Summary: 6,650 words. 75 images. 24 pages. Athlon 64 FX and Opteron 252 CPUs tested. In our nForce4 SLI motherboard roundup, Chris tests NVIDIA's last 3 driver releases and SLI motherboards from ASUS, DFI, Gigabyte, and MSI, as well as Tyan's ultra high-end K8WE nForce Professional 2200/2050 motherboard. See who comes out on top, as well as the staggering memory bandwidth figures the Tyan board dishes out with dual Opteron CPUs in this article!
Even NVIDIA was unsure how events would transpire, at least at first. Questions arose as to whether the integral SLI connector would come with motherboards or graphics cards. Power requirements also came into question, especially in light of the non-standard methods used by many manufacturers to rate output levels. Even now, with SLI hardware--motherboards, graphics cards, and power supplies--widely available, questions continue surfacing. Despite a standardized certification process, you still run into the odd incompatibility and performance anomaly.
But for the most part, NVIDIA is to be applauded for rolling out a brand new technology, developing the corresponding core logic and graphics infrastructure, and laying the foundation for interoperability between completely separate components. Idiosyncrasies, inconvenient as they may be, are almost to be expected. And that’s why we’ve spent the past few weeks testing the current crop of SLI motherboards, graphics cards, and the only power supply currently on NVIDIA’s SLI-certified list, so that you won’t have to stumble through the few pitfalls of SLI.
In arranging this roundup we wanted to assemble every available SLI motherboard for testing. No doubt there will be additions in the days to come, and indeed, Albatron and EPoX are expected to release their own offerings soon. However, today’s marketplace is populated by ASUS’ A8N-SLI Deluxe, DFI’s nF4 SLI-DR, Gigabyte’s K8NXP-SLI, MSI’s K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI, and Tyan’s K8WE.
If the Tyan board is a bit of a surprise to you, rest assured that we were equally shocked to hear that Tyan was ready with a dual-processor, dual-graphics solution based on the nForce Professional chipset. And, given the impending release of dual-core processors later this year, we thought it’d be interesting to see how multi-threaded applications reacted to the more advanced platform. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised once again when you see how well it encodes video.
The other four boards are widely available and reasonably priced. All of them share an nForce4 SLI chipset in common, but vary from there.
ASUS was the first manufacturer on the scene with an SLI motherboard. Its A8N-SLI Deluxe immediately turned heads for its clean layout, robust feature set, and, at the time, lofty price tag. High-end GeForce 6-series cards weren’t even available yet in PCI Express trim, ironically.
The passing of time saw prices on the A8N-SLI fall, though, and you can now pick the board up for under $175 online, making it one of the least expensive options for adopting SLI. It’s also one of the most stable; thanks to the latest BIOS from ASUS, we had little problem running GeForce 6800 Ultra, GeForce 6800 GT, and GeForce 6600 GT cards through today’s hottest games. In fact, because the A8N-SLI’s x16 PCI Express slots are spaced three slots away from each other, it’s the only one capable of accommodating two of Leadtek’s WinFast PX6800 GT TDH cards, which are actually larger than standard 6800 Ultras. Just don’t lose that SLI connector--ASUS’ is the only one that isn’t interchangeable across other motherboards.
Two x1 PCI Express slots sit between the graphics connectors. If you use single-slot video cards, they’re both accessible. Go with Ultras, however, and you’ll lose one of the x1 links and one of the three standard PCI slots, too. Even with a GeForce 6800 Ultra installed you’ll still be able to change the onboard SLI mode selector, which snaps into place, specifying single-card operation or SLI.
There aren’t any major layout issues of which to speak; ASUS is known for elegant implementations, after all. The NVIDIA chipset is situated such that it doesn’t sit directly underneath a graphics card, unlike other boards. There’s plenty of space between memory slots to better facilitate cooling. Incidentally, Corsair’s Xpert modules fit just fine between the slots. You’ll find plenty of room for mounting larger-than-reference heatsinks and power connectors that might otherwise interfere with processor cooling are far enough out of the way to not be an issue.
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Onboard features run inline with NVIDIA’s nForce4 chipset. Four SATA 2 ports are exposed natively, as are 10 USB 2.0 ports (four on the back panel, four through rear I/O brackets, and two through front-panel connectors). ActiveArmor and NV Firewall both come standard, as does NVIDIA’s integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller. Unique additions include a Silicon Image SATA controller that exposes four more ports, albeit at 1.5 Gbps, a Texas Instruments IEEE 1394a controller, another PCI-based Gigabit chip, and the familiar ALC850 codec for mainstream eight-channel audio. ASUS’ EZ Plug feature, which is claimed to be the only way to operate stably in SLI mode, is another ASUS original A8N-SLI-specific feature.
From a feature perspective, the A8N-SLI is a commendable value. Its bundle includes enough SATA cabling to utilize all eight onboard ports, plus the power connectors to adapt older supplies, a back-panel bracket for external SATA connectivity, four back-panel USB 2.0 ports, one back-panel Firewire port, standard IDE cables, a serial port, an I/O shield, a retention bracket, an InterVideo software package, and related ASUS documentation. If that sounds like a lot of extra hardware, it is. ASUS’ package comes with more cables and connectors than any other motherboard.
Another strong point for the A8N-SLI is its BIOS, which ASUS equips with plenty of customizable features. The JumperFree Configuration menu facilitates different types of overclocking, such as manual, AI Overclock, and AI NOS. Using AI Overclock, the BIOS raises CPU bus frequency by a given percentage and maintains it constantly. AI NOS, on the other hand, offers dynamic overclocking so that the extra speed kicks in when intensive processing situations are detected through power consumption. In either case, setting too aggressive of an option will result in system instability.
Manual overclocking, as expected, exposes all of the voltage and frequency settings. CPU bus speeds are available between 200 and 400MHz, while PCI Express bus frequencies are available between 100 and 145MHz. You can also choose between memory voltages between 2.6 and 3V, processor voltages between .8 and 1.65V, and CPU multipliers between 4x and 20x in .5x steps.
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It takes a lot of guts to show up to a party uninvited, yet that’s essentially what DFI did when it announced a lower-priced, uncertified SLI motherboard, the nF4 SLI-DR. Of course, a lot has changed since the enthusiast-oriented second tier manufacturer showcased the board in its suite at CES earlier this year. More significantly, DFI earned an NVIDIA certification--a stamp of approval that says the nF4 SLI-DR will work with any SLI-capable graphics card you throw at it.
Because DFI wasn’t privy to NVIDIA’s SLI recipe early on in the design process, its nF4 SLI-DR uses a non-standard mechanism for switching between single- and dual-card modes. That is, instead of employing a reversible card, you have to move six sets of jumpers in order to make the switch. Fortunately, DFI includes a BIOS chip-removal tool that does an effective job of grabbing those jumper blocks.
Like most other SLI boards, the x16 PCI Express slots on the nF4 SLI-DR are two slots apart--just enough to accommodate two GeForce 6800 Ultra boards, but not enough to work with a pair of Leadtek’s super-sized 6800 GTs. There’s one x1 slot between the two graphics connectors, one x4 slot above the top graphics slot, and two standard PCI slots below. If you’re wondering how the connectivity adds up when the nForce4 only offers 20 lanes of PCIe, consider that each graphics slot consumes eight in an SLI configuration. If you’re using a x4 device, it must exist alone. Otherwise, you can plug a x1 device in each of the extra slots (the x4 slot accepts x1 peripherals).
As with ASUS’ board, DFI does a lot of things right with its layout. The memory slots are at the top of the board with enough space to accept any module sporting heat spreaders or a set of Corsair Xpert modules. There’s plenty of room around the processor interface and all power connectors are located at the back of the board to avoid blocking airflow to vital components. The active cooler sitting atop NVIDIA’s nForce4 SLI chipset is directly under the first PCI Express x16 slot, which might be problematic for cooling, but everything else is otherwise easily accessible.
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Naturally, the nF4 SLI-DR derives most of its features from its host chipset, such as four SATA 2 ports, integrated Gigabit Ethernet, ActiveArmor, and NV Firewall. However, DFI also added a second SATA controller--the same Silicon Image chip used by ASUS--for four more 1.5 Gbps ports and up to RAID 5 support. There’s a second Gigabit chip, too, in addition to a VIA IEEE 1394a controller. The board ships by default without an audio codec, but a bundled Karajan module plugs directly onto a header, enabling eight-channel sound for those who need it.
Other touches include four vacant fan headers, one-touch power and reset switches onboard, UV-reactive slots, connectors, and retention mechanisms, passive cooling on the power circuitry, six USB 2.0 ports on the rear panel, and an auxiliary power input for added stability in an SLI configuration. And then there’s the rest of DFI’s package, which includes round cables, a strappy sling for lugging around an ATX chassis, UV-reactive cable sleeving, and a 5.25” front bay with several different ports and plugs. At roughly $220 online, though, DFI doesn’t quite have the value advantage it once suggested.
Fortunately, DFI includes a BIOS that affirms the board’s enthusiast appeal. Manual bus settings are available between 200 and 456MHz. PCI Express frequencies can be manually configured anywhere between 100 and 145MHz. There are also plenty of HyperTransport ratios, in addition to processor multipliers between 4x and 25x in .5x increments. Not only does the board facilitate voltage settings between .825 and 1.55V, but it also specifies a startup voltage and a VID Special setting that multiplies your standard voltages setting by as little as 104 percent to as much as 136 percent.
Another great attribute is plentiful DRAM divisors, including 3/5, 2/3, 7/10, 3/4, 5/6, 9/10, and 1/1. The nF4 SLI-DR also supports chipset and HyperTransport voltage adjustments, which ASUS’ board does not allow. Finally, a special bank of jumpers unlocks ultra-aggressive memory voltages up to 4.0v. Higher voltage settings make it possible to extract greater memory performance through tighter timings, but they also often necessitate active cooling as well.
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Another manufacturer known for expansive feature sets, Gigabyte went all out with its K8NXP-SLI and incorporated a lot of functionality we’ve seen on previous flagship boards. The DPS (Dual Power System), for example, makes it possible for the board to boast six-phase power circuitry. And while DPS is intended to augment stability, we actually found the K8NXP-SLI to be rock solid even without the feature installed. Gigabyte also follows convention by adding a second Gigabit Ethernet controller--Marvell’s Yukon 88E8053 PCI Express chip in this case. Where the company really sets itself apart is by adding a third controller, a wireless 802.11g card, in its packaging.
Given the board’s single PCI Express Gigabit controller, Gigabyte had three more links with which to work when designing the board. One of them, obviously, is for a graphics adapter or two depending on your configuration, and the other two are exposed through single-lane peripheral connectors. Two standard PCI slots round out the K8NXP-SLI’s balanced connectivity package.
With so many onboard devices, we would have been surprised if Gigabyte hadn’t had layout issues. And while, for the most part, everything is neat and tidy, the nForce4 SLI chipset is placed directly under the first PCI Express x16 slot--not the best seat in the house when it comes to pulling cool air. For some strange reason, Gigabyte also packed the board’s four memory slots right on top of each other, leaving absolutely no room for modules with heat spreaders. Corsair’s Xpert series definitely doesn’t fit, either. In fact, even a set of Pro modules bows out at an uncomfortable angle when mounted side-by-side.
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Gigabyte is somewhat coy about exposing advanced BIOS options, oddly enough. If you’re an enthusiast and want access to the meaty settings, remember to hit Ctrl+F1 at the main screen.
With everything out in the open, Gigabyte actually offers a comprehensive list of settings that may be tweaked in order to procure additional performance. For example, there are numerous memory timing settings, though there isn’t an option to enable 1T command rates. You’ll also have access to vendor-specific optimizations through the MIB 2 feature. Like ASUS, Gigabyte has a specific option that accelerates graphics performance; accessing the Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker menu with advanced options enabled will allow you to specify the degree of graphics overclocking to pursue, or to disable it entirely.
Gigabyte enabled front side bus settings between 200 and 400MHz. PCI Express frequencies may be selected anywhere between 100 and 150MHz, while core multipliers are available between 4x and 20x. Unfortunately, the latest BIOS version doesn’t support half-steps, which makes it a little tougher to fine-tune processor frequencies. CPU voltages range from .8 to 1.75V in .025V increments, core power voltage (chipset, perhaps?) may be tweaked up to .3V, HyperTransport bus voltages are also malleable up to .3V extra, and DDR voltages are limited to a paltry .2V increase.
