NVIDIA nForce4 Chipset Preview
nTune and Conclusion
One of NVIDIA's principal strengths that it has leveraged time and again to establish an advantage over other hardware manufacturers is its software programming aptitude. Hardware can only be as good as the software backing it, and an excellent driver team garnered NVIDIA quite a bit of support early on with graphics cards.
NVIDIA is again flexing that muscle with nTune, a performance configuration utility that retains functionality introduced previously by the company's software development team and several other features as well, including the ability to tweak NVIDIA graphics processors that belong to the GeForce FX family and newer.
Overclockers and other performance enthusiasts are a persistent bunch, and while manufacturers insist that running hardware beyond specifications will void the accompanying warranty, most just don't seem to care or are comfortable enough under the proverbial hood to make changes without damaging anything. NVIDIA recognizes the demand for more advanced configuration tools and has responded with the nForce4's nTune application, available for every model of the chipset.
The main page of nTune facilitates navigation throughout the utility. As you can see, it enables automatic tuning options, including settings to optimize for memory, disk I/O, graphics, or overall system performance. There are also a handful of benchmarks to compare one configuration against another and a hardware monitor to keep track of platform health.
There are options for tweaking memory timings, the HyperTransport bus, and as mentioned, the graphics card clock settings, if you're running an NVIDIA card. The utility comes with a Windows-based BIOS flash utility and an app for creating a support log.
NVIDIA's nForce4 chipset is exciting in several regards and disappointing in a couple. To begin, there's no denying that the inclusion of PCI Express support is a much-needed boon for AMD. In fact, it can certainly be argued that NVIDIA's own optimizations top Intel's best work.
SLI is the big news, of course. The ability to support two of NVIDIA's graphics cards is purportedly enabled by Intel's E7525 workstation chipset and VIA claims that its upcoming K8T890 Pro will also work with two graphics cards; however, nForce4 is obviously NVIDIA's platform of choice.
Then there are the storage features. It's hard to imagine that 3 Gbps Serial ATA drives will do much for performance; that standard is most effective when multiple drives are connected to a port expander - a feature of Serial ATA II that nForce4 doesn't support. But the combined effect of NVIDIA's comprehensive RAID support, the troubleshooting features, and RAID morphing out-class any other chipset. The platform's networking features are also impressive and the inclusion of an accelerated hardware firewall is a welcome addition for those who were already impressed with nForce3 250Gb's super-fast networking controller.
Unfortunately, there's still nothing in the way of tricked out audio. SoundStorm was an integral part of the nForce and nForce2 chipsets. It didn't make a return with nForce3 and again, those who opt for nForce4 will have to do with standard AC'97. Then there's the issue of integrated graphics, though the potential market for that feature has to be relatively small. Regardless, all told, the nForce 4 is an impressive offering to say the least, that will continue to drive NVIDIA's presence in the mainstream chipset market moving forward. Motherboard OEMs are already lining boards up for us here in the testing queue. Stick around as we'll have benchmark numbers from our reference system following here shortly as well.