AMD’s ATI Hybrid CrossFire Sneak Peek Exclusive


Date:  Thursday , December 13, 2007

Author: Kyle Bennett   Editor: Brent Justice
(Via: [H] Enthusiast )
 

AMD’s ATI Hybrid CrossFire Sneak Peek Exclusive

Can you run CrossFire with only one video card? AMD shows us that they have it working and were confident enough to even let us sit down and play some games and run benchmarks on their new ATI Hybrid CrossFire system. CrossFire gaming for the masses?

 

So What is Hybrid CrossFire?

First off, we need to know what ATI CrossFire technology is. CrossFire allows an enthusiast to pair together similar ATI Radeon video cards to enable higher resolution and image quality in 3D games, improving the gaming experience. You can hit the link above to get a much more in-depth explanation, and this link will provide performance results with the latest CrossFire technology, but the gist is more ATI Radeon video cards equal a better gaming experience. Quad Crossfire has been shown off recently and as you can imagine that would allow a gamer to harness the power of four ATI Radeon GPUs. CrossFire will also scale with three ATI Radeon video cards as well. ATI CrossFire is supported on many motherboards that support both AMD and Intel processors.

Hybrid CrossFire is not meant for the enthusiast, but we do think the technology will indirectly benefit enthusiasts in the future, hence our reason for talking about it. That and Hybrid CrossFire is just pretty darn cool technology. Hybrid CrossFire is achieved by utilizing one of AMD’s new integrated chipset GPUs (IGP) and one of their new video cards. That’s right; Hybrid CrossFire utilizes one video card plugged into your PCI-Express slot and is able to join forces with the GPU built into the motherboard chipset. The setup we got to game and benchmark on is seen below.

Hybrid CrossFire Platform

What you are seeing above is an AMD RS780 next-gen chipset that has a DX10 R600 derivative “GPU” integrated. There is also a piece of discrete RAM on the motherboard that can be offered in either 16MB or 32MB capacities that acts as part of the framebuffer and is within close proximity to the IGP to remedy latency issues. Beyond that the RS780 chipset uses system RAM to house the rest of its total 256MB of framebuffer space available.

The external discrete video card plugged into the primary PCI-Express slot is a next-gen RV620 GPU. It is a 55nm DX10.1 PCIe Gen. 2 part with 256MB of local GDDR3 memory. This video card was referred to repeatedly as a US $49 video card. Therefore it is obviously a low-end part and so we did not expect much gaming performance from it at all.

Outside of the RS780 motherboard and the RV620 GPU there was nothing else special about the system, besides the fact that it did not have a power cord, which was easily remedied by a quick trip to the business center at the Hyatt. (And yes, we gave it back.) This system was running on a 2.2GHz Phenom processor and had 2GB of Corsair DDR2 RAM running Windows Vista 32-bit.

So What is This Thing Supposed to do Exactly?

We booted up the system, utilizing the installed RV620 video card for our single display. We played some of our favorite new games; Crysis, Unreal Tournament 3, and Call of Duty 4. These games are not slouches by any means when it comes to 3D eye candy. Our gaming experiences and benchmarks on the single card were nothing to write home about, or rather exactly what we would expect out of a $49 video card.

After we were done with that we brought up Catalyst Control Center, just like any CrossFire user would do, and found that the CrossFire option within CCC was available. We enabled CrossFire mode by selecting the checkbox. What this did was “CrossFire” the RV620 GPU based video card with the integrated RS780 motherboard chipset! During our switching back and forth in CCC between CrossFire disabled and enabled it did crash the machine once, and did cause us to have to reboot, so the software is far from finished, but considering that we are utilizing two pieces of next-gen silicon not yet in full production we felt pretty good about the ease of use.

I Can Play Crysis on Hybrid CrossFire!

The statement above will probably go more to interest true computer hardware enthusiasts more than any other. Crysis truly is the “benchmark” of any current 3D video acceleration technology. With the RV620 video card alone, there simply was not going to be any Crysis gaming at any reasonable settings, but with Hybrid CrossFire enabled we were able to actually tweak out a Crysis configuration that would let you play the game at 1024×768 with most of the visual settings on “Medium.” Running the canned timedemo benchmarks supplied in the game, we saw Hybrid CrossFire give us 50% better framerates than with the single RV620 video card alone.

We also played Call of Duty 4 and Unreal Tournament 3. COD4 looked better than I ever thought it would on a system such as this and we saw up to and over 50% increases in framerate when enabling Hybrid CrossFire. We brought UT3 with us as sort of a “control” since the box had obviously been preconfigured. We saw scaling of about 33% with UT3, and this was a game that had not been tweaked for any at all in the driver.

