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DFI LANParty UT NF680i LT SLI-T2R nForce 680i LT
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Date: May 15, 2007
Section:Motherboards
Author: Alex Evans
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Overview

While they are still not known as a tier 1 player in the motherboard market, on par with the likes of MSI, Asus, or Gigabyte, DFI is a still a highly regarded name in many circles. DFI is one of the few companies in the market which are genuinely in tune with what overclockers and enthusiasts are interested in. Their LANParty series in particular has garnered piles of awards and is often used in many "extreme" overclocking projects due to the flexibility provided by their products. LANParty boards are flashy and over-the-top, but at their core, they have been solid through and through.

DFI has been somewhat quiet as of late, their last major board to receive a lot of attention being their LANParty UT ICFX3200-T2R/G, which was the only motherboard to hit the market based on ATI's RD600 chipset for Intel processors. While it was a unique niche market hit, the uncertain support timeframe for this chipset makes it a less than desirable solution for long term use. Nvidia's new 600-series chipsets, on the other hand, are widely supported and will be around for quite a long time. With the RD600 buzz dying down, it's now time to see what DFI has up their sleeve next.

DFI's latest LANParty board is based on the newly released Nvidia nForce 680i LT SLI chipset, DFI's first take on the 600-series product line. DFI has opted to skip the high-end 680i SLI and the mid-range 650i SLI, opting for the 680i LT and (soon) the 650i Ultra, both of which are brand new and will be around for quite a while. The 680i LT, in particular, should appeal to DFI's target audience, as it has a lower price point compared to the high-end 680i SLI, but still maintains full PCI Express 16 x 16 SLI performance, stripping out a lot of the less utilized fluff which is bundled with the high-end chipset. DFI has taken the 680i LT SLI and jazzed it up with a slick board design and a lot of extras which certainly allow this board to stand out in the crowd of 680i LT SLI boards currently on the market.

DFI is producing this board under the LANParty UT NF680i LT SLI-T2R tagline, and we've got it in our hands today for some thorough, in-depth coverage. Let's get to it.

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Shipping Box - Front

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Shipping Box - Back

 

"Nvidia never ceases to strive to make a better and faster chipset. Not long ago, they have released their best chipset to date, the nForce 680i LT. It is regarded as the highest spec. with the best performance in the industry. This chipset is a dedicated design for the enthusiast. It is versatile and has tremendous functionality; SLI support, Teaming, RAID and has a lot more functions for hard-core gamer and enthusiasts alike. These features allow the NF680i LT to set the standard for one of the highest gaming chipsets in the industry now. This high-grade chipset matches well with the best motherboard designer, in order to fully unleash the potential of the NF680i. DFI, the most enthusiast-oriented motherboard designer announces the self-designed and manufactured LANParty UT NF680I LTSLI-T2R and has launched it into the market with a brand new package design."

  • Intel Core 2 Extreme, Core 2 Quad, Core 2 Duo, Pentium EE, and Pentium Processor Support

  • Nvidia nForce 680i LT SLI Chipset

  • 1333, 1066, 800 MHz Front Side Bus Speeds

  • Dual Channel DDR2 800, 667, 533

  • SLI Ready Memory with EPP x 4 DIMMS, Max 8 GB

  • 2 x PCI Express x16 Graphics Card Slots, SLI Ready

  • 1 x PCI Express x8 Slot (x16 Sized Slot)

  • 1 x PCI Express x4 Slot, 3 x 32-bit PCI Slots

  • 1 x Ultra ATA/133 Port, 1 x Floppy Port

  • 6 x Nvidia Serial ATA-II Ports

  • Supports RAID Levels 0, 1, 0+1, 5
  • 2 x Silicon Image 3132 Serial ATA-II Ports

