Summary: Originally intended to serve the workstation market, NVIDIA's original nForce3 150/Pro 150 never really took off with gamers and hardware enthusiasts. Now NVIDIA is back again with another nForce3 chipset, nForce3 250Gb. This chipset boasts many new features, a faster HyperTransport interface, and, for the first time ever in a chipset, an integrated Firewall. In this article we'll explore the changes and see how it stacks up against VIA's solution, K8T800. Does nForce3 250 have what it takes to dethrone the champion? Find out inside!
NVIDIA’s chipset evolution
First introduced nearly three years ago, NVIDIA’s original nForce chipset revolutionized the Athlon XP platform thanks to its dazzling array of features: Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, GeForce2 MX integrated graphics, and an innovative dual-channel DDR memory subsystem that was years ahead of its time, all put NVIDIA’s nForce chipset squarely on the Socket A limelight. However, due to delays and high pricing (the chipset was initially only available with integrated graphics), nForce got off to a sluggish start, ultimately VIA’s KT333 and later KT400 chipsets overshadowed it.
Much like the original nForce chipset, NVIDIA’s early 64-bit chipset efforts got off to a slow start with nForce3 150 and nForce3 Pro 150. The chipset lacked native Serial ATA support, relying instead on an external controller. In comparison, VIA’s K8T800 was more feature-rich and offered better performance, making it the early favorite among Athlon 64 users.
One of the key architectural differences between NVIDIA’s nForce3 line and other competing solutions from VIA and SiS is their single-chip architecture. If you recall the design of traditional system chipsets, the chipset is usually composed of two chips: a North Bridge and a South Bridge. The North Bridge traditionally houses the memory controller, and is responsible for interfacing with the CPU as well as AGP. Of course, now that AMD has integrated the controller on the CPU itself the first role (memory controller) is no longer performed on the North Bridge. Meanwhile, the South Bridge handles I/O duties such as storage, USB, PCI, and networking.
One of the chief complaints that was voiced against nForce3 150 was its HyperTransport implementation, NVIDIA was limited to just 600MHz, while VIA’s K8T800 supported 800MHz. NVIDIA made matters worse by limiting HyperTransport’s upstream connection on nForce3 150 to just 8-bits, half the 16-bit width found on other solutions.
One new technology that has really taken off in the past 12 months is Gigabit Ethernet networking. Once an expensive accessory that was only found on high-end workstations and servers, Gigabit Ethernet has become increasingly popular in conventional desktop PCs.
Another advantage NVIDIA’s solution provides is an industry standard open interface for attaching external Gigabit Ethernet physical layer (PHY) transceivers. In case you haven’t noticed, motherboards that rely on Intel’s CSA only ship with PHY manufactured by one company: Intel. By using an open, non-proprietary interface, motherboard manufacturers can choose the solution they’d like to implement, whether it’s from 3Com, Broadcom, Marvell, etc. This increased flexibility leads to lower production costs, which are hopefully passed on to the consumer.
One additional feature nForce3 250Gb touts is Firewall support. Unlike many Firewalls which are software-based, nForce3 250Gb’s Firewall is a native hardware-optimized solution. This lowers CPU utilization and improves throughput and protection, as you don’t have to wait for a software solution to load. NVIDIA’s Firewall solution can filter packets based on predefined settings, or settings that the end user provides. NVIDIA’s Firewall supports stateless and stateful inspection as well as remote management, which is helpful for accessing, configuring, and monitoring your PC while you’re away.
SIDEBAR: At 22 million transistors, nForce3 250 contains 7 million more transistors than nForce3 150.
As we mentioned earlier, one important feature NVIDIA left out of nForce3 150 was native Serial ATA support. This omission has been corrected in nForce3 250, as the chipset features dual Serial ATA controllers, with one device per controller. Like VIA’s K8T800, motherboard manufacturers can use an external physical layer to add support for two more devices, bringing support for up to four Serial ATA drives. (Silicon Image has been used frequently in the past, although other manufacturers can be used.) nForce3 250 also has dual parallel ATA-133 controllers (four devices supported total) for those of you with older drives.
Unlike the nForce/nForce2 family, one feature you won’t see NVIDIA heavily promoting with nForce3 150 or nForce3 250 is audio. The Dolby Digital audio processing unit (APU) found in previous chipsets didn’t make the transition to nForce3. The chipset does provide an AC’97 interface, which is capable of supporting 2, 4, or 6-channel audio, but this probably comes as a letdown to many gamers and hardware enthusiasts. Likewise, nForce3 250 lacks the integrated GeForce4 MX graphics found on NVIDIA’s nForce2 IGP.
Like nForce3 150, NVIDIA’s nForce3 250 chipset supports all of AMD’s latest 64-bit processors, Athlon 64, Athlon 64 FX, and Opteron. nForce3 250 also supports 2P configurations, meaning the chipset is capable of supporting two processors. This feature could allow NVIDIA to make a play into servers and high-end workstations. In fact, during our meeting with NVIDIA they had a dual Opteron system up and running based on an nForce3 250Gb reference board.
SiSoft Sandra 2004
SiSoft Sandra 2004
With the Athlon 64’s integrated memory controller, one of the key differentiating factors between systems chipsets in SiSoft Sandra is largely gone, the NVIDIA and VIA systems fall within 1% of each other in memory bandwidth testing. In fact, the other tests are close as well, with K8T800 never pulling away more than 2% from nForce3 250.
NASCAR – OpenGL
nForce3 250Gb takes a slight advantage in NASCAR 2003, and when we say slight, we mean it, with the NVIDIA platform outperforming VIA K8T800 by less than two percentage points. NASCAR is a pretty good system level benchmark, so we initially assumed we’d see a larger margin between both chipsets with this benchmark.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Flight simulators tend to stress CPU performance with their demanding flight simulation models and AI routines, especially in the Black Death track where dozens of aircraft are battling for supremacy of the sky. Therefore its no real surprise to see both systems mirror each other in performance.
Quake III - OpenGL
Quake 3 is an old favorite around here, as it’s excellent for highlighting subtleties like BIOS setting modifications, and in our case, motherboards. nForce3 250 is once again able to command a narrow lead, but we’re still looking at a 2% margin between both boards.
Comanche, like IL-2 is more of a processor test, so based on the results we saw with that benchmark it isn’t surprising that both platforms turned in the same frame rate. It’s beginning to look like NVIDIA’s nForce3 250Gb isn’t a dramatic improvement over K8T800 however.
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Once again both performance is a dead heat between both platforms.
Call of Duty - OpenGL
We’ve found that Call of Duty places a little more strain on the CPU than does Quake 3, so it isn’t surprising to see the margins between both chipsets tighten up a little. The performance difference is less than one percent in all tests.
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
We decided to disable some of Tomb Raider’s 2.0 shader effects in the hopes that it would help bring out some of the performance difference between both chipsets, but as you can see those attempts were unsuccessful – both platforms are essentially offering equal levels of performance.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Again, with their complicated flight models, flight simulations tend to stress the CPU, more than any other benchmark. Therefore both platforms are running equally.
NVIDIA’s nForce3 250 chipset is shaping up to be an incredibly flexible platform. nForce3 250Gb provides native Gigabit Ethernet networking, the first on an AMD platform, and brings with it the first native Firewall solution. With security becoming an increasing concern as security flaws continue to be exploited, this feature should come as a welcome addition to the typical home user as well as corporations.
NVIDIA has incorporated an enhanced HyperTransport interface into nForce3 250, addressing one of the nForce3 150’s chief complaints, and now has dual built-in Serial ATA controllers. This should please gamers and enthusiasts as well as A/V gurus, and motherboard manufacturers won’t have to rely on external solutions for Serial ATA support.
nForce3 250 and nForce3 250Gb are pin-compatible with nForce3 150 (688 pins total), so motherboard manufacturers can drop it right into their existing solutions. This eases development and manufacturing costs for motherboard manufacturers, in fact Chaintech has already announced their nForce3 250 board, the Zenith ZNF3-250. nForce3 250 is in full production now, with the first motherboards expected to hit retail this month.
Unlike previous nForce launches where NVIDIA limited itself to five or six board partners, NVIDIA lists 19 motherboard partners onboard for nForce3 250, with more likely on the way. Some of the launch partners we inquired with however mentioned that they will be waiting on Socket 939 before they introduce an nForce3 250 part.
Unfortunately, the Soundstorm audio found on nForce2 didn’t migrate over to nForce3 250, but NVIDIA is hard at work on a new discrete audio solution. We’re still holding out hopes that this technology somehow finds its way to nForce3. Remember that NVIDIA initially had no plans for an nForce product without integrated graphics, but less than a year after the chipset was introduced they released nForce 415D – a solution without integrated graphics. However, even if this doesn't occur manufacturers could still potentially integrate an external NVIDIA audio solution into their existing designs.
nForce3 250’s performance isn’t revolutionary. We found that it performed on par if not slightly better than VIA K8T800. When you pair this with the additional features nForce3 250 offers, it definitely puts NVIDIA in a better position to compete against SiS and VIA than they had with nForce3 150. We can only wonder what might have been if NVIDIA had been able to deliver nForce3 250 in the last half of 2003 as originally intended however.
Overall the nForce3 250 platform has a lot of good things going for it, but we’ll reserve final judgment until we have retail motherboards in our hands. We’ve been told that things will get really exciting for nForce3 250 once Socket 939 hits, but unfortunately that’s one story we can’t share with you until those processors are introduced later this year. We've also been told that all of the technologies found in nForce3 250Gb will soon find their way into NVIDIA's K7 line.
In the meantime nForce3 250 offers an excellent feature set and solid performance. If you were tempted by nForce3 150, you’ll love nForce3 250. And if the audio is a concern, Chaintech’s board offers VIA’s well regarded Envy24 7.1 audio. How’s that for irony!
SIDEBAR: Which Athlon 64 chipset do you plan on building your next system around, or do you already have a system setup and wish you waited? Share your thoughts in the news comments!
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