Summary: NVIDIA's nForce4 chipset brings PCI Express graphics to the AMD Athlon 64/Sempron platform, but that's not all. NVIDIA has enhanced the chipset's storage, Firewall, and networking capabilities, as well as delivering a little more performance in the process. And of course, you can't forget SLI! Read all the details on NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI and supporting chipsets, their features and performance in today's preview article!
NVIDIA followed the nForce3 250Gb up with nForce3 Ultra. This chipset was little more than nForce3 250Gb for Socket 939 with the addition of full support for 1GHz HyperTransport, but with AMD officially recommending it for use with their Athlon 64 4000+ and Athlon 64 FX-55 review kits over VIA K8T800 Pro due to its better performance, it’s obviously no slouch either.
Now NVIDIA expects to transfer that success over to the PCI Express interface in the form of nForce4. NVIDIA has plans for a top-to-bottom family of nForce4 products, ranging from $55-$80 value nForce4 motherboards for budget Athlon 64 CPUs and Sempron, all the way up to $200+ nForce4 SLI motherboards for the high-end gaming crowd that insists on having the best performance possible. NVIDIA is hoping that nForce4 will be largely responsible for kicking the PCI Express revolution into high gear for the AMD platform, while the nForce3 family will maintain its hold of the AGP market.
nForce4 core features
Fundamentally, NVIDIA’s nForce4 chipset is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary product. NVIDIA builds largely on the features that made nForce3 so popular, with a few enhancements here and there to keep it ahead of competing offerings from ATI and VIA, and tops everything off with PCI Express interface support.
The key features that nForce4 supports are 20 lanes of PCI Express devices (one x16 lane for graphics, and three x1 lanes for peripherals, the last lane is left unused), 8-channel AC’97 audio, Serial ATA II (3 Gigabytes/second) support with RAID morphing, Gigabit Ethernet networking with an enhanced Firewall, support for up to 10 USB 2.0 ports, and more robust nTune software for overclocking (although this particular feature is also rolled back into older nForce chipsets as well, including nForce3 250Gb and nForce2). Of course, not all of these features are found in the low-end nForce4 value variant, but we can’t think of many decked-out $70 motherboards that we’ve come across recently.
Let’s take a look at the nForce4’s feature set in more detail.
Like previous nForce3 products, nForce4 continues NVIDIA’s single-chip architecture. Unlike more traditional chipset architectures, which consist of two chips – a North Bridge and a South Bridge – all the features found in nForce4 are contained within a single chip. Also like nForce3 Ultra, NVIDIA’s nForce4 chipset continues to support 1GHz HyperTransport (on the nForce4 Ultra and nForce4 SLI models, the vanilla nForce4 features an 800MHz HyperTransport interface) with 16-bit links for both upstream and downstream, ensuring peak efficiency. The first big addition to nForce4 comes to its storage subsystem.
If you recall earlier this year, NVIDIA announced that they would be adding support for Serial ATA 3Gigabytes/second technology in a future chipset that would be released in late 2004. Well folks, nForce4 is that chipset.
NVIDIA provides a couple of really cool storage features that no other chipset manufacturer supports. The most well known is arguably cross-controller RAID, which allows you to build a RAID array consisting of both Serial ATA and parallel ATA hard drives (all RAID levels are supported by the nForce4 chipset, including JBOD), the other is spare drive. With this feature you can install an additional hard drive that can be assigned as a spare; this spare drive can be used if a mirrored drive in your RAID 1 or RAID 0+1 array fails. If this occurs, the spare drive will kick in and automatically start rebuilding the array, replacing the drive that went down. The entire process is invisible to the user, all you have to do is designate the spare drive as a dedicated spare, which can serve as a standby for a particular RAID array, or as a shared spare, which can be used to protect multiple RAID arrays.
One new feature NVIDIA has added is called Disk Alert. With some RAID arrays consisting of four drives, determining which hard drive failed can be a troublesome process. Disk Alert not only tells you when a drive fails, it literally shows you which Serial ATA connector the failed drive rests on. A picture of your motherboard will appear with the guilty culprit highlighted with a red box.
Another feature NVIDIA has added to nForce4 is RAID morphing. With this feature, converting RAID arrays is much easier. Say for instance you want to convert your RAID 0 array into a RAID 0+1 array for added storage security. Normally you’d have to backup your data, delete the old RAID 0 array, reboot, create the new RAID 0+1 array, format the hard drives, and repopulate the new RAID 0+1 array with your old backed up data.
With RAID Morphing, this procedure is shrunk to one step. Simply run the Convert Array Wizard within NVIDIA’s NVRAID software suite and you’re done. Everything is automatically handled for you without having to manually format and reinstall everything.
