How smoothly will a heavily-modded, ENB-rich Skyrim perform when using two EVGA 980 Ti graphics cards in 2-way SLI?
Will Skyrim achieve 60 fps with ENB at 5760×1080 resolution using NVIDIA Surround?
Reviews adulate the power of the 980 Ti, but answers to these questions were nonexistent. The game Skyrim features beautiful eyecandy when modified with high-resolution textures, lighting effects, and high-performance, crash-inducing modifications, but these modifications produce a heavy performance hit that can bring the mightiest of graphics cards to their knees..
No 980 Ti reviews that I have read discuss performance when modifying older games. This is a shame because unoptimized games, like Skyrim, often require more GPU power to produce cutting-edge effects than the latest blockbuster games, which have been optimized for current technology. As a result, how well a new graphics cards runs a modified game — particularly Skyrim with ENB — can offer a glimpse into the card’s true potential.
While many older games can be modified, I chose to test Skyrim due the near-photographic results that are possible with its lush environment. Is ENB-laden Skyrim playable? Will Skyrim crash? Will there be the dreaded Blue Screen of Death? 1920×1080 resolution runs fine no matter what the game, but what about NVIDIA Surround at 5760×1080?
I had the opportunity to test two EVGA 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI (Scalable Link Interface) to see how a modified Skyrim would perform with ENB effects enabled. I compared these results to two MSi N770 Lighting graphics cards in 2-way SLI. The difference was amazing!
Quick Answer: Two EVGA 980 Ti cards in 2-way SLI are roughly twice as fast as two MSi N770 cards in 2-way SLI. (Both SLI systems using NVIDIA Surround at 5760×1080.) The heavily-modded Skyrim ENB framerate practically doubles most of the time, but the 60 fps holy grail is seldom achieved.
About the EVGA 980 Ti
EVGA has a reputation for producing multiple models of identical cards that vary slightly. I had two different models of essentially the same card.
- EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC+ ACX 2.0+ Model: 06G-P4-4995-KR (With a backplate)
- EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC ACX 2.0+ Model: 06G-P4-4993-KR (Without a backplate)
Both cards are overclocked to 1102 MHz out of the box, and I ran them that way without any further overclocking. Notice the difference in the model numbers: 3 versus 5. The “5” version has a metal backplate over the printed circuit board on the back of the card while the “3” version does not.
CAUTION: HOT SURFACE!
Adequate airflow throughout the system is essential because the EVGA 980 Ti cards run HOT!
Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot! OUCH!
The heatsink is blisteringly hot to the touch. Yes, I touched it during peak operation, and I felt my finger sizzling. One EVGA 980 Ti generates more heat than two of the MSi N770 cards combined. Two EVGA 980 Ti cards make an excellent room heater during the winter months. Prepare to experience a hotbox during summer…and that is with the air conditioning running.
A 3-way or 4-way SLI system using these cards will probably turn a room into a sauna. To repeat: These cards run HOT! So, think about your system’s airflow management.
“What is the difference between the two models?”
Only the backplate, as far as I can tell. Also, the box of the 06G-P4-4995-KR reads “SC+” while the box of the 06G-P4-4993-KR reads “SC” by itself. The box and manuals do not clarify the distinction. As for performance, they are the same. Both cards are overclocked to the same specs, and they are equally fast.
“Can I use them in SLI?”
Yes. The model numbers do not matter, and they run together in SLI. What matters is that the GPU version matches. Two 980 Ti GPUs will run together in SLI, but one 980 Ti and one 770 will not.
Each EVGA 980 Ti card fits completely within a two-slot package, so two can be neatly tucked next to each other in a 3-way or 4-way SLI arrangement. There are no protruding obstructions that would prevent two cards from being placed next to each other. Also, the heatsink is flush with the top of the card, so 3-way and 4-way PCB SLI bridges will fit properly.
The MSi N770 cards each have a blue “GPU reactor” on the backplate that prevents them from being inserted into adjacent slots, so they are limited to 2-way SLI. Their heatsinks also extend too far over the top of the cards, so only the flexible 2-way SLI bridge will fit.
“What is ENB?”
ENB is a free, third-party graphical modification that adds advanced effects to DirectX games using a DLL (Dynamic Link Library). Ambient occlusion, detailed shadows, sky effects, atmospheres, and a myriad of additional features and infinite customizations make ENB a tinkerer’s dream tool for enhancing games.
However, ENB is performance-heavy, and frame rates can drop to the single digits depending upon which options are used. You need fast hardware with powerful graphics cards to achieve 60 fps with ENB enabled.
