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NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI Preview
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Date: Nov 08, 2006
Section:Motherboards
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction, Specifications, and Related Info

The second phase of NVIDIA's two pronged attack on the gaming and enthusiast community today involves a new family of nForce chipsets for both the Intel and AMD platforms.  The nForce 600 family of products is spearheaded by the nForce 680i SLI and 680a SLI.  Although the two products share a similar naming convention, they are in fact quite different. The nForce 680a SLI will be the initial foundation of AMD's upcoming 4x4 platform.  The chipset's heritage originates in NVIDIA's nForce Professional family of products, and its feature-set includes support four DDR2 memory channels (2 per CPU), quad PCI Express graphics slots, 12 SATA ports, and quad Gigabit Ethernet.  When it arrives sometime in the near future, we'll be here to give you more of the juicy details.  For now though, we're going to focus on the nForce 680i SLI and a couple of the other new members in the 600i family.

In case you haven't caught on by now, the "i" and "a" designations signify which platform the chipsets are designed for - i for Intel, a for AMD, obviously.  The flagship member of the nForce 600i family of products, the nForce 680i SLI, is arguably the most feature-rich chipset to hit the Intel platform.  With support for true, dual-PCI Express x16 graphics slots, plus a third x16 slot with a x8 electrical connection, 6 SATA ports, 10 USB ports, and dual Gigabit Ethernet, the 680i SLI is clearly targeted at enthusiasts.  And adding to the appeal of the 680i SLI is a host of overclocking related tools that give end users a lot of freedom to experiment with different clock frequencies for not only the CPU, but also Memory and PCI Express slots as well.  We'll cover the details on the pages ahead, and introduce you to the other members of the 600i family of products.

NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI
Specifications & Features


We've posted a number of articles in the past with information relative to today's launch of the nForce 600i series of chipsets.  We've also got a comprehensive look at the new GeForce 8800 Series of graphics cards posted, which are launching alongside these new nForce chipsets today.  But for a look at more details regarding NVIDIA's multi-GPU SLI platform as a whole, we recommend taking a look at a few of our other recent articles:

We know that's a lot of reading, but the information and performance data in the articles listed above will give you the background information and architectural details necessary to fully understand the new products being announced today. If you're unclear about anything on the proceeding pages, we recommend looking back to these articles for more information.

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Other Members in the 600i Family

In addition to the flagship nForce 680i SLI being launched today, NVIDIA is announcing two other members of the nForce 600i family of chipsets - the nForce 650i SLI and 650i Ultra.

As you can see in the chart above, all of the members of the nForce 600i family of chipsets have a few features in common, like support for nTune and MediaShield, but it's the 680i SLI that's outfitted with the lion's share of capability.  The 680i SLI is equipped with 28 more PCI Exress lanes, more USB ports, more SATA ports, and it also supports DualNet, FirstPacket, LinkBoost, and higher-clocked EPP compatible memory. 

Each of the chipsets are targeted at a different audience though, and as such they'll hit at different price points.  Motherboards based on the nForce 680i SLI chipset will likley sell in the $249 to $299 range, 650i SLI motherboards in the $149 to $199 range, and 650i Ultra boards in the $99 to $149.  All of NVIDIA's partners are expected to release motherboards based on the nForce 600i family of chipsets in the coming weeks and months.

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Features and Benefits: DualNet & FirstPacket

The new nForce 680i SLI chipset has many features in common with the nForce 590 SLI that came before it, namely DualNet, FirstPacket, LinkBoost, EPP, MediaShield and nTune support.

NVIDIA DualNet Technology
Double Your Networking Pleasure

As its name implies, DualNet is a reference to the dual independent Gigabit Ethernet MACs incorporated into the nForce 680i chipset.  DualNet is more than a pair of MACs though.  Both GigE MACs feature TCP/IP acceleration which offloads many functions from the host processor to lower CPU utilization, and both can do RSS, or Receive Side Scaling.


