Watch out Intel - NVIDIA's just broken out the big guns and this time they're not holding anything back. Coming out firing with both barrels blazing, the nForce 790i (Ultra) SLI promises to provide users with the ultimate platform for high-intensity, adrenaline-pounding gaming when it comes to combining NVIDIA multi-GPU 3D graphics and the power of today's most advanced Intel desktop microprocessors. Probably sounds a little over the top, but this time we reckon an nForce chipset for the Intel platform will live up to the hype.

Aiming to steal as much attention as possible from the ongoing coverage of the many looming product releases based on Intel's upcoming X48 Express chipset, 790i makes no apologies for what it is: one of the fastest gaming platforms we have ever tested. In the past, less than impressive processor and memory overclocking capabilities - especially when running data-hungry quad-core CPUs - made it difficult to recommend an NVIDIA-based system to anyone other than those looking for the absolute maximum in gaming performance. After spending sometime with the nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboards from ASUS and EVGA, we're not so sure we can say that anymore.


A familiar color combination makes a comeback with NVIDIA's latest offering. EVGA's mean n' green NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI promises to take your gaming experience to a whole new level.

Much like we have seen in the past, the initial NVIDIA offerings will consist of near immediate, worldwide product availability from the usual suspects - EVGA and XFX - as well as a few non-reference designs from vendors such ASUS, DFI, Gigabyte and MSI. For instance, we have the ASUS Striker II Extreme, which fortunately landed in our hands a little earlier this month allowing us additional time to test this platform. Squarely targeted at the serious gamer and extreme benchmarking enthusiast looking to squeeze every last ounce of 3D performance from their systems, motherboards based on 790i are the next big step in NVIDIA's quest for absolute dominance in the discrete graphics marketplace.

The NVIDIA nForce 790i SLI chipset is comprised of two parts. First is the System Platform Processor (SPP), analogous to Intel's Memory Controller Hub (MCH) or "Northbridge", and second is the Media and Communications Processor (MCP) that provides nearly the same functionality as Intel's I/O Controller Hub (ICH) or "Southbridge." Together these processors form the foundation needed to experience the very latest in NVIDIA multi-GPU SLI technology. Current 780i-based motherboard owners should note with approval the absence of the nForce 200 sub-processor from this line-up as the functionality (PCIe 2.0) formerly provided by this chip is now natively supported by the improved 790i SPP. As a side note, the nForce 200 is nearly the same chip employed on Intel Skulltrail motherboard, which allows enabling SLI-accelerated graphics. (Skulltrail uses the nForce 100, a first generation part that supports only PCIe 1.x link speeds.)


NVIDIA's nForce 790i Ultra SLI specifications are shown here. The 790i SLI block diagram is strikingly similar; the only difference is a reference to JEDEC 1333MHz memory support and not the DDR3-2000 overclock capability highlighted above.

The SPP contains bus control logic required to interface with the Central Processing Unit (CPU) via Intel's now well-aged Front Side Bus (FSB) in addition to a single, scalable HyperTransport Technology (HTT) link - licensed for use from AMD - which interfaces with the MCP. One of the major changes over the 780i SLI MCP is the integration of NVIDIA's newly-designed DDR3 memory controller capable of addressing up to 8GB of unregistered, non-ECC DDR3 memory. Add to this the incorporation of complete PCI Express (PCIe) 2.0 bus support and we can see that 790i is more than just a simple upgrade from 780i. Those looking to swap their current board for one featuring the 790i should find more than enough reason to consider the change.

In order to retain their platform's competitive edge, NVIDIA has pulled out all the stops. They provide the required next-generation 45nm Intel LGA775 dual-core and quad-core CPU compatibility with official FSB 1600 support. Beyond that, we get DDR3 with EPP2 and two x16 PCIe 2.0 slots along with a third providing an additional full x16 PCIe 1.x link for second-generation tri-SLI graphics acceleration. Quad-SLI (using two GeForce 9800 GX2 cards) is also supported. Finally, the platform provides a tight integration of on-the-fly system control and monitoring courtesy of the Enthusiast System Architecture (ESA).

We will be taking an in-depth look at the 790i based ASUS Striker II Extreme shortly and providing a full benchmark test suite with comparisons to other NVIDIA chipsets. As for today, let's take a closer look at what the new nForce 790i platform has in store for the serious gamer and overclocker - besides the cost of a new motherboard and a kit of expensive DDR3 performance memory.

nForce 790i MCP Configurations and EVGA Board Specifications
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  • ATWindsor - Wednesday, March 19, 2008 - link

    I couldn't agree more, features is all well and good, but only if things works and are stable. No wonder people find it daunting to build a computer, even when you have done it several times you risk going into som "trap" with things not working the way it should, more focus on this in reviews please.

