Articles: Mainboards

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Nvidia’s entry into the market of chipsets for Intel Core 2 family processors was not exactly a success. Granted, the Nvidia nForce 680i SLI has no rivals in terms of formal characteristics as its capabilities surpass Intel’s, let alone AMD’s, alternatives, but the specification alone does not mean everything nowadays. Neither of the off-the-shelf mainboards based on the nForce 680i SLI that we’ve checked out in our labs so far has avoided our criticism. The products on the reference design (for details see our Nvidia nForce 680i SLI Chipset Review) and the ASUS Striker Extreme all have innumerable small problems that can spoil a fastidious user’s impression from the mainboard. And what is especially discouraging, mainboards on the top-end chipset from Nvidia are indecently expensive. That’s the main reason why the nForce 680i SLI cannot be expected to achieve universal popularity. The Intel P965 is still the most demanded chipset for desktop Core 2 systems.

This situation can change soon, though, as Nvidia has began shipping its new nForce 650i SLI chipset, a cheaper version of the expensive nForce 680i SLI. First mainboards on the new chipset have already appeared in shops at prices comparable to mainboards based on Intel’s chipsets. Considering the characteristics of the nForce 680i SLI, we can expect the new mainboards to have a very appealing functionality/price ratio. In this review we will discuss the ASUS P5N-E SLI mainboard, one of the first products on the Nvidia nForce 650i SLI chipset.

But before we scrutinize this promising solution, we have to say a few words about the Nvidia nForce 650i SLI chipset itself as its positioning in the midrange price sector obviously implies some functional limitations. You can see them right away in the flowchart.

As you see, the main difference of the Nvidia nForce 650i SLI from the more advanced 680i SLI is that it has fewer PCI Express lanes, which affects the implementation of SLI technology. The nForce 680i SLI has a total of 46 PCI Express lanes, but the nForce 650i SLI has only 18. As a result, the senior version of the chipset implements SLI technology as PCI Express x16 + x16 and additionally offers a PCI Express x8 bus for a physics accelerator whereas the nForce 650i SLI supports SLI as PCI Express x8 + x8 and doesn’t offer any additional bus for a physics accelerator. It is easy to explain. Although the nForce 680i SLI and nForce 650i SLI are based on the same North Bridge chip (C55 SPP), they have absolutely different South Bridges. The South Bridge of the nForce 650i SLI chipset is far less functional and this is not limited to its having fewer PCI Express lanes.

Particularly, the nForce 650i SLI has only one Gigabit Ethernet controller instead of the senior chipset’s two, four instead of six Serial ATA-300 ports, and eight instead of ten USB 2.0 ports. On the other hand, the nForce 650i SLI offers two Parallel ATA-133 channels which is not a common thing for a modern chipset to have. It doesn’t seem strange, though, when you learn that the South Bridge of the nForce 650i SLI is nothing else but the nForce 430 MCP, which has been long known to us by the integrated nForce 6150 chipset. Nvidia knows the art of unification perfectly!

Besides the above-mentioned things, some capabilities of the nForce 650i SLI are disabled on the mainboard BIOS level. Thus, although it uses the same North Bridge as the nForce 680i SLI does, the cheaper chipset lacks official support for Nvidia LinkBoost technology and for high-speed memory with EPP. These limitations can hardly matter for experienced users who prefer to configure their systems manually, though.

Now, let us put everything together:

So, the Nvidia nForce 650i SLI chipset seems to be able to become a foundation of a full-featured system if you don’t care that it doesn’t support SLI according to the PCI Express x16 + x16 design. And it can surely be viewed as a strong opponent to the Intel P965.

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