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790i Ultra SLI Motherboards Compared

Nvidia Makes Chipsets?

There’s no arguing against the superior performance of Intel’s current crop of high-end desktop processors, but experienced builders often prefer a high-end Intel chipset to go with them. Yet for several years graphics giant Nvidia has held support for SLI technology as its one competitive advantage over Intel in the chipset market. It’s not that Intel chipsets aren’t capable of supporting SLI technology — it’s just that Nvidia has chosen to reserve this feature for its own platform products, by artificially restricting platform support in its graphics drivers.

By staying on top of the graphics market for most of the past few years, Nvidia has been able to force its SLI chipsets into the systems of high-end gamers. Reserving SLI for itself ensured that the brand’s chipsets didn’t need to be great, as even basic functionality would allow gamers to excuse minor platform shortcomings as they eyed the added gaming performance of SLI.

And thus began the legacy of the mediocre nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition, the nForce 500 series that was so problematic most motherboard designs never reached production, and finally, the nForce 680i, which brought Nvidia back up to its previous mediocre standards. A bit of information that Intel had held back from Nvidia prevented original 680i motherboards from supporting 45 nm Core 2 Quad processors, so Nvidia added the 780i to its product line, which was nothing more than a 680i with a separate PCI Express 2.0 bridge added.

Nvidia’s history left us expecting little in the way of improvements from its 790i series chipsets. But we were in for a surprise. In spite of its antiquated 90 nm production process, the new northbridge features a fully modernized design.

The 790i series northbridge includes support for 32 PCI Express 2.0 lanes, 1600 MHz FSB processors, and high-speed DDR3 memory. The southbridge technology is a bit more dated, providing one x16, one x8 and four x1 PCI Express pathways, along with all the traditional I/O trappings. The southbridge is likely none other than the firm’s two-year-old nForce 570 SLI one-piece chipset for AMD processors, as both AMD and Nvidia use the same HyperTransport technology.

Officially supporting memory speeds up to DDR3-2000, the 790i Ultra SLI appears to be identical in every other way to the DDR3-1600-supporting 790i SLI. Both versions can be clocked upwards or downwards to support all speeds of DDR3 desktop memory, but the possibility that the better-rated parts are “speed binned” will keep the wealthiest enthusiasts buying whatever Nvidia says is best.

Today’s comparison includes every 790i Ultra SLI motherboard on the market, and we went still further by gaining access to one motherboard that isn’t even available to consumers. So how many motherboards exist, and how well does Nvidia’s latest technology compare to Intel’s popular X48 Express? Let’s take a closer look.

Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.