Gigabyte GA-8N-SLi Royal nForce 4 Intel mobo
Puts Intel CPUs at the forefront of gaming?
Review It's finally arrived: the first retail Nvidia nForce4 SLi Intel Edition mobo. Considering this is Nvidia's first attempt at creating a chipset for Intel CPUs it's no mean feat to make it an SLi solution at the same time. Of course, Intel doesn't have a consumer-level SLi-capable chipset at the moment, though there are some rumours about it launching its own SLi-compatible solution shortly. But if this first board is anything to go by, Intel will be facing some stiff competition, writes Lars-Goran Nilsson.
One of the most interesting features of the nForce 4 SLi Intel Edition is its native 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM support. This is not yet a ratified standard, but Corsair is already offering memory which will run at this speed and faster. The new Twin2X CM2X512A-5400UL modules we were sent to test the GA-8N-SLi Royal with worked flawlessly at 667MHz on a 1066MHz bus with a 3.73GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPU.
Nvidia might be one step ahead of Intel when it comes to memory speeds, but I doubt it will take to long before 667MHz DDR2 becomes the norm. Nvidia seems to have anticipated this and the chipset's dual-channel memory controller has an independent bus for each memory module. This should make for better performance than competing chipsets which put each pair of installed modules on the same bus.
Add to this Nvidia's QuickSync and DASP 3.0 technology and you've got most of the features from the nForce 2 chipset integrated into the new nForce 4 SLi core logic. QuickSync provides performance-boosting asynchronous memory, whereas DASP 3.0 is a high-performance memory pre-fetch core-logic. This should give the CPU quicker access to data it needs by getting what the CPU will need next, ahead of time.
The nForce 4 also supports dual-channel asymmetric DIMM population, which gives you dual-channel memory performance even if you use three modules. Right now, this is a unique feature to the nForce 4 SLi Intel Edition chipset.
To my knowledge this is also the first Intel CPU solution to use HyperTransport as the chipset interconnect. However, this is a slower 800MHz 8-bit implementation rather than the 1GHz 16-bit version found on current AMD platforms. It should provide plenty of bandwidth for PCI Express devices, which is important when you start sharing the PCI Express bus between devices like Gigabit Ethernet adapters and HDTV-tuner cards, both of which require plenty of bandwidth.
It's good to see that Nvidia decided to go for two IDE controllers, rather than the single one Intel offers on its current chipsets. This means that you can still use four IDE devices, as well as a further four Serial ATA devices. A new feature for the nForce 4 SLi Intel Edition is RAID 5, which allows you to run a RAID using three hard drives - two are striped for performance while is the parity volume. The parity disk keeps track of the data on both of the other two disks and if one fails the parity disk is used to rebuild the array together with the remaining working disk.
One of the best features of this motherboard is also one of the most simple. Gigabyte has used a new type of SATA cable that locks to the motherboard connectors as well as newer SATA hard drives. This means that there's less chance of the cables falling out during transit - there are also plastic surrounds for each port on the motherboard, making them slightly more sturdy.
The remaining features have been carried over from the nForce 4 SLi chipset for AMD, with Gigabit Ethernet and the ActiveArmor firewall making a welcome re-appearance.
Gigabyte has added plenty of features too. A Promise RAID controller with support for a further two IDE and SATA drives has been fitted, as has an 800Mbps FireWire 1394 controller. A second Gigabit Ethernet controller is also part of the package, as well as 7.1-channel AC'97 sound. This is one of the low points of the board, as the new Intel HD audio solutions offer much better sound quality. There's a small USB Bluetooth dongle, too.
Gigabyte has included its signature DualBIOS and U-PLUS D.P.S power module. Unfortunately, the latter doesn't fit that well on the GA-8N-SLi Royal due to the design of the heatpipe cooler. It gets too close to the chipset and with a larger CPU cooler it won't fit in its slot. The main chipset heatsink comes with an optional fan.
The I/O panel consists of two PS/2 ports, single parallel and serial ports, optical and co-axial S/PDIF outputs, four USB 2.0 ports, two Ethernet ports and six audio connectors. Two brackets are supplied in the box, one with two USB 2.0 ports and the other with a further two USB 2.0 ports, and FireWire 1394a and 1394b connectors. You also get six SATA cables and a retention mechanism for the SLi bridge connector.
The board layout is very cluttered, mainly due to all the features that Gigabyte has tried to squeeze in. The four-pin CPU fan connector as well as the 12V power connector are located in a very awkward place, especially if you use the U-PLUS D.P.S module. Expandability is also limited to two PCI slots and one x1 PCI Express slot if you're running an SLi setup. There are two spare fan connectors, but both of these are located towards the front of the board, so neither can be used with a rear mounted case fan.
The sample I tested is revision 0.2 so it's not a retail-ready product and I had some major stability problems during testing. Far Cry would crash in the early stages of our benchmarking demo, and SYSMark 2004 behaved in a very peculiar way, so we couldn't get results from either. Gigabyte didn't respond to my requests for assistance.
Nonetheless, after a couple of days of cursing and several reboots I managed to get most of our 3D benchmarks to behave in a reasonable way and I even managed to get some PCMark 2004 numbers out of the board. Nvidia supplied a pair of GeForce 6800GT graphics cards, and the numbers are pretty impressive. Although I don't want to draw too many conclusions until I get a final production board, I think a few gamers might be persuaded to move back to an Intel CPU in combination with the new nForce 4 SLi Intel Edition chipset.
Looking at the numbers, 106.8fps in Doom 3 at 1024 x 768 with 8x anisotropic filtering is not to be sneezed at. More impressive, the test setup managed 100.2fps with the same filtering settings at 1600 x 1200. Enabling 4x full-screen anti-aliasing dropped the framerate to 72.4fps.
Half-Life 2 ran at over 90fps at 1024 x 768 no matter what the AF and FSAA settings were changed to. This indicates that the CPU is the limiting factor, with the graphics cards not being used to their full potential. Similarly at 1600 x 1200 there was little change in performance, although for some odd reason the results were slower using 4x FSAA than with 4x FSAA and 4x AF.
3DMark 03 is getting old now, so a score of 20,903 is high, but somewhat moot. That said, the 3DMark 05 score of 8463 is quite impressive. The PCMark 2004 scores are the only system level benchmarks that I managed to run due to the stability issues, but the memory score here is very healthy at 6380, beating the 925XE chipset by 110 points using the same CPU. I haven't tested the new Intel 955X chipset yet so I can't make a comparison here, but it seems like Nvidia has created a very fast platform.
This is a product that's quite hard to sum up. On one hand we have what looks to be the best performing chipset for Intel processors, while on the other, the stability issues were a letdown. To be fair, this is often the case with pre-production mobos and I expect the full retail products will have these issues ironed out.
Feature-wise, the GA-8N-SLi Royal is up there with the market's top-of-the-range boards, and this is exactly were Gigabyte is pitching it. At £160, it's fairly expensive when compared to most of the AMD nForce 4 SLi boards, but this is the first of its breed. Intel platforms tend to be more pricey than AMD ones anyway.
Our sample of the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLi Royal might not be quite retail-ready, but it put in some impressive benchmark numbers in the tests that I managed to run. The board also has a wide range of features other than SLi - just make sure you need the complete feature set before putting down a wad of cash.
|Gigabyte GA-8N-SLi Royal|
|Price||£160 inc. VAT|
|More info||The GigaByte site|