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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  • randomizer
    SLI scales so nicely on X58.
  • DFGum
    Yep, i hafta say being able to switch brands of graphics cards on a whim and selling off the old is great. Knowing im going to be getting the preformance these cards are capable of (better price to preformance ratio) is nice also.
  • cangelini
    randomizerSLI scales so nicely on X58.

    Hey you even got a "First" in there Randomizer!
  • randomizer
    cangeliniHey you even got a "First" in there Randomizer!

    And modest old me didn't even mention it. :lol:
  • enewmen
    Still waiting for the 4870 X2s to be used in these bechmarks. I thought THG got a couple for the $4500 exteme system. But still happy to see articles like this so early!
  • cangelini
    enewmenStill waiting for the 4870 X2s to be used in these bechmarks. I thought THG got a couple for the $4500 exteme system. But still happy to see articles like this so early!

    Go check out the benchmark pages man! Every one with 1, 2, 4 4870s. The 2x and 4x configs are achieved with X2s, too.

    Oh, and latest drivers all around, too. Crazy, I know! =)
  • enewmen

    I found it, just read the article too quickly. - My bad.
    "A single Radeon HD 4870 X2—representing our 2 x Radeon HD 4870 scores—is similarly capable of scaling fan speed on its own. "
    Hope to see driver updates like you said.
  • spyde
    Hi there, my question regarding these benchmarks with the HD card is, "was a 2G card use or a 1G". I am about to buy a new system and was looking to buy 2 x HD4870X2 2G cards, but with these results its looking a bit ify. I hope you can answer my question.
  • Proximon
    That's a nice article. I especially like the way the graphs are done. everything is scaled right, and you get an accurate representation.
  • cangelini
    These are 2GB cards =)
  • spyde
  • Tjik
    How sure can we be that the difference between a nVidia and an AMD setup isn't related to the motherboard design? From the figures I would make the conclusion that the AMD + AMD setup is able to overcome some of the disadvantages of a weaker CPU, and in several cases there's no obvious - at least to me - reason why a Core i7 with the same single or dual set of AMD graphic cards would perform worse. It's easy to blame it on driver issues, but what proof is there to make that a more plausible conclusion? I'm not into some kind of weird conspiracy theory, I'm just technically curious to know why we should assume the X58 platform to be flawless when figures suggest differently.

    The conclusion I draw from this and other tests made is that Core i7 is great, but you need to spend big money on graphic cards to make it a gamers choice, or put it into a game performance per money perspective. As it is now, before future releases of mid range CPUs, or if AMD unexpectedly release some scary monster, I foremost see Core i7 as a solid solution for serious work. In rendering and other CPU dependent tasks it might be a blessing to cut some 40 % of the time to process.

    Another observation is that if the current scenario doesn't change in the near future we could well be back to old school over-clocking culture, when money and availability set the limits. I'm not against but in the last years we've seen more of a yuppie's over-clocker culture, where money and availability haven't been an issue. To be frank, what we have here is two ways of making priorities: one option is an AMD system which gives you a 790FX motherboard + CPU + RAM for the same price as a single Intel Core i7, and if you're not planning to play at resolutions higher than 1600x1200 and probably not buy anything above a possible single X2 Graphic Card it could well be the best offer for the money.

    Options are good and even with AMD well behind it opens up for many different choices. Some never really use but enjoy knowing they got a monster system, others only buy exactly what gives best value for money, some specialize systems for tasks with a cost conscious approach, and some don't have a clue. Every choice is good as long as the user is happy (and spendings doesn't hurt the family economy).

    Oh, a lot of text there. In conclusion I'm more interested in whether the X58 platform is ill suited (or less good) for AMD graphic cards at the moment, and for proof either way.
  • Anonymous
    hi guys,

    nice @ first : )

    but now i got one big question about this review

    on page 12 you got a nice overview about the 3d mark benchmark

    what i don't understand is the CPU score of the i7 and c2q ex based on nvidia and ati graphic boards

    there is such a huge difference of the cpu score just because of changing graphic boards ???

    how can that be?

    i mean the cpu score is based on the cpu right? or does futuremark test
    something else with this cpu score than just the cpu itself?

    i don't get to see the reason, why just changing from nvidia to ati or otherwise could have such huge effect on that cpu score

    but maybe one of you could explain it to me, otherwise i could think there is something wrong with this or maybe all of these benchmarks in this review

    thx in advance : )
  • arkadi
    well finally we getting more and more info about the i7, i guess it will take us few weeks 2 get it all right.I just love it when new staff comes out :)
  • aznguy0028
    "there is such a huge difference of the cpu score just because of changing graphic boards ???"

    it was stated in the article on that page, at the top. the default run with PhysX artificially inflates the scores.
  • z999
    lolz, there are some crazy problems w/ the ATI cards... like turning on AA and gaining 50FPS...
    You should do this benchmark again in a couple of months when the drivers give more accurate results, and in that one..... lose the phenom :P.
  • chaohsiangchen
    Nice job well done! Thanks for the article.

    However, I didn't see specified CPU clocks, so I presume that all three CPUs tested were run at stock speed. Although I have little doubt that Phenom X4 will still lose to both Ci7 965EE and QX9770, it's just my curiocity to see how Phenom X4 at 3.2GHz would perform.
  • zodiacfml
    I thought there will be little difference between core 2 and i7 in games, so it was just the graphics card that is holding i7 back in games. in my mind, i thought a single gtx 280 was held back by the fastest core2, wasting graphics power which was not the case here.

    i7 is really a cool system, much like the intel SSD. intel is on fire. :)
  • bunnyblaster
    I've been an avid Toms Hardware reader for over 8 years now. This is my first post. It is an issue that has been nagging me the last few updates for Tomshardware. The "page scrolling function" on each page is terribly designed. I find it slow, disappears before I select the page and sometimes does not register at all. I have multiple computers and I draw the same conclusion on all of them. It gets rather annoying when I just want to read some implications or conclusions of some reviews and I can't get there easily without going through 27 pages.

    Why not just revert to the system everyone else uses with a simpler scroll-down bar?
  • fahdriyami
    What a surprise, no Flight Simulator X Benchmarks