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nV News - NVIDIA nForce2 Preview - Page 1 of 1

INTRODUCTION

On June 14, 2001 NVIDIA made an announcement at the COMPUTEX tradeshow in Taiwan that they were entering the core logic chipset market by unveiling the nForce. With the nForce being an AMD processor-based chipset, NVIDIA was now in direct competition with industry heavyweight VIA Technologies. However, we eventually learned that NVIDIA had two important strategies in mind for the nForce. First, they were planning an aggressive marketing campaign and estimated that the chipset would account for 10% of sales in 2002. And second, consumers could expect future versions of the nForce to occur every 12-18 months according to product director Mike Lim.

While we published a preview of the nForce, and followed up with using a reference motherboard in a GeForce3 Ti 200 review, an objective for us was to report on as much nForce related information as possible. We succeeded in that goal as searching our news archive returns well over 20 pages of content. Looking back at the many nForce based motherboard reviews reveals that performance was generally equal to that of VIA's KT266A chipset although there were variations. The strength of the nForce is realized when running multiple applications concurrently, but the majority of reviews measured performance with limited background activity.

nForce2 Logo

It didn't take long for the nForce to become an alternative motherboard chipset for consumers and OEM's to consider in their purchasing plans. Fujitsu-Siemens and MicronPC were among the early adopters, and were later backed up with support from leading memory suppliers. Design wins continued in 2002 with product announcements from Compaq and Hewlett-Packard. A major deal was struck in June with NEC as they announced that all of their Athlon XP-based personal computers sold in Europe and Japan will be based on the nForce.

On June 15, 2001 hardware guru Loyd Case published the first preview of a beta nForce-based motherboard at ExtremeTech. In his conclusion, Loyd wrote the following:

In the end, we're quite encouraged by what we see. While this board clearly has some rough edges, they all seem fairly minor and generally fixable. In fact, for a product consisting of multiple beta pieces, it was surprisingly robust. Performance was impressive at this stage of development and we believe it will only get better. The Athlon may have found its soul mate in the nForce.

Loyd's comments were positive and although he does mention that minor glitches existed, they were probably to be expected.

A LOOK BACK: NFORCE PROS AND CONS

After having visited several message boards, especially MSI's, and reading a number of articles and reviews of the nForce, the following summarizes my thoughts on the original nForce.

Pros:

  • Architecture - nForce was the most advanced Athlon platform on the market as it was designed around a distributed processing platform that resourcefully distributes central processor clock cycles among active tasks. The nForce utilizes AMD's HyperTransport Technology which provides a high-speed data transfer bus capable of delivering 800MB/second between major system components.


  • Memory - TwinBank architecture utilizes two 64-bit memory controllers that can access memory simultaneously which reduces latency. A Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Preprocessor, or DASP, is an intelligent processor that monitors memory traffic and preprocess data that the CPU may require. Theoretical 4.2GB/second of system-wide memory bandwidth.


  • Graphics - Integrated graphics with a GeForce2 MX core offered greater performance when compared to competing integrated graphics chipsets. The GeForce2 MX consists of two pixel pipelines, a second generation fixed transform and lighting engine, and basic shading capabilities with NVIDIA's Shading Rasterizer (NSR).


  • Communications/Media - Integrated 10/100MB Ethernet controller and home phone-line networking (HomePNA 2.0). Dual USB controller with up to six USB ports. Two Ultra ATA-100 disk drive controllers with support for Ultra DMA Modes 1 through 5.


  • Sound - Integrated sound with support for Envoronmental Audio (EAX) and Dolby Digital Audio. Audio Processing Unit supports up to 256 stereo voices or 64 3D voices plus 192 stereo voices. AC'97 2.1 compliant with 2, 4, and 6 channel audio. SPDIF output (stereo or AC-3).


  • Software - Unified Driver Architecture - A single driver package for the entire system. Support for Windows and Linux-based operating systems. Fully compatible with Microsoft DirectX 8.0.

Cons:

  • Propaganda - Four months passed before the first nForce-based motherboard was available following the initial announcement of the chipset. Limited implementation among leading motherboard manufacturers.


