At launch, there were really just two Athlon 64 chipsets - the nVidia nForce3 150 and VIA K8T800. As we have discussed in reviews of boards based on these chipsets, neither one really meets the specifications that we would like to see in Athlon 64 chipsets. Later, SiS introduced the promising 755 chipset, but no one has brought the kind of 755 boards that we hoped to see to market. In addition, our recent tests of the PCI locks on all 3 Athlon 64 chipsets found that none of them really worked. Given this background, we were more than ready for a new chipset for Athlon 64 that would fix many of the issues.

nVidia has stated all along that nForce3-150 was an interim chipset. The 150 chipset was criticized widely for using just 600 HyperTransport when the AMD specification was 800, and almost everyone found fault with the out-dated feature set with nF3-150. In fairness, we could find no performance differences at all between the VIA 800HT and the nVidia 600HT in tests of Socket 754 Athlon 64, but there was certainly no compelling reason to choose nF3-150 over the more feature-rich solutions from both VIA and SiS. With VIA and SiS, you also did not have to compromise on HyperTransport speed since both run at 800HT.

The non-working PCI lock that we later found on nF3-150 also came as a huge surprise. nVidia tells us, and we did confirm, that the PCI lock does work on the nVidia Reference Board for nF3-150, but they are also aware that it did not work in production nF3-150 motherboards. nVidia assures us that this BIOS programming issue is fixed in nF3-250.

Into this very confusing climate for Athlon 64 chipsets, nVidia is launching the completely revised nForce3-250. The market for Athlon 64 is now growing rapidly, and nVidia simply wants to be the only choice for the gamer and computer enthusiast when buying an Athlon 64. This time around, nVidia certainly looks like they have the goods to make nForce3-250 everything that the market is looking for.

Since there is so much that is new in the nForce3-250, the review will come to you in two parts. Part 1 takes a close look at the features of nForce3-250; Part 2 will concentrate on actual performance of the nForce3-250 Reference Board compared to other Athlon 64 boards that we have tested. Since nVidia claims that nForce3-250 performs best with nVidia's latest graphics cards, benchmarks will also compare performance of an nVidia 5950 Ultra, 9800 XT, and our standard ATI 9800 PRO on the nF3-250 chipset.

A Closer Look at the nForce3-250 Family
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  • Visual - Friday, March 26, 2004 - link

    This chipset looks promising, I like it. And a great article about it :)

    I'm a bit curious about the raid - do you guys think it may be possible to implement a hot-swappable raid array with integrated raid controllers anytime soon?

    Maybe you can make an article testing the performance boost from using a 4-drive raid 0 array with this baby?

    Another thing that interests me - are there any mobos with IGP for Athlon64? I know it won't be a performer, I'm just curious if it even exists. Also is anything being heared about some new DX9 IGP anytime soon(hopefully with this chipset)? It'd also be cool if having an AGP card doesn't disable the IGP, like the ati-intel chipsets... Well I guess I'm dreaming now, but I'd like to see your comments or any info you have on nVidia's IGP plans. I guess you AT folks could ask nVidia about this :)

    Thanks,
    Visual
    Reply
  • Reflex - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    #59: Try measuring your bandwidth with a 4 drive RAID 0 array using fast drives on that setup and then put the same array in an Intel or AMD chipset system. nVidia's PCI implementation is not very good at all. Reply
  • MichaelD - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    [q] Actually, to date nVidia has had a *very* troublesome PCI implementation, anyone with a PCI RAID controller and a 4 disk RAID 0 array can tell you that. It is so bad, in fact, that prototype NF3-150 boards for Opteron used AMD PCI chips just to avoid using the nForce3 integrated PCI bus. I am not certain if these boards ever reached production status however.[/q]

    Uh, no. Not in my experience. On my 8RDA+, I've used:

    Highpoint ATA133 Contoller Card
    3Ware7000-2 Two-channel IDE RAID card
    LSI Megaraid 1600 SCSI RAID card

    I've had zero problems. Wha'chu talkin' bout, Willis?
    Reply
  • Reflex - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    #55: I did not say DDR2 was needed right now, its not and AMD is making the right decision. I was just pointing out that the latency penalty should not be a real issue since it moves more data. But time will tell.

    #54: I have not checked out the Catalina yet, however if it does not have a coax output, it will not find a home in my setup. SPDIF is a consumer level technology, championed by Sony, but it is not as high quality as coax simply due to the fact that the signal must be converted twice(to and from optical) which is never a good thing. Furthermore, the cables are frail and expensive. Professional level equipment never has SPDIF, it uses coax exclusively.

    Wesley: Glad they are dropping SoundStorm. Waste of time and effort in my opinion.
    Reply
  • BikeDude - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    Thanks Wesley; a single chip implementation makes sense. Now show us the benchmarks! :) Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    #54 and others regarding Sound Storm -

    1 - nVidia is committed to the one-chip chipset for Athlon 64. They are firmly convinced that the one-chip eliminates the potential bottlenecks of a north-south bridge communications bus. Even with the the memory controller on the chip there is only so much real estate practically available on a single-chip chipset.

    2 - Customer surveys by nVidia found that most buyers did not use Sound Storm, and that Sound Storm did not enter heavily into the decision to buy nForce. So the decision was made to choose the on-chip LAN, firewall, and much-expanded RAID capabilities which benefit greatly from being moved off the bus.

    3 - There are new sound solutions in the works for nVidia. You may see them in a future chipset or on a sound card. Final decisions have not been made.
    Reply
  • Pumpkinierre - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    #53, I'll believe it when I see the tests. It sounds like RAMBUS- that was supposed to be better at latency but turned out the opposite at over twice the cost at the time. Read the last paragraph of Wesley's post(#50)- he's closer to the industry and there are others expressing similar concerns. All these are things that Intel with its resources should iron out and AMD come in when its sorted, If AMD get to a third of the market and in the black then it can show leadership in these areas. Meanwhile stick to what they are best at cpus.
    Reply
  • BikeDude - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    #48: Turtle Beach Catalina which I suspect is a newer card (it's more expensive :) ) than SC, seem to tout optical SPDIF output as a feature (doesn't mention coax at all) and it's merely pass-through SPDIF at that (no hardware Dolby encoding -- thus I'll end up with the additional three audio cables again). Are you sure you have all your facts straight?

    If you're a professional musician -- I agree, the SS isn't for you, but I thought nForce was primarily a chipset targetted at gamers?
    Reply
  • Reflex - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    #52: Latency ends up about the same due to the fact that twice the operations per clock are happening in the same span as regular DDR. It does not, however, give you any real benefit, just higher scalability. The lack of DDR2 support also really has nothing to do with the chipset, its a CPU feature on Athlon64/FX architecture's, not a chipset one, so people bemoaning the lack of DDR2 need to look at AMD, not nVidia.

    Like I said before, the only feature needed from my point of view is PCI Express. I refuse to buy anymore PCI or AGP devices at this point knowing that in a year or two they will be useless. Unlike my CPU, I don't often change out my sound card, motherboard, SCSI card, or other such devices, so when it comes time to upgrade my system, PCI Express will be the order of the day for me.
    Reply
  • Pumpkinierre - Thursday, March 25, 2004 - link

    Good to see your real opinions, wesley #50. I too am worried about this slow latency DDR2 particularly with the a64 where I see system memory latency as being the bottleneck for improved gaming speed. AMD have got themselves a winner with a64/newcastle but still have mainboard issues as well as heavy debt. In these conditions, good poker dictates that you play conservatively. So I'm quite happy to see only DDR1 and PCI on the nF3-250 for the moment.
    Reply

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