DualNet 2X Bandwidth: Teaming

DualNet Failover

Having dual independent MACs gives NVIDIA the ability to link a pair of GigE LAN connections together to enable Teaming with Failover protection. With Teaming, both GigE connections are essentially linked, and appear as a single 2Gb connection for double the theoretical max bandwidth to the network.  And with Failover protection, should one of the GigE connections be compromised in any way, the other automatically takes over and keeps the system connected to the network.

NVIDIA FirstPacket
Lower Pings Through Prioritization

Another new feature integrated into NVIDIA's DualNet engine is dubbed FirstPacket.  FirstPacket is a technology that lets user's prioritize data packets from specified applications, like games for example.


NVIDIA First Packet

When multiple applications are in contention for network resources a typical configuration will arbitrarily balance the load between applications.  But with FirstPacket, a user can specify a particular application, and when that application is sending data packets, the FirstPacket Prioritizer sends those packets to a dedicated queue, and in turn they are prioritized ahead of other applications.  FirstPacket will be useful for gamers who want to keep their pings as low as possible while running other applications that also use network resources (FTP, IM Clients, etc.), or for those who use VoIP applications like Skype on regular basis.

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Features and Benefits: MediaShield and LinkBoost

NVIDIA also updated the storage capabilities of the nForce 600 family of chipsets. The nForce 680i SLI in particular has six native SATA ports capable of 3.0Gb/s transfer rates.  The nForce 650i SLI and 650i Ultra however, have only four.

NVIDIA MediaShield
The nForce's Storage Engine


MediaShield

Having six SATA ports all under the control of NVIDIA's MediaShield gives these 680i SLI chipset a couple of new capabilities. Having six SATA ports gives users the ability to configure multiple independent RAID arrays, like dual 3-disk RAID 5 arrays, for example, or even large six-disk RAID arrays. The MediaShield 3.0 application itself has even gotten a bit of a facelift to unify its look with NVIDIA's graphics, networking, and nTune interfaces. NVIDIA also plans to incorporate drive specific tuning into MediaShield, which should offer performance enhancements to those with supported drives.  As of now Western Digital's WD1500 appears to be the first and only drive that NVIDIA has specifically optimized for. Lastly, to simplify the installation and configuration of RAID arrays, Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista should ship with drivers and support for MediaShield.

NVIDIA LinkBoost
More Bandwidth Between Components


LinkBoost

Another feature incorporated into the 680i SLI is called LinkBoost. With LinkBoost, key interfaces between the SPP, MCP and PCI Express graphics cards are clocked higher than normal, which then increases the bandwidth between the components.  We hesitate to call LinkBoost sanctioned overclocking, because the higher clocks have been certified by NVIDIA and there is still headroom for overclocking available when LinkBoost is enabled.  For now, LinkBoost is only supported on the nForce 590 SLI and 680i SLI when used in conjunction with GeForce 7900 and 8800 GTX/GTS graphics cards.  The HT link between the SPP and MCP, and the PCI Express links between the graphics cards and the chipset are increased by 25% with LinkBoost, for effective clock speeds of 1250MHz and 125MHz, respectively.  The higher clocks result in an increase of available bandwidth from 8GB/s to 10GB/s.  We should note, however, that the HT link between the CPU and the chipset is NOT affected by LinkBoost, so the CPU and its HT link are not affected in any way.  LinkBoost is designed to offer more bandwidth between the chipset and graphics cards autonomously.

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Features and Benefits: EPP and nTune

Another feature incorporated into the nForce 600i family of products required the cooperation of Corsair to bring to fruition. Enhanced Performance Profiles, or EPP, is a feature designed to maximize system performance by automatically tweaking memory and CPU frequencies, multipliers and voltages. If you'd like to take a look at the official announcement from Corsair, it's available as a PDF download from their on-line virtual press room. The announcement was made on May 15, 2006.

