With all the hype of the new nVidia nForce chipset, it is time to see just how well it can compete against some pretty solid contenders. How well did it fare? Come on in and join Cameron "Sov" Johnson as he takes a look at the MSI K7N420 Pro Motherboard. Some of the results may come as a suprise.
IntroductionThe nForce chipset has been one of the most anticipated chipsets ever. When information leaked out about its specifications, just about every hardware reviewer and hardcore gamer wanted to get their hands on one. MSI being as they are; that is, one of the first ever companies to release boards, like when AMD 750 was out; they came to our rescue. They have released one of the first fully retail available motherboards based on the nForce chipset.The nForce is one of the most innovative chipsets today, and is among the first to support AMD's HyperTransport Technology for 800MB/s communication between the North and South bridges. Its also the very first to introduce 128-bit DDR SDRAM. But how do we get 128-bit DDR SDRAM when we only have 64-bit DIMM's? Easy! Installing two identical DDR SDRAM DIMM's into two special slots allows the nForce to switch from 64-bit to 128-bit memory interface; in theory increasing the available bandwidth from 2.1GB/s to 4.2GB/s. AMD's Athlon CPU's max out at 1.6GB/s, so with this new memory design you really won't see alot of difference between 64-bit and 128-bit. However, this design would best fit Intel's Pentium 4 CPU which requires 3.2GB/s to run at optimal speeds.Along with the Twin Bank memory, the nForce Northbridge (known as the IGP) has a built in AGP video card based on the Geforce2 MX video accelerator. Now its making sense why nVidia wanted the GF2MX line removed and replaced with the MX200 and MX400. The onboard video is a Share Memory design, meaning it uses system memory for the video card. In the past, this has really placed onboard video well behind the eight-ball. While only running at 266Mhz and having to share the bandwidth with the CPU and other onboard devices, the video usually becomes more of a nusiance, but we will see what happens with 128-bit memory to play with.The Southbridge of the nForce is the MCP. This little baby packs in quite a lot of features. Supporting 6 USB ports via 3 controllers, you'll have more than enough expansion possibilities with this baby. One of the most innovative features is the AC'97 device; it's a fully 5.1 channel Dolby Digital processor! That's right, it decodes Dolby AC3. This is a very handy feature if you are planning on using this chipset based board for a MP3 or DVD home entertainment center, it has more than enough video and audio capabilities. Along with the audio and USB, you get standard networking integrated, HomePNA and V.90 modem. The Southbridge is only revision 1, so ATA-133 support isn't integrated yet. We can only hope that the new MCP will add the extra ATA-133 support.
K7N420 Pro -
Specifications- CPUSupports AMD Athlon 700Mhz ~ 1.4Ghz @ 200Mhz FSBSupports AMD Athlon 1.0Ghz ~ 1.4Ghz @ 266Mhz FSBSupports AMD Athlon XP 1500+ ~ 2000+ @ 266Mhz FSBSupports AMD Duron 600MHz ~ 1.2Ghz @ 200Mhz FSBReserves Support for Future AMD Socket A CPU's - ChipsetnVidia nForce 128DnVidia IGP 128 NorthbridgenVidia MCP SouthbridgeAMD HyperTransport Interconnect- Bus Frequency100/133Mhz Internal200/266Mhz ExternalAlpha EV6 DDR FSB- Expansion Slots1x AGP (4x, 1.5v only)5x PCI1x CNR- Expansion Ports1 PS2 Keyboard Port1 PS2 Mouse Port6 USB Ports (2 rear accessible, 4 via expansion bracket)1 Serial Ports1 VGA1 Parallel Port1 Line In1 Line Out1 Mic In1 Game Port- Onboard AudionVidia APU 5.1 Dolby Digital Sound AC'97 Compatible- Special FeaturesFSB, VCore, VDimm, VIO, Multiplier, VAGP adjustable in BIOS.
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The K7N420 uses a rather wasted layout in my opinion. The picture above shows just how the nForce offering from MSI is set up. You can see that it uses a 1/5/1 (AGP/PCI/Riser) layout, but between the AGP and the first PCI slot here is a huge gap that could have been filled with another PCI slot to give a total of 6 PCI. MSI has also elected to go with the standard CNR slot. While nForce has support for ACR, MSI has elected to stay away from this technology for some reason. While most of us don't care for the idea of software driven devices, the ACR supports extra features such as built in DSL capabilities that the CNR based boards do not.- The nForce itself
Driving the K7N420 is nVidia's very first platform solution, formally known as the "Crush 12"; or now known as the nForce. The nForce consists of the IGP128 Northbridge which hosts a new memory design which has been named "Twin Bank" memory bus. This new memory bus is similar in design to how old SIMM memory used to work. Using two identical memory modules (size, density) you are able to boost the memory bus from 64-bit to 128-bit. This results in 4.2GB/s of total memory bandwidth when using PC2100 DDR SDRAM, or even 5.4GB/s when using PC2700 memory. While the nForce isn't an offical chipset of PC2700, the idea of that much memory bandwidth is very enticing. This is definately a good idea for Pentium 4, but for now its AMD Athlon only.Along with the new memory bus, nVidia has also integrated into the Northbridge a Geforce 2MX 400 video accelerator. This is the fastest integrated video platform we have ever seen. The onboard video is a Share Memory system which means that it uses system memory for the VGA frame buffer. This does limit the speed of the video card a bit, but with over 4GB of memory bandwidth, you do have some leeway. We will see if it helps out later on.The Southbridge of the nForce is the MCP-D. This Southbridge brings with it ATA-100 IDE, 6 USB ports, 5.1 Dolby Digital AC'97 Audio and Fast 10/100 NIC. This is also the first chipset to use AMD's HyperTransport Technology to interconect the North and South bridges giving 800MB/s bandwidth between the two; thats more than 2x the VIA V-Link 266MB/s.
Results - Star Trek Voyager Elite Force 1024x768 32-bit Color
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ConclusionIn my mind, the nForce chipset has been one of the biggest hype, no delivery chipsets since the i820. Performance was reasonable, but even with the new technologies that nVidia has used, it still falls behind a plain-jane VIA KT266A board.As for the MSI K7N420 Pro, I think that more thought of what goes where needs to be considered rather than trying to make it look good with large heatsinks and red PCB.- Pro'sReasonably fastIntegrated solutionStableOnboard Dolby 5.1 soundUsing AMD HyperTransport bridge link- Con'sExpensive for an integrated solutionWasted PCB space between AGP and PCIRating - 7.5/10
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