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Sandy Bridge motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, Intel, and MSI


Introducing the P67 Express
— 6:05 PM on January 4, 2011

Even the most cynical of PC enthusiasts—AMD fanboys included—have to admit that Intel's Sandy Bridge CPUs are all kinds of impressive. The latest architectural overhaul in Intel's tick-tock approach to processor development brings with it phenomenal performance, low power consumption, and prodigious overclocking potential. You don't have to spend a lot to get a really sweet CPU, either. The Core i5-2500K sells for just a little more than $200, yet it offers quad cores clocked at 3.3GHz with a 3.7GHz Turbo peak and a fully unlocked upper multiplier. Want Hyper-Threading as a part of the package? For an additional $100, the Core i7-2600K juggles eight threads, adds more cache, and bumps the default clocks up by 100MHz.

Like most new Intel CPU architectures, Sandy Bridge arrives hand-in-hand with fresh core-logic chipsets. Translation: you're gonna need a new motherboard. As one might expect, there are no shortage of options from which to choose. After two years of refreshing mid-range offerings based on the same 5-series chipsets, motherboard makers have been especially eager to show off designs based on Intel's new 6-series core logic.

Now's a good time to be in the market for a motherboard upgrade, too. Support for 6Gbps SATA and USB 3.0 has become all but ubiquitous. Just about any external hard drive can take advantage of USB 3.0, and next-gen solid-state drives are sure to exploit the SATA 6Gbps. The new Intel chipsets have proper, full PCI Express 2.0 bandwidth, doubling the data throughput available to add-in cards like that high-performance SSD you've been eyeing. We've also seen motherboard makers start to pay more attention to automatic overclocking and fan control features. Some are offering luxuries like EFI BIOSes and onboard Bluetooth, as well.

Not too long ago, such goodies would have been confined to high-end flagship products priced well above the $200 mark. Today, they're staples of the wave of mid-range motherboards built to host Intel's latest CPUs. But which one is best for enthusiasts? To find out, we've rounded up Asus' P8P67 PRO, Gigabyte's GA-P67A-UD4, Intel's DP67BG, and MSI's P67A-GD65. We'll explore them all over the following pages, and we'll also take a closer look at Intel's new P67 Express chipset to see how its peripheral performance compares to the venerable P55 and AMD's latest south-bridge silicon. Buckle up.

All aboard the P67 Express
Before diving into the new motherboards primed to take on "Sandy Bridge" Core CPUs, we should spend a moment considering the P67 Express chipset. The P67 replaces the P55 as Intel's mid-range chipset for desktop systems with discrete graphics cards. A graphics card is a requirement rather than a suggestion, because the P67 lacks the display controller and FDI interface needed to use the GPU built into Sandy Bridge processors. That display logic is present in the H67 Express, which supplants the H57 as Intel's premiere integrated graphics platform.

While the P67 lacks the H67's display logic, it does have more control over the CPU. Tapping a Sandy Bridge processor's unlocked core and memory multipliers requires a P67 chipset. You'll need the P67 to adjust the CPU's power threshold, too. And only the P67 will allow a motherboard to split the processor's 16 lanes of PCIe connectivity between pair of x8 links for CrossFireX and SLI. Despite the fact that those lanes reside on the CPU and never pass through the chipset, motherboards based on the H67 are limited to a single 16-lane connection.

Otherwise, the P67 and H67 have similar capabilities. The two are so closely matched that we asked Intel whether the P67 is simply H67 silicon with its display bits disabled. As it turns out, that's not the case; the H67 and P67 diverge earlier in the manufacturing process. I wouldn't expect any difference in the performance of their integrated peripherals, though.

At 10.5 x 9.5 mm, the P67 Express is a very small chip. It's only marginally larger than the P55, which is about a millimeter smaller in each dimension. That parity is unsurprising considering that both chipsets are built on a 65-nano fabrication process—at least for now. Intel tends to craft chipsets with fabrication technology that's one step behind what's used to fab CPUs. Like the Westmere silicon behind Core 2010 CPUs, Sandy Bridge processors are built on the 32-nano process node, putting the P67 two rungs down the ladder. When asked, Intel said that only the "current" version of the P67 uses 65-nm process technology. We may see a die-shrunk refresh before long, perhaps as a long-overdue replacement for the high-end X58 Express chipset. A finer fabrication process isn't strictly necessary for a core-logic chipset, though. Even at 65 nm, the P67 Express's TDP is just 6.1W.

Calling the P67 a chipset is a little odd considering there's only one chip, which Intel refers to as a Platform Controller Hub or PCH. The PCH hooks directly into the CPU via a Direct Media Interconnect (DMI) that's very similar to PCI Express. First-generation versions of this link offered 2GB/s of bidirectional bandwidth split between four lanes. The P67 has a second-gen DMI implementation that doubles the speed of each lane, bumping aggregate interconnect bandwidth up to 4GB/s.