SLI Memory - Enhanced Performance Profiles (EPP)
Tweak your memory and CPU the easy way

 
Enhanced Performance Profiles (EPP)

EPP is a new open memory standard that we expect will be adopted by a number of motherboard and memory manufacturers. Enhanced Performance Profiles increases performance by taking advantage of additional memory parameters added to the unused portion of a standard JEDEC Serial Presence Detect, or SPD.  The JEDEC specification only calls for small amount of data to be stored in a standard SPD, which leaves a significant amount of unused space.  EPP takes advantage of this space to store specific information about the modules, like their maximum supported frequencies and timings.

  
Corsair's SLI Ready Memory

EPP also needs motherboard support to function as well.  To support EPP a motherboard's BIOS has to be programmed to snoop the upper portion of the SPD to find the EPP relevant data.  That data is then used in conjunction with a pre-determined set of parameters stored in the system BIOS to automatically tweak performance.

For example, if the EPP data stored in the SPD states a particular memory kit is capable of running at 1066MHz with 5-5-5-12 timings, EPP will automatically alter the processor's multiplier, voltage and bus speed, along with the memory voltage, to get as close to the memory's rated speed as possible. EPP will also overclock the processor by a user determined percentage to hit the memory's rated speed.

nTune v5.5
Good Bye BIOS


NVIDIA nTune v5.5

To coincide with the launch of the nForce 600i family, NVIDIA is also releasing a new version of their nTune system tweaking utility.  When used with a motherboard that has all of the BIOS hooks necessary to support nTune, the application gives users the ability to alter virtually every performance related BIOS option from within Windows.  Take a look at the screen-shot above to see the vast number of options that can be altered with nTune.  With the exception of the CPU multiplier, you'll see that there's nothing in regard to the CPU, chipset, and memory that can't be tweaked. 


When they launched the nForce 500 series of chipsets, NVIDIA sent over a handful of Flash animations to help explain the features and benefits of the chipsets.  Because many of the features are essentially unchanged, we thought we'd re-use some of these animations for those of you that would like to get a visual representation of how the features we've talked about on the preceding pages work.  The animations are not very big, so even the unfortunate among you that are still on dial-up, should be able to see them all very quickly. 


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The nForce 680i SLI Chipset and Motherboard

Now that we've covered the high-level features of the nForce 680i SLI, we can delve a little deeper and explain what really makes the chipset tick.  NVIDIA claims they worked closely with intel during the design phase of the 680i SLI to expose as much performance as possible from the Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors.

The 680i SLI is a two-chip solution comprised of the 680i SLI SPP and 680i SLI MCP.  Both chips are manufactured at 90nm, and are designed to have plenty of overclocking headroom. One of the major parts of the chipset that's largely responsible for its high performance is a newly designed Dual-DDR memory controller that features DASP 4.0 with QuickSync. NVIDIA's Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Prefech (DASP) 4.0 has been tuned for the new pre-fetch patterns inherent to Intel's SmartCache technology at work in the Core microarchitecture. And QuickSync is a mechanism designed to bypass asynchronous logic to speed memory transfers between the CPU and system memory.

The block diagram above, gives a good visual representation of what features are incorporated in the new SPP and MCP chips.  We should also note that the SPP and MCH communicate with each other over an x8 HyperTransport link operating at 1GHz.


NVIDIA is moving in a new direction with the nForce 680i SLI chipset. When the company launched the nForce 590 SLI for the AMD platform, NVIDIA designed a reference motherboard that exploited all of the features inherent to the chipset and their partner, Foxconn released a motherboard based on the design.  With the nForce 680i SLI, however, NVIDIA is taking this model one step further.  In addition to designing and building nForce 680i SLI motherboards, NVIDIA is seeding partners with boards which will all be released under their respective brand names. A handful of partners will be designing their own 680i SLI motherboards, but partners like EVGA, XFX, Foxconn, and BFG will be releasing the motherboard you see pictured here. 

         
EVGA nForce 680i SLI Accessory Bundle

The motherboard that we tested came by way of EVGA. Along with the motherboard itself, EVGA included a complete user's manual, a driver / utility CD, RAID drivers on a floppy disk, and a wide array of cables and adapters. There were also rounded floppy and IDE cables in the box, six SATA cables, three 4-pin Molex-to-Dual SATA power adapters, USB, Serial, and Firewire case brackets, an SLI bridge connector, a custom IO shield, and an optional fan that can be mounted to the SPP heatsink for better cooling performance.

         

The EVGA nForce 680i motherboard itself features a 6-phase VRM, and the SPP, MCP and VRM are all passively cooled with aluminum heatsinks that make use of heat-pipes. With the optional fan installed, cooling is no longer passive, obviously, but this fan is only recommended for use while overclocking.  For normal activities, the fan isn't a necessity.

In general, the motherboard has a very good layout.  It was designed to be used with a pair of double-wide graphics cards installed in SLI mode, so connector placement is good and won't interfere with the graphics cards. The motherboard's expansion slots are also configured in such a way that there is more space between a pair of graphics cards when installed.  In total there are three PCI Express x16 slots (X16, X8, X16), two PCI Express x1 slots, and two standard PCI slots.  Why three x16 slots you ask? To support a third graphics card for physics or GPGPU duties, of course.  More on that in our GeForce 8800 coverage.

        

All of the motherboard's headers are clearly labeled, which makes installation relatively easy. The board also features handy power and reset micro-switches and an LED POST code error reporter.  Its single Floppy and IDE connectors are located along the front edge of the board, just above two of the six SATA ports. The other four SATA ports are situated just behind the IDE connector, in front of the four DIMM slots.

The I/O backplane houses PS/2 mouse and serial ports, a single Firewire port, six USB 2.0 ports, analog and digital audio inputs and outputs, and a pair of RJ45 LAN jacks.  Audio duties on the board are handled by a Realtek HD ALC855 codec, and dual-Gigabit LAN comes by way of a pair of Marvell transceivers.

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EVGA nForce 680i SLI: BIOS and Overclocking

The EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard is equipped with a Phoenix/Award BIOS designed by NVIDIA, dubbed nvBIOS, that is is very complete and easy to navigate. From within the BIOS users have the ability to configure, enable or disable all of the board's integrated peripherals, and monitor voltages and clock speeds. The nForce 680i SLI also has a complete set of memory timing options that offer great flexibility for fine tuning memory performance.

nForce 680i SLI: Exploring the nvBIOS
Fully Loaded

         

   

The standard BIOS menu screens don't reveal anything extraordinary, but they will give you a good feel for the layout and organization of the options, which is very good in our opinion. Each individual screen has a host of menus that tunnel deeper and deeper as the options get more complex. Overall, it is very similar to the Award BIOS derivatives used on most other motherboards, but navigating through nvBIOS is a bit more intuitive than most.

One stand-out feature in the BIOS gives users the ability to configure individual SATA ports for eSATA operation. But it also has a host of other good features that allow users to control fans or alter the functionality of just about all of the integrated peripherals.  The BIOS also gives users the ability to save profiles with different settings, which makes it easy to switch from overclocked mode, to silent mode, for example.  And it's got a built in memory test too, which is handy for testing the stability of an overclocked system.

nForce 680i SLI: Overclocking Tools
It's Got What You're Looking For

           

         

   

The real fun stuff incorporated into nvBIOS can be found under the Advanced Chipset menu. It's here where you'll find all of the overclocking tools, which are quite extensive. The section is broken down into multiple sub-menus - System Clocks, FSB & Memory Config, CPU Configuration, and System Votlages.  As you'd expect, each section is home to the tools necessary to tweak that particular aspect of the system.

From within the nvBIOS, users have the ability to alter CPU and HT multipliers, PCI Express, Front Side Bus, and Memory frequencies, and a number of different voltages.  CPU voltages as high as 1.8v are available and the memory voltage can be set as high as 2.5v.  All frequency and voltage settings have fine granularity; we recommend clicking through the screen-shots above to see it all.

One of the more useful options allows users to run the memory in Linked or Unlinked mode. When linked, the memory clock is affected when the FSB is altered, like most other enthusiast class motherboards. But in Unlinked mode, users can actually key in a memory frequency independent of the FSB.



Overclocking with the nForce 680i SLI

We spent some time overclocking our Core 2 Duo X6800 processor with the EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard with very good results.  NVIDIA claims the board was designed with extreme overclocking in mind, and that the 680i SLI is able to hit FSB frequencies in the neighborhood of 2GHz with up to a 1.2GHz memory clock.  We weren't able to take our sample quite that high, but a 3.6GHz CPU clock (up from 2.93GHz) with a 1.75GHz FSB frequency is nothing to sneeze at.  With the sheer number of options available, and the flexibility offered by the memory controller, we're confident in saying the nForce 680i SLI is extremely well suited for overclocking.

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Our Test Systems & SiSoft SANDRA

How we configured our test systems: When configuring our test systems for the following set of benchmarks, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for DDR2-800 with 4,4,4,12 1T timings. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the drivers necessary for our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were then disabled, and we set up a 1024MB 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.

HotHardware's Test Systems
AMD & Intel Inside!

System 1:
Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800
(2.93GHz)

EVGA nForce 680i SLI Motherboard
(nForce 680i SLI)

Asus P5N32-SLI Premium Motherboard
(nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition)

Asus P5W DH Deluxe Motherboard
(975X Express)

2x1GB Corsair PC2-6400
CL 4-4-4-12-1T - DDR2-800

GeForce 7950 GX2
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD740 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP2
Intel INF 8.0.1.1002
nForce 4 Drivers v9.53
NVIDIA Forceware v96.94
DirectX 9.0c

System 2:
AMD Athlon FX-62

(2.8GHz)

Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe
(NVIDIA nForce 590 SLI)

2x1GB Corsair PC2-6400
CL 4-4-4-12-1T - DDR2-800

GeForce 7950 GX2

On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio


WD740 "Raptor" HD

10,000 RPM SATA
Windows XP Pro SP2
nForce 4 Drivers v6.86
NVIDIA Forceware v91.27
DirectX 9.0c

 

Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2007
Synthetic Benchmarks

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2007 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory) with the new EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard. All of the scores reported below were taken with our Core 2 Duo X6800 processor running at its default clock speed of 2.93GHz. 


CPU
Core 2 Duo X6800 @ 2.93GHz
nForce 680i SLI

Multimedia

Core 2 Duo X6800 @ 2.93GHz
nForce 680i SLI

Memory Bandwidth

Core 2 Duo X6800 @ 2.93GHz
nForce 680i SLI

SANDRA's relatively light-duty CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth benchmarks didn't reveal anything out of the ordinary.  The EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard performed right on par with, or slightly better than the 975X Express reference system in SADNRA's database in the CPU and Multimedia tests.  The Memory Bandwidth benchmark, however, showed the 975X Express with a slight edge, but advantages in a synthetic test like this one don't always translate into any real-world performance gains.

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PCMark05: CPU and Memory

For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05 suite. 

Futuremark PCMark05
More Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.

All of our Core 2 Extreme X6800 test systems performed similarly in the PCMark05's CPU performance module. The EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard finished right behind the 975X Express, followed by the nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition.


"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."  - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.

PCMark05's memory performance module had all of the Core 2 Extreme X6800 systems finishing within a few points of one another.  Technically, the 975X Express finished in first place, followed by the nForce 680i SLI and then the 590 SLI Intel Edition, but the <100 point spread between the three is hardly significant.

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Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7.0

PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a Business and Professional application benchmark.  The tests consist of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of popular applications to gauge performance. 

WorldBench 5.0: Office XP SP2 & Photoshop 7 Modules
Real-World Application Performance

Below we have the results from WorldBench 5.0's Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 modules, recorded in seconds.  Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.

The new EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard performed very well in WorldBench 5.0's Office XP and Photoshop performance modules. In the Office test, the 680i SLI put up the fastest time by about 3 seconds.  In the Photoshop test, the 680i SLI was just slightly slower than the 975X Express - by 1 second to be exact - but both the 680i SLI and 975X Express were marginally faster than all of the other systems.

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LAME MT and Sony Vegas

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV 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. 

LAME MT MP3 Encoding Test
Converting a Large WAV To MP3

In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending 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. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.

Things couldn't have been closer in our custom LAME MT audio encoding benchmark.  In this test, all three of the Intel powered systems finished with the exact same score, which was significantly faster than the AMD-powered system.

Sony Vegas Digital Video Rendering Test
Video Rendering Performance

Sony's Vegas DV editing software is heavily multithreaded as it processes and mixes both audio and video streams.  This is a new breed of digital video editing software that takes full advantage of current dual and multi-core processor architectures.

The graph above makes it look like there is a relatively large delta separating the 975X Express, 680i SLI, and 590 SLI Intel Edition motherboards, but things are not always exactly as they appear. Performance with the same platform can vary by about 5-10 seconds in the Sony Vegas benchmark from run to run. Our results put the 975X Express on top, followed by the 680i SLI, but we consider the 12 second delta separating the two platforms small when we take into account the slight variability in this test.

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Kribibench v1.1

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.

Kribibench v1.1

Details: www.adeptdevelopment.com

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 Intel 975X Express had a distinct advantage in the Kribibench benchmark, regardless of the model being rendered, and despite the fact that all of the test systems were powered by the exact same processor and graphics card. As you can see, the 975X Express took the top spot in both Kribibench tests, followed closely behind by the nForce 680i SLI, and then the 590 SLI Intel Edition.

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POV-Ray

POV-Ray, or the Persistence of Vision Raytracer, is a top-notch open source tool for creating 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard included benchmarking model on both test machines and recorded the scores reported for each.   Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput.

POV-RAY Performance

Details: www.povray.org

 

 

We had a virtual photo-finish in the POV-Ray benchmark.  In this test, the EVGA nForce 680i SLI finished in first place, followed very closely behind by the 975X Express.  The nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition took the third position, with the AMD-powered rig finishing in last by a wide margin.  For all intents and purposed though, the Intel-powered systems all performed at the same level.  The 19 points separating the third and first place finishers falls well within the margin of error in this test.

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Cinebench and 3DMark06: CPU

The Cinebench 2003 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application.  Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D Rendering and Animation suite used by many 3D Animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. And of course it's very demanding of system processor resources.

Cinebench 9.5 Performance Tests
3D Modeling & Rendering Tests

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).

It was another tight race in the Cinebench benchmark.  In the single-threaded test, the 975X Express outpaced the new 680i SLI by a measly 1 second.  But in the all important multi-threaded test, NVIDIA's and Intel's current flagship chipsets finished with the exact same score.

Futuremark 3DMark06 - CPU Test
Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance.  This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central processor.  The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.

3DMark06's multi-threaded CPU performance module had the nForce 680i SLI-based system finishing in the top spot, with the 975X Express and nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition finishing in second and third place, respectively. A relatively small delta of 22 points separated the 975X Express and 680i SLI, but the 590 SLI Intel Edition faltered here, with a score almost 100 points behind the new 680i SLI.

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Quake 4: Low and High Resolutions

For our next set of tests, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom single-player Quake 4 timedemo. Here, we installed the game's official v1.3 point release which is SMP capable and ran some tests in two configurations.  First, we turned the resolution down to 640x480, and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. Although Quake 4 typically taxes today's high-end GPUs, when it's configured at these minimal settings, it is much more CPU and memory bandwidth-bound than anything else.  In the second set of tests, we cranked the resoltuion to 1600x1200 and enabled 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering to see how each board performed in a more GPU bound situation.

Benchmarks with Quake 4 v1.3
OpenGL Gaming Performance

Our custom low-resolution Quake 4 benchmark had the EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard finishing in first place, outpacing the 975X Express by 2.5 frames per second.  Not a large margin of victory, but a victory for the 680i SLI nonetheless. 

