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The Southbridge Battle: nforce 6 MCP vs. ICH7 vs. ICH8

The Southbridge Battle: nforce 6 MCP vs. ICH7 vs. ICH8
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Recently, we looked at the latest chipsets from Intel and Nvidia, the 975X/P965 and nforce 680i SLI. Performance differences are minor, yet the latter's features outmatch those of Intel's offerings. But is Nvidia's shining star also capable of outperforming Intel when it comes to storage and USB 2.0 performance? We went back to the test lab to look into it.

You might wonder why this is so important - and the question is legitimate. For the average Joe it doesn't really matter. Any Serial ATA controller provides more bandwidth than a hard drive can possibly utilize, and most USB 2.0 controllers also offer transfer rates close to the theoretical maximum. But enthusiasts and hardcore users do care whether or not performance drops as more than a single USB device operates at full bandwidth, or what the bandwidth or I/O performance of a RAID array with four hard drives is like.

Once again we took the three motherboards that we used for our Intel vs. Nvidia chipset shootout: The Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 with Intel's P965 Chipset, MSI's 975X Platinum Powerup Edition featuring the Intel 975X and the EVGA nforce 680i SLI, starring the latest Nvidia chipset with the same name. The P965 chipset utilizes the latest I/O controller hub family member ICH8. 975X is paired with the predecessor, ICH7R (R stands for RAID capabilities) and Nvidia developed a new so-called MCP (Media and Communications Processor) for its nforce 6 chipset for Intel processors.

The only obvious difference between the three Southbridges is the port count: ICH7 offers four Serial ATA/300 ports and up to eight USB 2.0 ports; ICH8 and the nforce 6 MCP come with six SATA/300 controllers and 10 USB 2.0 options. Also, don't forget that P965 and ICH8 do not support ultraata anymore.

All three Southbridges support RAID levels 0, 1, 0+1 and RAID 5. RAID 0 provides maximum performance by striping data across all available hard drives. RAID 1 holds exact copies of content on all available hard drives. RAID 0+1 combines RAID 0 and 1, offering both data safety and extra performance, but it requires at least four hard drives to do so. RAID 5 cyclically stores parity information on all available drives and requires at least three hard drives.

There are more differences between the networking features: Intel requires dedicated networking solutions for PCI Express while Nvidia integrated two fully-fledged Gigabit Ethernet controllers with basic TCP/IP offloading and top-notch features such as port teaming. We did not include networking test results in this article as the Nvidia chipset's ports perform close to the theoretical maximum of 2 Gb/s combined upstream and downstream, and the Intel chipset always requires third-party solutions, which we couldn't adequately compare in the given time frame.

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