EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW Mainboard Review: Rehabilitated?

We will discuss another mainboard on Nvidia nForce 750i SLI chipset. During our first look type of tests we wrongly assumed it could not do well during overclocking. We are going to check out its real potential today and see how good it is.

by Doors4ever
07/16/2008 | 09:30 PM

Our regular readers should already be familiar with the EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard, because it took part in the comparative power consumption measurements discussed in our ASUS P5N-D Mainboard Review. It was the most economical of all mainboards on Nvidia nForce 750i SLI chipset, if we could use this attribute about the least power-efficient core logic set composed of three chips. The review of EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW was not the goal of that article, however, since the board was already put into the testbed we decided to check out its CPU overclocking potential. The board could only start at 425MHz FSB, so we didn’t praise it at that time.

 

We already had an idea of Nvidia nForce 750i SLI based mainboards, and our experience was not very positive overall, so we didn’t want to go into detail with the EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW testing at first. However, a little later when we were working on our ZOTAC nForce 790i-Supreme mainboard review, we discovered some specifics of Nvidia based reference mainboards. This is when we suspected that our judgment about EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW was not quite fair during that superficial test session and that the board was not that bad after all. That is why we decided to go back to this board in order to restore its good name and apologize for erroneous conclusions if we have to.

Closer Look at EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW Mainboard

Looks like EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW is a reference mainboard designed by Nvidia engineers. There are a few things pointing to that and if there were identical mainboards being sold under different brand names, it could be convincing evidence of this fact. The same exact thing happened to Nvidia nForce 790i SLI based mainboards, for instance. However, we couldn’t find any mainboards identical to EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW. Other Nvidia’s usual partners such as ZOTAC and XFX, do not have any mainboards on this chipset at all, and ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI as usual introduced mainboards of their own proprietary design.

We added Gigabyte to this list by force of habit, however, we were really surprised to find out that they do not make any Nvidia nForce 750i SLI based mainboards. Very suspicious, that there are only a few companies that make mainboards on a relatively new chipset (Nvidia still don’t have anything replacing nForce 750i SLI in their lineup).

Package and Accessories

The front side of EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard box traditionally bears the product model name, company name and the key features of the board:

The reverse of the box is decorated with a mainboard photo, technical specifications, warranty information and basic info on SLI-configurations.

The box is unusually large, it is almost square, and not rectangular like the traditional mainboard boxes. The box is made of thin cardboard and holds its shape securely thanks to plastic casing. It opens like a book and is shaped for this specific mainboard. Inside the casing dents you can find all bundled accessories:

PCB Design and Functionality

We can once again state that it is a very thoroughly designed mainboard without any evident problems. It has already become a very good tradition, even though we did manage to find a few things to be pointed out.

Let’s start our discussion of EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW from the top of its PCB. The processor voltage regulator components and the power connectors are all placed very reasonably, however, the chipset cooler deserves a separate mention.

It is a real cooling system, and not just a set of heatsinks. Heatpipes tie all heatsinks together into a single complex. You can clearly see the heatpipe between the main heatsink and the additional MOSFET heatsink, but if you look underneath the South Bridge heatsink, you will also notice the ends of heatpipes there:

The main heat dissipating function is performed by the central trapezoid heatsink. Two other heatsinks do not contribute that much. Chipset South Bridge heatsink also doesn’t help much, because it has small heat dissipating surface area. As for the MOSFET heatsink, the heatpipe leading to it originates from the middle of the central heatsink, and not from its base. In other words, only that little heat that will not be dissipated right away and will rise by thin plates of the central heatsink array gets transferred to the additional heatsink.

That is why the central heatsink is equipped with an active cooler. It covers not only the hot North Bridge but also a pretty hot Nvidia nForce 200 bridge chip responsible for PCI Express 2.0 support.

The fan rotation speed is controlled automatically, but even at the slowest speed when the board is working in nominal mode, it is still the noisiest system component. It is a drawback for contemporary mainboards, and a pretty serious one.

