|Introduction, Features and Specs|
Here at HotHardware, we have a special place in our hearts for companies that transcend the norm in order to better appeal to the small, niche group of hardware fanatics that we like to call enthusiasts. The end result often times is that new design innovations are also introduced to the mainstream, due in part to this focus on the technophile's requirements. As such, when we saw EVGA's latest nForce 790i SLI-based motherboard, we had to get it in our labs to take a closer look at it.
Today, we finally have the opportunity to present our thoughts and performance results from testing the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM motherboard (EVGA part number: 132-YW-E180-A1). The name of the board is definitely a mouthful, but don't let that turn you off. This is definitely one special board that has a lot to offer. For starters, it sports three PCI Express x16 slots for 3-way SLI, and it boasts support for up to nine SATA 3Gbps drives. Additionally, the mainboard supports 2,000MHz dual channel DDR3 with EPP and a front side bus up to 1,600MHz. The board was designed with enthusiasts in mind though, so you can rest assured that EVGA also includes a plethora of overclocking options in the BIOS. Continuing the trend, EVGA appeals to enthusiasts even further by offering a digital PWM, an 8-phase power design, VDroop control, 100% solid state capacitors, and onboard clear CMOS, power and reset buttons.
EVGA definitely put a lot of thought and work into the design of its nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM motherboard. In the following pages, we'll show you the details of that design, and we'll see what type of performance the board offers when compared to an Intel X38 Express motherboard. Let's start things off by taking a quick look at the board's specifications and features.
EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM Key Features
EVGA packs the nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM motherboard and all the included accessories in a large, atom-inspired box. As usual, EVGA does a good job of highlighting all the great features of the product found inside the box. As you can see in the third picture below, the board itself is surrounded by plastic to protect it during shipping. All of the accessories simply rest between the plastic and the box walls. This works just fine, but sometimes it is nice to have the small accessory boxes that some companies use to hold all the extras.
Speaking of the extras, you can see the bundled accessories in the two pictures below. You will find the following amongst the included accessories: an EVGA driver installation CD, a rear case I/O panel, six SATA data cables, three SATA power cables, one rounded ATA133 cable, one rounded floppy cable, a 2-way SLI bridge, a 3-way SLI bridge, a serial port bracket, a USB port bracket, a FireWire port bracket, a Quick Install Guide, and a Users manual. We really like and appreciate the inclusion of the Quick Install Guide. It has a nice, big picture of the motherboard with installation instructions and important areas of the board identified.
|A Closer Look at the Board|
EVGA typically uses black PCBs for its motherboards, and the nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM is no exception. As you can see below, the board is black and sports bright green, blue, white, black, and red connectors. Overall, the layout of the board is very logical and did not pose any problems for us during installation.
The EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM features four DDR3 DIMM slots: two blue and two black. Closer to the edge of the board, you will find the 24-pin ATX power connector, and the IDE connector. The final connectors in the first picture that are worth pointing out are the four SATA connectors that are in between the DIMM slots and the IDE connector. At first, this may seem like a strange place to put these SATA connectors, but EVGA did this in order to prevent the connectors from being covered up and unusable when a PCI Express graphics card is installed in the first PCI Express x16 slot. Kudos to EVGA for doing this. We've used way too many boards where this isn't even a consideration, and at least two SATA connectors are lost once a video card is installed. It's refreshing to see a company design a board such that all the connectors are actually usable. In the second image below, you can see the 90-degree floppy connector, two 90-degree SATA connectors, and the LED POST code readout, which can be very helpful when troubleshooting a problem with the board. Additionally, you can see the heatsink on top of the NVIDIA MCP chip. In the third picture, we zoomed in on the headers in this corner of the board. Pictured here are the front panel header, the serial port bracket connector, and two USB headers. In between the headers, EVGA included a clear CMOS button, which is definitely a welcomed addition on any board.
In the next two pictures, you can see the LGA 775 CPU socket and the clearance around the socket. Since this board is geared towards enthusiasts, you can bet EVGA decided to give you plenty of clearance for big coolers. Surrounding the CPU socket is the board's cooling mechanism, which includes heatpipes, fins and the active cooling on the nForce 790i SLI SPP chip. In the second picture, you can see the digital PWM above the CPU socket (the components have "CPL-4-50" written on them). These help increase stability during overclocking, and these are what make this board special.
