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Core i7: 4-Way CrossFire, 3-way SLI, Paradise?

It’s a good time to be wealthy—no doubt about that. Gaming enthusiasts who can afford the highest-end graphics configurations available will likely want Intel’s $1,000 Core i7 965 Extreme not just for the quantifiable boost it does in fact lend to games, but also for the veritable kick in the pants it delivers in productivity and media-creation applications (for more on how Core i7 performs outside of gaming, check out our launch coverage from yesterday).

With that said, gaming on Core i7 is hardly paradise—though Intel spared no expense importing the palm trees (an ultra-fast CPU), white sand beaches (familiar CrossFireX multi-card rendering support), and fruity umbrella drinks (Nvidia’s SLI technology, enabled on a palatable desktop platform for the first time—we’re not counting Skulltrail here).

Now the impetus is on AMD and Nvidia to smooth out some of the rough edges we encountered in our testing. Repeated crashes, heat intense enough to require user-intervention, and bi-weekly driver drops are hardly hallmarks of a mature configuration ready for mass consumption. But if you’re a card-holding early adopter and patient enough to endure the lumps in Intel’s oatmeal, we have no doubt that X58 will be the platform to own when it comes to gaming. Cost aside, what other options are there? Nvidia’s 790i SLI only supports one multi-card technology, as does Intel’s X48. AMD has a great value in the 790FX, but as we saw in several benchmarks, the Phenom in its current state is simply unable to keep pace with the fastest graphics card arrangements selling right now, never mind how it stacks up against Intel’s processors. We’ve seen AMD’s roadmaps and know the 45 nm Deneb is on its way. However, we remain skeptical that a basic die shrink with additional L3 cache is going to close the gap established here with Core i7.

What about our graphics contenders? We’ve been planning a "clash of the titans" story for a while now, intending to pit 1, 2, and 3-card SLI setups against 1, 2, and 4-card CrossFireX systems. This gaming comparison slowly morphed into that story—and it just so happened we had Core i7 and Far Cry 2 to add to the mix.

While AMD’s Radeon HD 4870s perform fantastically in a number of our tests, the company has optimizations ahead of it yet. CrossFireX doesn’t always scale well, particularly where it’s needed the most—at 2560x1600. Understandably, there aren’t many gamers with 30" displays. However, we have to assume that anyone willing to buy a $1,000 CPU, $1,000 worth of graphics hardware, and a $300 motherboard wouldn’t have much trouble dropping another $1,300 on a super-sized LCD. We’re currently working with AMD to hash out some of the odd performance data we harvested, but until we have more information, we remain convinced that there is work to be done.

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280s fare better, though primarily at 1920x1200. Upon switching to 2560x1600, the cards seem to choke up. Crysis, Supreme Commander, and Crysis: Warhead are all less than kind to Nvidia’s fastest boards. Nevertheless, the GeForce GTX 280 generally seems to be quicker on its toes—no doubt thanks largely to the latest GeForce 180 driver package, which is required to enable SLI on Intel X58 motherboards.

The real winner here in this Core i7/SLI/CrossFire cage match is Intel’s X58 platform and the enthusiasts who now have a choice of multi-card rendering technologies as a result of Nvidia finally making SLI licensing available. Both graphics vendors still have work to do. But now, when favor flops from one manufacturer to the other, you’re able to drop in a pair of the fastest cards—and it won’t matter who makes them.

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