  • Price - The initial price of nForce-based motherboards was significantly higher than the competition.


  • Overclocking - Although motherboards had basic overclocking features, systems became unstable past a 140MHz front side bus (FSB) speed.


  • Memory - Confusion when configuring memory banks for optimal integrated graphics performance and utilizing the performance offered by the dual channel design. Refer to GamePC's Superstability article.


  • Graphics - nForce was initially offered with integrated graphics. A non-integrated graphics chipset (nForce 415-D) debuted months later, but with a lower price. A motherboard manufacturer charges extra for TV-out capability.


  • Sound - Confusion over the purpose of the communications riser (CNR) add-on card. Audio control panel could have used more tweaking settings.

Heat:

There is another issue, which is indirectly related to the nForce, that I want to mention. Since I began using the nForce last October, I experienced occasional system lockups. Beginning in May, when outdoor temperatures increased, the number of lockups also increased - especially when gaming. My computer room, which measures 10 feet by 12 feet, is on the second floor and has a central air conditioning vent in the ceiling and a ceiling fan. There's adequate ventilation inside my case, which contains four case fans, a dual fan card cooler, a power supply fan, a fan/heatsink on the processor, and another on the graphics card (GeForce4 Ti 4600). The computer is very loud, but that's another issue that I was able to solve as well.

Beginning in May and lasting until October, temperatures in southeastern Virginia often exceed 90 degrees Farenheit and are accompanied with very high levels of humidity. I purchased an indoor thermometer, and while we keep the indoor temperature at 74 degrees, on hot days the temperature in the computer room would reach 82 degrees. I'm convinced that the excess temperature was attributed to the heat generated by the Athlon XP processor and GeForce4 since my son's bedroom, which contains a 1GHz Pentium 3/GeForce3 Ti based system, remained comfortable.

Computer Room

MikeC's Computer Room

So how did I solve my problem? It was quite easy actually. I visited the local Wal-Mart and purchased and installed a 5,000 BTU Fedders window unit air conditioner, which keeps the computer room comfortable and has solved my problem with heat-related lockups. It also took care of my noise issue since the noise of the air conditioner is louder than that of the PC! Just some food for thought.

But getting back on track, when you look at the cons that are mentioned, many of them were minor issues that some customers overlooked. In either case, the pros significantly outweighed the cons.

INTRODUCING THE NEXT GENERATION: NFORCE2

I had the opportunity to personally meet with NVIDIA's Bryan Del Rizzo last month while he was visiting in Richmond, Virginia. Fellow Virginian Joe Glass of PC Rave also dropped by. While Bryan treated us to breakfast, he also gave us a presentation on the nForce2 using his laptop. Both Joe and myself were impressed with what Byran showed us, but there was a particularly important point that should be mentioned immediately. The nForce2 is segregated into two products and motherboards based on each configuration are expected to retail for less than $100. The price of the nForce2 is a huge breakthrough and will provide consumers and OEM's with a greater number of advanced features at a lower cost.

nForce2 Reference Motherboard - Click to Enlarge - 347KB

The nForce2 is a natural progression over the nForce as it incorporates new and exciting technologies that have appeared in the PC industry during the past year. There will be multiple configurations of the nForce2 that motherboard manufacturers can incorporate. This will include motherboards with or without integrated graphics (IGP) along with the basic (MCP) or enhanced (MCP-T) media communications processor. The key features of the nForce2 include the following:

Architecture:

  • Support for the latest AMD Athlon and Duron processors including the .13 micron Athlon XP (Thoroughbred). Optimized performance for synchronous (when the CPU front-side bus and memory bus are operating at the same data rate) and asynchronous (when they arenít) modes.


  • Dual channel DDR memory interface with a second generation Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Preprocessor (DASP). An updated design employs two 64-bit memory controllers, providing a 128 bit memory interface. DualDDR adds a third address bus to reduce loading and ensures all three DIMMs operate at DDR-400, in addition to DDR-333 and DDR-266, at all times.


  • Supports and is optimized for DDR400, DDR333, and DDR266 memory. Maximum system-wide data throughput has increased to 6.4GB/second. Up to 3GB of total system memory.


