nVidia has been on the cutting edge of the PC industry in both graphics chips as well as platform solutions for some time now. While the very first nForce chipset wasn't received very well, it was no surprise that it wasn't going to be the greatest chipset in the world.
Being the very first platform chipset, you may expect a few teething problems - VIA had their own, and SiS had theirs, but unlike these companies, nVidia learnt very quickly and with the nForce 2 chipset to run the Athlon XP series of processors, things went from strength to strength for the SPP from nVidia.
On the other hand, it took quite a while for nVidia to jump into the Intel chipset market. It wasn't until the nForce 4 series that Intel got its first taste of a powerful chipset that supported the SLI function and while the lesser popular ATI Crossfire was supported on the Intel 975X, SLI was a no-no.
The nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition chipsets didn't live up to expectations, with memory controller issues resulting in the chipset not recognising some modules as well as dismal overclocked, even for when it was released, the nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition never really took off.
When nVidia announced its first 500 series chipset for the Intel platform, the market was looking forward to a chipset that could perform, after seeing how well the AMD variants worked. We were all expecting to get our Core 2's blazing on the 500 series for Intel; unfortunately, nVidia dropped the ball here. While a new MCP was introduced, the Northbridge or SPP as its known from nVidia was the same C19 chip that was used on the nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition, the same woeful memory controller and overclocks followed yet still remained fairly popular due to SLI support.
Learning from this mistake, nVidia took its 500 series for Intel and threw them down the toilet and started to work on the 600 series, which would be the first new chipset for Intel platforms using completely new and improved silicon.
Today we are taking a look at the technology behind the 600i series nForce chipset and testing the high-end mother of them all, the 680i supplied to us by eVGA.
nForce 600i Architecture
Architecture behind the 600i Series
Before we take a look at our first 600i series board, we want to have a look at the three chipsets that nVidia has in its line-up for the Intel platform. They are labelled at 680i at high-end, 650i SLI at the mid range and at the more mainstream end, the 650 Ultra.
Here we have the block diagrams for all chipsets - they share a lot of the features with minor differences between each variant. Our focus today is the 680i chipset.
The 680i is aimed at the enthusiasts with a lot of detail going into the chipset. nVidia has changed the way we overclock on this chipset by allowing Asynchronous bus overclocking of not just the CPU from the PCI-E and PCI but all buses. On a 680i motherboard, you can set your FSB independently of the memory bus speed, PCI-E, PCI and SATA clock speeds. nVidia attempted this in their nForce 4 Intel Edition chipsets but it didn't work too well - this time nVidia claim to have it working with support up to 1200MHz SLI Ready DDR-2 modules.
SLI also makes its comeback for Intel with the use of the 680i MCP. One of the two full-speed PCI Express x16 slots is routed through the Northbridge or SPP. The second PCI Express x16 slot resides on the MCP, like it has done with the 590 AMD series chipset. Hyper Transport links at 2000MHz connect the SPP to the MCP so there is no worry about a shortage of bandwidth for communication. Link boost technology also makes sure you get even more out of your SLI setup.
When you have two graphics cards in SLI, the SPP to MCP link is overclocked by 25% as well as the SPP PCI Express x16 and MCP PCI Express x16 lanes. This ensures that there is enough bandwidth to keep your SLI rig happy and provide a handy performance boost.
The 680i SPP contains two additional PCI Express lanes that can be used by expansion cards or on motherboard PCI Express chips such as additional RAID controllers with the MCP supporting four PCI Express x1 lanes for general use - in all, it is more than you will ever need at this stage of the game.
The 680i MCP has an additional 8 PCI Express lanes that are routed to a third PCI Express x16 slot. This is used to add an extra PCI Express graphics card for multiple monitor support or upcoming nVidia physics engine or even high-speed RAID controllers, for example.
Regarding media expansion, the 680i really has it all. nVidia has played down the IDE setup now (like Intel) with only a single IDE channel for two parallel ATA drives. The SATA ports are now expanded to 6 that are controlled by the MCP. These SATA ports can be configured into a large RAID array depending on your needs. Natively the 680i MCP supports nVidia Dual Net technology with two Gigabit Ethernet controllers integrated to the system supporting Fast packet and TCP/IP acceleration for faster interface with the LAN as well as lower CPU utilisation.
