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NVIDIA's nForce Reference System!
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Date: Jan 15, 2002
Section:Motherboards
Author: HH Editor
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NVIDIA's nForce Reference System! - Page 1

NVIDIA's nForce Reference System
NVIDIA's Vision for a New PC Platform

By, Marco Chiappetta
January 16, 2002

When rumors began circulating regarding NVIDIA's entrance into the motherboard chipset market, both enthusiasts and OEMs eagerly anticipated details on the 3D Graphics Giant's new offering.  Then in June 2001, the "official" information hit and the excitement really began.  NVIDIA claimed their Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP) would be up to 10X faster than any other integrated PC graphics accelerator.  They incorporated AMD's HyperTransport technology, to provide approximately 6X the amount of bandwidth, between the Northbridge and Southbridge, than any other chipsets available at the time of the announcement.  The nForce would also have integrated high-performance DSPs to handle real-time 3D Audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding.  The impressive feature list went on and on.

NVIDIA's nForce also incorporated some very interesting underlying technology like their "DASP" (Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Pre-Processor),  "TwinBank" memory architecture and the "StreamThru" data transport system.  The DASP technology is, in essence, a data pre-fetch / caching technology that should provide a performance boost to any x86 processor by retrieving anticipated data before it is requested by the CPU, and storing that data for faster access.  We suspect CPUs based on the Thunderbird core will experience greater performance gains than CPUs based on the Palomino core however, due to the fact that Thunderbirds lack data pre-fetch circuitry altogether.  The TwinBank memory architecture offers up to a 128-Bit interface to the CPU, Graphics Processor and Media Processor, and a maximum of 4.2GB of bandwidth.  Finally, their StreamThru data transport system was to provide uninterrupted data streaming for improved network and broadband communications.  If, when the nForce arrived, all this technology worked as well as NVIDIA proposed, they would no doubt have a killer product on their hands.

Well, we've got one of NVIDIA's reference nForce boards in the lab today and we're going to find out just how good it really is.  Let's jump right in and see what the nForce can really do...

Specifications / Features of the Reference NVIDIA nForce System!
Plenty of Goodies...

Click any Image for an Enlarged view...
 
           
 
SPECIFICATIONS & FEATURES TAKEN DIRECTLY FROM NVIDIA'S PAGE
 

  • NVIDIA nForce System Platform Processor (SPP)/Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP)
    The nForce SPP/IGP redefines system and graphics performance for the PC platform. The SPP/IGP features the TwinBank? Memory Architecture for efficient memory processing, a Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Pre-processor? (DASP) to help boost CPU performance, and the AMD HyperTransport, a high-performance I/O bus interface.
     
  • NVIDIA nForce Platform Processing Architecture
    Comprised of the SPP/IGP and the MCP, the revolutionary NVIDIA nForce Platform Processing Architecture includes: a distributed platform processing design that frees up the CPU for other tasks; patent-pending system, memory, and networking technologies for the most efficient processing and performance; integrated 3D graphics and 3D audio.
     
  • TwinBank Memory Architecture
    NVIDIA?s revolutionary memory architecture. TwinBank allows the CPU, GPU, and MCP simultaneous access to the system?s memory bandwidth, guaranteeing continuous access for all applications, all the time.
     
  • Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Pre-processor (DASP)
    DASP applies a patent-pending, intelligent, pre-processing technology that stores application instructions and data before they are needed. This reduces the bottlenecks that occur between memory and the CPU, and graphics and audio sub-systems, thereby boosting overall system performance.
     
  • NVIDIA nForce Media and Communications Processor (MCP)
    The nForce MCP redefines the audio and communications experience for the PC platform. The integrated Audio Processing Unit (APU) brings unprecedented 3D positional audio and Microsoft® DirectX® 8.0-compatible performance to the PC, and a Dolby? Digital 5.1 encoder for truly cinematic-quality audio experiences. On the communications front is StreamThru?, an innovative technology providing an optimized pipeline enhancing networking and broadband; and the most complete suite of integrated networking and communications devices including Ethernet, HomePNA 2.0 and six USB ports.
     
