Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1925

NVIDIA announced two new chipsets for Intel processors today. Where NVIDIA has only targeted the high-end of the Intel chipset market to this point, the new chipsets are aimed at the entire Intel chipset line.

The new NVIDIA nForce4 SLI XE MCP is designed for the Performance Mainstream segment, while the new NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra MCP is aimed at the Mainstream market. Along with the existing nForce4 SLI x16 MCP, this chipset release means that NVIDIA has an almost complete top-to-bottom product range for all Intel Socket 775 processors. Motherboards based upon the new chipsets should be available in the retail channel within the next thirty days from several motherboard manufacturers.

The best way to show the similarities and differences in the new chipsets, the continuing nForce4 SLI x16, and the "to-be-discontinued" nForce4 SLI, is to compare their features. The below chart highlights the differences in the four chipsets.

nForce4 SLI x16 and nForce4 SLI

The expected price point for the existing nForce4 SLI x16 MCP will now start in the $150 US range and extend upwards depending upon options implemented on the boards. It appears the existing nForce4 SLI will eventually be phased out of the Intel line, since it has known problems with some Intel processors. These processor support issues were corrected in the nForce4 SLI x16 MCP. The new nForce4 SLI XE and nForce4 Ultra chipsets are also said by nVidia to fully support the full line of existing Intel processors.

The nForce4 SLI X16 MCP also offers full support for the upcoming Quad SLI technology and is optimized for overclocking. Unlike the new nForce4 SLI XE and Ultra chipsets, the nForce4 SLI x16 will offer up to 10 USB ports along with full support for the ActiveArmor secure networking engine and hardware accelerated firewall.

The nForce4 SLI x16 will continue to offer AC97 audio and not High Definition Audio. This is a particularly strange move, since the new nForce4 SLI XE and Ultra MCPs both support high-definition audio. It could be argued that the higher-end chipsets would more likely be used with a discrete audio card, but it appears that NVIDIA's plan is to introduce HD audio with new NVIDIA chipsets - leaving existing chipsets undisturbed.

nForce4 SLI XE

The nForce4 SLI XE MCP is a cost-reduced follow-up to the nForce4 SLI MCP . Unlike the nForce4 SLI MCP, this chipset will fully support the Presler, Cedarmill, and Smithfield series of processors and offers High Definition Audio. The price target that NVIDIA has set for motherboards based on the nForce4 SLI XE MCP will be in the $99 US range and will go upwards based upon additional features implemented on the boards.

The reference design motherboard is shown above and represents the options that NVIDIA is targeting for the $99 US price point. The two SLI-Ready PCI Express x16 slots allow you to use two graphics cards (x8 PCI-E operation) or one SLI-Ready PCI Express graphics card and any storage, networking, or multimedia add-on cards (PCI Express x1, x4, x8 cards) for increased configuration flexibility and performance. We currently do not have boards in house to test and verify against NVIDIA’s performance claims, but we do expect samples to be received shortly.

nForce4 Ultra for Intel

The nForce4 Ultra MCP is a new release designed for the mainstream market and will compete directly against the Intel 945P chipset. Unlike the Intel 945P chipset, the nForce4 Ultra MCP offers full support for all Socket 775 processors, including the Extreme Edition units. The price target that NVIDIA has set for motherboards based on the nForce4 Ultra MCP will be in the $89 US range and will go upwards based upon additional features implemented on the boards.

The reference design motherboard is shown above and represents the options that NVIDIA is targeting for the $89 US price point. Motherboards based on the nForce Ultra for Intel were not available at launch, but we do have an nF4 Ultra Intel board on the way. We will be benchmarking the new Ultra board as soon as it arrives.

Our Take

Motherboard shipments with the new chipsets are expected in the next few weeks. The introduction of these new nForce4 chipsets into the marketplace will offer competition across the board to Intel desktop chipset offerings. The only area in the desktop market not addressed by NVIDIA in the new chipset line is integrated graphics. We can only wonder at this time if NVIDIA will release an integrated video solution into the Intel market space to complete their product lineup, or whether there may be agreements in place that will exclude NVIDIA from the Intel integrated video segment. Intel has recently entered a partnership with ATI for integrated video products, and any new introductions by NVIDIA in integrated video has the potential to impact both ATI and Intel sales.

Since NVIDIA has talked for months that their Intel offerings were "top-end only", these new mainstream chipsets challenge Intel's dominance in the chipset market for Intel processors. It is difficult to see how Intel would welcome this move by NVIDIA. This could also impact the ongoing negotiations between Intel and NVIDIA for Intel licensing of SLI. Currently, Intel has a licensing agreement with ATI to provide ATI Crossfire support, but there is no licensing agreement for NVIDIA SLI. This could set up an interesting showdown between Intel/ATI Crossfire and NVIDIA SLI in the Intel market, in addition to the developing ATI Crossfire and NVIDIA SLI war in the AMD market. NVIDIA owns the current AMD chipset market, but the upcoming RD580 chipset and the introduction of the new AM2 socket could change these dynamics quickly.

From the perspective of the end-user, this looks like good news on the surface. It has been quite a while since Intel has had a real competitor in the chipset market. With NVIDIA charting new Intel CPU motherboards from $89 and up, there could be price competition in the Intel segment again. All of this assumes that the NVIDIA chipsets are worthy competitors to the Intel chipset line. Based on the performance that we have seen with the current NVIDIA chipsets for Intel, we would expect the new NVIDIA Intel chipsets to be very competitive. Motherboards are expected in the next few weeks and we look forward to comparing NVIDIA's new Intel line to motherboards based on Intel's chipsets.

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