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SLI on Life Support on the AMD Platform: Oh SNAP!

Author: Josh Walrath
Subject: Editorial
Manufacturer: NVIDIA
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PCI-E and the Introduction of SLI

    The jump to PCI-Express was not unanticipated, and by the time it made its introduction in the 900 series of chipsets from Intel, AMD was working with its partners to support the new connection technology.  AGP was running out of steam, and it was not flexible enough to handle what NVIDIA had in mind for their graphics technology.

    The first hint of multi-GPU setups was with the launch of the GeForce 6800 series on PCI-Express.  These cards not only differed from their AGP counterparts in terms of the PCI-E connection, but a new set of “golden fingers” were designed at the top of the card.  It soon became obvious that NVIDIA would soon be bringing out a multi-GPU solution.

The nForce 3 150, shown here in Chaintech form, was a step backwards for NVIDIA.  People were frankly confused about the strange features that the 150 brought to the Athlon 64 arena.

    The solution was unveiled with the nForce 4 chipset.  The nForce 4 came in several flavors, but the one that caught everyone’s attention was the nForce 4 SLI (which was a step above the nForce 4 Ultra).  This all-in-one chip built upon the features of the earlier nForce 3 250, but added in the obvious PCI-E support as well as 4 SATA-II connections.  The really big feature was the ability to take the 16X PEG connection and be able to split it into 2 x 8X lanes.  This allows two PCI-E graphics cards to be run on the same motherboard, and still have plenty of bandwidth to and from the CPU and main memory.

    When the nForce 4 was released, NVIDIA still did not have an Intel compatible chipset to offer.  So if a user wanted SLI, they would have to go with an Athlon 64 part.  This was not a big issue, as the Athlon 64 was hands down the fastest processor available to consumers.  About eight months after the AMD nForce 4 was revealed, the Intel based chipset was released.

    At this time, when the Athlon 64 (and the upcoming dual core versions) was at its apex in terms of industry leading performance, NVIDIA controlled something around 60% to 70% of AMD’s chipset market with their nForce 4 products. 

    The 500 series of chipsets for the AMD market yet again set a high bar for competitors to match.  The low end 500 to 560 chipsets found themselves in many a budget build with the new AM2 socket.  The midrange was dominated by the 570 SLI and the 570 Ultra.  At the top end was the 590 SLI which was available for a full 4 months before the competing ATI CrossFire Express 3200 chipset which offered 2 x 16X CrossFire support.

    Even with renewed competition from ATI in the AMD chipset market, NVIDIA held a virtual stranglehold.  When compared to the ATI chipsets, the I/O portion of the NVIDIA parts were far superior in overall speed (SATA, USB, etc.).

Market Changes

    A couple of funny things happened in short order after the release of the 500 series chipsets from NVIDIA.  The first was the release of the Intel Core 2 Duo processors, which quite literally cleaned the floor with the Athlon X2.  There was a new performance king in town.

    In October of 2006 we saw another major change.  AMD bought ATI, and with the graphics portion of the company came the chipset division.  AMD now had a platform company which was able to offer graphics, CPU, and chipset support for consumers and OEMs alike.

Redemption for NVIDIA came in the form of the nForce 3 250.  This became the enthusiast's chipset of choice for the Athlon 64 in both Socket 754 and Socket 939 flavors.

    NVIDIA released the 680i SLI chipset for Intel in November, 2006, in conjunction with the GeForce 8 series of graphics cards.  This platform took off quite quickly.  The combination of a high performance Core 2 Duo chip along with up to 3 x GeForce 8800 GTX cards running in SLI proved to be unmatched by anything else.  The performance of a Core 2 Duo midrange CPU often overshadowed that of the top end Athlon X2 or FX processors.

    The chipset division at NVIDIA really slowed down at this point.  In the next year they would only release one major chipset revision, and that was taking the 680i and making it into the 780i in conjunction with the nForce 200 chip which provided PCI-E 2.0 capabilities.  In late 2007/early 2008 the chipset division again seemed to come to life and we saw the release of the 790i chipset for Intel parts which included DDR-3 support and native PCI-E 2.0 connectivity.  On the AMD side we saw the 700 series of chipsets released.  The top end product was the 780a, which was a combination of the nForce 8200 integrated graphics chips along with the nForce 200 PCI-E 2.0 chip.

    A lot was promised with these chipsets, especially in regards to Hybrid SLI modes.  Some was delivered, some was not.  What was surprising is that there did not seem to be as big of a market push for these products as we were expecting.  Yes, quite a few SKUs came out featuring these chipsets, but after about 4 months it was eerily quiet.  I remember seeing only a handful of reviews of motherboards using these chipsets.  At this time AMD was riding high with their previous 690G chipset, followed up by the very impressive 780G and its derivatives.  At the high end the 790FX was being pushed as THE enthusiast part in the newly minted “Dragon Platform”.

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