Monday, October 25, 2010

HydraLogix Vs. SLI And CrossFire: MSI's P55A Fuzion Tested

LucidLogix forges ahead with its promise of multi-GPU compatibility across multiple graphics architectures and platforms. Today we see how its latest drivers stand up to the performance standards of CrossFire and SLI on a much more cost-sensitive board.
Continuous development has kept LucidLogix at technology’s cutting edge, but is the company finally ready to take a market lead? Is it finally viable to mix your Radeons and GeForces on the same motherboard? Performance improvements, bug fixes, and an expanded portfolio of 145 3D titles compel us to take a second look at this unique and potentially game-changing technology.

Like the NF200 from Nvidia, Lucid’s Hydra 200 supplies 32 lanes of PCIe 2.0 connectivity to two graphics cards, consuming 16 lanes from the platform’s primary PCIe controller. Similarities between these two devices end at the bridge function, however. While Nvidia relies on the fact that all cards in an SLI array require the same data by simply repeating that information to all cards (a feature Nvidia calls Broadcast), Lucid’s controller adds logic to determine what data each card will use. HydraLogix (the name Lucid is using for its technology) breaks a 3D workload into multiple tasks and attempts to assign those tasks based on the capabilities of each GPU.

The theoretical benefits of the additional controller are multiple, beginning with the ability to load-balance cards of dissimilar performance. Nvidia’s SLI requires that all graphics cards be identical, significantly hindering later upgrades if a matching card cannot be found. While AMD loosens its requirements by allowing different cards of the same generation to be mixed, putting these in an array will force the better card to operate using the lesser card’s specifications.
Conversely, Lucid’s technology allows two cards of vastly different capabilities to both operate at 100% load.
Take the two examples of the GeForce GTS 450 and Radeon HD 5770, which are around half as powerful as the GeForce GTX 460 and Radeon HD 5870. Using load balancing, it’s possible for the half-sized GPU take on one-third of the load, while its bigger sibling takes on two-thirds of the load.
Lucid goes a step beyond making graphics processors of different scale work at full performance, however, in that the company even supports mixing different architectures. While Radeon HD 5870 plus HD 5770 or GeForce GTX 460 plus GTS 450 sound like interesting combos, an AMD and Nvidia pairing could prove more intriguing.
Thus, while our launch coverage of Lucid's first HydraLogix-based motherboard focused primarily on mixing cards of different generations, today’s tests examine various pairings of current-generation, mid-priced-enthusiasts parts.

While MSI has offered high-end (read: expensive) boards in the past using Lucid’s Hydra controllers, the company appears to have figured out that the most likely reason users would mix cards is for value. This logic compelled the company to target a sub-$200 price point when developing its P55A Fuzion, and the final product is available for around $175.
That price gets you a feature set that resembles several $140 motherboards, with the addition of its $35 Hydra 200 controller. Two full-bandwidth PCIe 2.0 x16 slots are fed by that Hydra 200 controller from the LGA 1156 socket's 16 processor-driven PCIe lanes.
The I/O panel has only one USB 3.0 port because its controller’s second port was moved inside. This was one of the proposals we saw in response to last year’s pleas for internal USB 3.0 ports. While a competing design is poised to become the industry standard, MSI’s design will at least allow a few current cases to access one port internally rather than looping out of the case to the I/O panel. We’d have accepted either MSI’s or the competing solution, but wanted at least two internal ports in addition to external ports.

Value also comes from overclocking, so MSI equips its P55A Fuzion with a ten-phase voltage regulator comprising “military-class” components. Though we’ve had great success using boards with this design, we have yet to quantify the benefits of these components.

Some builders might have already noticed that the P55A Fuzion has no rear-panel eSATA connectors. MSI supplies the board with one third-party controller, Marvell’s RAID-capable 88SE9128, and leaves it up to the user to decide whether to connect it to internal drives, a front-panel eSATA connector, or a rear-panel slot plate (accessories that are not included). Intel’s P55 Express PCH takes care of an additional six drives in RAID 0, 1, 5, or 10.

MSI uses touch sensors rather than buttons for onboard power and reset functions, making it easier to test the board without a case. An OC Genie button sets the motherboard to automatically run overclocking and stability tests at boot.
The one problem this editor found in the P55A Fuzion’s design is its bottom-rear-corner front-panel audio connector, a location that typically requires a 16-24” cable. I’ve tested over a dozen cases that came up 1-3 inches short. Though the short cable reach is primarily a case design issue, this formally-trained designer has never found an adequate excuse for placing the motherboard’s front-panel audio header so far away from a case’s front-panel connectors.

