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Nvidia nForce 650i Ultra Chipset Launch
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Date: Apr 26, 2007
Section:Motherboards
Author: Alex Evans
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Overview

Nvidia based motherboards and SLI technology typically go hand in hand. In the past, SLI technology was only featured on high-end Nvidia platforms, although throughout the years Nvidia has moved this technology down to lower and lower price points. In years past, one would only purchase an SLI enabled motherboard if they had a specific need to run SLI graphics cards. Nowadays, with SLI boards so cheap, even those who don't need this feature will grab SLI-enabled motherboards, simply because there is a small price variance between SLI and non-SLI platforms and the future expansion options are attractive.

This was evident of Nvidia's nForce 600-series motherboards for Intel Core 2 processors. The first board to be released was the nForce 680i SLI, which had two PCI Express X16 PEG slots for SLI, which was followed up later with the low-cost nForce 650i SLI and featured 8 x 8 SLI. A few months later, Nvidia filled in the gap between them with the 680i LT SLI, that featured full 16 x 16 SLI, but a trimmed feature set. In all three cases, even if you didn't need SLI, it was a core feature which was built into every member of this family. Thus, even if you just wanted an nForce 600-class motherboard, you got SLI as well. Even with SLI across the board, Nvidia managed to hit all their target price points, as high-end 680i boards could be had for over $300, whereas budget-level 650i SLI boards can be had for around $125 today.

However, SLI still does add cost to a platform, and while that cost is shrinking, there is still a market out there that would rather save a few dollars than have an additional PCI Express X16 sized graphics card slot and SLI functionality. Thus, Nvidia is finally delivering an nForce 600-series platform sans SLI, called the nForce 650i Ultra. The nForce 650i Ultra is targeting cost conscious gamers and will be competing against Intel's popular 965-series platforms. The 650i is designed to be a platform which offers flexibility and overclockability, but does not have a lot of onboard extras that end users may or may not use.  While the feature set may not be impressive compared to high-end 680i platforms, the price tag certainly is. Nvidia is targeting price points of $99 for 650i Ultra boards, and if the past is any indication, we'll be able to see final street prices under this level.

The release of the nForce 650i Ultra, along with the new nForce 680i LT, effectively mark the end of the 650i SLI on the market. While boards are still out there, Nvidia appears to be focusing their efforts into a three-tiered system for the nForce 600-series. nForce 650i Ultra on the low-end, 650i LT SLI for mid-range gamers, and 680i for high-end gamers. We're actually glad to see 8 x 8 SLI implementations, like the 650i SLI was equipped with, being phased out of the market. Half-bandwidth SLI implementations have never been extremely popular and didn't seem like they would last in the long run.

In any case, today we're looking at the latest "Designed By Nvidia" platform, equipped with the 650i Ultra chipset and manufactured by eVGA. The "Designed By Nvidia" nomenclature means that Nvidia is responsible for the board layout, and they hand it to a manufacturer like eVGA or XFX to produce. Thus, the eVGA platform we're looking at today will be similar in performance and features to other "Designed By Nvidia" 650i Ultra boards which are soon to hit the market.

  Shipping Box Front

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Shipping Box Back

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Manufacturer's Pitch and Specifications

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"For everyday users, EVGA nForce 650i Ultra offers built-in RAID to store and backup priceless images and data. For budget-minded gamers, nForce 650i Ultra delivers best-in-class overclocking ability supporting 1333MHz FSB and a solid, all-around gaming experience when pairing with EVGA’s excellent graphic solutions. The cost-effective design provides asynchronous memory capability allowing users to push the FSB using the existing cost-effective DDR2."

