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Nvidia's nForce 590 SLI chipset for Intel CPUs

Here at last on the Asus P5N32-SLI Premium

ALTHOUGH THE nForce 590 SLI chipset for Athlon 64 processors was launched in step with AMD's Socket AM2, Nvidia has taken its sweet time bringing the nForce 590 to Intel processors. The chipset was nowhere to be found when Intel unveiled its Core 2 Duo back in July, and although the 590 SLI was scheduled to eventually appear in August, Nvidia delayed that launch twice and eventually scrubbed it altogether. These delays sent the rumor mills spinning, but more importantly, they left Nvidia without a true next-generation chipset for Intel's new microarchitecture.

Now, more than a month and a half after its last aborted launch, the nForce 590 SLI for Intel processors is finally ready for prime time. The chipset has arrived in style, too, riding an Asus P5N32-SLI Premium motherboard that's bursting at the seams with all the perks and extras you'd expect from a high-end mobo. What's more, the P5N32-SLI Premium is already available on store shelves.

Pinch me. The 590 SLI is for real this time.

Of course, the real question isn't whether you can finally pair a Core 2 Duo processor with an nForce 590 SLI chipset; it's whether you'd want to do so. To find out, we subjected the P5N32-SLI Premium to a sweeping array of chipset and motherboard tests, with enlightening results.

A true nForce 500 for Intel
Those who have been keeping track of the latest Core 2-compatible chipsets will know that the nForce 590 SLI isn't actually Nvidia's first nForce 500 series core logic for Intel processors. Nvidia quietly released the nForce 570 SLI a while ago, and upon closer inspection, it's clear why there wasn't much fanfare. Despite its nForce 500-series branding, the nForce 570 SLI for Intel processors is little more than a rebadged nForce4 SLI XE chipset.

Fortunately, the nForce 590 SLI at least has some new features. Here's how the chipset's specs compare with others on the market.

975X Express P965 Express nForce4 SLI X16 SPP nForce 570 SLI SPP nForce 590 SLI SPP
Front-side bus 1066/800MHz 1066/800MHz 1066/800MHz 1066/800MHz 1066/800MHz
Memory controller DDR2-667 DDR2-800 DDR2-667 DDR2-667 DDR2-667
PCI Express lanes 16 16 20 20 20
Multi-GPU support CrossFire CrossFire* SLI SLI SLI
Chipset interconnect DMI DMI HyperTransport HyperTransport HyperTransport
Peak interconnect bandwidth 2GB/s 2GB/s 8GB/s 8GB/s 8GB/s

The nForce 590 SLI's SPP, or north bridge, doesn't look all that different from the nForce 570 SLI. Both support front-side bus speeds up to 1066MHz and DDR2-667 memory, and both utilize a HyperTransport chipset interconnect. However, only the nForce 590 SLI (and the nForce4 SLI X16, of course) offers support for dual-x16 SLI configurations. The 570 SLI can only supply each of a pair of graphics cards in SLI with eight lanes of bandwidth.

Don't be too concerned with the fact that the nForce 590 SLI's memory controller tops out at DDR2-667. The chipset may lack native support for DDR2-800 and DDR2-1067 memory, but that won't stop motherboard manufacturers from supporting faster memory types as they have with boards based on the 975X Express, nForce4 SLI X16, and nForce 570 SLI. We should also note that the nForce 590 SLI's memory controller does support Enhanced Performance Profiles, or EPP for short. The open EPP standard was introduced back in May, and allows memory modules to provide motherboards with more detailed information about preferred speeds and timing options. Motherboard makers are still on the hook to actually implement EPP support in their BIOSes, though.

If Nvidia's SPP specs for the nForce4 SLI X16, nForce 570 SLI, and 590 SLI look similar, it's because they all use the same physical chip. Nvidia prefers to differentiate its chipsets at the south bridge, where the nForce 590 SLI MCP makes quite an impact.

