NVIDIA nForce2 Ultra 400Gb MCP Preview

Admin - 2007-01-16 18:18:00 in Motherboards
Category: Motherboards
Reviewed by: Admin   
Reviewed on: February 26, 2004
Price: N/A
Introduction
Today we're going to take a look at NVIDIA's latest nForce2 chipset, the Ultra 400Gb MCP. The nForce2 Ultra 400Gb MCP™ incorporates many new features from their new nForce3 250 chipset like GigE, native SATA, RAID features, and NVIDIA's hardware based firewall, NVMixer, and the NVIDIA System Utility. Jason Camp and I had a live demonstration of these new features at a meeting that we had with NVIDIA last week. They demonstrated to us the software side of NVIDIA's new hardware based firewall. The firewall will allow you to block/allow inbound and outbound traffic based upon dozens of rules and statements at blazing speeds with no impact on performance. They've made it very easy to manage, via a web browser so that anyone can run the firewall without having any previous firewall knowledge.



The nForce2 Ultra 400GB is for users who are seeking the new features found on the nForce 3 250GB, but do not yet want to upgrade to a 64bit CPU. NVIDIA knows that it would be more cost effective for you to upgrade your mainboard rather than a mainboard and a CPU too. We're going to take an in-depth look at this new nForce2 to see if all of the new features is worth the upgrade or not and to see if all of the new features have slowed the performance any.


Chipset





 

Audio
One of the most disappointing thing about the nForce 2 Ultra 400Gb is NVIDIA’s abandonment of the SoundStorm APU (Audio Processing Unit) that helped to make the nForce2 so popular amongst audiophiles and gamers alike. With AC-3 Dolby digital encoding and SPDIF, SoundStorm really set the standards high for an APU. While most manufacturers use the same AC97 sound, the SoundStorm APU added more flexibility and Dolby digital encoding. The sound output is still determined by the codec, but the flexibility and Dolby encoding with SPDIF interface will surely be missed by me in future NVIDIA products. As it stands right now, there are no plans for any NVIDIA based boards (I.E NF3 250 GB) that will be offering the SoundStorm APU. Maybe someday NVIDIA will reintroduce an APU similar to SoundStorm and bring back the features of the SoundStorm APU to the people. Sadly our reference board had audio issues, but this board is a early reference design and retail boards will hopefully be problem free.

Native Serial ATA
This time around NVIDIA built native serial ATA into the nForce2 MCP-Gb Southbridge and they also added a few more features to the Southbridge that we will talk about later. The added native SATA support is a great feature as it gives vendors the ability to use an add-in chip to increase the number of SATA connections. This will come in handy when SATA optical drives hit the market later this year. The ability to add more SATA connections will also make this a very attractive server board if vendors do decide to use add in chips.

RAID
  • Cross-Controller RAID
  • Boot from a RAID Drive
  • On-The-Fly Rebuilds
  • Spare Disk Allocation
  • RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and JBOD Supported

    One of the new features offered on the nForce2 Ultra 400GB is a cross raid controller. This means you are no longer required to go out and buy all Serial ATA drives to run a RAID array on an nForce2 chipset. You may now mix and match the drives to make a RAID array. This can make for a very cost effective upgrade if you want to use a RAID array with existing IDE drives. Only a few existing nForce2 Ultra 400 boards offer IDE RAID, but none offer the cross controller.

    The NVIDIA RAID will also allow you to boot from a RAID drive to load your operating system. For example, if you're running (2) 10,000 RPM SATA Raptors in RAID 1 you could load your operating system on this drive and boot from it to take advantage of the extra performance that RAID 1 provides.

    NVIDIA’s RAID solution offers "On-the-fly Rebuilds". If you're running RAID 1 and a disk fails, you can rebuild a new mirrored copy of the failed, corrupted, or missing data while the system is still up and running.

    NVIDIA Firewall/Gigabit LAN
    Saving the best feature for last is the built-in Gigabyte Ethernet and integrated hardware firewall. Offering file transfer speeds up to ten times faster than 100mbps Ethernet, Gigabit LAN is finally becoming more affordable for home users to take advantage of. Multiple computer households will benefit from the high data transfer speeds offering real time streaming video among many other things. Later on we will talk more about the firewall and what could possibly make the nForce2 ULTRA400-Gb one of the most feature rich Socket-A chipset to date.


    nForce UDA Package
    NVIDIA has always been known to produce solid unified drivers across multiple GPU’s and chipsets. This has not changed one bit with there new nForce UDA driver package. This time around NVIDIA is adding more compatibility with its system utility, GigE, and firewall.

