New Motherboards from MSI and EPoX
Back in October of 2003, we had the opportunity to take a good look at several new Athlon 64 motherboards. We had two high profile boards from ASUS and MSI that came packed to the gills with features, extras and a promise of high performance courtesy of VIA’s K8T800 chipset. A third, less prolific motherboard from Shuttle was a part of that round up, with just an above average feature set, yet promising top end performance as well. Back then we walked away impressed with the performance of the NFORCE3, which ended up being a solid competitor for the VIA chipset.
However, while the NFORCE3 150 did a great job in the performance arena, its feature set was a bit lackluster compared to the VIA K8T800. On top of that, as the market matured, so did VIA’s drivers, helping the K8T800 become the market leader as an Athlon 64 solution. Since then, we’ve seen some promising challenges from SiS with the , otherwise, VIA has had little to concern themselves with.
Recently, NVIDIA returned to the chipset arena with the introduction of the NFORCE3 250Gb. While the expectation of improved performance is obvious, what was less evident was what new features, if any, NVIDIA was going to bring to the table this time around. Would the NFORCE3 simply be a tweaked 150 offering a nominal increase in performance, or was NVIDIA hard at work on a product that would offer something new? Our initial impressions say NVIDIA has been hard at work, aiming to bring a number of compelling features to bear with their latest creation.
Today, we are going to have a look at two new NFORCE3 250Gb motherboards, comparing their performance to the K8T800 from VIA and SiS755 from SiS. The first board comes from MSI in the form of the MSI K8N Neo Platinum, a motherboard designed to grab your attention with all the trimmings expected from a product with “platinum” in its name. The other board that we have fired up in our labs is the Epox EP 8KDA3+. While it lacks a catchy name or flashy packaging, this motherboard should not be overlooked. The Epox EP 8KDA3+ offers a solid feature set that rivals the MSI board sans some of the fanfare.
While both of these motherboards take a different approach at garnering the enthusiast’s attention, one thing is certain, each has a lot to offer. However, before we get down and dirty with these two boards, first we should get acquainted with the NFORCE3 250Gb and highlight some of the newest features NVIDIA added to the mix this time around.
With the introduction of the NFORCE3 250Gb, NVIDIA brings a long list of enhancements as well as feature upgrades. From a performance standpoint, NVIDIA has implemented several features exclusive to the NFORCE3 250 product line that are meant to enhance the performance of all levels of the various subsystems. We’ll attempt to shed light on some of the more notable improvements.
The first major change to the NFORCE3 250Gb was adding a 33% clock speed boost to the Hypertransport link, bringing the maximum speed up to 800MHz. This in turn allows for a full 6.4GB/s of bandwidth, significantly improving the available bandwidth for all system devices. NVIDIA also added native support for SATA by adding Dual independent SATA controllers to the chipset, which allows for a total of 4 SATA devices to be connected at one time. The chipset also provides quite a bit of flexibility with its RAID implementation, offering RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 between any combination of SATA and/or IDE hard drives.
Another benefit for the NFORCE3 250Gb is native support for Gigabit Ethernet. This is a major improvement over the NFORCE3 150 which was hampered by legacy 10/100 Ethernet. Finally, to get the maximum available throughput, NVIDIA uses an isochronous controller that, when paired with the Hypertransport technology, results in maximum throughput with low overhead. Below is a diagram showing how traditional Gigabit solutions run through the PCI bus, limiting the performance of the Gigabit Ethernet to the top speed of the bus.
The second image shows how the NFORCE3 250Gb design offers an independent link which allows for a full 1Gbps in each direction. This busless configuration takes away the ef pandora charms uk fects of bus traffic, allowing the Ethernet to run at its maximum throughput at all times, reducing overall latency.
Another major addition is the inclusion of a hardware firewall into the NFORCE3 250Gb’s design. By making the firewall a hardware solution, as opposed to an aftermarket software package, the end user will see a significant improvement in system performance. Software firewalls typically run at the expense of CPU cycles, whereas, NVIDIA’s hardware firewall integrates this design into their MCP’s, reducing its effects on system performance. While this isn’t an all in one solution to network intrusions, this integrated design offers a far more effective solution than a third party software package, as well as being an excellent option when coupled with a router/firewall combination.
It should be clear to you now that NVIDIA has been hard at work, adding some excellent features and performance enhancements to their latest NFORCE3 creation. But with modern motherboard chipsets, hardware is only part of the picture. Next we’ll take a quick look at the NVIDIA Forceware driver package and utilities that help unlock the full potential of the NFORCE3’s feature set.
To help get the most out of the newest features of the NFORCE3 250Gb, NVIDIA put together a collection of utilities specifically designed for this purpose, namely NVIDIA System Utility, , NVIDIA RAID and . These 4 components help to configure, optimize and monitor the full characteristics of the NFORCE3 chipset.
NVIDIA System Utility
The NVIDIA System Utility was specifically designed to allow users to monitor system status, as well as manipulating bus and memory timings. This gives users quick access to Processor, Memory, Driver and System performance in pandora charms uk formation. Additionally, the utility can access the memory and AGP bus for overclocking the system from within Windows. This works on a per session basis, returning the system to its defaults at reboot. There is also an option to save and load profiles for easy switching depending on your need. Below is a screenshot of the basic utility available from NVIDIA’s web site, although their goal is to allow OEM’s to customize the utility to work with their specific configurations. Currently NVIDIA plans to release this utility with their next Forceware driver update.
When it comes to tapping the full potential of the NFORCE3 250’s RAID capabilities, NVIDIA RAID is a nice add on. This utility is a simple, yet powerful tool for building RAID arrays with any combination of SATA/PATA hard drives. It can also monitor the current status of an array. One of the most useful options is Spare Disk Allocation which let’s you allocate a reserve pandora charms uk drive as a fail over in the event a drive on the array malfunctions. This takes the panic out of a drive failure, leaving valuable time t pandora charms uk o acquire a replacement drive. With NVIDIA’s hardware firewall enabled, this allows the machine to run in full stealth mode, showing no open ports available. This is a essential when connected via broadband where sniffers can seek out a systems with open ports. If open ports are found, these sniffers can target the system and attempt various exploits. This web site has been around for years, exposing weaknesses in Microsoft code and helping users plug the holes to stay safe.
Our opinion is that NVIDIA has put together a good collection of features backed by a complete unified driver package to help users get the most out of the NFORCE3 250Gb. Now that we have gotten a good handle on what those new features are, it’s time to turn our attention to the two NFORCE3 250Gb motherboards sitting on the HotHardware test bench and see what each has to offer.