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Nvidia intros nForce 2

The chipset formerly known as Crush 18

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Nvidia today unveiled its second-generation AMD-oriented nForce chipset, codenamed Crush 18. The product is aimed specifically at a low- to high-end PCs, but it also gives an interesting picture of the second-generation Xbox's capabilities.

The nForce 2 family comprises four parts: two versions of Nvidia's Media Communications Processor, and re-engineered upgrades to its System Processor Platform (SPP) and Integrated Graphics Platform (IGP) Northbridge chips.

Central to these last two parts is Nvidia's Dual DDR technology, a revision of its earlier TwinBank dual memory controller set-up, but which is not only sports a better brand name but supports 400MHz DDR memory. Or, rather, will do when it becomes widely available - in the meantime, nForce 2 will handle 200, 266 and 333MHz DDR SDRAM - up to 3GB of it. Memory makers are offering samples of DDR400 memory, but it's not yet widely available.

Like TwinBank, Dual DDR connects the host PC's AMD CPU to two 64-bit memory controllers running concurrently to halve memory latency and double system throughput. CPU, memory and AGP buses are all clocked asynchronously, ensuring the operations of one are not dependent on the completion of tasks by the others, says Nvidia. Clever logic ensures all the right data arrives where it should, in the right order.

The new architecture, plus faster 400MHz memory, allows nForce 2 to offer a maximum memory throughput of 6.4GBps, up from the previous generation's 4.2GBps, Nvidia claims. Real-world benchmarks will be required to show just how close it comes to the theoretical maximum.

The new IGP sports a GeForce 4 MX graphics core, an upgrade that delivers a 50 per cent improvement in performance over the old nForce 420 chip, according to Nvidia's own Quake III Arena benchmark results. The SPP, on the other hand, connects to an AGP bus with 8x performance.

Both parts connect to either of the two MCP parts across an 800MBps HyperTransport bus. The standard Nvidia MCP offers the usual sound and I/O facilities, but introduces support for USB 2.0 and ATA-133 to the chipset. So does the MCP-T, which also brings IEEE 1394 to the feature chart.

It also contains a second, 3Com-designed 10/100 Ethernet controller, in addition to the Nvidia controller it shares with the regular nForce 2 MCP. Both can operate simultaneously, allowing the host PC to operate as a mini-hub. Nvidia's target application here are small office and home servers, or a home's prime PC, all of which can then share a single broadband Internet connection with other machines.

It's a neat idea, though while consumers continue to show almost no interest in buying home computers, it's time has yet to come. Perhaps it never will - by the time consumers start buying again, they'll arguably be able to do a lot more with faster, cheaper wireless networking kit to be interested in PCs with two Ethernet ports.

Corporates may take a different view, and we wonder to what extent nForce 2 is paving the way for Hammer-based Athlons aimed at business users. Hence the incorporation of 3Com technology rather than a second Nvidia design, to stress compatibility with existing networks.

More immediately, both the IGP and the MCP-T may point the way toward the roles Microsoft foresees its second-generation Xbox fulfilling. Whether it's called Xbox 2 or Homestation, it is expected to be based, like its predecessor, on an nForce-based chipset. Rumours and speculation about the box centre on a shift away from a pure games machine to a broadband-connected home digital entertainment appliance. And the MCP-T specification certainly adds weight to that picture. The Nvidia part delivers the connectivity (1394/Firewire/iLink to hook up consumer electronics, USB 2.0 for PC peripherals) and networking functionality (home gateway) a more media-oriented Xbox will need.

At the same time, the IGP's GeForce 4 MX graphics will allow Microsoft to improve on the Xbox's graphics - it doesn't want to move too far from gaming. And all the Dolby Digital stuff in the MCP-T will appeal to home cinema/DVD buffs.

The PC-oriented version of nForce 2 will go into volume next month and should be available immediately on mobos from Asus, Chaintech, MSI, ABIT, EPoX and Leadtek.

Nvidia is presumably hoping more big-name PC suppliers will choose nForce 2 than chose the previous version, but it admits that since most AMD-based systems - around 74 per cent of them - come from less well-known manufacturers, its OEM successes may be limited. ®

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