  • NVIDIA nForce Platform Processing Architecture
    Comprised of the SPP/IGP and the MCP, the revolutionary NVIDIA nForce Platform Processing Architecture includes: a distributed platform processing design that frees up the CPU for other tasks; patent-pending system, memory, and networking technologies for the most efficient processing and performance; integrated 3D graphics and 3D audio.
     
  • Integrated Audio Processing Unit (APU)
    Delivers unprecedented 3D positional audio and DirectX 8.0-compatible performance to the PC platform. Provides real-time processing of up to 256-simultaneous stereo audio streams, or 64 3D and 192 simultaneous audio streams.
     
  • StreamThru
    NVIDIA's patent-pending isochronous data transport system, providing uninterrupted data streaming for superior networking and broadband communications. StreamThru assists in making streaming video and audio smoother and jitter-free.
     
  • NVIDIA nForce & Windows XP: A Perfect Match
    nForce supports a robust new feature set designed specifically for the new capabilities of Windows XP, including: digital music, DVD playback, 3D graphics, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, networking, and more. The pairing of nForce and Windows XP is a perfect match--the world's best platform processor powering the world's most advanced operating system.
     
  • Music, Video, games, and Photos
    World's best graphics/video technology
    Industry's fastest Windows XP 3D
    First and only DirectX® 8 audio hardware support with NVIDIA nForceTM
    Full DirectX 8, DirectX VA, and OpenGL® 1.3 support
    Full acceleration for Windows Media Player for Windows XP
     
  • New User Interface
    Windows XP Dualview multi-monitor support
    Industry's fastest Windows XP 2D
    Full hardware acceleration of new XP features
     
  • Networking/Communication
    Industry's highest networking performance with NVIDIA nForce StreamThruTM technology
    Safe and secure networking for remote connections
    Full acceleration for Windows Messenger, instant messaging, and teleconferencing for Windows XP
     
  • Reliable, Compatible, and Easy
    Exclusive NVIDIA Unified Driver Architecture (UDA)
    Microsoft Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL) Certification guarantees stability
     
  • Mobility
    Award-winning GeForce2TM Go and QuadroTM2 Go with complete Windows XP support.

The above specification / feature list may be a bit long, but we suggest you take some time to read through each section and acquaint yourself with the nForce. 

There are now three different nForce chipsets in the works.  The one we are looking at today is the 420D which incorporates GeForce 2 class video, a 128-Bit DDR memory interface and 3D / Dolby Digital audio.  The recently announced 415D is basically the same as the 420D, minus the integrated video, and the 220 has a 64-Bit DDR memory interface and less sophisticated audio.  Because this particular nForce board is not a retail product, we won't be spending too much time scrutinizing the layout and commenting on build quality. 

             

In these first three pictures, you can see the MCP (Media and Communication Processor) or Southbridge, connectors for the case header and the Audio and Communications riser card.  Aside from the chipset itself, there isn't anything too interesting in the first shot, but take a close look at the external plate and the ACR card itself.  On the card, you'll see the 10/100 Ethernet connector, the line-in for the 56K modem, some audio outputs and a Digital Audio output.

             

In these next shots, you can clearly see the 3-Phase power array (with passive cooling), the Northbridge and the slot configuration.  I'm sure you'll notice that the Northbridge does not have any sort of cooling.  You'd think that with an integrated GeForce 2, this chip would get rather hot, but it does not.  After prolonged use, the Northbridge did get warm, but nothing to be concerned about.  If you're overclocking you may want to add some sort of cooling, but for general use, heat shouldn't be an issue.  This micro-ATX board we're looking at today even has an AGP and two PCI slots open for further expansion.
 

The BIOS and Software... 

