Year of the angry, disappointed pig. With free advice for gaming system designers.

This year, at least since March, is what’s known in Chinese astrology as zhu3 nia4n, “the year of the pig”. And myself being of the porcine persuasion I had high hopes for it — it was going to be my year! Well, it’s not working out for me at all. I’d rather describe it as “very shitty” on an alarming large number of levels. When those things involve relationships and other people it’s one thing, but frankly I’m rapidly running through the meager rinds of my patience on a subject which normally is one that I rejoice about — computers.

Yes, that’s right — the man whose very life is computers is facing serial disappointments even in that formerly-thought-safe area of expertise. Frankly it’s fairly sad because I don’t have a hell of a lot else going for me these days, but I have to recognize a bad situation when I see it, and unfortunately it has to do with my new gaming PC.

I’m not going to say that it sucks, because it doesn’t really suck. However getting the thing to run properly and in an optimized way has been a long, frustrating struggle that’s not even close to done yet.

This is a fully customized PC. I purchased the parts for it individually, being at least under the impression that I was getting best-of-breed stuff, and at least at first look I would seem to have done well there. At the basis of the PC (and frankly of what’s wrong with it) is the Intel D975XBX2 board. Not one, not two, but THREE PCI-E 8x/16x slots, Intel 975 chipset, a board in Intel’s “Extreme” series, seemingly the perfect vehicle for the Core 2 Duo CPU that would inhabit it. Aside from that, 2 GB 800Mhz RAM, a 20x DVD burner with dual-layer support, 500 GB SATA2 hard drive, etc. Certainly to the outsider this is pretty promising.

Now you’re thinking “you got multiple PCI-E slots, surely you’re doing SLI.” And you’d be wrong, You can’t. You see, contemporary motherboards can implement one of two dual-VGA standards — SLI by Nvidia, or Crossfire by ATI. Well, the D975XBX2 is Crossfire, and frankly that’s a problem. If I had put more research into this issue ahead of time I would have realized that I should have bought some other board, one with SLI support, because of a couple of specific points:

1- Crossfire performance really doesn’t measure up to SLI.

2- Crossfire means dealing with ATI. ATI was the shiz-nit years ago, but frankly these days they’re an also-ran. Nvidia consistently makes faster, better products and deliver them months ahead of even a close ATI equivalent.

3- ATI means using the ATI Catalyst software, which is a horrible bloated abortion of a display software package. No, really. It is.

4- Crossfire’s implementation has a very chaotic history which, frankly, isn’t over yet. It just doesn’t seem to be a mature technology, period.

4- ATI does a really shitty job of dealing with their channel partners to ensure distribution standards. In particular my graphics cards happen to be from HIS, a shady Hong Kong combine that seems to specialize in ripping off their customers by making them pay extra for things that should be included in the original video card package… more on that later.

Performance

Crossfire lags sorrily behind SLI in terms of performance. It just does. Compare two equal-priced solutions, one Crossfire and one SLI, and the SLI one consistently comes out on top in a significant way in just about every gaming benchmark out there. Have a look at the Dual/Quad VGA comparison chart on Tom’s Hardware and it quickly becomes clear that Crossfire has a serious performance gap to address.
ATI

ATI consistently puts out products that have already been bested by what Nvidia has to offer. Just look at the HD 2900 story for an example of this — the HD 2900 XT is the top Radeon offering right now, while nVidia has the geForce 8800 GTX chipset, but the 2900 can’t compete with this latter on performance, and it comes several months late. That’s two big strikes right there. The HD2900XT is a little less expensive, but we are talking about flagship products in both cases.
Catalyst

There’s a long-standing history of hardware companies being somehow unable to get any of their software right. Catalyst is a pretty good example of that. It uses a very “dumb” installer that simply will not work except under specific circumstances (I kid you not). It needs .NET 2.0 to run, which means that you won’t be able to completely use your new card on a “stock” PC install without first spending an hour or two downloading the 80+ updates that XP needs to install over a fresh installation of SP2. It’s clunky. It slows down your Windows startup time. And should you need to uninstall it to upgrade to an nVidia card (something that I had to do on a different PC) I still ended up with little bits of ATI software that never got properly uninstalled.

And if only it worked properly — it often doesn’t! Every once in a while my secondary display flickers visibly (switches on and off, almost), and when I use the KVM (connected to the secondary display) I’m often stuck having to disable-and-reenable the secondary because it just hasn’t come back. This has never been a problem with the nVidia card I have on my now-second PC.

The nVidia software, on the other hand, installed like a charm, worked very well with no switching issues and uninstalled properly. Everything that Catalyst doesn’t do.

And then — consider it a “bonus extra”, if you will — there is the Intel software. Years and years ago Intel had a truly, truly rotten reputation for putting out software that had obviously never been passed through any kind of quality assurance. Well, guess what — the olden days have returned! I followed instructions when installing the software that was on the Intel CD, and lo and behold! half the stuff failed to install altogether. I’m completely serious. No explanation was provided for the failure, nor could I succeed in getting the failed packages off the CD. I had to find the packages, download them, and install them manually. But the most hilarious part is that they also give you two driver diskettes to use at installation time, and one of them — the one with the drivers for one of the SATA controllers — does not work at all. If you happened to connect your optical drive to the one red connector on the Marvell controller, that means that you’ll be unable to install Windows until you reconnect it to the Intel controller. That dismal software QA just doesn’t inspire much confidence in the kind of QA you can expect on the hardware side.
Implementation

The X1950 Pro cards feature something called “Native Crossfire”. The short story behind this is that previously Crossfire cards were linked externally through a three-headed DVI cable that everyone seemed to hate. The downside was the huge cable and (reportedly) low speed of interconnect between the video cards. In response to user feedback ATI changed the connection method to a thick ribbon cable that must link the two video cards.

