Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE (NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra): Can You Have Good Hardware at a Low Price?

The nForce4 Ultra-based mainboard from Chaintech is among the least expensive products in its class. We are going to check out if this fact affected its consumer characteristics in any way. At the same time we will continue our study of NVIDIA’s new PCI Express-supporting chipset for the Socket 939 platform.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/19/2005 | 03:57 PM

NVIDIA Corporation’s active and aggressive behavior in terms winning the market of chipsets for AMD processors is simply astonishing. Starting with their nForce2, a niche solution for PC enthusiasts, NVIDIA has been steadily accumulating strength and now controls over 50% of the Athlon 64 chipset market. That said, NVIDIA’s solutions are still intended for demanding users in the first place, while users of inexpensive mainboards and many system integrators still prefer chipsets from VIA and SiS, just because these Taiwanese companies are offering better value alternatives.

 

The ongoing transition to the PCI Express bus may change this state of things. While the Taiwanese manufacturers cannot yet begin mass shipments of PCI Express-supporting chipsets, NVIDIA remains the only mass provider of such solutions. Therefore even the makers of inexpensive mainboards have to start using chipsets from the nForce4 family.

There is actually a member of that family which is specifically designed for inexpensive systems. This chipset lacks some of the more advanced features typical of the nForce4 Ultra/SLI, is devoid of the hardware network protection system called ActiveArmor and does not support the Serial ATA II interface. Some mainboard manufacturers consider this too big a loss, however, and try to create something with the full nForce4 Ultra functionality on the one hand, but at a modest price on the other. Today we are going to take a closer look at an example of such a product combining high functionality with lower price.

Chaintech is one of the companies, who attempted to put the idea into life: this is how VNF4 Ultra VE mainboard was actually born. This model belongs to the Zenith series which is another way of saying “for enthusiasts”, but the VE suffix is fleshed out as “Value Edition” and this makes us regard this product a little differently. So, we’ve got a product for economical enthusiasts, and this alone should have attracted our interest. In this article we will try to administer an unprejudiced judgment to this mainboard. We will do our best to answer objectively the following questions: is it really any good for an overclocker and did it suffer greatly because of the fact that it is actually an inexpensive product?

Specification and Accessories

You can tell the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE is an inexpensive mainboard when you take a look at the snapshot:

But it does have those PCI Express slots and is really based on the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset. That’s already enough to become a bestseller. Still, one feels regretful recalling a previous mainboard from Chaintech, the luxurious ZNF3-250 model on the nForce3 250Gb. Little is left of the past glory. Just read this specification:

Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE

CPU

AMD Athlon 64 for Socket 939

Chipset

NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra

HyperTransport bus

1 GHz

Clock generator frequencies

200-400MHz (with 0.5-1MHz increment)

Overclocking-friendly functions

Adjustable processor Vcore, Vmem and Vchipset
Independently adjustable PCI Express bus frequency

Memory

4 DDR DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM

PCI Express slots

1 x PCI Express x16
2 x PCI Express x1

PCI expansion slots

3

USB 2.0 ports

10 (4 – on the rear panel)

IEEE1394 ports

None

ATA-100/133

2 ATA-133 channels

Serial ATA-150

4 Serial ATA-300 channels (with RAID support)

IDE RAID support

RAID 0, 1, 0+1

Integrated sound

8-channel AC97 codec: Realtek ALC850

Integrated network

Gigabit Ethernet (Vitesse VSC8201RX Gigabit Ethernet PHY)

Additional features

None

BIOS

Phoenix-AwardBIOS v6.00PG

Form-factor

ATX, 305mm x 220mm

By the way, Chaintech offers another, even less expensive mainboard (the VNF4 VE model) on the same PCB. This non-Ultra version differs from the Ultra counterpart by the nForce4 chipset supposedly used instead of the nForce4 Ultra. In other words, the Chaintech VNF4 VE lacks Serial ATA 3Gb/s, and NVIDIA Firewall 2.0 supplied with this mainboard works on the software level only. Otherwise, the two mainboards have the same functionality.

