For me at least, it's hard to believe it has been almost two years since DFI made their first real splash in the enthusiast motherboard market with the LANParty Pro Revision B boards. Since then, DFI has churned out quality board after quality board, among them the NF4 Ultra and SLI, which I feel are currently the finest boards available for any platform when used correctly.
Featuring extreme overclocking, great performance, and the best bundle on the market, DFI has firmly entrenched itself at the top of the enthusiast motherboard market.
Today, we look at a completely different line from DFI, the NF4 Infinity Series. Gone are the incredible bundles, crazy colors, and every other bell and whistle. However, don't let looks deceive you, as underneath a very plain looking exterior lies everything we have come to expect from DFI, great performance and value. With the release of the Infinity Series boards, DFI hopes to continue its march toward market domination by targeting the budget motherboard market.
Lets take a closer look at the two boards we are going to focus on today, the DFI Infinity NF4 Ultra, and Infinity SLI.
|Rear Panel I/O||
As you can see, these boards feature many of the same qualities found on the LANParty series boards. Let's take a look at the layout of both boards before we move on to some testing.
Looking at the Infinity Ultra and SLI side by side there doesn't appear to be much difference other than the obvious extra PCI-E x 16 slot. Both boards are distinctly different from the LANParty Series in look as well as layout. The Infinity Series sports almost an "OEM" look with its plain brown PCB and PCI/PCI-E slots.
The first thing I noticed upon opening the packages was how small the Infinity Ultra was. While the Infinity SLI measured in at 9.6"(W) x 12"(L), the Infinity Ultra came in at 8.66"(W) x 12"(L). This is a noticeable difference from most "standard" ATX boards. My only concern here is that this might cause issues while mounting the Ultra board in some cases.
I used the Cooler Master Aquagate Mini for testing, it has a very large CPU block which I was able to mount without issue. Just be aware that some wide based cooling solutions might have issues with these boards.
The Infinity SLI is fitted with a pair of x1 PCI-E slots, a pair of x16 PCI-E slots (which run at x8 while in SLI mode), as well as three PCI slots. I mounted an ATI X850 XT without any issue as well as a pair of XFX 6600GTs.
The Infinity Ultra features a single x16 PCI-E slot, a pair of x1 PCI-E slots as well as three PCI slots. Like most boards the Ultra will have issues fitting most video card coolers and allowing usage of the top PCI slot.
Both the Infinity SLI as well as the Ultra feature the same memory layout supporting up to 4GB of 184 pin DDR in dual channel. The memory configuration on both boards allows you to run dual channel in a variety of configurations. (Due to the different possibilities, I'm not going to go through the list, but rest assured that you will have no problem running 1,2, or 4 memory modules in dual channel mode.
The Infinity SLI features four Serial ATA connectors supporting up to 4 Serial ATA II (3GB) HDD , managed by the NVIDIA nForce 4 chipset, which allow for RAID0, RAID1, RAID0+1, and JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks).
The nForce 4 chipset also allows spanning across the PATA disks, allowing up to four Parallel ATA disks to be used as part of a RAID array in conjunction with the boards four SATA disks.
The Infinity Ultra features basically the same arrangement, except for the placement and abilities of the storage connectors. The Infinity Ultra supports RAID0 and RAID1 through the Serial ATA ports and also in conjunction with the Parallel ATA ports.
Unlike most other budget motherboards, DFI chose to use an active cooling solution with the Infinity nForce 4 boards. While temperatures during testing were fine, the fan was annoyingly loud, easily audible over a pair of 120 mm fans used to cool the rest of the system. I have to wonder about the cooler itself as it seems to simply be a small piece of aluminum with minimal fins covered by a 40 mm fan. I would definitely have preferred the Sunon cooler used on the LANParty Series, but also feel that this is a better solution for the relatively hot nForce 4 chipset than passive cooling used on most boards.
For ethernet connectivity the Infinity SLI uses Marvell's 88E1111 Gigabit Phy which is fully compliant to IEEE 802.3 (10BASE-T), 802.3u (100BASE-TX) and 802.3ab (1000BASE-T) standards while the Infinity Ultra utilizes the Vitesse VSC8201 Gigabit Phy, which also is fully compliant to IEEE 802.3 (10BASE-T), 802.3u (100BASE-TX) and 802.3ab (1000BASE-T) standards. While neither are cutting edge, both provide more than adequate performance.
