Chaintech VNF4 Ultra

Author: Terren Tong
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, April 14th, 2005
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/s/vnf4ultra/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Introduction

The nForce 4 has been very successful since it has hit the market in December and for good reason - it is the only widely available PCIe solution available on the K8 platform. VIA, SiS and ATI all have some boards out but they are far and few between compared to the gamut of both the nForce 4 SLI and the nForce 4 Ultra. While we have taken a look at a couple of the cheaper K8T890 boards, both the Soltek SL-K890 and the Gigabyte, put up some good numbers versus the nForce 4 boards both of them were decidedly barebone as far as the feature set goes. NVIDIA has most of the bases covered on a well designed MCP unit with GbE and a hardware firewall and an up to date disk controller. VIA, NVIDIA's biggest competitor on the AMD side at this point, falls flat with the southbridge unit on current K8T890 boards which has features more akin to what was seen in first generation K8 boards.

Today will be the first time where we take a peek at a lower cost nForce 4 Ultra board with Chaintech's VNF4 Ultra Zenith as the test subject. It has been a while since we last looked at a Chaintech board and that was the 7NJS Ultra Zenith which garnered praise for using a C-Media audio codec and the now infamous LanParty approach with a lot of extras aimed at enthusiasts. The Ultra Zenith however is aimed towards the more mainstream power user with a decidedly barebones approach. Let's see how it makes out.

Specifications

Form Factor

CPU

Chipset

Main Memory

Expansion Slots

Audio Subsystem

SATA

UltraDMA IDE Ports

FDD

FDD

Embedded system monitoring

NVIDIA Gigabit Ethernet

NVIDIA ActiveArmor

Boot-Block Flash ROM

Software

Rear panel I/O ports

Internal I/O connectors

There are a couple things of note. Notice that the power supply is specified to be 24-pin ATX connector and NOT a regular 20 pin. Some boards are engineered to accept either or but since the Chaintech specifically mentions 24-pin that is what we ended up doing our testing with so prospective buyers who are not committed to buying a power supply along with a new board may want to note this.

The specifications are a little off also - there is no SPDIF output on the rear panel nor is there an included PCI bracket. A quick jaunt through the manual does not show where the SPDIF headers on the motherboard may be. I think it is safe to write this feature off as a misprint on Chaintech's part. The nForce 4's MCP provides AC'97 functionality that is output through the ubiquitous Realtek ALC850 codec.

*edit A reader has pointed out that the blue audio jack, traditionally the line-in can also serve as a SPDIF out with an appropriate connector. Apologies for the confusion

The rest of the feature set is standard nForce 4 Ultra. There is no secondary ethernet controller, nor is there an additional RAID controller. This is not a knock on the VNF4; it is aimed at those want the rich feature set of the nForce 4 without the extra frills and gimmicks. For a more indepth look at nForce 4 chipset, we encourage readers to take a look at our nForce 4 preview where we take a closer look at topics such as ActiveArmor and the updated disk controller.

Box Contents

Besides, the motherboard, Chaintech includes just enough for the end user to just get started with a pair of SATA cables, a molex to dual SATA power converter, a 80-pin IDE cable, a floppy cable, a manual, a sturdy backplate, a package of processor goop and a couple of CDs. One CD contains the nForce driver package while the second is a collection of utilities and programs.

Board Layout

The VNF4 has a very similar layout to the DFI nF4 series. The first thing that users will probably notice is the positioning of the memory slots. Instead of the traditional place to the right of the processor, Chaintech has also moved the DIMM slots above the processor.

ATX power connector placement is a little bit strange, both the 24-pin and 4-pin connectors are on the left beside the processor. While I do like the fact that they are not split up, the left side of processor is an awkward place to put them as the extra cabling cannot be tucked away neatly in an open drive bay. The power supply cables will also end up impeding airflow a bit somewhat as they will have to pass underneath the exhaust fan on the PSU.

Directly to the right of the processor socket are the two IDE connectors and directly below them are the SATA channels. The IDE headers are in a nice central location so for those with optical drives located high in the case, it will not be as much of a stretch. The floppy connector is located below the SATA ports.

There is a large heatsink fan unit that covers the MCP. Without a second x16 slot, Chaintech can take some liberties with the profile of the heatsink - on all of the SLI boards, this is not possible because the MCP sits directly at the end of the x16 slot meaning that cards will bump into taller coolers.

