NVidia wants to make your next workstation run faster, sound better, and network easier, all while producing top-notch integrated video graphics.
The company, best known for its GeForce processors that power graphics cards, announced today that it is entering the chip set business with the NForce. The first NForce products will support AMD's Athlon and Duron processors and will offer faster bus speeds, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, a host of built-in networking features, built-in graphics, and support for the latest graphics cards.
Born from NVidia's graphics hardware development for Microsoft's upcoming XBox console, the NForce chip set is NVidia's first foray into motherboard silicon. It includes numerous cutting-edge technologies, including AMD's HyperTransport high-speed bus interface, a complex new integrated graphics processor (IGP), and a media and communications processor (MCP) that integrates high-end audio and support for several networking standards.
Five major manufacturers have pledged to build motherboards based on the NForce, which will compete against heavyweights Intel and Via in the chip set market. NVidia executives say major manufacturers Asus, Abit, Gigabyte, Micro-Star International, and Mitec all plan to build boards. The first should begin shipping next fall; no motherboard or system vendors have announced specific dates or product prices.
Good integrated graphics?
Traditionally, buying a PC with integrated graphics meant spending less but settling for mediocre graphics performance. With the NForce chip set, NVidia intends to prove that integrated doesn't have to mean inferior, says Tony Tamasi, senior director of desktop products at the company.
Bolting a graphics chip onto a chip set traditionally meant users got a fraction of the graphics performance possible from a stand-alone graphics card, he says. But the NForce chip set uses NVidia's popular GeForce2 graphics processor (in conjunction with main memory), which it says should provide graphics performance five to ten times better than competitors' integrated chip sets.
If NVidia can deliver the top-notch integrated graphics it promises, it will be a huge boon for cost-conscious workstation buyers, says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources. Nobody wants to put up with bad graphics, but few people want to spend a lot of money to get the best, he says.
Most PC users don't buy their PCs to play games, but most would like to be able to play a game or two and have them look good. If this chip set can offer good integrated graphics for less, it will attract plenty of buyers, he says.
More than just graphics
NVidia made its fortune producing good graphics, but the company goes beyond pixels with the NForce, promising new chip set technology that should make the whole PC run faster.
For starters, the IGP includes either a 64-bit or 128-bit DDR memory interface (most PC chip sets use a 64-bit interface). The 128-bit version of the NForce offers a wider throughput that means faster communications between the CPU and memory, Tamasi says. The chip set will support various speeds of SDRAM and DDR memory types, but it won't work with RDRAM.
NVidia further speeds up the CPU-to-memory connection with a technology called TwinBank Memory architecture. TwinBank uses two memory controllers that work concurrently to reduce the lag time as the speedy CPU and the slower memory exchange data, he says.
The IGP also includes a CPU interface called DASP, or Dynamic Adaptive Speculative Preprocessor. This technology actually attempts to guess the future, reading ahead and preprocessing data so it can move it through to the CPU faster, Tamasi says.
Overall, the DASP technology should lead to a speed boost of about 20 per cent in any Athlon or Duron-based system, he says. So, for example, a 1GHz Athlon should perform more like a 1.2GHz chip, he says.
Finally, NVidia uses AMD's much-publicized HyperTransport interface to connect the graphics chip to the NForce's second major chip, the MCP. HyperTransport offers 800MB-per-second connections, which is about three times faster than the current PCI bus used in other chip sets, Tamasi says.
Built-in networking, sound
The MCP has its own set of high-tech features including StreamThru (a new data transport system), Dolby-Digital Sound, and a full communications suite.
StreamThru is important because traditional chip sets often encounter data bottlenecks as the different peripherals and network connections are forced to send and resend data through the system in order to get noticed by the CPU. StreamThru allocates specific times for data to pass through, avoiding bottlenecks and eliminating the need to resend data.
The MCP has built-in support for all the major peripheral interfaces (such as serial, parallel, and Universal Serial Bus) as well as built-in networking interfaces. Those networking interfaces include support for 10/100BaseT, HomePNA 2.0, and a soft modem.
Finally, the MCP includes built-in support for Dolby-Digital 5.1. That means PC users with a set of five speakers and a subwoofer can get the full three-dimensional sound experience when watching DVDs and playing games on their PCs.
Support for GeForce 3, too
Hard-core graphics gamers and other graphics-hungry users who want the best of both worlds will also be able to use the NForce chip set with their latest graphics card, Tamasi says. The chip set will offer AGP 4X support for external cards.
Analyst Krewell isn't sure he'd spend the money to buy a PC with the NForce chip set and a high-end graphics card. You basically end up shutting down the GeForce2 chip within the chip set, which is a waste, he says.
But the NForce does offer a very good upgrade path, he says. Users can go with the built-in GeForce2 now, and when they need more graphics down the road they can plug in a stand-alone graphics card.
Aside from interesting new technologies and a new graphics upgrade path, Krewell says consumers are likely to benefit from NVidia's entry into the chip set market in one more way: better quality.
"NVidia will offer top-quality products," he says. Some chip set vendors, such as Via, are known for producing a chip set, selling it, then working out its bugs over time. That gets products out fast and cheap, but leads to frustrated buyers, he says. NVidia won't work that way.
"They'll validate each product before they ship. It's a much stronger design approach," he says. The end result will be a more stable product that makes buyers and sellers happy.