CrossFire Xpress 3200 AM2 boards from ECS and MSI

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 support Socket AM2-based Athlon 64 processors Socket AM2-based Athlon 64 processors
North bridge CrossFire Xpress 3200 CrossFire Xpress 3200
South bridge SB600 SB600
Interconnect PCI Express (2GB/s) PCI Express (2GB/s)
Expansion slots 2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
Memory 4 240-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/O Floppy 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
Audio 8-channel HD audio via SB600 and Realtek ALC883 codec 8-channel HD audio via SB600 and Realtek ALC883 codec
Ports 1 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

BIOS Phoenix AwardBIOS AMI
Bus speeds HT: 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 multipliers NA NA
Voltages CPU: 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
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed control CPU, system CPU

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.

 
ECS’s KA3 MVP

Manufacturer ECS
Model KA3 MVP
Price (Street)
Availability Now

Striving for enthusiasts

Apparently not content with being one of the largest manufacturers of budget motherboards, ECS has been trying to break into the enthusiast market. Enthusiasts are notoriously fickle, though, so it hasn’t been easy. Not only does ECS have to build a board with a generous array of features and tweaking options, decent overclocking potential, rock-solid stability, and screaming performance, it also has to contend with competition that has much more experience catering to demanding enthusiasts.

ECS’s first wave of enthusiast-oriented “Extreme” boards showed promise, but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Looking to improve, ECS turned its attention to Socket AM2 and released the KA3 MVP. The KA3 MVP was actually the first Socket AM2 CrossFire Xpress 3200 board available for sale in North America.

Unfortunately, the board retains the Barney-purple coloring of its predecessors, complete with a multicolored array of expansion ports and slots. The veritable rainbow of port and slot colors is at least backed up by a color manual that makes it easier for less experienced users to differentiate between ports. There’s no utility to the purple board, though. Even ECS has realized that maybe bright purple isn’t a good look; the company’s next-gen Extreme boards on display at Computex featured a much darker, richer color palette.

Aesthetic critiques aside, the KA3 MVP’s layout is reasonably good.

AMD’s heatsink retention bracket ensures that there’s enough room around the KA3 MVP’s CPU socket for standard coolers, but a row of tallish capacitors along the bracket’s edge could complicate compatibility with wider aftermarket designs. Fortunately, cooler manufacturers appear to be more interested in building up rather than out. Taller designs seem to be more popular these days than shorter, wider units.

Speaking of popular, voltage circuitry cooling is still all the rage for enthusiast boards. However, instead of outfitting the KA3 MVP with VRM heatsinks or fancy heatpipes, ECS relies on a single small fan and minimal ducting to direct airflow over the board’s VRMs. We’ve found that tiny fans tend to develop an annoying whine over time, and can often fail prematurely, so we’re not too crazy about relying on one for VRM cooling.

Fortunately, ECS doesn’t rely on a potentially whiny fan to cool the CrossFire Xpress 3200. The chipset’s north and south bridge components are both cooled by passive heatsinks, and the south bridge cooler is a low-profile design that doesn’t interfere with longer graphics cards.

Longer cards also won’t interfere with the DIMM slot retention tabs, allowing users to swap DIMMs without having to remove their graphics card. That’s an especially good thing on the KA3 MVP, because the retention tabs on the board’s PCI Express x16 slots apparently require nails, a screwdriver, or impossibly tiny fingers to release easily. The tabs snap into place and hold cards well enough, but the shaky dismount ruins it.

While we’re griping, there are a couple of other issues with the KA3 MVP’s expansion slots that deserve attention. First, using a pair of double-wide graphics cards leaves users with only a single PCI slot. At the very least, we’d like to see access to one PCI and one PCI Express x1 slot, or even two PCI slots. The board also needs more space between the two x16 slots to allow air to circulate between double-wide graphics cards. On our open test bench, we ran into overheating-related artifacts with a Radeon X1900 CrossFire configuration, and had to resort to auxiliary graphics cooling just to get the setup stable enough for benchmarking.

Despite an imperfect array of expansion slots, ECS nails the placement of the board’s Serial ATA ports. All four of the south bridge chip’s ports line the right edge of the board where they won’t interfere with longer graphics cards, and even the ports connected to the auxiliary JMicron controller are positioned well. The JMicron chip’s IDE port isn’t terribly convenient for optical drives mounted in full tower cases, though. Fortunately, the KA3 MVP’s primary IDE port is located mid-way up the board where it can more easily reach 5.25″ drive bays in full tower cases.

