SLI on Life Support on the AMD Platform: Oh SNAP!
SLI on AMD in Decline
During this time, SLI was in decline on the AMD platform. Users were heading to Intel due to the Core 2 Quad’s performance over the recently released (and errata free) B3 Phenoms. AMD continued to develop their chipsets, and their graphics cards started to compete on a much more even level with the NVIDIA products. While NVIDIA finally replaced the 8800 GTX after 1.5 years at the top with the GTX 280, AMD was quick to follow with the much improved HD 4800 series of cards. Finally AMD was competitive with NVIDIA in graphics, and CrossFire support continued to mature.
The nForce 4 SLI really gave a lot of impetus to NVIDIA's chipset business, and a halo effect for their enthusiast level products. The fastest gaming rigs in the world featured an AMD processor and NVIDIA graphics cards in SLI.
The 700 series of chipsets from NVIDIA took a while to develop any kind of momentum. It was a couple of months from the introduction of these parts until we actually saw a lot of product. The 8000 series of integrated chips from NVIDIA have done ok, but they face a lot of competition from the AMD 700 series of integrated parts, plus the 8000 series do not support SLI. The mainstream gamer and enthusiast class of 700 chips have slowly seen support from motherboard manufacturers, but when looking online for what is actually available, the support seems very anemic considering that these products have been out for well over a year now. Not only that, but most of the boards available are initial designs that have not been updated.
The final example of where SLI support on AMD motherboards has diminished to is the “latest” nForce 980a. This is simply a rebranded 780a product which officially supports AM3 processors. There is nothing physically different about this chip as it utilizes the same HT 3.0 connection to the CPU as the previous 780a did. NVIDIA launched this a few months ago to absolutely no fanfare. The press was not briefed and no review samples were made and sent out. All that we know is that there was a new listing of the 980a on NVIDIA’s website.
Since the official release of the 980a, there has been a grand total of 1 design wins for the chipset with the Asus M4N82 Deluxe. The irony is that this is not even an AM3 board, but in fact an AM2+ socket with DDR-2. Through quite a bit of searching, I have yet to find an NVIDIA based AM3 board that is for sale to end users.
NVIDIA didn't leave Intel out in the cold for too long. Around 9 months after the release of the nForce 4 SLI for AMD, the nForce 4 SLI for Intel dropped upon the scene.
While AMD’s CPUs do not have the overall performance lead in the market, the switch to 45 nm manufacturing has allowed AMD to regain some lost marketshare, and perhaps more importantly they are regaining an enthusiast following. The Phenom II processors are tremendous overclockers, and the price they are offered at is simply too tempting for many users to pass up. There is a very good selection of enthusiast/tweaker style motherboards for AM3 right now, and they exist at price points between $79 and $189. But if these enthusiasts want multi-GPU style setups on an AM3 platform, they are limited to AMD CrossFire. They can downgrade to AM2+ socket support and pick up SLI, but with DDR-3 prices now being competitive with DDR-2 few users see any reason to limit their upgrade potential by going with the older socket design.
CrossFire has not been as big of a roadblock as many were expecting, mainly because the 4800 series of video cards are very competitive with what NVIDIA has out at each major price point. Users can grab a 4850 1 GB card for around $119 (and often lower with rebates and specials), and a faster 4870 1 GB can now be had for around $149. The software behind CrossFire has also improved, and while NVIDIA may still have an edge in compatibility and scaling in multi-GPU solutions, AMD is not all that far behind.
The unlocked Phenom II X3 720 and Phenom II X4 955 are providing enthusiasts with very affordable, and still fast, CPUs to overclock with. It is just unfortunate that NVIDIA has missed the boat on this sudden resurgence with AMD CPUs by not pushing ahead with interesting and compelling motherboard chipset products.