Nvidia 780a Chipset Preview Page: 1

Introduction

Nvidia have just released the 780a chipset for AMD users and OC3D have been lucky enough to grab a board so we can take a better look at the latest and greatest from Nvidia. The board itself is an Asus Crosshair II which will have a full review of its own in the very near future and I will be referencing the board throughout but for now I want to give you a full run-down of the new chipset, its features and what new goodies it brings to the table.


Nvidia are no strangers to battling the CPU giants for chipset superiority, they have been waging war for years now and have been fighting battles on both fronts against Intel and AMD providing a worthy alternative. In the good old days, the nForce4 chipset even reigned supreme during AMD's heyday as it was an overclockers wet dream. Gamers were also supplied with the ability to SLI their high end GPU's and thus the 'Ultra gaming platform' was born. Nvidia were in pole position but somewhere along the line they lost the path of righteousness and thus nForce 5 and more recently nForce 6 were a very hit and miss affair, very akin to Marmite - you either loved it or you hated it. With nForce 7, Nvidia hope to turn back the clock and re-live a time when they were the teacher’s pet and shake off the 'unreliable', 'incompatible' shackles that have plagued the last two chipsets and are also keen to point out the 780a is a very different beast to the 780i, its Intel compatible sibling.

NVIDIA 780a SLI Diagram

The 780a chipset is clearly aimed at the high end AMD enthusiast and have deployed every marketing strategy in their repertoire, hoping to lure users away from the AMD flagship 790FX based motherboards which is its main target. Obviously the most prominent attraction to the 780a is the ability to run 'TRI SLI' but looking beneath the skin of this new beast there is much more than that to distinguish the new chipset from any other.



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Features 

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the board is the inclusion of what NVIDIA call mGPU (motherboard graphics processing unit). While this is hardly an innovation (on board VGA has been around for years), the 8400GS core on which the chipset version is based, is much more powerful than other on-board solutions and therefore capable of offering at the very least, low end entry in today's gaming world - I'm not for one minute saying this will run Crysis at 2560x1600 with all the trimmings but its certainly a step in the right direction if nothing else but to troubleshoot your own dedicated GPU should things go awry. This however is in retrospect as it is not what it was designed for. Hybrid SLI is the terminology NVIDIA like to use to pair two features of the 780a, Hybrid Power and Geforce Boost. 
 
 
780a Chipset nf200 Chipset
 
Stripping our Asus Crosshair II past its copper heatpipe we find the heart and soul of the 780a chipset, the 780a itself (above left) and the nForce200 chip (above right). I would much prefer to see an integrated heatspreader on these chips as the silicon is very easy to 'nibble' when removing the stock heatsinks should you be a little ham fisted. Intel chipsets now make use of the heatspreaders and are much more user friendly but it seems Nvidia don't consider the majority of users to rip apart a high end motherboard, fair one I guess. Luckily ours survived the process anyway so I can show you them the way NVIDIA intended (or not as the case may be).

Hybrid SLI Graph

Hybrid Power is a power saving feature that allows the chipset to alternate processing from your main GPU to the on-board GPU which will reduce energy consumption and cut down on the noise emitted from your PC when 3D power is not required such as browsing the internet or working on a spreadsheet etc. It is more than capable of running HD content with 100% video acceleration of MPEG-2, H.264 and VC-1 codecs. Of course when you feel like a quick stint on your favourite first person shooter the chipset will automatically switch back to the dedicated GPU providing you with the power you require. At the time of writing this only two dedicated GPU's are compatible with Hybrid Power and they are the 9800GTX and 9800GX2.

Geforce Boost on the other hand works in tandem with your graphics card (if it is supported) and provides an SLI scenario providing a, erm, boost to your VGA solution. Obviously this is aimed at the low end GPU users to gain any tangeable benefit and as such a perfect match would be the 8400GS.PureVideo HD
  
PureVideo HD provides high-definition video decode acceleration with post-processing to deliver HD content. It also includes HDCP capability for playing blue-ray and HD DVD movies at the highest possible quality.
 
