3-Way SLI Is Here In A Big Way

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Products: 3x 8800GTX, 780i SLI Motherboard
Provided by: MemoryExpress, Astrofox
Price: Motherboard & Graphics ~ $2000+


Introduction:

nVidia has been the top dog when it comes to graphics cards for a long time.  How does a company like nVidia improve upon their dominance?  They market a working triple card SLI (Scalable Link Interface) solution.  Previously the SLI platform only had the ability to link together two cards, but the technology behind it supported more; although it was never available.  With the recent launch of the AMD CrossfireX solution that enables up to four video cards to work in unison, nVidia upped the ante by providing there three-card solution - in a working package.  We showed you a sneak peak of the board, the bridge and the BIOS earlier this month, and now we bring you 3-Way SLI in action.

 

What You Need to Make It Happen:

We could have started this section off with a short little title like - "Platform Requirements", but in reality you need more than a platform.  You need lots and lots of money.  This platform doesn't come cheap as to really take advantage of it you will need a 780i SLI board that supports 3 - PCIe 16x slots and three 8800GTX or 8800Ultra graphics cards to populate them.  All of this graphics hardware would be pointless with an E4300 powering it, so could on dropping a bunch of money on a high-end Quad-Core CPU, or at least plan on overclocking your CPU to take advantage of this graphics setup.  You should also be prepared to have 4GB of DDR2 on hand and of course Windows Vista x64.

Let's take a look at what it could cost you to setup a nice 3-Way SLI system.  You may not agree with our hardware choices, but we believe that these represent what the hardcore user (only a handful will likely invest in TRi-SLi) would spend on hardware.

  • 780i SLI Motherboard - Pre-orders available from $259USD.
  • 3x 8800GTX Graphics Cards - $539USD.
  • (or) 3x 8800 Ultra Graphics Cards - $639USD.
  • Intel Q6600 Processor - $289USD.
  • Thermalright Ultra-120 HSF w/Fan $80USD.
  • 2x 500GB HDDs (RAID 0) - $200USD.
  • 4GB DDR2-1066 (4x 1GB) - $300USD.
  • Windows Vista x64 Ultimate OEM - $199USD.
  • 1000W PSU - $229USD.
  • Case, ODD, Misc. - $150USD.

 

Total cost of TRi-SLi = $3323USD (est.)


While you may very well be able to score hardware cheaper and probably already have some of the hardware required, the price list is pretty steep, and very restrictive.  Only 8800GTX and 8800Ultra cards are currently supported.

That being said, let's take a quick peek at the board before we talk about the 780i chipset and 3-Way SLI in more detail.

 Full Board
Full Board
 Slots And Chips
Slots And Chips

 

The following information has been pulled from the nVidia page here

NVIDIA nForce® 780i SLI™ media and communications processors (MCPs) are the foundation for the world's ultimate gaming PC. Maximize your rig's performance with 3-way SLI technology, achieve ultimate control with the real time component monitoring and tuning features the first platform designed for ESA-certified components, and experience phenomenal DirectX® 10 gaming with the best platform for GeForce GPUs.

Maximize Your Rig's Performance
Get as much as 2.8x the performance of a single card configuration with support for 3-way NVIDIA® SLI™ technology. Play the latest DirectX® 10 games at mind-blowing frame rates and resolutions for an unmatched gaming experience.

Achieve Ultimate Control
Real-time component monitoring and tuning features give you complete control over your PC. Maximize your PC's performance through an immersive, all-in-one, 3D system monitor application.

Spectacular DirectX 10 Gaming Experience
Up your game by pairing NVIDIA nForce 780i SLI with three NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX or GeForce 8800 Ultra graphics cards and experience next generation DirectX® 10 games the way they're meant to be played.

 

Designed for NVIDIA® SLI™ technology
NVIDIA SLI technology is a revolutionary platform innovation that allows you to intelligently scale graphics performance by combining multiple NVIDIA graphics solutions in a single system with an NVIDIA nForce SLI MCP. New support for 3-way SLI technology provides up to 2.4x performance increase so you can play the latest next generation applications at mind-blowing framerates and resolutions.

Support for ESA
Provides real-time and complete PC performance management. Tested by a comprehensive certification program for system compatibility and reliability, ESA-certified components and applications bring you unprecedented control to manage and tune thermal, electrical, acoustic and operating characteristics to maximize your PC's performance. For more information, visit www.nvidia.com/esa

NVIDIA Control Panel
NVIDIA Control Panel allows you to take full advantage of ESA. Easily adjust PC characteristics for maximum performance. Features NVIDIA System Monitor, so you can seamlessly monitor characteristics in an intuitive and customizable 3D environment.