But as you remember, we are reviewing the VNF4 Ultra VE version now. The accessories supplied with this product are very meager (but what would you expect from a value-edition product?). So, we found the following things in the mainboard box:

Not much, but the potential buyer should rejoice about the price, rather than grieve about the accessories. The price is going to be very appealing – the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE will probably become the best value mainboard on the nForce4 Ultra chipset. Let’s keep this fact in mind and go on with our examination of the mainboard features.

Closer Look

Once again recalling the meaning of the “VE” abbreviation in the name of the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE mainboard, our description of the additional functions of the product isn’t going to take much of your time. In fact, the mainboard owes all its capabilities to the chipset. But the chipset is nForce4 Ultra and this says a lot.

As you know from our earlier reviews, the nForce4 Ultra is quite an advanced chipset with almost every function necessary today. Let me list them for you once again in reference to our today’s reviewed mainboard.

First of all we have to point out that Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE supports modern Socket 939 processors (130nm or 90nm cores) with 1GHz HyperTransport. So, the mainboard supports dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM, which you install into the four DDR DIMM slots. The slots are color-coded, and you install pairs of modules into the same-color slots to enable the dual-channel memory access. Like on the EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra mainboard that we tested earlier (see our article called EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra Mainboard Review: Meet NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra Chipset!), the DIMM slots belonging to the first and second memory channels go alternately.

Your graphics card goes into the single PCI Express x16 slot of the Chaintech mainboard. Being based on the nForce4 Ultra chipset, the mainboard doesn’t support the SLI mode. Three ordinary PCI slots and two PCI Express x1 slots are available for other expansion cards.

The networking capabilities of the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE are provided by the chipset and the additional PHY- Vitesse VSC8201RX controller. They provide you with Gigabit Ethernet and the integrated hardware network protection system called ActiveArmor. NVIDIA Firewall 2.0 works correctly on the reviewed mainboard, providing an efficient protection against network attacks at the same time putting a small load on the central processor.

The integrated sound is based on the AC’97 Realtek ALC850 codec that works with NVIDIA’s own driver and configuration utility called nvMixer. We have already discussed the capabilities of this combination, but were rather disappointed with the low quality of this audio solution implementation. We tested the audio capabilities of the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE, too, but got the same, very average, results:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:

+0.49, -4.12

Poor

Noise level, dB (A):

-70.6

Average

Dynamic range, dB (A):

73.0

Average

THD, %:

0.022

Good

IMD, %:

0.114

Average

Stereo crosstalk, dB:

-69.5

Good

IMD at 10 kHz, %:

5.062

Very poor

General Performance: Average

As you see, the noise level remains quite high, so some mainboard makers’ decision to abandon AC’97 sound in favor of discrete PCI controllers on their nForce4-based products seems pretty reasonable (we are going to have a review of a mainboard like that very soon).

But let’s get back to the sound implementation on our Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE now. There are six audio jacks on the rear panel of the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE supporting the Universal Audio Jack technology. Unfortunately, the mainboard has no SPDIF outputs, either at the rear panel or as onboard pin-connectors. It doesn’t mean the owner of the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE will have to use analog speaker systems only. Theoretically the line output of this mainboard can produce digital signal, if you use a special adapter. We couldn’t test this feature, however, because the adapter isn’t enclosed with the mainboard.

As for the disk subsystem, Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE – again, using the capabilities of the nForce4 Ultra chipset – supports two Parallel ATA channels (for up to four devices) and four Serial ATA II channels. Thus, you can attach as many as eight hard disk drives to this mainboard. Irrespective of the interface, the drives can all be united into a RAID array of level 0, 1 or 0+1.

Like other solutions of the same kind, the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE supports ten USB 2.0 ports. Four of these ports are laid out at the rear panel of the board, and six more are implemented as onboard pin-connectors. To our regret, we didn’t find a USB bracket for the back panel of the system case among the accessories supplied with the mainboard.

Mainboards based on NVIDIA’s earlier chipsets used to be criticized for the quality of their USB ports, so we wanted to check out the performance of the USB 2.0 ports of the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE. Using the AIDA32 utility we measured the bandwidth of the USB bus and the CPU load when transferring data to a USB 2.0 OneTouch 250GB external hard disk drive from Maxtor and then compared the numbers with those we got with an i925XE-based system.