Testing Motherboard - Package and Features
Packaging and Features
Our first testing motherboard for the 680i came to us from eVGA. They have followed nVidia's reference guidelines to the letter to produce their board and for good reason - the first batch of boards are all made by nVidia and later more boards will arrive from the usual suspects such as ABIT, ASUS, Gigabyte, DFI, MSI and so on.
eVGA places their board in a nice black and dark green box with bright green highlights - this is not surprising, as it is the same colour scheme nVidia uses for its products and website. The front doesn't reveal much info on the board itself.
Going to the back of the box you get a bit more of an idea of what's on offer. A picture of the board as well as some info on the features and specs are provided. Not as good as some box outs we have seen, but it's enough to make your mind up if this is what you're after or not.
For your documents, you get a single user manual that explains the functions and setup process for the board and the Windows based software. A single CD is provided with the drivers for XP and XP64 if you plan to go the 64bit route. The included floppy contains the F6 boot drivers for XP and XP64 since they aren't built into the Windows boot load setup.
When it comes to the add-on cables, eVGA provides just what the doctor ordered. There is a single Firewire port bracket, 4 USB 2.0 port bracket and a Serial Port bracket.
Even nVidia is hopping on the water cooling bandwagon - no, I don't mean the board is water cooled; it's ready for water cooling setup. nVidia knows its chipset runs a little warm when passively cooled, that's why it relies on the exhausted CPU fan air to keep the Northbridge running nice and cool. When you go to a water cooling setup you remove the fan from the CPU, which eliminates the cooling affect for the chipset. Both nVidia and eVGA recommend the use of an included fan if you intend to go water cooling to keep the Northbridge at workable temperatures.
Since SLI is a must, the board comes with a large SLI bridge cable, you will see why it's so long very shortly.
Testing Motherboard - In the Flesh
Now we get to what we want to see, the board itself. For a reference design, nVidia and eVGA have managed to get out a marvel of engineering. The full ATX 24x30cm layout is needed to fit all the goodies that nVidia wanted to slap into its chipset, otherwise we'd end up with a cramped layout.
Power connectors are sensibly placed as are the IDE and FDD connectors. The 24-pin power, blue IDE and black FDD connectors reside behind the four DDR-2 memory sockets which are colour coded blue for channel 1 and black for channel 2. The 8-pin power connector sits up the top left of the board between the VRM heatsinks and the PS/2 port towers. Four of the SATA ports are located between the DIMM sockets and the IDE connector and the last two are located beside the FDD which is angled 90 degree to the board. With graphics cards like the GeForce 8800 taking up so much room, the traditional spot for the SATA ports means the cables are in the way; this layout keeps it functional and easy to work with.
When it comes to the CPU and heat sinks, you'll be pleased to know that eVGA and nVidia has done a good job keeping the socket clear of large components but also manages to keep things running smooth with integrated cooling. There is enough space around the CPU to install large after market heat sinks that are, shall we say, insane in size. eVGA has added some passively cooled heatsinks to the top of the Mosfets and the VRM circuits. Unfortunately, if you go water cooling, these won't get cooled by any extra means unlike the ASUS offerings that include fans.
A 6 phase Digital VRM system is used to supply the CPU with power - 4 phases are enough to keep a Core 2 setup happy even with a Quad Core CPU, however it's very nice to see them go the extra yards to keep overclockers happy.
The rear I/O is pretty standard in layout but requires a new I/O shield in order to fit into the case. The COM port has been removed from the back panel and placed on a expansion slot cover, the LPT port is gone completely - no more parallel port support from nVidia. A single Toslink SPDIF out port makes up the Digital audio component part of the board.
Now it's onto the expansion ports. Being 680i based you have three PCI Express x16 slots to play with. The two black PCI-E X16 slots are full-speed, the top one is run from the Northbridge and the bottom is run from the Southbridge, or SPP and MCP as they are known to nVidia.
The blue x16 slot is physically x16 but only carries 8 lanes of traffic. This one is run off the MCP as well and is useful for a third graphics card to run a physics engine or you can install high-speed x4 or x8 SATA RAID controllers. For everyday expansion, there are two PCI Express x1 lanes, one above the first x16 slot and one below. For legacy support you get two PCI slots, one between the blue PCI-E x16 slot and last PCI-E x16 slot and one right at the bottom below the last PCI-E x16 slot.
In the way of additional controllers only a single PCI based Texas Instruments Firewire chip is used. There are no additional SATA controllers or Ethernet controllers as this board has enough to keep you happy for quite some time.
