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ATI HD4870 & HD4850 Crossfire Performance Review

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SKYMTL

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ATI HD4870 & HD4850 Crossfire & Mixed Crossfire Performance Review​



Cards Used:

Palit HD4870 512MB (See our review of this card here)
Sapphire HD4850 512MB (See our review of this card here)



When you think of Crossfire what is the first thing you think of? Performance? Price? Driver issues? Well, if we were back in 2005 when Crossfire was first introduced as a competitor to Nvidia’s SLI, you would have probably said “frustration”. Back then, Crossfire was a mishmash of ultra-expensive “Crossfire Edition” cards, wonky external cable loops and vague motherboard requirements. A lot has changed since then as ATI’s multi-card solution has gradually matured into what some would call a perfect alternative to Nvidia’s SLI. Within the last few weeks we have seen some amazing developments in the graphics card world with the release and subsequent price cutting of many high end video cards. These lower prices coupled with a bevy of motherboards supporting Crossfire has meant that many people are seriously considering a system with a pair of ATI graphics cards. Indeed, in the race to have the fastest computer on the block, many people have gravitated towards dual card setups within the past few years and this trend seems to be increasing as of late.

Right now Intel has the processor families of choice for both enthusiasts and gamers alike while having chipsets which seem to be loads more popular than their Nvidia competition. Since higher-end Intel chipsets like the X38 and X48 fully support ATI’s Crossfire, cards like the HD4870 and HD4850 have quickly become more and more popular as viable options for running a dual GPU configuration. Now with the advent of the new P45 chipset-based boards which support 8x / 8x PCI-E 2.0 Crossfire support, there is a whole new market of mainstream users who have access to a highly competitive Crossfire platform. AMD processors also have Crossfire chipsets with their 790-series of motherboards and upcoming SB800 products but they are unfortunately saddled to somewhat less popular processors right now. That being said, the AMD 790FX boards are the only ones available at this time to actively support up to 4 graphics cards running in Crossfire on quad 8x PCI-E lanes.

While the inclusion of Crossfire on Intel chipsets has proven to be a boon for ATI, it is really only part of the reason we are seeing more and more systems pop up with a pair of their graphics cards. The other part of this equation comes with the fact that since the HD3800-series, the majority of ATI’s cards have been priced in the sub-$300 price segment. Many times people (myself included) bought one card with their system and then once prices decreased a bit and games increased in their demands, bought a second card to tie them over until the next big thing arrived.

Up until this point we have somewhat shunned full-on dual card reviews but with the current popularity of Crossfire and ATI’s current crop of sub-$300 graphics cards, it is high time we tackled this subject. In this performance review we will be taking a look at Crossfire configurations with HD4870 cards from Palit, HD4850 cards from Sapphire and a few little interesting twists (Mixed Crossfire) and turns (Crossfire by combining 4800-series and 3800-series cards) along the way. So please feel free to pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit back and read a bit more about Crossfire and decide if it is of any use to you.


 
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SKYMTL

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The Cards: What Worked & What Didn’t

The Cards: What Worked & What Didn’t



Without a doubt, Crossfire is quite a bit more versatile than Nvidia’s SLI since different combinations of cards can be used instead of always having to use cards of the same model. This means that instead of only having to use a pair of HD4850 cards; you can actually combine one HD4850 and one HD4870. While there have been a myriad of different cards in the past that support Crossfire, in this review we will only be discussing the current 4-series of cards. We will also touching very briefly on the possibility of using a 3-series card in combination with one of the current generation products on this page but as you will see, it stops there.

While other combinations are available by combining more than a pair of ATI cards together, we won’t be broaching that subject since at this time only a few AMD 790FX boards support this feature along with a rare X48 board here and there. We don’t have one of these boards and neither do the vast majority of those of you who are considering Crossfire on your X38, P45 or X48 boards so we will keep this section firmly grounded in reality.

So, let’s check out the possibilities and a little more about what they bring to the table.


The Crossfire Connector


Before we look at the cards, let’s touch on what can only be called the heart of any modern Crossfire system: the Crossfire connector. It is basically a flexible interconnect which links one card to the next and unlike SLI, there needs to be two connectors attached to the cards at all times. Every Crossfire-enabled card now comes with a single bridge connector which means that once you have a pair of cards, all you will need is a Crossfire-enabled motherboard and you are off to the races.


HD4870 + HD4870


In these last few days before the release of the R700, the combination of a pair of HD4870 cards is the most power Crossfire solution most of you will have access to. Considering the price of a HD4870 is now in the realm of $270 and a pair of them will run you a shade over $540, there was a short time when you could get a pair of these cards for less than a single Nvidia GTX 280. However, as the prices of the Nvidia cards have come down and this solution has become slightly less appealing but nonetheless should provide the best possible performance on a motherboard with an Intel chipset. In this case we are using a pair of stock Palit cards.


