|Introduction & The Chipset|
Today we're going to take a look at three enthusiast class motherboards based on the NVIDIA nForce 4 Ultra chipset, the Abit Fatal1ty AN8, the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum, and the ECS KN1 Extreme. All three of these motherboards take the core features inherent to the NVIDIA nForce 4 Ultra, and implement them in their own unique ways. One board is flashy and boastful, another is subdued and loaded up with third-party on-board peripherals, while the other is rather spartan and quite inexpensive. But in the end, they are all subject to our discerning eyes and the same suite of benchmarks. We took all three of these motherboards for a spin, and had some interesting things occur. Read on to see which one we think deserves a place in your rig, and why. As you'll see, not all nForce 4 Ultra motherboards are created equal...
The NVIDIA nForce 4 chipset has a set of features that help differentiate it from competing AMD chipset solutions from VIA and SiS. We've got the complete list of specifications posted above for your perusal, but we've also covered them in-depth in other recent articles here at HotHardware.com. In this nForce 4 preview, posted in late October of last year, we highlighted the main features of the chipset and did a quick performance comparison versus the nForce 3 that it supercedes. We have also reviewed the Asus A8N-SLI motherboard which is based on the nForce 4 SLI chipset, and have posted a comprehensive three-board NF4 SLI round-up here. The nForce 4 Ultra which is the focus of this article is essentially the same as the nForce 4 SLI, minus support for NVIDIA's multi-GPU technology. So, if you take the time to check out those articles, they'll give you lots of insight as to what the nForce 4 Ultra chipset is all about.
|Abit Fatal1ty AN8: Specifications & Bundle|
The Fatal1ty AN8 is the Socket 939, nForce 4 Ultra based counterpart to the original Abit Fatal1ty AA8XE which was for single-core LGA775 Intel processors. When we reviewed the Fatal1ty AA8XE back in February, we were impressed by its performance, and especially liked the hardware monitoring and overclocking capabilities incorporated into the board. In fact, we gave the AA8XE an Editor's choice award. But, because the Fatal1ty line was targeted squarely at hardcore gamers, at the time we were left wondering when Abit would make a Fatal1ty board for AMD processors. Since then though, Abit has expanded their line of Fatal1ty motherboards, and now has a few Fatal1ty motherboard available for AMD fans.
The Fatal1ty AN8 shipped with an elaborate assortment of accessories, cables and literature. Along with the board itself, we found three different user's manuals that outline the installation, features, and RAID functionality of the AN8. We also found with two "Quick Reference" sheets, a note from Johnathan Wendel, an Abit case badge, and a sticker that highlights the location of all of the AN8's major components.
Also included with the board was a USB/Firewire case bracket with a pair of connectors for both, four red SATA cables, a single 4-pin Molex-to-SATA power adapter, two rounded cables (IDE and Floppy), and a custom I/O shield.
There were also a couple of rather unique (at least to Abit) items included with the board. The Fatal1ty AN8s integrated 5.1 channel audio codec is complimented by a mini, daughter card that houses all of the audio inputs and outputs, including S/PDIF and optical connectors. Abit claims that having these connectors on a separate PCB reduces electrical noise, but it also has the side effect of cleaning up the Fatal1ty AN8's backplane.
Also included with the Fatal1ty AN8 was Abit's "OTES RAMflow" cooler. The OTES RAMflow apparatus is clipped to the DIMM slots, and is supposed to help to cool the system memory installed in the board. We like the general idea of the OTES RAMflow, but can't vouch for its effectiveness when installed in a closed mid-tower case that will inevitably be filled with warm air. We're also not too fond of the RAMflow's spring clips. The spring clips that hold the OTES RAMflow in place are quite firm, and can be tough to install.
|Abit Fatal1ty AN8: The Board|
The Abit Fatal1ty AN8 is a well laid out, streamlined motherboard with a very distinct appearance. Like the Fatal1ty AA8XE, the AN8 is built upon a dark red PCB and is equipped with an active cooling system on its VRM and a group of red LEDs on its underside that illuminate the board from behind...