Both the Infinity SLI and Ultra feature the VIA VT6307 chip which supports two 100/200/400 Mb/sec IEEE 1394 ports. For onboard audi, DFI chose the fairly standard Realtek ALC655 6 Channel Audio Codec for the Infinity line.
The rear I/O ports feature the standard fare seen on most boards. PS/2 connectors for mouse and keyboard, two S/PDIF RCA jacks (S/PDIF-out and S/PDIF-in), a single parallel port, serial port, IEEE 1394 port, and RJ45 ethernet port. Also found on the rear are the audio jacks for microphone, line in and line out as well as four USB 2.0 ports.
My overall impression of the Infinity Series based on the board's layout is very positive. I feel both boards are a little cramped around the CPU area, but that the clean layout and very basic features lend to a easy to work with enviroment. My main issue was the number of available 3-pin fan headers. Both the Infinity SLI and Infinity Ultra have three, one each for the CPU, chipset, as well as one free header. Given that most power supplies have a 3-pin connector, and suddenly you have no free 3-pin fan headers. I'd prefer to see at least a pair of free headers on each board.
My only other issue was with the size of the Infinity Ultra board, which comes in a full inch narrower than the standard ATX board. While I had no problems installing the board, I feel that this will cause issues with some case configurations.
Aside from that, these boards are what they are, an alternative for those people who can't afford a $150-200 motherboard. I feel that some people will be disappointed with the onboard functions provided by the Realtek audio as well as the storage options, but those people will probably be more inclined to purchase the more expensive LANParty Series boards.
One issue people complain about with DFI's LANParty NF4 boards is the BIOS. After using the DFI NF4 Ultra for more than six months, my advice is simple.....bypass all the "modded" and customized BIOS' avaiable on the web, and stick with the actual release BIOS' available from DFI's own site. By doing this you are avoiding many of the issues associated with DFI's boards. Only when using one of the many modded BIOS' have I ever encountered an issue with my DFI boards.
Having said that, the DFI Infinity Series features a wonderful BIOS, easy to navigate and easy to adjust, fitting somewhere in between the extreme that is the LANParty NF4 BIOS and the BIOS' found on most budget or entry level boards.
Instead of wading through the entire BIOS, we'll just take a few minutes to touch on the pertinent screens that most will use, the Genie BIOS screen and the memory optimization screen.
Once in the Genie BIOS screen the first stop is definitiely the CPU Frequency. The DFI Infinity BIOS has a "DEFAULT" setting, then scales from 201 all the way to 450. While I think a 450MHz CPU Frequency is just a bit out of reach, I would be surprised if either of these boards failed to overclock well.
For CPU Voltage, the Infinity Series BIOS starts at .800V and scales to a healthy 1.850V, more than enough for any current AMD processor, and even the most ambitious overclocker.
The chipset voltage scales from the default 1.5V to a modest 1.7V, but given the quality of the chipset cooler, I feel this is more than adequate for what this board can handle.
Lately I've been greatly impressed with the available voltages for memory. All too often I've seen a good quality board top out at 2.85-2.9V on the memory voltage, while that may be adequate for stock speeds and a modest overclock with decent memory, it is woefully inadequate for power hungry modules from OCZ and Mushkin.
Although 3.2 V is borderline for some of these modules to run at their rated timings and speed, it is a great step forward from where we were a year ago.
Unlike their LANParty NF4 boards, the Infinity has few memory clock options, though not enough to cause serious problems, it is less than half of the options found on those other boards.
The DRAM Configuration Screen is quite a bit simpler than the NF4 LANParty boards, but not so much so that you'd lose the ability to customize your system.
I'd highly recommend enabling all of the user configuration settings, as the stock settings on my board were way too conservative in both timings and speed. I also found that by default my memory was running at a 2T setting instead of 1T.
As with all DFI boards, there are plenty of setting for you to tinker with, but as a whole I have to say that the Infinty BIOS is one of the most user friendly I've seen, simple to use and set up, but deep enough to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of your board.
