When it comes to purchasing a motherboard for overclocking there is probably no name that is as synonymous with “extreme levels” as . They not only have a cult following, they have nearly every enthusiast’s ear when it comes to overclocking discussions and hardware comparison. I must ask myself then, why is it just now, almost 4 years into reviewing (and many more of tweaking) that I am getting to tweak my first DFI motherboard. That is an interesting question...
Lucky for me, I finally received my first DFI motherboard, and oh what a doozy it is as well. The LANParty has been a long standing (in computer terms) tradition at DFI. Their latest nF4 iteration comes as a stock , which is equipped with either SLI or DFI's own DXG (Dual eXpress Graphics). I will get into the details further into the review.
The DFI Ultra LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D (say that 3 times fast) is a socket 939 full ATX motherboard utilizing the newer 24 pin Main power connector. You can read into this that you should have a high quality power supply to bring this motherboard to life. There are 2 x16 PCIe slots for DFI's DXG solution and a nice Karajan Audio module for 7.1ch Theater sound. Let’s look over all of the specifications.
DFI brings to the table a few things that I have not seen; especially in the BIOS with additional features such as CMOS reload. This basically allows you to save configurations within the BIOS so that you can boot to them if something becomes unstable. Say you get a solid overclock at 250 HT with the DRAM set to 3-3-3-6 and S.M.A.R.T turned off. You then save that BIOS configuration and continue to manipulate the BIOS to find the premium setting, knowing that you can always load back a previously saved, known working overclock, not just the “Default” BIOS configuration with the push of a single button. A nice touch that I was able to play with and from a reviewers/tweakers point of view, a feature that is very useful during testing.
I must admit, when I opened up the shipping box, I was less then impressed. The graphics and art work are definitely aimed at a younger, more ‘1337’ crowd then myself. This same art work and packaging flows through to the manual; well, what there is of one.
Included with the DFI Ultra-D motherboard is a nice set of high performance IDE / Floppy / SATA cabling, colored yellow to match their PCI / PCIe slots on the motherboard. They have included almost enough cables to fully connect every device this motherboard is capable of, however they only sent 2 SATA cables; the standard number of SATA cables included with most SATA equipped boards these days. Also included is a bag of jumpers and block pins and something I have not seen in years; a Pin / Block puller. The set of block pins are however useless for anything but the SLI version and my guess is they have a prepackage for all of their LANParty NF4 types; everyone gets the extra pins regardless. There is of course a Driver CD and a SATA RAID Floppy to assist you with getting all of the peripherals to work. DFI have stuck with the NVIDIA nTune software to allow manipulation of your overclock from within Windows, either automatically or manually.
Going over the included manual you find that this is a basic “Quick Install” version and not much detail has gone into it. There is enough information to get you going, but that is about it. If you want detailed information on BIOS settings and what different selections within the BIOS means, well, you need to either download the full manual from the website or pull it off of the driver CD. The trick here is, you have to have printing setup prior to making any BIOS modifications as your machine can't be running reading a PDF file while your manipulate the BIOS. This is of course unless you are lucky enough to have multiple machines so that you can read from one whilst you modify settings within the Ultra-D's BIOS. Luckily I had downloaded the online manual and perused it for some tips prior to lighting the system up; lucky because the memory performs better in Memory slots 2 and 4 vs. 1 and 3.
The motherboard is brown with the aforementioned yellow highlights, with the only exception being the 2nd set of memory slots, which are orange. Black would have been my color of choice here for the PCB itself, as with the yellow (and even orange) it would have been a nice contrast behind the Plexiglas.
The socket used on the DFI Ultra LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D is of course of the 939 format and is quite clear from obstructions, mainly due to the differing layout design DFI have used here. The socket itself sits middle top under the horizontal ram slots and DFI have also covered the MOSFETs with aluminum heatsinks. As you can see in the pictures, even the largest heatsink can be installed thanks to the unique layout design of the motherboard. As is usual for the LANParty editions of DFI’s motherboard lineup, all the plastic is UV reactive and this includes the socket retention bracket and the ram slots themselves.
Under the socket is a 4 pin 5v/12v floppy connector which should be used along with the standard 24pin power, 4 pin ‘P4’ power and a Molex connector sitting to the mid right of the board. All of these power connections are there to aid in stability, especially when using two PCIe graphics cards. The 4pin P4 and the 24pin ATX connector both sit top left of the motherboard which really moves them out of the way; there really isn’t a much better space for them. Although the Molex connection also sits on the left of the board, the position of the 4pin floppy is practically in the middle of the board which does mean, if used, a little routing of wiring from the PSU will be needed.