NVIDIA has also freshened the look and feel of their network access manager software, making it easier to use with more helpful wizards. Of course, for the prosumers out there, you can still tweak settings to your heart’s content.
NVIDIA continues to provide Gigabit Ethernet networking support, with a dedicated 2Gbps bi-directional link (1.25Gbps actual each way to compensate for Ethernet overhead/1.0Gbps effective), maximizing the full potential of the controller.
As we mentioned previously, you won’t find NVIDIA’s SoundStorm feature found in their nForce2 Athlon XP chipsets in nForce4. Apparently motherboard manufacturers either had a hard time educating users on the benefits of SoundStorm, or their users just weren’t interested in the features SoundStorm provides, one of which was real-time Dolby Digital encoding, a feature no other consumer-level audio product provides. With margins on motherboards tight enough as it is, mobo manufacturers just couldn’t justify the added expense for SoundStorm.
Like nForce3, nForce4 will support all of AMD’s latest processors including Sempron, Opteron, Athlon 64, and Athlon 64 FX. nForce4 also supports 2P, dual processor configurations, so motherboards based on this chipset could also be potentially found in workstation/server configurations. The chipset supports both Socket 754 and Socket 939, and all nForce4 variants are pin-compatible with one another, providing motherboard manufacturers with a seamless infrastructure.
NVIDIA will offer three nForce4 variants: nForce4, nForce4 Ultra, and nForce4 SLI.
At the bottom end of the spectrum lies nForce4. This chipset is essentially nothing more than nForce3 250Gb migrated over to the PCI Express platform. You’ve got the same 20 fixed lane PCI Express capability as nForce4 Ultra, with support for 10 USB ports (the highest in the industry), NVIDIA’s dual Serial ATA controller architecture with support for RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 and support for up to 4 Serial ATA/parallel ATA hard drives, but lacks support for Serial ATA 3GB/sec technology.
nForce4 Ultra is the motherboard for the mainstream gaming community. It supports all the features we’ve discussed on the previous pages, namely ActiveArmor, Serial ATA 3GB/sec, and 1GHz HyperTransport. NVIDIA expects motherboards based on this chipset to sell for between $100-$150.
This is the high-end, take-no-prisoners board for the consumer who wants to build the fastest gaming rig on the planet. You’ve got all the features found in nForce4 Ultra, with the inclusion of NVIDIA’s scaleable link interface, more commonly known as SLI.
Officially, you’re supposed to combine two SLI graphics cards of the same type and the same manufacturer for SLI to work, but we’ve been told that you can cross combine manufacturers with no problems. This means that you should be able to combine, for instance, an eVGA GeForce 6800 Ultra with an ASUS GeForce 6800 Ultra. You can also cross combine board revisions and card BIOS revisions with no problems. However, you can’t combine a GeForce 6800 GT with a GeForce 6600 GT for SLI, or a 128MB GeForce 6600 GT with a 256MB card.
Power requirements are normal for GeForce 6600 GT SLI, but NVIDIA recommends a 550-watt power supply for GeForce 6800 Ultra SLI. We were also told that motherboard manufacturers will be providing the SLI connector in the nForce4 SLI packaging, so when you buy that shiny new nForce4 SLI motherboard, make sure to check that it comes with an SLI connector, obviously nForce4 Ultra motherboards won’t ship with SLI connectors. The first manufacturers with nForce4 SLI motherboards will be ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI, with others to follow.
Ever since SLI was first announced, gamers have been dying to know how well it performs. Unfortunately, we don’t have an nForce4 SLI motherboard to test with just yet, but we were given the following numbers by NVIDIA:
Test system specs are an ASUS prototype nForce4 SLI board with an Athlon 64 4000+ CPU. All numbers in Halo and DOOM 3 taken at 1600x1200, while 3DMark 05 was run at 1024x768.
Speaking of performance, one feature that nForce4 continues to provide that was first found in nForce3 250Gb is GeForce-specific optimizations in hardware. In short, NVIDIA has added special pathways to nForce4 that allow it to run faster once a GeForce 6 series graphics cards is installed in the system. This applies to both SLI and non-SLI configurations, as well as all nForce4 variants, including the vanilla nForce4 chipset. NVIDIA made it clear that nForce4 does not detune the performance of their competitors’ product once it’s installed in nForce4. In other words, think of it as SURROUNDVIEW, but for performance instead of multi-monitor support.
NVIDIA has taken the opportunity to dramatically enhance their System Utility software, which is now dubbed nTune. nTune provides the traditional hardware monitoring capability and overclocking support you’d expect, but in many ways goes much further than any other solution on the market, including recent attempts by ABIT and MSI with their micro-Guru and Core Cell technologies.