Around the rear, the KA3 MVP’s I/O panel bristles with connectivity options. There’s plenty to like here, including a serial port for the old-school crowd and both coaxial and TOS-Link digital audio outputs. However, Firewire is conspicuously missing; you have to tap one of two onboard headers to squeeze 1394a from the KA3 MVP.

ECS makes tapping at least some of the KA3 MVP’s expansion port headers a bit of a treat, though. In addition to proving a PCI back plate ports for some of its onboard headers, ECS also includes a 3.5″ drive bay insert that can accommodate one Firewire and two USB ports. Considering that the KA3 MVP has onboard headers for two Firewire ports and six USB, it makes a lot of sense to have access to at least a few of those up front.

The KA3 MVP’s treats don’t end with the drive bay insert, either. The board also comes with a handy “Top Hat Flash” BIOS chip that can be clipped over the motherboard’s BIOS chip in the event of a failed flash attempt or other BIOS corruption. Few users may ever need the Top Hat module, but for those who do, it’ll be a life saver.

 
MSI’s K9A Platinum

Manufacturer MSI
Model KA9 Platinum
Price (Street)
Availability Now

Worth its weight?

Most motherboard manufacturers got their feet wet with ATI’s CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset on Socket 939, but MSI has jumped directly to Socket AM2 with the K9A Platinum. As the Platinum name might seem to imply, this board’s definitely not purple. Instead, the K9A is adorned in a classy black finish that splurges on splashes of color for only a handful of onboard ports and slots.

Like ECS, MSI does a good job of placing the K9A Platinum’s primary power connector on the right edge of the board.

The K9A’s socket is typical of most Athlon 64 motherboards in that the DIMM slots are relatively close to the heatsink retention bracket. This, along with the proximity of the north bridge cooler and a quartet of tallish capacitors, can create clearance problems with ultra-wide CPU coolers. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room for our favorite CPU cooler, the Zalman CNPS9500.

There’s also room between the K9A Platinum’s green and orange DIMM slot pairs. This gap should allow ambient airflow to keep memory modules a little cooler than if they were all sandwiched together, especially with four DIMMs installed.

Unlike the KA3 MVP, which relies on an active chipset fan to cool its voltage circuitry, the K9A Platinum’s VRMs are capped with passive heatsinks. Passive cooling does require more ambient enclosure airflow, but we’d rather rely on larger, quieter, and more reliable case fans than tiny, whiny ones.

The K9A Platinum’s slot stack avoids every problem we experienced on the KA3 MVP. First, there’s two slots worth of clearance between the PCI Express x16 slots, giving plenty of space for air to flow between a pair of double-wide CrossFire cards. Double-wide CrossFire configs also leave users with one PCI Express x1 and one PCI slot, which is one slot better than the ECS board.

MSI’s graphics card retention mechanism is also much easier to use. There’s no lever or tab to hold cards in place. Instead, the PCI Express x16 slots narrow slightly, with small protrusions catching the hook at the back of the card. This holds things in place securely enough when coupled with a screw on the PCI bracket, and removing cards doesn’t require elaborate finger contortions.

A low-profile south bridge cooler ensures that the K9A Platinum has plenty of clearance for longer graphics cards. MSI has also done a good job of arranging the board’s Serial ATA ports so that none are compromised by longer double-wide designs. Ensuring adequate clearance around the Serial ATA ports seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised—and dismayed—by how many motherboard manufacturers get it wrong.

Around the back, the K9A Platinum is fitted with a complete array of expansion ports, including serial and parallel plugs for the old-timers. The backplane also sports dual S/PDIF audio outputs, Firewire, and four USB ports. Headers for an additional six USB ports and the Firewire port are available, as well, but you don’t get any fancy drive bay inserts in the box. In fact, you don’t actually get anything in the way of unique extras.

 

BIOS options
A good enthusiast board needs a competent BIOS filled with tweaking and overclocking options. For the most part, the K9A Platinum and KA3 MVP both deliver, but one is definitely more polished than the other.


MSI’s overclocking options

On the overclocking front, both boards offer similar features. HyperTransport clock speeds are available up to at least 400MHz with the memory set for DDR2-400, 533, 667, or 800. Neither board offers more granular memory speed options or explicit control over the memory divider, though.

