NVidia unveils NForce2

After its first successful foray into the chip-set business last year with NForce, Nvidia Corp. hopes to tempt PC performance hounds yet again with NForce2, announced here on Monday.

The new chip set is for use with PCs running CPUs from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Nvidia expects it to appear on motherboards as early as September, and in vendors' systems by year's end. With NForce2, Nvidia is emphasizing top-notch system-level performance while offering PC makers an array of graphics and connectivity options.

Faster Platform

To improve the PC's overall speed, the NForce chip set offers a 33-MHz frontside bus and two memory controllers. The memory system is called Dual DDR and offers a whopping 6.4 gigabytes per second of combined memory bandwidth.

"With the two memory controllers, we have cut latency in half," says Brian Huynh, product manager for the NForce2. Latency is the delay between the time data is requested from memory and when it's delivered to the CPU. Memory quantity shouldn't be a problem, either: The chip set supports up to 3GB of 400-MHz DDR memory.

The original NForce also used two memory controllers in a system called TwinBank. However, NForce's top throughput was 4.2 GBps, and it supported a maximum of 1.5GB of memory.

The NForce 2's 6.4-GBps memory bandwidth will allow it to accommodate future graphics cards, including those that use AGP 8X, Huynh says. According to NVidia, AGP 8X requires 2 GBps of bandwidth, on top of the processor's 2.1-GBps requirement.

"AGP 8X is going to suck up a lot of bandwidth," he says. "Most chip sets with only one memory controller will already be full when you add AGP 8X to the frontside bus. We exceed the requirements."

Multiple Flavors

Motherboards based on the NForce2 will come in a variety of flavors, with NVidia tossing out acronyms like party favors. The baseline System Platform Processor (SPP) offers the core memory architecture and AGP 8X support, while the Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP) includes a GeForce4 MX processor running at 200 MHz.

System builders piecing together a high-performance PC will likely use the SPP chip, paired with a stand-alone graphics card, in a combination NVidia calls the NForce2-ST. Those wanting to cut costs, while still getting good graphics performance, will go with the ICP in a configuration NVidia has dubbed NForce2-GT, he says.

Huynh expects NForce2's IGP to offer graphics performance in the same range as graphics cards based on the company's GeForce4 MX 420 and 460 products, easily outrunning other integrated graphics products. Plus, the vast majority of systems that use NVidia's integrated graphics solution will also offer an AGP slot, he says. Down the road, should users decide they need better graphics performance, they can plug a new graphics card into the slot, disabling the IGP.

The IGP offers yet another useful feature: support for dual display ports. Dual-monitor capabilities used to require a separate graphics board, but NVidia has integrated it into NForce 2, calling it NView. To accommodate the additional monitor port, NVidia moved the traditional serial port to a riser card, Huynh says.

"NView gives the motherboard vendors the ability to offer two monitor ports on the back of the motherboard," he says. The NForce2's MPEG decoding capabilities also make it DVD- and HDTV-ready. That means if your PC doubles as your multimedia centerpiece, you're in for a nice upgrade, he says.

Connectivity Choices

The second major chip option in the NForce2 chip set arsenal is the Media Communication Processor (MCP), also announced here today. Here again NVidia will offer vendors two options: the MCP and MCP-T (turbo).

The MCP-T is the premium chip, offering more features than the less-expensive MCP, which essentially covers all the networking and audio basics.

As one example of the MCP-T's high-end features, it has two 10/100 ethernet ports instead of one, and they can operate concurrently. One is based on NVidia's technology, the second on 3Com technology.

That means SOHO users can have one connected to a WAN and the second through their LAN, Huynh says. The dual connectivity also lets users take advantage of Windows XP's built-in Internet Connection Sharing and Internet Connection Firewall.

"In the future, the MCP will serve as a cornerstone for any type of network," he says. "The pipe will get bigger with gigabit connectivity and offer both wired and wireless support."

The MCP-T also offers better sound than the MCP. Whereas the MCP has bare-bones support for AC '97 audio, the MCP-T includes the same Dolby Digital 5.1-capable chip that can be found in Microsoft's Xbox gaming console.

Finally, both the MCP and MCP-T offer USB 2.0 support, but only the MCP-T offers integrated IEEE 1394A support as well.

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Joel Strauch

PC World

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