The tables turned in favor of the 975X Express in our high-resolution Quake 4 benchmark. This time around, the Intel-built chipset took the pole position, followed very closely behind by the nForce 680i SLI. The 975X Express' margin of victory was only 1.6 frames per second though, which equates to only a 1.3% difference.

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F.E.A.R. Low and High Resolutions

For our last set of game tests, we moved on to more low- and high-resolution benchmarking with F.E.A.R. When testing all processors and motherboards with F.E.A.R, we drop the resolution to 640x480, and drop all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible.  However, the in-game "effects" and "advanced computer options" settings, which control the level of detail for F.E.A.R.'s physics engine and particle system, were all set to maximum values since these actually do place loads on the CPU rather than GPU.

The opposite is true in the high-resolution test, where a more significant load is placed on the graphic sub-system, hence the lower framerates reported in the second graph below.

Benchmarks with F.E.A.R. v1.08
DirectX 9 Gaming Performance

The low-reslution F.E.A.R. tests were a virtual dead-heat.  Only 2 frames per second, or approximately .8%, separated the first place 975X Express from the second place nForce 680i SLI. 

The high-resolution F.E.A.R. benchmark however, went to the nForce 680i SLI.  In this test, the new nForce 680i SLI put up 76 frames per second, 1 more frame than the 975X Express.

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Power Consumption and Heat

We have a few final data points to cover before bringing this article to a close. Throughout all of our benchmarking, we monitored how much power our nForce 680i SLI based test system was consuming using a power meter.  Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idle and under a CPU load. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption here, not just the power being drawn by the motherboards and processors alone.

Core 2 Extreme QX6700 Test System Power Characteristics
Processors and Platforms Compared

 

The nForce 680i SLI motherboard consumed marginally more power than any of the other systems while idling, but surprisingly it consumed a bit less power than the nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition under load.  The 975X Express-based system consumed considerably less power at idle and under load, but there are some things to take into remember looking at these numbers.  The nForce 680i SLI has more than double the amount of PCI Express lanes than the 975X Express, and the EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard we used for testing has a host of integrated peripherals that all consume some level of power.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

 

Performance Summary: The nForce 680i SLI performed very well throughout all of our testing. In every benchmark we ran, our nforce 680i SLI-based system performed on-par or better than a reference system based on Intel's flagship 975X Express chipset.  It also outpaced an Asus P5N32-SLI Premium motherboard, powered by the older nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition chipset, in every test.

NVIDIA clearly is bringing a winning product to market with the nForce 680i SLI. The chipset supports all current and some future Intel processors, its performance it top notch, and it's a very good overclocker.  The nForce 680i SLI is also arguably the most feature-rich chipset to ever be released for the Intel platform. NVIDIA is the only company to offer a solution for the Intel platform with true, dual PCI Express x16 graphics slots, it has six native SATA ports with RAID support, dual-Gigabit LAN, HD Audio, and a flexible memory controller. And let's not forget that the only way to get SLI support with an Intel processor is with an nForce SLI based motherboard.

The nForce 680i SLI is impressive in just about every category concerning features and performance. The proposed price point puts motherboards based on this chipset in a higher bracket, but since when do enthusiasts not pay top dollar for flagship products?  Power consumption was also relatively high versus Intel's 975X Express, but that too is to be expected considering the nForce 680i SLI has more PCI Express lanes and features in general. Overall, we really liked the nForce 680i SLI, and we're giving the EGA reference board we tested high marks on the Heat Meter; a 9 to be exact. Anyone looking to build a high-end, SLI capable rig, powered by an Intel processor will likely be pleased by the nForce 680i SLI.

  • Great Overclocker
  • SLI Support
  • Flexible Memory Support
  • EPP Support
  • Excellent BIOS
  • Convenient Slot Configuration
  • Somewhat Expensive
  • Power Consumption
  • Runs Hot

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