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NVIDIA nForce 680i LT SLI - A Lite Modification Of The Top 680i SLI Chipset

March 26, 2007



Almost six months after the launch of the top chipset in the new series for Intel (nForce 680i SLI) NVIDIA decides to introduce its Lite modification. As in case with video cards, the company tries to fill all possible segments in the market by launching intermediate model to blend with new price segments. NVIDIA has recently started offering not only chipsets, but also reference motherboards based on them. Such motherboards appear in stores under trademarks of more or less famous brands (again as in case of video cards). Moreover, non-reference nForce 680i SLI-based motherboards appeared in the market several months later. So both types of NVIDIA products are noteworthy.

Unfortunately, expanding the range of products (like in the market of video cards), the company also brings the ridden to death nomenclature of its products. The "680i SLI — 650i SLI — 650i Ultra" naming system looks logical. But the appearance of suffixes (should we expect GT and XT modifications after LT?) is unexplainable. Aren't numbers enough anymore? Why not call the new chipset "670i SLI" (or "679i SLI"!)? What a riddle.

nForce 680i LT SLI

First of all, we traditionally publish the product brief of a new chipset:

  • Supports all Intel Celeron D and Pentium processors (including dual-core models) with 533/800/1066 MHz FSB as well as all Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors; it supports 1333 MHz FSB for future Core 2 models
  • Dual channel DDR2-533/667/800 memory controller supporting up to four DIMM modules, up to 4 GB in total Support for SLI-Ready memory (with EPP) Integrated DASP 4.0 for hardware prefetch and data caching
  • Bidirectional HyperTransport bus (1 GHz, 16 bit in each direction) to connect chipset bridges
  • Two full-speed PCIEx16 interfaces (from each bridge) that support SLI (x16+x16)
  • Six PCI Express x1 interfaces (from Northbridge and Southbridge in total), which can be used for PCIEx1 slots or integrated controllers
  • Up to 5 PCI devices
  • Up to 6 × Serial ATA for six SATA300 devices (SATA-II, the second generation of the standard) supporting NCQ, TCQ, and Hot-plug
  • Up to two ATA133 devices (one channel)
  • SATA RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5
  • 10/100/1000 Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet) MAC controller with traffic shaping support
  • Up to eight USB 2.0 devices
  • Support for High Definition Audio (7.1).

We can see well that the nForce 680i LT SLI stands in between nForce 680i SLI and nForce 650i SLI in terms of functionality, balancing in a nontrivial way. To illustrate the comparison, we'll publish key specifications of all nForce 600i chipsets in a single table:

Specifications nForce 680i SLI nForce 680i LT SLI nForce 650i SLI nForce 650i Ultra
CPU support Intel Celeron D, Pentium 4, Pentium D, Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad (including Extreme models)
FSB frequency 533/800/1066/1333 MHz 533/800/1066 MHz
Memory support two channels DDR2-533/667/800
EPP support available not available
Graphic interface PCI Express x16
SLI support x16+x16 x8+x8 not available
Third slot for a video card PCI Express x8 not available
Peripheral interfaces PCI Express 6 2
PCI devices 5
SATA-II devices 6 4
SATA RAID support Modes 0, 1, 0+1, 5
PATA devices 2 4
Gigabit Ethernet controllers 2 1
USB ports 10 8
Audio support High Definition Audio

So, Northbridge functionality of nForce 680i LT SLI and nForce 680i SLI is practically identical (the former being limited to SLI-Ready memory not higher than 800 MHz is hardly implemented on the hardware level). It would be logical to expect nForce 680i LT SLI to use 650i Southbridge, but NVIDIA has a different opinion: Southbridge functionality of the new chipset is indeed close to that of 650i SLI/Ultra, but it differs in distribution of disk controller interfaces: 6 × SATA-II/2 PATA (like in nForce 680i SLI) unlike 4 × SATA-II/4 PATA (in 650i SLI/Ultra). However, this difference is actually not important to most users: their hard drives most likely use the SATA interface (it's difficult to imagine more than four drives in a single computer), and they will hardly have more than two optical drives (even if PATA).

Thus, you can read about nForce 680i LT SLI in the nForce 680i SLI review. And we are going to compare cheaper nForce 600i solutions with their competitors - we can name only the latest chipsets from Intel (the others are underrepresented in the market) — i965 and i975X (and don't forget that Intel will announce a new chipset family in the nearest future). The competitors do not clash as far as video tandems are concerned: various SLI modes in NVIDIA products (or their lack in 650i Ultra) versus various CrossFire modes in Intel chipsets. Perhaps, nForce 680i -based motherboards will look more attractive owing to support for new Core 2 processors with 1333 MHz FSB (in case of Intel chipsets, you will most likely have to buy a motherboard on the new chipset; but support for the necessary bus clock does not guarantee operation of the new processors). Our contenders are approximately on a par in terms of memory operations (EPP technology is a weak advantage in its current implementation). The competitors have slightly different sets of peripheral interfaces. But speaking of major differences, we can mention only the lack of PATA support in the i965 and the built-in gigabit Ethernet controller with proprietary technologies in nForce.

