?

A display driver communicates display information from the application to the graphics hardware. Some display drivers for 3D cards have limited OpenGL support or none at all. Make sure an optimized OpenGL driver is available for the card that's designed to fully exploit the capabilities of the hardware. Compatibility issues can exist between driver, card, graphics bus, and operating system version. Check with the graphics card vendor for verification. In addition, look to the graphics card vendor for updates to drivers that ship with a card. These can enhance performance and resolve bugs.

What is a chipset on a display card?

The chipset is the core processor used in the graphics cards, and the same processor may be repackaged into various graphics cards, similar to Intel chips being used in computers from Dell, IBM, and so on. These can be the primary factor influencing the capabilities and performance. Graphics cards that use the same chipset more than likely have similar capabilities and performance, regardless of brand.

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