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nForce 4, Athlon 64 4000/FX-55, and the Industry

 

A Little Bit of Everything

by Josh Walrath

 

 

                The past week has surely been a busy one for reviewers and editors, as the AMD crowd has released two major products on the same day. While I received samples of neither product, I thought I would throw up a few thoughts and insights into the whole release, as well as showcase some of the more interesting features of the newly released nForce 4 chipset from NVIDIA. There will be absolutely no benchmarks given in this article! However, there will be a good overview of the bold, new world that AMD is entering into.

nForce History

                NVIDIA has had a strange time in the chipset industry, and most of their problems have been more in line with breaking into new territory. SiS, ALI, VIA, and Intel have dominated the market since the mid-90's, and what was once serviced by more than a dozen companies were now pared down to four. NVIDIA thought to expand into this sector and released the first nForce product. While this product showcased some amazing features, it lacked the overall performance and price point to make it competitive in the chipset field. Add to that they only supported AMD Athlon processors, so that limited the market in the first place. The overall price of the original nForce made it very undesirable for motherboard manufacturers who work in a highly competitive market. There were only a handful of products made with the original nForce chipset, and they didn’t sell terribly well.

                NVIDIA came back to hit a homerun (of sorts) with the nForce 2. This was a product that was hands down the fastest AMD Athlon based chipset, plus it had a very strong feature set that included the highly praised SoundStorm audio system, as well as all the other bells and whistles that could be integrated into a chipset at that time. This was NVIDIA’s top seller so far, but it was still being held back in the market by its overall price. VIA and SiS were undercutting the nForce 2 by quite a few dollars, and they offered similar (though perhaps not as fancy) features. Some have quoted that the nForce 2 perhaps captured up to 10% of the AMD market, but that was about it. While it was NVIDIA’s first truly successful chipset, it was not a knockout that took over the market. The main reason for this was the overall price. The single largest contributing factor to the price of the nForce 2 was the Dolby Digital functionality of the SoundStorm audio. This licensing fee added to the price significantly, and most of the motherboard manufacturers could seriously care less for that type of functionality if it raised the raw chipset price by $5 (which translates into a $20 or more overall cost for the motherboard as a whole). SoundStorm did not turn into the selling point that NVIDIA had hoped.

                SoundStorm is officially dead to NVIDIA. It is highly unlikely that it will ever resurface again, even in a standalone form. It would have been nice to think that NVIDIA might have made a standalone chip that offered 24 bit sound, Dolby Digital Encoding, and all the other advanced features that could be brought to the table in PCI-E form. This looks to be wishful thinking on all of our parts.

                NVIDIA furthered developed new technologies for the nForce 2, such as SATA, GbE, and the integrated firewall functionality. Again, this upgrade may have been too late in the life of the nForce 2, as there are only a handful of products based on this latest revision of the nForce 2 chipset. While the nForce 2 was not the overwhelming success that NVIDIA hoped it would be, it did firmly plant NVIDIA into the market, and more importantly into the hearts and minds of consumers and enthusiasts. They produced a great product, and it gave them a very firm foothold into the highly competitive chipset field.

                The next product from NVIDIA is a bit of a strange one. The nForce 3 150 series had many scratching their head. Here was a chipset that was one of the first released for the new Athlon 64, and it included some very impressive features and functionality. However, it lacked some of the things that would affect overall performance in such a way that it caused many manufacturers to think twice about supporting it. The main drawback was the HyperTransport connection to the CPU. While VIA had released its first product supporting the Athlon 64 with the full 16 up/16 down HyperTransport lanes running at a full 800 MHz, the nForce 3 150 only had 16 down/8 up all running at 600 MHz. Many could not understand why NVIDIA would not support the full standard that the Athlon 64 brought to the table. Things would get worse for the nForce 3 150 when it was leaked that AMD would further go onto a full 1 GHz HyperTransport specification in future products. This put the nForce 3 150 in a very bad light, even though most benchmarks have shown that performance was not affected by the cut-down HT link to the processor.

               VIA kept on pushing its K8T800 chipset to motherboard manufacturers, and it gained in popularity due to its price and the further integration that VIA offered with its VT8237 southbridge (now with Serial ATA). VIA kept at it again with the updated K8T800 Pro, which added 1 GHz HT support to the mix. The nForce 3 150 did sell well, but it did not take up the majority of the market that NVIDIA was hoping for.

 

Next: More nForce History

 

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