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NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra Shootout : ABIT Fatal1ty AN8
By Zachary Chan
Category : Mainboard
Published by Vijay Anand on Wednesday, 25th May, 2005


The Force Is Strong With This One

In our last socket 939 Athlon 64 motherboard shootout, we compared boards from more matured and mainstream oriented chipsets such as the VIA K8T800 Pro and NVIDIA's nForce3 Ultra. This time around, we take a look at one of the newer core logic chipsets that is targeted at the higher-end enthusiast community, the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra.

NVIDIA had run into various teething problems during almost all their initial nForce chipset launches, with issues ranging from driver compatibility to 'crippled' hardware. That resulted in multiple chipset revisions and updates to bring them up to par with good sustained performance and stability. Despite these initial problems, NVIDIA's foray into motherboard core logic solutions was still wildly successful due to what must be seen as innovative marketing. They toyed around with computing issues that were of mass-market appeal and cleverly integrated new technologies into each chipset generation. Along with great features in their top-end chipset variants, not to forget is the favorable performance that undeniably propelled the nForce series to what it is today.

The original nForce boasted the world's first dual memory controller design and the nForce2 capitalized on SoundStorm, the first ever onboard sound solution with Dolby Digital encoding and audio that could rival the best consumer sound cards. When it came to the nForce3, it was again the first and is still the only chipset to feature a hardware based firewall and security engine. This was an excellent stratagem on NVIDIA's behalf at a time when home networking and Internet security threats were gaining discussion limelight and they still are well-discussed topics among the Internet communities.

The NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset. (Source: NVIDIA)

As the successor to the nForce3, the nForce4 brings about the latest technologies such as PCI Express and Serial ATA II to the AMD platform. However, the key feature of the nForce4 has to be the new Scalable Link Interface or SLI for short. This technology borrows the concept from the now defunct 3dfx's Scan Line Interleave (also SLI), which is a method of off-loading graphic processing onto two or more graphic cards operating in parallel, thus boosting performance. If you haven't guessed yet, the nForce4 SLI is again the first widely available dual graphic card technology since the 3dfx Voodoo2 SLI back in 1997. With this very feature alone, NVIDIA has been able to keep the hype strong on the entire nForce4 line even though only the nForce4 SLI version officially supports SLI. That's not a bad thing either since the entire nForce4 series features a very robust and advanced feature set that's worth some attention.

The launch of the nForce4 chipsets showed that NVIDIA is a much more matured company who has probably mastered the art of designing chipsets as we saw no major hiccups occurring over the past six months. Indeed, NVIDIA seems to be doing fine and have even extended their influence over to the Intel market with their nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset, which has also set some milestones and speed records of its own.

In a nutshell, the nForce4 family brings three major technologies to the AMD Athlon 64 market, SLI, PCI Express and SATA II. The rest of the features such as ActiveArmor Networking and Firewall, MediaShield Storage and dedicated Gigabit LAN have already been built upon since the later incarnations of the nForce3 series. The following table shows all the main features and difference between the nForce4 family and its predecessor, the nForce3 Ultra.

NVIDIA nForce4 Chipset Comparison Chart
nForce4 SLI nForce4 Ultra nForce4 nForce3 Ultra
CPU Support
  • Socket 939
  • Socket 939 / 754
  • Socket 939 / 754
  • Socket 939 / 754
HyperTransport Clock Speed
  • 1GHz (5x HTT)
  • 1GHz (5x HTT)
  • 1GHz (5x HTT)
  • 1GHz (5x HTT)
Graphics Interface
  • PCI Express x16
  • Dual GPU SLI technology
  • PCI Express x16
  • PCI Express x16
  • AGP8X/4X (1.5V)
PCI Express Config
  • 20 Lanes
  • Flexible config
  • 20 Lanes
  • Fixed config (16,1,1,1)
  • 20 Lanes
  • Fixed config (16,1,1,1)
  • None
PCI Support
  • 6 PCI slots
  • PCI 2.3
  • 6 PCI slots
  • PCI 2.3
  • 6 PCI slots
  • PCI 2.3
  • 6 PCI slots
  • PCI 2.3
Storage Support
  • SATA II 300
  • UDMA ATA133
  • MediaShield Storage
  • RAID Morphing
  • Cross Controller RAID
  • SATA II 300
  • UDMA ATA133
  • MediaShield Storage
  • RAID Morphing
  • Cross Controller RAID
  • SATA 150
  • UDMA ATA133
  • MediaShield Storage
  • RAID Morphing
  • Cross Controller RAID
  • SATA 150
  • UDMA ATA133
  • MediaShield Storage
Networking
  • Native Gigabit Ethernet
  • ActiveArmor Firewall
  • ActiveArmor Secure Networking Engine
  • Native Gigabit Ethernet
  • ActiveArmor Firewall
  • ActiveArmor Secure Networking Engine
  • Native Gigabit Ethernet
  • ActiveArmor Firewall
  • Native Gigabit Ethernet
  • ActiveArmor Firewall
USB
  • 10 USB 2.0 ports
  • 10 USB 2.0 ports
  • 10 USB 2.0 ports
  • 8 USB 2.0 ports
Note that SLI technology is only available to the nForce4 SLI family. Vanilla nForce4 and the nForce4 Ultra do not officially feature nor support SLI functionality.

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