  • Intel Core 2 Extreme, Core 2 Quad, Core 2 Duo, Pentium EE, and Pentium Processor Support
  • Nvidia nForce 650i Ultra Chipset
  • 1333, 1066, 800 MHz Front Side Bus Speeds
  • Dual Channel DDR2 800, 667, 533
  • Up to x 4 DIMMS, Max 8 GB Capacity
  • 1 x PCI Express x16 Graphics Card Slot
  • 2 x PCI Express x1 Slots, 3 x 32-bit PCI Slots
  • 1 x Ultra ATA/133 Port, 1 x Floppy Port
  • 4 x Nvidia Serial ATA-II Ports
  • Supports RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, JBOD
  • 7.1 Channel Audio, Azalia (HD Audio)
  • 1 x Nvidia Gigabit Ethernet
  • 8 x USB 2.0 Ports
  • Nvidia MediaShield Storage Technology
  • NVidia nTune Performance Applications
  • Nvidia FirstPacket Technology, TCP/IP Acceleration
  • Passive (Silent) Chipset Cooling
  • Standard ATX Form Factor, 12 x 9.6", Green PCB

The nForce 650i Ultra chipset is nearly identical to that of the 650i SLI we've come to know over the past several months. The 650i SLI and 650i Ultra are, more or less, the same product. The core differentiator is a board level implementation, in that the 650i SLI has 16 of chipset's 18 PCI Express lanes cut up into two PCI Express slots for 8 x 8 SLI, whereas the 650i Ultra has the majority of its PCI Express lanes dedicated to a single, non-SLI graphics card slot.

For a budget level chipset, the 650i Ultra and eVGA's implementation of it seem to have all of its bases covered. The board supports today's 1066 and tomorrow's future 1333 MHz FSB dual/quad-core Intel Core 2 processors, up to 8 GB of memory, quad-port SATA-II w/ RAID-5, HD audio and Gigabit Ethernet.

In comparison to a higher-end 680i SLI board, the 650i Ultra is a decidedly different approach, so we'll cover some of the core features that were removed.  The board features no SLI connectivity, so you can only use one PCI Express x16 graphics card at any given time. The board also has no Firewire ports, and no Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. This effectively removes Nvidia's DualNet feature from the mix as well. Nvidia's higher-end boards also support six Serial ATA-II/300 ports, as opposed to four for the 650i Ultra and also typically support ten USB 2.0 ports, as opposed to eight with this new chipset. We feel Nvidia has made the cuts in more or less the right areas, in order to get costs down and the feature set of this board is right in line with Intel 965-based boards with similar price tags.

 

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Design and Features

Design and Features

As we've mentioned before, the eVGA nForce 650i Ultra we tested is designed by Nvidia and manufactured by eVGA, therefore making it a "reference design" board. Reference designs aren't typically the flashiest or most innovative, but they tend to be very stable and typically have fewer problems out of the gate. The eVGA board we're looking at today is based on a very simple, plain, but efficient design.

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eVGA 650i Motherboard - Angle

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eVGA 650i Motherboard - Another Angle

The board is built on a standard ATX form factor and will fit in any ATX chassis on the market today. The board requires a 24-pin primary ATX connector and an 8-pin secondary ATX connector to run, so this may mean that upgraders will have to purchase a new PSU. These connectors are typically equipped on dual-processor boards, although with single-chip quad-core CPUs becoming more mainstream, having an 8-pin secondary ATX connector on even budget-level boards is common.

The board supports all manners of Socket-775 processors, all the way from the Celeron/Pentium to the latest Core 2 dual and quad-core processors. The board also supports bus speeds up to 1333 MHz, so you're covered for Intel's new FSB speed bump later this year. The area around the CPU socket is amazingly clean and empty, as eVGA does not use any kind of cooling on the VRM modules and keeps the area clear of resistors.

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CPU Socket and Northbridge

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Passive Cooler Closeup

The 650i Northbridge is covered by a passive, anodized aluminum alloy cooler, which is surprisingly effective. Even with passive cooling, we measured the chipset level temperature only rising to about 125F in testing, which is quite moderate for an nForce chipset. However, the Southbridge of this motherboard is left completely un-cooled, and gets surprisingly hot (around 145F max), even within a matter of minutes. Once it hit this level, it did not get any higher, but we would feel slightly more comfortable if there was a small chipset cooler on the Southbridge as well.

