Introduction

Chaintech VNF 4 Ultra

Over the last two weeks I've brought you reviews on a few mainstream video cards based on PCI-Express (ABIT RX600 Pro GURU and XFX 6600 GT), and today I'll finish up on the budget gear by bringing you a mainboard to toss one of those cards in, the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra. Chaintech is one of the smaller motherboard manufacturers, but that doesn't mean they don't make quality products. I have personally used a few of their boards and been very happy, the Chaintech 9CJS immediately comes to mind as a pretty good overclocking board with excellent stability. While companies like DFI, ABIT, and ASUS rule the motherboard roost, companies like Chaintech have found a nice niche in producing quality motherboards with no frills for those of us on a budget.

I'm going out on a limb here in saying that I'm not totally sold on SLI. I know many have extolled its benefits (eye popping graphics using two 6800 Ultras, or good graphics using a pair of 6600GTs), but SLI has some issues that need to be sorted out. First, nVidia's exhorbant fees for utilizing the technology. Companies are paying a hefty, per board fee to use SLI, and I think we all know board makers aren't eating that cost...it is passed directly to us, the customers. Second, I hear alot of people say "Grab an SLI board, throw a pair of 6600GTs in it and you'll get 90% of the performance of a single 6800 Ultra". While that may technically be true, not every game supports SLI yet (It's a new technology) and when you stop to consider that an SLI board costs anywhere from $240-270, then factor in a pair of 6600GTs at $200 a pop.....how are you saving money? You can get a good nForce 4 Ultra board for around $140, throw a 6800 Ultra or X850XT in it and be done with it. I'm really torn here, but i have to say I'm going to wait and let the market mature a little more before I recommend people take the SLI route. Add to this mix ATI's SLI rebuttal coming sometime in the next four to six weeks, and suddenly the market muddies a bit more. There is a market for SLI though, it's the high end enthusiast/gamer crowd that settles for nothing but the best, however I think they represent less than 20% of the overall market.

So, without further adu, I bring you a board for those saving their allowance for other components, Chaintech's VNF4 Ultra for the socket 939.

 CPU
  •  Supports AMD Socket-939 Athlon 64 FX / Athlon 64 processor
  • Processor interface via 2000MT/s HyperTransport bus
 Chipset
  • nForce4 Ultra (VNF4 Ultra)
Memory
  • Four 184-pin DDR DIMMs up to 4GB
  • Supports Dual Channel DDR266/333/400 memory

Expansion Slots < ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

  • PCI Express x16 port for PCI Express graphics card
  • Two PCI Express x1 ports
  • Three 32bit PCI slots (v2.3 compliant)

Audio Subsystem

  • Supports enhanced NVIDIA 7.1-channel audio
  • Complies with AC'97 Rev 2.3 specifications
  • Six audio jacks with automatic jack sensing
  • Supports 48KHz coaxial S/PDIF output
  • EAX/Direct Sound 3D/I3DL2/A3D compatible
SATA
  • Supports four native SATA 1.5Gb/s devices (VNF4)
  • Supports four native SATA2 3.0Gb/s devices (VNF4 Ultra)
  • Hot-swap capability, allowing disks to be changed without powering down the system.
  • Optimized for the high-performance NVIDIA RAID technology
  • Supports SATA ATAPI devices

UltraDMA IDE Ports

  • Supports 2 UltraDMA-66/100/133 IDE ports

Embedded system monitoring

  • Temperature sensing for CPU and system
  • Fan speed monitoring and control for CPU and system

NVIDIA Gigabit Ethernet

  • Supports 10/100/1000Base-T Gigabit Ethernet with external PHY
NVIDIA ActiveArmor
  • A dedicated secure networking engine enhances networking security while reducing CPU overhead
  • Specialized features defend against spyware intrusions and hacker attacks
  • An intelligent application manager alerts you when unknown applications attempt to access the network
  • Supports the new Microsoft networking architecture for fast and secure networking
  • Boot-Block Flash ROM
  • Award system BIOS supports PnP, APM, DMI, ACPI, & Multi-device booting features
 Other Feature  Rear panel I/O ports
  • PS/2 Mouse and Keyboard port
  • 25-pin D-Sub female Parallel port
  • Two 9-pin D-Sub male Serial ports
  • Four USB ports and one RJ45 connector
  • 6-port Audio Jack for 7.1-Channel and S/PDIF output

