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Dux Computer Newsletter
June 18, 2001; Vol. 1, No. 5

The nVIDIA Motherboard Chipset
Tech Tips
Around the Internet
Recent Articles 

The nVIDIA Motherboard Chipset .  For many years I have recommended that customers do not buy all-in-one motherboards (see Advice on Buying a Motherboard) or computers that use them.  These are motherboards with the display adapter and soundboard functions built into the motherboard.  Although, there have been attempts at establishing industry standards, many all-in-one motherboards are manufacturer-specific and computers built with them often cannot be upgraded with generic motherboards.  Also, in the event of failure, these motherboards can be costly to replace--if one can find a replacement.  Furthermore, many of them have been designed for low-end, cheap computers.  Some of them are poorly designed, lack other features, such as sufficient expansion board slots, and cut corners with the number and quality of parts used to make them.

In the past, all-in-one motherboards were designed with separate chips and software drivers from multiple vendors.  The integration of these components was done by the motherboard designer and has often been poor.  Sound functions, in particular, can add more unchangeable interrupts to a computer and can spell problems even if the function is deactivated.  I have seen computers with blown integrated display adapters that could not be repaired or jumpered-out.  Often the add-on sound and display chips are from the low-end of the manufacturers' product lines--perhaps, so that the motherboard will not compete their expansion board offerings.  There are motherboards with on-board video that hog main memory and memory bandwidth for functions that would otherwise use video memory on a plug-in display adaptor, and very noticeably slowing everything down.

Recently, several motherboard chipset manufacturers have started to integrate the display and sound functions into the motherboard chipset.  The chipset manufacturer instead of the motherboard designer started doing integration.  However, these products are mainly being produced by partnerships (or acquisitions of one company by another) between motherboard chipset and display adapter manufacturers.  Although, this solved some of the problems with integration, the sound and display adapter functions are generally still not nearly as good as those found with expansion boards.

All of this is about to change.   Enter Microsoft.  In 1999 Microsoft told Game developers that it was going to build the world's greatest game machine, the Xbox.  In March of 2000 Microsoft announced that nVIDIA would design a customized version their high-performance GeForce3 graphics engine, eventually called the Xbox Graphics Processor Unit (XGPU), for the Xbox.  Later nVIDIA was chosen to design another principal Xbox chip, the MCPX or Media Communications Processor.  The MCPX integrates typical motherboard Southbridge chip functions, such as the IDE disk controller and USB, with networking and a high-end audio processing capability.  The $299 Xbox console will sport a Pentium3 733mhz CPU, 64MB of DDR memory, an 8 Gbyte hard disk drive, a DVD drive, 3D Dolby Digital Surround audio, Ethernet interface, etc.  It should appear on store shelves this October.  You can read more about it on Microsoft's Xbox web site and the many other web sites on the Internet devoted to the Xbox.

Last September nVIDIA announced that it would use the integrated chipset development efforts for the Xbox as a foundation to grow into the motherboard chipset business.  This signaled a fundamental change in motherboard chipsets and motherboards.  Instead of a chipset manufacturer designing-in the graphics engine from a graphics board company, the graphics board company was going to design the entire chipset.  Graphics board designers do more than glue motherboard functions and components together with a chipset, they are driven to compete in market geared towards performance.  And that's what nVIDIA did: designed performance into a chipset from the ground-up.  They put some of the essence of the Xbox in a PC architecture and introduced it as the nFORCE motherboard chipset at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan on June 4th.

The nFORCE chipset replaces the Northbridge and Southbridge chips comprising the typical motherboard chipset with the Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP) and the Media and Communications Processor (MCP), respectively.  Both chips differ significantly from their predecessors, as will the motherboards built with them.  Here are feature highlights of each chip:

The IGP consists of about 20 million transistors that are organized into three principle units:

Twin Bank Memory Architecture, which is implemented through dual-independent, 64-bit memory controllers.  It provides a 266 MHz, 128-bit wide access path to Double Data Rate (DDR) memory.  The result is a 4.2 GBytes/sec. peak memory bandwidth.   This compares to 2.1 GBytes/sec. for other DDR chipsets.  Towards the high end of the PC graphics performance spectrum, the nVIDIA's GeForce3 display adapter has four 64-bit memory controllers and a 256-bit access path to its on board DDR memory.

Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Pre-processor (DASP).   The DASP uses intelligent, pre-processing technology to exploit unused memory bandwidth to load its cache (1024 bytes) with application instructions and data the CPU is expected to request later.  When the CPU requests the data, it is returned to the CPU immediately rather waiting for it to be accessed from memory.  Translation: the DASP is a smart memory cache' system.

Graphics Processor Unit (GPU).   The GPU uses GeForce2 MX core.  With the Twin Bank Memory Architecture it is capable of a maximum graphics throughput of 350 megapixels/sec. and does not have the stellar imaging performance of the sup'd-up GeForce3 GPU in the Xbox, but it is certainly faster than many run-of-the-mill display adapters and the graphics cores currently integrated into other Northbridge chips.  The GPU does use system memory for its frame buffer (32 Mbytes) and shares memory bandwidth with the rest of the system like other chipsets and motherboards with built-in graphics, but this is mitigated by Twin Bank Architecture's 128-bit memory pipe, the use of DDR system memory, and the current, price-driven transition of mainstream PC's from 128 to 256 MBytes of memory.  Also, because of the integration of the GPU with other units in the MCP, complex graphics calculations can be performed directly in the GPU itself without having to communicate back and forth across the AGP bus with the CPU.  This frees-up the CPU for other tasks.  The MCP has an external 4X/8X AGP bus to accommodate higher-performance, plug-in display adapters.