NVIDIA's nForce 4 Ultra chipset, which is placed in an ideal position at the center of the board, out of the way of the graphics slot, is cooled by a copper heatsink / fan combo. The board's voltage regulator module is also actively cooled, thanks to the AN8's OTES (Outside Thermal Exhaust System) implementation. Unlike the Fatal1ty AA8XE though, the AN8's OTES apparatus is relatively small, and doesn't interfere with the installation or removal of the CPU cooler. While we're on the subject, we should also note that there is ample room around the CPU socket to fit an oversized CPU cooler. There are no large capacitors or other components on-board that will interfere with the CPU cooler's installation.
The Fatal1ty AN8's slots are configured in an ideal manner, with two PCI Express x1 slots at the top-most positions, followed by the PCI Express x16 PEG slot, and three standard PCI slots. Below the PCI slots though, you'll see the floppy connector, which is tucked way at the bottom of the board. Behind the slots you'll find the Fatal1ty's well laid out extra USB and Firewire headers, and all of the headers for the case connectors. Abit does a great job of color coding all of these connectors / headers, so installation should be a snap for all but the most inexperienced users.
A pair of IDE connectors are aligned in a parallel configuration along the front edge of the board, in front of the 4 excellent SATA connectors. Abit used a new style of connector that locks the included reinforced data cables in place, and prevents them from jostling loose when in transit. The IDE and SATA controllers are driven by the nForce 4 Ultra chipset, and support multiple RAID configuration (even across SATA and IDE drives). Also visible behind the IDE connectors is the Fatal1ty AN8's POST code error reporter.
The Fatal1ty AN8 is also equipped with a custom slot just behind the backplane to accommodate the audio riser card. Behind the four DIMM slots, you can see the ATX power connector. Flipping the board around, you can see the pair of OTES exhaust fans on the backplane, along with the PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, four USB 2.0 ports, single Firewire port, and RJ-45 LAN jack. All of the capabilities of the board are powered by the nForce 4 Ultra chipset (USB 2.0, IDE, SATA, Gigabit LAN), a Realtek ALC658 audio codec and a Ti IEEE1394 controller.
|Abit Fatal1ty AN8: BIOS & Overclocking|
In typical ABIT fashion, the Fatal1ty AN8 is equipped with a Phoenix / Award BIOS derivative that is fully loaded with options for tweaking the motherboard's performance and managing all of its integrated peripherals. And when we say loaded with options, we mean it. The uGuru and Abit EQ sections especially are full of goodies.
Looking at all of the menus available in the Fatal1ty AN8's BIOS, it's east to see why ABIT has a solid reputation for configuring its motherboards with some of the most complete BIOSes in the industry. The standard BIOS menus listed above offer all of the tools necessary to enable, disable, or tweak all of the Fatal1ty AN8's integrated peripherals, but it's in the uGuru Utility and Abit EQ menu where all of the hardcore overclocking options are made available...
As you can see, there's a lot hidden within the uGuru Utility and Abit EQ sections of the AN8's BIOS. The uGuru menu is where all of the A8N's overclocking tools can be found. Using this menu, users can alter their processor's multiplier when an Athlon 64 FX or other Cool'n'Quiet enabled CPU is installed, and users can also select any HT clock speed between 200MHz and 410MHz, in 1MHz increments. The PCI Express clock speed can also be dialed in manually up to 145MHz, in 1MHz increments, or locked at the specified 100MHz. Processor, memory, DDR VTT, chipset and HyperTransport voltages are also user configurable. CPU voltages up to 1.85v are available in .025v increments, and memory voltages up to 2.85v, chipset voltages up to 1.8v, and HyperTransport voltages up to 1.35v are available, all in .5v increments.
The AbitEQ section of the BIOS also houses a boatload of useful option. The Fatal1ty A8N's BIOS also gives user's control over all of the board's thermally-controlled fan headers and it has a slew of hardware monitoring options built-in too. Users can manually alter shut-down temperatures, and set alerts when temperatures get too high.
Overclocking with the Abit Fatal1ty AN8 proved to be very rewarding. To test the overclocking potential of this board, we cranked our CPU voltage up to 1.7v, dropped the multiplier, and lowered the speed of the HT link to 3x. Then we raised the memory, chipset, and HyperTransport voltages by .2v, and set out to find the highest stable processor bus speed. The Fatal1ty fared well, hitting a maximum stable bus speed of 312MHz. Windows XP would actually boot at speeds higher than this, but the system was not completely stable until we brought the speed back down.