Internal I/O connectors

  • Four 3x1 pin fan connectors
  • Three 5x2 pin USB connectors for additional 6 USB ports
  • 3x1 pin wake on LAN connector with housing
  • 3x1 pin wake on Modem connector with housing
  • Two 4x1 pin CD-in connectors with 2.54mm pitch housing
  • 5x2 pin Front Audio connector
  • 9x2 pin Front Panel connector
  • 24 pin ATX Power connector
  • 4 pin ATX 12V Power connector
 

Impression

The Chaintech VNF4 Ultra is built upon a black PCB with black, blue and tan connectors, nothing fancy, nothing colorful, except for the huge green and purple capacitors. While a regular ATX  board, the VNF4 is smaller than most, so fitting it into a smaller case shouldn't pose much of an issue.

memory slots

As soon as I saw this board I knew that it was not going to be a great overclocker. First, while Chaintech had the right idea moving the memory slots horizontally above the processor, they made two mistakes (In my opinion). Chaintech decided to pair the memory slots in an unorthidox configuration. Where most boards require you to use slots 1 and 3 or 2 and 4 for dual channel performance, Chaintech recommends you use only slots 1 and 2! They recommend against you using any other configuration, including the use of all four memory slots.

 DIMM slots with memory

The second issue here is the spacing between these slots....as in there isn't any. So while they had the right idea in placing the memory horizontal for cooling, the actual execution here was flawed in that the memory slots were placed too close together to actually do any good.

chipset cooler

Next week when I bring you the latest and greatest board from DFI, I'll show you the importance of good cooling when it comes to the chipset. Needless to say, active cooling is going to be a must on these nForce 4 boards as they run red hot. Chaintech is the first board I've seen to use a simple passive cooling solution, and to be honest, I really see this holding the board back from any type of overclocking. While running the board at stock settings during benchmarking, the chipset cooler was extremely hot to the touch.

capacitors

The last issue I want to touch on is the area surrounding the CPU socket. It looks like Chaintech used capacitors that have been abusing steroids, as these guys are monsters. Unfortunately I didn't have access to any large cooling solutions, but I'm guessing this board would have a hard time with the likes of a Thermalright XP-120 or a Zalman CPNS-7700. So beware when making a HSF selection.

IDE Connectors

Moving on to the boards connectors, I was a tad concerned by how Chaintech implemented the IDE connectors. While the placement is fine, Chaintech left each end of the IDE connectors open. This could be a problem if you can't see what you are doing or line up an IDE or FDD cable wrong.

24-pin power connector

Moving on the 4 pin ATX power connector and the 24 pin power connector, Chaintech chose an interesting location on the left side of the board behind the I/O ports. This might present a problem depending on your case and fan arrangement. I thought it would, but for me it actually worked out very nicely as the power cable tucked neatly under the fan housing.  

fan connectors

Other than the issues I've touched on, the VNF 4 Ultra has a clean and very simple layout, with 4 fan connectors (oddly, one is labeled "chip fan" yet Chaintech used passive cooling), two IDE connectors (A nice touch considering most board makers have cut back to a single IDE connector), two PCI-E x1, a  single PCI-E x16, and three PCI 2.1 slots.

PCI slots

Network controller

Chaintech chose the popular Gigabit network connection for the VNF 4 Ultra network solution. Most people prefer this over Realteks LAN solution, but I really can tell no difference in performance between the two. A nice feature is nVidia's Active Armor, which is an integrated hardware protection system that includes nVidia's firewall 2.0 utility. I really like this as alot of people just don't realize how important a firewall is until its too late. By actually including one in the package, Chaintech removes all your excuses, so when disaster strikes, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Realtek audio codec

For the integrated audio,  Chaintech chose the AC?97 Realtek ALC850 codec that works with NVIDIA?s own driver and nvMixer utility.  Not many enthusiasts are using onboard sound so this really isn't an issue, but I would really like to see some of these board companies follow MSI's lead and use something special like Creative's integrated Audigy chip, or even something comparable to Intel's HD Audio. Sometimes, even when building a budget alternative, people appreciate little things like this that might mean $20-25 more in board cost, but will save them $80 to 100 in overall system cost.

When it came to storage, chaintech supllies what has really become the standard fare. Besides the two IDE connections and FDD connection, the VNF4 also comes equipped with 4 SATA connections which support SATA 2 at 300MB/s in RAID 0, RAID 1, and RAID 0+1. One thing it doesn't support is the newest form RAID 5.