Below the power connectors and sitting left of the CPU socket are 2 IDE ports with a further floppy port (mounted to face towards the front of your case rather than the side panel) lower still. Behind the floppy we can see the 4 SATA headers and the actively cooled MCP. Installing the Main graphics card you can see the active cooling fan for the chipset is basically in the way and with large graphics cards is covered a little by them. There is no room for error here and it’s a little too tight for my liking. I would think this interferes with the cooling of that chipset to some degree although I didn’t have any problems personally.
At the bottom of the board, near to the case connection pins are two buttons for power and reset, allowing you to control these aspects without plugging the board into a case.
The PCI/PCIe area has 2 PCI slots at the bottom, 2 PCIe Graphics slots, 1 PCIe 1x slot and a 4x PCIe slot. The 2 graphics slots are separated by the smaller of the 2 1xPCIe slots and large black block normally found on SLI motherboards, which despite this motherboard having 2 16x PCIe graphics slots, is not a feature on this board. I’ll expand more on the Dual Graphics nature of this board in a little bit but suffice to say, if you want this board to POST, don’t move the SLI jumper configuration from it’s normal settings.
The I/O Panel for the motherboard features (from left to right) 2 PS/2 ports for your mouse and keyboard, S/PDIF for sound, 6 USB slots, 1 Firewire and 2 RJ45’s. The obvious glaring difference from most boards here is the large gap and absence of 3.5mm jacks for sound. That’s were the supplied Karajan audio module comes in to play.
Installing the DFI Ultra, like many motherboards, is rarely an event especially if you happen to have a removable motherboard tray in the case you use. The slight variation to this with the DFI Ultra LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D is the add-on Karajan Audio Module for the rear audio out. My headphones are 5.1 surround so they have 3 connectors plus the microphone. In order to use these I had to install the Karajan module as the only audio ports that are on the motherboard itself is the front panel riser (simple R/L audio) and the S/PDIF risers for audio in and audio out. The rear I/O plate has a knock out if you choose to use the Karajan, the only issue I see here is if you ever decide to remove the Karajan module (I know, who would but if you can, someone will), you will have a hole in your rear I/O plate.
My first install I used a Western Digital ATA100 120GB Hard Drive and the included yellow high performance cable. Curiously, only the floppy connector is situated at the end of the motherboard, the ATA connectors are both on top. Once I ran a few tests with the ATA drive I rebuilt the system using a Hitachi 80GB SATA Drive. There are 4 SATA connectors on this motherboard; you can see solder points for 4 more, which is available on the “DR” models only. For my purposes, as I am sure most of yours, 4 SATA and 4 ATA devices should be ample. I know there are a few out there that are going to want the 8 devices; my guess is DFI heard you and therefore they made the DR motherboards. That actually bodes well for DFI and their customer service.
Expanding on the Dual Graphics I installed a 2nd video card which was a little cumbersome, mainly because my main graphics card is a HIS X850XT which encompasses two slots. The 2nd video, or DXG slot, is only 2 slots away making the fit snug. To challenge myself and the DFI solution, I installed an NVIDIA based ASUS N5900 Extreme to pair to my Radeon based X850XT. Surprisingly the physical installation was the hardest piece of it. The X850XT's fan was rubbing on the N5900 and causing it to halt, which, I am sure, would cause an overheat condition in time. I placed a thick elastic between the cards ensuring not to get it close to rub the fan or anything important. Another note about the DXG solution, with the cards so close together, only a card designed such as the HIS solution (kind of a catch 22 isn't it :P) could work properly as airflow would be drastically reduced between the cards, giving your high end card (in slot 1) the least amount of airflow. The HIS solution brings air in from the rear back of the card and flows it across the HS out the back of the case, almost as if designed to be in a tight space.
The software and drivers for both NVIDIA and ATI ran fine (albeit not overclocked) in this system. The solution appears to work seamlessly, nicely dispersing the load between the cards (manual selection of course) and allowing up to 4 monitors, unfortunately I only have 2.
Nothing truly glares out about the installation of Windows XP Pro with the possible exception to the NVIDIA IDE drivers as it relates to the SATA drive. The ones shipped with the DFI Ultra-D appeared flaky so I downloaded new ones from the DFI site, which seemed to correct a few blue screens etc. There were no such issues with the ATA drive installation. I used the NVIDIA nF4 drivers for both installs, I did not bother to check how the XP embedded MS IDE drivers would fare since these usually prove to work flawlessly if slower compared to their NVIDIA nF4 counterparts.