Not long ago we covered the first PCI Express chipset launch from VIA. Now nVidia has finally revealed the eagerly awaited nForce4 chipset.
There will be three different flavours of the nForce4 chipset; the basic nForce4, a version with new additional features called nForce4 Ultra and finally nForce 4 SLI, which offers all same goodies of the Ultra but also adds the killer feature after which it is named.
Those dreaming of building an SLI system on the cheap will therefore be disappointed, as compatible motherboards are expected to cost $200 and upwards, which will translate to somewhere in the region of £150-200 in the UK, depending on exchange rates and board manufacturer. This is likely to negate the affordability of the PCI Express 6600GT, at least to begin with.
However, based on the numbers we saw, SLI won’t disappoint those willing and able to spend. nVidia claims an increase in performance over single cards systems ranging from 20, to a whopping 90 per cent, depending on the game. nVidia was also confident that its SLI solution will outperform competitor solutions due to some specific optimisations in the nForce4 chipset.
However, it does appear that to enable SLI you need to do more than just attach the SLI connector that nVidia announced some time ago. You need to enable the second PCI Express slot on the motherboard by rotating what nVidia refers to as a lane configuration card. What this does is to make the x16 PCI Express run at x8, while enabling the second PCI Express slot to also run at x8. VIA has taken a slightly different approach and offers a x16 slot with the secondary slot operating at x4. As to which solution will be better, we will only know once we have compared them.
It’s also worth mentioning that nVidia has only certified the nForce4 chipset to work with nVidia graphics cards in SLI mode, so if another manufacturer was to bring out dual graphics cards, these might not work with the nForce4 SLI chipset.
But what of the other new features incorporated into the nForce4 Ultra? At the top of the list is the built-in hardware firewall, dubbed ActiveArmour, which nVidia claims does more than the software firewall built into Windows. ActiveArmour offers a pop-up window that enables you to block unauthorised outbound communications by setting the access rights of your applications. This is done so that if a virus or a Trojan does get inside your system, it can be blocked from accessing your network connection.
The most impressive part of the demo shown at the press briefing though, was the clear difference in terms of CPU usage between hardware acceleration and software firewalls. nVidia claims that ActiveArmour only takes up around 10 per cent of the CPU, compared to 75 per cent for software firewalls. There are however a couple of downsides. The first is that ActiveArmour will not feature on the basic version of the nForce4 chipset. This is targeting the lower end of the market, which ironically is where a built-in firewall really makes sense. The second downside is that it only works over Ethernet, so if you’re using a USB device to connect to the internet, it won’t protect you anyway.
nVidia will also offers a software firewall, with all three versions as well. This will use up as much CPU power as any other firewall software, but will work on any nVidia chipset based motherboard and be offered as a free download.
The next feature inluded with the Ultra is supoprt for the next generation of SATA, which on top of Native Command Quesing (NCQ) now supports data transfer speeds of up to 3GB/s. nVidia has made an unusual move here though, as rather than using one SATA controller, the nForce4 chipset has two. According to nVidia this improves performance, especially in a RAID configuration.
Another feature that could come in handy is Disk Alert System, which is a software application that will inform you if one of your hard drives has failed and will tell you to which connector on your motherboard it's attached. The nForce4 chipset also supports hot-swapping of disks, which means that if you have your hard drives in a hot swap drive cage, you can replace a failed drive in a RAID1 configuration without having to turn the PC off. Another useful feature is that an EIDE drive can act as a backup for a SATA based RAID array, with the EIDE drive taking over if one of the SATA drives fail.
The final feature nVidia showed at the press briefing was its new nTune application, which will be another free application available from nVidia. It will also be available as an option for the motherboard manufacturers to incorporate into their own overclocking utilities. The nTune application will benchmark your PC and you can set it to automatically tweak and overclock your PC to its limits. But you’ll need a lot of spare time to get the most out of it, as we were informed that the memory test alone will take up to an hour to complete.
You can also set up profiles that enable you to have instant access to various performance settings depending on what applications you’re running. This means that you can have a quiet low power setting for when you’re working in Windows and a high-speed and possibly noisier setting for when you’re playing games. Additional software features mentioned include a utility that can gather system information and send it back to your motherboard vendor if you’re having problems with your PC, and finally - a built in BIOS flash utility.
Overall, the nForce4 chipset would appear to have an impressive range of features, but we were left disappointed that the nVidia’s impressive SoundStorm audio, omitted from nForce3, has once again not been resurrected.
While we look forward to the boards actually appearing, here's a sneak peak at MSI's forthcoming SLI capable K8N Diamond motherboard. Record breaking levels of gaming performance are but hopefully but a few weeks away...