PCI Express 2.0 Support
Designed to support the new PCI Express 2.0 bus architecture, offering a future-proofing bridge to tomorrow's most bandwidth-hungry games and 3D applications by maximizing 5 GT/s of bandwidth (twice that of first generation PCI Express). PCI Express 2.0 motherboards are fully backwards compatible with existing PCI Express products for broad support of PC peripherals.

NVIDIA MediaShield™ Storage
Suite of features that safeguards your most important digital media assets; always reliable, scalable, and accessible. Includes support for RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 configurations and up to six SATA 3Gb/s drives.

NVIDIA FirstPacket™ technology
Be the 'King of Ping' with NVIDIA FirstPacket technology. Get the crystal-clear phone conversations and online gaming performance you expect. NVIDIA FirstPacket technology assures your game data, VoIP conversations, and large file transfers are delivered according to preferences set by you in an intuitive wizard.

High Definition Audio (HDA)
High definition audio brings consumer electronics quality sound to the PC delivering high quality sound from multiple channels. Using HDA, systems can deliver 192 kHz/32-bit quality for eight channels, supporting new audio formats.

 

 

780i SLI Specs

On the next page we'll look at the graphics card end of things as we build the system and then begin testing.


It's In The Cards:

nVidia currently says that 3-Way SLI is supported on the 680i SLI platform as the 780i SLI platform is not yet available.  However, to achieve 2.8x performance compared to a single card, you're going to need 16x PCIe lanes on each card, and the fancy 3-Way SLI bridge which we've been told will retail for $80 alone.  This system is obviously not for the weak of heart, and will be pointless unless you plan on running at 2560x1600 resolutions for most games.  When gaming less than 1920x1200, regular two card SLI is adequate for every game we tested - except Crysis.

Rack of Cards
Rack of Cards

 

We had a pair of 8800GTX graphics cards on hand, thanks to MemoryExpress and even managed to secure a good 780i SLI motherboard and the triple SLI connector, but we were one card short to make this happen.  We put out a plea to some of our forum members, and Astrofox answered and brought over his new eVGA 8800GTX.  All of these cards were clocked at default speeds and we used the latest Motherboard drivers (9.46) for Vista 64-bit as well as the latest Graphics drives (169.25).  To power them, we had to break out our Ultra Power Partner PSU to run the eVGA card while the Zalman Heatpipe Cooled 850W unit handled the rest of the system.  We used a Kill-a-Watt to measure system power consumption and this peaked at 743W and sustained 700W during testing.  The Zalman PSU probably could have handled things, but we wanted to have a stable system as we were overclocking our Q6600 from 2.4GHz to 3.0GHz as well.

3 Way SLI Bridge
3 Way SLI Bridge

Once we installed all the cards and dropped on the 3-Way SLI bridge, we installed the latest drives and after another reboot we were able to see that 3-Way SLI was available as a choice in the nVidia Control Panel.

3-Way Available
3-Way Available

 

Seeing that option available made me smile.  If it works half as well as nVidia claims, it should be pretty sweet.  Here's what they say about it.

 

Extreme gaming just got a whole lot better. NVIDIA® Corporation has extended its SLI™ technology, which enables the use of multiple graphics processing units (GPUs) on a single computer, allowing up to three GeForce® graphics cards to be used in a single machine. Now hot, new, graphics-intensive titles, such as Call of Duty 4, Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and Unreal Tournament 3, can be played at the highest resolution possible, with all the graphics settings cranked to the max, and antialiasing applied for the first time.

NVIDIA’s new 3-way SLI delivers up to a 2.8x performance increase over a single GPU system, giving high-end gamers 60 frames per second at resolutions as high as 2560x1600 and with 8x antialiasing. 3-way SLI technology means you no longer have to dial back the image quality settings on the newest PC games. For example, gamers with 3-way SLI can play Crysis at high resolutions such as 1920x1200 with all the advanced DirectX 10 effects such as motion blur, ambient occlusion, and soft shadows turned on.

