780i SLI Sneak Peek

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Product: nForce 780i SLI Reference Board

 

Introduction:

In a few days we expect to see an official launch of the nForce 780i SLI chipset, preceded by the launch of nVidia's 3-way SLI.  This triple SLI will be able to run on the 680i chipset, but will be a bit limited due to the lack of PCIe lanes on that particular board.  The 680i chipset along supports graphics configurations of 16x/16x/8x and limits the third card to half the bandwidth of the other two cards.  Also a limiting factor of the 680i chipset is its confirmed lack of support for Intel 45nm Quad Core (Yorkfield) CPUs.  The 680i has no trouble with the 45nm (Wolfdale) Dual Core CPUs, but lacks a circuit required for the 45nm Quads.  We were hoping that a BIOS update would do the trick, but this has been denied by nVidia as they say the boards don't have the physical circuitry to get the job done.

 Full Board
Full Board

It's for this reason that nVidia is set to launch the 780i SLI chipset.  This chipset supports all three graphics cards at a full 16x each - thanks to the help of some other chipsets.  The 780i SLI motherboard is actually comprised of an NF780i-SLI chipset, an NF570SLI chipset and the NF200 chipset that adds PCIe 2.0 support to this board.  Is this board a patch job until the 790i chipset comes out that supports DDR3, or is it a worthy step up from the 680i SLI?  Both boards will support 3-Way SLI, but both will require a special 3-way SLI connector that is rumored to cost up to $80 at launch.  If demand is high and supply is low, we could expect to see these connects sell for much more online.   There are so many unanswered questions that will have to wait until release, but for now we've got a bunch of pictures and some more information about the 780i SLI.

 

 

The actual Code name of the chipset is the C72 XE, and below is a list of features that it supports.

  • CPU Support - Conroe, Kentsfield, Wolfdale, Yorkfield
  • Bus between Chipsets - HyperTransport 8GB/s
  • FSB - 1333MHz +
  • Max Memory - 16GB
  • Memory - 1200, 1066, 800, 667, 533
  • PCI Express - Gen.2: 2x16 - Gen.1 1x16, 1x8, 6x1
  • PCIe Lanes - 46
  • SLI - 3x 16
  • Hybrid SLI - No (Ability to mix and match models. (eg. 8800GT with 8800GTS))
  • SLI Memory - Yes
  • SATA/PATA - 6/2
  • RAID - 0, 1, 0+1, 5
  • GbE Net - 2
  • USB - 10

 

The board we snagged also has firewire and other goodies like HD Audio, but these are not natively supported by the nVidia chipset(s), but rather third party chips.

Rear IO
Rear IO

 

Many people have expressed concern regarding the heat output of the 680i SLI chipset and hoped that the 780i would be a different story.  By the looks of the cooling solution, nVidia expects this board to get warm.  Keep in mind that the cooling setup is actually cooling three separate chipsets as well as FETs near the CPU socket.

Cooling System
Cooling System

 

On the next page we'll take a look at all the PCIe slots and the chipsets on this board.


PCIe 16x Slots:

Every full length 16x looking slot on this board is in fact a 16x slot.  There are three of them that are spaced 1 slot apart.  As this board only supports triple SLI with 8800 GTX and 8800 Ultra cards, they will not be much room between the cards and you can write off every other slot on this board if you're planning on pulling some 3-way SLI action.

3way - SLI Slots
3way - SLI Slots

 

nVidia makes no mistake about labeling these slots and has a x16 beside each slot.

3 - PCIe 16x
3 - PCIe 16x



This next image shows the layout of the chipsets as well as their spacing and location.  It also gives you a good idea of the real-estate that is taken up by the 16x PCIe slots.

Slots And Chips
Slots And Chips

 

In the pictures below, you can see all three of the different chipsets that pull together and make this a 3-way 16x SLI PCIe 2.0 motherboard.

780i-SLI-N-A2
780i-SLI-N-A2

 

 570-SLI-N-A3
570-SLI-N-A3

 

 NF200-SLI-A2
NF200-SLI-A2

 

Unless you've got one of these bad boys, you can forget all about triple SLI on either the 680i, 780i or other future motherboards at this time.

 SLI Bridge
SLI Bridge - Front
 SLI Bridge - Back
SLI Bridge - Back

 

On the next page, we'll continue a look around the board before we jump into the BIOS to see what's new.


Tour the 780i SLI:

As mentioned previously, the 780i still supports DDR2 - which in my opinion is a good thing.  Although DDR3 has more bandwidth - in theory, advantages of this more expensive RAM are not evidenced in many real-world applications at this time.  DDR2 still has some life left in it, although the 790i SLI that is currently slated for a February '08 release will be DDR3 ready and will start to cramp DDR2 sales in the enthusiast market.

DDR2 Slots
DDR2 Slots

 

This board supports up to 16GB of DDR2 and comes with a few nice extras.  Enthusiasts and hardcore tweakers will appreciate the Diagnostic LED display that will emit codes based on computer issues or stability.  These codes haven't changed much and the enthusiast will be happy when everything is "FF".