 
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NVIDIA's nForce Reference System! - Page 2

NVIDIA's nForce Reference System
NVIDIA's Vision for a New PC Platform

By, Marco Chiappetta
January 16, 2002

THE BIOS:

Our board was equipped with a PheonixBIOS that wasn't terribly "feature rich", but it did have some options to play with...

                 

                 

                 

Because this wasn't a retail product, we didn't expect the BIOS to be very complete.  If you take a look through the above screenshots, you'll see that there weren't too many "tweaker friendly" options.  We did, however, have the ability to choose between 10 different FSB speeds between 100 and 153MHz, and had the ability to set the memory CAS latency, enable or disable ACPI and a few other settings were present to configure the on-board video.  If you choose to use the on-board video, there is something interesting to point out.  You'll have the ability to set you AGP clock to 100MHz, to give the integrated GPU a boost in performance.  If an add-in video board is inserted, the AGP clock is set back to 66MHz though.

Installation and Drivers
Lot's to see...

 
INSTALLATION:

Setting up this nForce system was an absolute breeze.  There are a few important points to take into consideration though.  The 415-D and 420-D versions of the nForce have a 128-Bit memory interface, but to take advantage of this wider interface you will have to use DIMMs in pairs. (If you're planning on 512MB of system RAM, you'll have to buy two 256MB DIMMs)  If you configure the system with a single DIMM, the chipset will revert to a 64-Bit interface.  With regards to the memory, there is something else to consider as well.  NVIDIA has incorporated a "feature" dubbed "Super Stability".  If an nForce board is set up with an unsupported memory configuration, the memory speed is reduced from 133MHz to 100MHz to help maintain system stability.  Should you purchase an nForce based motherboard, be sure to follow the memory configuration guidelines, or have your vendor pre-test your parts before shipping them out to you.

With the rest of the hardware, there isn't too much to talk about.  Because the motherboard has so many integrated components, there is very little "assembly required".  Just add your CPU, plug in the Audio / Communication riser card and mount everything in your case and you're all set.  NVIDIA even made installing the drivers and software as simple as possible.  Even with the multitude of integrated components, there is only one 4.7-6MB file (depending on your OS) to install all of the necessary drivers!  The screenshot to the left shows most of the items that will be listed in you Device Manager after the drivers are installed.  One thing that is missing form that shot is the NIC, our system was setup to use the integrated modem and we were not able to disable it to enable the NIC (Which is what we were told we'd have to do).

The video portion of the drivers is exactly like the reference drivers we've seen many times before, so we won't bore you with to many regurgitated details.  As you can see in the above shot, the version we tested with was 22.90.

      

One aspect of the drivers you may not be familiar with is NVIDIA's audio control panel.  From within these four panels, users can change many of the sound options and output preferences for both the analog and digital outputs.

      

There are also controls for MIDI output and a simple panel outlining the driver and hardware versions and other information.  Future driver revisions should also add controls for A3D and EAX preferences, because these 3D sound standards are supported by NVIDIA's hardware.

While we're looking at the drivers and control panel options, we should talk a bit about sound quality and performance.  Over the last few months I have personally been working with Sound Blaster Live!s, Audigys, C-Media 6-Channel audio, Hercules Game Theater XPs and a plethora of other assorted on-board solutions and can honestly say that the output from NVIDIA's MCP rivals them all.  For enthusiasts, or audiophiles an Audigy or Game Theater XP may offer some more compelling features, but for the vast majority of users and casual gamers, NVIDIA's audio solution is excellent.  Playing DVDs and gaming with the nForce's on-board audio was great.  We didn't perform any "formal" testing on our own, but CPU utilization is reportedly lower than any add-in product as well.  Considering the drivers are sill "new" and this is NVIDIA's first major attempt and audio, they've done a fine job.
 



Ok, Ok...How Fast is it?!?

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NVIDIA's nForce Reference System! - Page 3

NVIDIA's nForce Reference System
NVIDIA's Vision for a New PC Platform

By, Marco Chiappetta
January 16, 2002

Synthetic benchmarks only tell part of the story.  We'll move on to more gaming and "real world" tests next.  We ran a series of time demos with Quake 3 Arena v1.17, set at the "Fastest" and "High Quality" video options, using the nForce's integrated GeForce 2 video.