"The new crop of PC games offers stunning visuals. And for truly immersive game play with all the eye candy you need to play on a PC with a lot of graphics horse power," said Ujesh Desai, general manager of GeForce desktop GPUs at NVIDIA. "3-way SLI produces stunning visuals, pristine image quality, and a truly awesome gaming experience."The heart of a 3-way SLI system is an NVIDIA nForce® 680 SLI MCP motherboard and three GeForce 8800 GTX or GeForce 8800 Ultra graphics cards. With 3-way SLI, gamers can harness the power of 384 stream processors, a 110+ gigatexel per second texture fill rate, and over two gigabytes of graphics memory for no-compromise gaming performance.

3-way SLI gives gamers the flexibility to scale their graphics processing power with one, two, or three GeForce GPUs, depending on their desired price and system configuration. 3-way SLI systems are available from leading gaming PC system builders and the components needed to build your own 3-way SLI system are available from leading retailers.

 

One of our initial concerns for this platform was heat.  These cards are in very close proximity to each other and this could cause overheating after extended periods of gaming if you have a poorly ventilated case.  Our platform sat on a HighSpeed PC Tech Station, compliments of Xoxide and ambient room temperature remained around 21C.  Inside a case, temperatures can easily exceed 40C if it is poorly ventilated and often rise over 30C in a case with good airflow.  Keep that in mind as you check out the temperatures below.

GPU Temps
GPU Temps

The above screenshot shows card temperatures according to the older nVidia monitoring tool which doesn't seem to work really well on the new 780i board.  Our fan was going faster than 4RPM.  I do believe that these temperatures are fairly accurate though and were taken after setting up the system, and after some lite testing.  If you put these cards inside a case and you could easily see your graphics cards temperatures approach 90C or higher.

 

 

One of nVidia's claims to fame with this "new" platform is the ESA (Enthusiast System Architecture) monitoring.  We downloaded the application and ran it for kicks.  While it can be handy, it is clunky, has poor graphics design and is a waste of a 50MB download in my opinion.  A simple program like RivaTuner and CPU-Z can tell you pretty much the same thing and not slow down windows to 20FPS.  This software runs full-screen and has adjustable transparency.  We darkened it up so you couldn't see all the crap we have on our desktop.

ESA Software
ESA Software

 

On the next page, we'll show you the system build, offer up some specs and then jump into testing.


Test System:

Our test system was put together with some choice parts and although we may have been able to acquire a QX9550, we believe the overclocked Q6600 offers pretty good performance at a price that is pretty popular.  Although we often push our CPU up to 3.2GHz, we kept it at 3.0GHz through testing and ran the FSB at 333MHz for a nice round overclock all the way around.  We had 2GB of A-Data Vitese memory as well as 2GB of Crucial Ballistix Tracer on the bench as well and this memory played nice together which is no surprise as these two kits are powered by Micron D9 chips.  Below is the full break-down of the test system.

  • nVidia Reference 780i SLI Motherboard
  • Intel Q6600 CPU overclocked to 3.0GHz (cooled by Zalman CNPS9500 LED)
  • 4GB DDR2-1066 Memory (A-Data + Crucial)
  • 2x 500GB Seagate 7200.10 HDDs in RAID 0
  • 2x XFX 8800GTX 768MB Graphics Cards
  • 1x eVGA 8800GTX 768MB Graphics Card
  • HSPC Top Deck Desk Station
  • Zalman 850W PSU
  • Ultra Products Power Partner 325W PSU
  • Windows Vista Ultimate x64
  • Latest WHQL Motherboard and Graphics Drivers

 

 CoD4 - TRiSLi
CoD4 TRi-SLI

 

 


Building The System:

As I mentioned previously, building a 3-Way SLI system was painless.  We used a fairly recent install of Vista x64, dumped the motherboard and graphics drives, used drivercleaner to get rid of all the renegade bits and bytes then performed a fresh install of the latest drives that support 3-Way SLI.  Once Astrofox brought over his card, we rebooted, dropped the card in the slot, attached the massive SLI bridge and booted into Windows.  Once it detected the cards, the driver installation went as normal and the Control Panel offered us 3-Way SLI.  Note that you cannot simply disable one card and run Dual-SLI anymore - only single or triple.  In order to run 2-way SLI, you'll have to pull a card from the system.  As far as frame buffer goes, with TRi-SLI enabled we've not got 2214MB of graphics memory available.  That's right, over 2GB ready and waiting.  This is another reason why 64-bit Vista should be used instead of any 32-bit OS.

