The Setup and The Test

We did have some issues again with this one. If you’ve already got one 9800 GX2 with the driver installed, uninstall the driver, reboot, power down, plug in the second card, boot, reboot, then install the driver. Trust me, it will save you a headache. It seems NVIDIA and AMD still need some time to sort out Vista and multi-GPU when adding a card or removing a card. We didn’t have the same problems we did with CrossFireX, but the potential is there to cause some frustration.

We also ran into a huge (in our opinion) bug that was very difficult to track down. The first two things we do when our graphics driver is installed is to disable vsync and disable image scaling to fit panel size. We run with no scaling at centered timings. This affords us the ability to see things at the same DPI across the board and it also gives us the ability to tell what resolution we are running by looking at the screen. This saves us a lot of trouble when things inevitably get mucked up for one reason or another. I also tend toward the obsessive / compulsive and if I can’t see it, I need to set the res like four times just to be sure.

In any case, 2x 9800 GX2 cards in Quad SLI will not run any games at less than panel resolution if scaling is disabled. You run the game and get a black screen. If you change resoluion in the game to something lower than panel res you get a black screen. Well, to be fair, it’s not just a black screen. It’s a hard lock. This needs to be fixed. It happens on both Skulltrail and 780i, so it’s not an isolated issue.

Also, NVIDIA decided to install a link to a trial version of Portal on the user's desktop when their driver is installed. I suppose a link to the site is better than bundling Earthsim, but not even asking if their customer wants more clutter on their desktop before putting it there is terribly inappropriate. I don’t care about bundling a trial, but please ask before you put something on my desktop.

The test system we used is the same as the one from the 9800 GX2 review, as are the driver revisions.

Test Setup
CPU 2x Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9775 @ 3.20GHz
Motherboard Intel D5400XS (Skulltrail)
Video Cards ATI Radeon HD 3870 x2
ATI Radeon HD 3870
NVIDIA GeForce 9600 GT 512MB
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 512MB
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 Ultra
NVIDIA GeForce 9800 GX2
Video Drivers Catalyst 8.3
ForceWare 174.53
Hard Drive Seagate 7200.9 120GB 8MB 7200RPM
RAM 2xMicron 2GB FB-DIMM DDR2-8800
Operating System Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit SP1

Thanks goes out to EVGA for supplying the two 9800 GX2 units for this review.

As for power consumption, here’s what we’ve got from these beasts.

Idle Power

Load Power

Index Overall Performance Scaling with 4 GPUs
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  • DerekWilson - Wednesday, March 26, 2008 - link

    we've looked at using the hp blackbird ...

    the major reason i want to use skulltrail is to compare crossfire to sli.

    there are plenty of reasons i'd rather use another platform, but i'd love it if either AMD or NVIDIA would take a step outside of the box and enable either their platform to support other multiGPU configurations or enable their drivers and cards to run in multiGPU configurations on other platforms.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, March 25, 2008 - link

    It's a slippery slope. We want to be able to say Nvidia is better than ATI (or vice versa), or that future scaling due to architecture will make A better than B. The truth as you pointed out is that it doesn't happen this way in all cases. You can have a A64 3200+ (like I currently do) and throw a GX2 at it and it probably won't perform better than a 9600GT. But that doesn't mean its an equal card, just that in a particular situation it performed the same. It's up to the buyer to do their homework and figure out whether its worth it to drop $650 when their system in current $$$ might not be worth the price of the card....

    Hocp tried this tactic with the launch of the C2D's and got a lot of heat (I agreed with the anger). They were trying to show that most games are GPU limited and so the new CPU's showed no benefit. Of course it was only a small selection of games, and they didn't take into consideration the 2 largest cpu-straining genre's (RTS and flight sim), and they were running at very high resolutions (which obviously would make things GPU bound).

    One of gamespot.com's good features is in their game coverage (pretty much all I use them for). They put out hardware guides that do exactly what you want. They take a specific game and throw a battery of systems at it to see what makes a difference. Those guides will show you just how much improvement you can expect when going from a certain graphics card to a better one on a specific cpu platform. You'll be able to see whether your cpu/mobo combination is at the end of its usable lifespan (ie upgrading other components such as GPU/ram no longer yield a large improvement due to cpu/other bottleneck).

    I would say while like you I read these reviews knowing I'll likely never own one of these cards/cpu's, it does give a good picture of who is at the top, and therefore, who has the potential to outlast the other in a system before an upgrade is needed.

