Conclusions and Analysis
Platform Performance

From a purely platform performance perspective, the NVIDIA nForce 780a SLI chipset is the fastest AMD Phenom solution on the market.  The storage subsystems and networking subsystems are best in class and continue on the tradition of NVIDIA chipsets putting up outstanding numbers in this regard.  The SiSoft Sandra results showed that the BIOS on the ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe motherboard (that NVIDIA worked very closely on) was setup perfectly for getting optimal performance out of the AMD Phenom X4 processors right out of the box.

Integrated Graphics Performance

While I am glad to see NVIDIA finally release their integrated chipset solution based on the GeForce 8200 north bridge, the results are definitely muted and disappointing courtesy of its many delays.  AMD’s own 780G chipset, launched in March, still out performs the 780a SLI chipset in our real-world gaming tests.  Both are able to provide modest low-level gaming support for the PC even on titles like Call of Duty 4 and Crysis at 1024×768 which is good for the PC gaming industry and should appease out-spoken critics like Mark Rein of Epic. 

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As is usually the case with new IGP products – they promise more than they can deliver; or at least I feel they do.  When a company says things like “best gaming experience on an integrated chipset” I always have high hopes and in this case I guess I was expecting the 780a SLI to deliver something along the lines of the 8600 rather than the 8200 it was based on.  This is purely an internal perspective issue since NVIDIA never made just direct performance claims, but it always seems like integrated graphics is more than one step behind discrete – more like 2-3 steps.

Overclocking and the Enthusiast Feature Set

For an enthusiast motherboard, the ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe has a lot to offer as does the 780a SLI chipset from NVIDIA.  The overclocking potential in the motherboard is by far the most robust of any IGP solution we have ever seen – and with NVIDIA’s focus now on producing only chipsets with integrated graphics for the foreseeable future I expect this trend to continue nicely.  Whereas before you had to choose to between an integrated graphics motherboard OR enthusiast tweakable BIOS options you can now get the best of both worlds. 

There are other features that lend the ASUS motherboard and 780a SLI chipset to the role of enthusiast platform of choice: notably the support for ESA (Enthusiast System Architecture) and 3-Way SLI.  ESA support adds a feature that we are still hopeful will catch on in the mainstream though we have our doubts after seeing the lethargic push by NVIDIA today.  3-Way SLI is also a very high-end technology that only the 680i and 780i chipsets for the Intel-platform share and could make the 780a SLI the gamer’s choice for an AMD processor system.

Hybrid SLI and Hybrid Power

Hybrid SLI and its subset feature of Hybrid Power bring both the chipsets best and worst points along with it.  First, I was more than impressed with the Hybrid Power technology and its ability to completely shut off the discrete graphics cards and re-enable them for better gaming performance on a whim from inside Windows.  I was also very impressed with the ingenuity seen in idea to route the output frame buffer from the dGPU to the mGPU for display rather than asking a user to swap the monitor cable around all the time.  The power savings potential with the 780a SLI motherboard is huge!

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The drawbacks to the Hybrid Power though outweigh the positives in this current implementation.  First, only the 9800 GTX and the 9800 GX2 graphics cards are supported with the 780a SLI chipset – that leaves a whole host of NVIDIA users with 9600 GTs, 8800 GTS and GT cards that probably think they have the right to Hybrid Power technology since their cores are based on the same that rests under the hoods of the 9800 GTX and GX2.  Also, the REAL KILLER here is that NVIDIA is promoting the nForce 780a SLI chipset as an enthusiast platform, and pushing Hybrid Power with these high end cards, yet the fact that the motherboard GPU can only output at 1920×1200 resolutions is not-so-cleverly hidden.  A user that has 9800 GTX cards in SLI, 3-Way SLI or 9800 GX2 cards in Quad SLI is going to be the same user that runs a display with resolutions higher than 1920×1200; if that’s the case the benefits of Hybrid Power are lost to the user. 

**UPDATE 5/8/08**

After re-doing the performance tests comparing gaming performance with the monitor interface connected to the discrete GPU versus the integrated GPU, our complaints about the performance issues of Hybrid Power have basically been addressed.  We ran into some other game-related performance issues that weren’t indicative of Hybrid Power’s influence on performance and so our statement above should be corrected.  While I still think the limited number of compatible graphics cards and the 1920×1200 resolution cap on Hybrid Power are potential deal-killers, the issue of performance is no longer one of them.  If the cards and resolutions that are supported are acceptable to you and the power benefits of Hybrid SLI are appealing then you might want to make the jump.

**End UPDATE 5/8/08**

I am hearing that this issue will be fixed in the coming Intel chipset version of Hybrid Power in Q3 but for now, the mix seems like oil and water.

Pricing and Availability

As of this writing, only one motherboard is currently showing up for the nForce 780a SLI chipset – the very same one we reviewed today: the ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe.  The motherboard is available at Newegg.com for $259 and that is a fair price for an enthusiast class motherboard with integrated graphics to boot.  If you are looking for something a little less pricey you can also check out the ASUS M3N-HD for $174 based on the nForce 750a SLI chipset – no 3-Way SLI support and no ESA support but it is otherwise a very similar solution.  We’ll be trying to get one of these in for review soon as well.

The 780a SLI chipset doesn’t appear to be a fad either – we have another ASUS motherboard that uses it as well as an MSI K9N2 Diamond motherboard that should give ASUS some competition for the top high-end offering.  More on those soon!

Final Thoughts

NVIDIA’s return to the world of AMD chipset is a welcome one and anything that can offer AMD’s Phenom line of processors another lift should be welcomed by AMD even if it’s at the cost of their 780G chipset.  This is the first SLI-ready motherboard for AMD’s processors released in a very long time and with the relationship between Intel and NVIDIA getting more and more tense, it’s likely that AMD and NVIDIA will partner up once again even though the two GPU departments will despise it.  The nForce 780a SLI chipset has some striking potential but also has as many problems to pull down to just “meh” on our radar.  The issue with gaming performance streamed over to the integrated graphics, the lack of support for the majority of NVIDIA’s GPUs in Hybrid Power and the 1920×1200 resolution cap on the integrated core really pull the chipset in two different directions.  One way leads to Enthusiast Lane while the other goes towards Integrated Circle and the result is a board that sits firmly between. 

The ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe and the nForce 780a SLI chipset will make a great choice for AMD fans that don’t care about the integrated graphics for anything more than extra monitors.  Those users will find the overclocking ability, SLI support and host of NVIDIA features to be a welcome addition to the AMD marketplace. 

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