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SLI on Life Support on the AMD Platform: Oh SNAP!

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Subject: Editorial
Manufacturer: NVIDIA
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Not Dead, but Certainly not Thriving

    For anyone paying attention to the chipset market, something interesting has been happening for about the past year or so.  The interesting thing is that we have not seen any kind of momentum from NVIDIA in addressing chipsets for AMD processors.  This is very odd considering the previously tight relationship that NVIDIA has had with AMD.

The original SLI plus SLI.  The GeForce 6800 GTs provided the real oomph, while the Voodoo 2 SLI cards provided memories of a simpler time.

    Some years ago we saw documentation which referred to SNAP, which stood for “Strategic NVIDIA/AMD Partnership”.  AMD and NVIDIA forged a strong relationship back in these times.  The original nForce 1 was never a large seller, but it introduced a lot of advanced features for the Athlon market.  The nForce 2 was a much larger success, and advancements there lead to the eventual 200 MHz FSB Athlon XPs.  Other features at the time which helped to keep AMD processors at the forefront were all the integrated functions of the nForce 2, which included the dual channel memory controller, high quality audio with SoundStorm, and integrated networking based on both an NV controller and a licensed 3 Com controller for business users.  These were huge things for the AMD CPUs to have, and still enticed people to buy slower AMD chips than what was available at the time with Intel and their Pentium 4.  And unlike competing VIA chipsets, there were very few compatibility issues with AGP 8X cards.

The K7N420Pro, otherwise unofficially known as nForce 1.  It was a radical departure from previous chipsets, and created a lot of enthusiasm for NVIDIA chipsets.

    This partnership proved fruitful for both AMD and NVIDIA.  AMD received chipsets that were seen as a lot more stable and troublefree, not to mention feature packed.  NVIDIA expanded into a marketplace that it had never been before, and it rapidly gained marketshare by selling millions of AMD enabled chipsets.

The Golden Years

    While the nForce 2 did not capture nearly as much marketshare as what NVIDIA had hoped for, it did give a foothold for NVIDIA with a variety of motherboard partners.  I believe that the nForce 2 was able to capture about 15% at most of the Athlon XP market, and while that represented several millions of chips sold to motherboard manufacturers, it was not where NVIDIA wanted to be.

    The release of the Athlon 64 was somewhat tumultuous for NVIDIA, as their lone product at launch was the much maligned nForce 3 150.  While this single chip product embraced many advanced features, it had the odd distinction of having an uneven connection over the HyperTransport bus.  It featured a full 16 bit wide downstream connection with the chipset, but it only featured an 8 bit connection going upstream.  Not only that, but the HT link was clocked at 600 MHz rather than the 800 MHz that AMD specified for their first Athlon 64 CPUs.  It also did not support SATA connections at this time.

The MSI K7N2 was a widely available and popular nForce 2 based motherboard.  The nForce 2 really cemented NVIDIA's reputation as a quality chipset designer.

    Initially the VIA K8T800 series was the original chipset of choice for most OEMs and users, as it did not suffer from having what was viewed as an incomplete or cutdown HyperTransport connection to the CPU.  It also covered the bases with two SATA-150 channels when matched with the appropriate southbridge from VIA.  NVIDIA, while having a fairly fast chipset, was at a loss overall to what VIA had to offer for the first generation of Athlon 64 CPUs.

    With the Athlon 64 winning benchmarks left and right, NVIDIA soon kicked it into high gear in the chipset department.  The nForce 3 250 fixed a lot of the negatives that were present in the 150 chip, and it added a few more wrinkles.  It now supported the full 16/16 bit HyperTransport connection at 800 MHz, which was a sticking point for many OEMs as well as end users and enthusiasts.  It added in four channels of SATA connectivity with RAID 0 and 1 support natively.  The two big feature inclusions were the native Gig-E controller as well as an integrated hardware firewall.

    VIA did not have an answer to the nForce 2 250, and the K8T800 was really one of the last successful chipsets that VIA ever had.  SiS and ALi were also second tier chipset providers during this time.  While it was whispered that the nForce 2 250 was a hard chip to actually implement correctly into a motherboard design, it eventually went on to power all of the high end Athlon 64 motherboards.  It was also later updated to handle the 1 GHz HyperTransport link and converted to socket 939 use.

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