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AMD64 PCI Express Chipsets - nVidia nForce 4 vs. ATI 200 Series

By: Shawn Baker | Editorials in CPUs, Chipsets & SoCs | Posted: Jan 5, 2005 5:00 am


The Chipset Rundown


Like the nForce 3, the nForce 4 is a single chip design with its MCP design layout which eliminates the need for two chips to communicate between each other which saves on PCB design costs and reduces theoretical latencies. With the memory controller being built into the Athlon 64 line of processors, nVidia have chosen to jam everything into the one chip to eliminate any form of bottlenecks which we really loved when we first looked at the nForce 3 chipset back in April of last year. Below we can see the difference between each individual chipset and also at what price bracket nVidia are trying to concentrate on for each chipset.




Advanced Storage System


The latest nForce 4 chipset comes with a host of new technology; some of these include the new Advanced Storage System. Not only does the new Storage System offer support for the new 300MB/s SATA 2.0 hard drives but also support for NCQ (Native Command Queuing). NCQ is an excellent technology and works by decreasing the access times on your drives (the drive must support NCQ - WD Raptor's do and some others) by being able to jump from spot to spot in any order. In the past to get from point A to point B the head would have to move completely turn until it got there, now the head can simply jump from point A to B without having to go around in a complete circle. This can best be seen in the picture below:



Not only have nVidia worked with the performance of the Storage System but also the management side of their RAID system. Using nVraid you can now do so much more like converting your RAID Array on the fly without having to worry about loss of data but one of the best features that we can see is that using the software you are able to find failed drives easily. This is handy in the situation where you have for example four drives all exactly the same, instead of having to constantly guess which is the failed one the software will tell you which port so you can take it out of the array and replace it with as little fuss as possible.



It is disappointing to read that there is no Soundstorm in the nForce 4 but only AC97 sound. While it does support up to 8 channels there is no doubt that a lot of people don't understand why nVidia has opted to not include Soundstorm in there latest chipset. The word on the street is that nVidia might offer Soundstorm 2 in their upcoming nForce 5 chipset for the Pentium 4 in Q1 or Q2 of 2005.




We won't go into too much detail on SLI here for two reasons: First, the particular reference board we are looking at doesn't have the function and second, we will be having a closer look into SLI through several articles in the New Year.


The nForce 4 offers 20 PCI-E lanes of which 16 are used for the graphics card slot. SLI works by then splitting this 16X lane into two 8X lanes. While some people may instantly think that they are going to lose a lot of performance, if you ever paid much attention to the advancements in AGP (like 4X to 8X) you will notice that the performance increase difference was no more than 1% or 2%.


nVidia claim around about a 1.7 times general gaming performance increase through the use of two graphics cards but we'll be investigating this at a later time.




While it was great to see that ATI are using the PCI Express lanes for their Gigabit networking, nVidia have taken it a step further by implementing the networking controller straight into their MCP like we saw with the nForce 3 GB chipset which offered impressive bottleneck-free networking performance.


This really helps eliminate another bottleneck with networking as it is handy having all this bandwidth free which is important considering the amount of bandwidth required for 300MB/s drives and NCQ technology and with the ability to still add-in other external PCI Express devices.


Not only are nVidia doing great things with the speed of there network but what they have done with the software is second to none. With built in hardware firewall, CPU usage is no longer heavily impacted like when running programs such as Norton Anti Virus. With the nVidia firewall software running we can see exactly when an attack is being launched upon your system and you can easily block it from accessing your system. The pictures below show how the hardware firewall and its software works.




Some new Software


nTune is the latest software suite to be implemented into the latest line of nForce chipsets and really does take Windows tuning to the next level.


nTune has a number of options which include overclocking your processor within Windows via an automatic overclocking utility. You can also set it to increase specific parts of the system like Graphics, Drives or Memory otherwise if you're not too fused about speed you can tune your system for silent mode. Included with in the package is some monitoring options which give you the ability to see temperatures and fan speeds as well as a BIOS update utility.



We've really only touched the surface of what the software is capable of but as overclockers, we are impressed.


The Overall Feeling


nVidia haven't promised any real performance improvement on their latest AMD64 chipset so when testing we aren't expecting it to blow the ATI 200 Series out of the water.


Although the general feeling you will get from the chipset is that nVidia want to bring the latest and greatest technology to Athlon 64 users and indeed they have with a whole bunch of cool features which tends to make us think the big guns such as Intel and VIA might have something to worry about in the years ahead if they keep on the same track of producing such solid chipsets.


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