Systems without PureVideo HD rely heavily on the CPU for HD codec processing which as a result can slow system responsiveness. However a system with PureVideo HD can take advantage of the on-board GPU to take on 100% of the processing of the HD codecs and in doing so the end user can continue to work as normal without the need to wait for the processing to finish before the system becomes useable once more.
 
With HD content rapidly becoming the norm for video playback this could be a very useful feature of the chipset in the near future.
 
FirstPacket Technology allows latency-sensitive applications and games to gracefully share upstream bandwidth so that  your priority application, such as on-line gaming, not notice the operation of other programs despite sharing the bandwidth. The ping in games therefore will not rise to such an extent as previously encountered and will allow you to get on with what you want to do while your bandwidth hogging applications work silently in the background. 
 
Mediashield has been around for a while now and is a common feature on previous Nvidia chipsets. That said, if you are a fan of Raid then MediaShield can now provide Raid 5 capability with up to 6 SATA drives linked into one volume. Multiple RAID arrays are also compatible with RAID 0, 1,  0+1 and 5 being supported. Perhaps the most useful feature of MediaShield is the ability to identify which drive has failed in an array which could be very time saving should you have a 6 disk array!
 
Nvidia 3-way/Quad SLI is the pinnacle of GPU performance with the ability to link 3 and 4 GPU's together in a 16 x 8 x 8 PCIe configuration and is perhaps the main feature which will attract potential buyers. Using a trio of 9800GTX NVIDIA claim that performance in 3D applications can be amplified by 2.8x which is a vast improvement on the scalability of previous incarnations if it is to be believed. Not only that but the awesome power of two 9800GX2's (2x2 GPU's) can be harnessed in a Quad SLI configuration to give you unparalleled gaming fluidity. Obviously you are going to need a pretty meaty PSU to power such a beast but compared to the cost of a quad SLI board along with dual G2X's, a 1kw psu is a mere drop in the ocean!
 
NVIDIA have also tweaked the link between the CPU and GPU to reduce the latency and optimise the bandwidth for CPU-GPU and GPU-GPU messages. This improved logic is split into two optimisations:
PWShort (Posted-Write Shortcut) is the ability of the PCIe controller to forward a message from the GPU directly to its destination. SLI configurations benefit from this as GPU's can now send a single update to all the other GPU's allowing the frame buffers to stay synchronised in effect reducing latency of the traffic and taking the stress of the memory-PCIe controller link.
 
Broadcast allows data to be converted from serial to parallel. Previously SLI worked by the GPU's receiving data from the CPU in serial format. The 780a chipset changes all that. The nForce 200 chip now receives the same signal from the CPU (via the 780a chip) but now splits the data and has the capability to transmit the data in parallel massively reducing congestion on the front side bus.


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Asus Crosshair II

The board we will be conducting our preliminary tests with is the Asus Crosshair II. While this is not a full review of the board (full in-depth review to come later) it should be enough to give us a little insight into the new offering from NVIDIA.

Asus Crosshair II Board Asus Crosshair II Board Side

The mainboard is part of the ROG (Republic Of Gamers) series and as such represents the high end release from Asus. The traditional white and blue slots on a black PCB are carried over from other ROG boards and as you can see the 780a chip immediately below the CPU socket has a large heatsink which is possibly an indication of the heat output of Nvidia's MCP. With 3 PCIe 16x ports it is clear that this board is aimed squarely at gamers who wish to make use of SLI configurations. What is interesting is the heatsink covering the mosfet area. Rather than surround the CPU socket with restrictive copper sinks Asus have crammed them all to one side providing a cleaner socket area for those who wish to use larger CPU heatsinks. A key feature of the Crosshair II is the implementation of 10 (8 for the CPU, 2 for the memory and HT controller) phase power regulation which should provide a more stable power delivery and filtering setup.

SupremeFX II SupremeFX II

Sound is delivered using a riser card, the SupremeFX II which is now commonplace among the ROG range of motherboards and while not exactly on par with Asus's own Xonar cards or indeed Creative's X-FI it its more than adequate should you not have or desire to use your own audio card.

Asus Crosshair II Contents Assu Crosshair II LCD

Contents are as per usual Asus standards, providing everything needed to get you up and running in no time at all. The LCD Poster (above right) is a handy little gadget that allows you to troubleshoot booting problems should they occur.