HD4850 + HD4850


In what can only be called “Crossfire on a budget”, ATI’s new HD4850 cards can be combined for some supposedly impressive performance increases over a single card. Considering this solution will currently put you back less than $400, it comes in at less than the price of a stock-clocked GTX 280 card sells for. It seems like this is by far the most popular Crossfire setup right now with many owners of the new P45 boards first buying a single HD4850 and then when seeing another one on sale, grab up a second one for increased performance. For our tests, a pair of Sapphire stock-clocked cards was used.


HD4870 + HD4850 (mixed Crossfire)


Now we come to something a little bit more interesting: mixed Crossfire. With this you are able to combine two different cards of the same series while still getting increased performance over a single card. This provides quite a bit of versatility to people who may happen to inherit another card from their brother or friend. However, is it worth it to actually buy one of each card? We will find out in our testing.


HD48xx + HD38xx

Since we know you are going to ask, this option does NOT work. We tried with 5 different beta and WHQL drivers from the 8.6 to the newest 8.7 and not one of them allowed us to enable Crossfire between two different families of ATI cards. Before anyone asks in the comment thread, we have confirmed the incompatibility with ATI’s driver and product teams.
 
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SKYMTL

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Driver Installation & Catalyst Control Center

Driver Installation & Catalyst Control Center


For this section (and the performance tests) we are using the Catalyst 8.7 drivers with the Catalyst Control Center installed. While we did encounter some issues with the installation and performance of these drivers, we will keep the discussion about it until the end of the review.

Before we go about showing you the installation process, it is VERY important that you properly clean your system of any old video drivers which all starts with installing a driver cleaning program (we recommend Driver Cleaner Pro).

If you are replacing an Nvidia card this process starts with going into the Device Manager, and uninstalling whatever Nvidia card you have. Then reboot your system into Safe Mode, use your driver cleaning program of choice and shut down. You will then be ready to install the ATI drivers.

Even though ATI has stated that it is perfectly safe to install one of their driver sets over another, we do not recommend this in the least. Rather, begin the process by reinstalling your currently installed driver and when it prompts you to Install or Uninstall, click “Uninstall” to properly remove the drivers. Then reboot into safe mode and use Driver Cleaner to uninstall any last hangers-on of the drivers. Then shut down, install your two new cards and reboot into Windows to install the new drivers.

After the drivers are installed you will be prompted to reboot so do so right away. The following screen should pop up after a reboot:


Click on image to enlarge

This is the Crossfire X support panel which tells you that Crossfire has been successfully enabled. If this does not pop up after your first reboot into Windows, you should reboot once again since we had one or two instances where it didn’t and found that Crossfire wasn’t working. Rebooting solved the problem so give it a try.

In this screen we highly recommend that you hit Go to continue on to the Catalyst Control Center Advanced view since the Basic view is just a bit too sparse for our liking. Clicking on Exit will not cause any adverse effects to Crossfire but the next time you go to open the Catalyst Control Center you will be prompted to choose either the Basic or Advanced mode once again like so:


Click on image to enlarge

Once again, we recommend going with the Advanced Mode since it gives you more troubleshooting options and the ability to unlock the Overdrive (overclocking) control panel.


Click on image to enlarge

The Advanced Mode has a ton of options, many of which are beyond the scope of this review so we will only be touching on those that have a direct impact on Crossfire. To begin with, if Crossfire was successfully enabled you should have a Crossfire X option as the last selectable section in the main list on the left. This section allows you to enable or disable Crossfire while you can also use the Identify GPU button to tell you which screen is running off which GPU if you are running a dual monitor setup.

The other CrossfireX section allows you to see a real-time diagnosis of the Crossfire status of your setup. For some reason, even if Crossfire wasn’t working properly this screen always stayed blank.


Click on image to enlarge

In order to keep this relatively short and sweet, the last screen we wanted to touch upon is the one holding the Catalyst AI dialog. Without AI enabled, Crossfire will not work; it is as simple as that. The first thing we always do after installing the drivers is to check that this is enabled and set to Standard.

So, that rounds up our whirlwind tour of the Crossfire options in the Catalyst Control Center. We will be discussing troubleshooting and work-arounds if things somehow go wrong in a section after the performance tests. But, for now let’s take have a look at what you have all been waiting for: the performance of the 4800-series in Crossfire.
 

SKYMTL

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

System Used

Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9770 @ 3.852Ghz
Memory: G.Skill 2x 2GB DDR2-1000 @ 1052Mhz DDR
Motherboard: DFI LanParty DK X38 T2R
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Hitachi Deskstar 320GB SATAII
Fans: 2X Yate Loon 120mm @ 1200RPM
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate x64 SP1


Graphics Cards:

Sapphire Radeon HD4850 512MB (Single & Crossfire)
Palit Radeon HD4870 512MB (Single & Crossfire)
EVGA Geforce GTX 280 (stock)
BFG GTX 260 (Stock)
XFX 8800GTS 512MB (stock)
BFG 9800 GTX (stock)


Drivers:

Nvidia 177.41 WHQL (GTX 280 / 260)
Nvidia 175.19 WHQL
ATI Catalyst 8.7


Due to the unpredictability of some beta drivers in Windows Vista x64, we have decided to only use WHQL drivers for all graphics cards other than the one being tested.


