nForce4 Ultra Roundup: Charting the Mainstreamby Wesley Fink on July 5, 2005 10:28 PM EST
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The Motherboard Test SuiteOne of the ongoing concerns at AnandTech has been the tight clustering of performance results in our recent motherboard tests. In general, it is rare to see really wide variations in stock performance with motherboards these days. This has been made even clearer by the AMD Athlon 64 CPU, which has the memory controller on the CPU itself, removing another variable from the chipset equation. This is not bad news for buyers, since more consistent performance at stock speeds makes choosing a motherboard an easier task. Readers have pointed out that we need to do more tests that really differentiate boards, and we have been working on updates to our tests.
First and foremost, we have been including overclocking tests and memory stress testing for some time - simply because motherboards can vary a great deal in these capabilities. This tells you which motherboards overclock well and which ones are poor, and even if you don't ever plan to overclock, the ability of a motherboard to run at much higher than stock speeds tells you something about the quality of components used in a motherboard. Good overclockers generally use better components and are able to regulate power on the board better, so the good overclocking boards often make sense to buy even if you will never overclock. You can reasonably expect better stability and a longer service life.
As you will see in the overclocking tests on these nF4 Ultra motherboards, there is a huge variation in overclocking performance among the seven boards. Some of the boards did very well, others claimed to be aimed at the enthusiast, and then fell short in providing the controls that the enthusiasts demand for overclocking. One well-known overclocking brand turned in a dismal performance, raising questions about the directions of that company. The overclocking tests are revealing, and in this roundup in particular, they truly differentiate the boards.
Features are increasingly important in motherboards these days as well. With USB, Firewire, IDE, SATA controllers, RAID, LAN, and audio commonly found on top-line motherboards, you are buying much more than sockets for a processor and memory. There are potentially great variations in performance of these features, which could be very important for certain uses of the board. AnandTech has done a good job of detailing these features in past motherboard reviews, but we actually began testing and comparing those features in our nForce4 SLI roundup in February. When we have already tested a particular chip or specific feature in past reviews, we do not repeat the tests. There are really very few options being used with nForce4 chipsets, so most of the feature chips seen in this review have already been tested.
We also added iPeak storage tests to the motherboard suite in February. The SiS 180 was the only new chip in this roundup, so we added the results to our previous test data. If you are interested in how storage performance compares, please refer to the SLI review storage section and recent storage tests on SATA II drives.
USB 2.0 and Firewire 400/800 throughput was also measured with a new test developed for motherboard testing beginning in February. Basically, we create a RAM disk in Windows XP, write a standard test file to the RAM disk, then copy the file from the RAM disk to a USB 2.0, Firewire 400 or Firewire 800 connected hard drive. We time the copy from RAM disk to the connected drive with a timer program developed by our IT Manager. USB 2.0 is integrated in the NVIDIA chipset, and the Agere was the only new Firewire chips found in these reviews. You should refer to the Firewire and USB tests results to see how the various chips compare in performance.
We first compared Ethernet in the nForce4 SLI roundup using the Windows 2000 DDK to connect two computers with a CAT 6 crossover cable. We then use a standard host computer as the server and measure the transmission rate and CPU overhead at the client side, which was our test motherboard. We clearly demonstrated the advantages of PCIe over PCI gigabit Ethernet in those benchmarks, and we suggest that you look for PCIe LAN if LAN speed is an important feature to you. Frankly, most users will not come close to taxing regular PCI LAN with broadband internet, but if large file transfers over a gigabit LAN are part of your work routine, then PCIe LAN will be faster. If your LAN is slower than Gigabit, you will see no performance difference between PCI and PCIe LAN.
Audio is an area that is still under development and we will be including additional tests in future motherboard testing. We had one new configuration in this roundup - the Abit audio card - and we ran the industry standard RightMark benchmark suite for CPU utilization or overhead to compare to other solutions.
FutureMark 3DMark 2005 and 3DMark 2003 are useful for testing SLI and will be continued in SLI motherboard testing, but they provided little additional information in single video testing with the same video card. Therefore, we have not included these mostly GPU dependent benchmarks in these motherboard tests. We continued Winstones 2004 for Business and Multimedia, PCMark04, and AutoGK for media encoding. Games are now more heavily weighted toward the most current games with Half Life 2, Far Cry, Doom 3, and Unreal Tournament 2004. Aquamark 3, which is better known as a benchmark than the game on which it is based, is also continued. Return to Castle Wolfenstein-Enemy Territory and Quake 3 have been retained primarily because of their sensitivity to memory performance. It is also a useful reference to include Open GL-based games with so many new game offerings based on Direct X or sporting DX9 front ends.
Memory tRAS RecommendationsIn past reviews, memory bandwidth tests established that a tRAS of 10 was optimal for the nForce3 chipset and a tRAS setting of 11 or 12 was generally best for nForce2. In the first memory stress test of a production nForce4 board, tRAS timings were first tested with memtest86, a free diagnostic program with its own boot OS that will boot from either a floppy disk or optical disk. Bandwidth of OCZ PC3200 Platinum Rev. 2, based on Samsung TCCD chips, was measured from tRas 5 to tRAS 11 to determine the best setting.
| Memtest86 Bandwidth
DFI nForce4 with Athlon 64 4000+
The best bandwidth was achieved with this combination of nForce4/4000+/TCCD in the 6 to 8 range, so a mid-value tRAS of 7 was chosen for all tests. It appears that optimal tRAS timings may also be memory dependent on the nForce4, so we recommend a quick series of memtest86 to establish the optimum tRAS timings for other memories.