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Beating the Dead Horse


ATI's CrossFire


by Josh Walrath


I guess I lied when I said my final thoughts would be my final thoughts!  It seems that quite a few reviewers are up in arms about ATI's promises of availability of the CrossFire solutions, and they have a right to be.  ATI PR apparently told them, straight up, that CrossFire products would be available shortly after launch.  After digging further, it appears as though many retailers do not expect CrossFire based products until much later this month, and possibly into November.  Doing a quick search of Newegg, M-Wave, and Monarch comes up with nothing on CrossFire.  Once a person really takes a look at the situation, and boils off the hate/vitriol/fanboism/etc, then we see there really are two issues at play here.

The first is that ATI PR really failed.  Part of their job is to put a positive spin on whatever they do.  Now, NVIDIA has set the bar very high with their instant availability on released products, but while that is a lofty goal... I doubt we will see that with every product launch.  There are many pressures on companies other than consumers, and launching a new product is not always for the benefit of the end user.  ATI PR has had a bad time lately, mainly due to the unfortunate execution that the ATI engineering teams have displayed.  I honestly cannot blame the engineers either, as they have had a lot of big projects on their plates.  When ATI released their R300, the Art-X group that built that wonderful chip was subsequently broken up so they could spread their expertise to other areas in the company.  ATI then decided to go into other markets such as chipsets, X-Box 360, Nintendo Revolution, TV and media products.  There were a lot of deadlines, and a lot of technology to create from the ground up.  ATI should be very proud of the job that they have done on the Xenos GPU for the X-Box 360, as from all indications it is an excellent product that Microsoft is having few problems producing in mass quantities.  Unfortunately for ATI, that has essentially been their one success in the past year (that we know about).  ATI has been late with their desktop products for this next generation, there are issues with their chipset products and availability, and their CrossFire technology just seems more than a little bit premature.

ATI's PR should not have told the press that there will be availability shortly after launch of CrossFire.  ATI should have called this CrossFire release exactly what it was: a technology demonstration.  There really should not have been any talk about availability, and I think that ATI actually releasing CrossFire for the X8x0 series is a big mistake in terms of resources and the possibility of alienating end users who purchase X8x0 CrossFire products.

This leads us to our second point.  It is starting to appear that CrossFire for the X8x0 series may in fact never really see the light of day, nor should it.  ATI has crowed from the roofs that if a user already has a PCI-E X8x0 series of card, then they can pair it with a CrossFire master card and get double the performance.  At first this sounds great... until the end user really takes a look at what the upgrade would entail.  The first things is to get a CrossFire enabled motherboard.  If a user already has a PCI-E motherboard, more than likely it is not that old and not nearly ready for retirement.  So, buying a new motherboard would be something of a waste of money, and a hassle for the end user.  Then the end user also has to consider the price of a CrossFire master board.  While the official prices of these products are not out of control, once the end user starts to add up things like lost productivity (gaming) due to swapping out a motherboard (re-installing OS, applications, user data, etc.), as well as the physical parts they need to buy... it starts to look like a dead end considering the limitations that CrossFire, in its current form, brings to the table.

So, once the user figures up these costs as well as what they gain in overall performance, we run into another problem.  The release of the X1800 series of products that should be happening tomorrow.  If a user already has a PCI-E solution, wouldn't it be more cost effective to just buy one of these cards and discard the entire idea of CrossFire for the X8x0 series altogether?  Not only will they get better overall performance by using a single X1800 of whatever flavor, but they will gain features such as SM 3.0 support and new anti-aliasing techniques and performance.  The user will not have to buy a new motherboard, nor spend money on a 2nd card that they might not end up using for very long in the face of the next generation of ATI products.

CrossFire for X8x0 should have been labeled, very clearly, a tech demonstration of ATI's multi-card technology.  In its current form, it most certainly is not ready for primetime, and many of the issues that reviewers have brought up look to be fixed in their next generation products.  So why did ATI PR say that these products will be available shortly after the reviews were posted?  I really don't understand why, as a little honesty here would have built up a lot of goodwill.  It would have also really gotten people interested in the next generation of CrossFire enabled products.  Instead most of us (reviewers and users alike) now have a bad taste in our mouth due to the actions of the PR people behind CrossFire.  ATI built up a tremendous following after the excellent 9700 and 9800 series of products (and to an extent, the X800 and X850 products).  But after the controversies of the "Phantom Edition" products, delays of next generation products, and nebulous promises of availability... I think even the most die hard fans are getting upset by the actions of ATI.

Still, one bad year does not make a company the size of ATI go away anytime soon.  Indications point to the X1800 series of products to be quite competitive with what NVIDIA has at this time.  It also appears that the feature checklist on these products will be a step above the 7800 series from NVIDIA.  The big question for this product will be availability.  I am not under NDA, but this is information that I have gathered so far about how we might expect things to roll out.

ATI put in a large order of R520 chips before they found the problem to their clockspeed dilemma.  These chips look to have been ordered about a month before the fix was put into the design.  These chips made it out of the fab and were packaged more than a month ago, and many of these were integrated into the X1800 XL SKU.  This is the SKU that is clocked at 500 MHz core, and apparently can't clock much higher than that.  There appear to be plenty of these cards, and it looks like they will be readily available at launch (though this is not confirmed).  The X1800 XT is primarily being introduced from the redesigned part that fixed the soft ground error, and only now are these starting to come out of packaging.  There might be a few of these available at launch, but not in significant quantities due to how long it took to fix the problem and integrate the solution into manufacturing.  Many do not expect good quantities of the XT part until well into November.

So, now that we (think) we know how things will pan out for ATI in the next two months, we see exactly why there will be few X8x0 CrossFire parts.  I think the CrossFire motherboards will be available very soon, but I don't think ATI or its partners will waste a lot of time/money/effort into bringing good quantities of X8x0 CrossFire master cards into production and into consumers' hands.  These will probably be rare products, and for good reasons.  The performance and feature difference between a X8x0 CrossFire and a new X1800 XL or XT will probably favor the X1800, not to mention the overall cost of ownership that buying a single, next-generation card will save over getting another video card whose future is in doubt as well as a new motherboard.

No word has been given about the possibility of X1800 CrossFire editions, but I imagine we will hear more upon launch.  If a user really wants CrossFire, then I strongly suggest they wait and see what this next generation brings.  The current iteration of CrossFire is just not up to speed yet with competing solutions, and buying a X8x0 CrossFire edition card is pretty much just throwing good money away at this point.

ATI PR really should take a good look at how they have addressed the market, as they have successfully alienated a good portion of their fan base.  These are the people who will go out and say lots of good things about ATI's products, as well as recommend these products to their friends and family.  Word of mouth when it comes to technology can be more persuasive than a well written article or review.  ATI appears to have a solid next generation part, but they are going to have to work overtime to get back a lot of the goodwill that the market had previously held for them.


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