We should also note that users who'd rather overclock their system using a Windows application, can also alter voltages and the bus speed using Abit's proprietary uGuru application, which is included on the driver CD, and available for download from Abit's web site.
|MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum: Specification & Bundle|
Next up, we have the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum Edition. Although their names are very similar, this board and the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI we reviewed a few months back are actually quite different. For one, this board is based on the nForce 4 Ultra chipset and doesn't have official support for NVIDIA's SLI technology (although thanks to some creative engineering it can support more than 1 graphics card). The K8N Neo4 Platinum also lacks the Creative Labs audio controller found on the SLI model, and its equipped with a different secondary SATA controller as well. The K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI sports a PCI Express Silicon Image 3132 SATAII controller, whereas the K8N Neo4 Platinum is equipped with only a PCI Silicon Image 3114 to compliment the NF4 Ultra.
When compared to some of the other motherboards currently available, the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum's accessory bundle may seem a bit dull, but MSI makes up for this by packing the board with a slew of integrated peripherals. What MSI does include with the K8N Neo4 Platinum is a pair of user's manuals, a quick reference guide, and three driver / utility discs (two floppies, one CD). MSI also included four orange SATA cables, a pair of Molex-to-SATA power adapters, a rounded floppy cable, a rounded 80-wire IDE cable, a custom I/O shield, and a single case bracket. MSI calls the included bracket the "D-Bracket 2." This custom bracket houses two USB connectors, along with four diagnostic LEDs. The LEDs blink in certain combinations should there be a problem with the motherboard. These diagnostic LEDs function similarly to the POST code read-out found on the Abit Fatal1ty AN8.
|MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum: The Board|
MSI's K8N Neo4 Platinum is well laid out, and suffers from very few layout related issues, especially considering how feature laden this motherboard is. As you can see in the pictures below, MSI stuck with the dark colored PCB that they've been using for the past year or so on some of their high-end mobos, with color coded connectors and headers.
The K8N Neo4 Platinum has a relatively unique slot configuration, when compared to most of today's nForce 4 Ultra based motherboards. At the top spot is a PCI Express x4 slot, followed by a PCI Express x1 slot, the PCI Express x16 PEG slot and four standard PCI slots (the orange slot is reserved for a proprietary communications card according to MSI).
If you look very closely at the pictures of the first x4 slot, you'll notice something interesting. The backside of the slot is notched. This is done so that a standard PCI Express graphics card can be inserted. This used to allow this board to function in a pseudo-SLI mode, until NVIDIA blocked this feature in later driver revisions (v66.96 was the last revision that worked). The slot is still useful though should you want to run multiple monitors using dual graphics cards.
MSI equipped the board with an orb-like aluminum cooler on the nF4 Ultra chipset, but it's placement isn't idea. The cooler sits under the PCI Express x16 slot, so longer graphics cards hover right above it. The area surrounding the chipset cooler is crammed with stuff. Just to the right of the nF4 Ultra, four of the K8N Neo4 Platinum's SATA ports are located. And if you look really close, you'll notice a small red button right next to these SATA ports. That button is used to clear the CMOS, instead of having to move a jumper; very handy. The K8N Neo4 Platinum's color-coded case connectors are located just below the clear CMOS switch, adjacent to the board's spare USB 2.0 and IEEE1394 headers. To the left of the USB/IEEE1394 headers are another four SATA ports, powered by the Sil3114 chip. We should not that both the Sil3114 and NVIDIA powered SATA ports support multiple RAID configurations.
The board's two IDE ports and floppy connector are located just behind the four DIMM slots, adjacent to the ATX power connector. The area around the K8N Neo4's socket is nice and clean, with a row of large caps along one edge. Behind those capacitors is the board's VRM, which unfortunately does not have any heatsinks or other cooling devices installed.