  • The nForce2 customer reference board implements AMD's thermal diode protection circuit, which protects the CPU from overheating.

Graphics:

  • Integrated GeForce4 MX core with Accuview Antialiasing (smoother appearing edges) and nView (mutiple displays). Crossbar memory architecture maximizes transfer of data between the graphics processing unit and graphics memory. NTSC/PAL TV encoder (TV-in/out capabilities) supporting resolutions up to 1024x768. DVD and HTDV ready with MPEG-2 hardware assisted decoding.


  • Support for AGP 8X. AGP 3.0 compliant with support for AGP 8X and 4X modes with Fast Write data transfers. AGP 2.0 compliant with support for 4X, 2X, and 1X modes.


  • Two display ports directly on the motherboard.


  • Integrated TV encoder with Composite and S-video output supporting display resolutions up to 1024x768.


  • Digital display port to carry a Digital Visual Interface (DVI) signal.

Communications/Media:

Audio:

  • Soundstorm - NVIDIA branded name for motherboards and systems.

Here are links to the detailed specifications for the nForce2: MCP and MCP-T and SPP/IGP.

Audio Processing Unit Features

APU Features

The nForce2 contains a significant upgrade to the graphics core by integrating the GeForce4 MX which will allow antialiasing to be enabled at higher display resolutions. The following tables illustrate the positioning of the nForce2 when paired with an add-in graphics card or using the integrated graphics.

nForce2 with Add-In Graphics

Add-In Graphics

nForce2 with Integrated Graphics

Integrated Graphics

Although the GeForce4 MX is lacking the programmable graphics (vertex/pixel shader) feature of the GeForce4 Titanium (Ti) graphics chipsets, 3D performance will be speedier than the GeForce2 MX.

PREDICTING NFORCE2 GRAPHICS PERFORMANCE

New product previews typically don't contain performance results, but I made use of my nForce-based system, along with the assistance of Zoltar the Magnificent, to predict the integrated graphics performance of the nForce2. For this series of tests, two GeForce4 based add-in graphics cards were used, while testing performance in three of the hottest, and hardware demanding, 3D games currently on the market: Jedi Knight 2, Morrowind, and Warcraft 3. The graphics cards used in these tests were a GeForce4 MX 460 and NVIDIA's current top-of-the-line GeForce4 Ti 4600.

Zoltar The Magnificent

Zoltar The Magnificent

Unfortunately Zoltar declined to confirm that my results with the GeForce4 MX 460, which was down-clocked to GeForce4 MX 440 speeds, will be indicative of the integrated graphics performance of the nForce2. This will largely depend on if the integrated graphics performance of the nForce2 is closer to that of the GeForce4 MX 440 as opposed to the lower end GeForce4 MX 420.

System Configuration:

  • AMD Athlon XP 1800+ @ 1.53GHz
  • NVIDIA Reference Motherboard (nForce Chipset)
  • 256MB Corsair PC2400 DDR RAM
  • 21-Inch Sony Multiscan E500 Monitor
  • NVIDIA Reference GeForce4 Ti 4600 (300MHz/650MHz) - 128MB
  • NVIDIA Reference GeForce4 MX 460 (270MHz/400MHz) - 64MB *
  • NVIDIA Detonator XP Driver Version 29.42
  • 32-Bit Color / Sound Enabled ** / Vsync Disabled / 75Hz Refresh Rate
  • Windows XP Professional / DirectX 8.1

Notes:

  • The GeForce4 MX 460 was running at the default clockspeeds of the GeForce4 MX 440 (from 300MHz/500MHz to 270MHz/400MHz).
  • A SounderBlaster Live! Value sound card was used during all tests.

