NVIDIA is in a difficult position. On one front it has the chipset division of AMD, fighting hard to make its own chipsets the platform of choice for AMD processors. On the other front it has Intel, the enemy of its enemy, and a very dangerous partner itself. Intel hasn't been very quiet about its plans for dominating the GPU market, but that isn't for another couple of years, until then, Intel will gladly allow NVIDIA to make chipsets for its processors.

As a company, NVIDIA needs to be able to maintain relevancy in the market. In the worst case scenario, AMD and Intel would each make their own chipsets and graphics cards, leaving NVIDIA with nothing to do. The reality is that NVIDIA still has the best graphics cards on the market and neither AMD or Intel is anywhere close to taking the crown yet. The chipset business is more likely in imminent danger, but NVIDIA does have one trick up its sleeve: SLI.

NVIDIA has some very desirable graphics cards, and it has a tremendous brand in those three letters. Of course, SLI only works on NVIDIA chipsets, thus it's no surprise to see NVIDIA trying to add even more value to the SLI proposition.

The GPU manufacturers, in the past two years, started to run into the same sort of thermal walls that Intel did during the Pentium 4 days. Future GPU designs will be more focused on power consumption and performance per watt, and while that won't kill the very high end graphics market, it will undoubtedly change it. If you'll notice, the first two G92 based products NVIDIA launched were both targeted at the mid range and lower high end segments, there were no 8800 GTX/Ultra replacements in the cards.

It may end up being that the way NVIDIA pushes the envelope isn't by introducing single, very powerful GPUs, but rather by SLI-ing lesser GPUs together. That brings us to today's topic: 3-way SLI.

If you can't tell by the name, 3-way SLI is like conventional 2-card SLI but with three cards.

The requirements for 3-way SLI are simple: you need an NVIDIA 680i or 780i motherboard, and you need three 8800 GTX or 8800 Ultra cards. SLI support continues to be the biggest reason to purchase an NVIDIA based motherboard, thus it's no surprise to see 3-way SLI not work on any competitor chipsets. With three cards you need two SLI connectors per card, meaning that all of the recently released G92 based boards won't cut it.

The graphics card limitations are quite possibly the most shocking, because the 8800 GTX and Ultra are still based on the old G80 GPU, which is significantly hotter than the new 65nm G92 that is used in the 8800 GT and GTS 512. NVIDIA unfortunately only outfitted those new G92 cards with a single SLI connector, so 3-way SLI was out of the question from the start and plus, NVIDIA needed some reason to continue to sell the 8800 GTX and Ultra.

Power supply and cooling requirements are also pretty stringent, NVIDIA lists the minimum power supply requirements as:

And a list of 3-way SLI certified power supplies follows:

We actually used an OCZ 1000W unit without any problems (including two 4-pin molex to 6-pin PCIe power connectors to feed the third card), but we'd recommend sticking to NVIDIA's list if you want to be safe.

The three cards are connected using a new SLI bridge card that ships with all 780i motherboards:

If you don't have this card you can jerry rig a bridge using regular SLI flex cables in the following configuration:

Quad SLI Redux?
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  • BigMoosey74 - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    Thanks for calling it how it is. The final comments are so true it isn't even funny. All of the fanboys need to come to their senses...this is a real inefficient technology, both crossfire and SLI. The theoretical gains vs the actual gains highlight a serious problem with this design.

    Think of the physics behind it. No matter what process you are embarking upon, when ever you split something into more pieces you loose efficiency. Yeah so having two cards boosts performance a little...but nothing ground breaking. Having two GPUs running should give 2x performance gains hands down with no exceptions. The 3rd card is a dead weight for some games...how the heck could a company stand behind that as a successful solution? Don't p*ss down my back and tell me it is raining.

    I 100% agree with the author...we need something new that is actually worth it. This "lets add more cards" solution is a junk marketing scheme. ATI/nVidia need to work on something huge rather than waste time with crossfire and SLI. The GPU technology needs a change as what the CPUs saw with the quad core...more performance, higher efficiency...not a slap in the face with 30% performance, with 3x power consumption and 4x $$$.
    Reply
  • solgae1784 - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    Hothardware is saying Crysis has a bug on Multi-SLI, so they're expecting a patch to enable multi-SLI feature. Could be the explanation on why there's no gain on going 3-way SLI. Reply
  • Zak - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    No way I'm spending >$1,500 on three video cards just to play a game. All I want is one good $500-600 card that can play Crysis and other newer games at 1920x1200.

    A.
    Reply
  • Zak - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    And I feel like Pirks above. I already have a Mac for everyday use, switched from Windows after trying out the Vista trainwreck (I used to be a Mac user years ago). I've built a $1,500 PC two months ago just to play games and I find that despite having the second fastest video card (8800GTX) I can't play a lot of latest games well at 1920x1200. And what's Nvidia's solution? $1,500+ 3way SLI. You know what they can do with that?! I'm seriously considering dumping the PC altogether and getting an Xbox too. PC gaming is going downhill quickly, it's getting way too expensive and too frustrating. At this rate it's just a matter of time before all the good games come out for consoles only. I walked in to Game Stop the other day: "I'm sorry but we don't carry PC games any more at this location". Uh? It's like being Mac gamer all over again! Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    I feel you on the PCgaming thing. I myself have an Xbox360 and play it much more than I do my PC.