CMOS/SATA

As to the rear I/O port, the VNF4 comes with a very basic array, one thing noticably missing is any optical or difital audio output, disappointing, but I addressed the sound issue earlier, most people will bypass the onboard audio for a better solution.

rear panel

As far as the included bundle, I really liked the software bundle Chaintech included. Getting Norton Anti-Virus ($50 if you were to buy it alone), coupled with nVidia's Firewall program, provides you with a good 1-2 punch when it comes to internet security, all that you really need to top that off is a good spyware app or two (might I suggest Adaware Personal Edition and SpywareBlaster?).

 

VN$ Ultra Bundle

BIOS and Overclocking

BIOS chip

The VNF4 Ultra's BIOS might be the simplest I've seen in quite some time. Nothing really complicated here. All the memory and FSB settings are very basic and easy to adjust, although when it came to the memory adjustments, there was no way of changing the command rate for this board. Chaintech released a new BIOS for this board shortly after sending it to me, I didn't notice any real difference between the two, but I like the fact that they are continually improving the boards BIOS. I would very much like to see a wider range of adjustments for everything, but then again, I'm always tinkering with things. I also took issue with Chaintech board sensors. The CPU read 23C at default setting in the BIOS, with the chipset saying 36. By my own recordings, both temps were off by at least 10C, a pretty big discrepancy for a BIOS program.

CPU Voltage DIMM Voltage Chipset Voltage Memory Timings

One thing the BIOS did for me was cement the fact that this board was not built to be an overclocker. Between the BIOS adjustments, the memory layout, and the chipset cooling, I honestly feel this board is more of an entry level board geard toward those building a first sytem or those who are more concerned with stability.  

One thing I would like to touch on, which I think Chaintech did very well with, was the boot codes. During the boot phase, there is a disply that sits in the upper right corner of the screen. This displays all of the boot codes while your system is running through its various steps. Chaintech saves you time and effort in diagnosing any problems, simply look up the error code, or write it down when contacting chaintech's customer support and solve the problem!

Overclocking

I approached this segment of the board testing a little differently than normal. Usually when overclocking I try several different approaches to find the best possible overclock and performance I can get out of a board. With the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra I didn't feel comfortable pusing things too far for a couple of reasons. First, I was limited in my cooling options. I only had AMD's stock cooling solution for the socket 939 3500+Winchester I used for testing. Second, I was concerned with the chipset cooling solution that Chaintech uses on this board. I probably would have pushed things further if I had used active cooling, but after feeling the heat coming off the chipset's heat sink I didn't feel like pushing this board to its death. Lastly, with the poor spacing of the DIMM slots, I didn't feel like killing my memory by burning it up.

I finally decided to find the max stable overclock at my processors default multiplier (11). The highest I was able to go and complete all of my testing was 225 on the FSB, which gave me 2.48GHz, not terrible, but not fantastic. while the processor stayed a reasonable 36C, the chipset heat sink was too hot to touch.

I honestly think with some active cooling on the chipset, a better HSF combo on the processor, and maybe some better ventilation around the DIMM slots would have given me a better overclock.  

CPU Testing

I decided to break my benchmarking down into three catagories, CPU Tests, Memory Tests, and finally, Graphics Tests. Since this is the first nForce 4 board i have had the opportunity to review there really isn't much comparison, I ran all benchmarks at the stock setting of 200FSB, then again at the max FSB at the CPU's default multiplier. For those of you wanting to get an idea of how this board stacks up against other, please check out some of my other board reviews here.

My system for testing the Chaintech VNF4 Ultra:

3DMark05 CPU Test

 3DMark05 is a premium benchmark for evaluating the latest generation of gaming hardware. It is the first benchmark to require a DirectX9.0 compliant hardware with support for Pixel Shaders 2.0 or higher. Resolution was set to 1024x768.

3DMark05

3DMark03 CPU Test

 The 3DMark03 CPU test is a convenient way to measure the performance of the CPU for typical 3D usage. The feature tests isolate the performance of key 3D features primarily relating to shader technologies.

3DMark03

PCMark04 CPU Test

 PCMark04 supports the complete benchmark cycle ? allowing
you to benchmark your PC, view the resulting benchmark details, compare your results to those of others, and
finally analyze how to improve your PC performance.  PCMark04?s system score is a single, globally recognized number that represents the overall PC performance
for home usage.

PCMark04

Sisoft Sandra 2005 CPU Arithmetic (ALU)

 SiSoft Sandra 2005 is a synthetic benchmark for testing primary components.
The tests can stress a system's CPU, Memory, or Multimedia capabilities.
Sandra 2005 supports X86 (32-bit) and X86-64 (64-bit) hardware and OS's.