 

 Lined Up
Lined Up
3-Way SLI System
3-Way SLI System

 

3-Way SLI Testing:

If you are considering 3-Way SLI on your current display of 1600x1200 or similar, you won't see a large performance gain from adding the third card.  Where the extra horsepower really shines is on large 30" displays such as our Samsung 305T unit that pulls off a nice 2560x1600 4Megapixel+ display.  If you're a hardcore gamer and you demand flawless video quality without sacrificing performance, then you'll definitely be a candidate - if you have enough cash to drop on a full system.  We'll start things off by showing how a single, 2-Way SLI and 3-Way SLI scale on today's popular 3DMark 06.

3DMark06
Click for larger image

 

To be honest, I was surprised to see a performance increase with the third card when running the default 3DMark 06 at 1280x1024.  Scores increase a little over 1.28x with the addition of a second card and weigh in at 1.34x faster than a single card with 3-Way SLI enabled at this "low" resolution.  To make this upgrade worthwhile, you'll need to run higher resolutions with AA and AF enabled - which brings us to testing at 1920x1200 with 8x AA and 16x AF.  In this HD scenario, the 2-Way SLI shows almost a 1.75x improvement over a single card and the 3-Way system shows almost a 2.2x performance improvement over a single card - not quite the 2.8x nVidia claimed, but we're not done yet.  At 2560x1600 with 4x AA and 16x AF, a standard 2-Card SLI system shows 1.77x improvement and the 3-Way SLI system increases the performance to 2.3x that of a single card.

On the next page, we'll get into some actual game play testing and see if the performance holds up in the real world.


Real-World Gaming:

Even though the 3-Way SLI shows some promise in a synthetic benchmark, we still wanted to see what it was like in some real-world applications that rely on CPU power for AI, audio processing and more.  3DMark 06 doesn't analyze that in the default benchmark so we decided to run Call of Duty 4, Call of Juarez DX10 Demo, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Unreal Tournament 3 to see how these games all stand up.  I know that some of you are wondering why we left out Crysis, but currently Crysis doesn't like 4GB of RAM on any of our test benches and running 2.2GB of Video RAM with only 2GB of RAM doesn't offer valid scores.  We hope to update the results with Crysis scores once we can get 4GB running stable under Crysis.

We're going alphabetically, so the first one us is Call of Duty 4.

Call of Duty 4
Click for larger image

 

Our game play performance was take from the level Heat and involved a lot of explosions, machine gunning and intense battle out doors on a lush hillside.  We recorded the frame rates with FRAPS and repeated each run through several times for consistency.  This gives you actual game play numbers that you can compare with on your own machine.  Everything was set to high at all times with 4x AA enabled. With such high detail, a single card can barely keep up at 1920x1200 and adding the second card for traditional SLI gives you a boost of 1.45x and makes the game very playable with an average of 55FPS - up from 38FPS average.  When you drop in the third card, you can an additional 20 frames per second and boost your performance to 1.97x that of a single card.  The big news is that you only get a 17FPS boost with two cards and get 20FPS with three cards.

 

Once we move to 2560x1600, the second card gives us 20FPS gains which total 1.69x that of a single card.  Dropping in the third card yields another 15FPS for a total of 2.21x that of a single card.  In this game we see very acceptable gains for the third card.  Let's move on to the DX10 benchmark of Call of Juarez and see how things hold up.

Call of Juarez DX10
Click for larger image

 

In Call of Juarez, we ran a large shadowmap size, normal shadow quality and 2x AA.  This demo only supports resolutions up to 1920x1200 so we ran 1680x1050 as well as 1920x1200 for comparison.  A single card struggles in this DX10 demo and the best we can do is average 20.6 at 1680x1050.  A second card gives us 1.66x performance at this resolution, and 3-Way SLI jumps up the performance to 2.61x a single card.  At this resolution we see the 3-Way SLI really perform well - much better than I was expecting.  With such a "low" resolution of 1680x1050 behind us, we now jump into 1920x1200.

With a single card installed, the demo chugs by at a measly 18.2FPS.  Adding a second card made it almost bearable at 26.7FPS average - a performance increase of 1.47x.  When adding the third card for TRI-SLI, it managed to pull off an average of 36.2FPS and was almost pleasant to watch.  The third card pulled a boost of 1.99x.  Although it was a little weaker than the lower resolution, it still has a nice showing at this resolution.

Moving on to Half-Life 2, we chose to use Episode 2 as it has more detail, better lighting and more effects than the earlier versions.  That being said, the game still runs very well and is a credit to the hard work that Valve put into this game.  We ran at both 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 at maximum detail and 4x AA.

