Nvidia crushes MSI’s Lucid based board

More green photoshopping antics

WHAT DO YOU do when you can’t keep your promises to investors? You quash fair competition just like Nvidia is doing to Lucid.

You might recall that Lucid had an MSI motherboard up and running at this last IDF. It featured the Lucid Hydra 200, a smart PCIe switch. The idea is simple, the Hydra 200 looks at PCIe traffic going to a GPU and parses the DX calls to one GPU or another intelligently based on several algorithms. The Hydra then recombines the images and sends them out. It all should be transparent to both the GPU cards and the user.

Lucid Split rendering demo

Lucid split rendering demo

Last year at IDF, Lucid had a prototype working, and as you can see in the above demo, each GPU does indeed render a portion of the screen. One interesting thing I learned is that the gun is duplicated because they realized that most games render that first, so for this demo, they sent object 0 to both GPUs. Basically, the chip works, and there are a lot of interesting tricks you can pull with it.

Since then, the software running on the Lucid Hydra 200 has become much more sophisticated, and uses a more generic task division scheme. The newer one will do image division as above, time division, and other more proprietary schemes that Lucid isn’t likely to talk about publicly. The software and firmware have come a long way since the 2008 debut.

This year at IDF, Lucid was showing off working boards from its launch partner, MSI. The chip itself is a small part. It sits between the CPU socket and first PCIe slot on this board, the P55 chipset based MSI Big Bang. You can see it below.

MSI Big Bang Fuzion

MSI Big Bang with a Lucid Hydra 200

The MSI boards were shown off at IDF a month ago, and there were several working models on display. They ran dissimilar ATI and Nvidia GPUs, basically putting a 48xx and a 47xx in ‘crossfire’, or two dissimilar NV GPUs in ‘SLI’. It worked, and Lucid is promising a driver in Q1 or so that will allow NV and ATI cards to split the rendering loads.

That functionality was shown off behind closed doors, and the author did not personally see it, but you can read about it here. It is not final yet, and there is still a bit of work to do on the drivers, so for now, the Hydra is ATI + ATI, or NV + NV. Then again, given that the Hydra 200 only intercepts DX calls, it should work with just about any rendering hardware, with a bit of tweaking.

Nvidia is very protective of it’s SLI ‘technology’, if you define technology as blacklisting those who don’t tithe in the drivers. They use it as a blunt weapon to tax users and enthusiasts, not to mention to bring in money. We heard through the grapevine at IDF that Nvidia was not happy about Lucid, and was going to break Lucid’s Hydra chip at the driver level to protect its SLI tax.

The launch date for the Lucid based board, the MSI Big Bang Fuzion, was set for October 29th. Lucid said so at IDF. MSI said so on its web site, including the rather straightforward quote, “The official global launch date will be right before Christmas holidays on October 29.” Fair enough, October 29th it is.

Then October 29th came, and MSI launched one of the Big Bang motherboards, note the ‘s’. The one that was ‘launched’, and we use the word launch very carefully, was not the promised Lucid board, but one based on, wait for it, the Nvidia Nforce 200 PCIe decelerator chip. The Lucid based Big Bang Fuzion was scrubbed from the web site, with no specs listed, and just a ‘coming soon’ placard. You can see it here.

Could Lucid be having problems? Was there a last minute bug? Going to its home page, all you see is a box with “Hydra Is Ready“, no delay notices, no coming soon notices, just the same press releases promising the October 29 release. A quick call to Lucid PR also confirmed that there were no chip delays, the 1.3 driver is done and ready, and there are no problems. Lucid was expecting a full launch on October 29, and nothing it heard about changed that.

Conspiracy? Well yes in fact, there is. All our checks, from many motherboard OEM visits in Taiwan last week to calls made over the past few days, say all is well. Everyone evaluating the Hydra 200 reported no problems, and any issues MSI sources had were both minor and long solved. The boards were up, running, and all was well.

On the other hand, the MSI Big Bang Trinergy with the aforementioned Nvidia PCIe decelerator on board doesn’t seem to exist. There are none on Newegg, the MSI site doesn’t even list it, and there are precious few pictures – only one really – on the Trinergy launch page.

Here is where things get odd. Look closely at the picture of the Trinergy board. Look closely at the picture of the Fuzion board above. The PCIe slots match up. The port clusters match up. The P55 chipset and other chips on the Fuzion line up with the oddly long heatsink covers on the Trinergy. The jumper blocks line up, the SATA ports line up, the fan headers line up, the stencils (Green Power/Reset/Power) by the blue SATA ports line up, the jumpers by the voltage readouts line up, the 8-pin power socket lines up, the colors match, and even the jumper block between the eSATA ports lines up.

The two boards would be dead ringers for each other except for two things. First is the “True Blu-Ray Audio” and “Dual Gb LAN” stencils on the leading edge below the PCIe ports. The “True Blu-Ray Audio” stencil has been removed, but the “Dual Gb LAN” one is still there. If you look at the area where it should have been, the color of the PCB is different. It is almost like MSI decided to photoshop out that leading edge.

Luckily, the dead giveaway would be the Lucid Hydra chip between the CPU socket and the first PCIe slot. In my Fuzion shot, you can see it clearly, and it is a capped chip with no heatsink. In the Trinergy shot on the MSI site, there is a big clunky heatsink in the way without any markings on it, so you can’t really see what is what.

There is one detail that you can make out though, the solid state capacitor. On the dirt standard MSI P55-GD80, the area between the first 1x PCIe slot where the sound card goes and the heatsink is empty. You can see it clearly on this shot. On the Fuzion, and the ‘Trinergy’, there are several solid state caps in that space.

On the P55-GD80, there are are a bunch of blue/silver caps between the PCIe slots, around the CPU, and all over the bottom edge where the “True Blu-ray Audio” stencil is. Those are absent on the Fuzion and the supposed Trinergy shot, and both of the Big Bang boards have solid state square black caps. The stencils between the slots are also very different.

Basically, the differences between the Big Bang Fuzion and the standard MSI P55-GD80 are very apparent and pronounced. If the ‘Trinergy’ was a real board, not a bad photoshop job, you would see some visible differences. There are none other than a few obvious photoshopped bits.

The best shot in the wild that I can find of the Lucid based Fuzion is on Anandtech, and that one looks to be a bit earlier and rougher. In any case, the heatsink covering the chip is in the exact spot you would expect it to be if there was a Hydra chip underneath.

One other detail sticks out, the sound card in the first slot looks very oddly lit. I would say that it is photoshopped in, but I am not good enough with spotting the definitive signs to say for sure. Any experts out there, please let us know what you think on the forums.

So, what do you have in the end? On September 23, MSI and Lucid said all was a go for October 29. I heard that from them, Anand heard that, and everyone heard that. Shortly after that, I and several others heard that Nvidia was not going to let the board function, and would break it with drivers. Because of how Lucid works, this would be fairly tricky to do and enforce.

Two weeks or so later, on October 8, MSI put out a press release saying that the Big Bang Fuzion motherboard would be out on October 29th, and that it supported THX. Fair enough. There was also no Trinergy board listed. The only board listed was the Big Bang Fuzion.

On the 29th of October, there was no Fuzion release. Instead, the Big Bang Fusion became the Big Bang line, a decent branding move, with only one board ‘released’, the Nvidia NF200 PCIe Decelerator based Trinergy. I use quotes around released because it didn’t hit any etailer, and the MSI site doesn’t list it. There is not even a decent screen shot, only a single badly photoshopped picture of a board.

You can see the same shot on the main page for Trinergy here, and the same exact shot from the same angle with the same badly photoshopped front edge here. It is almost like there aren’t any real boards, and MSI had to fake it using the real board, the Lucid based Fuzion. Fake it badly.

Why would MSI photoshop out the “True Blu-ray Audio” text and not the “Dual Gb LAN” next to it? Licensing perhaps? According to MSI’s page here, it looks like the phrase is licensed by THX. (Note: You can see the same badly photoshopped board from the same angle in the middle picture titled “Quantum Wave ™ Audio Card”) That means to use it on a board, and to show it on the site, claiming the capabilities, you need to get permission and a license.

This might seem like picking nits, but the Big Bang motherboard was referred to as singular on the THX page, meaning that as late as October 8, there was no Trinergy. The headline reads, “MSI Announces Big Bang – the First P55-based Mainboard to include THX TruStudio PC™”. Note the wording of Big Bang as a motherboard, not a line. That same wording is repeated multiple times in the release.

If the Big Bang Trinergy didn’t exist on October 8th like this page shows, and some firm came in to MSI to crush the life out of the competition and insert its own board in the intervening three weeks, there very likely would not have been enough time to get said license. Since the Trinergy is totally vapor, it doesn’t exist, you need to show something for the big launch, so you show the badly photoshopped Fuzion.

That is entirely fakable unless people like Anand and I, and likely dozens of others too, took high resolution shots of the Fuzion mainboard at IDF, and bothered to look at the two closely. Then companies like MSI have to start dancing really quickly, and the questions start. What MSI can’t do however is put THX licensed terms on boards that are not licensed for it. Because the Trinergy board doesn’t really exist, MSI had to photoshop it out.

Official calls to MSI and Lucid didn’t find out much. Lucid only referred us to its web site where it said that the Hydra 200 silicon is in mass production and the drivers are ready. Checks with other non-Lucid people confirm this.

The MSI representative I talked with wasn’t fully briefed on what happened, and said he would find out. Given that it was late on Friday afternoon, not having complete information minutes later is understandable, and this story will be updated with any information MSI provides to us in the future. Update: Response at the bottom of the story.

What was said, however, is that the Big Bang board is now the Big Bang line of premium boards, a branding move that makes sense. It is a decent name, and will likely do pretty well in the market. The timing of the move is still extremely suspect, though, and that does not match up with what the wording was three weeks prior.

Due to extreme credibility problems, Nvidia PR was not contacted for this article. Until honesty seeps into Nvidia’s corporate culture, talking to it is a waste of effort.

So, what do we have in the end? Three weeks before the launch of the Lucid based Big Bang Fuzion, the product was killed, and it was ‘replaced’ with a non-existent Trinergy board. Well, Trinergy exists as photoshopped pixels, and likely a powerpoint or three, but nothing more. The Trinergy is a pale shadow of the Fuzion, and the Nforce 200 is an awful PCIe switch with none of the extras that Lucid brings to the table.

Weeks before, Nvidia told many people that it would not let the Lucid solution live, and on launch day, the Fuzion was killed. Well, technically, it is still alive, but being pushed to Q1 for absolutely no technical reasons is a typical knifing move. How the game works is that a board gets delayed and delayed, and when all eyes are off it, it disappears. If anyone bothers to ask, they get a lame excuse about market conditions or some technical nit that no one can explain. It can’t be officially killed on ‘launch’ day, or else things look bad, but later on usually means no one cares.

What you are seeing is a classic behind the scenes coverup. Lucid has a very interesting product that Nvidia doesn’t like, because it threatens Nvidia’s noxious SLI tax. The only real question now is whether MSI had its arms twisted or its pockets lined to kill off Lucid based products. Whatever the case, the user loses, and Nvidia unfairly profits. It might have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t such an obvious hack job and carried out so badly. And if that isn’t a hallmark of Nvidia these days, I don’t know what is.S|A

Update: MSI’s Garrett Wu responded, and while he is not the person we were talking to, his response is as follows.

“The MSI P55 Big Bang with NVIDIA NF200 was already planned in December 2008, almost one year ago. MSI showcased this board on Cebit 2009 which was reported by many media like http://www.tcmagazine.com/comments.php?id=24935&catid=2 and there are also photos which show very clearly the NF200 chip: http://images.hardware.info/news/cebit-day2-23.jpg. MSI Big Bang Trinergy (NF200) is already announced and will go into mass production by the end of November.

The MSI Big Bang Fuzion (Hydra 200) hardware is ready. Currently Lucid is optimizing the driver for Windows 7 so that it works stable and in all configurations (Including Mix & Match mode). Because MSI is dedicated to bring high quality and stable product on the market we decided to postpone the Big Bang Fuzion (Hydra 200) pending the MSI internal qualification assurance test. The Big Bang Fuzion (Hydra 200) will be released when it’s driver is finished which is most likely Q1 2010.

MSI also states that all Big Bang info can be found here. We linked this site several times in the above story.

I would also like to add that I personally saw that board at CeBIT, and wrote it up on the same day as the TCMagazine story. My story on it is here. We hear MSI is readying a response piece, and we will respond to that when we see it.

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate