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Iwill DK8N Motherboard review

Part 1 of 3


NFORCE3 Pro/250 IDE & USB2

If you have a known-satisfactory USB/Firewire/SCSI/SATA internal or external solution for your optical devices the following may not apply - but please note we have not found a working SCSI or USB2 solution for 8x (or faster) DVD-burners, & SATA solutions are not to our knowledge yet proven compatible with NFORCE drivers.

Most systems based on the DK8N are likely to be specified with a CD or DVD-burner; if you wish to attach a DVD or CD reader or burner to the DK8N you will likely use the NFORCE PATA channels. 

When Windows is first installed it sees the four NFORCE3 channels (2x PATA & 2x SATA) as 2x Primary & 2x Secondary PATA channels. At this point, the default Windows drivers work stably & well, with proven compatibility for ATAPI devices. This is an important  issue for burning software sending a range of commands to optical burners. 

A successful XP Pro install into the DK8N looks similar to this:

The NFORCE IDE drivers installation unscrambles the 4x 'PATA channels' detected by Windows into 2x SATA & 2x PATA & of course replaces the Windows drivers:

   

          becomes

     

 - the key issue being that you cannot partially install (or uninstall) the NFORCE drivers without a very great deal of trouble - SATA & PATA are inseparable.

For these reasons, at present any user specifying an ATAPI CD or DVD-burner with their DK8N will either lose NFORCE SATA or risk iffy optical-burner performance, depending on their burner model & firmware, & the software used.

There are external 5.25" USB2 enclosures containing IDE<>USB2 bridges; but in our experience some of the common chipsets on which these bridges are based (specifically the Cypress 'EZ-USB' family) are unreliable for DVD-burning over 4x speed. There are reliable IDE<>Firewire bridges for external enclosures - famously those using the 'Oxford 911' chipset.

We found the NFORCE IDE drivers to work well with PATA hard drives - tho' not persuasively better than the default MS drivers; but, yes, as with many others we found functional issues when using NFORCE drivers & a PATA DVD burner with several burning software applications.

NFORCE3 Pro/250 USB2

We were really impressed by the DK8N's NFORCE3 integrated USB2 - it requires no installation of third-party drivers & . . .  well . . .  just works.

The picky professional market the DK8N is aimed at values & appreciates (& expects) this sort of seamless hassle-free behaviour.  

We checked all the DK8N's onboard ports - all four backplate sockets & both motherboard headers - all tested OK at the sort of data-transfer rates our external USB2 hard drive could manage - in the 25MB/s area. 

We noticed that the CPU% usage while transferring large chunks of data to a USB2-attached hard drive had this form - we don't recall seeing this pattern when using an NEC-chipset USB2 host. Average CPU usage in a 4GB transfer was approx 11%

NFORCE3 Pro/250 Firewall

The DK8N's feature of an integrated Hardware Firewall sounds great even to those not on a network: many folk connect to the web via an always-on USB or ethernet-attached broadband modem, & one strength of a hardware solution is that its rules are effective against intrusion before Windows loads all its drivers & so on - including any software firewall.

This feature has already caused a BIOS-level redesign of the DK8N - originally it had a true AMI BIOS (with its very useful rescue bootblock feature); but use of the AMI flash utility caused loss of the LAN MAC address.

After installing the NFORCE3 hardware firewall drivers & software, you can fire up a web-based configuration utility: this offers a 'wizard' 

 - naturally enough, we chose to apply the 'high' setting.

As a simple test of what this means in practice, we visited the 'Shields Up' pages at Gibson Research Corporation to see this promised 'stealth mode' in action.

NFORCE3 Pro/250 firewall only, High Security Profile: (first 1056 ports probed)

NFORCE3 Pro/250 firewall, High Security Profile; plus ZoneAlarm (or ZoneAlarm alone)

Well, our feelings 'encompass' no comment; but we suggest that it might be a good idea for NVIDIA to offer basic task-oriented configuration wizards aimed at the naive or lazy user. In fairness, it must be said that this firewall can be configured manually in considerable detail; but this requires a reasonable understanding & can be tiresome to troubleshoot.