    If you have not already heard from our news today, NVIDIA announced the release of their 4.24 nForce Unified Driver package. The nForce UDA 4.24 package supports the following nForce products, nForce1, nForce2, nForce2 Ultra 400, nForce2 Ultra 400Gb, nForce3 150, and the nForce3 250Gb. The nForce UDA driver package is an all-in-one solution that will provide you with all of the drivers and software you need for your nForce motherboard to operate. Here is the features that can be found in the nForce UDA 4.24 driver package:
  • WHQL certified kit
  • Unified drivers with support for nForce, nForce2, and nForce3 products. This package does not include support for dual-processor systems.
  • General compatibility fixes
  • Audio Driver Improvements      
  • Introduced NVMixer – replaces SoundStorm Control Panel for all audio configuration tasks. Note that NVMixer operates best when run at 1024x768 16-bit color.      
  • Introduced improved AC ’97 / Soft Audio driver – adds EQ, speaker cloning, and speaker wizard support      
  • Introduced Speaker Wizard – incorporates all NVSwap features, ensures correct speaker setup on analog or digital speaker systems      
  • Introduced Cinesurround – virtual 5.1 mixdown to headphones or 2 speakers      
  • Introduced new Environments – simple, preset driven sound environments      
  • Enhanced ASIO support and added support for AC ’97 / Soft Audio systems      
  • Added user adjustable “rear channel creation” support – adds off, clone, reverb and delay      
  • Added support for Realtek ALC655 codecs, Realtek ALC658 codecs, and 7.1 support for Realtek ALC850 codecs      
  • Added support for WMV-HD audio streams and WaveFormatExtensible calls      
  • Improved playback of mono content      
  • Addressed audio issues in numerous games and applications

    Windows XP/2K Only Features:
  • Support for Serial ATA controllers
  • Full NVIDIA RAID functionality on supported platforms
  • Improved compatibility with 3rd-party drive management, CD ripping and recording software.
  • Automatic DMA-mode fall-back when data errors are present due to poor cabling
  • Improved handling of various storage devices

    System Utility




     

    The NVIDIA System Utility has been around for a while now, but an updated version of the System Utility software along with an nForce2 Ultra 400Gb you will not want to be with out this little gem of a program. The overclocking and system control features built into the System utility is amazing. In one place you have control over virtually every tool needed to overclock, with options ranging from FSB speed and multiplier to CAS latency and chipset voltage. The reference board was a little buggy, but we are using a early BIOS and a few settings wouldn’t work such as chipset voltage, and multiplier, but FSB overclocking and changing CAS latencies on the fly was great. Unfortunately our reference board BIOS did not have any voltage options or multiplier adjustments, so the functionality was very limited. I expect this to not be a problem with retail boards. With NVIDIA working on future revisions of the system utility offering more stability, BIOS overclocking might become a thing of the past.


    nForce UDA Package

    NVMixer




    To control all of the audio settings, NVIDIA has included a tool called NVMixer. NVIDIA has done away with a lot of the advanced audio features like digital or analog. They made some changes to make installing multiple speaker systems less of a pain for less advanced users. With the new speaker setup wizard, installing 5.1 surround sound is a breeze for any user. With just a few clicks you can have 5.1 sound up and running without any problems.


     

    The NVMixer has a handy easy to use interface to control the volume of each speaker using 2 speaker setups all the way up to 5.1 surround sound. This makes finding the sweet spot very easy to accomplish. Under any surround sound mode you have control of the LFE frequency crossover and encoding options such as delay. You also have a graphic equalizer ranging from 63hz to 16khz.


     

    As mentioned earlier we had audio problems and could not accurately test the environmental sound settings. Hopefully when we have our hands on a retail board we can report back on this feature. Lastly, we have a page of information with all you need to know about your audio configuration. This page actually came in handy at troubleshooting our sound issues. We could verify the computer was processing the audio as the spectrum analyzer and VU meter was displaying audio output. The Spectrum analyzer and VU meters are displayed in every NVMixer window.


