Wow. Gosh. Well, it's finally here: ATI's answer to NVIDIA's SLI has been a long time in the making, but we have it on our desk and by gum, if we haven't been giving it a thorough run through the bit-tech.net labs. Before we tear it up with some of the fastest hardware on the planet, however, quick history lesson...
NVIDIA hit a home run with the launch of SLI in the middle of last year, alongside the GeForce 6 series of cards. Nobody expected SLI to ever make a return from the good old 3DFX days, but NVIDIA tipped up with a technology that allowed for up to double the performance of a single card in one system. Since then, SLI has been the fastest graphics system on the planet, and an entire ecosystem of motherboards, cards and even power supplies has grown up around the name.
Now, ATI itself is no stranger to combining multiple graphics cards for extra horsepower: it's been creating custom 16-way graphics systems for specialist customers for a good while now. SLI rather caught it on the back foot and, since before Christmas, it's been working on a technology to rival it on the desktop.
We first heard about ATI's plans back at Christmas, when they were but a rumour. It didn't take a genius to realise that, with NVIDIA making a killing with SLI, ATI was going to follow suit. It also didn't take a genius to work out that ATI were not only going to try and make up ground, they were going to attempt to recapture the performance lead by coming out with a solution that was better than SLI.
The first systems, which didn't even have a name at that time, were up and running in March at the CeBit trade fair. Details were scant, and we couldn't see much more than a sample running a game, but it appeared to work.
The official unveiling of CrossFire was at Computex, three months later. We were briefed on the technology, shown it in action, and promised that products would be hitting the shelf imminently. We were excited about CrossFire, because it promised far more than SLI did. Not only would it double performance, it would work in any game. You didn't need to buy two new cards, you could use an existing one. It would allow huge amounts of anti-aliasing. It seemed, and looked, awesome. I remember playing around with a machine running Splinter Cell, and thinking how great it looked.
Well, it's taken fully three months for ATI to sort out technical issues with the platform and to get final cards and motherboards into the hands of the press. In that time, NVIDIA has taken the features it saw ATI announce back in June and has had a go at integrating them into its own driver, narrowing the gap between the platforms. But there are still areas with ATI has the edge - in universal compatibility, for example.
We wrote this article using reference ATI hardware. We took a X850 XT Master card, a X850 XT Slave card and a reference ATI RD480 motherboard. The hardware came as part of an Evesham Technologies PC, which was also kitted out with an AMD Athlon FX-57 and 1GB of RAM.
Because this is reference hardware and not a final, retail package, we're still calling this a 'Hands on Preview' rather than a full Review. Rest assured that we'll be bringing you retail reviews very soon, because we already have CrossFire mainboards on the way from all the big motherboard vendors, and CrossFire video cards too.
We're going to be showing you the technology, previewing performance and offering our thoughts into the technology as it stands.
Before we go any further, we have to give a big 'Thanks!' to Evesham for the loan of the CrossFire system.