    I find it pathetic that the best this super expensive top end system can do with crysis maxed out is 43fps.
    Reply
  • Zefram0911 - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    IS my RAID array from my evga 680i going to be messed up if I upgrade to the evga 780i board?

    I'm doing the "step u" that evga offered for the 680i's.
    Reply
  • madgonad - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    Just leaving that thing plugged in will cost over $400 in electricity alone. And that is only factoring the computer at idle. Reply
  • Pirks - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    Okay, so you guys probably read already that in the North America Crysis only sold about 33,000 copies, which is a total sales flop. Does it feel like hi-end video cards are finally moving into very narrow niche with people moving to Xbox 360? First Orange Box from Valve, then Gears of war from Epic, then Crysis, and The Darkness (no PC version and not even talk about making one), and The lost planet, etc etc... I had very bad feeling about Crysis, too bad this feeling was not unfounded.

    And, well, right now you can get Xbox 360 for $250 (yeah, with coupons and if you're lucky, but... still...), so I don't know guys, I see mass consumers just shying away from hi-end 3D cards more and more ($250 for Xbox 360 and cheap 720p HDTV or $500 for hi-end nVidia card? hmmm... now even _I_ start to think about it), I've heard numerous complaints from my gaming buddies that a lot of PC ports of console games are not.. er.. very high quality (for instance in Gears of war the Hammer of dawn is a joke compared to Xbox version, no Collector's edition for PC, etc etc - many things in console ports look like shit on PC, don't even start to remember Halo 2 PC port, puukeee :bleeeeaaaah: [vomiting violently])

    I don't know about you guys but I see Mac and Xbox 360 coming, marching forward, they are just simpler and more for the dumb people so we enthusisats are going into extinction slowly but surely. Newegg now sells electronics, cameras, kitchen stuff and bread machines (I gonna buy one for my wife there BTW, and maybe air conditioner too). I'm not even sure about Mac anymore - maybe I'll get myself a Mini, and leave PC for occassional gaming, IF there is a decent game on a PC coming out. Time to try that Mac/Xbox 360 combo my buddies keep drooling about.

    No, I'm not trolling, just talking about my own personal observations. You're more than welcome to criticize and downmod me, guys, I'd love to be wrong on that, actually
    Reply
  • andrew007 - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    You're not the only one. I'm also thinking of getting that rumored ultraportable Mac early next year too and I already have the consoles - and I am very happy with console FPSes on Xbox360. When it comes to games recently the only good exclusive games for PC are RTSes (and MMORPGs) which aren't really my cup of tea. So no, you are not the only one, and I am for one glad about low sales of Crysis. Personally, to me it was the most disappointing game of the year. Anyway, while I'm sad the era of plentiful, deep games is gone (where are space sims? deep RPGs? great adventures like Gabriel Knight? ANY game with good length AND depth?) - it is what it is. It's probably no coincidence that there were many independent studios at that time, now all gobbled up by large conglomerates. When I turn on a console, I am certainly not missing game freezes and crashes such as ones due to factory overclocked (!) memory I'm getting on my 8800GT (had similar issue with 3 consecutive video cards in 2 years now), copy protection schemes (had to change DVD drive for one game!), occasional mandatory beta video drivers and just general fuss and instability. Sure, my overclocked Q6600 is insanely fast if I run photo editing or video encoding or even web browsing, and the games do look great in full resolution - but that's only when everything fully works which is not as often as I'd like. I'm getting too old for this. The only bad thing is that console makers are now adopting PC ways - patches, game freezes, controller dropouts, overheating, noise... Reply
  • Pirks - Tuesday, December 18, 2007 - link

    Yeah, I think I'm getting older too - I just want damn computer to work and looks like I gonna get Mac, 'cause I know self-made PC is waaay cheaper, but somehow I'd pay for peace of mind, service etc - just buy Mac with 3-year warranty, you pay a lot but I heard they generally work okay, so... and I still gonna use PC as a second machine - would be fun to compare them and see what each is good for. And as for games you're right, big EA-like publishers are killing inventive original games of the past (American McGee's Alice, Medal of Honor, MDK, Dune 2, UFO, Descent, and many many others) but if publishers are going to pour money in the console market - I better get a console. Games are not going to be great, I agree, but at least they will be CHEAP, compared with nvidia $500-a-year "tax". Anyway, I'll keep PC around and maybe even upgrade it if the decent PC game comes up. Actually I'm waiting for Fallout 3, may be a good reason to upgrade, who knows Reply

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