NVIDIA's chipset platform has evolved over the last 10 years to become something of a marvel. From their humble beginnings producing chipsets for AMDs Athlon platform, NVIDIA has managed to produce some of the most powerful chipsets on the market. In fact, NVIDIA finally put VIA out of the AMD chipset market. It took NVIDIA quite some time in order to get its licence to produce chipsets for the Intel platform; it took four generations before NVIDIA would even get a P4 bus chipset to market. The nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition chipset was the first, but it simply couldn't keep up with the Intel chipsets on the market. Its overclocking was shocking, and its compatibility with some of the Pentium D processors was horrendous.Next came the 590SLI Intel Edition chipset; this was extremely short lived, and in fact only a couple of boards were ever made, though they were never released to the market. The 590SLI Intel Edition used a new MCP, the same one that was used on AMDs 590SLI chipset. The real problem however, was that the nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition Northbridge was used again, leaving it with horrible overclocking and a lack of extensive support for processors that left it highly problematic.The 600i series chipsets were extremely popular; a totally redesigned chipset with new overclocking and CPU support for the Intel Core 2 range of CPUs which gave NVIDIA more of a boost. Furthermore, its overclocking was extremely impressive, bringing SLI to the Core 2 market.The first high performance 700 series chipset from NVIDIA for the Intel market was the 780i. This chipset was again an older chipset with a new part added. Wouldn't you think NVIDIA would learn? - 780i used the 680i Northbridge chipset with a nForce 200 PCI Express to PCI Express 2.0 bridge chip to give the 780i its PCI Express 2.0 compatibility; poor planning here NVIDIA.The 790i is the first chipset from NVIDIA to be re-designed totally. 790i has its own PCI Express 2.0 controller built into the chipset along with a new memory controller for DDR3 memory with support for EPP 2.0, and today we have ZOTAC's high performance motherboard to play with.
SpecificationsSpecifications of the ZOTAC NF790I-A-ECPU
Supports Intel Core 2 Series (Extreme/Quad/Duo)Supports Intel Pentium Dual Core SeriesSupports Intel Pentium D SeriesSupports Intel Pentium 4 5xx/6xx SeriesSupports Intel Celeron D 3xx/4xx SeriesSupports Intel 45nm Series CPUChipset
NVIDIA nForce 790i SLI UltranForce 790i SPP NorthbridgenForce 790i MCP SouthbridgeHyper Transport @ 2GHzSystem Memory
4 DDR3 SDRAM 240pin DIMM SocketsSupports DDR3-667/800/1066/1333/1600/2000MHz64/128Bit Dual ChannelSupports up to 8GB Total Memory (4x 2GB)Bus Frequency
100/133/200/266/333/400MHz Internal400/533/800/1066/1333/1600MHz ExternalP4 Bus ArchitectureExpansion Slots
3 PCI Express x162 PCI Express x12 PCIConnectivity
1 Parallel ATA port supporting 2 IDE Drives7 Serial ATA ports1 e.SATA port2 Gigabit Ethernet PortExpansion Ports
1 PS2 Keyboard Port1 PS2 Mouse Port10 USB 2.0 Ports (6 rear accessible, 4 via expansion bracket)6 Stereo Audio Ports1 RCA SPDIF Port1 Toslink SPDIF Port1 e.SATA Port1 RJ45 Ethernet Ports2 Firewire ports (1 rear accessible, 1 via expansion bracket)
The Box and What's InsidePackage and Contents
ZOTAC is one of the new companies to come onboard at TweakTown to send us samples for testing, and from our first impressions we are pretty happy. The box that the board comes shipped in is of a large variety like the ones the ASUS ROG boards or the GIGABYTE DQ6 boards come in. The colour scheme is a gold and black coloured box with a bit of marketing info on the front.
On the back of the box ZOTAC has followed the market trend of adding a large colour photo. We also find on the back that there is information on how to setup SLI and 3-way SLI, and what hardware you're going to need to do so.
ZOTAC has put a bit into its software and utility manuals. In total you get two manuals, a standard full book user manual and a fold-out pamphlet that gives you quick install instructions with header locations and pin-outs. This allows you to get the board in the case without having to go through the main manual. The DVD included contains both Windows XP and Windows Vista drivers for both 32-bit and 64-bit OS's. There is also a case sticker that is more for eye candy than any practical purpose; but hey, it's nice to have some dress-up material for your PC these days.
Moving along to the accessories that are included in the box. Firstly, we have our data cables. Four SATA data cables are included with locking tabs to prevent them slipping out of the onboard motherboard SATA ports and the drive itself. One IDE cable that supports two drives and a FDD cable that supports one drive make up the data transfer cables.If your PSU doesn't have enough native SATA power connectors, ZOTAC give you four Molex to SATA power converters, so all you need is four spare Molex connectors and you're set; though most new PSUs have at least two, if not four natively.
