nForce 500: nForce4 on Steroids?by Gary Key & Wesley Fink on May 24, 2006 8:00 AM EST
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Final WordsJudged by the reams of marketing information and public relations materials from NVIDIA, the nForce 500 product family is an impressive product release. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and maybe, just maybe, buy into the hype of today's release along with that of the AMD AM2. While the feature list and options included on our Foxconn nForce 590 SLI board are truly astounding, one must closely look at what the NVIDIA Santa has brought us in this release.
As we started breaking down the feature list on the nForce 500 series and testing the board we came to the realization that nForce 500 is hardly revolutionary as all the hype would have us believe. In truth nForce 500 is much more evolutionary in nature, with performance that is almost a dead ringer for the current nForce4 chipset. This is not really a surprise since we have not heard or seen anything that characterized nForce 500 as a new core logic. AM2 is the same core with DDR2 support, and NVIDIA's competitor ATI even uses the same chipset name for their Socket 939 and Socket AM2 parts. We would say the NVIDIA nForce 500 is more or less nForce4 with a thick layer of pretty icing.
That is not to say there is nothing important in nForce 500. Some of the most important features being included are software changes meant to better facilitate the user experience. We have to say the new control panel and nTune 5.0 applications set a new standard in usability software from a core logic or motherboard supplier. While several of these features are not new and have been available from different sources, it is refreshing to see a company listen to the market about improving the ease of use in their applications and addressing some of the performance requests from the enthusiast community. That is the good news, well not all of it, but we need to discuss the stocking stuffers now.
The highly touted LinkBoost technology looks like a winner when you see statements indicating a 25% guaranteed overclocking of the PCI Express and MCP HyperTransport bus that results in higher bandwidth rates that can only help to improve overall system performance. This increase is only available automatically if you have the GeForce 7900GTX video card / nForce 590SLI combination and even then we did not measure any real performance differences with it enabled. Why? The increase in bandwidth with the HT links and PCIe slots is not needed with today's hardware. We have already shown the massive increase in memory bandwidth does not make a real difference in most applications due to the current K8 architecture and processor speeds. Until it does, the need for faster HT links will be minimal.
The nForce5 improvements in the networking hardware are truly welcome after some of the data corruption issues that nForce4 owners have suffered with over the past 18 months. NVIDIA has both Ethernet Gigabit MACs residing on the same physical chip now with a common set of PHYs being required by the motherboard suppliers. This will simplify network hardware and driver setup while offering common performance across the platform. The FirstPacket technology is very useful for users who do a lot of uploading while playing on the Internet. The ability of the user to control the applications that receive packet-prioritization is a great benefit as the control panel is easy to use. We tested this feature thoroughly and it works exactly as advertised - IF the user has a need for that feature and uses it. That will be the issue with this and other networking options we have evaluated on nForce 500.
The DualNet and Teaming features are extremely interesting and probably useful... for the 5% of us on the general desktop that could fully exploit these features. This technology certainly belongs in the server/workstation product that NVIDIA offers but is overkill on the desktop currently. However, the fact NVIDIA offers it in most of the standard configurations and more importantly, that it works as advertised, is a huge positive. They are probably a little ahead of the game at this point but being first does not hurt in a market where evolution occurs at such a rapid pace.
The really good news is that TCP/IP acceleration works and works very well with the current hardware and drivers. We have had several loyal users provide us exacting data corruption examples that could be replicated in some form or fashion that have been fixed with this release. The downside for the majority of people who are bombarded every day about Internet security is that if you want TCP/IP acceleration, you have to turn off your software based firewall. For those that have hardware based firewall protection this might be okay, but all the security you can have is still appreciated by most users. This is a double whammy for most though, kind of like "hey my CPU utilization rates are at an all time low, the net has never been this responsive, so why is my machine being used as a spam portal and my bank account is now empty?"
The MediaShield improvements are mostly cosmetic and minor in nature. The inclusion of two additional SATA ports bringing the total to six is a class leading accomplishment by NVIDIA. However, this comes at the price of losing the second PATA port. This will be an issue for some considering the dearth of SATA based optical drives but it is a march towards the future. We might excuse it if NVIDIA and others would drop the floppy port, as USB floppies are plentiful if you absolutely have to have a floppy. The software interface improvements are very welcome along with the disk alert system that monitors the SATA port and informs a user if a port or drive has failed.
The ability to run multiple RAID setups along with two pairs of RAID 5 drives will be interesting to a select few on the desktop. While the backbone of the drive storage system has been improved we still did not see an increase in the write speed of RAID 5 arrays, something that really should be worked on by NVIDIA in the next chipset release. The exclusion of RAID 10 in this product refresh was interesting, although RAID 0+1 is very similar so we doubt it will be missed that much. The inclusion of drive performance profiles is also an interesting tidbit, but without continual driver updates its usefulness is somewhat limited. Our test results with our WD1500 Raptors, the only drive currently supported, showed only extremely small performance gains. Some of the synthetic benchmarks improved, but our real application IPEAK tests did not show any significant difference.
The SLI Memory feature better known as the NVIDIA Enhanced Performance Profile (EPP) is a very interesting technology and one that could be very beneficial to a whole new category of users who would like to overclock but do not want to get their hands dirty. At this point, you might be wondering when we discussed this option in the article. As it turns out, we did not since we are still testing the features and performance of this offering. We decided to wait on test results until we receive other EPP approved memory for testing. However, the base technology is centered around additional performance profiles residing in the memory's SPD tables, that when enabled will result in the motherboard's BIOS dynamically overclocking the system to meet the pre-certified memory level. Hopefully, we will be able to provide further details and results in our AM2 motherboard roundup that is coming.
The performance of the Foxconn board in our limited testing against a very mature and highly tuned Asus nForce4 board was a little disappointing to be honest. Probably not so much disappointment from a motherboard vantage point but from an overall platform perspective as we hoped for more from our AM2 combination. We already knew from previous testing that our expectations should be reserved, but maybe all of the hype and buildup leading to today's product releases skewed our senses as final product samples arrived at our doorstep this last week. We felt letdown, excited, and overwhelmed all at once as our initial testing ended.
While the performance of the nForce 500 board was very good and stability was excellent at all times, we kept looking for the "wow" factor. With such a tantalizing list of new nForce 500 features, surely something was going to show up and put the smack down on the nForce4, nothing did. NVIDIA has certainly thrown the kitchen sink at us with this release; but it's mostly just a new sink. The plumbing is still the same and so is everything else, and we were really hoping for a new kitchen.