    AtW
    Reply
  • theYipster - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    I agree with Lopri in every regard. AT needs to stop masquerading these technical showcase articles as reviews. In addition to what Lopri already mentioned, I would add that AT failed to a) address the long standing concerns held throughout the enthusiast community over nForce product quality (regarding the paragraph on PWM design... very undwerwhelming considering that it doesn't offer support to its claim) and b) failed to provide a fair assessment of the value proposition these boards provide. The article states that the 790i provides a noticeable step up in performance over previous generations, and that owners of previous boards would find upgrading worthwhile. This is a bold claim, as such an upgrade would cost nearly $1000 (when factoring in new DDR3 RAM) and would not even include a new CPU or graphics card. Yes, the NB runs a bit cooler and can OC a bit farther, but how and why is that worth $1000, even to the enthusiast who can afford it easily? Lets also consider the grander scheme of things. What worth is it for someone who enjoys the latest and greatest to spend $350 on a board when Nehalem will change all the rules in less than a year. At least previous generations (as well as Intel's X38) provide some shelf life.

    In any case, Overclock3d.net has a very informative review of the Striker II Extreme which covers almost everything Lopri mentioned.

    Reply
  • ssiu - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    "The EVGA 790i Ultra also handled our QX9770 sample with relative ease. We were able to benchmark and play games without incident at 400MHz FSB, our mark of excellence when it comes to quad-core overclocking."

    That is a low standard of excellence for a high-end chip. The Q9300/Q9450 overclockers are going to cry.
    Reply
  • greylica - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    Mwahaha, some will say :
    " Now we can finnaly play crysis ! "
    Well done, 66 fps...
    Reply
  • n0nsense - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    We can for a very long time.
    I do it with 1920x1200 at all Med + 4AA
    I have the 680i (P5N32-E SLI) + E6300@2.8GHz (not the maximum, but lower fan speed = less noise) + 4GB OCZ ReaperX @ 800MHz 4-4-3-12 1T and single reference design 8800GT from ASUS at stock clock (the only modified sing, is stock cooler replaced with Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 which reduced card temp by 25C)
    As you can see MB - year old, CPU 1.5 years old.
    I can't tell you the exact fps, but it's completely smooth playing.
    I expect next generation to bring same smooth play at all very high + all filterings for existing games.

    BTW, where 9800x2 in SLI tests on this 790i ?
    Reply
  • SpaceRanger - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    When do you think nVidia will be putting out these boards for AMD CPU's. The only thing I see for AMD CPU's are boards that support CROSSFIRE, but not SLI. Reply
  • ap90033 - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    It just costs to MUCH. I got 8 GIGS DDR2 800 an E8400 and a Single 8800GTS 512 meg, and I have the CPU Running at 3.6 (I am looking to try 3.8 maybe) and I can play any game maxed except Crysis. I can play it at high at 1024x768. I looked at SLI but its to danged expensive, I had 1220$ to spend and decided to get the most performance for the money. I wish they would quit going up in price on these motherboards, hey Nvidia, you do know I can get a GREAT Overclockers motherboard with good features (NO SLI OF COURSE) for $80 right? Why would I pay $250+ more for the board, another $200+ more for DDR3 Ram, and another $250 for another 8800GTS just so "some" games would run 15% faster? Are you nuts??? 10-15% but it costs like $800 MORE???? I think Ill save my $800 or so and use it on my next video card upgrade, my next CPU upgrade, and the next video card upgrade after that! LOL Reply
  • krnmastersgt - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    Because this isn't meant at the people that want the best price/performance, this is for the uber-high end user, the extreme benchmarker/extreme gamer, of course by your logic SLI and CrossFire are stupid wastes of money since the performance doesnt scale linearly, but this is meant for enthusiasts and therefore you shouldn't compare it with something like a P35 board. Reply
  • crimson117 - Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - link

    As an example, I was helping configure a Dell for a home office user, non-gamer, no video editing, etc, but he was fairly well-off money-wise. While picking options, at one point I said something about some component being "plenty for most users" and he replied (in a nice way) "I'm not most users"; so we went with the upgraded version even though the price performance, especially for his usage pattern, didn't make fiscal sense.

    The moral is there are people out there who get satisfaction over having the absolute best no matter the price.

    Relatedly, an experiment found that people perceive $90 wine as tasting better than $10 wine, even when it was secretly http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html">the same exact wine.
    Reply

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