GeekTech: nVidia's Powerful, Complicated Quad SLI

Marc SimonIt's too expensive. It's too complicated. And it's likely to run basic apps--the ones most of us use every day--a bit slower than a single-card system. So why would you buy a desktop with nVidia's new, high-end Quad SLI technology?

Because you wanna play Oblivion at superhigh resolutions and settings on a massive 30-inch display, that's why. And because (of course) you have entirely too much money.

The thing is, just spending a ton of money on a Quad SLI system may not get you what you want. There's nothing wrong with the technology; but if your PC vendor doesn't implement it correctly, you're stuck with an expensive desktop that has more bark than bite.

When nVidia launched Quad SLI, it said the technology was for people who wanted an "Extreme HD" gaming experience. The technology uses a pair of giant graphics cards, each containing two ultra-high-end 7900 GTX graphics chips. The result is something like a video-processing supercomputer that can crank out impressive frame rates at high resolutions, such as 1920 by 1200 and 2560 by 1600, while using extreme antialiasing settings (to smooth jagged edges) and steep anisotropic filtering settings (to help render crisper textures).

In fact, if you don't have a big monitor capable of running those resolutions--such as Dell's 24-inch or 30-inch monsters--or the cash to buy one, don't bother with Quad SLI. The folks at nVidia will tell you that--just ask them.

Another thing they'll tell you is that Quad SLI is indeed a complicated technology, which is why you can't currently buy dual-chip cards to use in building your own system. A Quad SLI PC requires several particular components--like a power supply powerful enough to run the sun--and some specific motherboard and BIOS tweaks.

The companies selling these high-end systems are supposed to know all of these things; but unfortunately, the one that sent us our system apparently did not.

The Quad SLI system we tested came from Aeoncraft. Our shipping $4495 Aeon-8000 Quad came stuffed with high-end components, including an AMD Athlon FX-60 processor, 2GB of Corsair memory, two 150GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000 RPM hard drives, and--of course--the two gigantic graphics cards.

Despite that impressive array of hardware, the system didn't perform on a par with its pedigree in our initial tests.

In WorldBench 5 tests, the PC earned a score of 119. That's not slow, but it's well below the mark of 142 posted by our current top performer, Xi Computer's MTower 64 AGI-SLI (which has the same CPU and same amount of memory as the Aeon-8000 Quad, but uses a single, older GeForce 7800 GTX graphics board).

Equally surprising was the Aeon's performance on our admittedly basic desktop graphics tests: It managed a frame rate of 372 frames per second on Unreal Tournament 2003 at 1280 by 1024 resolution, compared to the Xi's frame rate of 438 fps. The two systems' scores on Return to Castle Wolfenstein were nearly identical, however. (As noted, nVidia suggests running Quad SLI at a resolution of 1680 by 1050 or higher, but our basic tests max out at 1280 by 1024.)

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