We have seen nVidia Quad SLI reviews pop up from a few websites over the past week or two and in all honestly nVidia's new technology has really copped a hammering from multiple fronts. We are not sure if it's because the communication between the person that provided them with the sample and the receiver was poor or they just plain don't like nVidia but we're here today to give you the real low down on Quad SLI.
Our particular system came from Gigabyte in conjunction with Mitac. Mitac is a system integrator in Australia - in other words, they sell full computer systems and Gigabyte on the other hand we are sure you are familiar with.
I worked closely with Gigabyte over the past few days of testing to make sure that we could give you a proper understanding of the system they provided us. What was most interesting was that these cards have been discontinued already. This of course impacts how we look at the product; we can't really review a product that isn't going to hit the market. Instead we are looking at Quad SLI which is a stepping stone to GeForce 7950GX2 Quad SLI cards.
The 7950GX2 is due out in a few weeks (around Computex time) and is going to be the mainstream Quad SLI setup that people will use and be able to buy for the first time at the retail level. It's been designed better (shorter PCB layout) and has many bug fixes included.
We will have a look at the system along with the cards. We have also played some of our favorite games at the highest possible playable settings and of course included what everyone wants... lots of screenshots. We have done a little benchmarking in a few programs to see how the cards run when using four GPU's and two GPU's and finally we will wrap it all up.
Building the Best
Once we got the system from Gigabyte, it was clear for us to see that they were only interested in using the best of the best when it came to computer components. Using what is considered the best processor on the market for gamers, the AMD Athlon FX-60, come as no surprise to us.
For cooling the FX-60 we have got the Gigabyte 3D Galaxy Liquid Cooling System. We have looked at the system by itself in the past and we have been extremely happy with it - it was nice to see Gigabyte and Mitac are using it in their ultimate system.
Motherboards wise we have the Gigabyte K8N PRO SLI which uses the nForce 4 SLI chipset. We would have liked to see an X16 SLI chipset used but unfortunately like a lot of other motherboard companies, Gigabyte haven't ventured into this chipset with a motherboard suitable for a Quad SLI setup.
While the system did come with two Kingston DDR-400 modules, we snuck a set of G.Skill ZX modules in with 2-3-2-5 timings to make sure we got the most out of the system.
Moving to hard drives we have two 500GB Seagate drives. They have been setup in RAID 0 to give the maximum performance. The RAID 0 setup combined with 2GB of low latency memory provides excellent load times.
We of course have four graphics cards or two GeForce 7900GX2 as they have been dubbed by nVidia. We will have a closer look at the cards in just a moment.
To wrap it all up we have what is one of my personal favorite cases, the Gigabyte Aurora in black. We have looked at this case in the past and been extremely happy with it. It gives plenty of room and is deigned perfectly to house the 3D Galaxy Liquid Cooling System as you can see in the pictures. It also comes with three 120mm fans to make sure as much air goes through the case as possible.
As you'll notice in the picture above, the system we received from Gigabyte included a power supply which was capable of pushing out 550 watts of power. For a system like this, you wouldn't want anything less than this and if you have the money, go for more wattage - it won't hurt. We haven't been supplied power figures from nVidia on Quad SLI, so we are unable to recommend exactly what wattage power supply you should go for.
Not going retail
The system we have with us today isn't going to hit retail in Australia, due to the 7900GX2 cards already being discontinued as we mentioned in the introduction. Speaking to Gigabyte, they have let us know that the system which will hit retail will be based around 7950GX2 cards which are due out at the end of the month with simples only a fortnight away.
With so much GPU power there is always the problem of CPU bottleneck... yes, even with an FX-60. For this reason the new system will be based around the Conroe and AM2 processors which are going to deliver more power then the current generation chips. We also assume that both systems will revolve around an nForce chipset with two X16 PCI Express slots to make the most out of all the power on offer.
GX2 are very long cards and this causes a lot of troubles fitting into cases. Gigabyte had to do some modding on their Aurora case to make sure they could fit without a problem. This is one of the first flaws in the 7900GX2 which has been revised. The new cards will be shorter which will make them compatible with cases.
Due to the two cards being so close together, quite a small fan is used on the card. While the heatsink is large, the fan that cools the card is only small which in turns means it has to spin faster. The problem with fast spinning fans are they tend to whine and cause a more irritating noise and these cards are no different. Hopefully the 7950GX2 cooler will be more noise friendly. While we have seen pictures of the card, we won't know what it's like to play with until they're out.
While the PCI Express power connector is located in the top right corner like it normal is its angled 90c so it's easier to plug in the four PCI Express power connectors needed.