Here is the area of the board many of you are no doubt very interested in. You can see the three bright green PCI Express x16 slots, which of course enable users to rock a 3-way SLI setup. Amongst the three PCI Express x16 slots, you will also find two PCI Express x1 slots and two PCI slots. Additionally, there are three red SATA connectors in this area. In the second picture below, you probably noticed the yellow and green buttons. These are onboard power (green) and reset (yellow) buttons, one more thoughtful convenience EVGA included in its design. Above these buttons, you can see one of the five 3-pin fan headers on the board.. One of our pet peeves is when a company only includes three or less fan headers. We definitely like to see too many rather than not enough when it comes to fan headers.
The following three pictures are intended to give you a good look at all the cooling hardware installed on the nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM. We think it is a good design that adds a nice bit of style to the board. The shroud around the fan that sits on top of the SPP sports the EVGA logo and the words "790i Digital" to let people know how you're rolling. As we already mentioned, the MCP is cooled passively with a slick heatsink.
No motherboard is complete without its rear I/O. This board sports the following connectors: PS/2 mouse, PS/2 keyboard, coaxial SPDIF output, optical SPDIF output, eSATA, FireWire, 8-channel audio, six USB 2.0, and two LAN ports.
|BIOS and Overclocking|
Like many other consumer-level boards, the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM utilizes a Phoenix AwardBIOS. In the three images below, you can see the main BIOS page/menu, the Integrated Peripherals page, and the PC Health Status page. For the most part, these screens are all standard fare and not too exciting. We have to dig a little deeper to see what EVGA cooked up for those who like to tweak.
The "Frequency/Voltage Control" menu is where all your overclocking and tweaking adventures will start. For those of you who do not want to look at a bunch of different settings and fiddle with all the details, EVGA was kind enough to include a "Dummy O.C" option. As you can see in the first picture below, the "Dummy O.C" allows you to set an overclock from 5% to 25% in 5% increments. Keep in mind, though, that all these options won't work just because they are available. You'll still have to do some trial and error work to see what your components can handle. In the second picture, you can see that this BIOS allows you to save and load three different timing/voltage profiles. The third image shows the "System Clocks" page, which is where you will find the CPU multiplier.
The following two images show the "FSB & Memory Config" and "Memory Timing Setting" screens. In addition to being able to adjust the FSB, you can also enable or disable EPP 2.0 if you have compatible EPP memory. In addition, you can alter the FSB-memory ratio and tweak the memory speed. For hardcore overclockers and tweak addicts, EVGA also included advanced memory settings.
The "System Voltages" screen is where you see just how serious EVGA was about making this board an overclocker's best friend. Not many boards offer the range that EVGA does on these voltages, and not just one of them but all of them. EVGA even color codes the options to let you know how dangerous the choices can be. As you can see in the images below, EVGA uses white, green and red text to indicate the risk level to the user. Red seems to indicate very risky voltages; green is less risky; and white seems pretty safe. CPU core goes all the way up to 2.0V, and memory hits 3.075V.
There is no doubt that this board has enthusiast written all over it. Still, we are glad to see that EVGA didn't forget about the average Joe by including color-coded voltages and the "Dummy O.C" options.
We'd be willing to bet that if you are even considering this board, then you are probably interested in overclocking. Since we aim to please and satisfy the curious, we set out to see how much higher we could get the FSB with our Core 2 Quad Q9650 (3 GHz). Note that we didn't use any elaborate cooling for this overclocking session. We simply used a standard heatsink and fan combo.
As you can see above, we were able to hit 475MHz FSB (which, quad-pumped, equates to 1900MHz). We tried some voltage increases to go higher, but it just wasn't having it. We were hoping to go higher, and we probably could if we put more time into it and used a dual core processor. Nevertheless, we were pleased with how easy the motherboard was to overclock with a Q9650 in its socket. We never once had to actually reset the BIOS after failed attempts. The board handled the failures gracefully and allowed us to go back into the BIOS and make changes, just the way we like it. The board also did a nice job of automatically adjusting voltages as needed to help maintain stability. EVGA put a lot of effort into this BIOS, and it shows.
As always, overclocking is something you do at your own risk, however, and your mileage will vary.
|Test System and PCMark Vantage|
We ran our test motherboards through PCMark Vantage, Futuremark’s latest system performance metric built especially for Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads, including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so they can exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core CPUs.
The Intel X38 Express board actually edges out the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM in our first round of tests. We aren't surprised that the results are close, but we are a surprised that the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM wins only one of the tests (Communications).
|Sandra Test Results|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 suite on the test motherboards (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multi-Media, and Memory).
