nVidia nForce 500 Series for Socket AM2 - What's new nVidia?

We got a mixture of MSI and DFI nForce 500 series Socket AM2 boards. We put them together to find out the differences.

Manufacturer: none
16 minutes & 18 seconds read time


nVidia has been the leader in AMD chipset production since the nForce 2 series came out and wiped VIA off as the top dog. nVidia made a huge splash with Hardware Audio support, a faster memory controller and far greater overclocking abilities than anything SiS or VIA were even able to conceive and that was hard to imagine considering their short experience with platform chipsets.

Moving to Athlon 64, nVidia was right there with the nForce 3 series chipsets which started to really get the company on track for platform chipsets. Now nVidia was truly multitalented - great graphics and great chipsets. nForce 4 saw nVidia bring back tandem graphics with SLI technology and also saw nVidia's first chipset for the Intel Pentium 4 series.

Today Socket AM2 is AMD's new weapon for the Athlon 64 and Sempron series of K8 processors. While new chipsets aren't required to run these processors, since there is no memory controller on the chipset itself, nor any change to the Hypertransport link that connects the CPU to the Northbridge, nVidia has taken the new AM2 chipset to revamp its K8 portfolio with the new nForce 500 series chipsets for AMD and soon to be released for Intel Core 2 processors.

Today we are taking a look at the four major AMD nForce 500 chipsets - 590SLI, 570SLI, 570 Ultra and 550. What do these chipsets support and are there any major differences in speed? Or is it just features that separate these chipsets? Let's find out!

nForce 500 Chipsets in Detail

Details on the Chipsets - 590SLI and 570SLI

First on the list we are taking a look at the two SLI supporting chipsets in this family affair, the nForce 590SLI and the nForce 570SLI.

nForce 590SLI is set to be aimed at the enthusiast market for those with really high-end processors such as FX's and the 5000+ and above Athlon 64 X2's. The first part of the 590SLI is it follows the same path as the NF4 SLIx16, that being it is a 2 chip solution. nVidia was the first to pioneer the single chip solution for the K8 as there is really no need for a Northbridge with the lack of memory controller. This is done because nVidia has done a cheaper trick there. The nForce 590SLI Northbridge is simply a PCI Express to Hyper Transport tunnel converter chip. Is has a primary connection to the CPU at 2000MHz and a link to the MCP at 2000MHz. The Northbridge contains 16 PCI Express lanes for use on a single graphics card such as the GeForce 7 series, and yes it supports the GeForce 7950GX2.

The Southbridge of 590MCP as its known is where all the features are located. In fact, it is actually an nForce 570SLI chipset that has been reworked to run through the HT link that the Northbridge has. The 590MCP has an additional PCI Express x16 link for a second graphics card; this is how it gets its twin X16 rating for full-speed SLI. ATI with its Crossfire 3200 places both PCI Express x16 channels on the Northbridge, which is something we would like to see nVidia do, as there is bound to be some extra latency when having to communicate across and extra HT bus.

To add extra PCI Express support there are four additional PCI Express lanes for use on X1 slots or onboard PCI Express chips that motherboard manufacturers integrate into their boards. This can also be routed into a single PCI Express x4 slot if manufacturers want to go that way also.

Next is the Gigabit Ethernet support. nForce 4 offered a single Gigabit Ethernet port that was built directly into the MCP. This was no doubt a fantastic feature as it didn't require the use of any PCI Express lanes, and was hardware based, removing the load off the CPU. This time nVidia goes the extra step and integrates two GBE controllers into the MCP with TCP/IP acceleration support to remove further load off the CPU when under heavy network load.

Storage is where nVidia has upped the stakes again. Six Serial ATA ports supporting SATA-II specs have now been added instead of the four that the NF4 series supported. Two IDE ports are included again and Media Shield is again present for RAID support. You can once again combine the IDE and SATA drives to create a larger RAID array than any other chipset supports - well done nVidia!

Azalia HD audio makes its presence known on the nForce 590SLI and 570SLI chipsets for 7.1 Audio support under Windows XP and Windows Vista. While Intel started the Azalia Audio standard, it's good to see nVidia taking up this HD audio option.