  • Supports RAID Levels 0, 1

  • 8-Channel Analog and Digital HD Audio

  • 2 x Nvidia / Vitesse Gigabit Ethernet Ports

  • 10 x USB 2.0 Ports, 2 x 1394A Ports

  • Nvidia MediaShield Storage Technology

  • NVidia nTune Performance Applications

  • Nvidia FirstPacket Technology, TCP/IP Acceleration, DualNet

  • Passive Northbridge, Active Southbridge Chipset Coolers

  • Integrated Power and Reset Switches

  • Integrated Diagnostic Number Status Block

  • Standard ATX Form Factor, 12 x 9.6", Black PCB

 

DFI's new 680i LT SLI motherboard has specifications which are very similar to top-tier 680i SLI motherboards. Nvidia's reference 680i LT SLI platform does not include dual Gigabit Ethernet ports (and DualNet support), nor does it include the third PCI Express x16 sized slot, both of which were only featured on the high-end 680i SLI. DFI's 680i LT SLI board, however, includes both of these features, making it surprisingly close feature-wise to a full 680i SLI board. However, one major feature which separates the 680i LT SLI and 680i SLI is official support for memory speeds of 1200 MHz+, which DFI's 680i LT board does not have. This board still maxes out at 800 MHz (officially), but given DFI's highly overclockable nature, those wanting to push memory speeds beyond 800 MHz should not have much trouble.

DFI goes beyond the Nvidia reference 680i LT designs in a few ways, including having a third party SATA-II controller onboard, adding PCI Express x4 connectivity, and including both digital audio input and output connectors. DFI's product is also much flashier on the board level, using custom cooling systems, elaborate heatpipes, and color-matched components all around.

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Design and Features

DFI's 680i LT SLI board uses a custom black PCB, but still follows the basic layout of most nForce 600-series motherboards, fitting in a standard ATX form factor design. Upon first glance, we can notice a definite emphasis on cooling as many items which are typically left un-cooled have small heatsinks attached whereas the Southbridge features a large copper cooler.

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Board Angle - Bottom

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Board Angle - Top

Interestingly enough, DFI ships this motherboard without the Northbridge cooler attached. When you take the motherboard out of the box, you see the bare, clean nForce 680i LT Northbridge looking right back at you. The board was packaged in this way because the custom designed cooling system which DFI bundles with this motherboard is extremely tall, and packaging this component in a separate box allows the overall product to be smaller in volume. While you can put on the bundled cooling system if you wish, this also gives you direct access to install a third party cooling system should you so desire.

The custom DFI Northbridge cooler is a strange beast, although it's quite easy to install and is highly efficient. The cooler locks on to four metal latches on the motherboard and features a multi-tiered aluminum alloy heatsink system. In addition, jetting out from the sides of the cooler are two heatpipes, which move additional heat up to a series of aluminum alloy thin-fins for dissipation. When attached, the cooler is almost identical in height to a PCI Express graphics card, making it one of the tallest stock chipset coolers we've seen to date. The bonus here is that the hot-running 680i LT chipset can be cooled in a silent and fanless fashion, whereas the reference 680i LT SLI motherboard uses a noisy active cooling system. DFI includes a small tube of thermal paste and instructions on how to install the system, which took a grand total of about ten seconds.

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Custom Northbridge Cooler - Bottom

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Custom Northbridge Cooler - Side

DFI has kept the area surrounding the Socket-775 processor socket amazingly clean, allowing for large coolers to be installed without issue. The board supports all modern Socket-775 processors, including newer quad-core and 1333 MHz FSB processors. The board also supports up to 8 GB of DDR2-800 (and slower) memory over 4 x DDR2 DIMM sockets. The board does support EPP/SLI branded memory modules with auto-configuration capabilities as well. The DIMM sockets are color coded in orange and yellow, matching other onboard components.