Software:

  • Jedi Knight 2 - Version 1.02A - OpenGL - Shooter
  • Morrowind - Version 1.1.0605 - Direct3D - Role playing
  • Warcraft III - Version 1.01 - Direct3D - Real-time strategy

Testing Methodology:

  • While there are a number of graphics configurations that can be used when measuring performance, I chose to test with no antialiasing at resolutions of 800x600, 1024x768, 1280x960 or 1280x1024, and 1600x1200, and 2X antialiasing at resolutions of 800x600, 1024x768, 1280x960 or 1280x1024. Anisotropic texture filtering was not used.
  • The test results are based on an average of three trial runs and consist of the average, minimum, and maximum frame rate as report by FRAPS. Since Jedi Knight 2 contains a built-in benchmark, I used its average frame rate in lieu of the average FRAPS frame rate. The differences between the two average frame rates were always within 1-2 frames per second.
  • There are no comments on the benchmark results since they are based on predictions.

JEDI KNIGHT 2 PERFORMANCE

The JK2FFA multi-player demo was used to measure performance in Jedi Knight 2 which is based on a modified Quake 3 graphics engine. The following game settings were enabled: high geometric detail, high texture detail (as opposed to very high), 32-bit texture quality, trilinear texture filtering, texture compression, detailed shaders, dynamic lights, and wall marks. Sound quality was set to high.

Jedi Knight 2

Jedi Knight 2

Jedi Knight 2 - Custom Graphics Setting
Average/Minimum/Maximum Frame Rate

Resolution GeForce4
MX 460 *
GeForce4
Ti 4600
No Antialiasing
800x600 76 / 56 / 108 79 / 56 / 108
1024x768 76 / 56 / 103 79 / 56 / 108
1280x1024 70 / 53 / 93 79 / 56 / 108
1600x1200 53 / 38 / 80 78 / 56 / 106
2X Antialiasing
800x600 76 / 56 / 101 79 / 56 / 108
1024x768 65 / 47 / 91 78 / 56 / 108
1280x1024 41 / 27 / 62 78 / 56 / 108
* The GeForce4 MX 460 was running at GeForce4 MX 440 clockspeeds in order to predict the integrated graphics performance of the nForce2.

Antialiasing Comparison:

It's beneficial to briefly discuss the antialiasing capabilities of the GeForce2 and GeForce4 class chipsets. The GeForce2 offers 2X and 4X antialiasing modes and is based on a supersampling technique while the GeForce4 employs multisampling and supports 2X, Quincunx, 4X, and 4XS (Direct3D only) modes. While there are pros and cons to each method of antialiasing, they are generally accepted as follows: supersampling is significantly slower than multisampling, but provides increased texture detail due to the nature of its antialiasing algorithm. Multisampling is done in dedicated hardware and performs much faster than supersampling, but generally doesn't affect texture quality unless Quincunx (slightly blurred affect) or 4XS is used (highest quality, but slowest).

A primary goal of antialiasing is to lessen the degree of edge aliasing and making jagged edges appear smoother. The effectiveness of supersampling and multisampling in this area will differ, depending on the angle of horizontal and vertical edges. The following images are provided for your comparison. Note the improved texture detail that supersampling provides when comparing the aircraft wings.

Another image quality enhancing feature of both chipsets is anisotropic texture filtering. The GeForce2 MX contains a 2X mode while the GeForce4 MX supports 2X, 4X, and 8X. It's unlikely that modes greater than 2X would be utilized on either the GeForce2 or GeForce4 MX due to the degradation in performance.

MORROWIND PERFORMANCE

Measuring graphics performance in Morrowind is based on a test case which involved navigating my character, at normal speed using a first person view, through Seyda Neen while leaving town. Details of the test include the following:

  • After loading a saved game with FRAPS running in the background, I waited a few seconds at the starting point for the frame rate to stabilize and then enabled frame rate logging mode.


  • I headed for the stairs located on the house directly in front of my character (first checkpoint).


  • While approaching the stairs, I began to turn right to get my character in position to cross the bridge (second checkpoint).


  • After crossing the bridge, I headed for the street sign post (third checkpoint).


  • While approaching the street sign post, I veered off to the left and stopped logging frame rates when I was positioned in the middle of the small bridge next to the tree.

The following screenshots illustrate portions of the path I took when measuring graphics performance in Morrowind.

