DFI nForce4: SLI and Ultra for Mad Overclockersby Wesley Fink on February 5, 2005 9:30 AM EST
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DFI has performed a miraculous change of marketing directions in the past two years. They have moved from a solid second tier motherboard manufacturer producing nice OEM motherboards and a few solid, but dull, branded motherboards to a company whose products have come to define the Computer Enthusiast market. We can all chuckle when we say that Diamond Flower International became Designed For Innovation to fit their new image, but the transition is truly that remarkable.
A quick visit to www.xtremesystems.org or any other site devoted to enthusiasts who live to top the orb at Futuremark will find huge discussions of each little feature of upcoming DFI motherboards. Now, enthusiasts seem to ask with each new motherboard review, "That's fine, but what will the coming DFI do?" The DFI Socket 754 nF3 250Gb was one of the last 754 boards to market, but it was so heavily anticipated that DFI pre-sales totaled several months of production even before the board landed on the market.
This time around, the new nForce4 boards from DFI are some of the first to market, surely a first for DFI, and the new boards have already created quite a buzz when it was found that their new nF4 Ultra board, with two x16 PCIe slots, could be modded easily into an nForce4 SLI by closing a bridge on the nF4 Ultra chipset. Suddenly, a $140 motherboard could deliver everything that a full SLI board could deliver with a simple mod using a #2 pencil. Details of that mod are at Morphing nForce4 Ultra into nForce4 SLI. Add to that the incredible range of tweaking controls, which are becoming trademark DFI, and enthusiasts have been lining up to buy the new DFI nForce4 boards, which should actually be available right now.
There are two new DFI nForce4 boards covered in this review - the full-blown LANParty nF4 SLI-DR and the LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D. However, the boards are basically the same and built on the same PCB. The LANParty is based on the nVidia nForce4 SLI chipset, while the UT has a few less features and is based on the nForce4 Ultra chipset. However, both boards sport 2 x16 PCIe slots, both boards perform the same, and they even use the same BIOS. As we found in the Ultra to SLI mod article, the UT board becomes, in every way, an SLI board after the simple mod. We will talk about the few differences between the boards in this review, but all benchmarking, overclocking, and memory performance tests apply equally to both boards.
DFI wanted to be certain that buyers of the lower-priced UT Ultra board still had all the overclocking controls and options available on the full-blown LANParty, and in this case, it is not just lip service. The SLI and Ultra boards can be considered equal in performance. The full-blown LANParty package with SLI adds a few more features to justify the $60 premium that the LANParty SLI will ask.
UPDATE 2/05/2005: nVidia has acted to prevent, or at least make it more difficult, to mod the Ultra board to SLI. First, DFI has advised us, and posted on their website, that they will NOT sell the SLI bridge to buyers of the Ultra board. Second, nVidia has advised us that future shipments of the Ultra chipset have been modified so that the mod to SLI will no longer be possible. An additional side effect of this second action is that the "Dual Video" mode, which performs at about 90% of SLI performance levels, will only work with nVidia SLI drivers 66.75 or earlier. If you do a quick check of web driver postings you will see it is now very difficult to find 66.75 drivers. With a chipset modded to SLI the "Dual Video" mode worked through 70.xx versions of the nVidia driver. nVidia also made it clear they will continue to make driver changes to prevent functioning of any "non-standard" (8X/8X) operation of their SLI driver. This also throws into question whether the VIA "dual graphics" mode on the 894 Pro chipset will ever work with nVidia graphics cards. If you are interested in the current UT Ultra-D we suggest you buy one now if you can find it. Future versions of the UT Ultra-D will not have the same capabilities as a result of these actions.