BIOS and Overclocking
Now we get down to what nVidia has done for the overclockers. From the beginning, we were told that this chipset would be for overclockers and that the reference design would reflect that in not only layout but BIOS as well.
The BIOS used is a standard Award 6.0 modular BIOS, in fact it looks like any other BIOS out there. We thought that we were given a bum steer with this board as there are no extra menus like other companies put into their BIOS for Overclocking options.
To get to the Overclocking menus you simply look under Advanced Chipset Features menu, here you get the Overclocking setup. There are four major menus with Overclocking, System Clocks, FSB and Mem config, CPU configurations and System Voltages.
Starting with System Clocks is where you find the setup for the three PCI Express x16 frequency clocks. All three slots can be controlled independently of each other. Each slot can be run from 100MHz to a max of 200MHz in 1MHz increments. PCI Express clocks should not be touched as they tend to cause instability in the system - only play with these settings if you really know what you're doing.
The SPP <-> MCP Reference clock is the base speed that the HT link between the North and Southbridges run at. This clock is then set with a multiplier like a CPU is to get is full speed. The ref clock speed can be adjusted from 200MHz up to 500MHz in 1MHz increments.
Next comes the multipliers for the HT link for upstream and downstream. These range from 1x to 5x on both. For best results and stability, set the SPP to MCP ref clock to 200MHz and the multipliers to 5x to allow best possible overclocks.
Lastly in this menu is the Spread Spectrum clocks, nVidia recommend disabling all of these for overclocking as it will only hinder the voltage regulators supplying the right amount of currant to the components.
Moving to the FSB and Mem Config menu, we find this is where you change FSB and memory settings as well as the CPU multiplier. The FSB - Mem clock mode has three settings - Auto, Linked and Unlinked. When in Auto you can't change any settings in BIOS. When in linked mode, the FSB and memory are linked together using ratio dividers, the higher the FSB goes the higher the memory goes. Unlinked mode allows you to change the FSB independent of the memory and vice versa - this way you can get the most out of the FSB and then overclock the memory to match rather than having one part hold you back - we love this feature!
When unlinked mode is set the FSB and memory setting are unlocked. nVidia and eVGA have put the FSB speed in QDR rather than the reference clock rate. This means you can go from 400MHz (100MHz) to a max of 2500MHz (625MHz) in 1MHz increments.
Memory is set in DDR rate, so you can go from 400MHz (200MHz) to a max of 1400MHz (700MHz) in 1MHz increments.
The CPU Configuration menu has a couple of interesting options. You can enable or disable the CPU thermal management as well as select what Thermal Management the CPU uses - either TM1 or TM2 if your CPU supports that.
Also if you have two or more cores on the CPU, you can disable any one of them with this option but you will only want that for testing purposes - it is much better to leave them all running for a faster system.
Lastly we have the System voltages, and thy people at nVidia and eVGA have done a good job here. Here you have CPU Core, CPU FSB, Memory, SPP, MCP and SPP to MCP voltages.
CPU Voltage ranges from as low at 0.9375 all the way to 1.8v in 0.025v increments.
CPU FSB voltage ranges from 1.2v to 1.5v in 0.1v increments.
Memory ranges from 1.8v to 2.5v in 0.025v increments
SPP voltage ranges from 1.2v to 1.55v in 0.05v increments
MCP voltage ranges from 1.5v to 1.75v in 0.05v increments
Lastly the SPP to MCP HT link voltage ranges from 1.2v to 1.55v in 0.05v increments
With all this we managed a huge and stable FSB of 488MHz (1952MHz QDR). To do this we had our Core 2 Extreme at 6x multiplier resulting in 2928MHz, FSB at 1952MHz QDR, memory at 1005MHz DDR, HT Ref at 200MHz, HT multipliers at 5x. As far as voltages go - CPU voltage at 1.400v, Memory at 2.2v, FSB voltage at 1.4v, SPP voltage at 1.3v, MCP voltage at 1.65v and HT link at 1.3v.
Suffice to say, we were really impressed with the FSB overclocking result of the nForce 680i chipset and it matches any other Intel Core 2 motherboard we have tested to date. We can't wait to see what other companies can do when they release their own finely-tuned motherboards.