Beginning of Benchmark - Entrance to Seyda Neen

Beginning of Benchmark - Entrance to Seyda Neen

First Checkpoint- Middle of Town

First Checkpoint-  Middle of Town

Second Checkpoint - Crossing Bridge

Second Checkpoint - Crossing Bridge

Third Checkpoint - Near Signpost

Third Checkpoint - Near Signpost

End of Benchmark - Middle of Small Bridge

End of Benchmark - Middle of Small Bridge

In game settings consisted of a 50% view distance, a 25% artificial intelligence level, all shadows disabled, and hardware accelerated sound and music enabled. Since this is a "home grown" benchmark, I couldn't control the number of non-player characters, which was around five, that were encounted during each test. I chose to use an outdoor setting since performance in indoor areas with each of the cards is more than adequate. A single walkthru takes approximately 45 seconds to complete.

Morrowind - Custom Graphics Setting
Average/Minimum/Maximum Frame Rate

Resolution GeForce4
MX 460 *
GeForce4
Ti 4600
No Antialiasing
800x600 35 / 15 / 46 38 / 26 / 48
1024x768 35 / 19 / 46 38 / 25 / 47
1280x960 33 / 18 / 45 38 / 24 / 47
1600x1200 29 / 17 / 35 37 / 24 / 47
2X Antialiasing
800x600 33 / 18 / 45 38 / 25 / 48
1024x768 27 / 15 / 35 35 / 20 / 47
1280x960 19 / 13 / 23 35 / 20 / 46
* The GeForce4 MX 460 was running at GeForce4 MX 440 clockspeeds in order to predict the integrated graphics performance of the nForce2.

As mentioned earlier, the GeForce4 MX series of graphics card do not support a graphics effect referred to as pixel shaders. In Morrowind, and a few other newer games, pixel shaders have become popular when rendering water.

Morrowind Graphics Configuration

Morrowind Graphics Configuration

Morrowind Water - GeForce4 Ti

Morrowind Water - GeForce4 Ti - Click to Enlarge

Morrowind Water - GeForce4 MX

Morrowind Water - GeForce4 MX - Click to Enlarge

WARCRAFT 3 PERFORMANCE

Since Warcraft III supports a replay mode, I used the replay file that forum member narayan posted in this message thread at the IN clan web site. After viewing the 2 versus 2 replay, I selected a timeframe that contained scenes with heavy graphics activity. At one point in the replay, there were close to 30 characters on screen at the same time. Here's how the replay was run while logging frame rates using FRAPS:

  • After starting the replay, I selected player "narayan" using the replay vision selection.


  • The replay speed was increased to 8X.


  • At the 14:00 mark in the replay, I decreased the replay speed to normal speed or 1X.


  • The hero Lorthiras was selected by clicking on his portrait at the top left of the screen. This causes the portrait to appear in the portrait window at the bottom of the screen.


  • I positioned the mouse over the portrait and pressed and held the left mouse button. This causes the replay to be played back with the selected hero always appearing in the center of view.


  • At the 14:25 mark, FRAPS was enabled and frame rates were logged.


  • At the 16:30 mark, I disabled frame rate logging and ended the benchmark.

Here are screenshots of the replay at various timeframes:

Beginning of Replay - 14:25

Beginning of Replay

Readying for Battle - 15:08

Readying for Battle

Heavy Graphics Load - 15:37

Heavy Graphics Load

End of Replay - 16:30

End of Replay

Based on the timeframes that were chosen, heavy graphics activity took place duing the second part of the benchmark - from the 15:37 mark until the end of the replay. With the headphones on, I heard at least eight distinct sound effects being played back simultaneously. As with Morrowind, I couldn't control the music that was played back during each benchmark run.

Warcraft III was run under Direct3D with all in-game graphics options set to their maximum level, fog of war enabled, and sound effects (EAX2) and music enabled.

