NVIDIA puts on a very good Editor's Day, and this year's event to launch nForce5 was no exception. We had already seen, tested, and reported on late AM2 samples in AMD Socket-AM2 Performance Preview and First Look: AM2 DDR2 vs. 939 DDR Performance. This just meant we visited NVIDIA with pretty low expectations for the launch of AM2. We already knew performance was about the same as Socket 939. We knew the huge memory bandwidth increases for DDR2 on Socket AM2 were very real, but we also had already discovered that the extra memory bandwidth just didn't increase the performance of AM2 at this time.

What we did not know at that point was the ambitious plans NVIDIA had for their new nForce 500 chipset - in particular the flagship 590. We weren't expecting much, but NVIDIA's marketing and engineering personnel were prepared to change our minds with new, exciting features like LinkBoost, SLI Memory, completely reworked networking capabilities, chipset support for 6 SATA drives (including 2 simultaneous RAID 5 arrays), and new or updated software like nTune 5.0 that allowed tweaking and overclocking in Windows with the ability to save Windows changes to BIOS. It is Marketing and Public Relation's job to impress and shape the message. We were prepared to be uninspired and unimpressed, but NVIDIA won us over, as they often do. That, after all, is the reason companies have events like Editor's Day.

On the way back home we were thinking about NVIDIA's climb in the chipset market. It has been almost five years since NVIDIA launched the original nForce platform into an AMD market that was being dominated by the VIA KT266A chipset. It took a gutsy video card manufacturer to think they could topple the mighty VIA of that time. The original nForce chipset introduced several new technologies into the AMD market such as a dual-channel memory controller, built-in Ethernet controller, SoundStorm audio solution, DASP memory enhancements, and relatively fast (for the time) integrated graphics, GeForce2 MX for the IGP version. While the nForce met with some growing pain issues revolving around the IDE/Sound drivers, lack of a PCI/AGP lock, along with not matching the speed of the VIA KT266A at times, it was generally considered a successful venture for a new chipset maker.

In the fall of 2002 NVIDIA rolled out their update for the nForce, appropriately named the nForce2. The nForce2 was touted to fix all the little things wrong with nForce, and the release also included separate MPC (Southbridge) units with the MCP-T featuring the SoundStorm audio processor and dual 100Mbit Ethernet NICs and MCP-P featuring a single 100Mbit NIC along with AC'97 audio. The nForce2 also provided a PCI/AGP lock that greatly improved its overclocking capabilities along with an updated integrated graphics version featuring the GeForce4 MX. In 2003, NVIDIA released an updated version of the nForce2 called the nForce2 Ultra 400 that featured an increase in the front side bus from 166MHz to 200MHz along with official PC-3200 DDR support. The nForce2 family was a huge success and NVIDIA was finding itself moving quickly from new kid on the chipset block to market leader.

In the fall of 2003 NVIDIA introduced their new nForce3-150 chipset in order to meet the introduction of the new AMD Athlon 64 processor series. The chipset was obviously rushed as NVIDIA temporarily lost the feature war to the VIA K8T800 and was widely criticized for a 600MHz HyperTransport interface along with the removal of a now mature SoundStorm audio solution. In the spring of 2004 NIVIDIA responded with the nForce3-250 that featured a HyperTransport frequency of 800MHz, on-chip Gigabit Ethernet, SATA RAID support, 8 USB 2.0 ports, and a general refinement that was not found on other boards of the time.

In October of 2004 NVIDIA introduced the family of nForce4 products that fully supported the new PCI Express standard. This family has grown over the last 18 months to include SLI technology, SATA 3Gb/s support, additional USB ports, ActiveArmor network engine, and even an Intel version of the product family. The nForce4 family has been the dominant market leader for the AMD Athlon64 series for a long time and just recently has met with serious competition from another video card maker.

That's quite a history for 5 short years. NVIDIA has moved from the audacious video card maker who introduced a new platform chipset to the market leader in the AMD Athlon64 universe, and they have won that battle with innovative products and listening to their customers. Of course, today another video card maker is trying hard to win over the same enthusiasts. So how does NVIDIA respond to a lackluster new AM2 processor? The answer is with a huge marketing bang. NVIDIA has pulled out all the stops in an effort to win users over and grab some sales before the "big C" hits in July.

NVIDIA is introducing the nForce 500 product family that features full support for the new AMD AM2 processor series along with a bevy of features. Some of these features are new, some address issues with the nForce4, and some are preparing us for future options in NVIDIA's products. Let's see what these new features are and how they perform against the latest nForce4 platform. Do the glitzy new nForce 500 features deliver where it counts - in improved performance? Or is this just another round of incremental improvements - and clever marketing?

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  • nullpointerus - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link

    TCP/IP CPU utilization scales with increased transfer rates. Online gaming is hardly designed to stress a 1Gb Ethernet. So this TCP/IP acceleration is primarily intended for LAN gaming. You don't really need a firewall on your LAN (unless perhaps you are hosting a LAN party on that machine?). It's acceptable to use your router's firewall if you really know how to configure your LAN properly:

    +--A (game server)
    +--B (game client)
    +--C (game client)
    +--D (game client)

    In this situation, TCP/IP acceleration might be useful. Of course, if you leave yourself open to your LAN and one of the other computers on your LAN is compromised, you could very well be compromised, too.

