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Nathan Edwards Jun 24, 2008

XFX nForce 780i SLI

At A Glance

Watermelon

ESA, SLI, and a far simpler BIOS than the Asus board.

Winter Melon

No eSATA ports and questionable 1,600 FSB support.

We knew something was up when Nvidia officials were light on details concerning its 780i chipset during a recent press briefing. Normally quite happy to toot its hardware horn, Nvidia practically skipped the PowerPoint slide on the chipset.
Why? Like Intel’s x48, the 780i isn’t really that new. In fact, those familiar with the 680i are well acquainted with the 780i, which is pretty much a 680i with an extra chip (interestingly named the Nforce 200) thrown in to add PCI-E 2.0 support and a full x16 tri-SLI mode.

Despite this, the XFX Nforce780i SLI is still worth taking a gander at. In the hardware department, it has some nice enthusiast touches, such as a POST LED and surface-mounted reset and power switches, but it’s pretty bare-bones next to the Asus board. While we can see not including 802.11n or the wacky pre-boot stuff in the XFX 780i, where are the eSATA ports?

In the I/O arena, the XFX 780i board features three physical x16 slots. Two slots operate at full x16 PCI-E 2.0 data rates while the third runs at x16 PCI-E 1.0 rates. When running tri-SLI mode, the two PCI-E 2.0 slots are actually slaved to the nForce 200 chip, which plumbs directly into the north bridge, while the third x16 PCI-E is routed through the south bridge. There’s been some criticism of this design, which is a bit like going from your kitchen to the living room by crawling though the bathroom window and cutting across the yard. Can you truly synchronize three GPUs if one has to take such a circuitous route? Nvidia says it’s not an issue because the cards actually do most of their talking across the big SLI bridge that’s clipped to the top of the cards. The board includes bridges for tri- and dual-SLI configurations.

Also supported out of the box in the 780i is Nvidia’s Enthusiast System Architecture, which lets a PC talk to new ESA-enabled smart components such as power supplies, water coolers, and case enclosures. We’ve seen early ESA implementations, and we like it so far.

What is truly a differentiator between the 680i and the 780i is support for Intel’s 45nm Penryn CPUs. Although Nvidia officials initially indicated that they expected quad-core Penryns to work on 680i boards, to the chagrin of enthusiasts everywhere, they were wrong. Due to limitations with existing board designs, the current 680i inventories won’t work with Penryn quad cores, such as the Core 2 Extreme QX9650 or the upcoming budget quad Penryns. For those, you need a board like the XFX 780i.

You’re not completely CPU-safe though. While the 780i supports 1,333MHz Penryn CPUs, it isn’t clear if it will work with the upcoming 1,600MHz FSB Core 2 Extreme QX9770 CPU. Nvidia has been cagey concerning this issue, saying that it can’t comment on compatibility until Intel releases a shipping part. In our tests, however, it’s a no go. Using a 3.2GHz/1,600FSB Core 2 QX9770, the XFX 780i board wouldn’t work even with the CPU and FSB downclocked to a 1,333MHz FSB. Nvidia has a point that it’s still waiting for final silicon to finish validating it, but come on. Aren’t Nvidia and Intel even communicating here? We must note that the QX9770 worked fine with the Asus X48 board.

This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the XFX 780i board, and the entire chipset lineup. Add that to talk of a soon-to-be-released 790i chipset with DDR3 support and you have a chipset and board that have fairly limited appeal. Although performance was quite good and it erases the performance gap we saw in our January showdown between the x38 and 680i, we’re pretty damned worried that it’ll be obsolete faster than you can say 45 nanometer.

SPECS
  ASUS P5E3 Premium WiFi-AP@N Edition
XFX nForce 780i SLI
CPU Support
Intel 800, 1,066, 1333, 1,600 Intel 800, 1,066, 1,333
RAM Support
DDR3/1066 – DDR3/1800 DDR2
Maxium RAM
8GB
8GB
Audio
Analog Devices 1988 with optical and coax SPDIF Realtek ALC88S with optical SPDIF
USB Ports/Headers
6/2 6/2
SATA/eSATA 6 SATA 3Gb, 2 eSATA 6 SATA 3Gb
RAID Options
RAID 0, 1, 5, 10, Matrix RAID 0, 1, 5, 0+1
Networking
2 Gigabit, 802.11n 2 Gigabit
Firewire FireWire 400
FireWire 400

BENCHMARKS
  ASUS P5E3 Premium WiFi-AP@N Edition XFX nForce 780i SLI
Valve Particle Test 109 109
FEAR (FPS) 375
346
Quake 4 (FPS) 224.5
227.5
3DMark05
19,436 19,325
3DMark06 Overall 14,093
13,982
3DMar06 CPU
5,280 5,253
PCMark05 Overall 10,185 10,526
PCMark05 CPU
10,764
10,745
PCMark05 Memory
6,841
6,981
PCMark05 Graphics
13,909
13,419
PCMark05 HDD 6,973 7,665
ScienceMark 2.0 Overall 1,866
1,830
CineBench 10 12,048 12,028
MainConcept (Min:Sec) 25:06
27:33
Best scores are bolded. We used identical 2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q6700, EVGA 8800 GTX graphics cards, WD Raptor 150GB 10K drives, 2GB of DDR2/1066 RAM and 2GB of DDR2/1333 RAM.

 

THE VERDICT

XFX nForce 780i SLI

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