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Graphics Cards: Two Gigabyte GeForce 8800GTX In SLI

System Builder Marathon: High-Cost System
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The graphics card decision was a tough one: SLI or Crossfire? AMD's latest effort in dual-GPU graphics impressed us somewhat at its debut, but the company hadn't completely fixed Crossfire mode for two HD 3870 X2 cards when it came time to make our decision. Similarly, Nvidia's new GeForce 9800GX2 was nothing more than a whisper at the time, and we still haven't fully evaluated its capabilities in four-GPU SLI mode.

Then there's the classic SLI and Crossfire issue of some games not taking advantage of the additional graphics cores. This affects multi-GPU configurations regardless of whether the two graphics processors are on one card or two. As a result, one slightly more powerful GPU can occasionally outperform four mainstream components, and this is what an SLI or Crossfire configuration of the latest cards comprises.

A single GeForce 8800GTS performs almost as well as the latest multi-GPU cards in many SLI-supporting games, and stomps on the newer cards in games that don't support SLI. In dual-card configuration, games that don't support SLI will drop a two-GPU configuration's processing power by 50%, but will drop a 4-GPU configuration by 75%.

And then there's the question of image quality. Even in games that do properly support SLI, the GeForce 8800GTX often outperforms the 9800GX2 when anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are enabled at high resolutions. This is a weighty consideration in a system that's designed to provide the ultimate graphics quality; as a result, we might have picked the 8800GTX even if the 9800GX2 had been available at decision time.

All of the excitement surrounding the latest multi-GPU graphics card has had a positive impact on the elder GeForce 8800GTX, as its price has dropped to around $420 per card after lingering at around $500 for nearly a year. You might find yours even cheaper.

We picked Gigabyte's 8800GTX based on availability. The company's GV-NX88X768H-RH uses the same reference hardware as nearly every other "standard" GeForce 8800GTX, including the basic 575 MHz GPU clock and 1800 MHz memory data rate. We'd suggest choosing yours based on price and the brand's customer support policy.

Memory: Crucial Ballistix PC2-6400 4 GB Kit

For better or worse, Tom's Hardware and sister publications have made the switch to Microsoft's memory-hungry Windows Vista operating system. Given this change, our choices were either to use 3 GB of RAM with 32-bit Vista Ultimate, or 8 GB with the 64-bit version. Because 64-bit Vista has occasional problems with some software and drivers, we chose the 32-bit option.

One problem with 32-bit operating systems is that they can only address 4 GB of RAM, including the RAM found on expansion cards. This makes for a practical limit of three gigabytes of system RAM, but getting there would require two 1 GB modules plus two 512 MB modules.

A configuration of two modules is often more stable and overclockable than four, so we used a dual 2 GB set for 4 GB total, of which only 3 GB is available.

The questions of brand and speed weren't difficult, since Crucial's high-value Ballistix PC2-6400 has never let us down in the area of overclocking. Alternative-brand, higher-speed 4 GB kits consist of DDR2-800 that has simply been rated at an overclocked setting. Thus, top-quality DDR2-800 modules should afford us similar capabilities while saving us a little money.

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