DFI LanParty NF4 SLI-DR nForce4 SLI Review
Board Layout and Features
The DFI nF4 series of motherboards, including the LanParty SLI board seen here, have a few layout changes from standard SLI motherboards that make it stand out. The over view of the entire board seen below should show some obvious points of interest.
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Just at our first glance here you can see some peculiarities; a gaping hole in the external connectors in the top right and a LOT of jumpers between the two PCI Express graphics slots. Let's go through it all, step by step.
The memory slots are placed on the motherboard horizontally and parallel to the expansion PCIe and PCI slots. This is a slight change from most other Athlon 64 motherboards, though a couple of other manufacturers have done this same modification. It allows for a roomier layout in regards to heat dissipation and allows for more expansion slots to be included on the PCB. Not to mention it gets rid of any interference between the DIMM clips and the graphics card body. It does not solve the frequent problem on todays motherboards of crowding around the CPU socket -- large heatsinks and tall memory DIMMs are still not a good mix on this board, as you can tell from the distances in the image above. The standard AMD heatsinks causes no issues, but using the Zalman K8 HSF would surely raise an eyebrow.
From another angle we can see the MOSFET cooling that DFI has applied to the motherboard in the form of moderately sized heatsinks. DFI is also using the new R60 units we have seen on other manufacturers boards as well that provide the same function as a pair of standard MOSFETs. In this photo you can also see the two IDE channels and the ATX power connector and supplemental 4-pin ATX power connector. The 4-pin is a bit crowded and can be just a slight pain when uninstalling the power cable from it.
Here we see all the expansion slots that DFI chose to include on the NF4 SLI-DR motherboard. There are four PCI Express slots: 2 x16 connectors, a x4 connector and a x1 connector. These four slots operate at different lane widths depending on the jumper configuration set on that large bank between the two x16 slots. In position 1-2, or what we would typically call "single GPU" mode, the top connector operates at x1 lanes, the second connector runs at x16 lanes, the third connector runs at x1 lanes and the bottom connector operates at x2 lanes. After changing all the jumpers around to position 2-3 or "dual GPU" mode the slots run at: x4 lanes on the top, x8 lanes on the second, no lanes on the third, and x8 lanes on the last one. This mode allows for NVIDIA SLI configurations and is actually the best implementation of PCI Express we have seen yet. When running in SLI, though the smallest PCI connector is not usable, you are still allocated the bandwidth it used in the top PCIe connector.
There are two standard PCI slots shown here as well for legacy cards.
To remove the blocks of jumpers more easily, DFI has included a standard BIOS chip removal tool that doubles as a jumper tool. Its actually quite useful to have one if you don't already as it can help with all kinds of things around the motherboard that you may have previously been using a flat head screwdriver for. To use it on the jumpers, you simply place both ends around each side of the block of jumpers, squeeze, and pull up. They come off with a little effort and you can put them in their new position right away.
Yes, there is no denying that this is more of a hassle than the small riser cards we have seen in our Asus A8N-SLI and our Gigabyte SLI reviews. However, keeping in mind that you should only be going through this process once or twice in the boards lifetime, it really shouldn't be that big of a concern for most people. If for some reason you are like me and are going to be changing between SLI and standard mode on motherboards many times a day, this probably isn't going to be a lot of fun. But it's not that bad either; so you'll have to weight the pros and cons later on this one.
Down at the bottom of the motherboard we have the storage options that DFI included on the motherboard. There are a total of eight SATA channels included: four from the NVIDIA MCP and four courtesy of the included Silicon Image 3114 chip. With the two IDE channels and the eight SATA channels, this board matches the most storage options on any board in my recent memory. (Feel free to correct me!)
DFI has included power and reset buttons on the PCB for those of you tweaking your systems out of a case. This is something that really shows that DFI is paying attention to the hardcore enthusiast as only they would ask for something like this. I know I love it! There are additional USB 2.0 headers above the SATA channels and there is also another Firewire header as well, not pictured.
The heatsink that DFI included on this chipset is low and compact, as is required on all nForce4 based motherboards. The fan is unique in that it is magnetically raised and doesn't use any ball bearings or sleeve bearings. DFI claims it should keep the fan quiet and extend the life of the fan tremendously; and in our testing, the quiet claim was verified.
Finally, we move to our external connectors. What's this?!? A huge hole in the layout? No, its actually a sound feature that DFI is calling "Karajan" that isolates the audio chip onto a seperate riser to lower or elminate the electrical distortion that is caused by the other components on the PCB. Though it isn't mentioned anywhere, it would be really neat to see upgradable modules in the near future that would allow you to swap out the standard codec for something of higher quality.
The other features include six USB connections right on the back of the board as well as two Gigabit networking connections and a Firewire port. SPDIF input and output are on-board as well for a complete audio solution.
Here is the Karajan audio module installed. Now it looks like a normal motherboard!