The nForce 570SLI chipset is almost identical to the 590SLI; however it doesn't support twin x16 ports. It simply is the 590MCP chipset connected directly to the CPU. To get SLI on the 570SLI, the single PCI Express x16 lane is split into dual PCI Express x8 lanes, similar to how the original NF4 SLI worked. Its additional features such as SATA, GBE and audio are identical to the 590SLI; it's just a cheaper option and is aimed at the High Powered and Mainstream computers using Athlon 64 X2's.

nForce 500 Chipsets in Detail Continued

Details on the Chipsets - 570 Ultra and 550

Now we get into the lower specs of the nForce 500 family aimed at the entry and value level computers, the nForce 570 Ultra and nForce 550. nForce 570 Ultra we have partly covered in our 570SLI, it supports the same features but lacks SLI support. Its additional features such as audio, GBE and SATA configs are identical to the 570SLI and 590SLI but you won't be able to run SLI dual graphics.

The nForce 550 is the only chipset to have major changes. 550 is aimed at entry level computers based around the Sempron AM2 series, but works just fine with FX and X2's, as we tested. nForce 550 is a single chipset solution from nVidia with all the features integrated into the 550MCP. There is a single PCI Express x16 lane for a graphics card. Like the 570 Ultra, it does not support SLI configuration, so any hopes of budget SLI go right out the window here. It has the same four PCI Express lanes left for additional PCI-E devices.

What has changed are the SATA and GBE configs. Only four SATA ports are supported on this chipset with two IDE ports. Media Shield is still present so you can combine SATA and IDE drives into a RAID array.

Gigabit LAN is still supported on the NF550 but you don't get two ports. This is still more than acceptable, as some of the NF4 chipsets in the value range didn't come with Gigabit LAN and its good to see this added.

Lastly is the HD Audio. nVidia could have stripped the 550 down to using AC'97 audio or its value chip, but its very nice to see that they elected not to do that here.

Test Board - DFI NF590 SLI-M2R/G Lanparty

nForce 590SLI Test Board

Our test board for the nForce 590SLI chipset is DFI's brand new NF590 SLI-M2R/G Lanparty motherboard.

We are skipping a few of our normal review parts this time as we are doing more of a chipset than board review. We will be discussing the features of each board as this will show what each is aimed for. The DFI Lanparty 590 board uses a full sized ATX layout and does a good job on placement of connectors.

DFI's placement of the power connectors is extremely efficient. They are located on the upper right of the board behind one of the many heatsinks that are placed on the board to keep the onboard components cool. There is only a single IDE channel on the board and a single FDD connector, the FDD connector is placed 90 degree to the board.

The CPU socket is extremely clean. DFI uses a 4 phase power supply for the CPU with large heatsinks cooling the voltage Mosfets.

The DDR-2 DIMM sockets are located beside the CPU socket and between the rear I/O ports. They are coloured orange for Channel 2 and yellow for Channel 1. These also glow under U/V lighting.

The rear I/O panel is unique to DFI and a very good layout indeed. You have two PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse, beside them are a yellow and a red RCA jack. These control SPDIF in and out. The blank section is for adding in the additional onboard audio module that DFI supplies with the board, when this is added you end up with 6 stereo audio ports. Lastly are three USB stacks with two USB ports per stack and a feature on each one, the first has a Firewire port and the last two have Ethernet connectors.

Now we get onto the expansion slots. DFI has a veritable arrangement of slots. First off there are two PCI Express x16 slots for SLI graphics. Being based on the nForce 590SLI, these are full-speed x16 slots, not cut down to x8. Next there is a PCI Express x4 slot just below the first PCI Express x16 slot. Next is a PCI Express x8 slot below the PCI Express x4 slot. Lastly there are three PCI slots for legacy cards.

Test Board - MSI K9N SLI Platinum

nForce 570SLI Test Board

Now we look at the nForce 570SLI chipset with MSI's K9N SLI Platinum motherboard.

