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Chaintech 7NIF2 nForce 2: Looking for a low-cost, and a Micro-ATX form factor mobo? The board not only features the nVidia IGP, but all the usual nForce 2 goodies as well.

Date: July 14, 2003
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    When Nvidia first released the nForce chipset in June 2001, many people were hoping that this would be THE chipset for the Athlon processor.  But as happens there were lengthy delays and nForce based motherboards didn't appear until some months later.  The performance of the chipset, while good was not earth shattering, and the late release helped dampen much of the enthusiasm that people had about the nForce chipset.  The other factor in its less than stellar sales was the fact that the first north bridge released were the ones with integrated graphics, which drove up the price of the motherboards based on them.  This increase in price of these boards wouldn't have mattered much, but the target group for the higher priced motherboards, the enthusiast, for the most part already had a good video card and didn't want to waste money on something they would never use.  

    While there were many presentation problems with the nForce chipset, it also had some very useful and high quality technologies included in it.  Such things as the integrated Dolby Digital encoder/decoder, allowed for high quality onboard audio, thus perhaps saving a PCI slot for something else.  Another very interesting feature is one of the first uses of AMD's high speed Hyper Transport technology in a product, which Nvidia used to connect the north bridge (IGP) to the south bridge (MCP) to allow for more bandwidth than the normal north/south bridge PCI bus design (800MB/s - 266MB/s).  Lastly and most importantly was the inclusion of 'Twinbank' which basically allowed for two 64-bit DDR DIMM's to be used as one 128-bit DIMM thus doubling the theoretical memory bandwidth without increasing memory speed (IE Rambus, 72 pin SIMM's), this was not a new idea but it was one of, if not the the first, to offer this implementation for the Athlon platform with DDR memory.

    When the nForce 2 was launched in July of 2002 it was met with a more guarded optimism as it looked to only offer some basic improvements over its previous version. There were some minor improvements to both the SPP/IGP and MCP. The MCP had one major improvement, the inclusion of integrated networking, as well as the ability to have dual onboard network cards (3COM/Nvidia). 

    Chaintech has only recently gotten into the process of making nForce motherboards.  They have only started using the nVidia based chipsets, starting with the nForce 2.  So how is their implementation of the nForce chipset, do they do a good job with one of their first attempts at making an nForce 2 motherboard?

Chaintech 7NIF2 Board

    This board is not one many would consider, as it is a ATX case.  But does it have any interesting features that help it stand out and make it an eye catching motherboard?  Let us look at the board to see.  To see the exact specifications of this motherboard, please look at  

    Here is an itemized list of what was included in the box:

  • The Chaintech 7NIF2 motherboard
  • 1 -  80 Pin IDE cable, 1 - Floppy cable
  • 7NIF2 Specific back plate
  • Manual and Addendum
  • Quick Reference Guide
  • Driver CD

The Motherboard - Continued

    The motherboard itself is obviously a ATX motherboard, and as such only sports a 1/3 (AGP/PCI) configuration for slots.  The AGP slot is an 8X compatible one, and works well with the MX 440 8X previously tested.  The location of the IDE ports was adaquate with the ports actually being located near where they would normally be on a full ATX board.  The three RAM slots are also located in their standard positions with the first two used to enable the single channel mode and the single DIMM slot used for Dual Channel mode.  

    The location of the ATX power connector is in one of my least favorite positions, as it located above the CPU socket, so that you have to route the power supply cable around the CPU heatsink.  This location of the ATX power connector is common in most boards with only a few exceptions existing.  The two fan headers avaliable are located in opposite positions, with one being just above the CPU socket and the other being right near the IDE connectors, with the only other connector powering the IGP's fan/heatsink combination.

    The heatsink fan that was put on the IGP was much like that found on low to mid end video cards as the cooler.  The fan itself blows over a solid piece of aluminum with the fins of the heatsink only existing on the outside of the heatsink.  This doesn't really allow for a great amount of heat transfer, but it does save in height of the cooler as you don't have two levels, fins and fan.  Upon taking off the heatsink I was expecting to see a TIM or even a small dab of thermal paste, but to my surprise I found that there was no material to help thermal transfer between the IGP and the heatsink.  I therefore put some thermal paste on and put the heatsink, which uses spring pins, back on the IGP.  

