Micro-Stuttering And GPU Scaling In CrossFire And SLI

Step 1: CrossFire With Two GPUs (Vs. SLI)

We can't cover AMD's CrossFire technology without also putting Nvidia's SLI to the test, too.

Unfortunately, we have to limit our detailed assessment of mid-range GPUs to AMD, since we didn't have access to a dual-GPU card like EVGA's GTX 460 2Win in our German lab. Thus, we're conducting a direct comparison between Radeon HD 6870s in CrossFire to GeForce GTX 560s in SLI. This works out well, since both boards are, on their own, pretty evenly matched.

At first glance, it seems that the Nvidia cards don't scale as well in SLI. However, micro-stuttering is less pronounced as well compared to the CrossFire-based rig. It's not gone, though; even with SLI, micro-stuttering is observable.

It is noticeable that a single GeForce GTX 560 (no Ti suffix) is subject to more pronounced frame rate variations, even while the frame rate itself is almost identical.

In this particular title, SLI doesn't scale as well as CrossFire, resulting in a lower average frame rate than two Radeon HD 6870s in CrossFire. The Radeons, however, suffer from visible micro-stuttering, while the slower GeForces subjectively seem to be faster due to the reduction of the phenomenon.

We've run a number of other benchmarks and need to add, for the sake of fairness, that Nvidia's advantage is only evident if its driver is optimized for smooth frame rates rather than raw performance. The company takes certain apps, like synthetic benchmarks and commonly-tested games, and tweaks them to yield higher numbers at the expense of consistency.

Interim Assessment

Nvidia gets an advantage here, though its cards are slightly more expensive. SLI isn't scaling as well as CrossFire in Call of Juarez, but it does deliver a more balanced sequence of frames.

  • thorkle
    This is a very interesting article, I have wondered about this issue myself many times in the past. I was always curious why I would see strange lag like anomalies while still achieving perfect frame rate. Bravo Toms
  • compton
    Well, I'm a little surprised that three cards in Crossfire seem to eliminate visible microstuttering -- I would have guessed that triple cards would increase stuttering. But it also seems like there must be other factors at work. Unfortunately, there really isn't a good way to test for other factor -- if you even could know what to test for. In some circumstances, it seems like my monitor is causing some issues. If I play a game (lets use Fallout New Vegas for example) at a Synced 60FPS, you can look at FPS and it never deviates. It only uses 1/3 of my GPU cycles. But on one monitor, at the same resolution, it micro stutters. On another monitor, it looks perfectly fine. I thought it was some lag variance -- but then I've been told lag is always constant, that the reason lag varies in monitor testing is improper test methods. What ever the reason, it's actually really annoying. And I'm not anything approaching a competitive FPS player. Thanks for helping to track this issue down.

  • iam2thecrowe
    so will you now change your best gpu for the money from 2 x 6850's, since they obviously suck. I already bought one 6850 thinking it would be great to crossfire later and that was the best choice according to you toms........now i will have to throw it in the bin come upgrade time and buy a better single card. Oh, and AMD/Nvidia, if you cant get dual card configs to work properly, don't offer them, your wasting our money. Please fix this microstuttering crap, im sure it would be possible with a driver tweak.
  • 1kbuild
    What happens with Vsync turned on?
  • pirateboy
    why wasn't hybrid crossfire mentioned in this article?
  • bombat1994
    i think the MSI Radeon 6870 Hawk is the best graphics card on the market right now in terms of heat, power, performance and price
  • tmk221
    in most games you can limit maximum frame rates. So maybe if you limit max FR to let say 10 to 15 above min FR then the Micro-Stuttering effect would be gone ? anyone tried this? please share
  • shoelessinsight
    What is performance like using other load-balancing methods, like the split frame rendering that SLI originally used, or ATI's Scissor mode? Are these modes still available to those that choose them?

    Obviously, they won't reach frame rates as high as those attained through AFR, but if the frame rate loss is small enough, those modes might still be justifiable if they eliminate micro-stuttering altogether.

    I'd be curious if these alternate methods could justify the cost of an additional card through added performance without coming with the drawback of micro-stuttering.
  • boletus
    Regarding the decreased stuttering with 3 or 4 cards: could this be a similar effect to superimposing sine waves? Two waves a half cycle apart show visible peaks and valleys, while three waves at evenly staggered cycles form a much smoother band (on a graph or a scope).
  • haplo602
    I ma confused ... you are using 2 identical cards, so the frame rendering times as show on the metro 2033 second would be THE SAME on a single card as on a dual card configuration. the only difference is when each card starts to render right ?