For all intents and purposes, the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM basically ties with the X38 board in our SANDRA CPU tests. The EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM's margin of victory is not significant.
While the margin is small here too, it means a little more since the numbers aren't as large. You can see that the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM outpaces the Intel X38 Express board by about 1-2%, which is still not really noteworthy.
|Cinebench and POV-Ray Test Results|
Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D. Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
These results fall in line with our expectations. They show that both boards offer similar CPU performance.
POV-Ray , or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is a top-notch open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard 'all-CPU' benchmarking tool on all of our test motherboards and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput; higher scores equate to better performance.
Like the Cinebench test, the POV-Ray test shows that the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM offers similar CPU performance to the Intel X38 Express board.
|LAME MT and KribiBench Test Results|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance
Considering how close our other CPU-based tests are, we weren't surprised to see virtually identical results here.
For this next batch of tests, we ran KribiBench v1.1, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. KribiBench is an SSE aware software renderer where a 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and the test suite's "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.
The Ultra model test was close like our other CPU-based tests, but for an unknown reason, the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM repeatedly outperformed the Intel X38 Express board by quite a wide margin in the Sponge Explode model test.
|3DMark06 CPU and 3DMark Vantage CPU Test Results|
3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance. Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering. The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.
We were surprised that these results weren't a little closer. As you can see, the Intel X38 Express board outscores the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM by over 130 points.
3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 is a multi-threaded test designed for comparing relative game physics processing performance between systems. This test consists of a single scene that features an air race of sorts, with a complex configuration of gates. There are aircraft in the test that trail smoke and collide with various cloth and soft-body obstacles, each other, and the ground. The smoke spreads and reacts to the planes as they pass through it as well, and all of this is calculated on the host CPU.
The 3DMark Vantage scores went back to meeting our expectations. The two boards performed within about 0.6% of each other here.
For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Company of Heroes. When testing processors with Crysis or Company of Heroes, we drop the resolution to 800x600 and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, any in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
The comparison between these two boards keeps surprising us. They trade victories here, with the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM taking the Crysis test, and the Intel X38 Express finishing ahead in the Company of Heroes test.
We started our high-resolution 3D testing by setting a baseline with 3DMark Vantage. We ran the benchmark using the Performance setting and a resolution of 1280x1024. We then ran Crysis and Company of Heroes in DirectX 10 mode with high quality settings enabled. You can see the results of these tests below.
Once again, the results are mixed. The two motherboards perform essentially the same in 3DMark Vantage. Then, surprisingly, the Intel X38 Express board outperforms the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM in Crysis by almost 14%. The final chart shows that the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM takes a small lead over the Intel board in our Company of Heroes test.
|Performance Summary and Final Thoughts|
Performance Summary: The overal performance offered by the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM met our expectations. What we didn't expect was the alternating victories between the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM and the Intel X38 Express motherboard. In many of our tests, the EVGA board performs right on par with the Intel X38 board. In some other tests, however, the EVGA board outperforms the Intel X38 and vice versa.
There is no doubt that the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM brings a lot to the table, including great features and design, solid performance, excellent quality, and a sizable yet practical bundle. On top of all that, EVGA manages to add a layer of enthusiast-oriented detail while still making the board accessible to the average user. It is an impressive board all around.
We can think of only two real issues that cause us pause recommending this new motherboard - the price and the Intel's X58 launch. The board will set you back over $300 and is obviously not for everyone. If you have no intention of considering at least 2-way SLI and don't care about most of this board's features, you owe it to yourself to research a less expensive alternative. EVGA has cheaper nForce 7 Series motherboards that you could look at. In addition to the price, we can't help but think about the Intel X58 boards that are on the market. EVGA even released an X58 board recently, and it looks to be one worth considering (in fact we have it in the test lab right now). We're looking more than favorably at X58 boards that are compatible with both NVIDIA and ATI multi-GPU solutions. Additionally, the undeniable performance gains offered by Intel Core i7 processors, in conjunction with an X58 board, is not easily ignored.
If you are building a brand new system with all new parts, and have the budget, you should consider the Intel X58 / Core i7 combination first in our opinion. On the other hand, if you already have a Core 2 processor, but you want to get more life out of it or perhaps tap in on the solid deals that exist in Core 2 chips currently, then the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM is definitely worthy of your consideration. In a sea of reference nForce 790i SLI-based motherboards, the EVGA nForce 790i SLI FTW Digital PWM is clearly a stand-out product.