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Nvidia's SLI Technology In 2015: What You Need To Know

It's A Great Time To SLI

Nvidia's SLI is in great health as of early 2015. AAA games don't always support SLI properly on launch day, but they either get patched quickly or run well with minor workarounds. Once a proper profile is in place for a game, two-way SLI yields real-world scaling of 75 to 85% at 3840x2160 on our GeForce GTX 980s. Below 4K, you'll probably be CPU-bound in most real-world metrics. 

Two 980s in SLI complemented by a decent CPU, can, in many cases, push above 150 FPS at 1440p, effectively powering even the most advanced 144Hz gaming displays commercially available. Overclocking, which isn't as straightforward with SLI compared to a single GPU, can give you an additional 15-20% boost if you want to go that route. The Maxwell architecture's high efficiency paved the way for quieter cooling solutions, making SLI even more attractive this generation.

So should you consider going multi-GPU with SLI?

If you're gaming at a resolution/refresh of 1080p/60Hz or lower, you don't need it. One GeForce GTX 980 (or 970) maxes out pretty much everything you throw at it these days. But if you're eying 1080p at 120Hz or more, 1440p at 60Hz+, 4K or gaming across multiple displays, two or three graphics processors will help achieve the performance levels you want. Just know that you'll lose certain features along the way, and will probably run into technical challenges. Further, micro-stuttering may still be an issue for you at the highest resolutions.

SLI is also a great option if you purchase a single GeForce GTX 960, 970 or 980 card now and plan to upgrade at some point before the next-gen architecture surfaces. A second identical Maxwell-based card will almost certainly yield your best bang-for-the-buck upgrade. Just keep in mind it really does need to be identical though, and the inventories of some GPUs don't always last long. Reference-class cards are probably a safer choice in this situation.

We tested for micro-stuttering and found that there really is none to speak of, at least from our one configuration, at 1440p. But there are still issues with micro-stuttering at 4K.

Early adopters already considering their upgrade path for VR might want to hold off. SLI is not a great choice today for the Oculus DK2, but it might be a viable option for the final Oculus Rift when it surfaces as a retail kit.

Finally, if a dual-GM104 card is in the works, and if Nvidia decides to price it reasonably, unlike what it did for GeForce GTX Titan Z, we'd definitely be interested.

In part two of this series, we'll look at the red team's rival multi-GPU technology called CrossFire (we've already lined up a couple of AMD's next-gen cards to make this one happen for you). We'll also compare how the two companies' flagship cards performance in a two versus two royal rumble.

So stay tuned!

Filippo L. Scognamiglio Pasini is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Graphics. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • PaulBags
    Nice article. Looking foreward to comparing to a dx12+sli article when it happens, see how much it changes the sli game since cpu's will be less likely to bottlneck.

    Do you think we'd see 1080p monitors with 200hz+ in the future? Would it even make a difference to the human eye?
    Reply
  • none12345
    They really need to redesign the way multigpu works. Something is really wrong when 2+ gpus dont work half the time, or have higher latency then 1 gpu. That fact that this has persisted for like 15 years now is an utter shame. SLI profiles and all the bugs and bs that comes with SLI needs to be fixed. A game shouldnt even be able to tell how many gpus there are, and it certainly shouldnt be buggy on 2+ gpus but not on 1.

    I also believe that alternating frames is utter crap. The fact that this has become the go to standard is a travesty. I dont care for fake fps, at the expense of consistent frames, or increased latency. If one card produces 60fps in a game. I would much rather have 2 cards produce 90fps and both of them work on the same frame at the same time, then for 2 cards to produce 120 fps alternating frames.

    The only time 2 gpus should not be working on the same frame, is 3d or vr, where you need 2 angles of the same scene generated each frame. Then ya, have the cards work seperatly on their own perspective of the scene.
    Reply
  • PaulBags
    Considering dx12 with optimised command queues & proper cpu scaling is still to come later in the year, I'd hate to imagine how long until drivers are universal & unambiguous to sli.
    Reply
  • cats_Paw
    The article is very nice.
    However, If i need to buy 2 980s to run a VR set or a 4K display Ill just wait till the prices are more mainstream.
    I mean, in order to have a good SLI 980 rig you need a lot of spare cash, not to mention buying a 4K display (those that are actually any good cost a fortune), a CPU that wont bottleneck the GPUs, etc...

    Too rich for my blood, Id rather stay on 1080p, untill those technologies are not only proven to be the next standard, but content is widely available.

    For me, the right moment to upgrade my Q6600 will be after DX12 comes out, so I can see real performance tests on new platforms.
    Reply
  • Luay
    I thought 2K (1440P) resolutions were enough to take a load off an i5 and put it into two high-end maxwell cards in SLI, and now you show that the i7 is bottle-necking at that resolution??

    I had my eye on the two Acer monitors, the curved 34" 21:9 75Hz IPS, and the 27" 144HZ IPS, either one really for a future build but this piece of info tells me my i5 will be a problem.

    Could it be that Intel CPUs are stagnated in performance compared to GPUs, due to lack of competition?

    Is there a way around this bottleneck at 1440P? Overclocking or upgrading to Haswell-E or waiting for Sky-lake?
    Reply
  • loki1944
    Really wish they would have made 4GB 780Tis, the overclock on those 980s is 370Mhz higher core clock and 337Mhz higher memory clock than my 780Tis and barely beats them in Firestrike by a measly 888 points. While SLI is great 99% of the time there are still AAA games out there that don't work with it, or worse, are better off disabling SLI, such as Watchdogs and Warband. I would definitely be interested in a dual gpu Titan X card or even 980 (less interested in the latter) because right now my Nvidia options for SLI on a mATX single PCIE slot board is limited to the scarce and overpriced Titan Z or the underwhelming Mars 760X2.
    Reply
  • baracubra
    I feel like it would be beneficial to clarify on the statement that "you really need two *identical* cards to run in SLI."

    While true from a certain perspective, it should be clarified that you need 2 of the same number designation. As in two 980's or two 970's. I fear that new system builders will hold off from going SLI because they can't find the same *brand* of card or think they can't mix an OC 970 with a stock 970 (you can, but they will perform at the lower card's level).

    PS. I run two 670's just fine (one stock EVGA and one OC Zotac)
    Reply
  • jtd871
    I'd have appreciated a bit of the in-depth "how" rather than the "what". For example, some discussion about multi-GPU needing a separate physical bridge and/or communicating via the PCIe lanes, and the limitations of each method (theoretical and practical bandwidth and how likely this channel is to be saturated depending on resolution or workload). I know that it would take some effort, but has anybody ever hacked a SLI bridge to observe the actual traffic load (similar to your custom PCIe riser to measure power)? It's flattering that you assume knowledge on the part of your audience, but some basic information would have made this piece more well-rounded and foundational for your upcoming comparison with AMDs performance and implementation.
    Reply
  • illimors
    Great article!
    Reply
  • mechan
    I feel like it would be beneficial to clarify on the statement that "you really need two *identical* cards to run in SLI."

    While true from a certain perspective, it should be clarified that you need 2 of the same number designation. As in two 980's or two 970's. I fear that new system builders will hold off from going SLI because they can't find the same *brand* of card or think they can't mix an OC 970 with a stock 970 (you can, but they will perform at the lower card's level).

    PS. I run two 670's just fine (one stock EVGA and one OC Zotac)

    What you say -was- true with 6xx class cards. With 9xx class cards, requirements for the cards to be identical have become much more stringent!
    Reply