Perhaps the K8NXP-SLI’s most redeeming characteristic is price. At $175, it readily competes with the A8N-SLI Deluxe and K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI, outdoing both boards when it comes to bundled accessories. At the end of the day, it’s almost a personal judgment call between Gigabyte’s sheer volume of extra stuff or MSI’s targeted enthusiast appeal with an onboard Live! 24-bit and advanced disk controller.
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Despite its commanding position as a tier-one manufacturer, MSI took a surprisingly long time to finish its own SLI motherboard. In fact, though our sample was claimed to be of production quality, it arrived in a white box and with a fairly limited bundle. As it turns out, the retail board’s bundle is actually somewhat sparse, consisting of some round cables, a SATA cable, a pair of back-panel bracket USB 2.0 ports, a custom I/O shield, and some drivers.
But it’s the rest of MSI’s package that warrants attention (and explains the delay in availability). Whereas most manufacturers seem to have focused on enabling the nForce4 SLI’s rich set of features, MSI went a step further by getting some use out of the available PCI Express lanes. For starters, the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI boasts the first PCIe hard drive controller from Silicon Image. It’s limited to two ports, but supports SATA 2 devices at 3 Gbps, just like NVIDIA’s native controller. A second lane of PCIe connectivity is populated by Marvell’s 88E8053 Gigabit Ethernet controller, leaving just one of the chipset’s three links available.
Naturally, it’d be a graphics card (or two) that would round out the board’s smorgasbord of PCIe functionality. The two x16 slots are spaced far enough apart for two reference 6800 Ultras to fit without issue, but of course, that Leadtek 6800 GT board won’t run in an SLI configuration. MSI’s reversible card mechanism sits between the two x16 slots and actually looks to be the least thought-out component on the board. A simple rotating plastic piece is all that secures the card and would perhaps be better replaced by locking tabs, as found on ASUS’ board.
Otherwise, MSI does a commendable job with layout, placing power connectors out of the way, leaving a decent amount of space around the processor interface, and adding three PCI slots in addition to the myriad onboard components. There’s even a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit audio controller, which enables eight-channel output, optical output, and coaxial audio output. So much for lackluster audio codecs, right? A Texas Instruments IEEE 1394a rounds out MSI’s integrated add-ons.
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Most of the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI’s other features are native to the nForce4 SLI chipset. Four SATA 2 ports are included, for a total of six on the board. ActiveArmor and NV Firewall both weigh prominently in its list of features, as well. Four memory slots support up to 4 GB of DDR400 memory, just as with competing motherboards. Of the chipset’s ten USB 2.0 ports, four are exposed on the back panel and a D Bracket 2 accessory contributes two more. You’ll find headers for the others, should your case come with front-panel ports.
If MSI had priced the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI to reflect its impressive feature set, perhaps the meager accessory bundle would be more bothersome. However, available at $175 online, the board is actually a tremendous value, especially since it saves you having to buy a quality add-in sound card.
The board’s BIOS is full of functionality to poke and prod your memory and processor. MSI is the other manufacturer to support dynamic overclocking for users who’d prefer not to tweak through trial and error. Manual settings are plentiful, though, so dedicated enthusiasts don’t have to feel left out when it comes to tuning individual components.
Processor bus frequencies are available between 190 and 400MHz, while PCI Express frequencies are manually adjustable between 100 and 145MHz. A host of different HyperTransport ratios are available, as are processor ratios (between 4x and 25x). You’ll find CPU voltages between .825 and 1.55V, with an option to increase the voltage by 3.3, 5, or 8.3 percent. Both the memory and chipset voltages are adjustable as well, between 2.5 and 2.85V on the memory and 1.5 to 1.85V on the chipset.
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There’s SLI, and then there’s SL-friggin-I. If you were under the impression that an nForce4 SLI platform was crème of the crop (and rightly so), you’d only be partially correct. The nForce Professional chipset family is, in fact, NVIDIA’s top-end SLI-capable product. Consisting of two MCPs, the 2200 and the 2050, NVIDIA appeals to both server and workstation markets simultaneously. Both products offers 20 lanes of PCI Express connectivity, Serial ATA 3 Gbps support, native Gigabit Ethernet, and TCP hardware offload, but only the 2200 offers 32-bit PCI and USB. Moreover, the 2200’s lanes are configurable, while the 2050’s are fixed to x16, x1, x1, and x1.