There are a total of 3 legacy PCI, a single x16 PCIe and a pair of x1 PCIe slots. Both of the x1 slots are located above the x16 slot so dual slot cards will end up eating up one of the PCI slots. It is good to see Chaintech include 3 PCI slots as currently they are still more useful to the end user than the x1 PCIe slots due to the lack of peripherals available for the latter.

The processor socket is located in a central location on the motherboard. For those looking to run oversize coolers like Zalman's CNPS7700-AlCu this is important as the width of the cooler hanging off the board will interfere with the power supply in many cases that do not have a lot of clearance between the top of the motherboard to the powersupply.

The back panel for the VNF4 is standard fare with the highlights being four USB2 ports, enough 1/8" mini jacks for 7.1 channel sound output and a single GigE connector. With the lack of any expansion brackets for additional USB2 connectors, it would have been better to see a few extra USB ports on the back as four is not too many. I personally run a keyboard, mouse, 2 cameras, an external drive, printer, RF module and a USB key on my home computer so more is better - and necessary.

BIOS Settings at a Glance

Here is straight up summary of the BIOS settings for overclocking the VNF4 Ultra. Commentary is best served cold and will be covered in more detail on the following page.

CPU Frequency200-400 Mhz in 1 Mhz increments
Memory Divider1:1, 5:6, 2:3, 1:2
Processor Multiplier (Hammer Fid Control)4x - Processor Max in 1x increments
Processor Voltage0.9 to 1.55v in 0.025v increments, 1.55-1.7v in 0.05v increments
Memory Voltage2.7V- 2.9V in 0.1V increments
Chipset Voltage 1.6-1.7V in 0.05V increments
PCIe Clock 100-145Mhz in 1 Mhz increments

CAS Latency

2, 2.5, 3
tRASAuto, 5T-15T
tRCD Auto, 2T-7T
tRPAuto, 2T-7T
Command Rate 1T, 2T
Read Preamble Value2ns-9.5ns in 0.5 ns increments
Async Latency Value

2-11ns in 1ns increments

S/W Memory Hole RemappingDisabled/Enabled
MTRR Mapping Mode Continuous/Discrete
Bottom of 32-bit IO0000-00E0
SATA Spread Spectrum Disabled/Down Spread
PCIe Clock SpectrumDisabled/Down Spread

The BIOS In Detail

Before we pop into the BIOS there are several useful things that Chaintech has on the main boot screen that no one else has (but should) including the actual processor clockspeed instead of the just the model number of processor. Memory speed and timings are also displayed which is handy when weird dividers and high FSB speeds come into play. The final thing is a POST code displayed right to the right of the screen to conveniently help with troubleshooting. While the POST code on boot screen is very clever, there is no physical LED set on the board itself which kind of makes this feature a bit on the questionable side since this is probably most helpful when the board is not POSTing. In any case all three of these features are very nice and other manufacturers should take note of it.

Chaintech goes with a standard AwardBIOS that should look familiar to pretty much all people who've poked around inside the BIOS before.

The Standard CMOS Features have all the drive channels listed when it is not in RAID mode. Channel 0 and 1 are regular IDE connectors while 2-5 are the SATA connectors.

Lots of stuff to look at in Advanced BIOS but probably not too much that needs to be changed. Boot device priority will be the main one that is set here. The option toggle the POST Code display is at the very bottom.

Advanced Chipset Features has some HT settings available to play around with. I would prefer the HT Frequency setting to be listed under the Frequency/Voltage Control section rather than here. There are a couple other miscellaneous settings that probably do not need to be set. The paranoid may want to enable Flash BIOS protection but that's about it.

Integrated Peripherals is organized with three subsections, IDE Function Setup, Onboard Device and SuperIO Device. IDE Function setup has the settings for enabling/disabling RAID. Like with other nForce boards, the specific drives to be used in RAID arrays can be set individually. Other options include DMA settings which probably do not need to be touched unless you own an older drive that is a bit wonky.

Under Onboard Device are USB options settings and for those adding in a fancy soundcard the onboard AC97 audio can be disabled here.

SuperIO Device is not very interesting. The legacy ports and their associated interrupts can be changed around here or disabled completely.

Power Management Setup has options for how the computer hibernates. This is not something I use so I'll refrain from making comments here.

PnP/PCI Configurations is much like the menu found on pretty much any other motherboard. The PCI Display gets priority and most users may want to go ahead and change that to PCIEx.

PC Health has voltages, temperatures and fan speeds listed. It is curious that Chaintech chooses not to list the fan speed for the MCP cooler. A shutdown temperature can be specified with the options being, 60, 65 and 70C. There are no options to vary the fan speed with regards to the temperature so those looking for a near silent PC when it is not in use may want to keep this in mind.

