Dual Core Intel Platform Shootout - NVIDIA nForce4 vs. Intel 955Xby Anand Lal Shimpi on April 14, 2005 1:01 PM EST
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Four years ago, NVIDIA previewed their first ever desktop chipset - the nForce 420 - at Computex. The anticipation of NVIDIA's entry into the Athlon chipset market at the time was astounding. While they didn't get it right the first time around, by the end of nForce2's reign, VIA had relinquished the throne as the most desirable supplier of AMD chipsets. Late last year, when NVIDIA announced that they had finally signed a cross licensing agreement with Intel, we knew it meant that NVIDIA's chipsets would soon be coming to the Intel platform, but honestly, we didn't really care. We hadn't recommended an Intel CPU since the introduction of Prescott and this time around, NVIDIA's biggest competition wasn't VIA, it was Intel - and it's rare that you beat Intel in making chipsets for their own processors.
Honestly, Intel processors and even the platform haven't been interesting since the introduction of Prescott. They have been too hot and poor performers, not to mention that the latest Intel platforms forced a transition to technologies that basically offered no performance benefits (DDR2, PCI Express). A bit of that changed when Intel brought forth their dual core plans - assuming that they can actually guarantee availability, Intel is planning to ship more desktop dual core processors, at lower prices, than AMD this year. As we mentioned in our preview of Intel's dual core Pentium D, the cheapest dual core processors will weigh in at $241 for the 2.8GHz models. While for the same price you can get a much faster single core AMD CPU, the word "faster" applies selectively depending on what sort of usage models that you're looking at - whether it's heavy multitasking, or mostly running single applications. We've already had that discussion, and the decision is still in your hands, but needless to say, Intel's processors have all of the sudden become much more interesting given the proposed price point for their entry-level dual core CPUs. Now all of the sudden, there's some purpose to actually looking at the latest chipsets for the Intel platform.
We have yet to recommend any of Intel's single core Prescott CPUs, and if you are looking for a single core Pentium 4, then you should already have a good idea of what chipsets there are out there. But for dual core, the platform support is much more limited. None of Intel's previous chipsets will support dual core, only their most recently announced 955X and 945 chipsets offer dual core support. On the NVIDIA side, their nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset does support dual core, but NVIDIA stipulates that the motherboard manufacturers must implement that support properly on the design side. As long as the motherboard manufacturer states that their nForce4 board supports Intel's dual core, you should be sitting pretty. Chipsets from all manufacturers, including ATI, SiS and VIA will undoubtedly offer dual core support, but the fact of the matter is that their release is further down the line. What we're looking at today are the two heavyweights that are supposed to be available in the channel by the end of this month.
The Delicate Competition
The NVIDIA/Intel relationship is a very interesting one; as with any of these types of relationships, it is not one borne out of love, but rather necessity. At the end of the day, Intel would still be happier if there was no threat from companies like NVIDIA. Because of this fine line between a partnership and a competitor, NVIDIA has to play their role very carefully - they don't want to be viewed as more of a competitor than a partner in the eyes of Intel. By selling a chipset that is significantly more expensive than Intel's most expensive 955X, NVIDIA secures their position as a valuable partner, and not a competitor.
You've already heard that NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset costs about $80, but what about Intel's 955X and 945? For once, Intel is actually the cheaper alternative - their 955X costs motherboard manufacturers $50 ($53 with ICH7R), while the 945P costs a mere $38. For motherboard prices, this means that you can expect at least a $30 price premium for a nForce4 SLI Intel Edition board compared to a 955X board; compared to a 945P, you can expect closer to a $40 price premium. It's not tremendous, but given that motherboards tend to hover in the low $100s, even a $30 difference is significant.
At this point, NVIDIA hasn't announced any plans to bring a non-SLI version of the nForce4 to the Intel platform, and the vast majority of motherboard manufacturers are waiting for just that. A lower cost nForce4 chipset would obviously translate into more sales for the motherboard manufacturers. However, it could very well be that NVIDIA doesn't want to try and take on Intel in the same price bracket. At the same time, NVIDIA is a very successful company, so it remains to be seen how far over the line they will tread in the name of expanding their sales.