The Northbridge cooler isn't completely independent for its cooling abilities though. While a passively cooled chipset is attractive from a silent PC builder's point of view, this cooler is dependent on airflow from the main CPU cooler to keep temperatures in check. In order to keep some amount of airflow, the BIOS of this motherboard forces CPU fan speeds at 75% at a minimum. If you put in a high-end dual core (2.93 GHz or higher), a quad-core processor, or overclock the board, the BIOS will force the CPU cooler to run at full speed at all times, in order to help keep the chipset cool as well. Unfortunately, this means that if you're running a higher-powered system or tweaking it, you'll have to put up with loud fan speeds in order to keep the chipset in check. Of course, if you use third party fans/coolers, you can avoid this issue, but this does tell us that the chipset could likely overheat unless it receives some sort of ambient airflow.

The nForce 650i's memory controller allows for up to 8 GB of DDR2-800 memory over 4 x DDR2 DIMM slots, fairly standard fare. The chipset supports dual-channel memory, but does not support clock speeds over 800 MHz (officially) and does not support EPP memory module auto-configuration (the modules will still work, you will just need to configure them yourself in the BIOS). We would have liked to see the board sport official support for 1066 MHz memory modules, but as the budget market is still using DDR2-667 modules for the most part, having a soft limit of DDR2-800 seems like a reasonable compromise.

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Design and Features Continued

Design and Features Continued

Looking south on this board, we see an expansion configuration which is fairly run-of-the-mill. We have a single PCI Express x16 graphics card slot teamed up on both sides with PCI Express x1 connectors. The board is also equipped with three 32-bit PCI slots. Near the last PCI slot, you can see USB 2.0 port connectors for four of the eight total onboard USB 2.0 ports.

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Expansion Slots

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650i Southbridge and SATA ports

The 650i Ultra's Southbridge supports four Serial ATA-II/300 ports, along with a single Ultra ATA/133 and a single floppy port. The Serial ATA-II/300 ports support RAID connectivity as well, including the whole gamut of levels such as RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5. Interestingly enough, the 650i does not natively support eSATA connectivity, although other motherboard manufacturers may add this feature using a third party controller chip onboard.

The I/O panel is about as bare as one can find nowadays, only featuring PS/2 ports to the left along with four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and analog audio connectors on the right. The large gap between these ports would typically house eSATA, Firewire, or digital audio ports, but in this case is housing some large capacitors instead, which helps to keep the area around the CPU a little cleaner. With all this spare room, we think it would have made sense to cut in vent openings for the I/O shield to allow some additional airflow to this area.

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eVGA nForce 650i Ultra I/O Panel

Onboard audio is connected through Realtek's ALC885 codec, which is located to the left of the expansion slots. The ALC885 is a true HD audio CODEC, with support for both analog and digital audio. However, eVGA's implementation of this only allows for 7.1 channel analog audio connectivity, opting out of supporting true 8-channel S/PDIF audio. Again, as this product is for the budget market, this isn't a huge loss, since analog speakers are by far a more popular choice for budget-class systems.

As for onboard Ethernet, the board is equipped with Marvell's 88E1116 PHY, which utilizes a PCI Express x1 connection to the chipset. Nvidia's software layer allows for Firewall security along with FirstPacket priority optimization through this Gigabit Ethernet port. The chipset does not support Nvidia's TCP/IP acceleration features, which are only offered on nForce 680i/680i LT series products.

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Onboard audio and Ethernet controller chips

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BIOS and Overclocking

BIOS and Overclocking

Like other members of eVGA's nForce 600-series Intel boards, their nForce 650i Ultra board is equipped with a Phoenix BIOS. The BIOS is nearly identical to that of its more expensive brethren, but has a few options removed or modified to suit the needs of this platform. While this platform does not seem like it would be the choice for overclockers, Nvidia claims that these boards will be able to run well past their intended frequencies.