HL2 - EP2
Click for larger image

 

Half-Life 2 ran very smoothly at 1920x1200 on a single card and averages an impressive 66FPS.  Doubling up the graphics power only yielded an additional 9FPS which translates to a mere 1.14x.  When we dropped in the third card we say the performance actually go up quite dramatically and we averaged 104FPS - 1.58x a single card.  Nothing to brag about, but for a game that already runs great on a single card at 1920x1200, it's a nice improvement.  Moving to 2560x1600 we retested to see how things performed at 4 mega pixels.  Any game at this resolution looks impressive and HL2:EP2 is no exception.  A single card still managed an acceptable 45FPS, but here we see a 1.31x improvement when running a second card.  The third card gives us a 1.93x improvement.  As resolutions rise, so does the benefit of $1800 worth of video cards.

 

 

Finally we take a look at UT3.  While many say that this game is merely a warm-over of the previous versions, the truth is that it is filled with HDR Lighting, shaders and a lots of soft particles.  It runs well on older hardware when scaled down, but when running at maximum detail at high resolutions, it can bog down a high-end system.  In this game we left everything at maximum quality and disable "framerate smoothing" which removes the games 60FPS cap.

Unreal Tournament 3
Click for larger image

This game performs quite well at both 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 with a single card, and we don't actually see tons of improvement when we double and triple up the SLI.  That being said, we still see a 1.23x improvement at 1920x1200 when going with traditional SLI, and a 1.35x improvement over a single card with 3-Way SLI.  The truth is, even with the game maxed out at 1920x1200 - a single card is good enough.  2560x1600 is a little different story though.  At this resolution a single card averages 47FPS, and while that may be fine for a single player campaign, when playing multi-player the frame rates at times get into the 30's and this can be a little difficult when trying to dodge away from BoneRak on Deck.  SLI helps things out and brings our average up to 77FPS - an improvement of 1.64x.  Adding the third card only brought up the Average FPS to 83FPS - 1.77x a single card.  This third card didn't offer really noticeable performance in-game and if you weren't benchmarking, you likely wouldn't see any improvement.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

After spending a few weeks with the 780i SLI platform and having some fun with the 3-Way SLI from nVidia, it is actually a bit disappointing to run only a two-card SLI setup again.  Not that I need to have three cards in a system for the amount of gaming I do.  In fact, no one "needs" 3-Way SLI.  The truth is, 3-Way SLI is downright awesome though.  To put three cards in a system, draw over 700W from the tower alone and play games at maximum detail at 2560x1600 is a wonder to behold.  The platform is stable, has great driver support and was absolutely painless to setup.  Really, there is nothing bad to say about it - other than price.  If you already have a 680i SLI board, it is supported but you will still need to grab the large 3-Way SLI bridge and that isn't available at your local Fry's or Newegg.  Not to mention you'll need yet another 8800 GTX or 8800 Ultra graphics card and should have a 1000W PSU to ensure stability.  If you are running a mid-range dual core processor, you'll be sorely CPU limited and you should have at 30" 2560x1600 display to really enjoy your pile of graphics processing power.  All-in-all, it's a very expensive platform to buy into straight up, but in my honest opinion, it's worth it if you've got the cash and enjoy gaming is Super HD.

The big question I have is will nVidia enable 3-Way SLI on other cards and how long will this platform be supported?  The 7950GX2 lived a short life with this "Quad-SLI" offering that wasn't supported very well or for very long.  I would be a bit wary of nVidia pulling the pin on this platform once the next generation of their graphics cards comes out.  If they stay true to form, a single 9800 GTX will perform very closely with 8800 GTX SLI, so it may be worth it to wait.  If you can't wait, you'll be ROFLMAO as you pull 64FPS in CoD4 at 2560x1600 with 4x AA and everything cranked to the max.

 

Pros:

  • Excellent driver and game support
  • Quiet performance with stock coolers on cards
  • Nice performance scaling with additional card
  • Looks darn awesome!

 

Cons:

  • Expensive platform
  • Heat could limit graphics cards life as they are so close to each other

 BCCRating

 

I'd like to thank MemoryExpress for setting us up with the hardware we needed for this review and for Astrofox for pulling his own card to help us make this happen.  It was fun, interesting and nobody got burned by the cards!

Please post your comments, questions and feedback to this review at the "Comments" link below.