While this is vastly more convenient and unobtrusive. With the “dongle” cable you had to establish a master and a slave card, and that was a big bother. Mind you, trust ATI to still fuck up the implementation. They told the press that the necessary cables would be included with the x1950 pro cards — but that’s not been my experience (see the next section). Secondly, while there is (according to reviewers) no technical reason to require more than one connection, you will not be able to enable Crossfire until you connect both bridges on the card. Ponder that one for a minute. The idea behind having two bridges was supposed to be to enable you to connect three cards together, but this is not possible if you need both bridges to connect two cards!

Clearly Crossfire is not in a finished state, and ATI’s claims of improvement sound terribly fake in my ears. I mean, logically if Crossfire won’t work unless both channels on the card are being fed data, then either the whole “Crossfire physics” setup that ATI likes to talk about is a bit of a pipe dream, because one of these things must then be true:

1- the pipeline really doesn’t provide enough bandwidth to yield that much of a performance improvement, so three-card systems are really hobbled performance-wise,

2- there is still a master card because one card must be connected on both bridges (the master), so all the talk about doing away with the master are nonsense,

3- the three-card setup may just be altogether impossible, so ATI is selling vaporware.

All in all I get the feeling that ATI really doesn’t know what it wants to do with Crossfire, and in the long run it may already have decided to concede the multi-VGA market to nVidia. I mean, since AMD acquired ATI there are obvious doubts on the long-term prospect of Crossfire support by Intel chipsets (who aren’t keen on giving their CPU competitors a boost, I’m sure) so the future of Crossfire is far, far from certain.

But the big bother is that if you’ve unwisely bought a set of video cards from some shady cheap-ass cheating fucks like I did, you need to buy two cables, and this is not made clear anywhere! which is why, after two weeks of using this shiny new PC, I’m still not able to use Crossfire at all. Seriously, if you need two cables to make the thing work, why don’t they sell them in pairs? That just pisses me off to no end.

All in all if I had known 4 weeks ago what I know now about Crossfire my purchasing decisions would have been very different, but now I’m effectively stuck with what I have.
Channel Shenanigans

My largest beef by far, however, is with ATI’s incompetent handling of channel issues. ATI owns the Radeon and Crossfire brands. ATI announces that Crossfire cables will be bundled with video cards, so you can expect that this policy will be enforced in their channels, right?

Well, think again. I had the misfortune of buying HIS video cards, and have bitterly regretted doing so. The board itself has nothing fancy, it’s basically an ATI reference board with some slight branding, and it wasn’t expensive… but the reason for this appears to be that HIS just isn’t selling you the whole package.

In particular, the issue of the Crossfire interconnect cables. They’re supposed to be in the box. They’re not. But fear not, HIS sells the cable by itself…

Seriously, it’s a ripoff that borders on fraud. Not only have they unbundled products that should be sold together, but they are selling those products at gouging prices. How much of a markup are they putting on these essential cables? Roughly 100%, if one compares their prices with ATI’s. And by that I mean that the “HIS-branded” cable can be purchased online for twice the price of the very same cable directly from ATI. And the extent of the branding seems to be the box that the cable came in; the bubble-wrap even has an ATI part number. Shylock himself wishes he had been able to charge such a premium!

I’ve already complained to HIS, and they’ve made no response at all in a week. Frankly, they’ve already got my money, so I doubt the greedy fuckers are terribly interested in changing things. What I find disturbing is that ATI isn’t stepping in and cracking the whip on this matter, because it sure isn’t making them look good. When you’re buying a Radeon card you’re buying into the ATI experience, and right now that seems to be fraught with additional expense and disappointment. After all is said and done I wish I had selected an SLI motherboard instead and spared myself the bother and aggravation.
In Conclusion, Tips!

The tips should come as no surprise to someone who’s read this article so far…

1- If you must build a high-performance dual-VGA system, go for SLI, not Crossfire. At least until ATI has actually decided what it wants to turn it into. Right now the technology just hasn’t matured, because ATI is playing catch-up and trying to compensate by taking the product in wild and unrealistic directions.

2- That of course means that you’ll want to stick with nVidia nForce chipset-powered motherboards. This means that Intel motherboards are out, even if they are pretty awesome specs-wise.
3- Stick with nVidia for your video card needs. Also consider getting a single high-end video card instead of two. Multiple-GPU performance is sometimes not what it’s cracked up to be. If you’re thinking about quad-SLI, forget it, it’s really not worth the bother right now.

4- Avoid buying from HIS like you would avoid the plague. Unless you like to buy things where there are parts missing. Even Ikea is careful about that sort of thing now.

5- If you’re working at Intel, push for better software QA! Seriously, CDs and diskettes that are unusable don’t make your company look good. And update your FAQs to tell people that if they plug their optical drive into the one red SATA slot they won’t be able to install Windows. I’m sure it’s come up before and it’ll come up again. Common sense should prevail.

6- If you’re building a high-powered PC, consider water cooling, but not at any price.

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