The MCP consists of about six million transistors.  The MCP Audio Processing Unit (APU) is a very significant improvement over the audio functions integrated into other chipsets and is essentially the same audio technology found in the Xbox.  It has Five Data Signal Processors (DSPs) with a combined processing power of about one billion operations per second.  According to nVIDIA, it is two or three times more powerful than a Creative SoundBlaster Live soundboard.  It is Microsoft DirectX 8.0 compliant, provides real-time processing of up to 256-simultaneous stereo audio streams, or 64 3D and stereo (2D) streams, and can output to 2, 4, or 6 speakers.   It features a new Dolby Digital Interactive Content Encoder, which does real time encoding for interactive 3D positional audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 channel audio for the kind of sound you will find in a movie theater when plugged into a home theater audio system.

In addition to other Southbridge functions, such as two ATA/100 channels for disk drives and Win MODEM support, the MCP incorporates an IEE 802.3 Media Address Controller (MAC) for 10/100 Ethernet and Home PNA 2.0 phoneline networks.  The chip has support for six USB 1.1 ports, but no USB 2.0 or IEEE 1394 firewire support.

Other than the features already mentioned, what really sets this chipset apart is connectivity and bandwidth.  As mentioned above, it "talks" to DDR memory through two 64-bit memory controllers.  The IGP is connected to AMD DDR CPUs with a 133 MHz Front Side Bus (FSB) capable of 64-byte DDR266 burst transfers.  Meaning that data is transferred on both the leading and trailing edges of the FSB clock pulse for an effective 266 MHz rate.  Finally and not least, instead of hanging the Southbridge off the PCI bus, with a theoretical maximum burst speed of 133 MBytes/sec., like most chipsets (the other exception being the SiS 737 single-chip solution--heretofore the winner in benchmarks I have seen comparing DDR Athlon chipsets--with it's Built-in 1.2GBytes/s Multi-threaded I/O Link between its internal Southbridge and Northbridge sections), the MPC is connected to the IGP with AMD's HyperTransport technology.  This implementation of HyperTransport is 8-bits wide and has a total peak throughput of 800 MBytes/second.  According to nVIDIA this is more than enough bandwidth for all of the Southbridge I/O functions to operate simultaneously without interruption.  So, even if you are game fanatic with a GeForce3 plug-in display adapter, you may still choose a motherboard with this chipset for it's memory architecture and Northbridge/Southbridge bandwidth, and sound capabilities.  Others will probably find that the IGP has all of the graphics power they need or that it is sufficient to get them going until they are ready to upgrade to a higher-end graphics capability.

The entire chipset (graphics, sound, etc.) requires only one software driver from one vendor.

nFORCE will come in four flavors consisting of combinations of IGPs with a single 64-bit memory controller (nForce220) or dual 64-bit controllers (nForce420) and MPCs with or without the Dolby Digital 5.1 encoder.

So far three nVIDA-based motherboards have been announced.  The following links point to pictures and information on the motherboards from Asus, MiTAC, and MSI.  Of the three, the only one that I would consider is the Asus board.  It has the full compliment of five PCI slots supported by the chipset and the others have fewer. Abit should be announcing a couple of nVIDIA motherboards before long.  These motherboards should be shipping well before the holiday shopping season.

nVIDIA nForce Launch Event Replay:  See the nFORCE motherboard chipset launch at Computex 2001 in Taipei, Taiwan. I found it quite interesting.  There are graphics and sound demos about 1/3 of the way through the presentation.

You can download the nFORCE Platform Processing Architecture in .pdf format here.

I am running out of space.  Additional news and commentary can be found here.

Tech Tips.  You got promoted and along with your new job you got a brand new PC. You have copied all of your data from the old PC to the new one (see Vol. 1, No. 2), but a copy of your data is still on the old computer.  Short of scrubbing the drive (writing zeros to it) and reinstalling Windows and all of the software, how does one erase the data so that there is no reasonable possibility that is can be retrieved?  Answer: download BCWipe.  This program can be used to selectively "shred" files so that they cannot be recovered by any means (this was not an advertisement).

There are two widely used color code standards for twisted-pair network cables: EIA/TIA 586A and 586B.  You would be surprised how much E-mail I get asking if the diagrams in How to Make Your Own CAT 5 Twisted-Pair Network Cables are correct.  That is because some web sites have them backwards and some cable manufactures are labeling their cables wrong.  Are your cables labeled correctly?  Go here for a definitive answer.  By the way, and despite what may be in print elsewhere, a properly made patch cable that complies with one of the two standards will work with premise wiring using the other standard.

Around the Internet.  Convert: a nice free little program to convert Liters to Pecks, Pounds to Kilograms, Celsius to Fahrenheit, you name it.  Lost Circuits' Coverage of Computex TAIPEI 2001: Up-Close and Behind the Scenes.

Recent Articles.  How to Dual-Boot Windows 9X/Me and 2000 Pro provides step-by-step instructions for installing both Windows 9X/Me and Windows 2000 Pro on the same hard disk drive so that either operating system can be selected from a menu when the computer first boots-up.  A lengthy list of references is included.

Need a check list for building custom computers?  In Part 10 - Install the Expansion Boards, the final part of How to Build a Computer with a Socket A Athlon or Duron Processor, we complete and test the computer.  This article contains many pictures and lessons-learned from building custom computers in our Mom 'n Pop computer shop over the last 14 years.  Click here to go to Part 1 of the article.  Additional How to Build Your Own Computer articles are listed here.

May the nForce be with you.


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Copyright, Disclaimer, and Trademark Information Copyright © 1996-2006 Larry F. Byard.  All rights reserved. This material or parts thereof may not be copied, published, put on the Internet, rewritten, or redistributed without explicit, written permission from the author.