Tips on Installing an SLI System

The combination of launching a new motherboard test suite with a roundup of the most demanding motherboards that we have ever tested made the early testing for the SLI boards extremely frustrating. We had numerous issues with on-board SATA, add-on SATA controllers, external USB and SATA devices, and both single and dual 6800 Ultra video cards on the four systems. We had reached the conclusion that there were some serious issues with the on-board peripheral support of the nForce4 chipset, except for the nagging doubt that the same problems were occurring with external chipsets that had nothing to do with nForce4.

We presented our lists of concerns to nVidia, who helped us work through all of them except a severe video issue with the Asus motherboard. It turned out that our SATA, external Firewire, and external USB problems were all related to driver filters that were being installed by our iPeak benchmarking program. These filters prevented identification and correct installation of SATA, USB and Firewire drives, but it did not interfere with IDE. By altering our installation sequence, we were able to correct all of these issues.

Since SLI is demanding more of your system than any motherboard that you can install, we strongly suggest a clean installation for your SLI system. This is always good advice, but it is particularly true in the case of SLI. If possible, install the latest nVidia platform driver before completing installation of drivers for other cards and external add-in chips on the board. This may not be possible if, for example, you boot from a RAID 5 on the Silicon Image 3114. In that case, you would need to install the driver for Sil3114 using a floppy or CD during Windows XP install using the F6 at the start of the install for "other drivers".

We also first thought that the Sil3114, used on 3 of the 4 boards in this roundup, would not support anything other than drives in a RAID. In fact, you can install a single drive using the "JBOD" option in the RAID setup during boot. We also confirmed that there was no data loss using this option on existing drives, which had been used as single drives on a SATA controller such as the one in the nForce4 chipset.

The Power Supply is extremely critical with an SLI system. Keep in mind that nVidia recommended a 470 watt PS when the 6800 Ultra was first introduced. Since then, recommendations have lowered a bit, but Asus recommends at least a 500 watt power supply with dual 6800 Ultra video cards, and we agree. We had no issues in our tests with the Power Supply, but we used an OCZ 520 watt PowerStream power supply for all our tests. Make sure that the 500W+ PS is of good quality with a 24-pin ATX connector and check the specifications for the rails. Since high power is a big selling point right now, we have seen 500W, 550W, and 600W power supplies selling for $25 to $30. Most of these have poorer specifications than a quality 350 watt power supply and they are not adequate for a top SLI system. Two 6800 Ultra video cards require 4 Molex connectors (plus another 4-pin to plug into the Asus board), so these cheaper power supplies usually don't even have enough 4-pin connectors for your video cards - let alone your other components. They are also often 20-pin ATX, when you should consider 24-pin a must for top SLI performance. Consider these cheap power supplies the same as cheap Asian car stereo specs that advertise hundreds of watts and deliver more like 5 watts RMS. Go with a respected brand name with good rail specifications. If you are looking at a brand that you haven't heard of, compare their specifications on-line to those of a unit like the OCZ 520W. This will tell you quickly if the unit can supply what is needed.

Last is video. All of the 4 motherboards worked fine with 6600GT and 6800GT video cards in either single or dual SLI mode. However, we had a number of problems with dual 6800 Ultra video cards - particularly on the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe. It is CRITICAL that 6800 Ultra video cards used with an SLI board be Series 400 or later to operate properly with any SLI board. This was published by nVidia in October/November, but it was likely overlooked by many in that time frame. All current 6800U video cards should be Series 400, and these cards are often identified with an A04 at the end of their silk-screened ID on the back of the 6800 Ultra video card.

Despite having the correct Series 400 6800 Ultra video cards, we could not get our nVidia Reference cards to work in either single or dual video mode on the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe. Asus rushed a pair of Asus 6800 Ultra video cards to us for testing, and the pair of Asus 6800U worked fine in both single and SLI. However, this did not answer our concerns that other video cards might not work properly in the Asus SLI board. After extensive work with the Asus R&D and BIOS development team, Asus was able to find the timing issue that caused the nVidia Reference cards to fail, and after many attempts, Asus was able to supply a test BIOS that worked correctly with the nVidia Reference 6800 Ultra cards. Asus will soon be releasing an updated BIOS with these fixes for certain video cards.

As we go to press, the latest official nVidia driver release for SLI is 66.93. However, all our testing was done with the latest beta 71.80. We would suggest trying the latest nVidia driver release or the one included with your board. If you experience video problems, go back to 66.93 or the latest SLI release to determine if the driver may be causing your problems. We had no video driver issues on any of the boards in our tests with the 71.80. In SLI mode, you are driving two GPUs with each having more transistors than any CPU on the market. With SLI and a top CPU, you are demanding a lot of the motherboard, so even small problems get magnified. With patience and careful installation procedures, you will end up with an incredible gaming system. If you take too many shortcuts, however, you can end up with a non-functioning, troubleshooting nightmare.

We are comfortable now that the nForce4 SLI chipset is working properly and a completely stable dual-video system can be achieved with an nForce4 SLI board. We are telling you this so you won't be tempted to throw your new SLI board out the window as we were.

Audio Performance Final Words
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  • Reflex - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #83: Not sure what to say to you about that but AMD has made it clear that ECC is a Opteron but not a A64 feature. The memory controller still has the capability I am certain, but the pinout on the CPU's is different and does not support it as far as I am aware.