We recommend always using a good third-party software firewall such as ZoneAlarm - their crucial feature is control over outgoing application permissions, & the checking of any allowed outgoing applications' MD5 signatures - neither is a function of the NFORCE firewall.

NFORCE3 Pro/250 AGP Tunnel

We're sorry - really sorry - about this: ATI were to send us on loan some whizzo video-accelerator to check the AGP performance, & above all, to see if this NFORCE3 Pro/250 worked properly under stress with high~ish end ATI cards.

This is an important issue to many potential buyers of the DK8N, since the AMD-8151 HyperTransport  AGP graphics tunnel part in the AMD reference chipset for previous dual-channel Opteron workstations is frequently reported to have serious issues with ATI 9xxx-series cards.

Due, no doubt, to this reviewer's incompetence, the dratted thing hasn't arrived: this of course means we cannot test this compatibility issue, nor run any of those framerate-centred gaming benchmarks dear to web-reviewers. None of our olde-worlde (Matrox) accelerators would in fact work in the DK8N due to their voltage requirements, so at the last minute we dashed out & bought a cheapo FX5200 just to get the thing fired up.

If a suitable AGP-card comes our way we will update this review - tho' no doubt any other review of the DK8N will include gaming benches galore.

NFORCE3 & Realtek ALC655 onboard sound

. . . quite a bit rides on the quality of this onboard sound solution. 

The DK8N has only one 32-bit PCI slot, & installation of any AGP accelerator with a bulky cooling solution will block this out.

A suitably notched fully PCI rev 2.1-compliant 3.3v sound-card could be installed into either PCI-X slot - draggging that bus to 33MHz, or in either PCI64 slot; but if so this would have to be jumpered to 33MHz. 

This in turn will force the onboard 32-bit Sil3114 from 66MHz to 33MHz, halving its theoretical bandwidth to 133MB/s, through which up to 4 SATA-attached hard drives, perhaps in a RAID array, would have to transfer data.

Or you may (like us) have at least one each PCI-X & 66MHz 64-bit PCI-card, which you want or need to run at full speed

 . . . . & folk are awfully sniffy about onboard sound. 

The good news is that this reviewer, changing reluctantly from a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz to try this Realtek solution; found the sound acceptable in the clarity of its sound picture & in volume: CPU usage is low - around or below 4% - & the sound doesn't go weird with both CPU's under heavy continuous load re-encoding MPEG2 streams.

Drivers & configuration:

We had a pretty discouraging experience with the v3.52 Realtek drivers available for download on the Iwill site; the sound was iffy & the centre speaker of our 5+1 setup didn't work properly.

All changed for the better with v3.61 drivers: after installation a tasktray icon gives access to Realtek's 'Sound Manager' utility - this has basic tools for setting up & testing your speakers & connections. Most will prefer to install NVIDIA's neat & complete 'NVIDIA NVSOUND' - which replaces 'Sound Manager' & installs additional drivers to complement Realtek's - the images below should give an idea of what sound resources you then have & how you might tweak 'em:

This reviewer has a slight preference for the sound-quality from the basic Realtek v3.61 drivers, without the NVIDIA NVSOUND package; but both are acceptable & appear stable.

 

Iwill DK8N's NFORCE3 integrated widgets: conclusions

A determinedly practical, detail-by-detail review like this has the weakness of failing to give an impression of the whole: the DK8N's integrated NFORCE3 Pro/250 solution for IDE, USB2, the firewall, & sound really does feel competent, solid, & together. 

This same impression applies to the entire DK8N motherboard & a system based upon it - it does not have the usual PC 'lashed together from the parts-bin' character . . . . but:

NVIDIA really must sort out their IDE drivers right now: it is unacceptable that CD & DVD burners attached to NFORCE chipset drivers are so notorious for incompatibility with standard burning applications. What's worse, the conjoined SATA/PATA character of the DK8N's implementation makes it unpleasantly difficult to roll back to stable & compatible MS drivers - our troubleshooting guide has links to a third-party technique.

NVIDIA's firewall configuration utility should be focused around a few task-centred security profiles; not many users wish or are competent to fiddle around with the dark underworld of ports & their specific permissions.

 

copyright Stephen Hoar August 2004 for www.burningissues.net - all rights reserved

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