To expand on the additional features on the board, you get a total of three extra PCI cover brackets. Two of them have two USB ports, giving you four extra USB 2.0 ports. If your case has front USB ports, you have to give up one of these brackets to run them. Next is a single 6-pin FireWire-A port. Again, if you have a front FireWire port, this bracket becomes redundant. Because the boards I/O ports are laid out completely different to any others on the market, an I/O shield is included for your ATX case.
Inside the Box ContinuedInside the Box Continued
Thanks to using the nForce 790i chipset, the board supports standard SLI, 3-Way SLI and Quad SLI. To that end, there are two SLI bridge connectors. If you're going to use a standard two card SLI setup, you just use the small bridge. For Quad SLI you need two 9800GX2 cards and use the same bridge chip. In order for 3-Way SLI, you need three 8800GTX cards or 9800GTX cards and use of the large bridge chip.
Wireless networking is a big thing these days; desktops usually miss out on this. However, ZOTAC has thought of this and includes a USB based PCI cover plate unit that gives the board 802.11g Wireless Ethernet thanks to a VIA USB chip.
ZOTAC gives you an extra user manual and driver CD for the wireless system; in the manual it gives you the option to run Ad-hoc, AP or client mode.
Lastly on the list is a cooling fan. NVIDIA states that if you plan to run the board with either liquid or phase change cooling, or you plan to overclock the board, you must install this fan to the Northbridge heatsink. The 790i is an extreme heat generator chipset like the X48 chipset.
The MotherboardThe Board
It's finally time to start on the board itself. ZOTAC has built its board around the NVIDIA reference design for the 790i. It uses the same 6-layer 24x30cm ATX PCB with all of the connectors in the same place as the reference design recommends. However, the cooling system for the chipset is slightly altered. The 24-pin power connector along with the IDE connector and four of the six SATA ports that are run off the MCP are located behind the four DDR3 memory slots. The 4/8 pin connector gets placed between the rear I/O ports and the heatpipe assembly. The last two SATA ports run by the MCP along with the FDD port are located on the mid-point of the right hand edge of the board.
ZOTAC has gone and used the reference design power regulation system that NVIDIA recommends; that being six phases. ZOTAC hasn't jumped on any power saving bandwagon yet, so this board is not an environmentally friendly board apart from its RoHS compliance. The heatpipe assembly runs from the MCP to the SPP and around the CPU to cool the CPU voltage Mosfets along with the memory Mosfets. If you plan to overclock, you need to install the included fan to the Northbridge area to keep it cool when running high clock speeds.
At the back of the board we have the I/O ports. ZOTAC hasn't used the reference design for its port configuration; on the back we have a pretty standard array of ports, no serial or parallel ports make their way here. One of the biggest features here is the inclusion of the single eSATA port running off a JMicron SATA controller.
Now we are down to the expansion slots. First off we have our graphics slots; thanks to the use of the 790i SLI Ultra chipset, we have three PCI Express x16 slots. The top most green slots are run off the 790i SPP and are PCI Express 2.0 compliant. The bottom PCI Express x16 slot is run off the MCP and is only 1.1 compliant. Two PCI Express x1 slots, one above and one below the first PCI Express x16 slot on the board make up the final PCI Express expansion. Lastly, there are two PCI legacy slots.The extra accessories on the board come in the form of a single JMicron PCI Express SATA controller which controls the eSATA port along with the red SATA port near the heatpipe assembly. For FireWire support, a single Texas Instruments PCI based FireWire chip supporting two ports is resident.
BIOS and OverclockingBIOS
Moving into the BIOS; ZOTAC has used the Award 6 BIOS that NVIDIA recommends, and like NVIDIA's reference board, the layout of the features and settings are identical.To get to the overclocking functions you need to go to the Advanced Chipset Features menu, from there you can access four separate sub menus that hold the overclocking systems. Buses
FSB (QDR): 400 - 2800 in 1MHz IncrementsMem (DDR): 400 - 2500 in 1MHz IncrementsPCIe x16_1 & x16_1: 100MHz to 200MHz in 1MHz IncrementsPCIe x16_3: 100MHz to 200MHz in 1MHz IncrementsSPP to MCP Ref Clock: 200MHz to 500MHz in 1MHz IncrementsVoltages
CPU Core: 0.5125v to 2.0v in 0.0125v incrementsCPU FSB: 1.2v to 1.55v in 0.05v incrementsMemory: 1.5v to 2.275v in 0.025v IncrementsnForce SPP: 1.3v to 1.55v in 0.05v incrementsnForce MCP: 1.5v to 1.75v in 0.05v incrementsGLTVRef Lane 0: -155mV to +155mV in 0.05mv incrementsGLTVRef Lane 1: -155mV to +155mV in 0.05mv incrementsGLTVRef Lane 2: -155mV to +155mV in 0.05mv incrementsGLTVRef Lane 3: -155mV to +155mV in 0.05mv incrementsOverclocking
With all the overclocking options in the BIOS available to us, we managed to hit a healthy 556MHz FSB. However, we did have to adjust every voltage in the system to rather high levels, including the GLTREFLANE voltages. This means we did hit the wall at the 550MHz level. Important Editor Note: Our maximum overclocking result is the best result we managed in our limited time of testing the motherboard. Due to time constraints we weren't able to tweak the motherboard to the absolute maximum and find the highest possible FSB, as this could take days to find properly. We do however spend at least a few hours overclocking every motherboard to try and find the highest possible overclock in that time frame. You may or may not be able to overclock higher if you spend more time tweaking, or as new BIOS updates are released. "Burn-in" time might also come into play if you believe in that.