ICH7R ICH8 ICH8R nForce4 SLI X16 MCP nForce 570 SLI MCP nForce 590 SLI MCP
PCI Express lanes 6 6 6 20 0 28
Serial ATA ports 4 6 6 4 4 6
Peak SATA data rate 300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s 300MB/s
Native Command Queuing Y N Y Y Y Y
RAID 0/1 Y N Y Y Y Y
RAID 0+1/10 Y N Y Y Y Y
Matrix RAID Y N Y N N N
ATA channels 1 0 0 2 2 1
Max audio channels 8 8 8 8 8 10
Audio standard HDA HDA HDA AC'97 HDA HDA
Ethernet N N N 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 2 x 10/100/1000
USB ports 8 10 10 10 8 10

The 590 SLI MCP adds 28 PCI Express lanes, bringing the chipset's total up to 48. Even with a pair of graphics cards in SLI, that still leaves 16 lanes of bandwidth for expansion slots and onboard peripherals. Eight of those lanes are tied up in a PCIe x8 link that can't be broken down further, though.

On the storage front, the nForce 590 SLI packs six 300MB/s Serial ATA RAID ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5 arrays. ATA RAID is also supported, although its usefulness is hampered by the fact that the chipset only sports a single IDE channel. At least Nvidia hasn't completely banished "parallel" ATA from the chipset. As cumbersome as IDE cables may be, the scarcity of affordable Serial ATA optical drives has made Intel's decision to exclude IDE support from its ICH8 south bridge chips look a little premature. Motherboard makers have been forced to use third-party IDE controller chips, and we've encountered some compatibility problems between those chips and older boot CDs and versions of Ghost.

Interestingly, Nvidia still hasn't implemented AHCI support in its Serial ATA controller. The nForce 590 SLI supports Native Command Queuing, but it doesn't do so through AHCI like chipsets from Intel and even ATI&3151;not that we're entirely complaining. Auxiliary drivers are required to install Windows to hard drives running in AHCI mode, but they're not necessary for drives connected to the nForce 590 SLI.

Integrated networking has been a tenet of Nvidia chipsets for some time, and the nForce 590 SLI takes the next logical step by packing a pair of Gigabit Ethernet MACs. These GigE controllers each have their own TCP/IP offload engine, although hardware offloads aren't compatible with software firewalls. Nvidia won't be bundling its firewall software with the nForce 590 SLI's driver, either, but the company does have a couple of new tricks up its sleeve.

Without FirstPacket
Source: NVIDIA

With FirstPacket
Source: NVIDIA

Nvidia's DualNet and FirstPacket schemes debuted with the nForce 590 SLI for AMD, and now they're making their way to the Intel platform. FirstPacket is the more intriguing of the two, offering quality-of-service control for outbound network traffic. A simple control panel allows users to set applications priorities, ensuring that networking packets associated with game executables are bumped to the front of the line ahead of apps like BitTorrent and FTP servers. However, the nForce 590 SLI must still accept every inbound packet it receives; the chipset has no control over how packets are prioritized by an online server, your ISP, or even your router. That narrows FirstPacket's impact to uploads only, and let's face it, most folks leech a lot more than they share.

To give leechers a little more to work with, the nForce 590 SLI is capable of running its dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers in, well, SLI. The chipset's GigE MACs can be combined to act as a single networking controller in a scheme Nvidia calls DualNet. This double-wide connection presents itself as a single 2Gbps link, and also provides a measure of fault tolerance should one controller or physical network connection fail. Of course, it will take multiple clients to saturate a 2Gbps connection, and even Nvidia only guarantees a 40% performance boost over a single Gigabit link. That makes DualNet look more appropriate for the workstation and server crowds, although its ability to also team 10/100 connections could make it a useful feature for LAN parties, where file sharing with multiple clients is rampant.

Support for 10 USB ports and Intel's "Azalia" High Definition Audio scheme round out the nForce 590 SLI's feature set. Audio is mostly out of Nvidia's hands, though. The chipset relies on Microsoft's HDA bus driver and whatever codec chip and associated drivers mobo manufacturers choose to use with their boards.