NVIDIA 3-Way SLI Technology Review - 8800 Ultra x 3!
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The Gamble of NVIDIA SLI
When NVIDIA first reintroduced multi-GPU technology to the gamer with the 6800 series of graphics card, most of the tech media and enthusiasts were skeptical to its longevity. I think anyone would have to agree now that NVIDIA has at least stuck with the plan of offering SLI technology at every generation even if there have been some issues along the way.
When SLI first hit the market (and keep in mind I will be referring to the NEW NVIDIA SLI unless stated otherwise) it was a secondary feature, something that could be used later if gamers had the need or money. It was also leveraged as an option for down the road upgrades: buy a card now, in 6-12 months buy another card to keep performance high without wasting the original purchase. With product cycles the way they are in the GPU world that is a bit of a risk.
Now, though, SLI is more than just a check box feature for NVIDIA products; it is their life blood in the enthusiast market. Now that Intel has announced its plans for entry into GPUs in a couple of years and because one of NVIDIA’s best partners, AMD, purchased their main rival, ATI, NVIDIA finds itself in an odd spot. It has no real friends to stand with and must make it on its own. In other words, NVIDIA must continue to prove why it is still important. SLI technology is one way they are doing it.
Want great gaming performance? You're gonna need an SLI configuration? That means an NVIDIA SLI chipset because no one else’s boards will run then. Guess that also means some SLI branded memory and maybe ESA compatible cases and coolers…? You see the picture here. NVIDIA wants to create as much of a “platform” around themselves as they can, just as Intel has done and AMD has done.
How SLI Has Evolved
Even NVIDIA will admit that when SLI was in its infancy with the 6-series of GPUs, it was a struggle and there were some problems. Games had to be coded in new ways, drivers had to work around game design decisions and in general it was a big change for the GPU industry. Back in October of 2004 when I first got to test the new SLI technology, there were fidgeting bridge cards that needed to be adjusted for the PCI Express bus changes and drivers were finicky. Game support was limited to the select few major titles at the time like Half-Life 2 and Far Cry while games like Everquest 2 and Rome: Total War were a wash.
Over time though, SLI got better and better. It spread to the Intel platform with the first NVIDIA nForce 4 chipset for Intel CPUs and lived through the GeForce 7-series of cards as well. In fact, towards the end of Windows XP’s life (though its far from dead now), SLI technology was one of the best features in a gaming PC period.
In the middle of 2006, NVIDIA attempted to release a technology known as Quad SLI that was in fact two dual-GPU graphics boards paired together. The technology never took off and as our own testing showed, game support was abysmal. The way the driver worked with then top-end DX9 titles was wildly different than standard 2-card SLI and combined alternate frame rendering and the problem-ridden split frame rendering into one, larger problem.
SLI extended in the mobile graphics market and spawned SLI-branded products like power supplies, memory and even coolers all in an attempt to feed off of the cult that was SLI.
And then Windows Vista happened. Seemingly unprepared for an OS launch 5 years in the making, NVIDIA didn’t have SLI working with the new OS came out and resorted to integrating it again in sections. First DX9 SLI, then some time before DX10 SLI. Never to be seen is support for those users that shelled out for Quad SLI and the once vaunted SLIAA is still a no show. ATI (now AMD) had problems with CrossFire during Vista’s launch as well though, just to be fair about it.
You can see then why there is some disparity in the online media and enthusiasts about 3-Way SLI and if it is even going to be worth user’s time and investment. I obvious can’t say for sure what NVIDIA is going to do years down the road, but I can offer my opinions on the subject as we go through the testing and dive deeper into the technology of SLI 3-ways.