Choosing a Graphics Card for Premiere Pro CS5.5

Executive Summary:

Adobe's Mercury Engine, as powered by NVIDIA's CUDA-enabled graphics cards, can be a huge time saver during project preview and rendering. But the performance benefit depends upon the source content and project type. In some instances, a high-end CUDA card delivers the most benefits; in others, investing in a dual-CPU workstation makes more sense.

This detailed analysis looks at various source formats, including DSLR, AVCHD, HDV, AVC-Intra, DVCPROHD and Red, and various project types, from simple, single track one-camera shoots to high-production value multi-layered projects, to identify where and when Adobe's highly-touted Mercury Engine delivers the maximum benefits, and where it doesn't. Learn when investing $1,800 on a high-end card makes sense, where a $400 card will perform just as well, and when a dual-CPU workstation is the best investment.


Suppose you’ve been running Adobe CS5.5 without an NVIDIA graphics card. You’ve heard about the benefits of GPU acceleration with the Mercury Playback Engine and you’re wondering how much time an NVIDIA card could save you. Or you’re buying a new system and you’re wondering whether to buy a dual-CPU system with an inexpensive graphics card or a single CPU system with a high-end card. Or you’ve got an NVIDIA card and you’re wondering whether a higher-end NVIDIA card will deliver substantial time savings. Well, if any of these cases apply to you, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, I’ll start by explaining the factors that contribute to when and how much NVIDIA-powered GPU acceleration can save in rendering time and preview performance. Then I’ll discuss a series of benchmark tests performed on two HP workstations, a Z400 with a single 2.67 GHz 4-core CPU and a Z600 with two 2.67 GHz 4-core CPUs, both configured with 24 GB of RAM and were running 64-bit Windows 7. The tested graphics cards included the Quadro 2000 ($423 street), Quadro 4000 ($730 street) and Quadro 5000 ($1,700 street) and older-generation Quadro 4800 ($1,154 street).

Let’s define some terms to make sure we’re all on the same page. GPU stands for graphics processing unit, and GPU acceleration refers to a process that the GPU can accelerate, which takes the load off the computer’s CPU. CUDA stands for Compute Unified Device Architecture, and it’s one of the computing engines deployed in NVIDIA GPUs.

Adobe’s Mercury Playback Engine (MPE) describes a bundle of performance enhancements in Premiere Pro that includes 64-bit operation, more efficient multi-threaded performance and the ability to accelerate some functions using some CUDA-enabled graphics cards, which are listed here. Only CUDA-enabled graphics cards can work within MPE to accelerate Premiere Pro. This means that only some NVIDIA cards can accelerate MPE, and (currently) no graphics cards from any other vendor can.

With this behind us, let’s dig in. To start, recognize that the potential benefit of CUDA-enabled GPU acceleration in CS 5.5 depends upon three factors:

  • Whether you preview or render with Use Maximum Render Quality enabled. If you do, typically you’ll see significant performance benefit. If you don’t, on some very rare projects, GPU acceleration may actually slow you down.
  • The source formats used in the project. Typically, the more compute-intensive the format, the more significant the benefit of GPU acceleration.
  • How many layers and effects you’ve applied to your projects. As you would suspect, the more layers and GPU-enabled effects, the better GPU-accelerated encoding performs compared with CPU-only.

I’ll cover the Maximum Render Quality issue first. Then, to explore all three factors in greater detail, I’ll tell the tale of six very disparate projects, describing the source materials, layers, applied effects and the like, as well as detailing the benefits of GPU acceleration for that project. This will give you a feel for how and where GPU acceleration really matters, and which NVIDIA card makes the most sense.

With this as background, let’s jump into the technical discussion.

Technology Introduction

CUDA and The Nutcracker: Dual-Camera HDV Shoot

CUDA and a Complex AVC-Intra Project

CUDA and a DSLR Project

CUDA and a DVCPRO HD Indie Project

CUDA and an AVC-Intra - Adobe's Mercury Engine Playback Project

CUDA and a Simple Red Project

Summary and Conclusions

Comments (8)

Said this on 11/14/2011 At 03:53 pm

Hey Jan - another great review.  And timely for me too as I'm revisiting GPU acceleration on Premiere Pro CS5.5.

I was hoping to compare some of your results to my own but unfortunately the scenarios you ran we wildly different from my own real-world scenarios.  Despite this I did have a few notes I wanted to share with you:

For the HDV to MPEG2 DVD widescreen HQ export I'm assuming you started with 29.97fps 60i HDV on your Canon XHA1.  The preset you chose is 29.97 fps 1 pass VBR.  So the time per pass on the Z400 single CPU workstation varied from 0.4x to 0.8x real time.

Then on the 7D footage (H.264 59.94fps), you selected the YouTube Widescreen HD preset.  That preset is a 2-pass preset but is 24fps (and not even 23.98) so there was a lot more going on there than if you kept the same frame rate setting.  Your times per pass were very similar (.65x real time) but I'm wondering what they would have been if you selected 59.94 and/or 29.97 fps settings.

Said this on 11/14/2011 At 05:43 pm


Good points. Because I test on so many computers, I tend to use standard presets to guarantee identical tests all around. I might rethink this approach if I jump into this again.

Thanks for your comments.


Said this on 11/15/2011 At 11:42 am

I haven't gone through the whole essay, but I am wondering if you have done any research on how an AJA card (I have the Kona Lhe) factors into the performance equation. My understanding is that the AJA is primarily used for broadcast I/0 but doesn't add substantial performance benefits.

Thank you.

Said this on 11/15/2011 At 12:10 pm

I wouldn't think it would help or hurt, but haven't tested with a card like that in the system.

Sorry I can't be more helpful.

Said this on 01/12/2013 At 08:36 pm

Adobe premiere, while having way more options is kinda a BS video editing software. I say that because vegas pro will use my nvidia gt 440 (has cuda but not supported by adobe) and render videos about 6 times quicker than premiere. Unforntunitly vegas pro doesn't have the fancy options to do the video editing I need (well it does but quality isn't there). To render a FX heavy clip takes 3 hours on premiere and 30 minutes on vegas. If all your doing is splicing and mixing videos / audio, vegas is the way to go.

Said this on 01/13/2013 At 09:00 am


So you're comparing Vegas with CUDA acceleration with Premiere Pro without? Seems a bit unfair.

Definitely don't agree that Premiere is a BS editor but you're certainly entitled to your opinion. Any specifics?

Thanks for weighing in.


Said this on 03/24/2016 At 10:38 am

Would Jan Ozer still be available to respond to my question? I just found this forum after searching for graphics card upgrades for the CS5.5 system. My current GPU has the CUDA feature but I do not see the Mercury Play Back Engine in the options to select in the project setting box for rendering options.

Is my system running the Mercury Engine if I can't select it in the Video Rendering and Playback window?

Thanks, KPO.


Said this on 03/24/2016 At 11:59 am

It's Mercury either way; it's either hardware or software. if you don't see the hardware option, you're not getting CUDA acceleration. The only thing I can recommend is updating your driver software, which I'm sure you're already done. If that doesn't work, try another graphics card. Sorry I can't be more helpful.

Good luck.


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