We can see the SLI connector on the cards; they are in different positions so you can use two bridges at the same time. Most of the features found on the GX2 are similar to those on the normal 7900GT/GTX.
While there are two cards per set, there are only two DVI ports and not four like you might expect. Apart from that we also have an S-Video out for TV Out. The 7950GX2 cards should also support VIVO when they come out like the 7900GTX and some 7900GT cards do.
Connecting the cards together
Connecting the two cards together is where the technology becomes interesting. A miniature PCI Express interface is used to connect the two cards together. The problem that we can see though with the placement of the connector is that on the card where you can't see the cooler, the airflow is blocked from going straight. On the other hand the way the connector is angled it does hit it and push it out the top of the card. Heat as far as we can tell wasn't an issue with the card - while they do get warm, there were no stability issues experienced throughout our testing.
What is probably the most interesting when it comes to the cards is the clock speeds. With the size and price of the card, you would be expecting some astronomical numbers for core and memory speed. While the standard 7900GTX comes with a core clock of 650MHz and partner models coming in at excess of 690MHz, the GX2 cards come in at a surprisingly lower 500MHz.
A similar picture is painted with the memory; the standard 7900GTX comes in at 1600MHz. The 1.4NS memory on the GX2 which is capable of 1400MHz yet is only clocked at 1200MHz. This is 400MHz slower then your standard 7900GTX which doesn't include "OC" models that go in excess of 1700MHz+.
Pixel pipelines and vertex shaders are the same as the 7900GTX in a 24/8 combination. When you run SLI though you have 48 pixel pipes and 16 vertex shaders however the setup we have here today though doubles that again with 96 pixel pipes and 32 vertex shaders between the cards. Some say excessive... others say impressive.
What's the reason for the lower clocked memory and core you may ask? While there has not been anything official said to us so far, it's safe to say that to keep down heat and power, the clocks have been dropped as the same G71 chips are used on the GX2s as we see on the 7900GT/GTX. With the drop in speeds though the two extra GPU's will power on past the higher clocked 7900GTXs without a problem.
Screenshots - 3DMark05 and 06
We have benchmarked 3DMark05 although just to give you an idea of what it looks like when running on a 30" LCD, we have included some native resolution screenshots.
Like 3DMark05 we did benchmark with it as well but let's just have a quick look at what over 4 million pixels look like.
Screenshots - Gaming in BF2
When I can pry myself away from the Xbox 360 for a bit of PC gaming, there is nothing better than some 64 player multiplayer on my local servers. Below we have some pictures for Sharque Peninsula with some pretty useless bots running around.
Running at 2560 x 1600 we had AA set to 4x and AF set to 8x. With a silky smooth frame rate, it was safe to say that each card was taking care of its million pixels just fine.
Screenshots - Gaming in F.E.A.R.
F.E.A.R. is just one of those super intensive games. Turning off all the lights, pushing the monitor closer and turning up the speakers really helps immerse yourself in the game.
Keeping with the native resolution of 2560 x 1600 we set the AA to 2xQ and our AF to 8x. This gives us a really crisp looking game and really helps you get into it more.
Screenshots - Gaming in GRAW
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter or GRAW as it has become known all around the world is a brand new game for PC. It has been out on the Xbox 360 for a little while but has recently been adjusted to suit the PC with bigger maps.
GRAW is an intensive game; while we didn't have any problems running 2560 x 1600 as soon as we touched AA it didn't want to play nice - AA was at 0x and AF at 8x.
Screenshots - Gaming in Half Life 2
Half Life 2
Half Life 2 while being a little old now uses the same engine as one of the most popular multiplayer games every... Counter Strike.
Moving straight to 2560 x 1600 and bumping the AA up to 6x and AF up to 16x, HL2 looked absolutely gorgeous. We would have like to have taken more screenshots but for some reason after the first two we were only able to screenshot half of the picture, even after a few reboots the problem continued.
Benchmarks - Test System Setup and 3DMark05
Test System Setup
Processor(s): AMD Athlon FX-60
Motherboard(s): Gigabyte K8N PRO SLI
Memory: 2 X 1GB G.Skill ZX 2-3-2-5 DDR400
Hard Disk(s): 2 x Seagate 500GGB SATA2
Operating System: Windows XP Professional SP2
Drivers: nVidia ForceWare BETA and DX9c
We won't go into covering the test system like we normally do as we went through the parts on page 2 of this article.
The problem with the 2560 x 1600 resolution is that support for games is still quite limited - a lot of programs involve little workarounds to get them working. For this reason we did the "Gaming In" sections above. This helps give you an idea of how you can play current generation games with this kind of technology.