Sisoft Sandra 2005

AquaMark3 CPU Test

 AquaMark3 executes a complete state-of-the-art game engine and generates 3D scenes designed to make the same demands on hardware as a modern game. The utilized game engine, the krass? Engine, has been used in Aquanox and AquaNox 2: Revelation as well as in the upcoming RTS Spellforce by Phenomic Game Development. It is accepted industrywide and well-known to deliver high-performance graphic effects with superior quality.

Technically, AquaMark3 utilizes recent hardware features of the new DirectX 9 API, such as PixelShader 2.0, while staying fully backward compatible to DirectX 8 and 7 graphics hardware. The graphics and game engine features activated can be configured in fine detail to allow the performance measurement to be adjusted appropriately for the target system. 

AquaMark3

Memory Tests

Sisoft Sandra

 SiSoft Sandra 2005 is one of the leading providers of computer analysis, diagnostic and benchmarking software. SANDRA is used by almost 400 world-wide IT publications, magazines, review sites to analyse the performance of today?s computers. Over 4,000 on-line reviews of computer hardware that use SANDRA are catalogued on the company?s website alone. SiSoft Sandra benchmarks show the power of emerging new technologies like multi-core, Wireless MMX, AMD64/EM64T, IA64, NUMA, SMT (Hyper-Threading), SMP (multi-threading), SSE2, SSE, 3DNow! Enhanced, 3DNow!, Enhanced MMX and MMX.

Sisoft 2005 Memory Buffered

Sisoft Sandra 2005 Memory Floating

Everest 1.5

 Everest 1.51 is a professional system information, diagnostics and benchmarking program for Win32 platforms. It extracts details of all components of the PC. It also tests the actual read and write speeds of your memory to give a fairly accurate look of true memory performance.

Everest 1.5 Memory Read

Everest 1.5 Memory Write

Everest 1.5 Memory Latency

Graphics Tests

3DMark05

 3DMark05 is a premium benchmark for evaluating the latest generation of gaming hardware. It is the first benchmark to require a DirectX9.0 compliant hardware with support for Pixel Shaders 2.0 or higher. Resolution was set to 1024x768.

3DMark05 Graphics Test

3DMark03

3DMark03 is a collection of  four 3D gmae based tests.  Each 3DMark03 game test is a real-time rendering of a 3D scenario. It is important to note that these renderings are not merely animations or a set of recorded events; they are designed to function like 3D games work. As with 3D games, all computations are performed in real time. This is a critical part of FutureMarks philosophy of 3D graphics benchmarking.

3DMark03 Graphics Test

AquaMark3

 AquaMark3 is a powerful tool to determine reliable information about the gaming performance of a computer system. Again, resolution was set 1024x768.

AquaMark3 Graphics Test

Doom 3

 Doom 3 is one of the most system taxing games available. Its popularity also makes it a great choice for system benchmarking. I like to use Time Demo 1 with resolution set to 1024x768 with detail set to high.

Doom 3 Time Demo 1

FarCry

 Far Cry is another super popular FPS title that seriously taxes your systems graphics. HardwareOC developed this specialized benchmarking utility that automatically runs the test twice and averages out the score. V 1.41 was used here, with a resolution of 1024x768 and detail levels set to high.

Far Cry Benchmark 1.4

Final Thoughts

 Retail Box Front

I ended up having real mixed emotions about this board. First, the positive... I like the fact that Chaintech made a board for the masses, no bells and whistles that some people simply don't want or need. I mean, if you are on a budget, building your first system, or don't have to break any records, then why put out more money than you have to? The Chaintech VNF4 Ultra was found to be an extremely stable motherboard at defualt clock speeds.  When you consider price versus performance, this board is a perfect fit for those looking to get the most out of their money.

On the negative side, this is a very raw BIOS that needs some tweaking from Chaintech, a small issue as the board is only now coming available. I anticipate Chaintech will contiue to refine the BIOS for this board. I really didn't care for the passive cooling solution on the chipset, but again this is something that might change as one of the boards fan connectors was labeled "chip fan". I think all nForce4 boards will require active cooling as the chip is just too hot. I also didn't like the configuration Chaintech used for their memory, the positioning was fine, but the spacing was not, they need to move the DIMM slots apart even just a bit to allow them to be cooled better. I think the negatives here are what keeps this board from being all it can be as an overclocking alternative.

That being said, the board is inexpensive, stable, and definitely has a market. I wouldn't recommend Chaintech's VNF4 Ultra to everyone, but I would recommend it to those of you who are just starting off or those who have no interest in overclocking.

Retail Box Back

The Legit Bottom Line   

The Chaintech VNF 4 Ultra is a fine budget or entry level board for those that don't need all the bells and whistles.