Quad-SLI drives enthusiast graphics systems into $2000 range

Westlake Village (CA) - Earlier this month, Nvidia launched a new stage of its scalable link interface technology, which allows gamers to increase the graphics horsepower by adding more graphics cards. As quad-SLI systems become available, hardcore gamers will be confronted with a new price point, which in some cases will touch $2000 just for four graphics chips.

How much is worth to you to have the best possible graphics performance in your PC? We guess that many users really don't care about how fast their graphics card is as long as it runs everyday applications; most mainstream enthusiasts typically go for cards priced around or below $250. But it's not really a question for hardcore gamers - it simply has to be the best solution not just for bragging rights, but to run games in high frame rates with as many features as possible in the highest resolutions available. And if you are part of this crowd, your hobby is going to get expensive.

Beyond performance, SLI enables Nvidia to follow the business model of every semiconductor manufacturer - to sell more chips. While SLI has been a high-end feature initially, it is slowly but surely moving into the mainstream - more than 4 million SLI-enabled chipsets have made their way into the market so far. At the beginning of this month, it was time for Nvidia to build on the foundation of its high-end dual-graphics card technology with an expansion that allows users to integrate up to four graphics processors - which is referred to as quad-SLI.

It's no unexpected that Quad-SLI is extremely rare and that vendors are charging a premium for systems with such graphics systems. But we are currently getting a first impression just how expensive it will be to remain in the leading pack of graphics enthusiasts. Falcon Northwest, for example, one of the few manufacturers currently offering Quad-SLI systems, lists the technology as an $1853 upgrade over a standard 256 MB GeForce 7600 GT card. Competitor Voodoo PC only offers a standard quad-SLI system is priced at $7324 in a standard configuration. A similarly equipped system with just one high-performance 7900 GTX card with a custom hand machined copper block as cooling unit starts at just under $5573. A second 7900 GTX card is offered for an additional $815.

Alienware also offers a quad-SLI in a $6919 PC. The same PC will cost just $5424, if equipped with two 256 MB GeForce 7900 GT cards or $6026 with two 512 MB GeForce 7900 GTX cards. While the exact cost of quad-SLI in each of the available systems isn't exactly clear, it appears that at least at this early stage that the technology scales very well in the $500 price bracket per high-end graphics processor. And while one can argue that this isn't necessarily a bad deal, we have to remind ourselves that cutting edge graphics systems were priced at list prices of around $500 two years ago and at about $1000 in SLI last year. This year, it's going to cost somewhere between $1500 and $2000 - with lower end quad-SLI versions being constructed out of two dual-GPU cards - such as Asus' En7800GT Dual, which currently sells for around $815.

In July of last year, graphics card manufacturer BFG told us that the industry will be testing price points of about $1200 per graphics card. It turns out that we are looking at significantly higher prices that that - even if the per-GPU price is lower than expected. Clearly, $2000 graphics systems are not a volume market, but it will be interesting to see, if the business approach to sell what ever "the market can bear" applies to this new generation of graphics systems.