    The IGP underneath the heatsink is a A3 stepping of the nForce 2 IGP and was made fairly recently, which means most of the bugs, if any, have been worked out.  The 'southbridge' is the MCP not the MCP-T, which has support for Dual LAN and firewire.  The MCP is still a good controller as it still has an integrated LAN controller and support for USB2 and ATA133.  Though it doesn't have support for the extra features of the MCP-T this is still a good amount of features to be included in this small board.

     The back I/O panel is somewhat different from that of the standard ATX back plate.  First we notice that the USB ports have moved from their location right beside the PS/2 ports, and have moved along with the network connector to the other end of the panel.  Both serial ports are gone, replaced with the VGA port and the SVHS connector.  Chaintech helpfully provides a back plate connector so that you can use all these pieces.

    The CPU socket came with a nice little warning sticker on it, which tells you to make sure that the heatsink is actually on properly, which is a good reminder for all, and especially the beginner system builder.  Also looking at the CPU socket we see that there is the actual 4 holes around the socket for heatsinks or for some water-cooling setups.  The area around the CPU socket is a good amount though on the front of the socket there isn't a lot of clearance between the socket and the capacitors and the IGP heatsink, as you can see above.

BIOS and Overclocking

    One of the most important features, at least for the tweaker, is the BIOS.  In it you can edit settings so that you get the best performance from your system, and as such perhaps increase the speed of your RAM and CPU.  While many of the screens inside the BIOS are the same, lets look at two of the interesting BIOS screens specific to the Chaintech 7NIF2.

   

    This is where most of the tweaking of settings will occur.  You have the option to increase the FSB in mostly 1MHz increments, with a few exceptions.  One thing to notice is that there is no CPU multiplier support in this board, so you cannot underclock your TBred to be able to use the 166MHz FSB.  The memory frequency has many options, ranging from SPD to 200%.  With the tested memory we had the memory speed at 120% (166MHz @ 133MHz FSB).  This allows you to control exactly how fast you need the memory to be, perhaps since you are still running PC1600, or using the integrated graphics and you want to get the most out of you PC2700 or even PC3200.  The memory settings can be changed quite a bit, with the RCD and RP settings going from about 1 to 7, and the RAS going down pretty far as well.  

    The Frame Buffer is obviously to pick how much of your memory is going to be used by the integrated graphics, the most common options should be one of 32MB, 64MB or even the highest 128MB options.  For our tests we used the 64MB frame buffer, to give it the exact same amount as the GF4MX also tested.  The option for AGP frequency gives you the option of locking the AGP card to a specific speed, though why anyone would want to set it to 50MHz is beyond me, though there is the standard 66MHz speed option as well.  There is also the obvious support for AGP 8X, which detected our MSI GF4MX correctly and ran it at 8X.  Lastly there is an option for the TV mode that the SVHS output will use, and most if not all standards are included here.

    In this screen you get to see the current temperature of the system, as well as the voltages of all the relevant parts of the system.  The only selectable option is for the shutdown temperature, of which you get a choice of 85, 90, 95, and 100C before the system shuts down.

    The system we received and all of the 7NIF2's did not have any multiplier or voltage adjustments, so we could only overclock our test TBred using stock voltages.  In this the system POST'ed at and was stable at 150+ MHz, but this in no way tells the true limits of this systems possible 200MHz FSB, but rather of the CPU's overclocking ability at stock voltages.  As for the IGP portion of the system, it seemed possible to overclock the core and memory through drivers, but not through the hardware settings.  The stock speed of the core of the video card, as read by Rivatuner was 200MHz, so there should be some room for overclocking there, and I will update this review if I manage to get a hold of another board.  We know that this is an IGP based system, and as such is built around the GeForce 4 MX series, so lets look at how it looks, quality wise, first in 2D and then in 3D.

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