Frequency/Voltage Control is where the action is at. CPU Frequency/LDT Bus/FSB or whatever the preferred term is this week is front and center. Frequencies of 200-400 Mhz are selectable through a list. Memory options save for the voltage is accessed through its own submenu.

The memory timing options are a bit more on the simplistic side and most of the other PCIe 939 boards that we have taken a look at are more fleshed out on this front save for Gigabyte's value oriented GA-K8VT890-9 . The Ultra Zenith would have benefited from more dividers and a few more timing options and hopefully Chaintech will have this done for a future BIOS update. Processor voltage is adjustable to a fairly high 1.7V. Unlike the processor voltage however, DIMM and chipset voltage are on the more conservative side.

The nForce 4 Chipset

For readers that would like a more indepth look at nForce 4 chipset, we encourage you to take a look at preview of the nForce 4 from last fall where we cover the feature set in more depth.

Benchmark Setup

Our benchmark system consisted of the following:

As per the request of Chaintech, BIOS Version 2.0 was used for testing purposes. At the time of testing, there was a BETA version labeled 2.0a and at the time of writing it looks like that it has been updated to version 3.0. The only change seems to be the addition of fan control which we made a point of noting that it was lacking in the previous section.

A pair of K8T890 boards and a nForce 4 board, DFI's decidely high end nF4 Ultra-D are also included in this particular review.

A list of benchmarks performed follows:

PCMag Business Winstone 2004

For a value board, the Zenith is off to a good start coming out slightly ahead in Business Winstone. The half point between first and last is not insignificant with PCMag's Winstone.

PCMag Multimedia Winstone 2004

The VNF4 again does very well in Multimedia Content Creation and the gap between it and the DFI nF4 is greater than what was seen in the previous test.

Sisoft Sandra

Despite some good numbers in the PCMag suite, the VNF4 Ultra heads up the rear here. Differences are very small though being in the neighbourhood of less than a single percentage point between first and last place. The nForce 4 boards are consistently scoring just slightly lower than the K8T890 boards in the Sandra memory test.

HDTach IDE Testing

Not much of a difference at all in any single drive IDE implementation. Processor usage between the four boards is in the margin of error for testing. The spread for the burst rate is just merely 0.7MB/s.

HDTach SATA Testing

The MCP on the nForce 4 has a bit more juice than the VIA 8237R southbridge from yesteryear. The 8% difference in throughput is pretty large and for those that are planning on RAID configurations, I suspect the gap will grow even wider.

USB2 Throughput

USB2 throughput on the VNF4 is very good coming in at second place just behind the Soltek K8T890 board. Processor usage remained very low also.

LAN Throughput

LAN Througput on the nForce 4 series is very good. The VNF4 is roughly average in comparison to other nForce 4 board implementations in terms of throughput and it is definitely better than the general add in chip solution found on the K8T890 boards.

When comparing processor usage relative to throughput, the nForce 4 definitely has the edge again. While the Marvell solution on the Gigabyte board has very respectable throughput, the processor usage is through the roof. For testing purposes here we are still using the 6.39 driver set which we noted had a problem with ActiveArmor and connection offloading. Last week we were finally able to get a hold of a driver build that has a working implementation of ActiveArmor. Processor usage on the VNF4 dropped down into the 26-28% range while keeping up with the throughput, a very impressive feat. While this is not quite the 20% that was quoted, this is still a significant drop. Special thanks to NVIDIA for their continued patience in working with us through this one. The driver set with the fixed ActiveArmor is not publically available yet but we have been assured that this will get rolled into the next driver update.

Rightmark Sound Tests

Not every sound codec supports the same number of channels which affects the overall scores here a bit. The VNF4 supports 50 Directsound channels, 128 software Directsound3D channels, 48 Hardware accelerated D3D channels and 48 hardware accelerated D3D and EAX channels. 32 sound buffers were used for the tests below for the VNF4. The GA-K8VT890-9 in contrast has a 25/128/25/25 set up going so keep that in mind while perusing the processor usage shown below.

The VNF4 handles 2D sound streams like a cool breeze. Processor usage is slightly lower than what was seen on the Gigabyte board and much lower than both the DFI nF4 and the Soltek boards.

The fewer supported channels on the GA-K8VT890 give it a fairly large boost when compared to the rest of the boards in the lineup.