For instance, with nTune you can automatically tune your system specifically for the best memory performance, or if you deal with large databases, the system can be optimized for best disk performance. Gamers will of course select the “Best Graphics Performance” setting, while those of you who like to watch movies on your PC will want to select “Silent Tuning”.
If you have a GeForce FX or greater card installed in the system, nTune can be used to automatically overclock your graphics card without having to resort to using the Coolbits registry hack, or other third-party software applications.
For manual overclocking, nTune provides settings for adjusting your graphics card speed, the chipset itself, memory timings, CPU and memory voltages, and fan settings, saving the end user lots of time that would otherwise be spent fiddling in BIOS. Once it’s done optimizing your system, nTune can then benchmark your system based on graphics, disk, and memory performance, where you can then compare your performance both before and after the modifications, as well as compare your system to NVIDIA’s baseline configuration, which is based on a similar system configuration.
Again, nTune provides all the settings you’d expect to find in any competent BIOS including CAS latency, T(RAS) and T(RCD) settings for manual memory tweaking, HyperTransport and PCI Express/AGP speed adjustment, and sliders for overclocking your GPU and its memory. NVIDIA even provides options for clearing CMOS!
If all that weren’t enough, NVIDIA also provides profiles with nTune. The profile manager can be used to custom tailor your system for specific applications, say for instance you want to setup a profile for watching DVD movies – obviously you’d want to run your PC as quietly as possible. nTune’s profile manager can not only make sure you’re running silently, it can also be used to boot up your DVD playback software automatically. Then when you’re ready to boot up DOOM 3, nTune can be used to overclock your processor and graphics card without having to exit Windows all with one click! You can even setup rules for everything.
Of course, nTune also provides a section for hardware monitoring of critical functions such as CPU temperature and voltage, as well as an info page that can tell you all about your system. This page can be used to diagnose performance problems, say for instance you installed your memory incorrectly and are running in single-channel mode rather than dual-channel, or if you’re accidentally running your 400MHz memory at 333MHz, nTune can recognize this and provide recommendations!
The whole setup really is pretty remarkable and supports older NVIDIA chipsets as well. We hope all nForce motherboard manufacturers get onboard and provide full support for nTune in their retail nForce4 products, right now only a handful of manufacturers have provided full nTune support.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2004
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Halo – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
If you’re familiar with NVIDIA’s nForce/nForce2 chipset offerings, you probably noticed the lack of NVIDIA’s Soundstorm audio and integrated graphics. According to NVIDIA, motherboard manufacturers just haven’t been very receptive to the idea, saying that demand was never there for high-end integrated audio on the motherboard. Motherboard manufacturers instead preferred to rely on conventional AC’97 audio instead.
The lack of an integrated graphics solution is one that we don’t have an answer for. Its omission could hurt nForce4’s sales potential among OEMs, especially as Socket 754 Sempron becomes more prevalent. These inexpensive CPUs nullify NVIDIA’s argument that the Socket 754 platform is too pricey for an integrated platform.
On the other end of the spectrum lies nForce4 SLI. This chipset looks like it could be a killer product for NVIDIA, and the closer NVIDIA and their board partners can get it to $200, the better. After all, what hardcore gamer wouldn’t pass up the potential of getting an SLI board for $50 more than an nForce4 Ultra with the intent of adding a second GeForce 6 series card later for nearly double the performance? The hefty power requirements are a bit extreme, but not out of reach of the enthusiast crowd.
The first wave of nForce4 motherboards to roll off the line with be the nForce4 and nForce4 Ultra variants. We’ve been told by NVIDIA to expect the first boards to be shipped to the states around the end of this month at the earliest, so we’d expect retail availability around 2-3 weeks after that. Of course, that’s assuming the final boards are on schedule, a few motherboard manufacturers have suggested this isn’t the case. The first nForce4 SLI motherboards will follow shortly thereafter.
NVIDIA has lined up its usual cadre of motherboard partners, including such names as ABIT, ASUS, Biostar, Chaintech, DFI, Epox, FIC, Gigabyte, Jetway, MSI, Shuttle, and Soltek, so they’ve got all of the biggest players onboard. The million-dollar question now is can NVIDIA live up to their ambitious schedule, and if so, can they hit the price points they’re hoping to achieve? If so, we imagine they’d gain a large following of gamers looking to upgrade this winter, as the nForce4 chipset looks like a very compelling solution, but if they miss their deadlines, ATI and perhaps VIA will be more than happy to pick up NVIDIA’s slack and take the early sales lead for AMD PCI Express. We should know more in the coming weeks, stay tuned!
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