In the end, I have to say that the Infinity Series BIOS is one of the better BIOS' I've seen. As I stated earlier, it fits somewhere between the insane LANParty NF4 BIOS and the BIOS' included with budget motherboards.
Both nForce4 Ultra boards will use identical hardware which will include the following:
- AMD X2 3800+ CPU
- 1 GB Corsair XMS 3200XL memory @ 2-2-2-5
- ATI Radeon X850 XT video card
- Maxtor DiamondMax 10 300GB HDD
- Antec SmartPower 2.0 550W PSU
The nForce4 SLI boards will use the following components:
- AMD X2 3800+ CPU
- 1 GB Corsair XMS 3200XL memory @ 2-2-2-5
- 2 x XFX 6600GT video cards
- Maxtor DiamondMax 10 300GB HDD
- Antec SmartPower 2.0 550W PSU
*All testing was done using a fresh install of Windows XP Profeessional with SP 2, NVidia's 6.66 Chipset Drivers, ATI's Cat 5.8 Driver for the ATI cards and 78.01 for the NVIDIA cards.
Testing consisted of the following benchmarking programs:
- 3DMark05 (CPU Test)
- 3DMark03 (CPU Test)
- Aquamark 3 (CPU Test)
- Sisoft Sandra 2005 (CPU Arithmetic)
- Super Pi Mod 1.4
- Cinebench 2003
- Far Cry
- Doom 3
3DMark 2005 v1.2.0
3DMark05 is best suited for the latest generation of DirectX 9.0 graphics cards. It is the first benchmark to require a DirectX9.0 compliant hardware with support for Pixel Shaders 2.0 or higher! By combining high quality 3D tests, CPU tests, feature tests, image quality tools, and much more, 3DMark05 is a premium benchmark for evaluating the latest generation of gaming hardware.
3DMark03 Build 360
3DMark03 is a collection of four 3D game 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.
Sisoft Sandra 2005 SR2:
SiSoftware, founded in 1995, is one of the leading providers of computer analysis, diagnostic and benchmarking software. The flagship product, known as "SANDRA", was launched in 1997 and has become one of the most widely used products in its field. SANDRA is used by almost 400 world-wide IT publications, magazines, review sites to analyze the performance of today?s computers.
Multi-Core Support As well as SMP (multi-processor) and SMT (multi-threading/Hyper-Threading) support we have added multi-core support for future AMD and Intel CPUs. The benchmarks have been optimized to schedule the optimum number of threads on the optimum (virtual) CPU on both multi-core and Hyper-Threaded computers.
PCMark05 is an application-based benchmark and a premium tool for measuring overall PC performance. It uses portions of real applications instead of including very large applications or using specifically created code. This allows PCMark05 to be a smaller installation as well as to report very accurate results. As far as possible, PCMark04 uses public domain applications whose source code can be freely examined by any user.
AquaMark3 is a powerful tool to determine reliable information about the gaming performance of a computer system. Again, resolution was set 1024x768.
CINEBENCH 2003 is the free benchmarking tool for Windows and Mac OS based on the powerful 3D software CINEMA 4D R8. The tool is set to deliver accurate benchmarks by testing not only a computer's raw processing speed but also all other areas that affect system performance such as OpenGL, multithreading, multiprocessors and Intel's HT Technology. CINEBENCH 2003 includes render tasks that test the performance of up to 16 multiprocessors on the same computer.
ScienceMark 2.0 Final:
Science Mark 2.0 is an attempt to put the truth behind benchmarking. In an attempt to model real world demands and performance, ScienceMark 2.0 is a suite of high-performance benchmarks that realistically stress system performance without architectural bias. Lower results (time in seconds) represent better performance. All of our testing was completed on the 32 Bit Final benchmark version that is dated March 21, 2005.
Super Pi is a program a lot of enthusiasts use to benchmark overall system performance, as the program is capable of calculating pi up to 33.55 million digits on a timer. Many overclockers and enthusiasts are in a battle to get the lowest 1M Super Pi time possible
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.
Far Cry- Volcano
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.
