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The Fastest VGA Setups Examined

Today CrossFireX, Quad SLI and Tri SLI are on the firing line. Let's take the time to look at the fastest VGA setups available.

Published Tue, Jan 27 2009 11:00 PM CST   |   Updated Tue, Nov 3 2020 7:04 PM CST
Manufacturer: none



If I had to name my favorite piece of computing hardware, it's graphics cards. And with the popularity of our articles and reviews focusing on graphics cards, it's pretty safe to say you love them, too. What makes them so interesting is the fact that they tend to be the best single component to give a boost in performance where you need it.

For so many people it doesn't matter so much what memory they get. And just going off word of mouth they can decide on the CPU, while the motherboard always tends to be something people are comfortable with. If you're looking for an i7 motherboard and you love GIGABYTE, you will probably end up with a EX58-UD5 or Extreme. If it's ASUS you love, the P6T or something from the RoG line-up would be a likely choice. If you love googling how to get the best performance and want more settings then you know what to do with, your heart will probably be stuck on something like a DFI offering.

The graphics card on the other hand is a bit hard and requires a bit more thought go into it. While you might know the brand you want and roughly how much you want to spend, the particular model you buy might be difficult to decide on. We tend to cover everything from the painfully slow $30 cards to the blistering fast $600+ ones.

But today we bust open the piggy bank, max out the credit cards and hit the daily limit on the savings account; we take the time to examine the fastest graphics card setups available to us today.

We look at three setups, which ones? - Well, you've probably figured that out already, but let's jump forward to the test setup and our first benchmark to find out.

Test System Setup and 3DMark Vantage

Test System Setup

Processor(s): Intel i7 920 @ 3.8GHz (190MHz x 20)
Cooling: Noctua NH-U12P (Supplied by Noctua)
Motherboard(s): GIGABYTE EX58-UD5 (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Memory: 3 X 2GB OCZ Technology PC-12800 DDR-3 8-8-8-24 (OCZ3G1600LV6GK)
Hard Disk(s): Western Digital 300GB Velicorapter (Supplied by Western Digital)
Operating System: Windows Vista SP1 64-Bit
Drivers: ForceWare 181.20, Catalyst 8.12 w/ Hotfix

I actually found myself in quite a predicament here. It was a given that the Tri-SLI setup comprising the GTX 285 was going to be included along with the monster four-GPU configuration offered by NVIDIA in the form of two GTX 295s.

However, the real question was whether or not we include the HD 4870 X2 in CrossFireX as the setup is quite aged now. Ultimately, though, it seemed unfair not to include it. We know it's up there in the performance department and you can now pick up a Sapphire X2 for just 449 USD at Newegg, but compared to the new NVIDIA setups, we didn't know just how close it would be.

But really, I don't doubt for a second that the ATI configuration will be able to chalk up a few wins and Clear Sky should surely be one.

Till today, however, we haven't compared GTX 285 in Tri-SLI against GTX 295 in Quad SLI, nor a CrossFireX HD 4870 X2 setup for that matter. Over the next 10 pages we will figure out exactly where your hard earned money should be going.

3DMark Vantage

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmarkvantage/
Buy It Here

3DMark Vantage is the new industry standard PC gaming performance benchmark from Futuremark, newly designed for Windows Vista and DirectX10. It includes two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, and support for the latest hardware.

3DMark Vantage is based on a completely new rendering engine, developed specifically to take full advantage of DirectX10, the new graphics API from Microsoft.


Straight away it doesn't come as any real surprise that the NVIDIA setups are putting out some massive numbers. While the HD 4870 X2 CFX setup lags behind, the Tri-SLI setup utilizing three GTX 285 cards actually comes out on top.

Benchmarks - PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

Version and / or Patch Used: Benchmark Demo
Developer Homepage: http://en.akella.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.pt-boats.net/

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a naval action simulator that places gamers in charge of a mosquito fleet of the Allied Forces, Russia or Germany during the height of World War II.

Using the latest Direct X 10 technology PT Boards - Knights of the Sea manages to apply a lot of stress to the components of today which in turn gives us quite an intensive benchmark.



Under PT Boats we see both NVIDIA setups perform quite close together and we again see the HD 4870 X2 configuration trail. There really isn't a clear cut winner here between the NVIDIA setups, though.

Benchmarks - CINEBENCH R10


Version and / or Patch Used: Release 10
Developer Homepage: http://www.maxon.net/
Product Homepage: http://www.maxon.net

CINEBENCH is a real-world test suite that assesses your computer's performace capabilities. MAXON CINEBENCH is based on MAXON's award-winning animation software, CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide for 3D content creation. MAXON software has been used in blockbuster movies such as Spider-Man, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia and many more.