If you'll look closely, you'll see hetsinks everywhere on this motherboard. I'll take a quick moment to point them out to you. There is a copper heatsink between the CPU socket and I/O panel over VRM modules, where there are four additional aluminum heatsinks sitting around various hotspots on the motherboard. One is located to the left of the Northbridge, another located beneath the primary PCI Express x16 slot. There are two additional heatsinks located to the right of the DDR2 DIMM sockets, sitting next to the IDE port and 24-pin primary ATX power connector. We have no problem with additional heatsinks onboard, although one issue is that they sometimes make connecting tight-fitting plugs into the motherboard troublesome. In particular, the motherboard's 8-pin secondary ATX connector sits between the I/O panel and a copper heatsink, which is difficult to attach at times.

The 680i LT's Southbridge (MCP55) is cooled by a large copper heatsink, which is cooled by an active 3-pin fan. The cooler is short enough that PCI Express x16 cards can hang over it, although the cooler does add trace amounts of noise due to the fact that it is fan-based. The cooler is, however, highly effective at removing Southbridge-created heat.

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Copper Southbridge Cooler

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Expansion Slots

DFI is making the most of the 680i LT, delivering two PCI Express x16 graphics card slots (SLI ready) along with additional PCI Express x8 and x4 slots. The PCI Express x8 slot is housed in a x16 connector, meaning this slot can be used for a third graphics card or full-sized PCIe device, although it will not receive full x16 bandwidth. The board is also equipped with three 32-bit PCI slots, which gives this board one of the most flexible (and colorful) expansion configurations of any nForce 600-series motherboard to date.

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Additional Features and Bundle

Sitting to the right of the Southbridge are six Serial ATA-II/300 ports, which hang on the edge of the PCB at a 90 degree angle (allowing for cleaner cabling and less interference when lots of expansion cards are installed). The six SATA-II/300 ports are connected to the Nvidia Southbridge, and support RAID level 0, 1, 0+1, and 5. Interestingly enough, this board has no eSATA connectivity, which we would expect from a board of this nature. Sitting to the south of the Southbridge is a Silicon Image 3132 SATA-II/300 controller, which has an additional two storage ports (bringing to the total onboard to eight), which also support RAID levels 0 and 1. Honestly, we think these additional two ports are somewhat un-necessary with six faster, more flexible Nvidia SATA ports nearby.

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Nvidia SATA Ports

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Silicon Image SATA Ports

The I/O panel of this board is somewhat unique in that it's shipped with a large gap in the middle of it. This gap is where the bundled DFI analog audio card (dubbed Karajan) sits, if you choose to use it. The analog audio abilities are kept on a separate PCB, along with the codec itself (Realtek's ALC885), in order to allow for cleaner signal to these ports. If you're using a separate audio card, you can simply opt not to install this card, and this allows for a little more breathing room around the processor and VRM heatsinks. This card also includes the connectors for front panel audio connectivity for your chasiss, although due to the placement of this connector on the card (rather than located on the main motherboard PCB), running a case cable to this card may prove to be difficult in terms of length and maintaining a clean cabled environment.

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Karajan Card - CODEC

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Karajan Card - Connectors

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LANParty UT NF680i LT SLI-T2R I/O Panel

The rest of the I/O panel is packed, however. On the left side there are PS/2 and 8-channel digital audio input and output connectors. On the right side there are six USB 2.0 ports, a single Firewire 400 port, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. The board also has additional headers near the bottom of the board for four more USB 2.0 ports and one more Firewire 400 port. The Firewire ports are controlled by a VIA 6307 PCI controller which sits near the left side of the board. Right alongside are the two Gigabit Ethernet PHY's from Vitesse, which interface with the 680i LT Southbridge. The two Gigabit Ethernet ports support TCP/IP Acceleration, packet prioritizing, and Nvidia's Dual-Net (teaming, failover) as well, a feature we did not expect to see on 680i LT boards.

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Dual Gigabit Ethernet PHYs and Firewire Controller Chip

Continuing on with the orange theme of the product, DFI bundles matching bright orange cables with this motherboard. The bundled components can be seen below, which includes rounded IDE/floppy cables, four orange SATA-II class cables, SATA power adapters, an SLI bridge card, and a standard I/O panel shield.

