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The Rebirth of Multi-GPU Graphics

AMD and Nvidia Platforms Do Battle
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The Crossfire multi-GPU graphics mode from AMD/ATI and Nvidia’s equivalent SLI have been around for many years, but neither has had a real breakthrough in the mainstream. Although AMD and Nvidia don’t like it, multi-graphics setups remain a high-end feature. Just look to see how many users have either bought a high-end Crossfire or SLI system right away, or for actually purchased a second graphics card to upgrade graphics performance. Typically it has made more sense to invest into a next-generation stand-alone graphics card instead of creating a two-way graphics solution.

However, multi-GPU graphics is in the middle of a rebirth, going all the way from the high end down to the mainstream and budget segments. The chipset solutions from AMD and Nvidia, together with the two ASRock motherboards we looked at, are perfect examples of how graphics will be handled in the future.

One Graphics Solution to Rule Them All

It makes a lot of sense to integrate graphics features into virtually all PC platforms, since displaying Windows or other types of 2D and simple 3D information is a key requirement for PCs, with very few exceptions. Current integrated graphics are easy to integrate; they offer sufficient performance and a modern feature set to meet the requirements of 2D desktops, basic 3D animation and video playback up to high definition levels.

Looking at applications that aren’t graphics intensive, the integrated solutions we found in AMD’s 780G and Nvidia’s GeForce 8200/8300 mGPU are suitable for almost everyone. AMD’s and Intel’s approach to turn graphics into an integral part of the chipset isn’t just a temporary fad.

One Graphics Approach to Find Them

Many of you will probably complain here, as gamers do want a powerful graphics solution. But that can be accomplished easily: just plug in any discrete graphics card into your system, and the integrated graphics unit will be disabled.

While this has been the case for many years, the approach makes much more sense now: 55 nm and 65 nm fabrication technology allows for integrating a graphics unit into a chipset for a justifiable amount of silicon real estate, making it cheap. Power consumption has been decreasing as well. In the end, the most economical approach for chipset makers is to include graphics into all their products, and let users decide whether or not they want to use it.

One Shot to Bring Them All

AMD and Nvidia have realized that integrated graphics can actually be turned into a business advantage, as Hybrid Crossfire X and Hybrid SLI allow users to actually combine the graphics capabilities of an integrated solution with those of a discrete graphics card. Once a customer buys a platform based on an AMD Hybrid Crossfire enabled motherboard or one using Nvidia’s Hybrid SLI approach, many will at least consider purchasing a matching upgrade instead of getting a different card that simply shuts down the integrated graphics unit.

Combining the integrated graphics unit and a discrete graphics card allows the graphics rendering power of both units to be used, although power does not quite reach the levels of powerful discrete graphics cards. These are left out of the Hybrid option by AMD, although Nvidia allows its platforms to shut down the discrete graphics card when it is not needed. And although the current product generation is limited to hybrid modes running the integrated plus one discrete graphics unit, future products could allow for setting up multi-GPU solutions for 3D scenarios, and only using the integrated unit for Windows display and video.

… and in Proprietary Bind Them

Finally, there is a potential downside to the approach, as it can be designed in a way that excludes other suppliers. Crossfire and SLI are already proprietary solutions, and this will certainly not change in the brave new hybrid world. In the end, AMD and Nvidia will get the opportunity to sell more products thanks to brand dependencies. But let’s look first at what both firms have created.

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