Help me navigate the labyrinth of deceptive GPU names!
May 19, 2011 7:37 AM   Subscribe

It's that time of year again - the great new pc games have started rolling out and last year's hotness will not cut it. I currently have a Radeon 5850 - Would you upgrade by getting a second card and running them in Crossfire, or would a slick, new, confusingly-named, single card be a better investment?

I am getting back into PC gaming pretty seriously, but have a really diffidcult time deciphering both Nvidia and AMD's naming schemes for their product lines.

Last year i finally plunked down on a decent card, a Sapphire 5850 but now (Thanks largely to The Witcher 2, Dragon Age 2 and Shift 2) I'm starting to see its' limitations and having to drop detail and resolution to get decent framerates. I have never considered going SLI/Crossfire, but after looking around the internet it doesn't seem that frought with peril unless your cards are bleeding-edge new.

I am also unsure that i 1) have another pci express x16(?) port and that 2) my stock dell power supply will take another video card.

More about my system: It is a Dell XPS 1100 from Dec. '09. Has an i7-920 CPU, 8gb RAM, 120gb SSD and 1tb HDD, stock PSU, sb x-fi soundcard. It is a full size tower, but if anyone knows if there's some way to tell me how fast the free slots on my mobo are that would be nice.

So how about it mefi, what would you do in my position? Get a second card, psu and hope it works? or upgrade to a better single card solution?
posted by phylum sinter to Computers & Internet (11 answers total)
I am a PC gamer, although by no means a hardware expert.

I was in a similar situation earlier this year - my graphics card just wasn't cutting it on some of the newer games. I ended up splurging on a new NVIDIA GeForce 5 series and have been thrilled with it. I chose a single, powerful card over exploring SLI mainly because I think game support for SLI can be spotty. This may have changed with the newest generation of games, but I've known folks who laid out the cash for a dual-card setup only to get disappointing performance due to no game support.

And fwiw, I am a huge fan of NVIDIA cards. They are stable and seem to last for a decent length of time before becoming outdated. I had my last card for 2 years before I finally had to upgrade, and I'm usually playing the latest and greatest games.
posted by tryniti at 7:50 AM on May 19, 2011

You sure you have the model number correct? XPS 1100 isn't showing up on Dell's site.
posted by clorox at 7:52 AM on May 19, 2011

For the Witcher 2, xfire wouldn't help immediately; AMD hasn't released a profile yet. You might just lower your settings a little bit and wait for the next driver update to see if things get better.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:52 AM on May 19, 2011

As trynity indicates, SLI support in games is pretty spotty. Getting a single new card is going to have better results than getting a second older one, pretty much across the board.
posted by valkyryn at 7:56 AM on May 19, 2011

Yeah, with the stock PSU, I'd probably go for a single card over trying the SLI route, since you might have to get a new PSU to run two cards in there. Even with a new single card, make sure your PSU can handle it. I rather enjoy ATI/AMD, and would recommend going for something like the 6970.
posted by Grither at 7:59 AM on May 19, 2011

Right now, you probably won't see great gains unless you bump to a dual-GPU solution, either by Crossfire or going with a dual-GPU card like a Radeon 6970 or GTX 590. Tom's Hardware updates their graphics card hierarchy charts every month, and their suggestion is that if you aren't going at least three tiers up that it isn't worth upgrading. Three tiers up is a 5970, which is more or less equivalent to two 5850's (not exactly equivalent, but the performance is almost matched).

The only way to know on the PSU is to look at the PSU. The PSU needs to handle the wattage and have sufficient PCI-Express power connectors. If it doesn't have additional PCI-Express power connectors, then it needs lots of Molex connectors to connect a second video card. Check the PSU for a label like this one to see the wattage. You'll have to look for the power connectors. I ran your specs in the PSU calculator, expect to need roughly 550W for a Crossfire 5850 system. A single card 6970 (dual GPU card) system calculated out to needing 600W

Check the motherboard for a PCI-E x16 slot. It will look virtually identical to the slot your video card already takes. Often the motherboards will have "PCI-Express Slot 2" actually labeled on the motherboard.

