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Opposite ends of the Intel P965 mobo spectrum


What's $100 between motherboards?
— 12:00 AM on September 18, 2006

THE MARKET FOR CORE 2 motherboards is starting to fill out, and enthusiasts now have plenty of options to choose from at a variety of price points. Intel's new P965 chipset has proven to be a surprisingly popular option for budget offerings and high-end boards alike, so it was really only a matter of time before we pitted boards from opposite ends of the spectrum against each other for a little market segment warfare.

In the budget corner, we have Foxconn's P9657AA-8KS2H, a board whose $100 price tag makes it one of the cheapest P965 offerings on the market. The P9657AA-8KS2H has everything you'll need, including Gigabit Ethernet, High Definition Audio, and a decent array of overclocking and fan speed control options, making it a potential bargain.

For twice the cost of the Foxconn board, you could also have Gigabyte's GA-965P-DQ6. In addition to everything you'll need, the GA-965P-DQ6 has a few things you might want, like a second PCI Express x16 slot, Core 2 multiplier control, fancy heatpipe cooling, and a handful of extra goodies.

The obvious question, of course, is whether all those extras are worth the $100 premium. Can a budget board really keep up with a high-end offering? Read on for the surprising answer.


Board specs
Although they're based on the same Intel P965 chipset family, there are numerous differences between the specifications of these two mobos.

Foxconn P9657AA-8KS2H Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6
CPU supportLGA775-based Celeron, Pentium 4/D, Core 2 processorsLGA775-based Celeron, Pentium 4/D, Core 2 processors
North bridgeIntel P965Intel P965
South bridgeIntel ICH8Intel ICH8R
InterconnectDMI (2GB/s)DMI (2GB/s)
Expansion slots1 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x4
1 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
3 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
Memory4 240-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8 GB of DDR2-533/667/800 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 via JMicron JMB361
4 channels Serial ATA
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via JMicron JMB363
Floppy disk
1 channel ATA/133 via Gigabyte SATA2
6 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 10, 5 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via Gigabyte SATA2
Audio8-channel HD audio via ICH8 and Realtek ALC883 codec8-channel HD audio via ICH8R and Realtek ALC888 DD codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 parallel
1 serial

4 USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
1 eSATA via JMicron JMB361
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8056

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output
1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 parallel
1 serial
4
USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
1 1394a Firewire via Texas Instruments TSB43AB23 with headers for 2 more
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 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output
1 coaxial digital S/PDIF output
BIOSAwardAward
Bus speedsFSB: 200-600MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 533, 667, 800MHz
FSB: 100-600MHz in 1MHz increments
PCI-E: 90-150MHz in 1MHz increments
Bus multipliersNACPU: 6x-10x (with Core 2 Duo E6700)
DRAM: 2x, 2.5x, 2.66x, 3x, 3.33x, 4x
VoltagesCPU: auto, default + 0.0125-0.3V in 0.0125V increments
DDR: auto, default - 0.05-0.15V, + 0.05-0.6V in 0.05V increments
CPU termination: auto, default - 0.03-0.09V, + 0.03-0.18V in 0.03Vincrements
MCH: auto, default - 0.04-0.12V, + 0.04-0.24V in 0.04V increments
CPU: auto, 0.6875-2.375V in 0.00625V increments
DDR: auto, default + 0.025-0.775V in 0.025V increments
FSB: auto, default + 0.05-0.75V in 0.05V increments
MCH: auto, default + 0.05-0.35V in 0.05V increments
PCI-E: auto, default + 0.05-0.35V in 0.05V increments
 
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlCPUCPU

The most critical difference between these boards is their choice of south bridge chips. The Foxconn uses a low-end ICH8, while the Gigabyte employs the ICH8R. The R, in this case, buys the GA-965P-DQ6 two extra Serial ATA ports and support for both AHCI and RAID at the south bridge. RAID support covers multiple array levels, including the tantalizing Matrix RAID, which allows users to combine RAID 0 and 1 arrays using just two drives. AHCI support is also necessary for Native Command Queuing (NCQ); NCQ isn't supported on the vanilla ICH8.

Since both flavors of the ICH8 lack an IDE channel, Foxconn and Gigabyte have to outsource their boards' ATA support. Foxconn opts for JMicron's JMB361 controller, which also offers a Serial ATA interface for the board's eSATA port. The Gigabyte board carries a "Gigabyte SATA2" chip that supplies two additional Serial ATA ports alongside a single IDE channel. This chip is actually manufactured for Gigabyte by JMicron, and it appears to be based on the JMB363.

In addition to tapping JMicron for ATA support, Foxconn and Gigabyte both dine on crab when it comes to High Definition Audio. As one might expect from a budget board, the Foxconn uses Realtek's "value" ALC883 codec chip. Gigabyte, on the other hand, springs for Realtek's ALC888 codec, which claims to have superior signal-to-noise ratios for its analog inputs and outputs. The ALC888 also meets Microsoft's fidelity requirements for Windows Vista Logo Program (WLP) 3.0 Premium certification, while the ALC883 only measures up to the WLP 2.0 spec. We'll test analog audio quality a little later in the review.

Despite a $100 difference in street price, both boards feature PCI Express-based Marvell Gigabit Ethernet controllers. Curiously, though, the GA-965P-DQ6 has only one GigE option; high-end boards usually sport dual GigE chips or a secondary networking option in the form of a Wi-Fi controller.