The beauty of this is that we did not have to do anything in the game or have any special profile running in order to achieve this better gameplay. We simply enabled CrossFire and it worked “out of the box” in these games. In fact, in Crysis, we had confirmation of it working without tweaking by noting that with –DEVMODE enabled the games status info displayed indicated “MGPU” which means the game detected and was running in a Multiple-GPU configuration.

This is a testament to the technology because the game thinks it is a classic dual-video card setup and not a special discrete video card + integrated chipset GPU combination, it is transparent to the game.

3D Marks

I hate 3D Mark as a self proclaimed gaming benchmark, but it does fill the gap as a good diagnostic tool to see if things are working properly when it comes to GPU function. While not the full run of 3DMark’s tests, the screen caps below show some various tests we ran with Hybrid CrossFire enabled and disabled to see if it was working.

Many of the values you see above represent what comes very close to being 2X with Hybrid CrossFire enabled, which is impressive; take note of the pixel shader, vertex shader and fillrate improvements. With more driver tweaking and profiling hopefully we will see the games above receive a larger benefit from Hybrid CrossFire.

Sell Hybrid CrossFire to Who?

Well, most likely not to you, but obviously to a demographic that is much bigger than the hardware enthusiast. Now we mentioned the video card being $49, but AMD reps touted the entire computer system at retail would be less than $500. If AMD can get some design wins with tier 1 system integrators, I can see Hybrid CrossFire being very successful. $49 is not a hard upsell and the Hybrid CrossFire would come from the builder enabled since it now supports multiple monitors (not a feature we tested). So a Hybrid CrossFire sub-$500 computer could show up on your Uncle Bob’s doorstep with Hybrid CrossFire enabled actually allowing him the ability to play some real 3D games and plug in two monitors without ever having to switch the Hybrid CrossFire mode on or off.

Now whether or not you give a damn whether Uncle Bob lives or dies, much less has a Hybrid CrossFire box, here’s what I see as beneficial to the enthusiast. For AMD to sell this platform to the likes of Dell and HP, they are going to have to do a few good things; two things they are going to have to get perfect are their Catalyst Control Center and driver implementation. If AMD can make Hybrid CrossFire intuitive enough and transparent to the end users, there is no doubt in my mind that the enthusiast will one day reap the benefits of that tweaking.

AMD will have to be on game profiles and default CrossFire settings like white on rice. CCC will have to function flawlessly and game support will be paramount. I don’t think this is all wishful thinking either. While enthusiasts will gripe about software problems, we are also smart enough and have the time to troubleshoot the issues and figure them out. Dell and HP customers are for the most part not computer savvy enough to troubleshoot such issues and therefore will end up on the phone talking to the help desk and that costs Dell and HP money. So for Hybrid CrossFire to be a true success, the application that controls the CrossFire functionality will have to be transparent to the end user.

Hybrid of the Future

As mentioned above, there are a lot of Hybrid CrossFire qualities that I hope to see trickle down (Or up depending on how you look at it) into the enthusiast realm. Both NVIDIA and ATI have discussed their own version of Hybrid technology with us, and ATI gets kudos for being the first out of the gate with it, and that alone restores some faith in what is going on at AMD nowadays.

We have given AMD and NVIDIA a wish list of sorts. What I would truly like to see is an integrated IGP that will run all my desktop and video applications while I have a single or double high end video gaming card configuration powered down. I don’t run a multi-card configuration now for two simple reasons. First, I don’t want 200 watts worth of idling 3D cards sitting under my desk all day. Second, I don’t want to deal with the multi-monitor situation that continually forces me to reboot when toggling between multi-monitor desktop use and gaming on a single monitor. I want enthusiast level Hybrid that fully turns off (or incredibly close to it) my high end 3D gaming card when I am not using it. I also don’t want to juggle reboots every time I want to get a gaming session on.

The Bottom Line

We have seen AMD’s ATI Hybrid CrossFire technology working and have even played today’s latest games on it and played them more smoothly than expected. The upcoming RS780 motherboard IGP and RV620 GPU look to be a great pair when it comes to low-end gaming rigs. We are expecting to see these parts come to market in Q1’08 with the Hybrid CrossFire technology to be introduced in “the first half of 2008.” This likely does not mean much to me and you right now, but I am hoping that we see a huge success in the low end Hybrid arenas because I truly believe it will help usher in a new way that multi-video card gaming is handled both in terms of power conservation and ease of use in the enthusiast’s system.

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