As you can see from our benchmarking, not much separates these boards performance wise at stock speeds. Both DFI and ECS should be happy with these results, as should any system builder looking for a solid, if not spectacular board.
As usual, what will separate the great boards from the good ones is overclocking. DFI has built their reputation around the enthusiast market and their extreme overclocking ability, while ECS has really stepped up lately with some very stable boards that lack serious overclocking ability.
Overclocking the Infinity SLI and Ultra was a breeze. Leaving my 3800+ X2 at its default multiplier of x10, I had no problem running 270FSB (2.7GHz) stable for a full round of benchmarking. One issue I do want to point out is that although the SmartGuardian program claimed the chipset temperature was only 46C, the aluminum fan housing was too hot to touch.
Dropping the CPU's multiplier to x9, I was able to hit 303FSB. I feel that with a better cooling solution these boards could scale even farther, but the chipset cooler was way too hot at this point for me to feel comfortable pushing the system any further. I think that simply replacing the chipset cooler with a better after-market solution, these boards would overclock further than most companie's high end NF4 solutions.
Considering the price of these boards, as well as the performance under a variety of overclocking scenarios, I think these board more than accomplish DFI's goal of bringing their boards to a whole new audience.
With the nVidia SLI chipsets becoming lower in price we are finally starting to see a number of solid SLI motherboards come out in the mainstream segment. The DFI NF4 SLI Infinity and NF4 Ultra Inifinity have both proved to be solid motherboards and share many common features with the high end boards that are also made by DFI. The DFI SLI Inifinity is currently priced under $125, while the DFI Ultra Infinity can be found online for under $100. The DFI nF4 SLI Infinity is priced in the performance-mainstream price range and the DFI NF4 Ultra Infinity is priced just in the mainstream segement.
The Infinity SLI bundle is as simple as they come..... instruction manual, two IDE cables, two SATA cables, installation software, and SLI bridge. No one is going to mistake these for one of the LANParty Series bundles. For the market this series targets the manual is far too simple, I think DFI needs to expand the manual a great deal to help the new overclocker or budget gamer (who these boards are marketed at), especially considering the feature rich BIOS and overclocking performance of these boards.
The DFI NF4 SLI showed itself to be a great board for the gamer on a budget. I was greatly impressed by the overclocking performance of this board (both boards actually), that, coupled with a pretty deep and customizable BIOS definitely makes this board worth the price. While this board fills DFI's slot at the lower end of the motherboard price range I feel that the Infinty SLI would satisfy the needs of even the most hardcore gamer or enthusiast.
The DFI Infinity Ultra is the board that really impressed me. People on a budget are probably not going to grab a $125 board and slap a pair of $200-500 video cards in it. What people on a budget will do is grab an inexpensive solution that provides good performance and combine it with a mid-range video card along the lines of an X800XL or a 6800GT. As with the Infinity SLI, the Ultra features a very customizable BIOS and great overclocking potential.
DFI has spent a great deal of time and effort to get where they are now. As I stated earlier, I feel their NF4 LANParty Series boards are the finest on the market, and with the release of the NF4 Infinity Series, DFI has brought to market a fine compliment to their high end boards. Couple the outstanding performance with DFI's fantastic tech support and user forums, as well as the most frequently updated BIOS releases I have ever seen, and its hard to recommend any other motherboard maker.
My issues with both of these boards were few. First, the strange size of the Infinity Ultra could cause issues with some cases. Second, adding to the size issue was the fact that everything seems cramped together. Third, I was disappointed in the 3-pin fan headers. With a header for both the CPU fan and chipset fan, both boards only have one additional 3-pin header, which could lead to cooling issues (I know, its easy to buy a 4 to 3 pin adapter). Lastly, although I have to give DFI credit for using an active cooling solution, unlike most budget boards, I felt the chipset fan used with the Infinity NF4 Series was pretty loud and fairly ineffective. Outside of those gripes I think these are great boards at a great price.
The Legit Bottom Line
DFI has come a long way in a short time, rapidly establishing itself as the board of choice for a wide range of users. While their high end LANParty NF4 Series has become the favorite of gamers and overclockers, the Infinity Series should easily do the same for beginning DIYer's or those on a tight budget.