    nForce UDA Package

    NVIDIA Firewall
    Firewall Features:
  • Block outbound spoofed packets: NVIDIA Professional Firewall can block outbound IP packets if the source address is not an address assigned to the NVIDIA interface. This feature prevents your PC from being used by a hacker (or a Trojan horse) as a zombie machine in attacking other machines. It prevents the system from participating in distributed denial of service (DoS) attacks.
  • Block spoofed ARP packets: If machine A, on the same physical network as you, wants to intercept traffic between your machine and some other machine B, machine A can send an ARP reply claiming that B’s IP address maps to A’s MAC address. Therefore any traffic your machine tries to send to B will be sent to A instead. This becomes a DoS attack when machine A pretends to be the local router or server, like DHCP. Even worse, A can start sending out fake traffic as if it’s the server it’s spoofing.
  • Block UDPv4 with no UDP checksum: UDP packets have the option of whether or not to include checksums for its payload. If the checksum is not present, the packet’s checksum field is simply 0. NVIDIA
  • Firewall Professional can block zero-checksum UDP packets. Normally NVIDIA Firewall only drops UDP packets that have incorrect non-zero checksums but allow zero-checksum packets to pass.
  • Disallow DHCP server: To prevent someone from hijacking your system to act as a DHCP server, NVIDIA Firewall Professional can block packets to and from the local machine’s DHCP server and DHCPv6 server ports.
  • Disallow Promiscuous mode: This prevents someone from using your system as a packet-capturing machine on the local network and participating in certain network attacks.

    Security is becoming more and more necessary as hackers, crackers, and script kiddies find more interesting ways to break in to our systems. Microsoft has begun to bring the security of their operating systems up a notch with the soon to be released Service Pack 2 for Windows XP. They're also building the next version of Windows, Codename Longhorn, with security in mind.

    NVIDIA has taken it upon themselves to integrate a hardware based firewall solution within the Gigabit Ethernet on the nForce2 Ultra 400GB. A hardware based firewall can provide you more advanced features than what a stand-alone software firewall. A hardware firewall can also operate with hardly any impact on the performance of your system, unlike most software based firewalls. You wouldn't believe how many gamers will say that they don't run a firewall because it hurts the performance of their system while gaming. There are some users who say "I have a router with a built-in firewall or NAT, so I don't need a firewall running on my machine". This is totally not true due to the fact that most all routers do not block "outgoing" traffic. If outgoing traffic is not filtered, then your machine can be used to launch attacks on other web sites or servers, used for spamming other people, and other malicious things if your system was to become infected with a trojan or virus.

    The NVIDIA Firewall is a stateful filtering firewall that examines each packet of data that goes in and out of your system, which can also be changed to only filtering incoming or just outgoing traffic. Unlike software firewalls like ZoneAlarm, Blackice, and Norton Security, the NVIDIA firewall is driver based. Meaning when you boot in to Windows, you're safe from attacks soon as your Ethernet connection is established. Software firewalls do not protect your system until Windows has loaded and the software firewall has started, leaving you open to attacks during that time.

    NVIDIA's web-based firewall manager is the most featured packed consumer firewall that I have ever seen. You can configure just about any kind of option that you can imagine. One of my favorite features is the ability to create firewall profiles. For example, if you wanted to host a game of Battlefield Vietnam, create a profile with the ports needed to host the game, then select the profile and you're ready to host the game!

    NVIDIA said that they are not going to compete with firewall companies, but rather provide the companies access to their development information so that they may use NVIDIA's firewall driver to tap in to the chipset firewall.

    The "Network Access Manager", or NAM is what I like to call it, is where you can go to configure the firewall and see network information. You can get to the NAM (Network Access Manager) by clicking on the icon that will be on your desktop or start menu. After doing so, your default Internet Browser will be launched and will bring you to the NAM screen. I can not possibly show all of the settings that are within the Network Access Manager, but I will show you some of my favorite and most useful features.



    This is the main screen of the NAM. From here you can choose what you want to configure or see more information about. At the top of the screen, you have quick access to the main features of the NAM. On the left side there is "expandable" navigation menu's which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. Until you get more familure with the NAM, you could use the navigation in the center of the page because each item offers a description of what can be found if you click on it.




    This is the "Ethernet Basic Configuration" screen that allows you to adjust parameters of the firewall driver and define Ethernet settings. The two main features to note on this page is the "Speed Duplex" and "Driver Optimization" settings. You might already be familiar with the "Speed Duplex" setting, that allows you to adjust the "speed" of your Ethernet connection. The driver optimization screen allows you to adjust the NVIDIA firewall driver, to a desired profile. The profile options are: CPU Utilization, Multimedia, Throughput, and custom. For example if you set it to "CPU Utilization" the driver will operate in a way so that it takes up less CPU usage as possible. This is great for gamers or users on our Folding@Home Team, to squeeze every bit of performance out of your CPU.


    nForce UDA Package

    NVIDIA Firewall




    If you do not like any other default profiles, you may even setup a "custom" profile. This allows you to adjust several settings, but you should know a lot about the TCP/IP stack if you want to go that route.