Applications Used:

3DMark06 Professional
3DMark Vantage
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Devil May Cry 4 Demo
Crysis
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Prey
Unreal Tournament III
World in Conflict


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 4 benchmark runs

- If the game did not support 2560 x 1600 resolution, the closest resolution to that was used
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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3DMark 06

3DMark 06


While some may wonder at the use of still including 3DMark06 in the tests it gives us a good idea of the basic limitations of a graphics card. Since the standard test runs at 1280x1024 there will be a fair amount of CPU bottlenecking with higher-end cards and remember that in many cases a higher 3DMark score does not equate better performance. Here we have also included tests with AA and AF enabled




In what can only be called an extreme case of processor bottleneck (yes even with an overclocked 3.8Ghz quad) with the HD4870 Crossfire setup. It is amazing to see the score barely move when going from 1280 x 1024 to 1600 x 1200 resolution both with and without AA enabled. Both the mixed and the HD4850 Crossfire setups get extremely similar scores which are very impressive as well and nearly hit the 19,000 mark with 4xAA enabled.
 

SKYMTL

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3DMark Vantage

3DMark Vantage


3DMark Vantage is the follow-up to the highly successful 3DMark06. It uses exclusively DX10 so if you are running Windows XP, you can forget about running this benchmark. However, it presents us with a truly stressful test of any modern graphics card so we have decided to begin including it in our testing procedure.

Overall Score



GPU Score


Once again the ATI Crossfire setups provide very, very impressive performance. We were most impressed with the HD4850 Crossfire scores since the two cards used cost less than a single GTX 280 but provide significantly better performance for the most part. The HD4870s continue to lead the pack by a fair amount while once again the mixed Crossfire setup shows basically the same performance as the HD4850s.
 

SKYMTL

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Unreal Tournament III / Prey

Unreal Tournament III


With absolutely stunning graphics, this popular online FPS provides great visuals to go hand-in-hand with palm-sweating gameplay.

For these tests we set up a 15 minute Bot Match on the Serenity level and let it play though. All of the results were recorded with the in-game benchmark tool.


Here we can see the real use of Crossfire: rendering games on a large screen. UTIII really doesn’t benefit much from a pair of cards at lower resolutions due to CPU bottlenecking but at higher resolutions the cards are able to kick some serious ass. Once again, it seems that Crossfire scales particularly well at these higher resolutions.


Prey


Even though Prey may be a bit older game compared against many of the other ones we are testing, it still provides a workout of even the best graphics cards on the market. This time we have enabled its Graphics Boost feature (Gboost in the charts) and run through a custom timedemo.


Prey has always favoured Nvidia cards but the HD4870 Crossfire setup was able to pull pretty far ahead of a single GTX 280 while the other ATI dual card setups kept up quite well at high resolutions. What once again strikes us as amazing is the performance increase we saw going from a single card to dual ATI cards. It used to be that scaling wasn’t that great with dual GPU setups but it seem that ATI has done some amazing things with Crossfire.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Devil May Cry 4

Devil May Cry 4


Devil May Cry has long been a staple platformer on consoles but has found only moderate success with its PC ports. The 4th iteration of this series aims to buck this trend with stunning visuals and intuitve gameplay

In this benchmark we used the in-game benchmark tool while running FRAPS to measure an average and minimum framerate.



1280 X 1024





1600 X 1200





2560 X 1600




The performance increases seen with Crossfire in this game are nothing short of stunning. While there is no way that you will see any noticeable visual benefit between 100 and 250 frames per second, the 125 FPS achieved by the HD4870 at 2560 x 1600 with 4X AA enabled is downright jaw dropping. The performance of the HD4850s and mixed Crossfire was also impressive where performance was nearly doubled over a single HD4850.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Crysis DX9

Crysis DX9


Crysis is one of those games that comes along every now and then and totally humbles every graphics card on the market. While some people have pointed towards shoddy programming, it is undeniable that this game looks ridiculously good when played at higher settings.

For this test we recorded a custom timedemo on the Harbor level equaling about 20 minutes of game time through jungle, over water and in vehicles. All results were recorded with FRAPS over the course of the timedemo.


1280 X 1024





1600 X 1200





1920 X 1080




Crossfire Performance in Crysis DX9 has never been what we would call earth shattering and that tradition lives on here. We encounter a CPU bottleneck at lower resolutions and performance does increase but the HD4850s seem to struggle a bit when AA is turned on. That being said, adding a second card seems to net us a pretty significant increase in framerates no matter which way you look at it.
 

SKYMTL

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Crysis DX10

Crysis DX10



1280 X 1024





1600 X 1200





1920 X 1080




Here we see basically the same thing happen as with Crysis DX9 where the Crossfired ATI cards are able to make up some lost ground when AA is turned on but in all reality their performance is once again on the erratic side. Minimum framerates are a bit disappointing throughout but there is a bright glimmer of hope at the highest resolution with AA turned on where the average FPS stays above 30 for every combination of ATI cards. All in all it seems like ATI's driver team has a ways to go with optimizing their cards for this game.
 
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