The board's backplane is loaded up with 7 audio connectors (Realtek ALC850), four USB 2.0 ports, a serial port, a parallel port, PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, a single IEE1394 port (VIA6306), and two RJ-45 LAN jacks. The K8N Neo4 Platinum's dual Gigabit LAN jacks are powered by the NF4 Ultra in conjunction with a Marvell PHY, and a secondary PCI Express Marvel controller. Neither is limited by the shared bandwidth of the PCI bus.
|MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum: BIOS & Overclocking|
MSI's K8N Neo4 Platinum is equipped with a Phoenix / Award BIOS derivative, that's been customized to support all of the K8N's on-board features and integrated peripherals. At first glance, there was nothing that stood out in this board's BIOS, but we foind a few gems hiding in there once we begin to tunnel into the various menus.
As you look throug the standard BIOS menus above, you're not likely to find anything surprising, although all of the common options for tweaking, enabling and disabling all of the K8N Neo4 Platinum's integrated peripherals are there. The K8N Neo4 Platinum's BIOS is very complete and easy to navigate. MSI also does a good job of explaining some of the more obscure options in the column to the right. It is in the Cell Menu where you'll find all of the "enthusiast" features though.
It was in the Cell Menu where we found all of the K8N Neo4 Platinum's overclocking and memory configuration options. MSI's Core Cell chip, which is installed on this board, monitors fan speeds, voltages, and temperatures, and all of the readings are available in the BIOS or from within Windows when running MSI's Core Cell application. Using the data being monitored by the Core Cell chip, the K8N Neo4 can dynamically overclock a processor, but we left that option disabled throughout all of our testing in the name of fair play. Users can also overclock their processors manually using some of the other options available in the Cell Menu. Processor bus speeds can be set to any speed between 190MHz and 400MHz, in 1MHz increments, and the PCI Express clock can be configured to operate at any speed between 100MHz and 145MHz, also in 1MHz increments. Processor multiplier between 4x and 25x (.5 steps) are available. CPU, memory, and chipset voltage adjustments are available, as well. The CPU voltage can be set as high as 1.55v, and then bumped up an additional 3.3%, 6.6%, 9.9% or 13.3%. Memory voltages range from 2.5v - 2.85v, and chipset voltages range from 1.5v - 1.85v, all in .05v increments. Another notable feature is that HT multipliers are selectable in .5x increments. All of the other boards only have whole number multipliers.
|ECS KN1 Extreme: Specifications & Bundle|
The last entrant we present to you in this round-up comes to us by way of ECS. Over the years, ECS has been known as a provider of inexpensive products, that tended to lack some more advanced features found on competing solutions. With the KN1 Extreme, however, ECS aims to change their image with a motherboard allegedly designed with enthusiasts in mind. The KN1 Extreme includes some items found on much more expensive products, although ECS does put their own spin on things. For example, this board has an "OTES-like" VRM cooling apparatus, but it's not as elaborate as Abit's. And the KN1 Extreme has dual-LAN and a secondary drive controller like the MSI board, but one of the Ethernet controllers is only 10/100 and instead of using a more established Silicon Image or Promise drive controller, ECS went with a SiS180. Take a look...
ECS included a varied assortment of accessories with the KN1 Extreme. The board shipped with six (two in each baggie) orange SATA cables, a Molex-to-SATA power cable adapter, an IDE cable, a floppy cable, an Ethernet cable, and a bracket that housed a parallel port. ECS also provided a pair of driver and utility CDs (that included a copy of NVIDIA's nTune System Utility), a case badge, a user's manual, and a custom I/O shield with the KN1 Extreme. On top of these items, we found a case bracket with two USB ports and two Firewire ports, that can be disassembled and used in conjunction with a 3.5" bracket that's also bundled with the board.
Lastly, ECS included something we haven't encountered before. We've seen Gigabyte's dual-BIOS, and other board sport a pair of BIOS Flash ROMs, but ECS took a different route. Instead of equipping the board with a secondary BIOS, ECS packages their "Top-Hat Flash" device with the KN1 Extreme. It's basically a Flash ROM with a double-sided socket. Should the BIOS on the board fail for whatever reason, users can simply snap the Top-Hat Flash Device over the existing chip to boot the system. Then you can remove the Top-Hat Flash device and re-flash the board. Of course, this isn't the most elegant BIOS backup feature we've encounters, but it's effective and does the job its designed to do.
|ECS KN1 Extreme: The Board|
ECS's KN1 Extreme is also laid out well. And even though it's got more drive connectors, and just as many spare headers available as both of the other two motherboards we're looking at here, the ECS KN1 Extreme has a very uncluttered look.