SweetFX also hooks into a game using a DLL, and ENB and SweetFX can be chained together to visually enhance the same game. For example, while ENB renders true ambient occlusion, SweetFX can apply post-processing effects and SMAA with little performance hit.
“What kind of Skyrim mods are used?”
In this test, I use HD textures (the LITE packages), lighting effects, and about 198 additional mods — too numerous to name in detail. Trees, towns, NPCs, artificial intelligence, mesh overhauls, sounds, bandits, and the resource-intensive Warzones 2015.2 are used…to name a few.
Warzones is worth mentioning because too many NPCs can make Skyrim crawl to 2 fps with two GTX 770 in SLI. Warzones spawns a field full of angry, warring NPCs slaughtering each other in massive, frame-hogging action.
With 770 SLI, Warzones would often CTD (crash to the desktop) because Warzones is not a mod that all computer systems can handle. Warzones + ENB means instant in-game player death due to so much action occurring that the framerate drops to 1 fps for several seconds…even on an SLI system. By the time Skyrim updates the graphics, you find that your character was killed three seconds earlier. I installed Warzones with medium textures to be conservative. If the 980 Ti SLI arrangement can handle that, then I will be impressed.
Screenshots were taken using Fraps during Skyrim gameplay running on 770 SLI and 980 Ti SLI. Since Skyrim, DirectX, and ENB require Windows, I am running the test on a Windows 7 x64 system, not Linux. Yes, I know. I wish I could use Linux too.
The following locations are used for all tests to maintain some level of comparison consistency. They were chosen because they always present severe frame rate drops no matter the hardware. For me, they are the most lagging, stuttering areas of Skyrim.
Whiterun Entrance: Player facing into the town upon entering the main gates.
Riverwood Entrance: Player facing Riverwood as if entering for the first time through the arch.
Facing Riverwood from Bridge: Player standing in the center of the bridge and facing into the village.
This is the most problematic location for me in a modded Skyrim due to the excessively low framerate. Even if ENB is disabled, the framerate still drops to ~15 fps no matter if using 770 SLI or 980 Ti SLI. This is where the Skyrim game itself might be at fault instead of the cards. The graphics cards had little effect on improving the framerate.
Facing Riverwood should not be used as a benchmark to determine which card is better than the other because this seems to be a problem area in the Skyrim game. It is included to show how modding Skyrim can have unexpected consequences no matter the hardware.
Western Watchtower: Player in the evening after the first dragon has been defeated. Even though there is little happening in the area, frame rate drops for some reason.
Warzones (Fort Greymoor): Player entering the fray at this Warzones point. There are not many warring NPCs, but this particular Warzones area can kill the game and even crash the system causing Windows 7 to show the Blue Screen of Death. With the Szarik ENB running on 770 SLI, Windows 7 consistently produced the blue screen and did a hard system reboot. Every. Single. Time.
Which ENBs are Tested?
As much fun as it would be to test and compare every ENB preset available, this is not practical due to the sheer number of presets and the tedious time it takes to compare them with all graphics cards. So, I limited the comparison to these eight ENB presets:
- Dovah Nakin ENB
- Ghost ENB v5
- RealLike ENB
- RealVision (Performance Version)
- Somber ENB
- Szarik ENB
Included are a mixture of screenshots from the 770 SLI and 980 Ti SLI configurations in order to show what the ENB presets look like at various game locations. Since the screenshots look alike with both 770 SLI and 980 Ti SLI, there is no need to show duplicate screenshots.
Below each ENB title is the general frame rate that can be reasonably expected when playing the game using that ENB. This number was obtained simply by watching Fraps while playing Skyrim at 5760×1080 and noting the most frequent FPS. The 770 SLI FPS is listed first, followed by the 980 Ti SLI FPS.
Dovah Nakin ENB
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 11 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 24 FPS
Ghost ENB v5
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 18 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 34 FPS
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 22 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 35 FPS
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 17 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 31 FPS
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 25 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 48 FPS
RealVision (Performance Version)
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 33 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 55 FPS
This is the most playable ENB on both 770 SLI and 980 Ti SLI. With 980 Ti SLI, 60 fps was frequent with a usual frame rate of 40-55 fps. With 770 SLI, 25-55 was possible with a usual frame rate of 30-40 fps. On-screen acitivity affects frame rate. More NPCs drop the frame rate, while running around unpopulated fields increases the frame rate.
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 17 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 32 FPS
General FPS -------------------- 770 SLI: 18 FPS 980 Ti SLI: 47 FPS
This ENB resulted in more crashes than any other ENB tested here. On the 770 SLI, Skyrim crashed to the Blue Screen of Death upon entering the Warzones. Windows 7 did a complete, instant reboot. Some Windows annoyances never change…
An interesting observation about the Szarik ENB is how well it performed on the 980 Ti SLI over the 770 SLI. 18 fps vs. 47 fps is quite a large increase in general performance and more than the expected double. No idea why.
1) These ENB effects were mostly used at their defaults aside from a few tweaks, such as disabling Depth of Field with a few ENB presets for better performance with the 770 SLI configuration.
2) It is completely possible to use ENB and manage a near-60fps frame rate by customizing the plethora of ENB settings. For time constraints, I stuck to the default settings of each ENB package to get an idea of the worse-case scenario without tweaking.
3) NPCs can drop the frame rate, so I made sure to have two (modded) followers at all times.
1) All tests were performed using the same modded Skyrim installation on the same computer (i7 CPU, 16 GB RAM, SSD drive, 2-way SLI). No changes were made to Skyrim during the test, and the same save points were used.
2) I chose the most GPU-intensive parts of the modded Skyrim installation. Normally, the game runs fine when exploring alone, but some cities and areas are so modded, that they cause Skyrim to stutter and frame rate plunges into the Oblivion depths. Riverwood and Whiterun have so many mods installed that they always stutter in the same areas no matter the graphics card. These are the locations in which I focused the tests because the other game locations run faster. If the cards can handle these areas, then they can handle the other parts of the game with ease.
3) About the stuttering, I think Skyrim itself is at fault in many places, such as poor memory management. Certain game areas exhibit problems and stuttering that should not exist even when 980 Ti cards are used. This appears to be an issue with the Skyrim coding itself, and there is nothing that can be done about that. When testing, I tend to ignore this occurrence and focus on the overall frame rate using Fraps when playing through the game normally.
4) Only wide open areas were tested because interiors, such as caves and houses, always ran at 60+ fps no matter the graphics cards. For example, the Greymoor Castle/Fort interior easy maintained 88+ fps with 980 Ti SLI and 60 fps with 770 SLI. Open spaces with activity reveal the limits of graphics cards.
5) I obtained my numbers by playing the game and observing the frame rate reported by Fraps. ENB includes its own framerate counter, but it interferes with the game menus too much to be usable. I romped and frolicked throughout Skyrim and made a best guess average regarding which frame rate I saw the most per ENB. All tests were made using the same route through the game from the same save points.
6) Action determines frame rate. More NPCs, battles, and effects lowers the frame rate. Less activity raises the frame rate. Looking at the sky can yield 50-60 fps while running in circles can yield 13 fps. It varies. This is how Skyrim behaves.
7) Plain Skyrim without ENB will run at a fluid 60 fps almost all of the time using 980 Ti SLI and most of the time with 770 SLI. Post-processing effects, such as SweetFX, will enhance Skyrim considerably while maintaining 60 fps — even during high-action scenes. However, the graphics will not be as impressive as what is possible with ENB. SweetFX and ENB can be used together. Since SweetFX introduces almost no frame rate drop, there is little performance loss with ENB in use.
8) To play Skyrim at 5760×1080, manually edit SkyrimPrefs.ini and set the screen width to 5760. The program WidescreenFixer must be started before Skyrim in order to make the Skyrim menus readable.
General FPS Summary
770 vs. 980 Ti Thoughts?
ENB is not a practical option with 770 SLI unless the ENB settings are tweaked to lower standards. Sure, the graphics look good and the game is somewhat playable, but only if little else is happening. The moment you get ambushed by a bandit or a dragon attack occurs during a rainstorm, the framerate will drop.
With 980 Ti SLI, Skyrim is playable using ENB. While not 60 fps (without tweaking), the frame rate remains high enough to give you a fighting chance during that nasty bandit ambush.
“These FPS numbers are lower than I expected. How can the frame rate be improved?”
The primary culprit is the Skyrim HD texture pack. Even though I was using the lower LITE version, textures like this consume extra VRAM and drop the frame rate. Skyrim also loads slower between area changes (entering buildings, etc.). Adding new, high-resolution textures for trees, rocks, NPCs, grasses, the sky, and more adds up.
The best way to see a frame rate increase is to avoid using the HD texture packs. This often boosts the frame rate by 10-20 fps. A few small texture replacements are okay. Even though the new texture might make Skyriim look better, they slow Skyrim exteriors down. Interiors, such as caves and buildings, are fine so you can mod them to your heart’s content and still maintain 60 fps while inside.
“What kind of graphics alternatives would you recommend for a playable Skyrim?”
SweetFX + Imaginator + Lighting Effects
It is completely possible to enhance the visual processing of Skyrim to near-ENB levels without a performance hit. While the advanced ENB eyecandy, such as ambient occlusion, will not be possible, the resulting graphics will be very close. There are three mods that achieve this and still result in constant 60 fps no matter the action intensity (almost always with 980 Ti SLI and close with 770 SLI):
A post-processing, visual enhancement DLL that adds practically no performance hit. SMAA, simulated HDR, DPX, Technicolor, color, contrast, vibrancy, S-curves, desturation, and more are possible. Worth using just for SMAA alone since it obviates the need for performance-draining MSAA.
This is an in-game mod that adjusts the visuals, such as color balance, brightness, contrast, and much more. Especially useful are the presets, such as Warm Desaturation (desaturate with warmer colors), Magic Hour (for a colored fantasy effect), and Nice Overall Enhancement (deeper shadows), that provide several visual changes via one effect. Effects can be layered upon each other.
Proper lighting can enhance Skyrim like nothing else because shadows play a role in creating the illusion of realism. There are multiple lighting effects mods and environment mods for Skyrim that help adjust how light illuminates the game world for that added level of realism. Even then, the lighting effects will not have the same detailed shadows that are possible with ENB.
- Realistic Lighting Overhaul
- URWL (Ultra Realistic World Lighting)
- ELFX (Enhanced Lights and FX)
Environment effects include Climates of Tamriel and Pure Weather. Lighting effects and environmental effects can often be combined with each other for further enhancement, but these mods will cause the framerate to drop. However, the performance drop will be nothing as heavy-hitting as an ENB preset.
The SweetFX + Imaginator + Lighting route requires more effort to set up than a default ENB in order to achieve a somewhat comparable effect. The advantage is that it offers a near-consistent 60 fps Skyrim performance on 980 Ti SLI no matter how massive the Warzones battle might be.
For those who scream when frame rates drop below 59.9 fps, then this path is recommended over ENB.
“My Skyrim does not look like yours. Why?”
No idea. Modding is a mysterious pastime. I rarely see two modded Skyrim games that look identical. The load order of mods also affects appearance. Trial and error is your best friend.
“Will Skyrim still crash?”
Yes. Skyrim would periodically crash to the desktop for both 770 SLI and 980 Ti SLI. I think this has more to do with the Skyrim game itself rather than the graphics cards.
However, crashes were less frequent with the 980 Ti SLI and the 6 GB VRAM on each of those cards. With the 770 SLI, which only has 2 GB of VRAM per card, Skyrim would crash when the 2 GB VRAM maxed out. High resolution textures often caused this crashing.
With 6 GB of VRAM, more textures can be stored beyond 2 GB, and Skyrim will continue running. As a result, more graphical mods can be applied with the 980 Ti cards than with the 770 cards due to increased VRAM.
But crashes still occurred. Who can say exactly what the reason might be? After all, whenever we mod Skyrim, we are trying to make Skyrim do something that it was never designed to do, so crashing is likely.
The point is that Skyrim is somewhat more stable with the 980 Ti and 6 GB VRAM. Not completely stable, but more stable.
“Does Skyrim stutter during gameplay when using the 980 Ti SLI?”
Yes. Upgrading the graphics card had no effect on Skyrim stutter when quickly moving the viewport from little action to high action/scenery. Even plain Skyrim without ENB suffers from this effect. This is an issue with Skyrim, and upgrading your graphics cards will not eliminate it.
“Why would I want 980 Ti SLI?”
This depends upon the type of user you are. If you are the typical gamer who plays games at 1920×1080, then one graphics card is probably enough. Once you reach 60 fps in a game, the eye cannot really distinguish higher frame rates. One 980 Ti card is more than enough for 1920×1080 games.
If you seek higher resolutions at maximum visual settings, then a second graphics card is practically a necessity. 5760×1080 and 4K gaming almost requires SLI in order to push more pixels at 60 fps.
If you are a CUDA programmer, then a second card is also to your advantage. Believe it or not, graphics cards can do much, much more than run games. I enjoy multi-processor programming, and having two GPUs with twice the number of cores is a convenience that offers faster program execution times. A number of CUDA-designed programs are available and SLI can make a tremendous improvement, but this enters an entirely new field of programming beyond the scope of this article.
Bottom-line: If you are happy with 1920×1080, then one 980 Ti card is enough and should handle anything today. If you want CUDA, 5760×1080, 4K gaming, or a heavily-modded Skyrim with ENB using NVIDIA Surround, then SLI is a requirement — especially for a modded Skyrim.
What about standard benchmarks for comparison with other 980 Ti reviews? Here are comparisons between 770 SLI and 980 Ti SLI using a few free benchmark programs. All of these benchmarks were run on the same test system used for Skyrim above. No system changes were made. Resolution is 5760×1080 where possible.
Unigine Heaven 4.0
Unigine Valley 1.0
Attack of the kitties! Meow!
Assassin’s Creed Unity
While this sorry excuse for a “game” is not really a benchmark, it is so unoptimized and resource-hogging that it makes a good test to see what 980 Ti SLI is capable of.
I only had the opportunity to play a little bit of this game from the beginning, and thank goodness because I really cannot stand it. However, it offered a glimpse into the power of the 980 Ti GPU with Unity set to the highest graphics settings possible.
The 770 SLI was barely playable at 5760×1080 — especially during the opening Templar scene. Stutter and choppy frames abounded. As action increased, the frame rate dropped to 3 fps. The only way to make Unity playable was to lower the game settings and resolution to 1990’s levels. Why do that? Isn’t Unity supposed to be “next generation”?
The 980 Ti SLI offered a major performance boost. With 980 Ti SLI, Unity usually maintained a constant 60 fps, and it was hard to make the game run any slower. I was impressed. I mean, impressed with the performance of the 980 Ti SLI cards, not with Unity. The opening Templar gameplay ran at a fluid 45-60 fps, depending upon the action, and running through the streets of Paris was a breeze without any lag or slowdown.
However, Unity dropped to 47 fps when the screen was cluttered with NPCs.
Here is another modern game that has a built-in benchmark for measuring graphics performance. All benchmark settings were set to their highest values at 5760×1080.
The Hitman: Absolution benchmark confirms what most other tests reveal: One EVGA 980 Ti is roughly comparable to the performance of two MSi N770 Lightning cards running in SLI.
980 Ti SLI makes a difference — a BIG difference, and the overclocked EVGA cards add a tiny bit of punch that offers a performance boost over stock 980 Ti cards.
Is there a noticeable difference between 2-way 770 SLI and 2-way 980 Ti SLI? Yes! This is something that I could see immediately. Games that previously bogged down or stuttered with 770 SLI or a single 980 Ti card ran fluidly at 60 fps with 980 Ti SLI. The second card almost doubles the performance in many cases. Higher in-game visual settings were possible without ruining the frame rate. Ambient Occlusion and detailed shadows no longer lagged the system at 5760×1080.
2-way 980 Ti SLI offers serious graphics power. Modern games tested running at 5760×1080 at their highest settings maintained a constant 60 fps. It was hard to make anything dip below 59 fps — except for a heavily-modded Skyrim with ENB.
Skyrim + ENB still managed to make the 980 Ti SLI arrangement groan in agony, but the frame rate was still playable most of the time. Crashes were less frequent too, but probably because of the 6 GB VRAM found on the 980 Ti.
Does a choppy Skyrim mean 980 Ti SLI is a sorry configuration? No, absolutely not. The most demanding modern game today should run at a fluid 60 fps at 5760×1080 with maximum graphical settings. For example, Assassin’s Creed Unity runs quite well at 60 fps at 5760×1080 at ultra settings with 980 Ti SLI and occaisionally dips to 47 fps. But it is still playable.
In the case of Skyrim, we are trying to update an older game with patches it was never designed to have, so a modded Skyrim with ENB is far more demanding and will bring the 980 Ti SLI system to its knees — especially with a field full of angry NPCs during Warzones.
The factory overclocked EVGA 980 Ti is an excellent graphics card, and having one is probably overkill. 980 Ti SLI is double overkill unless you need the added GPU power for CUDA programming or modding Skyrim-like DirectX games at resolutions higher than 1920×1080. SLI is best used for high resolutions, such as 5760×1080 or 4K. In those cases, you really do need a second graphics card to drive the higher resolutions at near 60 fps.
Without a doubt, the 980 Ti is the best graphics card I have had the privilege of using, and 2-way SLI handles anything I can throw at it — including CUDA-based programs that benefit from a second GPU.
So, if you are looking for new graphics card that can run practically anything you serve, then you might want to consider the beastly 980 Ti. Highly recommended for the graphics enthusiasts!