Though the board does not offer limitless overclocking options, it is quite feature-packed in this area none-the-less. The BIOS supports FSB speeds up to 2500 MHz, vCore up to 1.6V, FSB voltage up to 1.4V, DDR2 voltage up to 2.1V, and you can push the nForce SPP up to 1.5V.  1.6V vCore and 2.1V DDR2 maximum voltage levels aren't sky high, so heavy overclockers should look at the 680i series instead. However, for moderate overclocking, the board has plenty of flexibility.

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No problem at 1600 MHz

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Pushing the limits at 1866 MHz

Nvidia claims that they were able to hit 2000 MHz FSB with dual-core processors on the 650i Ultra, and nearly up to 1800 MHz with quad-core processors, both of which are solid overclocks considering the lightweight, passively cooled 650i Ultra. We were not able to get that high with our testbed's dual-core processor, but we were able to overclock from default 1066 MHz up to 1866 MHz, which is about the same level we saw with the nForce 680i LT. In order to get this high, we did have to slightly boost the FSB and SPP voltage levels, as default voltage levels were only able to take the board to about 1600 MHz.

One interesting feature that Nvidia is promoting with the 650i series is GPU-level optimizations. With this 650i Ultra motherboard and a few companion Nvidia graphics cards, the motherboard and GPU work in cooperation for higher performance levels. Currently, the board they sent us to test this feature was a GeForce 7600 GS board, but this feature will also work with newer GeForce 8600 series boards as well. With the 650i Ultra (the 650i SLI chispet also works with this feature) board, and one of these graphics cards installed, the Nvidia control panel will show an "Auto" feature for clock speeds. When set, your graphics card will automatically clock up under heavy loads. Nvidia claims that this small performance boost can give it the edge over other budget-level motherboards.

At this time, this feature is not heavily promoted, as it does not work with Nvidia's high-end 8800 series GPUs. However, for budget-class systems, it's an added incentive to grab an Nvidia based graphics card with your new 650i series board. Nvidia is even considering bundles with 650i/GF7600 and 650i/GF8600 cards in the future, although details are not available yet. For testing purposes, we ran benchmarks with and without this optimization feature turned on, in order to show how much performance can be gained.

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Nvidia GPU/Nvidia MB Combo, Auto Option Enabled

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Nvidia GPU/Intel MB Combo, No Auto Option

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SiSoft Sandra Performance

Test System Details
Specifications and Revisions

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz) Processor
  • 2 x Kingston DDR2-800 Memory (2 x 1 GB, CAS 4-4-4-12)
  • 1 x Nvidia GeForce 7600 GS 512 MB (Nvidia 93.71 Driver)
  • 1 x Maxtor DiamondMax 10 Serial ATA Hard Disk
  • 1 x Plextor PX-755SA DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Corsair HX620W 620W Power Supply
  • Windows XP Professional SP2 (32-bit)
  • eVGA nForce 650i Ultra, Nvidia nForce 650i Ultra Chipset
  • Asus P5N-E SLI, Nvidia nForce 650i SLI Chipset
  • MSI P965 NEO, Intel 965 Chipset

Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks
SiSoft Sandra XI

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Our raw synthetic CPU and memory benchmarks show the nForce 650i Ultra on solid ground against the competing 650i SLI and Intel 965 chipset.  Processor performance is identical across the board (as it should be).  The nForce 650i Ultra and SLI chipsets have a small advantage in terms of memory bandwidth over the P965, in addition to lower latencies, which can only mean good things in terms of performance.

