nVidia is certainly the hottest name in computer technologies today. Rated as the under dog of the 3D kingdom when 3DFX ruled the roost, nVidia has not only silenced the 3DFX fans by buying out the company, is has moved beyond 3D graphics cards into the motherboard integration segment, with chipsets for motherboards.
Beginning with the original nForce chipset for the AMD Athlon chipsets, nVidia had a very rocky start with extremely poor chipset and memory controller performance as well as a poor MCP - it simply was avoided like the plague.
Rather than bow out nVidia took its nForce chipset and made some serious changes to the memory controller, upgraded MCP with Firewire support, Dolby Digital decoding and a GeForce 4 MX graphics core integrated into the original IGP series of Northbridge. This chipset brought nVidia into the high point of chipset production, with greater support and performance than anything that SiS or VIA was able to produce.
nForce 3 was the first chipset that nVidia introduced into the AMD K8 architecture. The nForce 3 150 and the nForce 3 Pro came out supporting the Socket 754 and 940 pin packages respectively. The nForce 3 150 series was not as popular as nVidia had hoped simply due to a lack of working APG/PCI ratio locks as well as a unstable 4x LDT link speed, the nForce 3 150 was not a big a hit as expected. The nForce 3 250 series came out just after the introduction of the Socket 939 Athlon 64 came to market. The nForce 3 250 series added support for four Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet as well as a working AGP/PCI divider.
Now with the introduction of the PCI-Express standards, nVidia has updated the nForce 3 250 series to add in SATA-II support, PCI Express support as well as a newer and more refined unit. This new chipset has been dubbed the nForce 4 series and currently there are three versions - nForce 4, nForce 4 Ultra and nForce 4 SLI.
Each of the chipsets in the nForce 4 series share a similar set of features - common to all is support for PCI Express x16 graphics card as well as support for PCI Express x1 peripherals, four Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet integrated and AC\97 8 Channel audio. The main differences between the three are as follows, the nForce 4 is the only chipset that officially supports the Socket 754 AMD CPU's and only has Serial ATA 1 standard. The nForce 4 Ultra supports the Socket 939 CPU's and adds Serial ATA-II standards. The nForce 4 SLI adds in nVidia's Scalable Link Interface for Dual Graphics cards by allowing the PCI-E x16 slot to be split into two PCI-E x8 slots.
Today we are taking a look at EPoX's nForce 4 Ultra based 9NPA+ Ultra motherboard and seeing it compared up against the SLI series to find out if you really need an SLI capable motherboard.