The VNF4 does pretty well with EAX thrown into the mix too. Do remember that it does have the benefit of newer drivers compared to the Soltek and DFI boards.

Call of Duty Sound Test

The lofty numbers seen in Rightmark don't exactly pan out in gaming - the VNF4 rounds up the rear by a fair margin especially with EAX turned on. Both the nForce 4 based boards take a relatively higher hit when compared to the K8T890 boards.

MP3 Encoding

Not much of a difference in MP3 encoding as it's a three second spread over 15 minutes. It's probably a better idea to splurge more on the processor if all you do is spend all day ripping CDs rather than spending extra money on the motherboard.

XviD Encoding

There is a bigger spread in XviD encoding compared to MP3 but not by much. Less than an one percent difference in speed seperates the top from the bottom.

Comanche 4

Halo

The VNF4 puts up a good showing here and, statistically is tied for the lead with the speedy Soltek board.

X2: Rolling Demo

The VNF4 and the nF4 Ultra are a ways behind the K8T890 boards in X2.

Call of Duty

Both the DFI nF4 and the Chaintech VNF4 are slightly slower than the K8T890 boards with roughly a 2% difference seperating the Soltek and the VNF4.

UT2k4

Again, the VNF4 is a touch slower here to the tune of about 2% behind the front runners.

Half-Life 2

The VNF4 distances itself from the Gigabyte board quite nicely but is not quite on pace with the front runners.

DOOM 3

Not much needs to be said here that has not already been done so. Again the magical 2% comes into play because that's roughly the gap between the VNF4 and the DFI/Soltek boards.

Overclocking

Overclocking on the VNF4 was a very pleasant surprise after some initial frustration. There were a couple oddities I did run into and the first is a serious one; leaving the HT bus on Auto and raising the FSB to 240+ is not a good idea as the Windows registry ended up getting corrupted a couple times resulting in the a need to reinstall Windows. I do not know if this is an issue on other nForce 4 boards but this should not happen. Dropping the HT bus seems to remedy the issue however. The second is the real clockrate of the processor tends reported by the main POST screen tends to get very off - for example, the processor running at 5 x 400Mhz was being incorrectly reported at ~500Mhz.

The registry corruption led me to be a bit wary about the overclocking abilities of the board but it looks like my concerns were unfounded. We have a good idea where our processor limits are as far as maximum clockspeed goes. To isolate how far the board itself can go, we take the processor out of the equation and see how far we can take the processor bus. Overclocking is a combination of the processor limits and board limits, in the case of the Athlon 64, it is limit of the processor bus.

The processor bus was steadily pushed to the 300 Mhz mark with no hiccups. The Chaintech board then started hitting DFI territory in the 360 range but pressed on still. We were in fact able to push the processor bus all the way up to 400 Mhz and the Chaintech held up under Prime95 for roughly 19 hours before we called it a day.

Conclusions

With a street price of roughly 142$ Canadian (and alternatively, 89$ US), Chaintech's VNF4 Zenith Value Edition is a good alternative to some of the other cheaper boards at this price point as the feature rich nForce 4 board is arguably a better solution than VIA's K8T890 though benchmarks have the two platforms fairly equal. The low price point does means that there are very few extras included - like with the Gigabyte K8VT890-9 Chaintech includes enough to get started but does not attempt to throw in any extra value added items.

The board layout for the VNF4 is fairly good. The only oddity is the placement of the ATX header which is awkwardly on the left side of the board. The three legacy PCI slots is a good thing seeing as how there is still a lack of PCIe x1 components. A few more USB2 ports on the back would have been a good thing also, as the four there will get filled up pretty quickly even by the casual end user.

On the benchmark side of things, it was a bit more mixed. The VNF4 is not always the fastest and in the last series of benchmarks it lagged behind the leaders steadily by roughly 2% but performance in more office oriented applications were consistently very good.

For the enthusiast, the Chaintech ran up a new record in our lab as far as the processor bus is concerned and maxed out at a full 400 Mhz. A couple areas of improvement would be more memory timing options and making more dividers available to the end user. Processor voltages are quite good but the memory voltages are on the conservative side. The board itself seems to be capable of a lot and if Chaintech is more aggressive on what is exposed in the BIOS this could be the budget enthusiast board to get.

At only a few dollars more than the budget Gigabyte GA-K8VT890-9, the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra is an absolute steal for the enthusiast on a budget and is highly recommended for anyone looking for a scorcher for overclocking that bests even DFI's nF4 when it comes to pushing the processor bus.

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