P55A Fuzion Basic O/C Settings
BIOS VersionV1.1 (09-09-2010)
CPU Core0.87-2.07 Volts (6.25 mV), 100-600 MHz BCLK (1 MHz)
CPU IMC0.45-2.02 Volts (5.3 mV), Auto Frequency by DRAM
Memory1.50-2.41 Volts (~7 mV), 3x-6x BCLK (1x)
Memory TimingtCL 4-15, tRCD 3-15, tRP 3-15, tRAS 9-31 Cycles (1c)
Chipset0.45-1.95 Volts PCH (~5 mV)

Overclockers don’t like to be limited by BIOS, so the P55A Fuzion includes frequency and voltage limits that exceed those of most hardware configurations by a wide margin.

Most of the P55A Fuzion’s frequency and voltage settings can be found by scrolling through its Cell Menu, including a few advanced controls such as DRAM reference voltage.

The Advanced DRAM Configuration menu allows per-channel settings, though most users will find the best results by having both channels set identically.

The retail-boxed P55A Fuzion contains twice as many cables as found in this press sample, but no SLI or CrossFire bridges. MSI believes that its users will always prefer HydraLogix multi-GPU control (which doesn't require bridges) over proprietary SLI and CrossFire, but we really don’t think MSI should be adding any restrictions to a board that otherwise supports all three technologies.

Test System Configuration
CPUIntel Core i7-870 (2.93 GHz, 8 MB Cache)
Overclocked to 4.00 GHz at 1.35 V, 200 MHz BCLK
Lucid Hydra
MSI P55A Fuzion BIOS V1.1 (09-09-2010), Intel P55 Express/Lucid Hydra LT22102, LGA 1156
ASRock P55 Extreme4 BIOS 1.42 (08-20-2010), Intel P55 Express, LGA 1156
RAMKingston KHX2133C9D3T1K2/4GX (4 GB)
DDR3-2133 at DDR3-1600 CAS 7-7-7-21
AMD Graphics2 x MSI R5850 Twin FROZR II 1 GB
725 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000
Single, CrossFire, HydraLogix A-Mode
Nvidia Graphics2 x Sparkle GeForce GTX 460 1 GB
700 MHz GPU, GDDR5-3600
Single, SLI, HydraLogix N-Mode
Hard DriveWestern Digital Velociraptor WD3000HLFS, 300 GB, 10 000 RPM, SATA 3Gb/s, 16 MB cache
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
PowerOCZ-Z1000 1000 W Modular
ATX12V v2.2, EPS12V, 80 PLUS Gold
OSMicrosoft Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
GeForce GraphicsForceWare 258.96
Radeon GraphicsAMD Catalyst 10.9
HydraLogixVersion 1.6.109
ChipsetIntel INF

MSI doesn’t include an SLI bridge with its P55A Fuzion, assuming instead that Nvidia graphics users will always chose HydraLogix N-Mode over SLI, even when the cards are identical. While that’s not a problem for a site that has SLI bridges laying about the test bench, it could be a problem for some buyers. With the bridges missing from the P55A Fuzion, most buyers who insist on SLI capability would choose a different board rather than buy the connectors separately. This makes sense, since you're paying extra for the HydraLogix functionality up front. Our desire to produce the most realistic configurations led us to add a second motherboard to the test, ASRock’s P55 Extreme4.
The P55 Extreme4 is slightly better-equipped by way of USB 3.0 and SATA connectivity, but doesn’t have a PCI Express bridge on the CPU’s sixteen PCIe 2.0 lanes. Like most P55 motherboards, it switches from x16 mode to dual x8 mode when two graphics cards are installed. We used it for single card, SLI, and CrossFire tests.
Benchmark Configuration
3D Games 
Aliens Vs. Predator BenchmarkAlien vs Predator Benchmark Tool
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2Campaign, Act III, Second Sun (45 sec. FRAPS)
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
CrysisPatch 1.2.1, DirectX 10, 64-bit executable, benchmark tool
Test Set 1: Highest Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Quality, 4x AA
DiRT 2Run with -benchmark example_benchmark.xml
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of PripyatCall Of Pripyat Benchmark version
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x MSAA
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark VantageVersion: 1.0.1, GPU and CPU scores

The latest Call of Duty title still shows its love for SLI, particularly when comparing a pair of GeForce GTX 460 cards in SLI to the same pair in HydraLogix N-Mode. This provides even more evidence that MSI should have left the SLI option available on its Hydra-equipped motherboard by including an inexpensive SLI bridge.

AMD pulls ahead at higher resolutions and with AA enabled. HydraLogix A-Mode proves more effective than CrossFire at producing high frame rates in this particular title.

HydraLogix supports DiRT 2 in theory, showing up on Lucid’s game list, as well as displaying its logo within the game itself. Whatever the level of support might be, though, we don’t realize a performance benefit from enabling this technology.