MAXON CINEBENCH runs several tests on your computer to measure the performance of the main processor and the graphics card under real world circumstances. The benchmark application makes use of up to 16 CPUs or CPU cores and is available for Windows (32-bit and 64-Bit) and Macintosh (PPC and Intel-based).


CINEBENCH has always tended to favor the ATI offerings and here is no different. The fact that the program doesn't utilize SLI or CFX isn't helping NVIDIA either.

Benchmarks - World in Conflict

World in Conflict

Version and / or Patch Used:
Timedemo or Level Used: Built-in Test
Developer Homepage: http://www.massive.se
Product Homepage: http://www.worldinconflict.com

World in Conflict is a real-time strategy video game by Massive Entertainment and to be published by Sierra Entertainment for Windows (DX9 and DX10) and the Xbox 360.

The game is set in 1989 where economic troubles cripple the Soviet Union and threaten to dissolve it. However, the title pursues a "what if" scenario where, in this case, the Soviet Union does not collapse and instead pursues a course of war to remain in power. It is an intensive new game is sure to put plenty of stress on even the latest graphics cards and we use the built-in benchmarking for our testing.



WIC shows the HD 4870 X2 CFX setup again going back to last place. At the highest resolution the Tri-SLI GTX 285 setup is able to outperform the Quad SLI GTX 295 one.

Benchmarks - Crysis Warhead

Crysis Warhead

Version and / or Patch Used: unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Airfield
Developer Homepage: http://www.crytek.com
Product Homepage: http://crysiswarhead.ea.com/
Buy It Here

Crysis Warhead updates and refines the gameplay of the original game through a sidestory plot involving Psycho, one of previous protagonist Nomad's allies. The game is a parallel story that follows Sergeant Michael "Psycho" Sykes, a character from the original Crysis, as he faces his own trials and challenges on the other side of the island during the time period of the first game.

It also showcases a new, enhanced and optimized version of CryEngine 2 using full DX10 extensions and is the first game developed by Crytek's Budapest studio.



NVIDIA sees big numbers in Warhead when compared to the ATI setup. At the highest resolution we see that the Quad SLI manages to pull out a win, while the lower ones show no real difference.

Benchmarks - Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.01
Timedemo or Level Used: Ranch Long
Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.farcry2.com/
Buy It Here

The Dunia Engine was built specifically for Far Cry 2 by the award-winning Ubisoft Montreal development team. It delivers the most realistic destructible environments, amazing special effects such as dynamic fire propagation and storm effects, real-time night-and-day cycle, dynamic music system, non-scripted enemy A.I. and so much more.



FC2 has been an important game for NVIDIA and for that reason it doesn't come as a surprise that they come out in front. The Quad SLI manages to get a good jump on the HD 4870 X2 CFX setup, especially at the higher resolution. The Tri-SLI GTX 285 setup comes out well ahead with a minimum FPS of 90 at 2560 x 1600.

Benchmarks - S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Clear Sky

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Clear Sky

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.5.07
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.gsc-game.com/
Product Homepage: http://cs.stalker-game.com/en/
Buy It Here

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, is the stand-alone prequel for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a first-person shooter computer game by Ukrainian developer GSC Game World.[3] The game consists of a roughly 50/50 mix of new areas and old, remodeled areas from the previous game. The X-ray graphics engine has been updated to version 1.5 and includes DirectX 10 support (later patch 1.5.06 included DirectX 10.1). Additionally, the AI received an overhaul to accommodate the new faction wars feature.



Clear Sky manages to favor ATI quite heavily, but we see at the highest resolution the gap isn't huge. Again, we see out of the two SLI setups the Tri-SLI configuration on offer from the GTX 285s is the fastest.

Benchmarks - Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest Steam Update
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.l4d.com/
Buy It Here

Left 4 Dead uses the latest version of Valve's Source engine, with improvements such as multi-core processor support and physics-based animation to more realistically portray hair and clothing, and to improve physics interaction with enemies when shot or shoved in different body parts. Animation was also improved to allow characters to lean realistically when moving in curved paths.

Rendering and artificial intelligence were scaled up to allow for greater number of enemies who can navigate the world in better ways, such as climbing, jumping or breaking obstacles. Lighting has been enhanced with new self-shadowing normal mapping and advanced shadow rendering that is important to convey information about the environment and player actions.