If you want to take some pictures of available connectors, motherboard slots, etc. link them so we can have a look.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:24 AM on May 19, 2011

Just out of curiosity, what sort of video settings are you running? It seems that a 5850 ought to handle any of the games you mentioned with relatively high settings and frame rates. First thing I'd do is look for disabling anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion. Both are enormous performance hits, and the higher your resolution, the less of a difference anti-aliasing makes, while the performance penalty scales up dramatically.

One thing to keep in mind about SLI/Crossfire - other than the spotty support, which tyniti already pointed out - is that you need a PSU that can handle it, and there's pretty much a 100% chance that a stock Dell PSU cannot. Second, the additional power draw is going to cost you in the electric bill. It may not be huge, but it could easily run a couple extra dollars a month. Then it creates lots of extra heat, which means you may need additional cooling, which is another expense . . .

There are a handful of synthetic benchmarks that will show that two of card X offers better performance for the money than one of card Y, but generally speaking the price advantage is so marginal that it's completely eclipsed by spotty support, and only saves you money if you already have a PSU and cooling up to task and don't count the extra $1-5/month on your electric bill. Let alone the additional noise and heat attendant with dual-card setups.

SLI & Crossfire have definitely improved lately, but they just aren't worth it unless you're the sort of guy that likes to post synthetic benchmark results in your forum sig or fiddle around with your computer's guts for fun.

Also, if you do upgrade, I'd recommend nvidia, based on personal experience. The short of it is that I've experienced far less driver-related wonkiness in nvidia-based machines than ATI (see, e.g. the current issues with ATI card performance in Brink, or in the past with NWN2, City of Heroes, etc.). And avoid MSI; cheaply-made.
posted by Vox Nihili at 1:07 PM on May 19, 2011

Re: The Witcher 2: AMD says they're working on a hotfix.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:57 PM on May 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who has given this their consideration so far, your advice has helped immensely.

@clorox - my mistake, the system model is actually an XPS 435T/9000.

@Vox Nihili - That's a good route of questioning, my settings are a little less than usual. My monitor runs at 1920x1200 native, so i always go for that when possible. I do sometimes tone down the AA to 4x but really do enjoy the image improvements MSAA and Anisotropic Filtering bring. Ideally i'd like to have all settings cranked (i think this is what the dev's have in mind) and still be above 30fps.

@Mister Fabulous - that hierarchy chart is exactly what i was looking for. Who at AMD decided that a 5970 should be above the 6970? Ditto Nvidia with the GTX 295 being superior to the 560ti?! Thanks for posting this.

Going by Tom's rule of
"don't bother unless you can jump 3 tiers", it looks like i would be spending a whole lot to get that performance increase. A GTX 580 goes for around $500-700 and the 5970 is almost out of print and has gone up to... $1300? That can't be worth it.

Is there a way to keep this upgrade below $400? I suppose a crossfire upgrade would mean $180 for the card and then another $100+ for a new PSU. Has anyone does this with a newer Radeon and can speak of compatibility issues and whatnot?
posted by phylum sinter at 4:39 AM on May 20, 2011

Response by poster: Now i'm looking at an EVGA GTX 580 for $460 after rebate. Do you guys think that's a good asking price? I'm tempted to just give it a shot but am guessing i might need a new PSU to get it running too.
posted by phylum sinter at 4:52 AM on May 20, 2011

You'll want to check that your case will take a standard ATX power supply; it probably does, but you never know with Dell.

The Nvidia 295 and 590, and the AMD 5970 and 6990, are dual-GPU cards; basically, crossire/SLI-on-a-stick, with much of the same potential problems. For the 6000 generation, AMD has decided to name its top-end single-GPU family the 6900s, where it had used the 5800s and 4800s for the previous two generations.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:03 PM on May 20, 2011

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