MSI's first motherboard on the blocks is the K9N SLI Platinum which makes use of the nForce 570SLI chipset. Layout of the board is pretty well set out for a mainstream board. The 24-pin power connector is located on the right side of the board behind the DIMM sockets with the IDE and FDD connectors. The board has only a single IDE connector like the DFI board, so you're not missing out on any extra IDE drives. The 4-pin power connector is located between the CPU retention unit and the rear I/O shield which is not the best place to put this.

Around the CPU socket, all looks good. MSI has placed a large alloy heatsink on top of the 4 phase Mosfets that supply the CPU its power, which is a nice touch. The DIMM's are also colour coded on this board - green for Channel A and orange for Channel B.

MSI has used this I/O shield layout for the last couple of boards. So it's pretty straight forward, if you have owned an MSI motherboard in the past. You have two PS/2 ports, followed by a Serial port, Firewire port and SPDIF output. On the top of the Serial, Firewire and SPDIF is a parallel port for older printers. Next to them are two USB stacks with the LAN connectors on top of each stack. Lastly are the 5 Stereo audio ports with a Toslink (optical) in port.

Now onto the expansions slots. First there are two PCI Express x16 slots which are divided slots. If you only use one graphics card, the top slot runs at full speed. If you want to add a second card, the first slots shuts down into x8 and the other PCI Express x16 slot also runs at x8 to give SLI support. Between the two x16 slots are two PCI Express x1 slots. At the bottom of the board are three PCI slots for legacy cards.

MSI adds a few extra features to their K9N SLI Platinum. One of them is the VIA VT6307 Firewire chip that provides Firewire 400 ports.

Test Board - MSI K9N Platinum

nForce 570 Ultra Test Board

Now it's into the mid-range for nVidia's 500 series chipsets with the MSI K9N Platinum.

The layout of the K9N Platinum is almost identical to the K9N SLI Platinum, only very little has changed. The same full sized ATX form factor is used and the placement of the power connectors, IDE and FDD connectors are identical as is the CPU socket area.

The rear I/O is also identical to the K9N SLI, so we won't bother going over this again.

The slots are where the main difference is. To distinguish it from the K9N SLI platinum, the second PCI Express x16 slot is coloured yellow. This is because it does not support SLI; it only runs at x4 speeds. This is for use with multi monitor setups, not SLI. The rest of the expansion slots are identical to the K9N SLI Platinum.

The same VIA Firewire controller chip is also employed to give two Firewire ports.

Test Board - MSI K9N Neo

nForce 550 Test Board

Now we are down to the value-end of the equation with the MSI K9N Neo using the nForce 550 chipset.

The MSI K9N Neo is a smaller board compared to the rest of the pack and this is to keep the price down as its not meant to cost a huge amount - it is aimed at users of the cheaper Sempron AM2 processor.

The layout is pretty reasonable considering the price range it's aimed at. The ATX power and 4-pin connectors are located between the CPU and the I/O ports, this would be a problem on the more expansive boards aimed at overclockers and enthusiasts, but this is more a value thing, not aimed at super power. The IDE port is located behind the DIMM sockets. The FDD is located at the bottom of the board below the expansion slots which is not the best place to have it.

The CPU area is extremely well done. 4 phase power is used even on the budget board, and these are cooled by alloy heatsink on the Mosfets.

The rear I/O almost resembles the K9N Plat series however it doesn't have the Firewire ports, the SPDIF out port or an extra LAN port.

Lastly we have the expansion slots - a single PCI Express x16 slot for graphics cards, two PCI Express x1 slots and three PCI slots make up the final arrangement.

BIOS and Overclocking

BIOS and Overclocking Support

This time we are doing our look at the BIOS in a different way.

We are going to only explain the overclocking features in a set. We are doing the MSI motherboards as one as their BIOS setups are identical (just a few different features) and DFI separately as their BIOS is different.