The limited benchmarks we have are with the cards running in Quad SLI (four GPU) and normal SLI (two GPU). We have also benchmarked at 2560 x 1600 for people with 30" LCDs and in 1920 x 1200 for people with 23" - 24" LCDs. It should go without saying, if you are going to spend this amount of money on a computer system like you, you won't (read: shouldn't) be playing games at anything less than 1600 x 1200, hence the reason we have benchmarked at such high resolutions.
Version and / or Patch Used: Build 120
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark05/
Buy It Here
3DMark05 is now the second latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and higher.
For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here.
You can clearly see there is a considerable difference at both resolutions but it is only almost double and not like 4x the performance of a single card. Mind you we didn't expect it to be four times faster.
Benchmarks - 3DMark06
Version and / or Patch Used: Build 102
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/
Buy It Here
3DMark06 is the very latest version of the "Gamers Benchmark" from FutureMark. The newest version of 3DMark expands on the tests in 3DMark05 by adding graphical effects using Shader Model 3.0 and HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) which will push even the best DX9 graphics cards to the extremes.
3DMark06 also focuses on not just the GPU but the CPU using the AGEIA PhysX software physics library to effectively test single and Dual Core processors.
3DMark06 at 1920 x 1200 sees under 2x the speed but when we move to 2560 x 1600 the cards are getting more of a working and we can see that the speeds is more then a 100% increase.
Benchmarks - Half Life 2
Half Life 2
Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Time demo
Developer Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.half-life2.com
Buy It Here
By taking the suspense, challenge and visceral charge of the original, and adding startling new realism and responsiveness, Half-Life 2 opens the door to a world where the player's presence affects everything around him, from the physical environment to the behaviors even the emotions of both friends and enemies.
We benchmark Half Life 2 with our own custom timedemos as to avoid possible driver optimizations using the "record demo_name" command and loading the timedemo with the "timedemo demo_name" command - For a full list of the commands, click here.
It isn't till you up the resolution till 2560 x 1600 where you can see a clear difference between the setups. It is obvious though that the Quad SLI setup is still hitting a CPU limitation.
Benchmarks - F.E.A.R.
Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.vugames.com
Product Homepage: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/
Buy It Here
F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is an intense combat experience with rich atmosphere and a deeply intense paranormal storyline presented entirely in first person. Be the hero in your own spine-tingling epic of action, tension, and terror...and discover the true meaning of F.E.A.R.
Like most other sites, F.E.A.R. sees some absolutely astonishing results. This is the kind of results we hope to see when it comes to the 7950GX2 cards we see later this month but in all games.
It really is going to be an exciting six months for people with large monitors and even larger wallets. It is clear to see why this current generation of GX2 cards are not going to hit the whole market; it is obvious to see that the 7900GX2 was introduced just to test the waters. It is also obvious that nVidia got the response they wanted from these cards though as the 7950GX2 cards (as we mentioned, which are due out soon) will be improved in most ways.
When it comes to buying these cards for your own Quad SLI system, you really would be stupid to purchase them if you're using anything less than a 30" LCD monitor. We can see that even then we aren't unlocking the full potential. The other thing to remember - Gigabyte mentioned to us is that the next system that they build, it is going to revolve around Intel Conroe and AMD AM2 processors. While initial benchmarks for AM2 don't look all that exciting, Conroe on the other hand looks like it's going to be the next "in" chip for enthusiast PC users with up to 40% increases in performance. This will go along way to improve the CPU limitation factor which we're starting to see so much these days.
There is a market for these cards but there is no denying that it's going to be a small one. While we have heard that a few companies are going to be doing the 7950GX2 cards, it will be interesting to see if someone like BFG Tech put their "pre-overclocking" hands to work so they can edge out the competition.
There are flaws in the current setup at the moment but since no one is really going to be picking up these cards, we won't go into too much detail as it isn't important. Though we will say this - even as intensive as games like F.E.A.R. and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter are, you would think that with this kind of GPU power you would be able to max out ALL settings including AA and AF but at times we couldn't.
There are a lot of questions that we have at the moment:
- Are the drivers just not ready?
- Is the CPU limiting us?
- Is something else limiting us?
- Do we need an X16 chipset for maximum performance?
- Do games need to be coded better for this kind of technology?
It is safe to say that most of these questions and more will be answered once we see Conroe, AM2, new nVidia chipsets and newer games/patches hit the market. For now we are impressed with what the future holds for what nVidia call "extreme HD gaming" - the future definitely looks good for PC gamers, that is, gamers who have lots of money to spend!
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