Asus Crosshair II Specs
 
As the spec above shows this is a feature packed board. With 3 x PCIe 16 speed slots, up to 12 USB ports. Firewire, eSATA, Dual Gigabit Lan controllers and of course the on board VGA. Everything is there for today’s multimedia connectivity apart from the now seemingly obsolete serial port.


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Test Setup 

Rather than use our normal test setup I wanted to see just how 'adequate' the on-board VGA really is. I don't expect it to be a full on gaming solution as that is not what it was intended for but it will certainly be interesting to see how it performs, especially as it will be 'borrowing' memory from the physical 2GB of Corsair. In the full review of the Asus Crosshair II we have something special planned but for now we will just be putting the on-board VGA through it's paces.
 
Motherboard: Asus Crosshair II
CPU: AMD Phenom 9600
Memory Modules: 2x1 GB Corsair 2GB DDR2 XMS2 DHX PC2-6400C4DHX (4-4-4-12)
Graphics card: N/A - On-board VGA
Hard Disk: 200GB Seagate barracuda 7200.7 IDE 8mb
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate 32bit inc service pack 1
CPU Cooling: Xigmatek HDT-S1283 (Air cooler)
Power Supply: Silverstone Strider 1000W

A fresh copy of Windows Vista Ultimate 32bit with SP1 installed along with the most recent drivers then applied. No applications/programs apart from the ones used in benchmarking were installed to ensure a totally clean fair environment to which you can base your comparison.
 
 
Benchmarks

Synthetic CPU & Memory Subsystem
• SiSoft Sandra
• Everest

Overclocking
• Prime95 ver25.6
• PC Probe II

File Compression & Encoding
• 7-Zip

Hard Disk I/O performance
• HDTach
• Sisoft Sandra XII 2008cc

3D Rendering
• 3Dmark 06
• Cinebench 10

3D Games
• Call of Duty 4
• Company of Heroes
 
 
Overclocking
 
It is common knowledge that the AMD CPU’s of late have not been great overclockers regardless of what motherboard has been used especially when compared to Intel AMD already seem to have binned their chips at the max level. Add to the fact that the CPU we have is a B2 revision (rather than the better clocking B3) which is reportedly very stubborn in the overclocking department should make this overclocking experience a very testing one. We will however, endeavour to get the best results possible on air cooling which hopefully will provide the end user with some insight as to the possibilities available with this motherboard. We are particularly interested in the power regulation with the 8+2 phase design and while only having a mid-top end air cooler available which no doubt limits the amount of vcore available to use safely, we will see how far we are able to push the vcore and what vdrop/droop is encountered when the CPU is under 100% load. 

 stock overclock

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I expected a much bigger overclock but I guess the CPU I have really is nothing special and despite my best efforts which includes 2 days of fiddling with the many BIOS options, the most I could squeeze out of it was little over 2.5ghz. I had similar luck with the max FSB of the board despite raising the voltages past what I would normally recommend. Any more than 220FSB, regardless of CPU multi and voltages, simply refused to POST. Despite the many voltage, CPU and memory tweaks the Crosshair has, it made little effect on the max FSB, emphasizing the fact that this board and therefore my overclocking were crippled by the Phenom in this review.
 
I still managed to beat the previous 200mhz overclock we had previously on the Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe albeit only by 20mhz. One good point to come out of this is that I didn’t notice ANY droop when putting the CPU under load – the vcore just didn’t budge – testament to the 8+2 phase power delivery the Crosshair II has.

It was a very frustrating couple of days testing and in the end I had to accept what I fealt was defeat. It’s a real shame especially as this board is crying out for a decent CPU, which hopefully AMD can deliver with later revisions of the Phenom.

Let’s see how the benchmarks fair.


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Sisoft Sandra
 
SiSoftware Sandra (the System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is an information & diagnostic utility capable of benchmarking the performance of individual components inside a PC. Each of the benchmarks below were run a total of five times with the highest and lowest scores being discarded and an average being calculated from the remaining three.  
 