Rather than tap the nForce Professional 2200 for its flagship workstation board, dividing PCIe connectivity into two x8 slots for SLI support, Tyan went all-out, combining the nForce Professional 2200, the nForce Professional 2050, AMD’s 8131 PCI-X tunnel, and an LSI 53C1030 U320 SCSI controller all onto a single graphics workstation powerhouse. The board accepts two Opteron 200-series processors, up to 16GB of registered DDR400 memory, and all the trappings of an nForce4 SLI offering, too.
The real trick is prodigious use of HyperTransport. The primary processor interfaces, first and foremost, with the secondary processor over one of the HyperTransport links at up to 1GHz. A second link communicates with AMD’s PCI-X tunnel at up to 600MHz, while the third link does business with NVIDIA’s nForce Professional 2200 MCP at up to 800MHz, according to Tyan’s documentation. The secondary processor is responsible for the nForce Professional 2050 chipset, which it also communicates with at 800MHz.
In turn, the K8WE doesn’t need a special SLI connector to configure the board’s x16 slots. Each runs at full-speed all of the time, regardless of how many graphics cards are being used, resulting in unbridled SLI performance. That’s one motherboard with a total of 40 lanes of PCIe, 32 of which are exposed.
Running two graphics cards in SLI mode is hard enough on a power supply. Add a second processor to the equation and you can understand why the K8WE won’t even boot with a standard ATX unit. You’ll instead need an EPS12V power supply, preferably with an SSI 3.51 six-pin connector for workstation boards. We used Zippy’s PSM-6550P 550W for testing, which delivers up to 40A combined on the +12V1 and +12V2 rails.
With significantly more circuitry than any of the nForce4 SLI boards in our roundup, it’s little wonder that the K8WE is an Extended ATX design, larger than most standard cases will accommodate. The two 940-pin Opteron processor sockets sit next to each other with four memory slots above each. The board accepts up to 16GB of memory, and you’ll want to populate at least two slots per processor in order to maximize total platform bandwidth. Load up on low-latency, registered DDR400 memory and you can expect some phenomenal throughput numbers.
Less demanding applications might be better suited with SATA drives, which aren’t designed for 24/7 operation, but still deliver respectable performance. In that case, the K8WE offers the four ports native to NVIDIA’s nForce Professional 2200 chipset. RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 arrays are supported, as are 3 Gbps drives. A single PATA channel is available for optical devices, too. Because both NVIDIA MCPs feature Gigabit Ethernet, Tyan is able to deliver dual, integrated Gigabit Ethernet controllers with external Marvell transceivers. Both ports offer ActiveArmor and NV Firewall support, in addition to the performance enhancements touted by NVIDIA.
Anticipating low demand for multi-channel audio on a workstation powerhouse, the K8WE comes with Analog Device’s AD1981 six-channel codec. It’s nothing fancy, but you can always drop an add-in card should you need digital output or additional analog channels.
A lot of Tyan’s design decisions reflect the K8WE’s intended audience. Graphics workstations prioritize stability, so overclocking generally isn’t a selling point. Even still, the board’s BIOS does include some degree of customization, including selectable HyperTransport frequencies and memory timing configuration. The latest version properly identified our Opteron 252s, along with the timing differences between our four installed memory modules.
Included with the K8WE are four SATA cables, two SATA power adapters, an IDE cable, a floppy cable, a SCSI cable, Tyan’s custom I/O shield, driver disks, and a user’s manual. A sparse bundle by most accounts, but understandably so. The real caveat to acquiring this board is its nearly $600 price tag. Yeah, ouch.
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NVIDIA’s initial SLI-compatible driver set was released back in November of last year. In addition to incorporating support for SLI, that package also recognized the GeForce 6600, 6600 GT, and 6200-series cards. It also featured DirectX 9.0c support, on top of a host of other miscellaneous HDTV and timing-oriented enhancements.