    One feature I like is the graphical statistics that the NAM can generate on-the-fly. For example, on this screen it shows us how many packets has been sent and received. It also shows how many errors has been sent or received. This is helpful to troubleshoot your Ethernet connection.




    The main feature of the NAM is the firewall. The firewall can be setup in such a way that you'll never need to touch it again or it can be setup to suite your custom needs. The firewall basic configuration screen allows you to set basic profiles to suite your needs. The default and recommended profile is, "Medium". This profile will keep your system protected, but will not make your system "invisible" to the Internet. The "High" setting will make your system "invisible" on the Internet. When I say "Invisible" I mean if someone probes your machine, your machine will not respond even if the requested port is open or not. Your machine will simply not respond at all to their request.




    There is even a "Firewall Wizard" that can take you through the firewall configurations, step-by-step. For example, if you wanted to setup a Game Server you can click on the Game Server wizard and it will walk you through the process to setup your specific game server.


    nForce UDA Package

    NVIDIA Firewall




    If you're already familiar with firewalls and the TCP/IP stack, then you may want to just the "Advance Configuration". You will have dozens of settings that you can modify. You may choose to allow or block specific TCP options or even specific your own TCP "Rule".




    As with the Ethernet statistics display, you may also display the statistics of your firewall. The graphically display will show you the total number of Packets Or Connections, blocked or allowed.




    The NAM keeps very detailed logs of attacks, changed settings, and other things. While it does not display the information in real-time, you can manually "update" it by clicking the "refresh now" button. You may even "Export" the logs to a text file for further annalist. I would have like to of had the option to export the logs to a excel spreadsheet or other file formats. One problem I found with the firewall logs, is that there is no option to only see a list of events from a specific IP address. This is useful when someone is attacking your machine, and you want to grab all of the attack information that originated from their IP address, to email their ISP about abuse.

    For example, if you had a user attacking you it's going to be a hard task to swift through all of the logs to only find that specific attacking IP address. Maybe these features can come in a later updated version.




    We just had to test out the firewall to see how well it could hold up to a very hard attack from the outside. We also wanted to see how much CPU usage the firewall was going to use, while launching this attack. We sent 10,000 packets of data every second to TCP port 80. Clearly, this put a HUGE load on the firewall as the CPU usage hung around 75% most of the time. The GigE NIC operates off of the PCI bus, much like traditional intergraded NIC's and this makes the CPU load high under an attack or under intensive file transfering. The new nForce 3 250GB operates differently because it bypasses the PCI bus all together to provide much better performance and much less CPU load. However, we won't get in to that today :)


    Benchmarks
    Most of this review is to show what NVIDIA has brought to the table in terms of feature set, but what good is a feature set if performance is not up to par. So we used a few benchmarks and demos to see how the new nForce2 400GB stacks up to a know performer the Abit NF7-S based of the nForce2 ultra400 chipset. I know most of you are accustomed to seeing more benchmarks but this being a reference board we wanted to look at the feature set and will do a more detailed benchmark suite when we receive retail boards.

    Testing Platform
  • Abit NF7-S & NVIDIA nForce2 Ultra 400Gb Reference Board
  • 1GB PMI Turbo Memory CAS2 3-3-11
  • ATI Radeon 9800 Pro CAT 4.4
  • Maxtor 80GB 7200RPM SATA drive

    SiSoft Sandra Memory Test
    We will start the benchmarks off with the very popular SiSoft Sandra Memory test. The results were very impressive because the nForce2 400Gb showed a impressive increase in both Integer (ALU) and float (FPU) over the NF7-S.





    SiSoft Sandra Memory Test
    - Integer (ALU)
    - Float (FPU)
    nForce Ultra 400Gb
    3015
    2838
    nForce2 MCP-T
    2873
    2707


    MadOnion 3DMark 2001
    3Dmark2001 is a very popular benchmark and is very sensitive to overall system speed. Again we see increase compared to the nf7-S. The extra memory bandwidth helped the NF@ 400Gb squeak by the NF7-S



    MadOnion 3DMark2001SE
    - Score
    nForce Ultra 400Gb
    17125
    nForce2 MCP-T
    16918



    Benchmarks
    Farcry
    If you haven’t played this game yet you’re really missing out. Far Cry is one of the most system intensive games I have ever had the pleasure of loading on my system. Although it is more video card dependant, it gives a good idea of what to expect performance wise in future games. Both systems were neck and neck since the CPU was the bottle neck.



    FarCry
    - AVG FPS
    nForce Ultra 400Gb
    48.37
    nForce2 MCP-T
    48.10


    Unreal Tournament 2004
    Another popular game today is Unreal Tournament 2004, and is a very taxing even on high end systems. We chose to use ONS-onslaught for its wide open spaces and lush landscape, and DM-Rankin for its dark dreary factory scenery. On both systems UT2k4 average frame rates were very close, but the nForce2 400GB again performing slightly better





    UT2K4
    - ON-Torlan
    - DM-Rankin
    nForce Ultra 400Gb
    68.5
    73.4
    nForce2 MCP-T
    67.7
    92.1



    Benchmarks
    HDTach
    The nForce2 Ultra 400Gb took a commanding lead when looking at how much less CPU usage it uses versus the nForce2 MCP-T. There was also a slight increase in "READ" speed but not enough to make it a major advantage.
    HDTach IDE Test
    - Read Access Time
    - Read Burst Speed
    - CPU Usage
    nForce Ultra 400Gb
    14.5ms
    113.9MB/s
    13.4%
    nForce2 MCP-T
    14.5ms
    110.1MB/s
    24.1%



    Conclusion

    Jason's Thoughts
    Taking a step back and looking at the total package, not just the new hardware features (Gigabit LAN, Firewall), but the updated software package makes this one of the most full featured boards I have ever seen. A lot of people are saying Socket A is dead, but the nForce2 Ultra 400Gb is a slap in the face to those who said that. With the Cross Controller Raid and built-in Firewall this will make for one hell of a consumer board, or even server board for that matter. I would of like to of gotten a little more intimate with the overclocking options of the board but the early BIOS did not offer any multiplier adjustments. We will have to wait for retail boards to see how overclocking friendly the nForce2 Ultra 400Gb is. The only gripe I have is the missing SoundStorm APU as the SPDIF and Dolby digital encoding is very important to me as I’m sure it is to a lot of you. Other than that this is the Chipset to own if you are looking for Socket A motherboard. Factor in the price of a gigabit network card and a hardware firewall makes this an even more attractive chipset. Ultimately we will have to see what manufacturers have to offer from board layout to I/O configurations. NVIDIA has impressed me once again with there latest incarnation of the nForce2 chipset. More motherboards need to be this feature packed, not just hardware but software wise too. The hardware would be useless with out the awesome driver and system utility package offered by NVIDIA.

    Matt's Thoughts
    We did have a couple of problems with the reference board that we had. When playing audio it sounded as if there was not enough power being delivered to drive the audio, as we could barely hear the audio with the volume on MAX. Hopefully this was just an isolated case with our reference board, or can easily be fixed. I found a small bug in the Network Access Manager, where it would display a page that stated "Page could not be found" when navigating to the log files a specific way. I'm sure this could easily be fixed as it is only a software related bug.

    I have always been big in to the security side of things and now with NVIDIA providing an integrated hardware based firewall in the nForce2 Ultra 400Gb, it should bring a more secure computing environment to consumers. The firewall that is built-in the nForce 2 Ultra 400GB makes the chipset very attracting to me and if you consider a good software based firewall could set you back $50 bucks, the nForce2 Ultra 400Gb seems like the ticket to take. I love the NVIDIA UDA Package, as it provides all of the system drivers you need in one installation. This saves users time and the hassle of searching and downloading multiple drivers. Overclocking within Windows has come a long way with NVIDIA's System Utility. While we were not able to fully test all of settings because of an early reference board, NVIDIA has told us that are working on System Utility 2.0. While I cannot disclose when it will be released, it should provide more features for nForce based boards. However, version 2.0 will only support nForce2 boards and higher. NVIDIA's System Utility does not work on all motherboards currently. The motherboard vendors are required to send BIOS "hooks" to NVIDIA for them to unlock the features and to make the System Utility operate fully. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to get our hands on a nForce2 Ultra 400Gb retail board with System Utility support.

    To sum it up, I think NVIDIA has done a good job with the nForce2 Ultra 400Gb and has packed it with many great features like the GigE nic, firewall, and the assortment of RAID options. The native SATA support is also a big plus. I'm looking forward to seeing some vendor boards based on this chipset to see how they take advantage of all the features on the chipset.



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