When you start looking at new motherboards, it seems like everyone is getting into the act. ALi (Acer Labs, /nc.) and VIA Technologies are two companies that have been offering core logic chipsets for AMD’s Athlon, Duron, and Athlon XP processors. More recently, graphics vendors ATI and NVIDIA have joined the core logic fray. We’ve yet to see any motherboards using ATI’s core logic offering, which seems to be targeted more to the set-top box industry. NVIDIA, however, has had moderate success with its core logic set, which it calls the NFORCE chipset.
As with a standard core logic set, which uses Northbridge and Southbridge chips, the NFORCE core logic set also has two major chips. NVIDIA gives them somewhat different names, however, calling them a System Platform Processor (SPP) /integrated Graphics Processor (IGP) and a Media and Communications Processor (MCP). The SPP/IGP does much the same work as a Northbridge chip, while the IGP handles the audio and networking tasks. NVIDIA offers the NFORCE core logic set in the 415 and 420 models. The 420 chipset provides integrated graphics, while the NFORCE 415 foregoes this and offers only the standard AGP slot.
Unlike Intel, NVIDIA does not actually make motherboards for resale, though it does offer motherboard manufacturers a reference design that they can modify to their particular markets. We tested the K7N420 Pro MSI motherboard from Micro Star International (MSI). Their Web address is www.msi– computers.com. This motherboard is used in a variety of popular mail-order systems, as well as being available for direct purchase.
The K7N420 Pro can accommodate most of AMD’s recent CPUs, from the original Athlon to the Duron and the new Athlon XP+ processors. We tested the board with an Athlon XP1900+ CPU. This doesn’t actually run at 1.9 GHz, but at 1.4 GHz. AMD has revived the old “performance rating” approach pioneered by Cyrix, so the CPU’s appellation is meant to imply that the Athlon XP1 900+ provides the same level of performance as a 1.9-GHz Intel Pentium 4. Sometimes it does, sometime it doesn’t. It all depends on what kind of application you are running, and whether that application has been optimized for the Pentium 4’s new microcode.
Of more interest than direct performance comparisons is the difference in approach that NVIDIA has taken with the NFORCE core logic set. As with Intel’s 8456 core logic set, the NFORCE provides integrated video and audio. The video, however, is the GeForce2 MX video-controller core that is offered in the add-in GeForce2 video cards. It’s not top-of-the-line video (the GeForce4), but it’s definitely much more oriented to the garner than Intel’s integrated chipset.
The Micro Star K7N420 Pro motherboard also has some other really nice features. The integrated audio controller can supply Dolby Digital 5.1 channel output with an included bracket. MSI motherboard also offers an optional plug-in card that lets the motherboard provide S-Video output.
As with the Intel motherboard, the MSI board has lots of USB ports, up to six. However, these are the older 1.1 ports, not the newer faster USB 2.0 ports that Intel offers. On the other hand, MSI motherboard has built-in 10/100BaseT Ethernet. You either have to add a card to Intel’s motherboard or buy the version that incorporates an Ethernet adapter.