    There are no boards that support it either as far as I know.
    Reply
  • Lakku - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #77 Point well taken. However, this last generation of video cards was a HUGE leap in performance compared to previous generations. Probably not since the move to T&L chips have we seen such a performance increase. I have doubts that the next generation of cards will be able to double performance of current cards. SLI, on average, increases performance from 20% to almost 100% (mostly in synthetic tests on the latter). On newer games that are not CPU/system bound (or games at resolutions above 1024x768), and rely more on the GPU, the increase is greater (i.e. Doom 3 and HL2). This generation doubled the pipelines and increased memory throughput by quite a bit. I don't forsee the next generation being able to do this without substantial hurdles that would need to be overcome or at substantial costs. The fact remains that I don't think a single next generation card (7xxx series lets assume) will handily beat an SLI system, let alone the fact that if supply problems continue, next generation will be 6 or 700 dollars while the 6xxx series will be down to a decent price. The next Unreal engine can run on current SLI setups, as Epic demo'd the engine on 6800 Ultra's SLId. All of this gives support to my idea of mainstream SLI making sense. Two 6600GT's out now give the power (more so in some tests, less when FSAA or super high reso's get involved) of a 6800GT for a lot less cost. Next generation you can upgrade to two 7600GT's that will probably match one future high end card and more then likely beat out any high end card on the market now (and possibly match current high end in SLI, but this is wishful thinking). The concluding points are that it is a good upgrade path. 1) You can get two mainstream cards now that perform great under SLI, 2) Next gen high end will be expensive and probably in short supply, meaning if you did splurge on one high end card now, you can get another then at a reduced cost (probably with your two cards totalling less then one new high end), and 3) The two SLI cards form this generation should match a single card from the future, meaning you can then wait until the NEXT next generation when features will have changed enough to warrant a new generation of cards to play the new generation of games. Reply
  • bob661 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #82
    Are you sure about that? How do you know that the 5.1 speaker test hasn't been encoded in DD?
    Reply
  • endrebjorsvik - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    In the 5th paragraph in the Gigabyte K8NXP-SLi-review you have written: "Four ports are 3Gb/s ports provided by the nForce*_3_* chip".

    That can't be correct, huh?
    Reply
  • 1955mm - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #71, Do your homework. http://www.amd.com/us-en/assets/content_type/white... Both the socket 754 and 939 processors support ECC. Reply
  • EODetroit - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    Giz02, I look forward to hearing the results of your audio testing on the MSI. That will probably determine whether I get the DFI or the MSI.

    The easiest way to test, (Wesley or anyone with the MSI could do this too) is to just run the speaker test in the nvidia control panel with some 5.1 speakers connected to the toslink or digital coax out. If you can only hear front left and front right, its only outputting stereo, just like all other soundblasters. If you can hear all the positions, like I can on my NForce2 Soundstorm audio, then its doing what I hope it does :) .
    Reply
  • giz02 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    Wesley #80
    Didn't work for me. I tried that with two Ultra PC4000's in the green slots and no post :( The manual has it documented well enough, and I was just replying to what #48 had an issue with.

    In my post (79) what do you know what would be better (performance wise) of the two (well three) options I listed?
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #79 -
    I mentioned in the review of the earlier MSI Neo2 that 4 dimms on auto sets timings to DDR333 on almost every board. This is an AMD Athlon 64 spec for 4 DS dimms. However, on the MSI and all boards in this roundup I found you could force the memory speed to DDR400, lower the Command Rate to 2T - with all other settings the same as 2 DS dimms - and boot just fine. This has been stated clearly in every review and should not be new information.

    I have not yet found any board that will run 4 DS dimms with both DDR400 and 1T. We are told the upcoming Rev.E Athlon 64 chips have an updated memory controller that will support 4 DS dimms at DDR400 and 1T. We are looking forward to reviewing Rev. E when it appears in Athlon 64, since it is appearing already in a few Opteron chips.
    Reply
  • giz02 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #68, I hope to prove otherwise tonight. (ran outta time yesterday!) I purchased the board and installed winxp. Will install the drivers tonight, and all indications thus far indicate that it is a modified chip (or drivers) that supports intel HD. There is also a quote from MSI that indicates it is the only licensed Dolby motherboard on the market (whatever that means). If I am wrong, and there is no Dolby Live Support (PCSTATS said outright that DICE was supported), then I'll be selling this board and hitting DFI!

    Asus vs MSI. One thing I will say is that the documentation from MSI is pathetic. Broken english, an vague references! I'm not even sure what I was supposed to have in my box! It said the User Manual was optional! Funny thing is, they printed that IN THE USER MANUAL!

    Asus has been solid for documentation for some time now, and while thier boards haven't traditionally been the best for performance/OC'ing/features, they are pretty reliable!
    Reply
  • giz02 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #48,
    I just read your post, and I had the same problem with the MSI board.

    I have an Ultra PC4000 Dual Channel Kit (512x2), and booted up , SPD set the memory to 167 (333) I was blown away, so I manually set it to 200 (400) BOOM. no post. It wasn't until later that I noticed in teh manual that with this board (MSI Neo4SLI) you CANNOT use Dual sided memory in DUAL CHANNEL mode ABOVE 167 (333). In order to go above 333, I'll have to run the chips in slots 1 and 2 (green and purple), thus negating any benifits of DC.

    Anyone know what would be better:
    1. Running Dual channel at 333
    2. Running single channel at 400+ (400-500)
    3. Offloading this cheap ass memory to someone else and buying a single sided DC kit :D
    giz
    Reply

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