NVIDIA'S FIRST FORAY into the PC chipset market was quite a ride. The company sauntered into town on a sterling reputation based on its dominance of the graphics market, announced the product, and unveiled a features list a mile long. nForce would hit the scene with dual banks of DDR memory, NVIDIA's own integrated graphics, a high-speed HyperTransport link, and Dolby digital audio. Folks looked at the situation and said, "Wow. NVIDIA is going to take over chipsets, too." It was, they said, inevitable.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable. A few things, actually. NVIDIA thought a lot of its new chipset and priced it accordingly. Mobo makers scratched their heads. Then, NVIDIA wouldn't say the chipset was late, but I would: the chipset was late. What's worse, during the wait, VIA unveiled its screaming-fast KT266A chipset and took the Socket A market by storm. When the nForce finally arrived, it was overmatched: expensive, slower, and less available than the KT266A. Only MSI had a board ready to roll at launch, and to this day, only a handful of manufacters offers nForce-based products. The nForce didn't exactly do to the chipset market what GeForce did to the graphics world.
However, the nForce was by no means an outright failure. Core logic chipsets are not easy to make, and most informed onlookers were impressed with NVIDIA's ability to put together a reasonably stable, working chipset its first time out. Despite a few minor bumps in the road, the nForce hasn't suffered any major incompatibilities or nervous breakdowns. Its graphics were, for the chipset market, quite good, as everyone expected. And its overall performance was quite respectable last time we rounded up all the Socket A contenders. In fact, Compaq, HP, NEC, and Micron all built systems around the nForce, though most enthusiasts weren't too interested.
Now it's time for a second attempt. Clearly, NVIDIA has learned some lessons from nForce, and the nForce2 looks likely to make deeper inroads into the Socket A market. With upgraded graphics, dual banks of DDR400 memory, AGP 8X, and a host of other new features, nForce2 looks ready to run with the big dogs. Read on to see exactly what NVIDIA has in store.
NVIDIA's north bridge chips are called "nForce2 IGP" and "nForce2 SPP". IGP stands for Integrated Graphics Processor, and SPP stands for System Platform Processor. As I understand it, the IGP is the version of nForce2's north bridge chip with a built-in graphics processor, and the SPP is the version of the north bridge chip without a GPU.
So you got yer SPP, and you got yer IGP. The IGP has an SPP in it, but we won't talk about that.
nForce2 isn't a complete redesign, but for the north bridge, it nearly is. Among the changes:
Perhaps even more importantly, nForce2's memory controller will incorporate three address control linesone for each DIMM slot. The original nForce had only two address control lines, so DIMMs 2 and 3 had to share. NVIDIA claims the addition of a third address control line will improve both performance and stability, eliminating the need for the confusing "super-stability mode" in the first nForce. Also, nForce2 can address up to 3GB of memory, or 1GB per DIMM, which is twice what nForce could handle.
nForce2 also includes a beefed-up version of NVIDIA's DASP, or Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Pre-Processor. DASP is essentially a memory prefetch mechanism tied to small "L3 cache" buffer, much like the hardware prefetch mechanism incorporated into the Athlon XP. nForce2's second-gen DASP implementation holds more data and is, mysteriously, "more aggressive" than the original.
Still, GeForce4 MX-class graphics integrated into a chipset should be good enough to lead the industry. The nForce2 can allocate up to 128MB of frame buffer memory to the built-in graphics core. It can't dynamically partition more RAM as needed like Intel's 845G, but nForce2 can dynamically allocate memory bandwidth as needed to keep the graphics pipeline fed. NV17 also packs an MPEG2 decoder, so nForce2 machines will be able to play back DVDs without taxing the CPU.
NVIDIA will also support a low-cost "Digital display card" that can ride in the AGP slot and provide DVI-out ports for the built-in graphics core, much like Intel does with the 845G.
NVIDIA's nView software suite will tie it all together with robust support for multiple, independent display resolutions and refresh rates.
NVIDIA says this time around its focus will be on the SPP, because systems with discrete graphics represent a larger portion of the opportunity in the Socket A market. NVIDIA also says SPP-based boards should be price-competitive with the Taiwanese competition.
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