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NVIDIA's nForce Invades the Motherboard Chipset Market

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NVIDIA's nForce Invades the Motherboard Chipset Market

If I said "NVIDIA" to you and asked what came to mind, it would probably be something like "high-performance 3D video, fast gaming graphics!" Whether you're talking about the bleeding edge of high-performance video, where GeForce 3 rules, or the mid-range where various GeForce 2 versions dominate, you'd be right on target.

But, if I asked you about motherboard chipsets, you'd mention Intel (of course!), VIA, and Acer Labs, and maybe SiS. If I asked you about the 3D audio and video performance of their chipsets with built-in video, you'd probably stare at me and say "what performance?" But, everything we know (or thought we knew) about chipsets with integrated 3D audio and video performance is about to change: NVIDIA's coming to the chipset party.

Enter nForce

NVIDIA's first motherboard chipset, the nForce, represents a significant challenge to both high-end and low-end chipsets. . High-end chipsets typically support advanced features such as an AGP 4x slot and fast memory such as DDR SDRAM, while low-end chipsets save money by integrating low-end 3D graphics and rudimentary 3D audio into the chipset. The nForce chipset will initially ship in two flavors, the nForce 420 (the real performance workhorse) and the nForce220 (an entry-level version of the chipset).

The nForce is designed to take on both the high-end and low-end markets with a unique combination of features in its two-chip set, which is based upon the core logic designs originally developed for Microsoft's X-Box game machine (which premieres in early November 2001).

The North Bridge/IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor) contains:

  • A high-speed 128-bit (2 x 64 bits) memory controller enables fast performance for the integrated graphics and offers support for different types and sizes of system memory. In the nForce 420, there are twin memory controllers (the "TwinBank Memory Architecture" or "Crossbar Memory Architecture") that work in concert with each other to balance memory requirements between the demands of all components in your system. The nForce 220, however, provides only a single 64-bit memory controller, which will be costly to its performance in comparison to the nForce420. Still, even the nForce 220's single memory controller can dynamically allocate memory as needed between the system, graphics, and audio requirements.
  • GeForce2 MX graphics onboard. The fast onboard graphics connect via a 4.2GB/sec pipeline (the approximate equivalent of AGP 6.5x) to the rest of the system on the nForce 420, making this chip by far the fastest integrated video on the market. The IGP's onboard graphics support NVIDIA's shading rasterizer and transform and lighting features, making its onboard graphics both the fastest and the best of all integrated-graphics chipsets on the market.
  • DVI (digital video interface) support for LCD displays
  • AGP 4x/8x slot support, if you need even faster performance than the integrated GeForce2 MX can provide.
  • AMD's HyperTransport interface to the South Bridge. HyperTransport is a much faster replacement for the PCI bus and other North Bridge designs, running at 800MB/sec. This is about three times faster than Intel and VIA chipsets' 266MB/sec speed, and is exceeded only by the newest single-chip SiS products (1.2GB/sec).
  • Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Pre-processor, a hardware data prefetch feature similar to the data prefetch feature built into the Athlon MP and other Palomino-core AMD processors. However, if you have a Thunderbird-core AMD processor, DASP will work for you as well, and can boost your performance by as much as 20% from the current chipset you're using.
  • Support for asymmetric clocking, which runs the FSB (front-side bus which is the processor bus) and memory bus at different speeds
  • Support for three DDR DIMM modules of different sizes

The South Bridge equivalent is referred to as the MCP (the Media and Communications Processor). It also contains high-performance features, including:

ATA/100 IDE support. Thanks to the HyperTransport link between the IGP and the MCP, the ATA/100 subsystem has been timed to perform file copy tasks about three times faster than an otherwise similarly-equipped system based on the AMD 760/VIA686B chipset. See the test results for yourself at (www.electic.com/Reviews/NVIDIA_nforce/index8.shtml)

High-performance audio processing unit (APU). One version of the MCP will include Dolby Digital AC-3 encoding, while another will feature Dolby Digital AC-3 plus a breakout box for audio and USB input/output. While the entry-level version of the MCP will not include Dolby Digital sound, it still has impressive features. All versions provide support for simultaneous 192 2D and 64 3D audio streams at up to 4 billion operations per second, which matches or exceeds the performance of high-end separate audio cards from Creative Labs, Philips, and others.

  • Home PNA 2.0 and 10/100 Fast Ethernet networking
  • SoftModem (integrated analog modem)
  • Twin USB 1.x hubs with support for 6 USB ports; USB 2.0 support will be incorporated later

nForce, Aureal, and AMD

What makes nForce so special? NVIDIA avoided the "not invented here" syndrome that sometimes takes over the psyche of a successful company and has teamed up with other leaders in PC architecture to produce nForce. Remember Aureal? Their positional 3D audio was often regarded as better than that of the Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Live! series, but the company folded in 2000. NVIDIA hired much of Aureal's human capital, and put them to work on the X-Box project. X-Box's core logic is very similar to the IGP used by the nForce chipsets.

What about AMD's HyperTransport interface? AMD has developed chipsets for its Athlon and Duron processors but prefers to stick to building processors and letting other chip houses build the chipsets. The use of HyperTransport in the nForce is tangible evidence of AMD's working with NVIDIA as a major partner. nForce chipsets, at least for the present, work only with AMD processors.

How Fast Is It?

Early benchmarks (see the bar graphs at (www.penstarsys.com/previews/NVIDIA/nforce) show that a 1.2GHz Athlon running on the nForce 420 chipset beats a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 using the Intel 850 chipset. How much faster? From the graphs, I calculated the following improvements for the Athlon plus nForce 420:

  • Sysmark: 19% faster
  • Business Winstone: 19% faster
  • Content Creation Winstone: 12% faster

Granted there are a lot of variables that can shape results like these. Considering, however, that the Intel 850 and Pentium 4 combination is much more expensive out of the box, requires more expensive memory (RDRAM vs DDR SDRAM) and an add-on video card (an option that many nForce user won't require), there's no doubt about it. The nForce plus Athlon combination will very likely be a better deal for both your wallet, and in most cases, your stopwatch.

Who Will Be First with a nForce Motherboard?

The first nForce motherboards will come from some of the major vendors in the Taiwan motherboard market, including:

Look for the first products to appear in the late summer and early fall of 2001. Most motherboards will be Micro-ATX, at least initially, but of course those will fit in any case that accepts a full-sized ATX board. While the nForce chipsets will cost a bit more than bargain-basement integrated chipsets from other vendors, you won't need a video or sound card to have great performance.

Conclusion

The nForce chipset redefines expectations of what an integrated chipset can do. Instead of providing bottom-of-the-barrel 3D audio and video performance and mediocre overall speed, the nForce series, especially the high-end nForce 420, puts integrated chipsets on an equal footing with mid-range to high-end separate components, but at a lower price. By preserving the AGP slot option, there's no limit on what you can do to improve video in the future. And if you need just one more checkmark to go in the nForce's "plus" column. Look no further than integrated drivers, which will require you to download only one set of drivers to control your motherboard, video, audio and networking functions. Beats the heck out of having to download a separate set of drivers for each component, doesn't it?

While NVIDIA is a newcomer to core logic, its success in winning the X-Box competition and the incredible features it's added to the nForce chipsets suggest NVIDIA knows what it's doing.

For More Information

NVIDIA's official nForce web site is located at:(www.NVIDIA.com)

Tom's Hardware has an in-depth look at the nForce chipset: (www6.tomshardware.com/mainboard/01q2/0106041/index.html)

Josh Walrath's nForce Preview is available at: (www.penstarsys.com/previews/NVIDIA/nforce/)

Van Smith's nForce Closeup (which also contains details about the nForce's inspiration, the X-Box) is at (www.electic.com/Reviews/NVIDIA_nforce/index.shtml)

© Copyright 2002 Pearson Technology Group. All rights reserved.

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