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Abit and DFI tackle ATI's CrossFire Xpress 3200


For the belt
— 12:03 AM on July 6, 2006

BACK IN THE DAY, Abit made arguably the best enthusiast-oriented motherboards around. Abit boards were sought after for their extra onboard peripherals and overclocking-friendly BIOSes. Performance wasn't too shabby either, but the competition adapted quickly. Soon others were offering mobos with similar features and overclocking options, although continued innovation allowed Abit to retain its BIOS crown.

Then, just a couple of years ago, Abit became embroiled in financial difficulties that would drag on and eventually see the company purchased by USI. Abit lost a lot of ground during that time, but with USI's backing, the company is now focusing almost exclusively on motherboards in an attempt to regain its former glory.

Looking back, the timeline of Abit's decline nearly matches the rise of DFI. For years, DFI was best known for OEM and industrial products, but recently it's built a series of exceptional enthusiast-oriented LANParty boards. Those boards have offered unique designs, plenty of BIOS options, and a penchant for running at higher-than-stock speeds that's made them particularly popular among overclockers.

With some calling DFI the new Abit, we thought it only fitting to pit these two companies' latest Athlon 64 motherboards against each other head to head. Can the LANParty UT CFX3200-DR continue DFI's streak of killer Athlon 64 mobos, or will Abit's AT8 32X rise like a Phoenix to retake the enthusiast motherboard crown? Read on to find out.


Board specs
Before we delve into the layout and BIOS quirks of each board, it's worth taking a moment to compare their spec sheets. Note that both use AMD's older 939-pin Athlon 64 socket rather than the 940-pin Socket AM2. AM2 may be AMD's new hotness, but with DDR2 memory offering few tangible performance benefits for Athlon 64 platforms, Socket 939 is hardly old and busted. In fact, for those already invested in DDR memory or Socket 939 processors, there's no compelling reason to upgrade to Socket AM2.

Abit AT8 32X DFI LANParty UT CFX3200-DR
CPU supportSocket 939-based Athlon 64 processorsSocket 939-based Athlon 64 processors
North bridgeATI CrossFire Xpress 3200ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200
South bridgeULi M1575ULi M1575
InterconnectPCI Express (2 GB/sec)PCI Express (2 GB/sec)
Expansion slots2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8 GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8 GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/133 with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via SiI 3132
Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/133 with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 support via SiI 3134
Audio8-channel HD audio via M1575 and Realtek ALC882D codec8-channel HD audio via M1575 and Realtek ALC880 codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
4
USB 2.0 with headers for 3 more
1 Firewire via Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A with header for 1 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Realtek RTL8111

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF input
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output
1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
6
USB 2.0 with headers for 2 more
1 Firewire via VIA 6307 with header for 1 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8052
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8053


1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 coaxial digital S/PDIF input
1 coaxial digital S/PDIF output
BIOSPhoenix AwardBIOSPhoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speedsHT: 200-400 MHz in 1 MHz increments
DRAM: 200, 266, 333, 400, 433, 466, 500 MHz
PCI-E: 90-140 MHz in 1 MHz increments
HT: 0-500 MHz in 1 MHz increments
DRAM: 200, 240, 266, 300, 333, 360, 400, 433, 466, 500 MHz
Bus multipliersLDT: 1x-5xLDT: 1x-5x
VoltagesCPU: auto, 1.35-1.75 V in 0.025 V increments
DDR: 2.5-3.2 V in 0.05 V increments
DDR reference: +/- 0.01-0.06 V in 0.01 V increments
North bridge 1.2 V: 1.0-1.8 V in 0.05 V increments
North bridge 1.8 V: 1.5-2.0 V in 0.05 V increments
HT: 1.2-1.4 V in 0.05 V increments
CPU: auto, 0.8-1.55 V in 0.025 V increments
CPU special: Vcore * 101.4-121.6% in 1.4% increments
DDR: 2.06-4.15 V in 0.02 V increments
South bridge PCI-E: 1.8-1.95 V in 0.05 V increments
North bridge analog: 1.21-1.6 V in 0.1 V increments
North bridge core: 1.21-1.6 V in 0.1 V increments
LDT: 1.21-1.6 V in 0.1 V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlCPU, north bridge, system, AUX1, AUX2, AUX3CPU, north bridge, system

Both the AT8 32X and LANParty UT CFX3200-DR are based on a chipset combo that pairs ATI's CrossFire Xpress 3200 north bridge with ULi's M1575 south bridge. These days, one doesn't often see north and south bridge components from different manufacturers, but given the I/O performance problems that have plagued ATI's SB450 south bridge, the ULi M1575 is an excellent alternative. A PCI Express connection serves to join the M1575 to the CrossFire Xpress 3200 north bridge, with four dedicated lanes offering a total of 2 GB/s of bandwidth between the two chips.

The chipset's four-lane interconnect should have more than enough bandwidth for the M1575's array of integrated peripherals, especially since ATI hangs both of the chipset's full-bandwidth PCI Express x16 slots directly off the Xpress 3200 north bridge. Even with 32 PCI Express lanes dedicated to a pair of x16 slots and four reserved for the chipset interconnect, the CrossFire Xpress 3200 still has four PCI-E lanes to spare.

Abit and DFI both use a pair of those extra PCI Express lanes to power PCI-E x1 slots. Abit also equips its board with PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet from Realtek and an additional storage controller from Silicon Image. DFI, on the other hand, specs its LANParty with two Marvell PCI Express GigE chips.

With its PCI Express options exhausted, CFX3200 has to resort to a PCI-based auxiliary storage controller. The DFI board's Silicon Image SiI 3114 will be forced to contend for bus bandwidth with other PCI devices, although to be fair, it offers two more Serial ATA ports than the SiI 3132 controller found on the AT8 32X.

Abit and DFI also differ when it comes to Firewire, with Abit opting to use a Texas Instruments chip and DFI choosing the popular VIA VT6307. Both of them—along with virtually every other motherboard manufacturer—use Realtek's high definition audio codecs. Hail to the crab.