The computer enthusiast communities are a fickle crowd. We await each new hardware development with baited breath. We scan the previews and reviews, inside information and third party speculation, roadmaps and release dates always hoping that the next great thing is about to become available. In the midst of the waiting for that latest motherboard chipset, that newest processor stepping, that higher clocked video card release, expectations tend to get built up, often rising to a fever pitch. Sometimes those expectations are reasonable given the data at hand. Often the expectations get so far out of hand as to be patently ridiculous. An example of the latter would be the expectations for Athlon and PIII systems running with DDR SDRAM motherboards. It was not uncommon to find forum posts on well known hardware sites bashing DDR SDRAM for not offering double the performance of SDR SDRAM. Thankfully cooler heads would prevail and explain why the given performance increases ended up being what they were.
There is another example of hardware about to hit the market (or apparently has already if you’re lucky enough to live in Germany) that is suffering from unreasonable expectations and nForce is its name. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last nine or so months, nForce is a revolutionary chipset from nVidia, best known for their GeForce line of graphics card chipsets. Featuring an integrated GeForce2 graphics chip (apparently MX400 level), on-board sound of a level not yet seen in the integrated market, an integrated NIC, and a high performance memory sub-system, this chipset has been the object of much debate and speculation since it was first announced.
Fig.1 The MSI K7N420 PRO, nForce based motherboard
Now, there are those who will scoff at my use of the term revolutionary to describe the nForce. I find this rather perplexing to the point of being disturbing considering it comes from people who should know better. One definition of the word revolutionary is “marked by or resulting in radical change”. In the context of what nForce is at its very core, a fully integrated chipset, and considering what has come before it within that context, nForce is truly revolutionary. For the first time I can recall, there is an integrated motherboard solution who’s performance places it at the higher end of the spectrum and not at the bottom of the barrel. Think about it for a moment, when was the last time anyone in the enthusiast community actually entertained the thought of using a fully integrated motherboard for their primary gaming system either pre or post release?
So how did we get here? To answer that question, you need to take a look at the situation when the first numbers for nForce were released and what has happened in the world of hardware since that time. nForce was first officially announced back in June of 2001. At the time, there were the DDR platforms on the market for the Athlon, the AMD760, the Via KT266 and the Ali Magik 1. It was generally accepted that the KT266 was faster than the Magik chipset and more or less on par with the AMD760. Given AMD’s desire to rely on 3rd party chipsets for the Athlon and Duron line, the KT266 became the standard by which future chipsets would be measured by default. Soon after that release came the first previews based on reference boards. The numbers within were astounding as nForce would top the KT266 by anywhere from 5-30% depending on the benchmarks used. And at this point, the drivers for the board hadn’t truly been refined to production quality!
A funny thing happened on the way to the performance crown. Actually, there were a couple of things. First, benchmark numbers started popping up on the web for the Sis735 chipset that also put the KT266 to shame. Second, Via realized that being the number one provider of chipsets for Athlon and Duron systems thus far was not going to guarantee them future sales -- especially not when their offerings were being beaten in benchmarks by two companies taking their first shot at an Athlon chipset. So Via made a number of refinements to the KT266 chipset, most notably improving the memory subsystem, and released it as the KT266A. Going by the numbers, Via has appeared to have done an excellent job getting more performance and in some cases regained the benchmark performance crown. And nForce had yet to hit the market.
Fig. 2 The Asus A7V266, VIA KT266
Things have changed in the last couple of weeks. We are starting to see reviews of production nForce boards from motherboard makers such as MSI and Asus. New benchmarking has been done on these boards and depending on which site you frequent, nForce is either very close to or has surpassed the KT266A in performance. And yet the complaints continue to come in -- it’s not as big a performance gain as it was supposed to be, the onboard graphics chips is outdated, it’s too integrated, it will cost too much, it doesn’t overclock well, etc, etc, etc.
Normally these complaints would have a lot of merit when talking about a new chipset until you remember the context within which the nForce should be discussed.
I’m talking about integrated chipsets. nForce already has the best on-board graphics chip I’ve seen on an integrated board thus far. It looks to have the best on-board audio ever seen on an integrated motherboard as well. The memory sub-system is currently on par with the best DDR motherboard chipsets to be found which means it completely blows away any other integrated DDR chipset by comparison. Given the fact that it does include an AGP slot and it appears most vendors will offer a full ATX version, it is also very upgradeable for an integrated chipset. As long as the board is stable and the price is right, nVidia has a definite winner on their hands. In any case, compared to what has come before, nForce is a revolutionary integrated chipset.