Warcraft III - Maximum Graphics Setting
Average/Minimum/Maximum Frame Rate

Resolution GeForce4
MX 460 *
GeForce4
Ti 4600
No Antialiasing
800x600 39 / 23 / 61 59 / 32 / 96
1024x768 32 / 18 / 49 59 / 31 / 90
1280x1024 23 / 14 / 35 50 / 27 / 76
1600x1200 18 / 11 / 27 42 / 24 / 64
2X Antialiasing
800x600 30 / 18 / 45 56 / 30 / 89
1024x768 21 / 13 / 32 50 / 29 / 75
1280x1024 14 / 10 / 21 40 / 23 / 59
* The GeForce4 MX 460 was running at GeForce4 MX 440 clockspeeds in order to predict the integrated graphics performance of the nForce2.

NFORCE INTEGRATED GRAPHICS PERFORMANCE

I'm concluding this section of the preview by examining the performance of the integrated graphics of the nForce in the three games I tested. In fairness, it's doubtful that the high quality settings that were used for benchmarking would would be used while gaming with integrated graphics, although the performance was better than I expected. Keep in mind that sound was also enabled in these tests.

nForce Integrated GeForce2 (MX) Graphics

nForce Integrated GeForce2 (MX) Graphics

nForce Integrated Graphics Performance
Average/Minimum/Maximum Frame Rate

Game Resolution nForce IGP
No Antialiasing
Jedi Knight 2 640x480 72 / 53 / 97
Jedi Knight 2 800x600 65 / 48 / 87
Jedi Knight 2 1024x768 44 / 30 / 64
Morrowind 640x480 32 / 18 / 43
Morrowind 800x600 32 / 15 / 42
Morrowind 1024x768 23 / 15 / 30
Warcraft 3 640x480 30 / 17 / 48
2X Antialiasing
Jedi Knight 2 640x480 46 / 33 / 65
Jedi Knight 2 800x600 31 / 21 / 48
Morrowind 640x480 22 / 14 / 28
Morrowind 800x600 15 / 9 / 20
Warcraft 3 640x480 30 / 17 / 48

If an average frame rate of 60 frames per second is adequate performance for first person shooters, and 30 frames per second is the threshold for role-playing and real-time strategy games, the integrated graphics on the nForce performed admirably. For example, without antialiasing enabled, Jedi Knight 2 and Morrowind, at a resolution of 800x600, and Warcraft III at 640x480 passed the test. However, when the same criteria is used when 2X antialiasing was enabled, only Warcraft III at 640x480 passed the test.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I find it interesting how this preview panned out. While today's nForce2 announcement is a technology launch, I spiced things up a bit by predicting how the integrated graphics on the nForce2 might perform using a few leading-edge games. By studying the benchmark results, you will have noticed that I've tested games that contain no built-in benchmarking feature. Many of our visitors seem to appreciate the effort and I'm always on the lookout for new methods to measure 3D gaming graphics performance.

The nForce that I've been using since last October, along with Windows XP, has surpassed my expectations. There are four family members, each with their own Windows XP user account, that use this system on a daily basis:

  • Myself - I use the Internet daily and of course spend much of my time working on nV News. When I'm not writing reviews or benchmarking, I listen to music, play games, manage my digital picture collection, and dabble in C++/OpenGL.


  • The Wife - I will admit that during the past year, my wife has embraced the PC. She's and avid shopper on the Internet and also does research.


  • Son # 1 - When he's not playing baseball or cruising around town in his Mustang, Steve's browsing Mustangworld.com, chatting with friends, or burning audio CD's.


  • Son # 2 - Most of Dave's free time is spent on IRC and playing Counter-Strike. He's recently finished Dungeon Seige and Warcraft III.

Two words can sum up my experience with the nForce: Rock Solid.

As for the nForce2, we hope to be receiving a review unit sometime in August. nForce2 is currently sampling to NVIDIA's motherboard and system builder partners that include Abit, Alienware, Asus, Chaintech, Epox, Leadtek, MSI, Shuttle, Totally Awesome Computers, and Vicious PC. Production of the nForce2 is slated for late August with retail products becoming available in September.

One final, and important note for overclockers, that was learned in our meeting in Richmond was that the reference nForce2-based motherboard will be "overclocking friendly."

Additional information on the nForce2 can be found at NVIDIA's web site.

Press releases:

Back to nV News

Last Updated on August 5, 2002

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