As for the advantages, I have to point out secure retention of the chipset cooling system that is fastened with metal screws instead of traditional plastic clips that could be not very reliable.

Lower part of the mainboard PCB carries two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, one PCI Express x1 slot, three PCI slots, a POST-code indicator, Power On, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons, and an additional IEEE1394 controller (Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A). As you may see, two stacks of Serial ATA ports (four total) and a FDD connector are positioned horizontally for convenient use with long-PCB graphics cards.

The mainboard rear panel has PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, IEEE1394 port, an optical S/PDIF, six audio-jacks, network RJ45 port and six USB 2.0 ports.

The manual for EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard doesn’t have the traditional PCB layout scheme, but the illustration they offer instead allows figuring out the location of all major components:

You can connect six fans to this mainboard, which is great. Only the locations of these connectors could have been better. If your system case has a fan on the back panel, it’d better have a cable long enough to reach the connectors on the front or very right sides of the mainboard PCB.

In conclusion, let’s take a look at the technical specifications of EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard:

Searching and Reflashing the BIOS

Before the mainboard gets to the reviewer, they often manage to release a few BIOS updates fixing some of the problems and adding new features. Therefore, each test session starts with updating the BIOS with the latest version available. However, this routine task turned out impossible to accomplish this time: I couldn’t find the new BIOS for EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard.

By clicking Support link on their company web-site you can see smiling faces of the Technical Support team, but there was no BIOS Download page or anything like that. Moreover, even searching for the word “BIOS” on EVGA web-site didn’t help: looked like they simply didn’t use this word at all. The situation was a little better on EVGA’s European web-site. By the way, it looks a little more welcoming, IMHO, not so gloomy as the black EVGA.com. It was great to see EVGA-europe.com knew the word “BIOS”, but only in respect to graphics cards, for some reason. I even tried to look for BIOS updates on Nvidia web-site, but they kindly redirected me back to EVGA site…

I practically gave up and turned for help to some colleagues of mine. However, I was moving in the right direction. When I failed to find any mention of the BIOS on the site, I had to click “Download Drivers and Utilities” link that took me to the page designed the same way as Nvidia’s multi-window driver search system. Of course, I had to select Mainboards, then the board model name, but I only got driver sets for different operating systems.

It turned out that instead of clicking on the mainboard name in the list, which seemed pretty logical at the time, I had to scroll all the way down until I found “BIOS Updates” and then selected the appropriate update from the list.

I have never been in a stupid situation like that, when it looked like I couldn’t cope with the simplest task on my own. I assume I could be not the only one facing dead end trying to find the BIOS update, so I would advise EVGA guys to reconsider hiding BIOS updates like that.

And updating the BIOS is actually a much easier procedure than searching for it. You can select an image that will be unpacked onto a disk or a similar image to be later burnt on a CD. The BIOS is reflashed automatically, just pick the right loading device. You will not be able to save the previous BIOS version, but it is a real trifle after all. Most importantly is that the BIOS has been updated.

BIOS Setup

EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard uses BIOS based on Phoenix-Award code. It is very similar to the BIOS we discussed in our ZOTAC nForce 790i-Supreme mainboard review. Only this BIOS has fewer features and is not as convenient at times.

First we have to check out Advanced BIOS Features section to check the processor technologies and the number of active CPU cores in the CPU Features sub-section.

Then there is a list of sections with very familiar names and functionality, which we will not dwell on here. After that we arrive to the PC Health Status page:

Pretty good functions. We can control two temperatures, a set of standard voltages including processor Vcore, FSB voltage and memory voltage, rotation speed of five fans out of six that can be connected to the board. You need to switch to Dynamic Fan Control page to be able to control fan rotation speeds.

Only three fans can be controlled automatically, and only two can have their rotation speed adjusted depending on the temperature. However, you can set fixed rotation speed for all of them if you like. Unfortunately, the fan of the processor cooler should have a four-pin connector, otherwise you will not be able to adjust its rotation speed.

So, little by little we got to Frequency/Voltage Control section. Here you can change processor clock frequency multiplier, frequency of the HyperTrasnport bus between the chipset North and South Bridges, save or load a limited set of parameters for CPU, memory or voltage settings.

