Not too long ago, there was a time where enthusiasts will agree that Intel is faster when it comes to applications and AMD is the better platform for gaming. If you've read our Intel 3.73GHz Extreme Edition last Friday, you'll know that this isn't really the case anymore as AMD has really caught up to Intel in the application side of things, though still hold a slight edge in gaming.
While things are close when using current generation graphics cards, there is one advantage AMD had always held for gaming and that is the ability to use two NVIDIA cards and an nForce 4 SLI motherboard for better gaming performance. Intel had no answer to that in the consumer market as none of their chipsets supported SLI. That changes today as NVIDIA will officially launch the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition.
nForce4 SLI SPP
The nForce4 SLI SPP is one part of the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition solution and is primarily responsible for the more exciting aspects of the launch, at least for gamers and enthusiasts. It is comprised of 61 million transistors, and built on the 0.13 micron process. The three primary functions of the SPP are:
Pentium 4 Support - Intel's LGA775 CPUs will be the processors of choice for the nForce4 SLI. All 5xx and 6xx series of CPUs will work with the boards, including full support for the Extreme Edition CPUs. Intel's Dual Core processors are also supported, but it will be up to the board manufacturers if they will support the processor. Chances are, the usual tier-1 board builders will.
NVIDIA DualDDR2 architecture - The SPP will support 128-bit Dual Channel DDR2-667MHz, and is designed to operate in 128-bit mode independent of DIMM configuration. One issue with most DDR2 kits is the high latency, and NVIDIA is introducing a few technologies to address this issue. A dedicated address bus per DIMM is one step towards lowering latencies, and in addition to that, we have NVIDIA's QuickSync and Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Preprocessor (DASP) 3.0.
QuickSync minimizes latency by transferring memory requests and data between the FSB and memory in the shortest amount of time. Typically, many users attempt to run the FSB and memory at the same speeds (a 1066FSB CPU is 266MHz quad-pumped, and 533MHz memory is 266MHz DDR(2)), AKA, synchronous. QuickSync lowers latency by allowing the FSB and memory to run asynchronous at their highest speeds, all while speeding up the internal paths between the two. When overclocking, there is potential for synchronization delay, and QuickSync is one way of alleviating that.
DASP 3.0 is an overhaul of NVIDIA's previous DASP prefetchers. DASP 3.0's preprocessors track each core and each thread and prefetch the appropriate data. They are adaptive so as the thread is executed, they can fine-tune their prediction algorithms, choose a different algorithm, or create a hybrid to be more efficient.
PCI Express - For SLI to work, two PCI Express Graphics ports will need to be present. Given that NVIDIA is only launching the nForce4 SLI today, you can expect to see SLI-only boards from their launch partners.
nForce4 SLI MCP
Moving on to the NVIDIA MCP, most of the AMD features will be carried over to the Intel platform. Built on the 0.15 micron process, the chip consists of 21 million transistors and include features such as up to 10 USB 2.0 ports, 8-channel audio, Gigabit Ethernet w/ActiveArmor as well as NVIDIA's MediaShield.
ActiveArmor - On the motherboard side of things, this was the industry's first hardware based Firewall when it was introduced last year. Being that it is integrated into the MCP, this frees the up the CPU, which unlike a software based solution, the CPU does not have to process packets. The nForce 4 Firewall supports remote access, configuration, monitoring, command line interface (CLI), and WMI scripts. These features allow you to have a great deal of control over how the Firewall operates should you desire, and are all able to be configured through wizards so almost everyone should have little trouble in configuring their Firewall.
One advantage the nForce 4 Firewall has over software firewalls (outside the fact that those are redundant and eat up valuable CPU resources since it is CPU dependent) is that it is activated the instant that the network connection becomes active, so you are protected from the instant that the operating system loads. Unlike most standard broadband routers which primarily uses NAT as its method of protection, the nForce 4 Firewall uses stateless and stateful methods to filter packets (D-Link is one exception we're aware of as they also use Stateful Packet Inspection). Unless you practice unsafe surfing habits such as downloading files named "hackmypc.exe", the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition should be just as secure as AMD's setup given you're using a 6xx series Intel CPU (with the XD Bit enabled).
Just one note before we get a ton of emails from router companies, ActiveArmor is not really a replacement for a broadband router in that you need a router if you wish to connect multiple PCs to a network. Sure, this can be done with any motherboard with multiple NICs, but rarely are home networks setup as such. If these routers have Stateful Packet Inspection, consider that a bonus.
MediaShield - NVIDIA's MediaShield is one of the best storage solutions we've seen offered for Intel in quite some time. Along with Single SATA 3GB/sec support and NCQ, the NVRAID supports JBOD, RAID-0, 1, 0+1, 3 and RAID-5. What is interesting about NVRAID is it can span RAID arrays across PATA and SATA, which is good news for those holding on to older PATA drives. Morphing is another NVIDIA technology that can save users time and headaches by allowing them to reconfigure arrays without the usual process of backing up, deleting arrays and recreating them.
We received an early production board which as you can see above looks pretty much like their AMD based SLI board except for the socket and memory configuration. NVIDIA is placing this chipset in the high-end segment of the market so at this time there will not be any single slot solutions available. While DDR2 is still going through some of its growing pains, Intel is committed to the memory and NVIDIA is following suit. As we'll see in our memory benchmarks later on, this was a wise decision.
We don't want to dive into the BIOS and board layout too much as final boards from their launch partners will certainly differ in some, if not many ways. We also didn't get a chance to play with the overclocking too much since we were limited to air cooling in the short timeframe with the hardware, and the current BIOS we received had limited options. Just a note; according to early customer feedback, some test subjects are reporting OCs in the 300FSB range. By no means take this as the norm, as we may get better (or worse) OC results depending on the final retail boards.