Diagnostic
Diagnostic

 

Also on this board are a couple of Marvel NICs that support 10/100/1000 Ethernet and use a PCIe lane each.  This prevents network congestion and provides higher quality connections, less lag due to a crammed bus, and lower CPU usage.  Although CPU usage of networking components is not often considered when purchasing a motherboard, we've seen CPU usage on an E6600 climb to over 25% when transferring large files on poor Ethernet components.  Marvel has a good reputation of building high quality, low overhead NICs.

Marvel NICs
Marvel NICs

 

 

 

Another feature that I really like about this reference board is the integrated Reset and Power buttons on the bottom of the board.  These two buttons come in very handy and save a lot of time that is spent with a screwdriver "jump starting" and resetting a board that is not installed in a case.  While most users will never touch these buttons, everyone who has built a computer on a bench for testing knows how handy integrated switches are.  I believe that DFI started this trend years ago, and I'm glad to see it is included on this 780i SLI sample.

Reset and Power Switches
Reset and Power Switches

 

This board supports a total of 6 - SATA 2 devices and there are four traditionally mounted on the board with two facing forward along the leading edge (not pictured).  These ports are capable of 3.0Gbps transfers and a multitude of RAID arrays that include the standard RAID 0, 1, 0+1 and 5.

 SATA Ports
SATA Ports

 

Lastly, I've included a picture of this board up and running, and while it's not a triple SLI setup - or even an nVidia graphics card for that matter, the board seems solid.  We've experienced no issues with it whatsoever with either an E4300 overclocked or a Q6600.  There are reported issues with 45nm CPUs that are being blamed for the delay, but any existing available CPU should work with no issues.

780i Running
780i Running

 

On the last page we'll run through some BIOS screenshots and wrap things up with some final thoughts.


Delete to Enter BIOS:

It was with interest that I booted up the board and entered the BIOS for the first time.  With some of the new features on this board, and the hope for an even better overclocking setup, I perused the BIOS for new and nifty features.  Mostly I was disappointed as there really isn't that much new and exciting in the BIOS.  It is a pretty standard layout of the AwardBIOS and many of you will recognize the initial BIOS screen for sure.

BIOS - Main
BIOS - Main

 

As I looked around the BIOS, I actually found it quite hard to tell if I was switched to the right system on my KVM.  About 90% of the BIOS screens were exactly the same as the 680i - which shouldn't be surprising as many have said that the 780i is simply a refresh of the older 680i chipset.

 BIOS - System Clocks
BIOS - System Clocks


If you are familiar with a standard 680i setup, you probably haven't seen anything new and exciting yet.  Even the FSB & Memory configuration section is the same.

BIOS - Mem Clocks
BIOS - Mem Clocks

 

Our hopes of better overclocking were put to rest by our FSB-limited CPU.  For those with a CPU with a high FSB ceiling, there is certainly enough CPU and chipset voltage adjustment to screw up your system and fry your chip if you aren't careful.  As I played around with this board I noticed that when I raised the CPU voltage up into the 1.37+ range, other voltages increased automatically.  This is to promote stability and can be over ruled if you are a seasoned overclocker and know the sweet spot for your gear.

 BIOS - CPU Voltage
BIOS - CPU Voltage

 

About the only thing new and somewhat interesting in the BIOS is the addition of the GTLVREF Lane 0, 1, 2 and 3 adjustments.  I can't find much information about this setting - only GTLREF voltage adjustments, and they seem to be for something different.  Because it is broken down into "lanes" I'm assuming that it has something to do with PCIe voltages for the graphics cards.  If you have any insight, please post a comment in our forum at the link below.

 BIOS - GTLVREF Voltage
BIOS - GTLVREF Voltage

 

Final Thoughts:

While the nVidia 780i SLI chipset isn't blowing anyone away with a whole new level of performance, it does bring some nice features to the table.  It adds full PCIe 16x support on all graphics card slots and enables 3-Way SLI on this board.  Of course 3-Way SLI is also to be supported on 680i SLI boards, but with one card running on a PCIe 8x interface.  Is this worth a model change though?  Perhaps not by itself, but also bear in mind that the 780i will offer full Yorkfield support as well - where the 680i simply cannot due to hardware incompatibility.

 

 

Regardless of which chipset you run, you will need to score a fancy 3-Way SLI bridge - and with a street value of $80, 3-Way SLI isn't going to be cheap.  I'd assume that 780i boards will ship with this connector, but to add 3-Way SLI to a 680i board, you'll have to shop around.  I have my questions as to whether or not 3-Way SLI will offer a noticeable performance boost other than in benchmarks.  nVidia's Quad SLI suffered a short feeble life as the 7950GX2's never really caught on.  I'm not trying to be a prophet, but I see the 3-Way SLI boards and idea bearing the same fate.

Will the 780i succeed, or is it just a stop-gap until the DDR3 packing 790i SLI arrives?  Either way, as we get another 8800GTX, we'll bring you the numbers and let you know if we can actually run Crysis and Ultra detail.