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DFI's LANParty UT NF4 SLI-DR Expert motherboard

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ModelLANParty UT NF4 SLI-DR Expert
Price (Street)

DESPITE THE FACT that NVIDIA released its nForce4 SLI X16 chipset months ago, the original nForce4 SLI is still alive and well. In fact, some motherboard manufacturers have passed over the X16 in favor of new designs that use the plain old nForce4 SLI. That's an understandable strategy given the nForce4 SLI's rough feature parity with its successor, whose extra PCI Express lanes convey few real-world performance benefits.

One of the latest motherboards to revisit the nForce4 SLI is DFI's LANParty UT NF4 SLI-DR Expert. Don't let the unnecessarily awkward name put you off, though. DFI has built the Expert with serious overclocking in mind, and endowed it with everything you'd expect from a high-end enthusiast board, including dual PCI Express x16 slots, auxiliary Gigabit Ethernet and Serial ATA RAID chips, six board layers and four-phase power, and a BIOS brimming with tweaking and overclocking options.

Of course, enthusiasts desire more than checkbox features. Performance is what we really crave, and the NF4 SLI-DR Expert delivers that in spades. Not only is it the fastest Athlon 64 motherboard we've ever tested, it's also the most overclockable, by a long shot. Keep reading for more on DFI's Expert respin of NVIDIA's classic nForce4 SLI chipset.

The specs

CPU supportSocket 939-based Athlon 64 processors
North bridgeNVIDIA nForce4 SLI
South bridge
Expansion slots2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x4
1 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 4GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/133 with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 support via SiI 3114
Audio8-channel AC'97 audio via nForce4 SLI and Realtek ALC850 codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
USB 2.0 with headers for 4  more
1 Firewire via VIA VT6307 with header for 1 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8001

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 coaxial digital S/PDIF input
1 coaxial digital S/PDIF output

Header for 1
Serial port
BIOSPhoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speedsHT: 200-550MHz in 1MHz increments
PCI-E: 100-145MHz in 1MHz increments
Bus dividersDRAM/HT: 1/2, 3/5, 2/3, 7/10, 3/4, 5/6, 9/10, 1/1
LDT/HT: 1/1, 1.5/1, 2/1, 2.5/1, 3/1, 4/1, 5/1
VoltagesCPU: auto, 0.8-1.55V in 0.025V increments
CPU overvolt: * 102.4-136% in 2.4% increments
DDR: 2.29-4.0V in 0.02V increments
LDT: 1.2-1.5 in 0.1V increments
Chipset: 1.52-1.96 in 0.03V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlCPU, Chipset, PWM

The nForce4 SLI chipset may have been released well over a year ago, but its feature set is still competitive with most of the Athlon 64 core logic available on the market. In addition to 20 lanes of PCI Express connectivity, which can of course be split between a pair of graphics cards in SLI, the nForce4 SLI is blessed with a storage controller that can do both ATA and Serial ATA RAID. Advanced Serial ATA features like 300MB/s transfer rates and Native Command Queuing are supported, as well. Four Serial ATA ports apparently weren't enough for DFI, though. The Expert is also equipped with an auxiliary Silicon Image 3114 SATA controller that supports up to four additional devices. Unfortunately, the SiI 3114 rides the PCI bus, so it'll have to share limited bandwidth with other peripherals.

One of those peripherals will be Marvell's PCI-based 88E8001 Gigabit Ethernet controller. The 88E8001 is actually the Expert's secondary networking option, as the nForce4 SLI already has a Gigabit Ethernet MAC built right into the chip. The on-chip controller shouldn't be constrained by limited PCI bus bandwidth, and thanks to NVIDIA's ActiveArmor offload engine, its CPU utilization should be lower than competing solutions. However, NVIDIA has had to scale back ActiveArmor's effectiveness to address data corruption issues with the nForce4 chipset family, so its impact may be more muted than we've seen in the past.

Despite impressive storage and networking capabilities, the nForce4 SLI falls flat in the audio department. The chip eschews high definition in favor of a basic AC'97 audio implementation, which DFI predictably pairs with a Realtek codec. I wouldn't get too worked up about a lack of high definition audio, though. We've yet to encounter a chipset-level high definition audio implementation that supports DVD-Audio playback, and there are precious few other sources for high-def content.