Benchmarks - Test System Setup and Sandra
Test System Setup
Processor: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 (Supplied by Intel)
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2-1066 Corsair (Supplied by Corsair)
Hard Disk: 500GB Seagate 7200.9 SATA (Supplied by Seagate Australia)
Graphics Card: nVidia GeForce 7800GT
Cooling: Gigabyte 3D Galaxy 2 (Supplied by Gigabyte)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP SP2
Drivers: Intel INF 184.108.40.2062, nVidia ForceWare 93.71, nForce 9.53 and DX9c
Today we put the brand new nForce 680i motherboard up against the Intel P965 from Gigabyte in the form of the impressive DQ6 and the nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition from ASUS in the form of the P5N32-SLI Premium/WiFi-AP.
Today we want to see just what this new chipset can do and how the increase in FSB affects the overall performance.
Let's get started and see how nVidia's latest Core 2 chipset performs against the established chipsets from Intel.
Version and / or Patch Used: x
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 default speeds the nForce 680i has just a slight lead, when overclocked we see the performance increase of being able to clock the FSB and RAM independently with rather impressive scores.
Benchmarks - PCMark
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.
In both memory and overall scores, the 680i at stock and overclock manage to keep ahead of the competition.
Benchmarks - Media Encoding
MPEG2 to DivX Encoding with Power Director
Version and / or Patch Used: 5.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.cyberlink.com
Product Homepage: http://www.cyberlink.com/multi/products/main_4_ENU.html
Buy It Here
CyberLink Power Director produces video files for creating DVD, DivX, XviD and WMV files for use on your PC. Using the built in software we encode files from MPEG2 (DVD) format to DivX format and use the time taken, average FPS and CPU usage for our benchmarking usage.
While the media encoding is more CPU dependant, we do see the 680i perform a little better.
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 also shows a slight lead to the nForce 680i.
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.
Again the 680i comes out in front.
Benchmarks - PREY
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.2
Timedemo or Level Used: Hardware OC Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.humanhead.com
Product Homepage: http://www.prey.com
Buy It Here
PREY is one of the newest games to be added to our benchmark line-up. It is based off the Doom 3 engine and offers stunning graphics passing what we've seen in Quake 4 and does put quite a lot of strain on our test systems.
Our first real world game shows the 680i in a good light - even at stock, it's slightly more powerful then the competing chipsets from Intel.
Benchmarks - Quake 4
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.3
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 also puts the 680i in the lead.
Benchmarks - F.E.A.R.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.08
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.
F.E.A.R. drags more on the graphics than the CPU and RAM, so here things are pretty close.
Benchmarks - Far Cry
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.3
Timedemo or Level Used: Benchemall Default
Developer Homepage: http://www.crytek.com
Product Homepage: http://www.farcrygame.com
Buy It Here
While Far Cry is now one of our older benchmarking games, it is still able to put pressure on most computers systems. Utilizing PS2.0 technology with the latest versions supporting Shader Model 3.0 with DX9c and offering an exceptional visual experience, there is no denying that even some of the faster graphics cards get a bit of a workout.
Our last game test shows the 680i still in the lead.
It seems that nVidia has not only learnt about its mistakes in the 590 SLI Intel chipsets but managed to fix them in some pretty quick time.
590 SLI was talked about for months but the new nForce 680i took half the time from production to market - most possibly because half the technology was already available, the MCP 590 just got a rename to MCP 680 as only a new Northbridge or SPP had to be fabricated.
nVidia has in reality made a very good start to its overclocking campaign and with so many enthusiasts out there with phase change, water cooling and even LN2 rigs floating around, we can clearly foresee some records being completely shattered with a 680i motherboard, Core 2 Extreme Quad Core processor and a pair of GeForce 8800GTX graphics cards in SLI mode.
For eVGA's part in the process, the motherboard worked perfectly - no glitches, no bugs and no random reboots and BSOD's apart from the normal and well excepted errors when we overclock too much, but we never learn that lesson here.
Overall we cannot get enough of this chipset and look forward to seeing what some of the other companies start coming out with this new chipset from nVidia. It's clearly a chipset designed for enthusiasts and we think nVidia has done a very good job.
Supports all Core 2 processors
More stable than 590SLI Intel
Overclocks better than any other Core 2 chipset to date
Dual Gigabit LAN with bridging for 2Gbps function
Third Graphics slot for Physics engine
Water cooling users not forgotten
Unlinked CPU FSB and RAM overclocking
No additional SATA controllers or e.SATA ports
Expensive but other 680i boards will be even more expensive
- Latest Pricing
Rating - 9.5 out of 10 and TweakTown's "MUST HAVE" Best Performance Award