System Builder Marathon: High-Cost System

Graphics Cards: Two Gigabyte GeForce 8800GTX In SLI

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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  • TDL
    Thanks for the great article - I'm having fun building this - I do have 3 questions though - the fan duct assembly fan has 3 wire sets, 1 has the 3wire motherboard connector, the second taps into a regular power lead. The third is a single wire - the case documentation does not describe that one - what is that little single lead for? Also the motherboard sound card has some connectors on it - I assume one is for the case headphone/mic lead? Third, should teflon tape be used in the dual radiator threads if not how tight is tight enough for the O-rings? Thanks great article!
  • Dax3000
    Hi Thanks For The Great Article - I Am Also Building A System With A Few Modifications I Loved Asus Boards But Can Never Seem To Overclock Them At All So I Am Going With A EVGA 780i FTW when they come out, THat Processor IS Sweet But No Way CAn I JUstify PAying $1060 or more here in canada for 1 Pc Component when i already own three computers, I was thinking maybe a Q6850 when they come out, i have changed the middle fan in my case already and i am just waiting on my 120 rad to get here as i already have the other parts from another computer i built that i couldn't use so that saved me a few dollars:) and i can't find that power supply anywhere so i am gonna do with a X3 1000 watt from ultra i hope it's good enough. and since i am not a really good overclocker no point in risking a high end system by messing around with 2 expensive graphics cards will 2 9800GTX+ work for me ? and omost importantly after my system is finished and filled how do i top it up if it needs more water do i have to take the top rad down to fill it everytime or can i just add water in to the same rad. thanks alot of your help and keep up the great work.
  • DaveCharleson
    I've been installing and have three questions. First, there seems to be no pump in this system - have I just missed something?

    Second, the twin fan radiator seems to draw the air from inside the case up through the radiator and then out the top of the case. Wouldn't you want to draw cooler air from the outside past the radiator?

    Third, I don't see any connection to the video card although the 880GTX card is built for water cooling. Wouldn't you want to include this in the loop?

    This is my first build with water cooling so sorry if the questions belie this.
  • jimwalk
    The Arctic Silver instructions for applying to Intel Quad Core CPU W/Heatspreader are at