Some OpenGL Performance
The Ubiquitous Quake 3 Arena

QUAKE 3 ARENA:

As you can see, the nForce's integrated video performs quite well in 16-Bit color tests.  Having an integrated GeForce 2 MX puts the nForce's video performance head and shoulders above any other on-board solutions.  We don't have any comparison numbers posted because we could not configure another system with integrated video with similar components and an AMD processor.  That statement alone should speak volumes to you.  The nForce is currently "one of a kind".

 

For the "High Quality" testing, we also set the Geometry and Texture detail to their maximum settings.  Here we again see admirable performance from the nForce's IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor).  These number won't excite too many hardcore gamers out there but hardcore gamers aren't the one's who'll be using the integrated video anyway.

 

More Performance
More of the Good Stuff!

We also ran ZD Labs' Business Winstone 2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2002 benchmarks on the nForce reference system.  We compared it's performance to the KT266A powered Abit KR7A using the same processor and memory configuration (technically).

First, we ran Business Winstone 2001.  To explain exactly what this test entails, I'll re-use a quote taken directly from ZD's eTestingLabs website:

"Business Winstone is a system-level, application-based benchmark that measures a PC's overall performance when running today's top-selling Windows-based 32-bit applications on Windows 98 SE, Windows NT 4.0 (SP6 or later), Windows 2000, Windows Me, or Windows XP. Business Winstone doesn't mimic what these packages do; it runs real applications through a series of scripted activities and uses the time a PC takes to complete those activities to produce its performance scores."

BUSINESS WINSTONE:

The nForce bests the KT266A in the Business Winstone tests by a small margin.  Something interesting to note is that although both test systems were configured with 256MB of RAM, the nForce had "only" 224MB available, because 32MB was reserved for the IGP.  If we had used an add-on video board or added another 32MB of RAM to the nForce system, it's lead would probably have been greater.

 

CONTENT CREATION WINSTONE:

CC Winstone 2002 uses the following applications in its battery of tests:

  • Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1
  • Adobe Premiere 6.0
  • Macromedia Director 8.5
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver UltraDev 4
  • Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 7.01.00.3055
  • Netscape Navigator 6/6.01
  • Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 5.0c (build 184)

The Content Creation benchmark taxes system bandwidth and the FPU more heavily than the "Office Type" applications that are run in the Business Winstone test.

The tables are turned here.  The KT266A was about 8% "faster" than the nForce in the Content Creation tests.  Again, we should remind you that the nForce had 32MB less RAM available because of the IGP.  Without this limitation, the scores would surely be closer.

 

 

CONCLUSION:

There is a lot to consider when thinking about the nForce because it succeeds on so many levels.  As an "integrated" platform, it simply has no rival (at least not yet).  The integrated GeForce 2 video is far superior to any other integrated solution currently on the market.  The integrated audio processing unit is also top notch, as is the integrated NIC.  For someone looking to quickly and cheaply build a system, the nForce is an excellent choice.  Add drives, a case, RAM and a CPU and you've got a complete system that will be a snap to configure.  The really exciting thing is, power users would only have to purchase a higher end video card and they too would have an excellent system.  While retail nForce boards will cost more than most others, the fact that you won't have to purchase a sound card or a NIC offsets the higher price of the motherboard.

NVIDIA has done an excellent job with the nForce.  It is a highly integrated, yet high performing chipset that fits into a broad range of markets.  Because this is not a retail product, and most of you will never have this particular piece of hardware in your possession, we will hold of on posting a rating.  We are however very excited to get "retail" nForce boards into the lab and fully expect the nForce to gain mass acceptance with both OEMs and enthusiasts alike.

 

Think you know about this hardware stuff?  Then get into the New H.H. Forum and Flap Those Gums!

 

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