It's fairly easy to see what the differences are between NVIDIA's different Intel offerings if you simply lay them out next to each other. Here's a fairly comprehensive table that does just that.
The major differences are clear to see. The main differentiator for the X16 line is the fact that it handles 32 lanes of PCI Express for graphics bandwidth. In all likelihood, you're not going to need that unless you're running dual 512MB cards, whether it's the 7800 GTX or any of the other upcoming cards we are sure to see soon. The main difference with the Ultra is that it doesn't support SLI at all, making it a good choice for people on a very tight budget who want the speed and featureset of nForce 4. The SLI and SLI are harder to differentiate, and this is why NVIDIA will be phasing out the SLI with the introduction of the XE.
One problem NVIDIA has is that it is shipping its high-end board with AC97 audio. The Ultra and the XE both support Intel's Azalia high definition audio specification, but there is no such support on the high-end. This is a bit rubbish, if we're honest - although perhaps really
high-end gamers will go and buy a SoundBlaster X-Fi if they care about sound. If we're being critical, we might suggest that ActiveArmor would be better off dropped from the high-end platform, given the number of problems we are seeing it causing users across the Net. The XE at least only has half the ActiveArmor: in both these respects, the XE looks better than the X16! Otherwise, the XE is pretty much the same SLI functionality we all know and love, just a little cheaper.
The architecture will be familiar to anyone who knows about the SLI platform on Intel. There are major differences between this and the AMD platform - primarily the fact that the AMD doesn't have a Northbridge memory controller in it, because it is embedded in the Athlon 64 processor. The Intel has the standard Northbridge-Southbridge configuration. The PCI Express graphics lanes can be configured to allow for one 16x lane instead of two 8x, meaning you could get a bit of a performance boost out of a single 512MB card.
The XE will launch into the market within the next couple of weeks. Retail motherboards are expected to cost around US$99, which given the rate of exchange probably means aroun £75 for the UK. The Ultra, at the low-end, will be cheaper, at sub-US$89 (around £65) - although actual retail prices will obviously vary dependent on the board partner and integrated features like sound, networking etc. All in all, it should make for some interesting value equations when weighing up Intel against AMD.
The kick-ass product that Intel has for the beginning of this year is Yonah aka Core Duo
- the dual-core Pentium M. NVIDIA has told bit-tech
that there is nothing in nForce 4 for Intel that prohibits it being integrated on a Core Duo-compatible board, assuming board partners want to put on the different socket instead of the standard Socket 775. We would be pretty excited to see the performance that could be extracted from of a Core Duo-based nForce 4 system perhaps a passive 6600 - quiet, high-performing computing with 1080p H.264 decoding!
We'd be more excited to see an Intel-compatible integrated graphics board. Currently, NVIDIA has integrated GeForce 6100 and 6150 graphics for AMD systems, but nothing for Intel systems. The 6100 is perfect for integrated graphics for Media Center systems, and seeing as Core Duo is also ideally suited to this kind of box, we'd love to see the pair put together.
At the end of the day, what does this mean to you? Well, if we start to see nForce 4 boards being released with the Core Duo socket, you might be able to build yourself an extremely powerful system that is also low-power and quiet, believe it or not. If you happen to be buying an off-the-shelf system from Dell or any other Intel system integrator, you and millions of people like you now have the choice of getting NVIDIA SLI-compatible graphics and all the other nForce 4 features at a reasonable price point. We look forward to seeing what other bits and bobs NVIDIA has up its sleeves over the next couple of months - we have a sneaky suspicion that there might be something good at CeBit...