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Bundled Accessories

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BIOS and Overclocking

DFI is known for their flexible custom BIOS releases for their LANParty UT series, which give the overclocker/tweaker a lot of flexibility to take their components to their maximum limits. DFI generally includes many of the options which motherboard makers hide from end users in order to keep accidental mis-configuration scenarios down. Likewise, DFI does not have many voltage caps or artificial limits - they let you run wild with this board, which is great as long as you know how to configure it properly.

Their LANParty UT nForce 680i LT SLI board is equipped with a PhoenixBIOS which is modified with DFI's GenieBIOS menus, which hold the majority of the motherboard's overclocking control set. While the board "officially" supports up to 1333 MHz FSB and 800 MHz DDR2 memory, the board has BIOS-level maximums of 2500 MHz FSB and 1400 MHz DDR2 memory, so there is a lot of leeway here. The board also has voltage controls for every major component with small iteration levels, including DDR2 voltage levels up to 3.0V, Northbridge up to 1.75V, Southbridge up to 1.85V, and vCore up to 1.6V.

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FSB and Multiplier Controls

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Voltage Monitoring and Alteration

The motherboard also supports the ability to save multiple BIOS configurations which can be recalled if needed based on hotkeys. For example, you could have a "stock" BIOS menu which runs your system at non-overclocked speeds, along with an "overclocked" menu with your CPU and memory running at higher levels, toggling between them at boot. You can save up to four configurations using this system, which can be handy if you're pushing this board well beyond its intended specifications.

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Thermal and Fan Speed Controls

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CMOS Reloaded Menu

DFI has implemented a new digital PWM fan speed control system with this board, which they claim to is more accurate and more flexible compared to traditional methods. In the BIOS, you can set minimum and maximum temperature levels which you want the CPU to run between, while the motherboard will try to balance these levels by constantly altering fan speed on the fly. Unfortunately, with the shipping BIOS of this motherboard, digital PWM fan speed support was not as flawless as we hoped for. Many times throughout our testing, our board would kick into a higher speed level to cool the processor down, but would never move itself down to a lower fan speed level when the processor reached a reasonable temperature, leading to an overall noisy system. We wish that DFI would allow for manual control of the fan speeds (i.e., run at 50% speed at all times) as well, instead of relying solely on this questionably better PWM system.

When we first received the board, DFI claimed that internal tests revealed that they easily hit front side bus speeds of over 500 MHz (2000 MHz FSB), which is a strong claim. In their labs, they have overclocked similar boards up to 525 MHz (2100 MHz FSB) at stable levels, providing fairly high expectations for the board. Unfortunately, throughout our testing, we were not able to meet these levels with our platform, even with the help of DFI's engineers and a series of beta BIOS revisions.

Our sample board was able to hit 1800 MHz FSB at stable levels, a solid overclock for a 1066 MHz FSB based dual-core processor, although not quite to the stratospheric levels which were claimed to be possible. DFI certainly does provide the tools for heavy overclocking, and their custom cooling systems do an excellent job of keeping the chipset cool. However, every board will overclock to different levels, ours simply didn't fare as well as expected. For the record, the Nvidia reference / eVGA nForce 680i LT reference board we tested a few weeks back was able to overclock slightly further, hitting up to 1933 MHz, although it too was only stable in the 1800-1866 MHz FSB range. However, we did find overclocking to be far easier on the eVGA platform compared to our DFI board.

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Testbed and Synthetics

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)

  • DFI LANParty UT NF680i LT SLI-T2R, Nvidia nForce 680i LT Chipset
  • eVGA nForce 680i LT, Nvidia nForce 680i LT Chipset
  • eVGA nForce 650i Ultra, Nvidia nForce 650i Ultra Chipset
  • Asus P5N-E SLI, Nvidia nForce 650i SLI Chipset
  • MSI P965 NEO, Intel P965 Chipset

Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks
SiSoft Sandra XI

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Our quick synthetic tests show us that DFI’s nForce 680i LT SLI board is on par with other competitive platforms in raw processor and memory performance.  The 680i LT doesn’t show a significant improvement over the 650i SLI or 650i Ultra when running with a single graphics card.  This is to be expected though, so the numbers are in line and correct.
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3DMark and PCMark

 

Synthetic Benchmarks
Futuremark 3DMark05, 3DMark06 and PCMark05

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At stock speeds, DFI’s 680i LT board doesn’t stand out compared to lower priced alternatives, sitting neck and neck with its Nvidia based brethren.

