Features of the 9NPA+ Ultra
- The Package
First off the box and what EPoX packs into it. EPoX isn't known for its outlandish packages or over the top extras; however, when EPoX packs a board you get what is needed in order to setup your system. Inside the box you get your motherboard, two IDE data cables and one FDD data cable, two special Serial ATA data sables are supplied that go at right angles when inserted into the SATA Hard Disk drives, however, one thing that wasn't supplied that we found disappointing was the new lock in SATA-II cables that many other motherboard manufacturers have supplied with their new NF4 motherboards.
Apart from this EPoX supplies their Power Pack. This contains the user manual, driver CD, Mosfet heatsinks, case badge and a special Phillips head and flat blade screwdriver in one neat unit. Added to this Power Pack is a thermistor. EPoX has included a thermal monitor that you can place anywhere around the case to monitor temperatures, either you can put it onto the heatsink or onto your HDD cage to measure the temperatures - whatever you want to monitor, you can with EPoX's thermal stick. One feature that disappoints is that EPoX doesn't put the thermal Mosfet sinks on at the factory, making you have to do that bit extra to set up.
- The Motherboard
Now we get onto the board itself, which is what we all will agree is the most important part of the package. EPoX uses a full sized 30x30cm ATX motherboard for the NF4 Ultra. On the connector and expansion slot placements; this is a mixed bag of good and bad. EPoX has placed the 24 pin primary ATX and 4 pin Aux power connectors in a rather tight spot. They have been placed between the CPU retention setup and the I/O back plate. This requires some draping of the Power cables over and around the CPU reducing exhaust air flow.
The IDE and SATA connectors are in a very good place indeed while the FDD could have been better thought out. The two IDE connectors are located behind the four primary SATA connectors. The FDD is even further down the board, leading to a very messy cable setup if a FDD is used, USB FDD would be a better option if you want to keep things clean. Right on the bottom of the board are two momentary switches - one for power on, and one for reset. This allows you to test the board outside of a case with relative ease without needing to rig up a power switch - I personally do this with all my boards, just incase they are DOA...there is nothing worse than slapping it into the case and needing to take it straight out again.
Now we come to the slots on the board. This is the first Ultra board we've actually had in the labs, however, after looking around this layout of slots seems to be standard. First off there are three PCI Express x1 slots than the PCI-Express x16 slot, however, the X16 slot is under the x1 slots, moving the graphics card down towards the bottom of the case. We're not sure how to perceive this, as all our experience tells us to have it closer to the top for better exhaust flow, it is unclear as to why the NF4 Ultra goes this way when the NF4 SLI and NF4x chips all place their x16 slots at the top. There are three PCI slots for legacy PCI support so your TV tuners and various other devices can be installed. While this board supports up to 7.1 audio, it is still only AC'97, which we do tend to stay clear of, especially in high power gaming rigs, an Audigy 2 or Envy24 would be a much better idea, so grab yourself one of those cards when you consider this board for your gaming system.
Driving the 9NPA+ Ultra is the nVidia nForce 4 Ultra Single chip solution from nVidia. nVidia is the first to use a single chip solution for the AMD K8 series and wisely done. With the AMD K8 architecture supporting its own on-die DDR-SDRAM memory controller and a crossbar supporting a Hyper-Transport link, the use of two chip solutions becomes redundant. In a traditional Northbridge setup both the memory controller and Graphics interface were placed on the Northbridge, however, with no memory controller needed for the AMD K8, only a graphics interface is needed, which can be placed onto a single chip solution without much trouble. The nForce 4 AMD K8 series are all single chipset solutions, just with slight configuration variances.
nVidia's nForce4 Ultra supports a 1x PCI-E x16 and 4 PCI-E x1 lanes as well as a PCI bus master supporting a maximum of 6 PCI bus master slots. Added to this are 2x Serial ATA controllers with 2 ports per controller for a total of 4 SATA-II drives at 3GB/s. With IDE dying off as a standard, nVidia still considers it a value to have and as such two IDE bus master ports are installed to give support for up to 4 IDE devices. One of the best features of this is the AnyRAID that nVidia has incorporated. AnyRAID allows you to combine the IDE and SATA ports to allow up to 8 HDDs in RAID setup. Added to this is the Gigabit Ethernet with Active Armour and Firewall that was first installed into the NF3 250GB series chipsets. The nForce4 Ultra chipset runs quite hot compared to many of the chipsets out on the market, so a special heatsink is added to the chipset to keep it running cool under full load.
Firewire is one of the most used standards now. Once only used for Digital video access to DV camcorders for transfer of data, it has now become an interface for adding external storage solutions and even high seed networking. Firewire has now evolved to IEEE1394b with up to 800mbps transfer rates. EPoX has not gone with the 800bps IEEE1394b chip but gone with the "a" standard provided by the VIA VT6307 2 port Firewire controller.
EPoX uses the VITESSE SimpliPHY interface controller chip. This chip gives the onboard Gigabit Ethernet system access to the external world. This chip also adds the hardware Firewire access that nVidia's NF4 uses.