    With all that said, there is clearly a major problem going on and so all the data generated in this and possibly the previous single GX2 review also benchmarked on the skulltrail platform needs to be taken with a grain of salt, realizing that the numbers could very likely be invalid.
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Tuesday, March 25, 2008 - link

    I doubt there is a major problem that would invalidate the data ... and I'm not just saying that because I spent weeks testing and troubleshooting :-)

    certainly something is going on, but in spite of the fact that 780i performs a bit higher, performance characteristics are exactly the same -- if there is an issue with my setup it is not platform specific.

    I'm still tracking issues though ...
    Reply
  • chizow - Tuesday, March 25, 2008 - link

    Nice job on the review Derek, looks like you ran into some problems but I'd guess testing these new pieces of hardware make it worthwhile.

    It really looks like Quad SLI scaling is really poor right now, do you think its a case of drivers needing to mature, CPU bottleneck, or frame buffer limitations? I know Vista should be maxed at 4 frame buffers, but there seems to be very little scaling beyond a single GX2 in everything except Crysis (and COD4). In some games, performance actually decreases with the 2nd GX2.

    Also, seeing the massive performance difference between Skulltrail and 780i, is it even worthwhile to continue using Skulltrail as a test platform? I understand it makes it more convenient for you guys to test between different GPU vendors, but a 25% difference in Crysis between an NV SLI solution and Intel's SLI solution is rather drastic, and that's *after* you factor in the 2nd CPU for Skulltrail. Does ATI suffer a similar performance hit when compared against its best performing chipset platform?

    I would've liked to have seen Tri-SLI compared in there. Personally I think Tri-SLI with 8800 GTX/Ultra and soon, 9800 GTX will outperform Quad-SLI as it seems the drivers are a bit more mature for Tri-SLI and scaling was better as well. SLI performance with those parts is slightly better already than the GX2 and adding that third card should give Tri-SLI the lead over Quad-SLI.

    Lastly, how was your actual gameplay experience with these high-end parts? Micro-stutter is a buzz word that has been gaining steam lately with multi-GPU solutions. Did you notice any in your testing? It looks like frame buffer size really kills all of these 512MB parts at 2560, would you consider games at that resolution unplayable? It seems many who considered 2-GX2 or 2-X2 would have done so to play at 2560. If that resolution is unplayable, you're looking at an even smaller window of consumers that would actually buy and benefit from such an expensive set-up.
    Reply
  • seamusmc - Wednesday, March 26, 2008 - link

    chizow check out Hard OCP's review in regards to 'micro' stutter. They do a great job of presenting the issue and how it affects gameplay.

    They feel the problem is due to the smaller amount of memory/memory bandwidth on the GX2 as opposed to an 8800 GTX/Ultra.

    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Wednesday, March 26, 2008 - link

    in my gameplay experience, i had no difficulty with micro stutter and the 9800gx2 in quad sli.

    i will say that i have run into the problem on crossfirex in oblivion with 4 way at very high res. it wasn't that pronounced or detrimental to the overall experience to me, but i'll make sure to mention it when i run into this problem in the future.
    Reply
  • cactusjack - Tuesday, March 25, 2008 - link

    Nvidia should go back to making good stable video cards with good IQ instead of flexing their e muscles with crap like this that no one will ever want or need. Nvidia had problems with power issues and vista driver issues on 8 series cards (G92)that they should be working on. Reply
  • raymondse - Tuesday, March 25, 2008 - link

    Crysis this, Crysis that. SLI this, CrossFire that...

    After reading almost a dozen reviews of SLI, Tri-SLI, Quad-SLI, and CrossFire running Crysis and handful of other games, it seems that there is something terribly wrong with the all the benchmarks. Test results show that raw multi-GPU horsepower, even when coupled with multi-CPUs, just isn't delivering the kinds of numbers that most of us were expecting. The potential computing power that this kind of hardware can deliver just doesn't show in the numbers. Something is really, really wrong with one of these components thats disrupting the whole point of going for more than one CPU/GPU.

    What I'd like to see is some definitive study showing where the problem(s) is and who to blame. Is it the CPU? GPU? Memory? System Bus? PCI-E? Drivers? DirectX? Windows? or the game/application itself?

    After all these tests and benchmarks run by really, really smart people, someone out there ought to be able to deduce who messed up in all this business.
    Reply
  • Das Capitolin - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    What I dislike about many reviews, is that they test Crysis on "HIGH" settings. There's a major difference between "HIGH" which doesn't use AA, and HIGH with 16x Q AA.

    Here's an example of the difference it makes.

    http://benchmarkreviews.com/index.php?option=com_c...">http://benchmarkreviews.com/index.php?o...;Itemid=...
    Reply
  • Das Capitolin - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    What I dislike about many reviews, is that they test Crysis on "HIGH" settings. There's a major difference between "HIGH" which doesn't use AA, and HIGH with 16x Q AA.

    Here's an example of the difference it makes.
    Reply

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