We once again call into question MSI's decision to omit an SLI bridge with a board that supports all three graphics-combining technologies.
The lack of a CrossFire bridge in the motherboard pack is often mitigated by its presence in graphics card packs, but MSI unfortunately doesn’t include the bridge with the R5850 Twin Frozr II cards we used for today’s CrossFire configuration.

No matter which benchmarks we chose, someone was going to hate us. Lucid documents 145 titles on its compatibility list, yet not all of those titles benefit appropriately from its technology. We’ve even seen instructions on how to select games to best highlight the capabilities of Lucid’s technology, but that's not how we roll. We pick our benchmarks based a combination of popularity, repeatability, and intensiveness. This is the only method we know to provide truly unbiased results, and it's the only way hardware can earn our respect.

While HydraLogix provided very good results in some games, others saw no benefit at all. This is easily seen in our 1680x1050 averages, but Lucid claims that its benefits are more pronounced as graphics load increases.

The 1920x1200 results show similar scaling but at slightly lower FPS for all configurations.

Even at 2560x1600, lacking support in some games diminishes Lucid’s solid results in others. The overall difference between SLI and N-mode (Nvidia) drops from around 53% to around 40%, while A-mode (AMD) drops from a 26% disadvantage to 19% behind CrossFire.

Choosing the weakest card as our baseline, we can see on a percent scale how far each improvement takes us. This chart might not have been completely required for experienced readers, but its numbers will be re-used in our efficiency calculations.

HydraLogix appears to use more power than CrossFire or SLI, which makes sense since the Hydra 200 is rated at 6 W. Other minor differences between our Lucid and non-Lucid motherboards likely account for remaining power differences.

The power numbers for today’s charts probably look a bit different than those of other articles, because we used a different program to test it. HydraLogix does not support FurMark, but does support 3DMark. So, the latter benchmark’s Perlin Noise test was used to push every GPU to a very high load.

Putting power consumption on a percentage scale allows us to calculate efficiency more easily.
We arrived at our efficiency numbers by dividing average performance by average power used and subtracting “1” from the result. That subtraction takes us from a 100% baseline to a 0% baseline so that only the differences are seen in the charts.

We see that a Radeon HD 5850 is around 10% more efficient at full load than a GeForce GTX 460, but that two GTX 460s are more efficient than two HD 5850s. Skewing the results are things like CPU power and SLI or CrossFire scaling. Because Lucid’s solution only benefited some games, HydraLogix configurations always fall to the bottom.

Today’s benchmarks show how Lucid has continued to advance its hardware through improvements in software, expanding its list of compatible titles as it improves the performance in formerly-supported titles. But what it also shows is that some supposedly-supported titles don’t benefit in a noticeable way.
That puts us in a tough position. We want Lucid to succeed because we want its drivers to continue to improve. We want continuous driver improvement because we think the company has a great idea. What we don’t want is someone to buy the product expecting performance miracles, only to be disappointed.
Thus, while we’d like Lucid to sell as many of these things as it must to assure future success, we’re not sure you’re the customer who should buy just yet. Consider the benefits of this technology for each game you plan to use before making your decision, and feel free to look around for additional information on games we didn’t test. HydraLogix might still not be ready to take on the gaming market at large, but we’re sure a few users will find it a valuable technology while we continue to look forward to further development.
MSI’s P55A Fuzion is a good board in spite of Lucid’s teething problems, because it also supports SLI and CrossFire. That makes HydraLogix an added feature, as it should be. The biggest problem we have in recommending the board to a wide variety of buyers is that it costs more than similar products in a market where the money saved could eventually be put towards a properly-matched second graphics card. If that price difference isn’t a big deal to you, also consider that MSI doesn’t include the SLI bridge needed to properly support Nvidia's multi-GPU rendering technology, and that MSI’s most-recent Radeon graphics cards don’t include the CrossFire bridge also missing from the P55A Fuzion’s installation kit. Were MSI to add these two inexpensive accessories, it could make a much stronger argument for the value of this truly-flexible platform.
We do appreciate the fact that MSI listened to our initial feedback on its Big Bang Fuzion board--a platform that was priced far too high to attract customers with LGA 1156-based CPUs--and introduced this technology at much more palatable price points. We sat down with representatives from the company on multiple occasions to discuss where HydraLogix made the most sense, and that is unquestionably in the value segment, where upgrades (rather than outright replacements) are most likely. MSI has its ducks in a row. Now it's up to Lucid to match the performance and compatibility both AMD and Nvidia have had to work at for the past six years. Lucid's job is that much more complex because it's also getting both competing GPU vendors working together. But look how far the company's drivers have come in less than a year.

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