All of MSI's motherboards use the Cell Menu to hold the overclocking features. All boards use the same setup, just different variations on what is supported for each setup. The K9N Neo has very little to offer overclockers - it supports DDR voltage adjustments from 1.8v up to 2.4v in 0.1v increments and CPU FSB from 200MHz up to 400MHz in 1MHz increments. Since we couldn't change the CPU multiplier (from 10) we were stuck with a max FSB of 225MHz giving our CPU a clock speed of 2.25GHz.

The K9N SLI and K9N Platinum motherboards have some different options available:

CPU Ratio adjustments can be changed from 4x up to max of the CPU (10x for our 3800+) CPU FSB also can be altered from 200MHz up to 450MHz in 1MHz increments.

Voltages are also in a good range; CPU voltage can be adjusted from 1.3v up to 1.6v in 0.025v increments. DRAM voltage adjusts from 1.8v up to 2.4v in 0.1v increments.

Chipset voltages go from 1.3v to 1.5v in 0.1v increments for Northbridge, 1.5v to 1.7v for Southbridge and 1.3v to 1.4v for HTT.

With these settings we managed to hit 352MHz FSB without any problems - we used a 6x multiplier to give us just over 2.11GHz for our overclock tests.

Now onto DFI:

Located under the Main BIOS menu is Genie BIOS Menu. This has all the clock options. FID can be changed under the main menu; you can adjust from 4x up to the maximum your CPU supports (in our case 10x).

CPU voltage ranges from 1.0v up to 1.60v in 0.025v increments. DRAM voltage goes from 1.8v up to 3.0v in 0.05v increments, the best we have seen for DDR-2 voltages. Chipset voltage ranges from 1.2v to 1.5v in 0.1v increments for the Northbridge, 1.5v to 1.8v for the Southbridge and 1.3v to 1.5v for the Hyper Transport voltages. FSB ranges from 200MHz up to 500MHz in 1MHz increments.

With these settings we managed to get 375MHz FSB with DRAM 2.2v and all other voltages set at stock. We did try a few extra voltage tweaks and we did get more speed but that resulted in a few too many random reboots. We use a 6x multiplier to give us 2.25GHz for overclock tests - quite an impressive FSB!

Benchmarks - Test System Setup and Sandra

Test System Setup

Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ AM2
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2-1066 Corsair (Supplied by Corsair)
Hard Disk: 500GB Seagate 7200.9 (Supplied by Seagate)
Graphics Card: nVidia GeForce 7800GT (SLI and non-SLI)
Cooling: Gigabyte NeonK8 (Supplied by Gigabyte)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2
Drivers: nForce Platform Driver 9.16, nVidia ForceWare 91.31 and DX9c

In our tests today we will be determining which nForce 500 series chipset is the fastest. Does the 590SLI have any advantages using single graphics over the rest of the pack? Does it perform better in SLI than the 570SLI in SLI?

We used DDR2-800 for stock clock speeds and ran the memory at 1:1 when we overclocked to get the highest FSB performance as possible. We kept the CPU speed as close to stock as possible to see just what happens.

Each test platform is tested at stock speed and overclocked - the 590SLI platform CPU was running at 2.25GHz (6 x 375MHz FSB), 570SLI and 570 Ultra platforms at 2.11GHz (6 x 352MHz FSB) and the 550 platform at 2.25GHz (10 x 225MHz FSB). Since the memory was running at 1:1 for the purpose of our overclocking tests, the higher FSB will result in greater performance. It's not a demonstration of the highest CPU clock speed but maximum FSB obtainable. When running SLI mode on 590SLI and 570SLI, it was running SLI and overclocked at the same time.

SiSoft Sandra

Version and / or Patch Used: 2007
Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.co.uk
Product Homepage: http://sisoftware.jaggedonline.com/index.php?location=home&a=TTA&lang=en
Buy It Here

SiSoft Sandra (System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is a synthetic Windows benchmark that features different tests used to evaluate different PC subsystems.

At stock speeds the memory bandwidth is all equal across the board. When overclocked we see that the NF590SLI with its higher FSB manages a slightly higher overall score.