1 
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
 
Everest
 
Everest is in many ways similar to Sisoft Sandra. Focusing mainly on Software and Hardware information reporting, Everest also comes with a benchmark utility suitable for testing the read, write and latency performance of the memory subsystem. Each of these benchmarks were performed a total of 5 times with the highest and lowest scores being discarded and an average calculated from the remaining 3. 
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
 
 7-zip
 
7-Zip is an open source winzip-style file compression utility that has the ability to compress and decompress many file formats including its own .7z compression scheme. 7-Zip also comes complete with its own benchmarking utility for gauging the compression and decompression speed of the system that it is installed on.
 
71
 
72
 
 
 
hd
 
HDTach is a free hard disk benchmarking program from SimpliSoftware. This benchmark is not only capable of producing results on hard disk access times but also CPU usage required during disk access. The "Long bench" was run a total of 5 times with the highest and lowest results being omitted and an average calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 

hd1

hd2

hd3

 
Results and Observations
The small overclock has resulted in an all round average increase in performance which is not surprising. Nonetheless it's always good to see the fruits of your labour and confirming that your system is running faster than previously. 
 


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Cinebench
Cinebench 10 is a benchmarking tool based on the powerful 3D software Cinema 4D. The suite uses complex renders to gauge the performance of the entire PC system in both single-core and multi-core modes. Testing was performed a total of 5 times with the highest and lowest results being omitted and an average created from the remaining 3 results.
 
10
 
11
 
12
  
 
3d
3DMark is a popular synthetic gaming benchmark used by many gamers and overclockers to gauge the performance of their PC's. All 3DMark runs were performed a total of 5 times with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
13
 
 
Call of Duty 4
 
Call of Duty 4 the latest instalment in a series of single/multiplayer games from Infinity Ward. The FPS was recorded with Fraps in the training level along with a short sprint outside. The test was run 5 times with the highest and lowest marks withdrawn and the average worked out from the remaining three results.
 
cod4
 
 
Company Of Heroes
 
Company of Heroes : Opposing Fronts is the sequel to the very popular game of the same forename and is also bundled with the Asus Crosshair II so it seemed a shame not to give it a whirl. The FPS was recorded with Fraps for 60 seconds and the same mission start was run 5 times with the highest and lowest marks withdrawn and the average worked out from the remaining three results.
 
COH
 
 
Results observations
I find these results quite impressive considering these benchmarks were run WITHOUT a dedicated graphics card and instead using on-board VGA. Obviously with all options set to their lowest possible and with the screen resolution set to 1024x768 the games don't look anywhere near as lush as they would with a graphics card but say for example your GPU was in RMA, this little feature could still allow you to get your gaming fix, albeit in a very basic fashion. 3DMark almost brought the 780a to a crawl, averaging just a laughable 6-7fps throughout the testing but nobody is going to be attempting any 3DMark world records with onboard VGA anytime soon anyway I guess.


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Conclusion

NVIDIA LOGO

NVIDIA have plainly pulled out all the stops to bring the 780a to the performance market. With Hybrid SLI technology and the ability to run up to 3 cards in SLI no-one can doubt that this chipset is going to be a gamers delight. Sadly our overclocking exploits were hampered by a restrictive CPU but if you have a chip that is up to the task I have no doubt that the Crosshair II (and thereby the 780a chipset) has the minerals to eek every last drop of performance from it.

I have shown that despite the on-board VGA not being designed to be a standalone VGA solution it is quite ample for day to day use and only shows it's weaknesses when asked to perform 3D tasks such as gaming at anything other than low settings. I for one would like to see onboard VGA become a feature on motherboards once again if for nothing other than to use as a troubleshooting aid.

The chipset does not appear to be a major heat source as with its 780i counterpart, feeling luke warm to the touch and with the motherboard not reporting temps of over 35c during our benchmarking runs it certainly reports to be very cool and efficient which is a plus as in the UK were expecting some hot weather this summer for a change.

In the very near future we will be analysing the 780a chipset once more with the Asus Crosshair II receiving the full OC3D treatment. We will also see how quad SLI scales with the new chipset but for now, the 780a on-board and very capable VGA will have to suffice.

 

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