System Clocks section doesn’t do much: we can only change the PCI Express bus frequency there.

FSB & Memory Config section is extremely informative as always:

FSB frequency is measured in quadruples units and can change from 400 to 2500MHz (100-625MHz). In Unlinked mode you can set the memory frequency within 400-1400MHz interval, while in Linked mode you can only select one of the four dividers. Here EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW offers broader functionality than its counterpart on Nvidia nForce 790i SLI chipset, which only had three FSB-to-Mem ratios to choose from.

You can see and change the current memory timings on a separate page:

System Voltages section is still very easy to work with and very informative. It reports current voltage settings highlighting safe settings with green and too high settings with red colors.

The voltages can be adjusted within the following supported intervals:

Despite a few drawbacks, such as inability to control the rotation speed of a processor fan with a three-pin connector or partial profiles saving, the BIOS of EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard is functional enough for successful overclocking.

Test Session

All our tests were run in an open testbed with the following configuration:

First I have to remind you of a few peculiarities of Nvidia based reference mainboards that actually were the reason we had to retest EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard. If you try to achieve higher FSB speeds, for instance, by lowering the processor clock frequency multiplier in the BIOS of an Intel based mainboard, the board will work with the multiplier you set. Pretty logical, isn’t it? We actually expected mainboards on Nvidia chipsets to act the same logical way. However, it turned out that in this case the mainboard will only start with the changed clock frequency multiplier. In Windows the multiplier will be lowered in to the minimal x6 in idle mode and returned back to its nominal value in case of higher CPU utilization. To actually lock the multiplier at the desired value, you have not just to set this value in the mainboard BIOS, but also disable the Enhanced Intel SpeedStep (EIST) and C1E technologies.

Note that we don’t call this a bug. It is no bug, but a peculiarity that you should keep in mind and use to your advantage. It actually gives the users of Nvidia based mainboards more freedom. If you lower the clock multiplier and disable only EIST (C1E will remain active), the selected multiplier value will be the maximum, while in idle mode it will keep dropping to the minimal x6. On Intel based mainboards, things are much simpler: if you lowered the multiplier, it will be what you set it to be, without dropping to any minimal values.

We didn’t take into account this peculiarity when we were testing EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW for the first time. To find out the maximum FSB frequency this board can handle, I did everything as usual: lowered the processor clock frequency multiplier to the minimal setting of x6, increased the FSB and NB voltages and tried to boot at a relatively low frequency of 450MHz. Our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor is not the best overclocking choice: it remains stable only at frequencies no higher than 370MHz FSB if its Vcore stays at nominal 1.225V. The CPU can overclock to 450-455MHz FSB with its nominal multiplier but Vcore needs to be increased to 1.55V. Of course, the system wouldn’t boot, because the processor clock multiplier increased to the nominal x9, but we didn’t increase the Vcore, because we knew we set the multiplier at x6 in the BIOS. As a result, we could only boot the operating system at 425MHz FSB that’s why we were not very happy about our experience with EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard.

Now that I knew about this peculiarity of boards on Nvidia chipsets, I not only lowered the processor clock frequency multiplier and increased the voltage, but also disabled EIST in the mainboard BIOS. As I have expected, the EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard proved much more overclocking-friendly, because it booted the OS at 520MHz FSB. In order to check out the mainboard’s performance at high FSB frequencies and with maximum CPU overclocking, we increased the processor clock frequency multiplier to x8, raised Vcore to 1.55V and set the bus frequency at 512.5MHz (2050MHz in quadrupled units). Once we increased the FSB voltage to 1.35V and the chipset North Bridge voltage to 1.5V, the system passed all stability tests.

After this evident success we definitely need to apologize to EVGA for the first wrong conclusions about their mainboard. So we continued the practical experiments with our EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW.

