After it gained ownership of the Athlon XP chipset market with the nForce2, everyone expected big things from the nForce3, NVIDIA's foray into the Athlon 64 market. But nForce3 in its original form was seen as a retrograde step due to a skimpy feature set. This was partially because the first version, the nForce3 Pro, was launched to support the Opteron workstation CPU, but also because NVIDIA was striving to build a single chip solution, which meant a completely new design was needed.
Since then there have been a rolling series of significant feature upgrades in the form of the nForce3 150, nForce3 250, nForce3 250 GbE and nForce3 Ultra chipsets. These brought features like integrated Gigabit Ethernet ports and a hardware accelerated firewall to the chipset, fleshing it out into a very strong platform for the Athlon 64.
In a way the nForce4 is the next incremental evolution of the nForce3. While rumour abounded that nForce4 would mark the return of NVIDIA's incredibly well received SoundStorm integrated audio.
Unfortunately it was just speculation - nForce4 has no custom audio solution, instead it supports third party AC'97 audio codecs. We still hope to see the return of SoundStorm in some form, as consumer demand for another audio option in the market increases, besides the encumbent solutions from Creative.
What nForce4 does bring is a pretty impressive feature set. For storage needs it supports four 3Gb/s SATA and two ATA133 parallel ATA channels with hardware RAID. It has an integrated Gigabit Ethernet port, which works in tandem with NVIDIA's hardware firewall (designed to reduce CPU load when the firewall is active). But these are evolutions of the existing nForce3 technology. What is really different is that the nForce4 supports PCI Express.
While a lot of attention will be given to the high-end nForce4 SLI, which will sport dual x16 PCIExpress slots to enable dual graphics cards, the nForce4 Ultra is seen as the performance entry into the socket 939/PCI Express market for the Athlon 64.
Motherboards of course are more than just the chipsets that power them. Gigabyte has taken the nForce4 Ultra and built its GAK8NXP-9 motherboard around it. The board supports AMD's socket 939 CPU line-up and adds a pile of functionality to the already powerful nForce4 chipset. Besides the integrated Gigabit Ethernet port it has a second one driven by a Marvell chipset, and if that is not enough it also ships with an 802.11g wireless LAN card for incredibly flexible connectivity. One wonders when even a power user would need three simultaneous LAN connections, but it means that the option is there if you ever need it.
For storage needs it has the four SATA ports natively supported by the nForce4, but it also has a Silicon Image controller onboard driving four extra SATA ports. While we do not recommend using third party controller ports for primary hard drives, the ports integrated into the nForce4 can be used for your primary. The extra ports do however provide ample room to strive for that terabyte or more of storage that you have always secretly desired.
For those upgrading be aware that this board uses the newer 24-pin ATX power plug seen on Intel's recent 915 and 925 chipsets. This plug supplies the PCI Express slots with additional power to accommodate the increased requirements of expansion cards. It also requires a 12V ATX connection as well, but this is now very much commonplace on modern motherboards.
We tested the GA-K8NXP-9 motherboard with an Athlon 64 3800+ CPU and GeForce 6600GT card. Because the Athlon 64 integrates the memory controller onto the die we have only shown a couple of results, as performance is incredibly similar between chipsets. We have compared it to the ATI XPRESS 200 P chipset in this case, using Doom 3 and PCMark04. None of our tests showed any huge advantage to either chipset, in PCMark04 the ATI board was just under 2% faster than NVIDIA and the gap in Doom 3 was infinitesimal.
Gigabyte has delivered a stunning motherboard in the form of the GA-K8NXP-9. It is certainly one for the high-end power user types rather than your average PC user, but it delivers a very strong feature set that builds on the strengths of the nForce4. The eight SATA ports are particularly impressive, and for the storage hungry among us there are few consumer products that support that many SATA drives. If you don't see SLI in your future then this is a damn good option for a cutting edge Athlon 64 system.