Intel 925/915 (ICH6R)

NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra

USB 2.0 Bandwidth (Read), MB/s

25.3

29.1

USB 2.0 CPU Utilizations (Read), %

17

16

USB 2.0 Bandwidth (Write), MB/s

24.9

33.8

USB 2.0 CPU Utilizations (Write), %

16

18

The results of the test are clear enough: the speed of the USB bus of the new nForce4 Ultra chipset exceeds that of the new-generation chipset from Intel. At the same time the CPU utilization is almost the same with both chipsets: the Intel one and the NVIDIA one. Overall, the nForce4 Ultra boasts a better implementation of the USB bus.

That’s all we can say as far as the functionality of Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE mainboard is concerned. You should agree it has every basic function necessary. The only thing that you can actually complain about is the absence of the FireWire protocol, as Chaintech didn’t want to install an additional onboard chip for some reason. Well, the majority of users don’t have a great need for FireWire ports on the mainboard, so it is quite natural the engineers didn’t install an additional onboard FireWire controller that would have increased the cost of the end product.

PCB Design

The cost-minimization trend is perfectly visible with the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE. The first thing that catches your eye is the very size of Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE, which is a little smaller than the standard! Well, there is nothing wrong in getting a little less of the textolite, so I suggest that we pass over to a few more essential flaws we discovered.

As result of the smaller PCB size, the DIMM slots had to leave their traditional position at the front of the mainboard. They are on the right of the CPU socket on the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE. This is a rare design solution among modern mainboards, but we wouldn’t call it bad. The memory modules installed this way can only cause problems in one case – if the PSU fan is directed downwards (like in system cases of the tower type). In this case the modules appear in the way of the air stream. Still, this is not a common situation, you should agree.

Another consequence of the smaller PCB size is the fact that engineers had to remove the FDD connector and the ATX power connector from the area in front of the DIMM slots. The FDD connector is now in front of the PCI slots and can cause problems with full-size expansion cards. As for the ATX power supply connector, it is located behind the CPU, and the power cable hinders the natural airflow above the CPU.

The IDE and Serial ATA connectors on the mainboard are in front of the chipset and the processor where they are unlikely to become a trouble at all. The Clear CMOS jumper, a very helpful thing sometimes, is easily accessible, but the pin-connectors of the additional USB ports are placed almost between the PCI slots, which makes them hard to reach if you have already installed the PCI cards. By the way, although Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE has three PCI slots, you will most probably have only two of them since the slot closest to the PCI Express x16 will probably be blocked by the cooling system of the graphics card.

There is nothing extraordinary about the exterior of the mainboard. Although the solution is designed on a black-lacquered PCB, it doesn’t practically use colored slots or LED highlighting and is unlikely to present a bright sight for the owner of a transparent system case.

The mainboard back panel carries the following ports and connectors: two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, two serial and one parallel port, four High-Speed USB ports, a network RJ-45 connector without diagnostic indicators, and six audio jacks. The two COM (serial) ports of the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE are a real rarity today, by the way.

The chipset on this mainboard is covered with a passive heatsink of a medium size. Unfortunately, that’s insufficient as we will see later during our tests. The temperature of the chipset got as high as 60-70°C throughout the benchmarking process, which is hardly a normal operational mode for it.

The CPU voltage regulator on the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE is built according to the three-channel design. The MOSFETs of the regulator are not equipped with any cooling at all, but they don’t get too hot at work anyway as the air from the CPU cooler prevents them from warming up too much. The capacitors of the CPU voltage regulator come from Sanyo and G-Luxon. The former company is known well for supplying high-quality components, but the latter is a middle-range manufacturer. So, we wouldn’t put a “high quality” brand on the CPU voltage regulation module of the Chaintech NVF4 Ultra VE.

We also have to mention the location of the CPU VRM capacitors. They are too close to the mounting frame of the CPU cooler, thus hindering installation of some massive cooler models. On the other hand, we had no problems putting a Zalman CNPS7700Cu cooler onto the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE.

BIOS and Overclocking

The BIOS of the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE is based on the microcode from Award-Phoenix and has the traditional interface thereof. The BIOS Setup program has everything necessary to configure the buses and peripherals.

