NVIDIA announces nForce4 chipset

To go along with the Athlon 64 4000+ and FX-55 processors, NVIDIA today will officially announce its Athlon 64 chipset with PCI Express, the nForce4. The chipset obviously isn’t ready to go yet, since NVIDIA couldn’t get us even a reference board for testing, but they’ve decided to go ahead with the product launch today, perhaps in part because they are vying with the VIA K8T890, which we’ve already tested, and other competitors to be first to market with a PCI Express chipset for AMD processors.

Since the nForce4 will have to rely on the Athlon 64’s integrated memory controller, you shouldn’t expect any major real-world performance differences between this chipset and current ones. The big difference, of course, will be PCI Express support, including support for NVIDIA’s new SLI GPU teaming capability. Like the nForce3, this new chip “set” will be a single-chip core logic solution. The nForce4’s vitals include the following:

  • PCI Express support — The nForce4 will pack some number of lanes of PCI Express support, at least 18 judging by the board pictures NVIDIA has supplied us. However, the exact number isn’t clear from the product literature. Some nForce4 boards will be configured with two different PCI-E graphics slots for SLI support. These boards will have a unique riser card that will switch them from a single PCI Express X16 config into a dual PCI-E X8 setup to support two graphics cards simultaneously. The FUDMasters on the green team also say nForce4 will be the only “certified” SLI solution for the AMD platform, and claim the nForce4 is “specially optimized internally” for SLI.
  • 8 channels of AC’97 audio — As we reported months ago, NVIDIA is not resurrecting its SoundStorm audio solution in nForce4, and surprisingly enough, the nForce4 won’t even support Intel’s High Definition Audio standard, a.k.a. Azalia. Instead, the nForce4 will stick with AC’97 audio sans hardware acceleration.
  • GigE and an improved firewall — NVIDIA calls the nForce4’s firewall ActiveArmor. Unlike the nForce3, whose “hardware optimized firewall” existed solely in software, NVIDIA claims the nForce4 contains true hardware acceleration for packet inspection, lowering CPU overhead.
  • SATA II support — The nForce4 will support the latest incarnation of Serial ATA, with Native Command Queuing, hot-swappable devices, and transfer rates up to 300MB/s. NVIDIA says it will be first to market to SATA II.
  • RAID morphing — This feature will allow users to convert from one array type to another on the fly, without destroying data. Of course, this will be added to NVIDIA’s existing RAID capabilities. The nForce4 will not, however, include anything similar to Intel’s Matrix RAID capabilities, which allows RAID 1 and RAID 0 arrays to coexist simultaneously on a pair of drives.
  • nTune — NVIDIA’s system utility gets renamed for nForce4, and it will come with an autotune feature similar to the auto-overclocking feature in NVIDIA’s graphics drivers. NVIDIA keeps pushing board makers to support its chipset utility software. Perhaps nForce4 will have more success on that front than past attempts.
  • Three big and tasty flavors — The nForce 4 will come in three varieties, including the nForce4 SLI for, well, you know. The nForce4 Ultra will be the high-end-but-not-SLI option, and the vanilla nForce4 will have its wings clipped, with no SATA II transfer rates, no hardware acceleration of its firewall capabilities, and a HyperTransport link limited to 800MHz on Socket 754 motherboards. Notable by its absence is any form of nForce4 with integrated graphics. NVIDIA may be biding its time until it can incorporate a GeForce 6-class GPU into the nForce4, but in the meantime, it stands to lose high-volume corporate PC sales to the IGP-enabled competition.

And that’s about it. Other common I/O standards like ATA/133 and USB will be supported, of course, but the above are the major changes from nForce3. I’ll be curious to see whether NVIDIA can succeed in charging a premium for the hardware firewall acceleration and SATA II support in the nForce4 Ultra. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Taiwan, Inc. opt en masse for the vanilla nForce4 instead.

NVIDIA says the first wave of SLI boards should be coming from MSI, Asus, and Gigabyte. I’d love to give you a date for their arrival, but at this point, I think the best answer is “as soon as possible, pending any delays.” We’ll have to see whether NVIDIA can get this puppy to market before the competition.

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