Nvidia's nForce 790i SLI Ultra chipset

By Koushik Saha on 20.3.08

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Barely three months have passed since Nvidia launched its high-end nForce 780i SLI chipset, and already the green team has another round in the chamber. To be fair, the 780i wasn't so much a new design as a second-coming of the nForce 680i decked out with PCI Express 2.0 support via a custom SLI bridge chip. The 780i wasn't the most elegant answer to the 32 second-generation PCI Express lanes lurking in Intel's X38 Express chipset, but it was the best Nvidia could do at the time to keep up with the Joneses. Today, however, Nvidia's real next-generation core logic arrives in the nForce 790i SLI and its spoiler-equipped Ultra variant.

Unlike its predecessor, the nForce 790i SLI has an all-new north bridge chip bristling with 32 lanes of bandwidth-rich PCIe 2.0 goodness. Within it also lies Nvidia's first DDR3 memory controller, which has been carefully tweaked with Penryn in mind. The 790i has native support for 1600MHz front-side bus speeds, too. And, of course, everything comes neatly packaged on a fresh motherboard design tuned for overclocking and packed with ESA functionality.This is Nvidia's answer to the X48 Express—the very flagship of Intel's chipset aristocracy—leading us to a heavyweight bout for high-priced bragging rights and technical superiority. Keep reading to see if Nvidia has managed to unseat the incumbent.Nvidia has made a habit of recycling older chipset components, so the nForce 780i SLI's 680i underpinnings and bodged PCI Express 2.0 functionality weren't much of a surprise. But the 790i is different. It's fresh silicon, albeit fabbed on a 90nm process that's starting to look a little antiquated next to the 55 and 65nm tech used to fab AMD's latest chipsets. Gone is the 780i's LinkBoosted PCI Express 1.1 connection to an auxiliary PCIe 2.0 bridge chip, and in its place, 32 lanes of second-generation PCI Express in all its 5.0GT/s glory.

This native PCI Express implementation inherits a couple of SLI-specific optimizations from the nForce 200 bridge chip, as well. Among those functions is a posted-write shortcut that allows the PCI Express controller to pass messages directly between graphics cards without having to hit main memory. A broadcast function also allows the PCIe controller to take a single command from the CPU and distribute it across multiple graphics cards, saving the CPU from having to generate multiple commands for multiple cards while reducing congestion on the front-side bus.

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