Test System Setup and Memory PerformanceTest System Processor
: Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16GHz (9.5x333MHz)Memory
: 2x 1GB DDR3-1600XMP OCZ (Supplied by OCZ
: 500GB Western Digital SE16 (Supplied by Western Digital
: MSI GeForce 8800GTS 640MB (Supplied by MSI
: GIGABYTE 3D Galaxy II (Supplied by GIGABYTE
: Microsoft Windows Vista SP1Drivers
: nForce Driver 15.17, Forceware 175.16Now we move into our benchmarking tests. Today we have the 790i SLI Ultra ZOTAC motherboard against Intel's flagship chipset, the X48; this being in the form of GIGABYTE's X48T-DQ6.For our stock clocks, we ran with an FSB of 333MHz with 9.5x multiplier and the memory ratio set for 1333MHz, which is the highest speed rating from the JEDEC.Overclocking; we used a 6x multiplier with the memory ratio at 1:1 to eliminate the memory and CPU being the bottlenecks. During our overclocking the FSB for the ZOTAC was 556MHz while our GIGABYTE board ran at 549MHz FSB.EVEREST Ultimate EditionVersion and / or Patch Used:
2006Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.comBuy It Here
EVEREST Ultimate Edition is an industry leading system diagnostics and benchmarking solution for enthusiasts PC users, based on the award-winning EVEREST Technology. During system optimizations and tweaking it provides essential system and overclock information, advanced hardware monitoring and diagnostics capabilities to check the effects of the applied settings. CPU, FPU and memory benchmarks are available to measure the actual system performance and compare it to previous states or other systems.
Moving into memory performance; Intel has managed to tweak the X48 chipset to its limits and keeps ahead of the 790i chipset. At overclocked speeds in the writing test, despite the slower FSB the X48 chipset manages to keep right on the heels of the 790i SLI.
Benchmarks - PCMark VantagePCMarkPCMark VantageVersion and / or Patch Used:
UnpatchedDeveloper Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage//Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
PCMark manages to put the X48 slightly ahead of the 790i at stock speeds, and it also manages to keep up at overclocked speeds despite a lower FSB.
Benchmarks - SYSmark 2007 PreviewSYSmark 2007Version and / or Patch Used:
1.04Developer Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/ Product Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/products/sysmark2007preview/>
SYSmark 2007 Preview is the latest version of the premier performance metric that measures and compares PC performance based on real world applications.SYSmark 2007 Preview extends the SYSmark family, which has been widely accepted by IT Managers, PC OEMs, press and analysts worldwide to support Windows Vista. SYSmark 2007 Preview allows users to directly compare platforms based on Windows Vista to those based on Windows XP Professional and Home.The new release also incorporates numerous new features and enhancements such as an improved GUI allowing streamlined start-up and run along with a heads-up-display (HUD) and automated error reporting.SYSmark 2007 Preview is an application-based benchmark that reflects usage patterns of business users in the areas of Video creation, E-learning, 3D Modeling and Office Productivity. This new release includes a robust and refreshed set of applications.
SYSmark manages to give the X48 a slight win at stock, but at overclocked we see that the 790i manages its first real win.
Benchmarks - Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0Version and / or Patch Used:
3.0Developer Homepage: http://www.adobe.com Product Homepage: http://www.adobe.com/products/premiereel/Buy It Here
Our test with Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 is performed with a raw two hour AVI file. It is then compressed into DivX format using the latest version codec. We measure the time it takes to encode and then record CPU usage.
Premiere Elements put both boards just about on par at the stock clocked levels. However, the 790i manages to get a slight lead at overclocked speeds.
Benchmarks - HDD PerformanceHD TachVersion and / or Patch Used:
188.8.131.52Developer Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.comProduct Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.com/Public/index.php?request=HdTachThere are a few important notes to remember though; while our maximum power is taken in 3DMark06 at the same exact point, we have seen in particular tests the power being drawn as much as 10% more. We test at the exact same stage every time; therefore tests should be very consistent and accurate.The performance of the board was right up there with the likes of the X48 chipset, so if you're planning on an SLI setup for your NVIDIA chipset, the 790i isn't going to disappoint as much as the 780i does.