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Stalker and Oblivion

 

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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Our gaming tests show the DFI 680i LT board providing a slight performance benefit in these two titles, although likely not enough to be noticed by the end user.  If you’re using a single graphics card, gaming performance will simply not differ much from the 650i series.
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Half Life 2 and FEAR

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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Again, no solid performance differences between the DFI 680i LT and these competing boards, when gaming with a single graphics card installed.
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HDTune Storage

HD Tune Storage Benchmark
Default Test On Maxtor DiamondMax 10 HDD

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Hard disk performance tests look good using the integrated Nvidia Serial ATA-II storage subsystem, although our numbers are somewhat unremarkable compared to other Nvidia based boards.
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Power Consumption

Total System Power Consumption

It's All About the Watts

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Our DFI platform managed to consume slightly less power compared to the eVGA/Nvidia reference 680i LT board, while at the same time having far more onboard features, which is certainly a positive.  The 680i LT consumes a bit more power compared to the 650i series, but not enough to concern yourselves with.  We’re looking at about 10W difference maximum. 

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Conclusion

DFI's LANParty UT nForce 680i LT SLI certainly differentiates itself from other 680i LT boards in many ways. While DFI could have gone the safe route and re-badged another Nvidia reference design based board, they went the extra mile and opted to make a truly unique product which stands out in today's market. The 680i LT SLI boards we've seen to date thus far have been trimmed down to hit lower price points compared to full-fledged 680i SLI boards. However, DFI's 680i LT SLI board is feature packed, and actually bears a closer resemblance to Nvidia's high-end platforms over their mid-range boards.

DFI's engineers put a very large emphasis on overclockability with this platform, with strategically placed heatsinks on every major heat generating component, along with unique coolers on both the Northbridge and Southbridge chips. The design allowed the board to run at lower temperatures compared to other platforms we've tested. The silent heatpipe based cooler is quite unique, and DFI's choice to ship this component separately (not installed by default) gives high-end users some flexibility on how they configure this board for their unique situations.

The LANParty UT nForce 680i LT SLI  is feature packed for a 680i LT board, with full 16x16 SLI, in addition to PCI Express x8 and x4 slots; you've got just about every expansion configuration covered. Throw in dual Gigabit LAN ports, eight Serial ATA-II/300 RAID ports, and an impressive onboard audio configuration, and you've got the makings of a high-end gaming motherboard with very few sacrifices due to cost. It will be interesting to see how final pricing of this board works out, as we would expect it to be priced higher than other reference 680i LT boards due to the added features. If DFI can get their price level near to these other 680i LT boards, they'll have a solid advantage in our eyes. However, if it's priced too highly, users might opt for full-fledged 680i SLI boards instead.

We think DFI has done an excellent job creating a unique 680i LT SLI board on the hardware side; although we do believe some work needs to be done on the BIOS level to smooth out the rough edges we encountered during testing. The fan speed control system was non-responsive throughout our testing, and it took much more effort to get a solid overclock from this board in comparison to similarly classed 680i LT boards. In time, we fully believe these issues will be resolved, and when they are, DFI will clearly have a dominant 680i LT board.

  • Unique Cooling Configuration
  • Near Perfect Expansion Layout
  • Feature Packed (Dual LAN, Digital Audio In/Out, Firewire)
  • Flexible BIOS Controls
  • Underwhelming Overclocking Performance
  • Non-Responsive Fan Speed Controls
  • No eSATA Expansion Port

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