    I don't understand the comments about a third-party firewall. Perhaps only XP and Vista's firewalls will be supported initially?
  • Trisped - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link

    A true router can configure a firewall on all ports, both incoming and out going. In this way you can set what ports can be sent and what ports can be received through a router, in the LAN or out side as the case may be. Of course, software firewalls are usually a little more powerful in that they check who sends what. I think hardware firewalls can do this too, but they don't on any of the Linksys, Netgear, or AirLink routers I have used lately.

    It is also important to note that the typical home router is not a true router. It is a 2 port router (1 port for the WAN and 1 for the LAN) and the rest of the ports are connected via a switch or hub. Switches can also have firewall, but most home solutions don't seem to.
  • mino - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link

    The info WHO sends teh data is the most crucial. Enabling http(80) just for Opera and 993+25 for Thundebird is a huge difference to allow al kinds of malware/spyware go out on 80.

    And NO, no HW (or second machine be it linux router or cisco router) can detect (reliably) which application is sending the data.
  • Gary Key - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link


    I don't understand the comments about a third-party firewall. Perhaps only XP and Vista's firewalls will be supported initially?

    I will clarify this in the article. Windows XP firewall is not supported. Vista should be but that decision is not final at this time due to continuing changes from Microsoft.
  • Tanclearas - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link

    So does this mean Nvidia has abandoned AA in NF4? I know that is my impression, based upon my experience with them (http://forums.anandtech.com/messageview.aspx?catid...">http://forums.anandtech.com/messageview...mp;threa..., but just wondering what the official word is.

    Honestly, the idea behind Nvidia's chipset-based firewall was a good one, especially for universities/colleges with literally thousands of computers on the inside of the corporate firewall. Protection at every level is worthwhile.

    As for the Vista firewall working with NF5, I definitely would not count on Nvidia making it happen.
  • Gary Key - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link


    So does this mean Nvidia has abandoned AA in NF4?

    Once the new 9.x platform drivers are released with support for chipsets prior to nF5, then yes, Active Armor firewall will be dropped. The new driver set will also have further changes in them to reduce the possibility of data corruption on the nF4, whether the CPU utilization goes up or down, I do not know at this point. I do not have a "stable" set of new platform drivers for the nF4 yet, cannot verify this myself. I will be speaking with the program manager tomorrow. ;-)

    We did find out that NVIDIA expected Microsoft to accomplish a few tasks in the Windows Firewall program, it did not happen, so they are pulling support as Microsoft decided to go a different direction in Vista. I have beta 2 on the way so there will be some test runs with the new driver set to see what happens. I will have a full statement on this subject by the end of the week. Apparently, there were several promises made, not kept, or not communicated properly about 18 months ago between the two parties about the Firewall program, OS hooks, and its future.
  • mbf - Monday, June 12, 2006 - link

    Is the nVidia firewall truly gone? I've just downloaded (but not installed) the 9.34 driver pack from the nVidia FTP site. The pack still contains a NAM setup (v60.16).

    What exactly constitutes the ActiveArmour part of the firewall? The hardware firewall was introduced with the nForce3 250gb chipset and the AA functionality was added in nForce4. I've never figured out what precisely AA does, though.

    If it's true that nVidia has pulled the firewall from the feature set I'd say it's a truly bad choice. For me, the hardware firewall was one of *the* most important features on the nForce chipset. Well, not having to wonder losing this feature will make my switch back to an Intel chipset-based Core 2 rig much easier. It's a shame.
  • Stele - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link

    I was actually wondering if XP and Vista's firewalls would even be supported, since they're arguably 'third-party' from nVidia's viewpoint. While the argument for using hardware-based solutions in routers etc is cogent, imho there is a case for protecting individual PCs against compromise from within the network. For example, there may be laptops in the LAN that are used on several other (and potentially unsafe) networks as well. Besides that, software firewalls have the advantage of being able to potentially alert users to and stop malware from making unauthorised outbound connections from an infected PC (or unauthorised inbound connections from an infected LAN peer). I wonder if it's possible to get around the issue in future versions of firewall software - then at least it's not a lost cause, just that we would have to wait for newer versions of the software to be released.

    As for the actual usefulness of the TCP/IP offload engine, perhaps the folks at Anandtech can design a specific test that would stress such an engine's capability to the limit, to provide clear and objective assessment of its effect on performance. After all, Anandtech developed a good custom test suite for server benchmarks that targets specific application types, so I figure this would be well within their considerable programming skills as well ;)

    Meanwhile, I wonder how nVidia's SATA controllers have improved if at all over the generations, and it would be great to eventually see an ULi 1575/SB600/MCP comparison in the future.
  • nullpointerus - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link


    You don't really need a firewall on your LAN clients...
  • Gigahertz19 - Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - link


    While the performance of the nForce5 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 nF5 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.

    Expect the new kitchen when Conroe is launched :)

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