Voltage options are more varied between the two boards. Both offer CPU voltages options up to 1.35V, but the KA9 offers an extra CPU voltage boost of between 3.3 and 23.3% above that. To be fair, though, the KA9 Platinum board’s BIOS is ill-equipped for undervolting. The BIOS only offers processor voltages as low as 1.2V, while the KA3 MVP has options all the way down to 0.55V.


It takes a beta BIOS for the KA3 MVP to concede CAS latency control

Unfortunately, the KA3 MVP misses the mark when it comes to memory tweaking. The latest public BIOS offers a number of timing options, but CAS latency and the DRAM command rate aren’t among them. Both are essential for serious tweaking, and leaving them out of an enthusiast-oriented product borders on inexcusable. ECS was able to get us a beta BIOS with CAS latency and command rate control, but that BIOS has yet to appear online and ECS gave us no timeline for its release.

While the KA3 MVP’s memory tweaking options are inadequate out of the box, the K9A Platinum has everything you’ll need, including both CAS latency and the DRAM command rate. The memory timing options are split between two BIOS screens, which is a little inconvenient, but at least they’re there.

The last time we reviewed an ECS motherboard, we bemoaned its lack of temperature-based automatic fan speed control. ECS appears to have been paying attention, because the KA3 MVP’s BIOS offers plenty of fan speed control options. The interface needs a little work to clarify some of the choices, but ECS is on the right track, providing arbitrary temperature targets for various fan speeds.

MSI also offers fan speed control on the K9A Platinum, although only for the processor fan. ECS’s fan speed control applies to the board’s system fan header, as well.

 

Our testing methods
We’re comparing the performance of the K9A Platinum and KA3 MVP to that of nForce 590 SLI motherboards from Asus and Foxconn, an nForce 570 SLI board from MSI, and Shuttle’s nForce 570 Ultra-powered XPC SN27P2.

All tests were run at least twice, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.

Processor Athlon 64 X2 5000+ 2.6GHz
System bus HyperTransport 16-bit/1GHz
Motherboard Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe Wireless Edition Foxconn C51XEM2AA-8EKRS2H Shuttle XPC SN27P2 MSI K9N SLI Platinum ECS KA3 MVP MSI K9A Platinum
Bios revision 603 612W1P20 SN27S00S 1.20 demo2 A7280AMS
North bridge nForce 590 SLI SPP nForce 590 SLI SPP nForce 570 Ultra nForce 570 SLI CrossFire Xpress 3200 CrossFire Xpress 3200
South bridge nForce 590 SLI MCP nForce 590 SLI MCP SB600 SB600
Chipset drivers ForceWare 9.35 ForceWare 9.35 ForceWare 9.16 ForceWare 9.16 Catalyst 6.7 Catalyst 6.7
Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type CorsairTWIN2X2048-6400PRO DDR2 SDRAM at 742MHz
CAS latency (CL) 5 5 5 5 5 5
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 5 5 5 5 5 5
RAS precharge (tRP) 5 5 5 5 5 5
Cycle time (tRAS) 12 12 12 12 12 12
Command rate 1T 1T 1T 1T 1T 1T
Audio codec Integrated nForce 590 SLI MCP/AD1988B with 6.0.0.61 drivers Integrated nForce 590 SLI/ALC882D with Realtek HD 1.39 drivers Integrated nForce 570 Ultra/ALC882 with Realtek HD 1.39 drivers Integrated nForce 570 SLI/ALC883 with Realtek HD 1.39 drivers Integrated SB600/ALC883 with Realtek HD 1.39 drivers Integrated SB600/ALC883 with Realtek HD 1.39 drivers
Graphics GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB PCI-E with ForceWare 91.31 drivers
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB
OS Windows XP Professional
OS updates Service Pack 2

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. 2GB of RAM seems to be the new standard for most folks, and Corsair hooked us up with some of its 1GB DIMMs for testing.

Due to the peculiarities of the Athlon 64’s on-die memory controller, our systems are actually running their memory at 742MHz. The Athlon 64 doesn’t have enough memory dividers to hit 800MHz exactly at every speed grade, and the closest the 5000+ comes without going over is 742MHz.

