A new control panel
Hardware is only one part of the ESA equation. Software ties the individual components together with a unified interface, and the open nature of the standard allows anyone to write their own ESA app. To get the ball rolling, Nvidia has whipped up a new set of nForce System Tools designed with ESA in mind. These tools require an nForce motherboard, although they've only been tested with 680i and 780i chipsets. Your mileage may vary with older nForce vintages.
Among Nvidia's new system tools is an updated control panel that offers extensive control over system variables for standard and ESA components alike. This new control panel replaces much of the functionality included previously in Nvidia's nTune system utility, so there are plenty of options for overclocking.
As one might expect given its nTune heritage, the control panel also serves up access to scores of motherboard voltages, clocks, and fan speeds.
Memory timings are included, as is control over the system's memory voltage. Remember, though, that it's up to mobo makers to implement the necessary hooks for these motherboard tweaking options to actually work.
Nvidia has also put GPU overclocking into the new control panel, giving users control over not only individual clock speeds within the graphics chip, but the graphics card's cooling fan speed, as well.
Thus far, none of the control panel's functionality has really been ESA-specific. That changes when we switch to the power supply tab, which details the PSU's voltage, current, and power across five rails. This information isn't presented particularly well, and there are no variables for users to manipulate, but that nicely illustrates the freedom component makers have when it comes to ESA support. There are no standards that govern what an ESA-certified component must report, how that information must be presented, or even that it be accurate. ESA certification only confirms correct implementation of the communication protocol.
Since the accuracy of information reported by ESA components is paramount, we pulled out our trusty digital oscilloscope and probed the system's power supply to double-check voltages levels reported in the control panel. They were all accurate, indicating that at least this power supply is playing fair.
Moving to the chassis tab, we get our first peek at what ESA means for case control. Here, users are free to manipulate exhaust and intake fan speeds. Cooler Master has chosen to consolidate multiple fans under the exhaust and intake sliders, but chassis makers are certainly free to provide users with control over each case fan individually. This is also where the device rules section of the control panel gets interesting. More on that feature in a moment.
First, we'll have a quick look at the water cooling tab. There really isn't much to see, with only one slider provided to set a target coolant temperature. Note that this cooling system isn't reporting a water level, either. The cooler in question is a factory-sealed unit, so users don't have to worry about the coolant level. But for DIY water cooling setups, having an ESA-certified reservoir report fluid levels could be very valuable.
Now, on to those device rules. Click on the "New Rule" button and you're presented with a simple interface, in this case controlling the water cooler, that lets you set a fan speed ramping profile based on the coolant temperature. Forget oscillating between arbitrary high and low fan speed values, or even linear fan speed ramping; this is a much more powerful tool. And it's a flexible one, too, allowing users to create multiple rules based on different input variables and control elements.
Once users define rules and system settings within the control panel, they can save preferences to a profile. Multiple profiles are supported, and a profile policies section of the control panel allows users to set parameters that govern which profiles are launched when. Profiles can be tied to specific applications, system temperatures, processor idling, or even screensaver activity.
Profile policies are similar to the rules wizard found in Nvidia's old nTune software, and there really isn't anything ESA-specific here. However, policies give users blanket control over system profiles, within which they have control over individual ESA components. The new nForce System Tools aren't just ESA-specific apps, then; they're full-featured system utilities that just happen to exploit ESA hardware.
The system update app of these new system tools perhaps best illustrates how ESA has been woven into Nvidia's software framework. Users can set the auto-updater to grab new motherboard BIOSes or check for updated Nvidia drivers. It's also possible to use the updater to grab and install new firmware revisions for ESA components connected to the system.