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CrossFire Xpress 3200 AM2 boards from ECS and MSI


Alternatives to nForce domination
— 12:00 AM on August 28, 2006

ATI'S ATHLON 64 CHIPSETS had a rough time winning over enthusiasts in the Socket 939 era. Enthusiast-oriented motherboards based on the Radeon Xpress family weren't as plentiful as those sporting one of Nvidia's many nForce4 variants, and for good reason. ATI's SB450 south bridge was short on features and plagued with I/O performance problems that prompted many mobo makers to use an alternative south bridge chip from ULi. ULi was eventually purchased by Nvidia, putting additional pressure on ATI to nail the design of its next-gen SB600 south bridge.

That pressure apparently motivated ATI's chipset team, because it delivered a surprisingly solid SB600 south bridge back in May as a part of the CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset for AMD's new AM2 socket. The I/O performance problems that had sullied previous ATI chipsets were nowhere to be found, and the Xpress 3200 delivered much lower power consumption than Nvidia's comparably gluttonous nForce 590 SLI.

A few months have passed since the CrossFire Xpress 3200 launch, and the chipset is finally starting to appear in retail motherboards from ATI's partners. A couple of board samples have also appeared in our labs in the form of ECS's KA3 MVP and MSI's K9A Platinum. Keep reading to see how well each has implemented the CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset on Socket AM2.


Board specs
We've already detailed the features of the CrossFire Xpress 3200 in our Socket AM2 chipset comparison, so I won't spend too much time on the chipset itself. Instead, we'll concentrate on the unique features, attributes, and quirks that designs from ECS and MSI bring to the table.

ECS KA3 MVP MSI K9A Platinum
CPU supportSocket AM2-based Athlon 64 processorsSocket AM2-based Athlon 64 processors
North bridgeCrossFire Xpress 3200CrossFire Xpress 3200
South bridgeSB600SB600
InterconnectPCI Express (2GB/s)PCI Express (2GB/s)
Expansion slots2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 240-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8 GB of DDR2-400/533/667/800 SDRAM
4 240-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8 GB of DDR2-400/533/667/800 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
1 channel ATA/133
1 channel ATA/133 via JMicron JMB363
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via JMicron JMB363
Floppy disk
1 channel ATA/133
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
Audio8-channel HD audio via SB600 and Realtek ALC883 codec8-channel HD audio via SB600 and Realtek ALC883 codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 serial
4
USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
Headers for 2 1394a Firewire via VIA VT6308P
1 RJ45 10/100 via Realtek RTL8139
1
RJ45 10/100/1000 via Agere ET-131x

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 coaxial digital S/PDIF output
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output
1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 serial
1 parallel
4
USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
1 1394a Firewire via
VIA VT6308P with headers for 1 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Realtek RTL8168
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Realtek RTL8169


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 output
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output
BIOSPhoenix AwardBIOSAMI
Bus speedsHT: 200-500MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 400, 533, 667, 800MHz
HT: 100-400MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 400, 533, 667, 800MHz
PCI-E: 100-200MHz in 1MHz increments
Bus multipliersNANA
VoltagesCPU: auto, 0.55-1.35V in 0.025V increments
DDR: auto, +0.05-0.35 in 0.05V increments
North bridge: auto, +0.05-0.15 in 0.05V increments
HT: auto, +0.05-0.15 in 0.05V increments
CPU: auto, 1.2-1.35V in 0.025V increments
CPU adjust: Vcore + 3.3-23.3% in 3.3% increments
DDR: auto, 1.8-2.3V in 0.025V increments
North bridge: auto, 1.1.8-2.15V in 0.05V increments
HT: auto, 1.2-1.5V in 0.05V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlCPU, systemCPU

What's particularly striking about these two boards is the distinct lack of striking differences, at least as far as the spec sheets go. Both boards implement the same CrossFire Xpress 3200 north bridge and SB600 south bridge combo, and that dictates many of the features they have to offer, including the all-important pair of 16-lane PCI Express slots for CrossFire.

Perhaps feeling some heat from the nForce 590 SLI's six Serial ATA ports and dual ATA channels, ECS has chosen to augment the SB600's storage controller with an auxiliary chip from JMicron. This chip adds a couple of Serial ATA ports and an extra ATA channel, although for most folks, the single ATA channel and four Serial ATA ports provided by the SB600 should be enough.

The SB600 lacks Gigabit Ethernet, so the mobo makers have to supply an auxiliary network controller chip. ECS takes an odd approach to task, outfitting its KA3 MVP with an Agere GigE chip and a measly 10/100 Fast Ethernet controller from Realtek. Realtek also sees action on MSI's K9A Platinum. MSI splurges on a pair of Gigabit chips, although one of them is stuck on the PCI bus.

The Realtek crab also shows up on the board's ALC883 High Definition Audio codec chip. The ALC883 appears to be a popular choice among CrossFire Xpress 3200 partners—ECS uses the very same chip on the KA3 MVP. The two boards use identical VIA Firewire chips, too.