Besides that, Chaintech implemented a curious technology, which we haven’t seen in mainboards from other manufacturers. The idea behind this technology, which for some reason hasn’t got any loud individual name from Chaintech’s marketing folks, implies that the POST codes are displayed in the top right corner of the screen as the computer is passing the Power-On Self Test. Thus, the BIOS of the reviewed mainboard features a kind of “software POST-controller” with the obvious advantages for the user: you receive a powerful diagnostics tool without having to pay much for its hardware implementation. This solution is inferior to hardware POST controllers in one thing only: you can’t get any POST codes until the graphics card has been initialized. But considering the price of the mainboard we have no desire to criticize the technology for this insignificant drawback.

Now let’s see what Chaintech offers to overclockers:

As the screenshots show, we’ve got the following overclocking-friendly options here:

This is a normal set of standard options, although advanced overclocker-friendly mainboards usually allow adjusting the voltages in a wider range. As for the memory-related settings, they are all found on a separate page of the BIOS Setup.

Here you can set the frequency of the memory modules as well as the basic timings (Tcl, Trcd, Tras, Trp). For some unknown reason, the BIOS Setup of Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE offers no tools to adjust such an important parameter as 1T/2T Memory Timings. The mainboard controls this setting automatically, setting the value which it thinks proper. Well, we can’t really say it does anything wrong: the mainboard only chose 2T Memory Timings in our tests when the memory worked under harsher conditions than it was intended for by the nominal mode.

As you know from our earlier reviews, the ability to adjust the frequency multiplier of the HyperTransport bus is important for successful overclocking of a system built on nForce4 Ultra-based mainboard. Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE has an appropriate setting in its BIOS Setup and even more: this mainboard can control the width of the HyperTransport bus.

Thus, the Chaintech mainboard has every prerequisite necessary for successful overclocking. Let’s see how it behaves in practice. We took an Athlon 64 3800+ processor (its default frequency is 2.4GHz) and reduced its multiplier to 8x. For the memory not to limit our overclocking we dropped its frequency to the values it is guaranteed to support.

Recalling our last-week’s overclocking experience with the EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra we attempted to raise the frequency of the clock generator to 240MHz at once, but the mainboard wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work at 230MHz, either. That was suspicious already, but we went on reducing the frequency of the clock generator until the mainboard passed the POST procedure successfully.

We would like to note that it is very easy to experiment with overclocking on Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE mainboard: if it can’t start up, it automatically returns the BIOS Setup settings to their defaults and restarts in the safe mode. That’s why we didn’t have to use the Clear CMOS jumper even once in our tests.

As we found out soon, the maximum frequency of the clock generator at which the mainboard can get past the POST is 221MHz. The overclocked system remains perfectly stable in Windows XP, too. It means those 221 megahertz is not the top limit, but overclocking above this point is limited by some other factors.

We know from our earlier tests that the main obstacle preventing you from raising the clock generator frequency higher is the HyperTransport bus, which frequency becomes too high. We ran some tests with the HT multiplier set 5x, that is when the clock generator frequency equaled 221MHz, the HyperTransport bus frequency grew up to 1105MHz against the nominal 1000MHz.

So, we just reduced the frequency multiplier of HyperTransport to 4x, but unfortunately it didn’t affect our overclocking in any way. The mainboard still refused to boot Windows up at more than 221MHz on the clock generator speed. A further reduction of the HyperTransport bus frequency multiplier couldn’t help us get past this barrier, either.

Next, we tried to tweak other mainboard settings, but neither higher voltage values, nor different PCI Express frequencies helped us. That is, a clock generator frequency of 221MHz is the maximum you can get using the BIOS Setup of the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE mainboard. That’s little of course, but you can’t do anything about it.

We could have stopped at that dissatisfying result, but then decided to check out one wild idea: maybe the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE is better overclocked from the OS, rather than from the BIOS Setup? We know at least two utilities that could be helpful in this case. The first is the well-known nTune from NVIDIA.

The second program is ClockGen from Franck Delattre: its new version supporting nForce4 Ultra chipset has recently appeared on www.cpuid.com:

We made up our mind in favor of ClockGen as it offers more functions and allows raising the clock-generator frequency above 250MHz which is the limit for nTune. You may imagine our surprise as we saw the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE overclocking far above 221MHz from the Windows! Our special thanks immediately go to ClockGen and its developer!!!

