Nvidia takes SLI mainstream

Santa Clara (CA) - Selling dual-graphics cards does not just work in the performance market, says Nvidia. A new driver and the new entry-level 6600 LE graphics card enable system builders to offer SLI PCs for less than $800.

SLI was an unexpected big hit for Nvidia. The company sold far more than a million nForce4 SLI chipsets and dual-graphics cards are rapidly becoming a standard solution for gamers. But SLI systems, until now requiring at least GeForce 6600 GT cards, are expensive and typically start in the $2000 dollar range. Nvidia now believes that it can sell even more SLI systems and graphics chips by bringing the technology into the mainstream market.

A new driver version released today, Forceware 77.76, enables the existing GeForce 6600 and the new 6600 LE to work in SLI configuration via the PCI Express interface without the need for an additional SLI interconnect. According to Nvidia, the LE version will be a bit slower than the regular 6600, but priced significantly lower. The company says it aims at a price between $70 and $90 for 6600 LE cards. At least in theory, this could enable system builders to offer dual-graphics card systems for less than $800.

The new driver offers new features for all other GeForce versions as well. Version 77.76 now enables 16x anti-aliasing in SLI mode - as a result of 8x anti-aliasing in each card that is blended to 16x in dual-mode. According to Nvidia, many games show substantial graphics improvement through 16x anti-aliasing, especially in details such as wire fences.

Given SLI's success, Nvidia's move to take SLI mainstream was just a matter of time. But many customers may be confused whether two low end cards or one higher end graphics card are a better choice. Nvidia declined to say where the performance of dual 6600 LE cards fits into the single-card range, but we assume that it will be between a single 6600 GT and a 6800 card, which equals about the price of dual 6600 LEs.

In a price range of sub-$800 PCS, not many customers are interested in chasing frame rates and Nvidia admits that besides gaming there are not many other graphics-heavy applications that benefit from SLI. Also, mainstream consumers are not likely to spend time upgrading their PCs very often, but rather opt for a completely new mainstream system. So, where is the benefit of SLI in this market?

It's flexibility, says Nvidia. While prices of consumer PCs can be kept down with a single 6600 LE card, users have a choice to upgrade for little money, if they feel they need more power in newer-generation games. But then such an upgrade is not easy to acquire, as the 6600 LE will be mainly a system-builder part and will not see retail stores very often. According to an Nvidia spokesperson, the 6600 LE chip will be available in whitebox products through etailers on the Internet.

Nvidia's strategy to offer SLI in mainstream is a reasonable move, but it appears somewhat half-baked at this time. For now, there are too many hurdles into the mainstream market - such as limited advantages for the mainstream user and limited availability of products in the retail channel. We do not think mainstream SLI is a slam dunk for Nvidia right now. But then, we were all wrong about SLI's market potential in the first place.