nForce4 Ultra Roundup: Charting the Mainstreamby Wesley Fink on July 5, 2005 10:28 PM EST
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Final WordsOur nForce4 journey began at the retail level several months ago with nForce4 SLI Roundup: Painful and Rewarding. In that early look at nForce4 SLI motherboards, we found a much larger variation in performance, overclocking, features, and feature performance than what we really expected. It was early in nForce4, so we could chalk up these big differences to an immature chipset. Now, we fast forward a few months to this nForce4 Ultra roundup, and we once again have found a huge variation in the overall performance of motherboards in this roundup. It's not so simple a few months later to chalk up these differences to a learning curve. We are much more inclined this go-around to say that it seems that some board makers understand nForce4 and AMD and do a good job with it, while other board makers really don't get it.
The AMD enthusiast has always been a unique beast as he will readily admit that he/she relishes the idea of getting something for nothing. That is why AMD buyers will never tolerate a motherboard that thwarts their efforts to squeeze even more performance from their Athlon 64 chips. There are many Intel users who would never think of overclocking their chips or manipulating multipliers for greater performance. But there are very few AMD users who haven't at least considered a whole host of options to gain more performance from their processors. Perhaps that is why all AMD Athlon 64 chips are unlocked downwards and only a few, very expensive, select Intel chips feature this same capability. It is also perhaps why the top Athlon 64 chips, the FX chips, are completely unlocked.
This is not an argument for or against either approach. It is merely to point out that AMD users are quite often a different breed of end-users with a different set of expectations of their computer motherboards. Manufacturers who understand this sell lots of AMD Athlon 64 motherboards, while those that don't get relegated to the bargain bins.
As AnandTech has been pointing out since Computex, things are changing in Desktop sales. AMD is now reported to be at 60% or more of retail motherboard sales. As a result, people who only toyed with AMD before now want a piece of this action. To them, we will say it takes more than calling a board an AMD enthusiast board to make it so. So ECS, Foxconn, Biostar - we can only suggest that you need to add features and performance that will make an AMD user want to buy your boards.
Chaintech is a puzzle here, since they have traditionally built excellent AMD boards at a very reasonable price. The VNF4-Ultra is not a bad board, and it does perform reasonably, but it is way below the standards set by the two leaders in this roundup. Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the dismal performance of the very expensive Abit AN8 Fatal1ty. Abit understands this market, but they apparently are having a bit of a learning curve in their move from their recent VIA chipset A64 motherboards to NVIDIA chipsets for A64. Or, perhaps there are other reasons. Whatever the reason, the priciest board in this roundup from an overclocking name like Abit should not be stuck at 50% of the bus overclock that is achieved by the DFI and Epox boards. What makes the Abit even more puzzling is the really excellent asynchronous overclocking results that we could achieve with this same board - but then again, we don't report and compare asynchronous OC; we run and compare 1:1. Perhaps it is as simple as a BIOS update, though there have already been several for this board.
So, out of seven boards in this roundup, two clearly rise to the top. The Epox 9NPA+ Ultra at $110 is an amazing performer with virtually everything that an Athlon 64 enthusiast could want - except official support and voltages for OCZ VX and Mushkin Redline memory. It will, however, handle every other memory with abandon. If you want all that the Epox offers, a little better bus overclocking and official support and voltages for OCZ VX and Mushkin Redline at a little higher price, then the DFI LANParty nF4 Ultra-D is your choice.
You should also consider the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum a winner here as well. The SLI version of the MSI was a Gold Editor's Choice in our SLI roundup, and the Ultra version should perform at the same excellent levels we saw with the MSI SLI. The MSI has had issues in the recent past with overclocking the latest Venice and San Diego processors, but MSI has recently released a BIOS that is reported to bring Venice/San Diego performance in line with the excellent performnace we saw with a 4000+ clawhammer on the MSI SLI.
Based on stock performance, overclocking abilities, features, and the performance of features present on the boards, we are pleased to award our Editors Choice Gold Award for best nForce4 Ultra motherboard jointly to the Epox 9NPA+ Ultra and the DFI LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D. Both boards are clearly standouts in a group of very uneven performance.
|The Epox 9NPA+ Ultra is the fastest board in the roundup at stock speeds. It was also the highest overclocker at stock speeds, and the second highest overclocker when the bus was overclocked. The Epox is an incredible value whether you are looking for a board that will run fast with stability at stock speeds or a board that will satisfy almost any Athlon 64 enthusiast. The range of overclocking options and the overclocked performance are among the best that we have seen, falling short only in the memory voltage area, which tops out at 3.1V. The feature set is more or less average for Ultra boards, but the overall performance is clearly standout. Based on the standout performance and solid overclocking that we achieved with the Athlon 64, we are pleased to award the AnandTech Gold Editors Choice to the Epox 9NPA+ Ultra motherboard.|
If you looking to save even more money, the 9NPA, based on the nForce4 x4 chipset, has a street price of around $90. You give up the SATA 2 support and 1000 bus, but most of the performance features are still available in the same basic motherboard.
The Gold Editors Choice is jointly awarded to the DFI LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D.
|The DFI nForce4 boards were designed first and foremost for the Athlon 64 Enthusiast. The DFI nF4 Ultra is the exact same board, same BIOS, and same performance as the DFI SLI motherboard. The only difference is the Ultra and SLI versions of the same chipset. The DFI exhibits above average performance at stock speeds, but it is the best overclocker of bus speeds that we have ever tested - reaching 318x9 with a 4000+ CPU. It was also just behind the Epox in overclocking at stock speeds. The DFI nF4 boards remain to be the only motherboards to fully support high voltage high-speed 2-2-2 memory with memory voltages to 4.0V for OCZ VX and Mushkin Redline memory. The DFI LANParty UT nF4 Ultra-D is the ultimate enthusiast board at a value price with overclocking performance that will never require an apology. DFI's nForce4 boards have quickly become a legend among enthusiasts.|
We extend our congratulations to both DFI and Epox who deserve recognition for the hard choices that they made in bringing these two products to market. Both companies clearly understand what it takes to capture the imagination of AMD buyers. It isn't just saying a board is aimed at the enthusiast that sells an Athlon 64 board, it is in delivering the options and performance that are part and parcel of the AMD Enthusiast label.