Benchmarks - PCMark05


Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/pcmark04/
Buy It Here

PCMark is a multipurpose benchmark, suited for benchmarking all kinds of PCs, from laptops to workstations, as well as across multiple Windows operating systems. This easy-to-use benchmark makes professional strength benchmarking software available even to novice users. PCMark consists of a series of tests that represent common tasks in home and office programs. PCMark also covers many additional areas outside the scope of other MadOnion.com benchmarks.

Memory scores at stock are equal across the board as we expected, overclocked gives the 590SLI the lead. Graphics in SLI mode there is no difference between the 590SLI and 570SLI. HDD scores are also identical, showing that the same SATA controller exists in all the chipsets.

Benchmarks - 3DMark05


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 120
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark05/
Buy It Here

3DMark05 is now the second latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and above.

For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here.

3DMark05 puts all the boards at stock just about dead even. When using SLI x16 or X8, 3DMark05 doesn't notice much difference at all at these resolutions.

Benchmarks - 3DMark06


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 102
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/
Buy It Here

3DMark06 is the very latest version of the "Gamers Benchmark" from FutureMark. The newest version of 3DMark expands on the tests in 3DMark05 by adding graphical effects using Shader Model 3.0 and HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) which will push even the best DX9 graphics cards to the extremes.

3DMark06 also focuses on not just the GPU but the CPU using the AGEIA PhysX software physics library to effectively test single and Dual Core processors.

As with 3DMark05, there is little difference between the setups at stock or using the different SLI configurations.

Benchmarks - Doom 3

Doom 3

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.idsoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.doom3.com
Buy It Here

Doom 3 is still one of the most popular games at the moment and is quite intensive in the 3D department, even though it is starting to age. With our own custom time demo we are able to give a realistic rating on what kind of FPS you will be achieving.

For more information on benchmarking Doom 3 we recommend you check out our extensive article regarding it here.

Doom 3 in our first real world test shows very little difference at stock. Overclocked we see that the higher FSB speed of the nForce 590SLI gets it just ahead. Using the different SLI configs, there is little difference.

Benchmarks - Quake 4

Quake 4

Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.idsoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.quake4game.com
Buy It Here

Quake 4 is one of the latest new games to be added to our benchmark suite. It is based off the popular Doom 3 engine and as a result uses many of the features seen in Doom. However, Quake 4 graphics are more intensive than Doom 3 and should put more strain on different parts of the system.

Quake 4 puts more stress down but we see similar results to Doom 3.

Benchmarks - F.E.A.R.


Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Built-in Test
Developer Homepage: http://www.vugames.com
Product Homepage: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/
Buy It Here

F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is an intense combat experience with rich atmosphere and a deeply intense paranormal storyline presented entirely in first person. Be the hero in your own spine-tingling epic of action, tension, and terror...and discover the true meaning of F.E.A.R.

Our last tests shows the same trend we have seen throughout all of our tests.

Final Thoughts

nVidia has put itself once again at the forefront of PC technology and despite AMD and ATI now merging, nVidia has no plans to stop making chipsets for this platform - in fact, they want to beat AMD/ATI at their own game.

nForce 500 series is pretty well evenly matched, at stock speeds there is little to no difference between the four variations. When going SLI, the two x16 slots vs. the two x8 slots don't really make that much difference. 590SLI is really only going to be useful for the GeForce 7950GX2 users who must have twin x16 slots to run Quad SLI but for the standard SLI users, 570SLI fits the bill just fine.

With the 590 and 570 series both supporting the same amount of built in chipset features, if you aren't going to use twin 7950GX2 graphics cards in Quad SLI, it's hard to recommend anything but the 570SLI as you're saving money choosing this platform.

For the value end, the 550 fits the bill for Sempron users no doubt. And if you are after a bit more grunt, 570 Ultra makes a good companion as long as SLI is not a requirement.

For all our testings we can't go past the value and performance of the 570SLI - when it comes to Socket AM2, it is by far nVidia's best value/performance option. On a side note, we were impressed with our initial results of the DFI NF590 SLI-M2R/G Lanparty motherboard and we'll be taking a closer look at it soon.

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