The KN1 Extreme is built upon a lavender / pale purple PCB, that makes the board look fairly unique. And all of the KN1's slots, connectors and headers are color coded as well, giving this board an unmistakable appearance. The slots are configured much like Abit's board, in a two PCIe x1, one PCIe x16, and three standard PCI configuration, and also like Abit's board, the NF4 Ultra chipset is located in an ideal location out of the way of the PEG slot. We should also note that the chipset is adorned with an oversized active cooler, that seemed to do its job quite well. It never got warm throughout our testing.
Surrounding the NF4 Ultra, and continuing on down along the bottom edge of the board, are the majority of the KN1 Extreme's spare headers and connectors, and the large silver plate that declares this board "Extreme". They are all color coded, and very well laid out, with the exception of the floppy connector which is situated way out underneath the last PCI slot. Four of the KN1 Extreme's six SATA ports and two of the three IDE ports are powered by the NF4 Ultra chipset, and have support for multiple RAID configurations, and the third IDE port and remaining two SATA ports are powered by a SiS180 controller. We didn't experience any issues with the SiS180, but would have preferred a more common Silicon Image or Promise controller.
If you look closely at a few of the pictures above, you may also notice that the KN1 Extreme is outfitted with a handful of blue LEDs. These LEDs glow when the system is powered up, and should appeal to the case modders out there that are on a limited budget.
Looking at the KN1's backplane, you can see the board's "OTES-like" exhaust fan that's designed to cool the VRM, and expel warm air out from the rear of the system. The rest of the backplane consists of a pair of PS/2 ports, a serial port, to digital audio outputs, three analog outputs, four USB 2.0 ports, and dual RJ-45 LAN jacks. The KN1's audio functionality comes by way of an ALC655 codec that supports 5.1 channels of audio, and the LAN jacks are powered by a combination of the nForce 4 Ultra and a Marvell PHY (10/100/1000) and a Realtek 10/100 controller.
|ECS KN1 Extreme: BIOS & Overclocking|
ECS' KN1 Extreme, like the other boards showcased here, is equipped with a Phoenix / Award BIOS derivative, that's been customized to support all of the board's integrated peripherals. And keep in mind, that thanks to the included "Top Hat" flash accessory, flashing to new versions is safe and easy, because a backup is always available. Recovering from a bad flash is only a matter of installing the Top Hat accessory and re-starting the system.
The standard BIOS screens above will look familiar to you all by this point in the article. The screen shots above represent all of the standard options necessary to enable, disable, or tweak all of the KN1 Extreme's on-board peripherals, set the time and date, boot order, etc. There are also some overclocking tools available on this board, but they are not as complete or as well organized as the competition's.
The KN1 Extreme's overclocking tools are spread out in two menus, the Power Management Setup and the Advanced Chipset Features menus. In the Power Management Setup menu, users will find the options to enable Coon'n'Quiet and to alter the processor's multiplier (Labeled "Hammer Fid Control"). And in the Advanced Chipset Features menu you'll find the HT clock, voltage, and memory tweaking tools. With the KN1 Extreme, user's can raise the CPU voltage by up to .375v, and the memory voltage can be maxed out at an impressive 3.11v. But that's it; no other voltage options are available. HyperTransport clock speeds can be altered by changing the multiplier, or by increasing/decreasing the CPU frequency option, but this is another relatively weak point for this board. The KN1 Extreme only supports HT feed frequencies of up to 250MHz, in 1MHz increments. There are also a few options available to tweak memory timings, but noticeable missing is a setting to enable or disable a 1T/2T command rate manually. We should also note that ECS also includes a copy of NVIDIA's nTune utility for users who prefer to tweak their systems through Windows.
With the limited overclocking options available on the KN1 Extreme, we weren't expecting much in this area. By following the same procedures outlined earlier (lowering CPU multiplier, lowering HT multiplier, and raising the CPU and Memory voltages), we were able to hit 240MHz without any issues. Anything higher than that caused instability and errors during the POST. Hopefully, future BIOS revisions will unlock a few more overclocking tools, like a PCI Express frequency selector and chipset voltage options.
|Our Test Systems & SiSoft SANDRA|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered the system BIOS and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." We then manually configured our system RAM to run at 200MHz (DDR400), with the timings set by the SPD. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. When the installation was complete, we hit the Windows Update site and downloaded all of the available updates, with the exception of the ones related to Windows Messenger (*except for the WorldBench 5 scores. Those were run on a clean install of XP with only SP2 installed). Then we installed all of the necessary drivers and removed Windows Messenger from the system altogether. Auto-Updating and System Restore were also disabled, and we set up a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests...
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory). All of these tests were run with our processor set to its default clock speed of 2.4GHz (12x200MHz). (Note: Some of these boards ran the processor with a default FSB higher than 200MHz. Where necessary, we manually set the FSB to 200MHz to keep the playing field level.)
SANDRA's CPU Arithmetic benchmark didn't show much variation between the different test systems. All of the AMD based nForce 4 powered systems produced similar results. The NF4 Intel Edition board had somewhat higher FPU scores because this is a multi-threaded and the system had HyperThreading enabled, but keep in ming this is a synthetic CPU benchmark that reports scores that are difficult to translate into any real-world performance scenarios.
The SANDRA Multimedia benchmark also reported very little variation between the different AMD powered systems. And again, because this is a multi-threaded benchmark, the HyperThreading enabled Pentium 4 powered nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition system had a measurable advantage.
SANDRA's Memory Bandwidth Benchmark reported raw bandwidth numbers that fell in-line with our expectations. Once again, all of the AMD powered systems were grouped tightly, with slight advantages going to the Abit and MSI boards. The ECS KN1 Extreme did not perform badly, but its scores were just a bit behind the competing boards from Abit and MSI.
|PCMark04: CPU & Memory|
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark04 (PCMark05 Pro will be incorporated into future articles). For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do, and how they work.
"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. There are nine tests in all. Two pairs of tests are run multithreaded - each test in the pair is run in its own thread. The remaining five tests are run single threaded. These tests include such functions as file encryption, decryption, compression and decompression, grammar check, audio conversion, WMV and DivX video compression."
The Abit Fatal1ty scored slightly higher than either the MSI or the ECS motherboards in this test, but the performance delta separating the three boards in this round-up was just a shade over 50 points. That equated to less than a 2% differential, which is standard deviation for this test.
"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing."
PCMark04's memory performance module reported results that mirrored the CPU test. The Abit Fatal1ty AN8 came in with the higher score of the three motherboards we're showcasing here, followed by the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum and then the ECS KN1 Extreme. The 43 points separating the three board, however, is very small and falls within the margin of error in this test.
|Content Creation Winstone & WorldBench 5|
To generate this next batch of results, we used Veritest's Content Creation Winstone 2004 suite. Before running these benchmarks, we patched the program to its latest version (v1.01), shut-down any unnecessary background processes, and defragged the hard drive.
The Veritest Content Creation Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark routine. For more information about this test, see this page:
MSI's K8N Neo4 Platinum came in with the highest score in this test, besting the Abit Fatal1ty by .3 points and the ECS KN1 Extreme by .4 points. The MSI board also outpaced our reference nForce 4 SLI AMD Edition system by a fraction of a point, and clearly outperformed the nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition board.
PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmark, poised to replace the aging and no-longer supported Winstone tests. WorldBench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance. Below we have the results from WB 5's Photoshop 7 and Office XP modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance.
The Abit Fatal1ty AN8 walked away with a couple of narrow victories in WorldBench 5.0's PhotoShop 7.0 and Office XP SP2 performance modules. The Fatal1ty AN8 finished the PhotoShop test 3 seconds faster than either the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum or the ECS KN1 Extreme, and in the Office XP SP2 test, the Abit board was 5 seconds and 8 seconds faster than the MSI and ECS boards, respectively.
|Windows Media Encoder & LAME|
We continued testing these nForce 4 Ultra based motherboards with a video encoding benchmark based on Windows Media Encoder 9. In this test, we ran the Windows Media Encoder 9 portion of the WorldBench 5 suite; encoding times were recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance.
Abit's Fatal1ty AN8 scored yet another victory in WorldBench 5.0's Windows Media Encoder test. The AN8 finished the test 3 seconds faster than the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum, and a full 8 seconds faster then the ECS KN1 Extreme. These aren't exactly huge margins of victory, but it's another win for the Fatal1ty AN8 nonetheless.
In our custom Lame MP3 encoding test, we convert a large digital audio file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. In this test, we chose a large 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format. Processing times are recorded below. Shorter times equate to better performance.
The ECS KN1 Extreme managed to squeak passed the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum in our custom LAME MP3 encoding benchmark by a couple of seconds, but the Abit Fatal1ty AN8 was once again the fastest of the bunch, albeit by a very small 1 second margin.
Next up, we ran the Kribibench rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer. 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: an "Exploded Sponge" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and a gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys...
There were no major performance variations to speak of with regard to either of the KribiBench rendering tests we ran. Technically, the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum pulled off the best score of the three mobos we're looking at here in the Sponge Explode test, and the Abit board took the pole position when testing with the Ultra model, but the performance deltas were miniscule, and fall well within the margin of error in this test.
|Cinebench 2003 & 3DMark05: CPU|
The Cinebench 2003 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in seconds). We ran two sets of numbers here, one in single-thread mode, and another in the benchmark's multi-thread mode for our Hyper-Threading-enabled P4 test system. Athlon 64s are only capable of running the single-thread test, hence the "WNR" listed for each A64 powered system in the graph below.
Once again, there were no major performance variations to speak of in the single-threaded Cinebench 2003 rendering test. All three of the nForce 4 Ultra motherboards we tested performed at near identical levels, with the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum and Abit Fatal1ty AN8 just barely edging out the ECS KN1 Extreme by a fraction of a frame per second.
It may not be an actual game, but 3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance among similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance. This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central host processor. The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.
As it turns out, every one of the Futuremark tests had each of the three motherboard's spotlighted in this article finishing in the same position. In 3DMark05's CPU performance module, the Abit Fatal1ty AN8 finished with the highest score, followed by the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum and then the ECS KN1 Extreme. Once again though, the performance delta separating the boards was so small, it's essentially irrelevant.
|UT 2004 & Doom 3|
To start our in-game testing, we did some low-resolution benchmarking with Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004. When testing with UT 2004, we use a specific set of game engine initialization parameters that ensure all of the systems are being benchmarked with the exact same in-game settings and graphical options. Like the other in-game tests in this review, we used a "Low-Quality" setting with UT2004 that isolates CPU and memory performance.
Our custom Unreal Tournament 2004 benchmark had the Abit Fatal1ty AN8 slightly ahead of the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum, by roughly 2 frames per second. And the ECS KN1 Extreme finished the test about 5 frames per second behind the MSI board. Not a monumental victory by any mean, but another victory for the AN8 regardless.
For our next game test, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom multi-player Doom 3 timedemo. We cranked the resolution down to 640 x 480, and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. Although Doom 3 typically taxes today's high-end GPUs, when it's configured at these minimal settings it's more CPU / Memory-bound than anything else...
The results reported by our custom Doom 3 benchmark were in stark contrast to the Unreal Tournament 2004 results. This time around, the Abit Fatal1ty AN8 fell behind the competing nForce 4 Ultras by a few frames per second. The MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum posted the highest score of the board's we're focusing on here at 159.8 FPS, followed very closely behind by the ECS KN1 Extreme at 158.7 FPS.
|Summary & Conclusion|
Benchmark Summary: Looking back at the benchmark scores, it's clear that picking an nForce 4 Ultra based motherboard strictly on the basis of performance is nearly impossible. All three of the nForce 4 Ultra based motherboards we spotlighted in this article performed at near identical levels in virtually every benchmark. Technically speaking, the Abit Fatal1ty AN8 scored the most first place finishes in our tests, followed by the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum, and then the ECS KN1 Extreme, but each motherboard's margin of victory was quite small in every benchmark.
Abit Fatal1ty AN8:
ECS KN1 Extreme:
MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum: