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NVIDIA's nForce2 Ultra 400Gb chipset

A new MCP arrives

ALTHOUGH AMD HASN'T RELEASED a new Athlon XP processor for almost a year, motherboard and chipset makers are still cranking out Socket A hardware. Why? Because even as the prices of Athlon 64 processors fall, a $65 Athlon XP 2500+ is hard to beat. And don't forget that you can pick up a high-end Socket A mobo for under $100. That's a pretty enticing bundle for less than the cost of a single Athlon 64 2800+ processor.

Were manufacturers churning out the same Socket A hardware as a year ago, the platform would have significantly less appeal. However, chipset and mobo makers have kept their products up to date, adding new features and functionality to keep Socket A as close to the cutting edge as an Athlon XP can be. Most recently, VIA released a dual-channel KT880 chipset with the same south bridge bells and whistles as VIA's Athlon 64 offerings.

Now it's NVIDIA's turn to update.

To compliment its feature-rich nForce3 250Gb chipset for Athlon 64 processors, NVIDIA is rolling out a new version of its popular nForce2 core logic that brings Serial ATA, Gigabit Ethernet, and a firewall to Socket A motherboards. Read on to see what NVIDIA's new nForce2 Ultra 400Gb chipset is all about and how it compares with the competition.

The Ultra 400 SPP we all know and love

The new MCP2-Gb south bridge

Introducing a new MCP
As its name implies, the nForce2 Ultra 400Gb is quite similar to the nForce2 Ultra 400. In fact, the two chipsets use the same nForce2 Ultra 400 SPP north bridge, which means they share the same AGP 8X interface, dual-channel DDR400 memory controller, double-pumped 200MHz front-side bus, and bidirectional 8-bit/400MHz HyperTransport chipset interconnect.

The nForce2 Ultra 400Gb finds its disctinctinveness at the south bridge, where NVIDIA's new MCP2-Gb makes its debut. Here's a quick rundown of what the MCP2-Gb brings to the table.

  • Serial ATA — It's been a long time coming, but NVIDIA has finally brought native Serial ATA support to the nForce2 platform. The Ultra 400Gb has two Serial ATA ports integrated right into the MCP2-Gb.

  • RAID — Serial ATA support wouldn't be complete without a little RAID lovin', and NVIDIA delivers. In addition to supporting RAID arrays across Serial ATA drives, the Ultra 400Gb also supports "parallel" ATA RAID. You can even spread RAID arrays across both "parallel" and Serial ATA drives, which is a pretty neat trick.

    The Ultra 400Gb's RAID support covers RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and JBOD arrays. NVIDIA also includes a fancy RAID management utility with its ForceWare drivers that makes managing and monitoring arrays a snap.

  • Gigabit Ethernet — This new chipset's "Gb" signals its Gigabit Ethernet support. A Gigabit MAC is integrated right onto the new nForce2 MCP, which supports TCP and checksum offloads to reduce CPU utilization, and jumbo frames to improve throughput.

    With GigE on-chip, mobo makers won't have to marry third-party Gigabit chips to the pokey PCI bus. However, because the Ultra 400Gb's GigE is on the MCP, it will have to share interconnect bandwidth with other south bridge components, including Serial ATA drives and RAID arrays.

  • A "hardware-optimized" firewall — The nForce2 Ultra 400Gb brings NVIDIA's new firewall feature to Socket A. NVIDIA claims that the firewall leverages hardware inside the MCP2-Gb to achieve lower CPU utilization than software-only firewalls. However, we were unable to pin them down, during repeated questioning, about exactly which firewall functions are accelerated in hardware. One purported benefit of the firewall's hardware roots is that it's activated as soon as a machine is powered on, protecting a system before the OS, drivers, and other software even loads. (Currently, there's a small gap between when Windows XP networking starts and Windows' built-in firewall begin filtering. However, that gap will apparently be eliminated with Service Pack 2's new Internet Connection Firewall.)

    NVIDIA says it has put lots of effort into creating an intuitive and easy-to-use interface that is both simple enough for Joe Sixpack to understand and powerful enough to give enthusiasts plenty of tweaking control. For the uninitiated, the firewall's web interface offers a number of pre-defined security profiles and wizards to walk users through common tasks like opening up ports for IM programs, game servers, and the like. Security enthusiasts who eschew wizards and profiles may appreciate the firewall's ICSA Labs certification, and its support for stateless and stateful inspections, port blocking and filtering, remote administration, DHCP blocking, and protection against spoofing, sniffing and ARP cache poisoning.

    NVIDIA says it's working with developers to make third-party firewall software take advantage of the Gb's hardware firewall hooks.

  • Extra USB - It's not as exciting as Serial ATA, RAID, or Gigabit Ethernet, but the Ultra 400Gb also gets an extra two USB 2.0 ports, bumping the total number of ports up to eight. Spicy!

Some of you will no doubt notice that I haven't said a word about the Ultra 400Gb's audio implementation. Unfortunately, that's because there isn't much to say. The MCP2-Gb has only basic AC'97 audio functionality. Sorry, no SoundStorm. At least by putting Serial ATA and GigE on the south bridge, NVIDIA has freed up the PCI bus for true 24-bit audio cards that can offer higher quality analog output than SoundStorm.