ZOTAC nForce 790i-Supreme overclocked dual-core processors not as successfully, but it demonstrated remarkable potential with quad-core CPUs. What if EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard is also as good? Unfortunately, it isn’t. When we tried overclocking our Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 the mainboard loaded the operating system only at 450MHz FSB, it couldn’t get even to 475MHz. So, looks like with quad-core processors the board is pretty average. Therefore, let’s take advantage of its excellent potential with dual-core CPUs overclocking.

If you remember, instability during overclocking on ASUS P5N-D mainboard (on the same NVIDIA nForce 750i SLI chipset) forced us to test its performance at very low speed of only 400MHz FSB. EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard gives us an excellent opportunity to compare the performance of this platform against some Intel based board at 512.5MHz FSB and maximum overclocking of our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor. Unfortunately, we couldn’t set Command Rate to 1T, but even 1025MHz with 5-5-5-15 timings is a pretty good result.

Everything went well at first, but then errors started popping up. Even in those tests that the board used to pass flawlessly before. Had anything changed? Yes, the temperature. The chipset North Bridge started overheating after sometime. Replacing the small default fan with an 80-mm one didn’t solve the problem. We had to lower the chipset voltage, but once it lowered from 1.5V to only 1.45V, the system could no longer work stably at such high FSB and memory frequencies. We can overclock the CPU to the same 4.1GHz by raising its multiplier to x9 and lowering the FSB frequency to 455MHz, but even in this case 1.45V of the NB voltage was not enough, and at 1.5V we got errors.

The chipset cooler on EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard is efficient enough for nominal work mode, but during overclocking when the chipset voltage is increased, it can no longer cope. The heat distribution system is not designed right. The central heatsink gets scorching hot, while the additional heatsink remains just a little warm, because the heatpipe leading to it goes out of the middle of the central heatsink instead of its base. So, even though theoretically the mainboard can work just fine at 500MHz+ frequencies, in reality it turned out unable to cope even with 450MHz FSB. Maybe Nvidia nForce 750i SLI based mainboards are generally unstable during overclocking and high temperature is just another problem complicating things. Anyway, looks like we cannot rehabilitate EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW, so all apologies are taken back.

Besides, we discovered one more problem that may make it difficult to overclock processors on EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW mainboard. During our tests of ZOTAC nForce 790i-Supreme – a reference mainboard on Nvidia nForce 790i Ultra SLI – we saw that even a slight change in the FSB frequency from 1333MHz to 1350MHz was enough to disable Intel’s power-saving technologies. The mainboard increased the voltages in the BIOS on its own and then processor Vcore just doesn’t go down any more in idle mode. If we convert the quadrupled numbers into regular FSB frequency values, this overclocking will be by no more than 4MHz FSB.

EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW did “better” than that. If you change the FSB from 1333MHz to 134MHz, i.e. only by 0.25MHz, the voltages in the BIOS go up and Vcore no longer lowers in idle mode. I really wish someone could explain to me why we deserve this!

Conclusion

Those users who would like to build an SLI graphics subsystem have very limited options when it comes to choosing mainboards for LGA 775 processors. Nvidia nForce 6 series doesn’t support contemporary Intel processors, NVIDIA nForce 780i SLI and nForce 750i SLI run very warm and unstable during overclocking. You could take an NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI based board, but it is hard to spend $300-350 on a mainboard alone. By the way, EVGA offers their EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW for almost $200. Not too cheap as well…

Don’t you think it is strange that ASUS and MSI decided to design their own Nvidia nForce 750i SLI based mainboards although they have pretty much the same features as the reference boards? Maybe the price is the reason? Although they have to invest in development, manufacturing boards of proprietary design is usually cheaper. For example, ASUS P5N-D can be purchased for 25% less than EVGA nForce 750i SLI FTW.

Anyway, we can only leave the decision making to SLI fans here. You may either use only one graphics card, or give up CPU overclocking altogether or overclock to pretty mediocre speeds. You may wait for new Nvidia chipsets or even switch to ATI graphics cards. The choice is yours, and at this time we cannot recommend any Nvidia nForce 750i SLI based mainboards. None of them are really good, so no wonder very few companies have them in their product range.