That driver, 66.93, is still the most current package on NVIDIA’s official website. However, NVIDIA also makes beta drivers available through nzone.com, its enthusiast portal. In November ’04, December ’04, and January ’05, updates were made to the ForceWare driver, adding support for PureVideo technology on 6-series graphics processors, updating SLI support, and making additional enhancements to HDTV output.
The latest driver version, released March 2nd, adds support for GeForce 6200 TurboCache cards and properly works with Windows Remote Desktop. It also adds 60 SLI profiles, all of which are published on the same nzone.com site, along with a special CoolBits utility for creating custom profiles.
Interested in potential performance gains associated with the augmented SLI support, we ran the new driver through a couple of quick benchmarks to determine what, if any, improvements had been made. Surprisingly enough, Doom and Half-Life 2 both picked up measurable gains, as did 3DMark05.
But we, along with several users in NVIDIA’s own nZone user forum, noticed markedly higher temperatures, even at idle with the new drivers. NVIDIA representative Brian Burke confirms that the temperatures are actually being misreported due to a bug in the driver and will be fixed in a forthcoming revision.
For more information on applications optimized for use with SLI, click here. A link at the top of that same page will take you to the custom profile page as well, in case your favorite game isn’t yet supported and you’d like to create a custom profile using the new CoolBits utility.
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In separate conversations with representatives at both Corsair and OCZ, we’ve heard that the best way to procure optimal performance from an Athlon 64 system is to increase the processor bus speed to its highest level with 2-2-2 timings and 1T command rates. Going beyond that and sacrificing memory timing results in diminished performance up until a certain point, where raw bandwidth compensates and performance increases.
Testing with an Athlon 64 FX-55 allows for plenty of movement in dropping multiplier settings and we already know the chip is good up to about 2.8GHz or so. Thus, it was presumed that overclocking would be a walk in the park, especially with the enlisted help of OCZ’s Gold Edition VX modules, which are designed to take a beating in the sense of ultra-high voltages.
Getting each board stable was a slight challenge, though, especially while attempting low-latencies with limited DDR voltage control. The ASUS board worked well using a general five percent increase though ASUS’ AI Overclock applet, with manual timings set to 2-2-2. The board just didn’t want to stabilize at anything higher than that, though, no matter how low we dropped the multiplier. Settling at 2.73GHz , performance did improve substantially as our Media Encoding test went from 6:38 to 6:19 and memory bandwidth jumped to nearly 6.4 GBps. Gains in Doom 3 were a little more modest, with a 1024x768 frame rate of 108.1 versus 105.3 at stock settings.
DFI’s board was a little more flexible. We managed to get that one running with a 270MHz bus speed, but with instability issues that cropped up during the media encoding benchmark. We eventually settled on a similar setting as the ASUS board, but with even better performance numbers. WME 9 finished 11 seconds faster at 6:08, Doom 3 jumped to 111.2 frames, and our memory numbers hovered at 6.3 GBps of throughput.
Gigabyte’s K8NXP-SLI was slightly more reluctant, topping out at 2.71GHz and a meager 208MHz bus. Memory bandwidth did improve substantially at that speed, breaking the 5 GBps mark, and WME9 numbers weren’t too shabby at 6:14. Even still, it’s possible that a more flexible DDR voltage control would have allowed more flexibility in improving overclocking results.
Tyan’s K8WE clearly isn’t designed for tweaking, so we didn’t even try. The best we could hope for there was stability at the new 1GHz HyperTransport setting (remember, we’re dealing with Opteron here) and the most aggressive timings possible considering mismatched sets of DDR400 memory modules. Running 1GB at CAS 2 and the other at CAS 2.5 didn’t prove to be a problem, fortunately.
SIDEBAR: In the city of Reykjavik, Iceland, one can see the stars eighteen hours a day during the heart of the winter. During the summer, sunlight is visible 24 hours a day.
id Software Doom 3
Valve Software Half-Life 2
Crytek Far Cry
1C: Maddox Games IL:2
Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9
An argument we’ve heard from both prolific processor manufacturers is that as dual-core technology picks up speed, game developers will begin writing their software with multiple threads in mind. Today, most are contained within a single thread, and that’s why you don’t see more of a performance increase when we test Far Cry or Half-Life 2.
SiSoft Sandra 2005 SP1
DFI nF4 SLI-DR & OCZ VX-4000 Gold
MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI
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