We see Left 4 Dead is giving ATI a big win here, while the Tri-SLI setup comes in at a far second. The Quad SLI configuration sits slightly behind the Tri-SLI one as you can see.

Benchmarks - High Quality AA and AF

High Quality AA and AF

Our high quality tests let us separate the men from the boys and the ladies from the girls. If the cards weren't struggling before they will start to now.

Far Cry 2



Crank up the detail and the HD 4870 X2 CFX setup falls to its knees. The Quad SLI puts on a good show while the main attraction continues to be the Tri-SLI setup.

World In Conflict



Like we've seen for the most part, the HD 4870 X2 CFX setup comes in last followed by the GTX 295 Quad SLI one and the Tri-SLI GTX 285 configuration coming out on top.

Left 4 Dead


We again see Left 4 Dead gives ATI another win, but this time we see the Tri-SLI setup chalk up a good win against the Quad SLI configuration. Without AA on we saw the two SLI setups perform quite close on our last page.

Power Consumption Tests

Using our new PROVA Power Analyzer WM-01 or "Power Thingy" as it has become quickly known as to our readers, we are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into AC wall socket).

There are a few important notes to remember though; while our maximum power is taken in 3DMark06 at the same exact point, we have seen in particular tests the power being drawn as much as 10% more. We test at the exact same stage every time; therefore tests should be very consistent and accurate.

The other thing to remember is that our test system is bare minimum - only a 7,200RPM SATA-II single hard drive is used without CD ROM or many cooling fans.

So while the system might draw 400 watts in our test system, placing it into your own PC with a number of other items, the draw is going to be higher.


It doesn't come as any real surprise that the HD 4870 X2 CFX setup sucks some serious watts, followed by the GTX 285 Tri-SLI configuration. The four GPU setup on offer from the GTX 295 Quad SLI configuration actually manages to draw the least power at both idle and load.

Final Thoughts

So, if you have the dollars where do you put your money? - Well, surprisingly the best setup here is the three-GPU configuration that a Tri-SLI GTX 285 card offers. For the most part the HD 4870 X2 manages to suck the most power while offering the worst performance in today's most intensive games (with only a few exceptions being seen).

I suppose the real question is why would you buy Quad SLI over Tri-SLI? - For starters, a single GTX 295 is faster than a GTX 285, so in the event that you want to start with baby steps and take the SLI / Tri-SLI / Quad SLI leaps later down the track, you're going to get better performance today.

As weird as it sounds, the four-GPU setup that utilizes two GTX 295s is actually also cheaper than purchasing a three GPU configuration that uses three GTX 285s. The cheapest GTX 295 on offer over at Newegg is a BFG Tech card and comes in at 499.99 USD, whilst a BFG Tech GTX 285 will cost you 379.99. The Quad SLI setup also manages to use less power and it also doesn't run as hot. There's no denying the Quad SLI setup is awesome, but the Tri-SLI GTX 285 one is really the fastest VGA setup to date.

While some people might be upset that we're ultimately comparing new generation cards like the GTX 285 and GTX 295 to what would be considered a generation behind card like the HD 4870 X2, the only people you can really blame are ATI. NVIDIA were never going to lay on their back and let ATI hold the performance crown; ATI know this and really should've had a card ready to combat these two new setups. Really, with all the leaked information that get's out it surely wouldn't be hard to figure out what kind of performance the NVIDIA cards were going to offer.

At the moment we're really at an excellent place for gamers; I spoke about how people mention HD, Full HD and its interpretation into games with talk of Full HD gaming experiences. With Full HD considered as 1920 x 1080, these NVIDIA setups offer extremely playable FPS at even the highest of settings at 2560 x 1600.

Quad SLI and Tri-SLI setups with the cards we've tested today are giving you a "Beyond Full HD" experience. For people who have the money and pleasure of owning a monitor that out puts 2560 x 1600, these SLI configurations will not only make you enjoy your game experience more than ever before, but simply give you a grin from one end of your face to the other.

While on the topic of these monitors, this is only 1/3 of the puzzle; you also need a graphics card setup like you've seen today and a serious processor that isn't going to limit your FPS. An i7 920 clocked around the 3.9GHz mark like we have today is perfect. If you've got the money, go out and buy a Quad SLI or Tri-SLI setup, because I'm going back to Far Cry 2 running 2560 x 1600 with 8x AA and loving every minute of it.

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Shawn takes care of all of our video card reviews. From 2009, Shawn is also taking care of our memory reviews, and from May 2011, Shawn also takes care of our CPU, chipset and motherboard reviews. As of December 2011, Shawn is based out of Taipei, Taiwan.

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