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3DMark and PCMark Performance
Synthetic Benchmarks
Futuremark 3DMark05, 3DMark06 and PCMark05

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3DMark05 and 3DMark06 show virtually no performance differences between the nForce 650i series and Intel P965 when the graphics processor is running on equal ground.  With the 650i’s GPU optimization / auto-clocking enabled, we see a very slight performance advantage for this chipset, although not enough to really get us excited, frankly.  The 650i series also manages to hold slight performance advantages in PCMark05, with or without GPU auto-clocking.


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Stalker and Oblivion Performance

Stalker : Shadow of Chernobyl
Maximum Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering

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The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion
Maximum Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering
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These two system intensive games also stress the GPU heavily, so the 650i’s auto-clocking feature with the GeForce 7600 GS graphics card tends to give it a performance edge over the stock-clocked P965 chipset.  However, when both system configurations have the GPU running at the same speed, we see virtually no difference between the P965 and the 650i.  

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Half Life 2 and FEAR Performance

Half Life 2 : Episode One
Maximum Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering
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F.E.A.R
High Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering
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Half Life 2 and FEAR are a bit less GPU intensive, but the story remains the same.  The GPU auto-clocking gives the 650i a slight advantage, but at stock speeds again we see virtually no performance difference between it and the P965.

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Storage Performance
HD Tune Storage Benchmark
Default Test On Maxtor DiamondMax 10 HDD

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Nvidia’s 650i Serial ATA controller puts up a solid showing here.  Our storage benchmarks showcase the 650i providing slightly higher burst transfer rates and slightly lower CPU utilization, two obviously positive attributes.  Sustained transfer rates remain more or less identical between the Nvidia and Intel platforms.


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Our Conclusion

Performance Analysis And Conclusion

Nvidia’s nForce 600-series now is available at top to bottom price points with the introduction of the 650i Ultra.  At an estimated $99 street price (we’re guessing it will drift lower in time), Nvidia will now be able to move their technology into low-cost gaming systems, instead of losing this market share to Intel’s 965 series.  As lower-cost, mass-market products are always the big sellers, we would expect that it won’t take long for the 650i series to overtake the 680i series in sales.  The introduction of the 650i Ultra also begins to squeeze the 650i SLI out of Nvidia’s spotlight a bit, as it’s now sandwiched in between the 650i Ultra and 680i LT SLI in terms of price and features.

Intel’s 965 series chipsets currently have a strong foothold in the budget/mid-range market, and it will take Nvidia some time to catch up, but the 650i Ultra is a strong contender.  For roughly the same price point as the 965, you get Nvidia’s more efficient memory controller, very flexible overclocking, and Nvidia’s own GPU-level overclocking/optimizations.  However, as these GPU optimization features only work with a scant few Nvidia cards, we wouldn’t consider this to be a major selling point at this time.  The 965 series is also a particularly strong overclocker, so this won’t be a cakewalk for Nvidia in the slightest.

We’re impressed, for the most part, with eVGA’s board, and we feel that it delivers a lot of value for its intended price point. If we want to be picky (and of course we do), we would have stuck with a low-speed chipset cooler instead of a passive cooler, which relies on the CPU cooler to run at high-speeds in order to keep the chipset cool. It also would have been nice to see at least a single Firewire 400 port thrown on this board, given that Firewire adoption is fairly significant today.

In any case, if you wanted the performance and flexibility of an nForce 600-series board but didn’t want to pay through the nose for a 680i class board with SLI functionality which may or may not be used, you now have a viable option with the 650i Ultra.   It’s a solid platform and an excellent performer.  We have no qualms in recommending it.  Admittedly, there are more exciting platforms out there, but it’s the workhorses like the NVIDIA 650i Ultra which end up being used in a wide varity of systems and installations.   

 
  • Clean, Efficient Design
  • Competitive Price vs. Intel 965
  • Flexible Overclocking Abilities
  • Solid Performance Levels 
  • Chipset Cooler Reliant On CPU Cooler's Airflow
  • Lacks Firewire and Digital Audio
  • Simplistic Feature Set


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