After this discovery we got to overclocking with new enthusiasm. Controlling the frequency from the OS we got more impressive results. At x5 HyperTransport multiplier the system remained stable till the clock generator frequency reached 237MHz. With 4x HyperTransport, we raised the frequency to 292MHz. When we dropped the HyperTransport multiplier to x3, we managed to increase the clock-generator frequency to 305MHz. After that we encountered a new problem, this time a fatal one. As I have mentioned above, the chipset on Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE mainboard is cooled by a passive needle-shaped heatsink of a medium size, and our supposition that this heatsink wouldn’t handle the chipset during overclocking came true at 305MHz clock generator frequency. When the mainboard was tested for stability in this mode, its nForce4 Ultra chip got overheated and burned out beyond repair. So, basing on our tragic experience, we have to claim now that nForce4 series chipsets require active cooling, at least the two top models of the series do. You should keep this fact in mind when choosing a mainboard for overclocking. For the owners of Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE we recommend to mount a fan on the chipset heatsink. Just in case.

Summing up our overclocking experiments with Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE we should say that even though its BIOS contains a lot of appropriate settings, the board is not a very overclocking-friendly product. First of all, it does not start up when you select a clock generator frequency above 221MHz in the BIOS Setup, and secondly, it lacks active cooling on the chipset. We hope that Chaintech engineers will see to these problems and will eliminate them in subsequent revisions of the mainboard and BIOS updates. The maximum frequencies we got during our overclocking tests are listed in the table below:

Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE

HyperTransport frequency multiplier

5x

4x

3x

2x

Maximum clock generator frequency

237 MHz

292 MHz

305+ MHz

?

HyperTransport frequency

1185 MHz

1168 MHz

915+ MHz

?

Don’t forget that we achieved these results when overclocking from the operating system; the BIOS Setup couldn’t handle the same frequencies.

The last thing we feel like mentioning is that Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, but has no means to control the CPU cooler depending on the temperature of the CPU.

Software

Mainboard makers have recently been carefully selecting the software for the bundles they supply with their products. Besides older versions of popular programs, the software bundle now often includes hardware monitoring, overclocking and other utilities developed by the mainboard manufacturers themselves, so we are going to check out these programs in our reviews, too.

The software bundle you receive with the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE consists of the programs NVIDIA offers with its nForce4 Ultra chipset as well as of Chaintech’s own exclusive utilities.

The first part of programs including nTune, nvMixer, nvRAID and Network Access Manage has already been discussed in our previous articles. However, we believe we should warn you , that some of nTune’s features aren’t available on the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE. When working on this mainboard, nTune  cannot update the BIOS and tells the hardware monitoring numbers wrong.

As for Chaintech’s own programs, there is only one here, the DigiDoc utility that keeps track of the CPU and system temperatures, of the CPU and system fans rotation speeds, and of all the basic system voltages.

We would also like to specifically mention the new and good Norton Antivirus 2005 antivirus package which is also supplied with the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE.

Testbed and Methods

In the end we are going to share the results of our performance tests with you. We will compare the speed of the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE with that of the earlier-tested EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra and MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum which is based on the previous generation chipset from NVIDIA, the nForce3 Ultra. To make our comparison fair, we used two similar graphics cards on the RADEON X800 XT chip with two interfaces, AGP 8x and PCI Express x16. Here’s a full list of hardware components we used in our tests:

We carried out all our tests in Windows XP SP2.

Performance

As you see, Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE demonstrates the same level of performance as EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra. In other words, it has a normal speed for an nForce4 Ultra-based mainboard.

Conclusion

Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE mainboard we have discussed in detail today is an inexpensive product based on the NVIDIA nForce4 chipset. This model can be considered as an affordable solution for PC enthusiasts. In fact, the VNF4 Ultra VE met our expectations, but the overall impression was somewhat spoilt by the excessive economy on the manufacturer’s side and the pretty raw BIOS version. So, you may want to wait for BIOS updates and subsequent revisions of the mainboard to come out, that’s what we think could be a good idea. With those improvements the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE may really become a refutation of the old truth that good things just can’t be inexpensive.

Highs:

Lows: