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nForce 4 Technology Overview nForce 4 Technology Overview: NVIDIA brings PCI Express, SLI and new security features to the Athlon 64. Read on to see what else they've brought to the table.
Date: October 19, 2004
Written By:
Edited By:

NVIDIA has come quite a long way with their nForce chipset. From the original version that arrived a bit late to the scene causing it not to revolutionize performance and computing, but rather to be just another chipset in the face of the competition. This was followed by the nForce 2, which produced a much better showing than the original nForce by actually being released on time and having some features and functionality that set them aside from the competition. While the nForce 2 surely wasn't without a few problems, I can not say that there is any single chipset that has been released to date that was not. Next came the nForce 3 which marked a beginning to the 64-bit computing era and a few new features such as a built-in hardware firewall.

Now NVIDIA is gearing up to release their new nForce 4 chipset. Following with their tradition of adding at least a little something new to the mix, the nForce 4 chipset will be AMD's first PCI Express chipset for the Athlon 64 family of CPU's. Alongside the new PCI Express base of the nForce 4, other major features include that ability to use SLI with supporting NVIDIA graphics cards, a continuation of the built-in hardware firewall, methods to easily optimize the performance of your PC, and also methods for safely storing your electronic information. There are three versions of the nForce 4 that will be released. Following is a table of these three versions and their features.

Product Line CPU Support Target Market Expected Price Point (USD)
nForce 4 SLI Athlon 64 FX and Athlon 64 High-end Enthusiast Less than $200
nForce 4 Ultra Athlon 64 FX and Athlon 64 Enthusiast $100 - $150
nForce 4 Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 Sempron Value/Mainstream $55 - $80

It should be pretty obvious based on the table what kind of features each of these boards will support. The nForce 4 SLI and nForce 4 Ultra are essentially the same boards, supporting Socket 939, with the exception of the nForce 4 SLI being capable of using two NVIDIA SLI supporting graphics cards.

The nForce 4 will obviously be the basic value board much like what PC manufacturers include in the majority of their systems, and will be offered in both Socket 754 and likely Socket 939 as well.

nForce SLI

The first major feature of interest is the new SLI support that comes with the nForce 4. Given that SLI is an NVIDIA specific technology, it would stand to reason that they would be the first to release a motherboard chipset that supports this technology for the AMD platform. I'm quite sure that most of you reading this already know what SLI is, but for any that don't, it is a technology developed by NVIDIA that allows the use of 2 PCI Express x16 graphics cards, via a bridge connector, in one system to boost performance by essentially assigning a portion of the screen to each graphics card, rather than having one graphics card responsible for the entire screen. While a single card will operate at the full PCI Express x16 specification, two cards will operate on dual PCI Express x8 pathways.

To give the best performance, NVIDIA has built the SLI technology directly into the MCP giving it direct access to the system bus, without the need to go through unnecessary components to do its job. Think of it as load balancing, as each card should be doing the same amount of work any given time.

It would stand to reason that the use of SLI, especially with a couple of high-end GeForce 6800 Ultra's or 6800 GT's, will greatly improve the performance of your games, and that NVIDIA will probably have the best performing solution for this technology, though that remains to be seen when we actually get some hardware to test this with. This will definitely be a feature that some high-end gamers will be quite interested in, and depending on the pricing, might allow some enthusiast to use as well.

It's important to realize that you will not be required to use two 6800 Ultras for SLI, though that would certainly be the fastest setup, albeit the most expensive. Dual 6800 GTs and the upcoming 6600 GTs will also be supported, which will cover the sub-$200 to $400 to $500 market. While those are the planned price points, you'll obviously have to double those numbers for SLI. While two cards are required, they do not necessarily have to be from the same manufacturer. So long as the card(s) (as well as the motherboard) pass NVIDIA's SLI certification, in theory, you can have an ASUS and MSI card for example in the same system. Ideally, you'll want the same clock speeds (and in our opinion, the same manufacturer), or else the SLI setup will default to the lowest common denominator. Both cards have to be from the same family however, as you cannot match a 6800 Ultra with a 6600 GT.

To get an idea how much performance we may see with SLI, take a look at the following chart demonstrating Doom 3 performance:

6800 Ultra
6800 GT
6600 GT

While the above numbers are direct from NVIDIA, it does present to us some interesting information. What is obvious is that SLI gives a significant performance advantage over a single GPU solution, within its own class. What is interesting is the SLI 6800 GT's performance which is a lot higher than the single 6800 Ultra, and not too far off from the Ultra's SLI numbers. While the 6600 GT SLI setup trails the 6800 GT's single performance in Doom 3, the numbers NVIDIA provided show it outperforms the lone 6800 GT in Halo and 3DMark05.

Keep in mind that although two NVIDIA cards are required for SLI, the upcoming boards will of course support single cards from any manufacturer. These cards will have to be PCI Express based though, as the nForce 4 (all versions) will be dropping AGP all together. We say it again... don't hold your breath for any creative tinkering by motherboard makers... AGP is gone. One other note is there won't be any integrated graphics with the initial release of the nForce 4. Based on market studies, AMD buyers tend to seek out discreet graphics solutions, and as PCI Express ramps up, there may be an integrated solution down the line.


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