Back on Track
After several months of, let's say, "spotty" coverage of AMD products, we're finally back on track, and ready to cover all of the exciting things happening with the Athlon64. Thanks to our retail sponsor Newegg.com, we finally have an AMD CPU to test with! It should be a good one too - an A64 3000+ based on a 90nm manufacturing process.
What better way to kick things off with our expanded AMD coverage than what could possibly be the most exciting chipset out there today: NVIDIA's nForce4 Ultra.
Gigabyte will be one of the first out of the blocks shipping an NF4 Ultra product, and we have the full review for you today.
However before we get to this board in particular, we need to discuss the chipset itself. Let's begin!
nVidia Answers Intel's Call
When Intel launched the 9xx platforms back in June, we weren't sure who was going to supply AMD's next gen chipset first, or when it would arrive. Everyone from VIA to NVIDIA to ATI were working hard on their PCI-E platforms, but to this day we haven't seen one in stores yet. Well it looks like NVIDIA will be the first to answer Intel's call. We already know everything there is to know about Intel's platform, so let's see how the NF4 stacks up.
First of all, the NF4 lineup will consist of three different models. The entry-level version is simply called "nForce4", and will be lacking many of the features the high end model has - think of it as the equivalent to Intel's 915 chipset. It will be available for the Socket 754 platform that AMD is continuing to use for their entry-level CPU's. The high-end model is called "nForce4 Ultra" and is the one we're looking at today. All of the features we're going to discuss in the review will be supported by the Ultra. And of course there is the nForce4 SLI, which adds SLI capability to the nForce4 Ultra. Whether SLI is a useful feature or nothing more than a gimmick remains to be seen.
What nForce4 DID get:
First and foremost, AMD finally has PCI-E. Although it seems PCI-E isn't quite catching on as fast as expected, it's obviously going to replace AGP eventually. NF4 supports a total of 20 PCI-E lanes; 16 lanes for the graphics, and up to 4 individual lanes for board manufacturers to make use of as they see fit. We already covered PCI-E in our Intel 9xx platform introduction, so if you might want to have a look at that for further explanation.
Like Intel, NVIDIA gave a great boost to the storage capability of their new chipset. nForce4 Ultra will be the first motherboard chipset to support upcoming SATA-II drives (which will boast a maximum theoretical transfer rate of 300 MB/s!). It also supports Native Command Queueing (NCQ), something you should make your number one priority when shopping for a new hard drive. For a full explanation on NCQ, check out this whitepaper by Seagate and Intel. The plain NF4 does not get SATA-II support.
NVIDIA has also enhanced how RAID works on the NF4, including some nifty features like RAID-morphing and having a dedicated spare disk in case of an array failure. We'll cover this more in a bit.
1 GHz HyperTransport Link
NF4's HT link has been upgraded to a full 16 bit 1GHz going both upstream and down. This is up from 800/800 MHz on the NF3 250, and 600/600 on the NF3 150 (which also only had the upstream link running on an 8 bit bus).
ActiveArmor (Hardware Ethernet Acceleration)
One of my favourite features on the NF4 Ultra has to be ActiveArmor. We'll give it full coverage in a bit, but I'll tell you for now, having a hardware based stateful packet inspection ROCKS.
8 Channel Audio (but NOT Hi-Definition)
Although I haven't been greatly impressed by the Hi-Def solution most boards are using to comply to Intel's "Azalia" standard (that being the Realtek ALC880 codec), it was still a huge step in the right direction. However NVIDIA chose to stick with the aging AC'97 codec, albeit with support for up to 8 channels. It will be some time before we can rely on onboard audio yet! Here's hoping VIA does things right with their new contract with Q-Sound...
nTune Tweaking Software
To go along with built-in overclocking in their video drivers, NVIDIA is releasing a little app for the NF4 chipset called nTune. It is intended to be a totally automatic overclocking app, and has the potential to give a nice little boost for people who want more out of their system, but aren't interesting in taking drastic measures to squeeze out every last bit of performance.
Unfortunately, our tests didn't go very well with the Gigabyte board. Whenever we attempted to run nTune, we received an error box warning that the PCI clock is locked to the HT bus. That is a definite no-no, as overclocking the CPU in this case would put the PCI bus out of spec, and could potentially cause problems with any devices installed (including onboard devices that use the PCI bus).
However, it should be noted that this is most indeed a pre-release BIOS, and I'm confident that the final release will support a locked PCI bus.
That about rounds up all of the new features for the NF4 and NF4 Ultra chipsets. I feel that we should go a little more in-depth with the awesome networking features though, so let's continue on the next page.
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