And finally, let's say a few words about the reference motherboard nForce 680i LT SLI. The motherboard really deserves just several words in a separate review, as it's based on the same design as the reference motherboard nForce 680i SLI. It goes without saying that the PCB has empty seats for elements supported by the top chipset in this family: the third graphics slot, elements for the second network controller, extra USB ports. Besides, the motherboard lacks such elite features (in NVIDIA terms) as a POST controller, power and reset buttons, as well as a chipset cooling system with heat pipes. To crown it all, the motherboard is based on the PCB of the ordinary green color, not black like in a top model. But of course, the main difference of the new product lies in its price (its recommended retail price is lower by $50 than that for the nForce 680i SLI-based reference motherboard). Out of doubt, this price difference may become a good argument for choosing nForce 680i LT SLI.

Performance tests

Testbed configuration:

  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz, 1066 MHz FSB), Socket 775
  • Motherboards:
    • reference motherboard NVIDIA nForce 680i LT SLI
    • eVGA nForce 680i SLI (BIOS P17) on NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI (the link will open photos of the motherboard, we haven't published a sterling description yet)
    • Gigabyte 965P-DQ6 (BIOS D25) based on the Intel P965 chipset
  • Memory: 2×1 GB PC2-9136(DDR2-1142) DDR2 SDRAM DIMM Corsair Dominator (CM2X1024-9136C5D)
  • Video card: ATI Radeon X1900 XTX 512 MB
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA), 7200 rpm

Software:

  • OS and drivers:
    • Windows XP Professional SP2
    • DirectX 9.0c
    • Intel Chipset Drivers 8.0.1.1006
    • the latest pre-release version of NVIDIA drivers
    • ATI Catalyst 6.8
  • Test applications:
    • RightMark Memory Analyzer 3.72
    • 7-Zip 4.10b
    • XviD 1.0.2 (29.08.2004) codec
    • Doom 3 (v1.0.1282)
    • FarCry (v1.1.3.1337)

Test results

We expected no surprises from nForce 680i LT SLI: according to NVIDIA, performance of this chipset equals that of the top model in the series. So taking into account presumably identical Northbridges, differences between test results should not exceed a usual spread of results between different BIOS versions. Let's see. We decided to compare our contenders in the most interesting memory mode (for computer enthusiasts): DDR2-800 with extreme timings.





First of all we compared results of the new product with results demonstrated by Intel P965 and NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI in low level memory tests in RightMark Memory Analyzer, written by our programmers. As you can see on the diagrams, results of both nForce 680i models are not just similar, they are practically identical. Pay attention to memory latency results: we analyzed the difference between Intel and NVIDIA chipsets in the nForce 680i SLI review. And here we can just establish a fact that test results and typical curves of the new product match those of nForce 680i SLI. We can say that these chipsets have the same memory controller.









We hope that you'll forgive our "blind" enumeration of test results. Tests in real applications just proved that these NVIDIA chipsets offer the same performance (you can see well that BIOS versions for both motherboards were written by the same team; because the differences usually accumulate owing to different BIOS versions). Thus, the situation is absolutely "dull": the main market players launched chipsets, which are practically no different in real tests. We can finally ignore chipset performance and focus on functional differences and certainly peculiarities of motherboards, including their prices.

Conclusion

Our analysis of memory characteristics and test results demonstrate that the new NVIDIA nForce 680i LT SLI chipset is only insignificantly outscored by the top product in this series — NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI. We can even risk a statement that most users will notice no differences: the second network controller, 9th and 10th USB ports… — these factors are hardly vital even for an enthusiast. We can again risk an assertion that the main drawback of the LT version is the lack of the third slot for a video card: of course, systems with SLI and a physics accelerator are rarely supported in games, but that's exactly the reason for buying motherboards on top chipsets from NVIDIA (in our opinion).

At the same time, the new chipset demonstrates model performance and offers excellent overclocking capacities. What concerns the latter, marketing specialists were evidently at a loss, because nForce 680i SLI was promised to have the best overclocking potential, and 650i — good. Nevertheless, they found the right word for the new product - great. In practice, practically the entire nForce 600i family offer the same overclocking potential. Only reference models based on cheaper chipsets have narrower voltage ranges. But the key characteristics, including independent memory clocking, are the same. The nForce 680i LT SLI has no limits in memory frequency compared to nForce 680i SLI. The fact that the former does not allow to choose a EPP profile, which frequency exceeds 800 MHz, will hardly confuse an overclocker.

In practice, NVIDIA fans should pay attention to the reference motherboards. In this case (as in case of nForce 680i SLI) they will be sold by many manufacturers (like eVGA, XFX, and Biostar). This model has produced a nice impression on us (although the chipset cooler is too loud). Its key advantage is the predictable low price, similar to expensive solutions on i965 and i975X. You can wait for original products from ASUS, Gigabyte, etc, their functionality (not only in terms of a number of interface controllers) can be very interesting, but their pricing policies may be not that pleasant.


Sergei Pikalov (peek@ixbt.com)
March 26, 2007

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