That extra bandwidth may come in handy given how many high-speed peripherals one can hang off the PCH. The chip has no fewer than eight second-generation PCI Express lanes available for expansion slots and onboard peripherals. Unlike the P55's half-speed PCIe 2.0 lanes, the ones in the P67 Express offer a full 1GB/s of bidirectional bandwidth. Motherboard makers won't have to use bridge chips and other tricks to provide ample bandwidth to PCIe 2.0 peripherals like they did on P55 boards.

Although those peripherals will be easier to accommodate, we may not see as many now that Intel has integrated a 6Gbps Serial ATA controller into the PCH. This two-port controller is joined by a second SATA controller that offers four 3Gbps ports. Intel cites the additional complexity in the 6Gbps controller as one reason why it didn't go with the new SATA standard throughout. The fact that mechanical hard drives have little chance of saturating a 3Gbps Serial ATA connection surely factored into the decision, as well. If you're going to opt for a solid-state drive that can take advantage of a 6Gbps SATA link, odds are you won't be running more than two of 'em.

Of course, we should point out that all six of the Serial ATA ports in AMD's SB850 south bridge offer 6Gbps connectivity. Actual performance matters more than specifications, though. In a moment, we'll see how the P67's 6Gbps ports fare against their counterparts in the AMD camp.

Support for multi-drive RAID arrays has been included in Intel core-logic chipsets for several generations now, and nothing has changed with the P67. Users can still configure drives in RAID 0, 1, 10, and 5 arrays. Those arrays can span drives connected to the 6Gbps and 3Gbps ports, although in such a configuration, the 6Gbps ports will throttle down to 3Gbps speeds.

Despite dipping its toe into next-gen Serial ATA, Intel is sticking with USB 2.0. When asked why, probably for the umpteenth time, the company's reps rattled off several well-rehearsed reasons: there are no native drivers in Windows 7, adoption of USB 3.0 devices hasn't yet reached a critical mass, and there's "near zero adoption" in the corporate segment. That's a fair assessment of the landscape, but one that conveniently ignores the growing number of external hard drives with USB 3.0 connectors. For the average consumer, USB 3.0 is arguably far more useful than 6Gbps SATA.

Also included in the P67 is a Gigabit Ethernet controller that, like Intel's previous integrated GigE implementations, will probably be ignored by most motherboard makers in favor of discrete networking chips from Realtek. We've long speculated that the auxiliary PHY chip required to interface with the Intel controller is more expensive than a standalone Realtek solution, and a couple of big-name motherboard makers have confirmed that to be the case.

At least motherboard manufacturers won't be tempted to use crappy PCI-based Gigabit Ethernet controllers. Why? Because the P67 doesn't have a native PCI interface. To provide users with PCI slots, motherboard makers have taken to hanging a PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip off of one of the P67's PCIe lanes. As we'll illustrate in a moment, that has some interesting performance implications.

Four paths to the Sandy Bridge
The following pages dive into considerable detail on each motherboard. Before digging deeper into what each has to offer, let's briefly compare all four side by side.

Asus P8P67 PRO Gigabyte P67A-UD4 Intel DP67BG MSI P67A-GD65
Power phases 12+2 12+2 6 6+2
Expansion slots 3 PCIe x16
2 PCIe x1
2 PCI
2 PCIe x16
3 PCIe x1
2 PCI
2 PCIe x16
3 PCIe x1
2 PCI
2 PCIe x16
3 PCIe x1
2 PCI
Gigabit Ethernet Intel P67 Express Realtek RTL8111E Intel P67 Express Realtek RTL8111E
Auxiliary SATA Marvell 88SE9120
JMicron JMB362
Marvell 88SE9128 Marvell 88SE8111 Marvell 88SE9120
JMicron JMB362
USB 3.0 2 x NEC D720200F1 2 x NEC D720200F1 NEC D720200F1 2 x NEC D720200F1
Audio Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC892
FireWire VIA VT6308P NA Texas Instruments TSB42AB22A VIA VT6308P
Warranty length Three years Three years Three years Three years
Price

$190

$199

$184

$180

In many ways, the boards we're looking at today are very similar. They all use the same Realtek audio codec and NEC USB 3.0 controller, for example. You'll also find a few of the same auxiliary storage, networking, and FireWire chips listed in the chart above. Three years of warranty coverage is provided across the board, as well. Asus scores a few bonus points on that front by offering advanced replacement for the first year of coverage.

There are other tidbits we'd be remiss not to point out. Take the Gigabyte board, which is the only one that lacks FireWire connectivity. Note, too, that the Intel and MSI models don't have nearly as many power phases as what's being offered by Asus and Gigabyte. And only the Asus serves up a third physical x16 slot.

Obviously, pricing varies from one board to the next. The collection we've assembled is set to reside in a $20 span from $180 to $200. Those are suggested retail prices, and we could see street prices shake out a little differently once availability becomes widespread.