3-Way NVIDIA SLI Review – GeForce 8800 GTX x 3

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3-Way SLI Has Never Looked So Good

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For the last 15 months the 8800 GTX has represented the most powerful graphics card that sane people were willing to buy. Sure, the 8800 Ultra is slightly faster but at a cost of over $600 it is reserved for those with gross amounts of disposable income. From the start, we were able to run SLI with the GTX and get incredible performance.

Nowadays the GTX is starting to become long in the tooth as far as graphics cards go, 15 months is a very long time with nothing faster to come along. The latest games are certainly pushing even a pair of GTX’s to unplayable levels at higher resolutions. So what are we owners of 30” LCD monitors to do to get playable frames at our native resolution? Enter 3-way SLI, a fully functional and much sorted extension of last years Quad SLI. NVIDIA has been hard at work on multi-GPU performance and with the limitation of only 3fps pre-render in Direct X9 and below out of the way in Direct X10, the stage is set for extremely expensive graphics solutions.

It is not much of a secret that NVIDIA is prepping a new multi-GPU solution due out in just a few weeks so the announcement and successful launch of 3-way SLI is no doubt a precursor to the Quad SLI solutions on the way. For those who do not remember, Quad SLI was plagued by the fact that for the money, it was a horrible investment. It offered very marginal performance benefits in all but a select few applications and thus never adopted as the true high-end solution. Today we will be seeing how far the technology has come along as well as what it requires to get this level of performance.

Triple SLI looks great on paper, check that, it looks good on paper as long as you’re not referring to the green sheets in your wallet. The requirements are an NVIDIA SLI certified motherboard with 3 16x PCI-E slots, currently consists of either a 680i, or 780i motherboard, which round out the Intel based offerings. The ill-fated AMD 4×4 platform should also support it provided you can get an SLI adaptor that will work with the spacing. None of these boards is below the price of $200 until you cash in the mail-in-rebate. There are also a number Jetway motherboards with three x16 slots supporting AMD’s Athlon 64 939 but we have not been able to confirm if it is supported and processor bottlenecking could be a concern on 939 platforms. For our review we’ll be using an XFX 780i motherboard.

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Next up you will need three of the same video cards in either our beloved 8800 GTX or 8800 Ultra flavors. There is no support for the recently released G92 based 8800 GT, or 8800 GTS of any variety due to only 1 SLI bridge tab. This is shame as the G92 8800 GT and GTS offer excellent performance at their respective price ranges, outperforming even the mighty Ultra in some situations. I suspect that the only reason the GTX and Ultra are still around is to support Triple SLI, ensuring that NVIDIA makes top dollar from those looking for the top performance. G92 based Triple SLI would be great for consumers, as it would lower the power requirements and heat produced by the system, thus reducing not only purchase price but operation costs as well. I’m sure it boils down to some marketing madness, which clearly is out of scope for our article.

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Speaking of power requirements, they are heady indeed. The full lineup of eight Triple SLI approved power supplies can be found here and the lowest wattage is 1100W! A quick scan of Newegg turns up only one of those power supplies, the PC Power & Cooling 1200W model at $559 (plus $12.02 shipping). As I was mentioning about G92, lower power requirements would be welcome here. Although it isn’t on the approved PSU list, we used a Thermaltake 1000W unit that was more than up to the challenge.

Finally, you’re going to need a CPU capable of feeding three of these power hungry beasts. An Intel Core 2 based dual core or quad core at 3GHz is highly recommended. The E8400, E8500, or the $979- QX9650 would be our picks. For our review however we have stepped up to the yet to be released QX9770. This CPU is the fastest thing you can’t buy today with 4 CPU cores operating at 3.2GHz, front side bus is at 400MHz to ensure that intercommunication between the twin cores have plenty of space to talk. If that’s not enough, we turned it up to 3.6GHz to see what performance might be left under the table due to CPU bottlenecks.

So our base price comes to $3210 before memory, disk drive, optical drive, a case to store it all, and of course shipping charges. Clearly, this an excessive system that very few will own and represents a middle-of-the-road entry to the world of Triple SLI. Trading our 8800 GTX’s for 8800 Ultra’s brings the cost up to $3675. If you want your system to really perform add another $210 for overclocked Ultra models.

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