Also, all of our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the Medium detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

Memory performance

Memory performance doesn’t vary much from board to board. The KA3 MVP is only competitive here by virtue of a beta BIOS that allowed us to manipulate CAS latency and the DRAM command rate.

Motherboards don’t always respond well to four-DIMM configurations, so we slapped a couple of extra memory modules into each board and re-ran our memory bandwidth and latency tests. None of the boards were happy running four DIMMs with a 1T command rate, so we had to drop back to 2T to regain stability. We’ve yet to encounter an Athlon 64 board that will run four DIMMs at a 1T command rate.

Performance doesn’t change much when we move to four DIMMs, but we did have some problems getting the KA3 MVP to run Cachemem. The app would lock when it was run with four DIMMs installed, even with relaxed memory timings. Otherwise, the board was perfectly stable looping two instances of Prime95’s memory-intensive torture test for hours on end with all its memory slots populated.

 

WorldBench

The ECS and MSI boards fare well in WorldBench, although we did have some problems getting both to consistently complete the suite’s Windows Media Encoder tests. Test runs on both boards were stopped by an apparent scripting glitch that didn’t crash the app or hang the system, but still prevented the test from generating a score. We’ve encountered scripting-related errors with WorldBench before, but this is the first time we’ve seen it afflict two boards based on the same chipset. Oddly, ATI’s own CrossFire Xpress 3200 reference board had no problems with the test

Gaming

Performance doesn’t vary between the boards much in our first round of gaming tests.

 

Multi-GPU gaming performance
Our first round of gaming tests was conducted with more modest in-game detail levels and display resolutions, but we’ve cranked things up for a second round. These tests use high resolutions, high detail levels, and anisotropic filtering and antialiasing. We’ve tested each board with a single GeForce 7900 GTX. The Asus, Foxconn, and MSI nForce boards were also run with a pair of 7900 GTXs in SLI, while the ECS and MSI Xpress 3200 boards were run with single and CrossFire Radeon X1900 XTX configs. The SN27P2 only has one PCI Express slot, so it didn’t get to play with any multi-GPU setups.

Our purpose here is not to compare the merits of SLI versus CrossFire, or even the GeForce 7900 GTX with the Radeon X1900 XTX. Instead, we’re looking at how each card scales when a second graphics card is installed.

We should also note that we had to upgrade to Nvidia’s beta 91.33 graphics drives to get SLI working properly on the K9N Platinum.

CrossFire scales nearly as well as SLI, although with the exception of Splinter Cell, there’s little difference in performance between the K9A Platinum and KA3 MVP.

 

Cinebench rendering

Scores in Cinebench are close across the board.

Sphinx speech recognition

The K9A Platinum and KA3 MVP sandwich the field in Sphinx, but scores don’t vary much from one board to the next.

 

Audio performance

With identical Realtek codec chips and drivers, it’s no surprise to see the ECS and MSI CrossFire boards neck and neck in RightMark’s 3D audio tests.

Audio quality
We used an M-Audio Revolution 7.1 sound card for recording in RightMark’s audio quality tests. Analog output ports were used on all systems. To keep things simple, I’ve translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating in RightMark.

The K9A Platinum and KA3 MVP match each other in RightMark Audio Analyzer, with neither scoring higher than the other.

 

ATA performance
ATA performance was tested with a Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 ATA/133 hard drive using HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.

Although the K9A Platinum is a little slow in the write speed test, ATA scores are close across the board.

 

Serial ATA performance
Moving to Serial ATA, we tested performance with a Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD SATA hard drive. Again, we used HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone test.

We normally test SATA performance with an older Raptor WD360GD, but the K9A Platinum wouldn’t recognize the drive in Windows, despite detecting it in the BIOS. Oddly, we encountered the same behavior with a WD740GD running the drive’s original firmware, but not with a newer drive with updated firmware. Switching the south bridge from ACHI to IDE mode didn’t help, either, and neither ATI nor MSI has been able to resolve the problem for us. The KA3 MVP had no such problems.

Scores are close throughout our Serial ATA tests, with the ECS board’s JMicron controller offering a surprising—but slight—edge in access time.

 

USB performance
Our USB transfer speed tests were conducted with a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure connected to a 7200RPM Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 hard drive. We tested with HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.

ATI’s new SB600 south bridge doesn’t have the fastest USB controller around, but at least it’s not embarrassingly slow.

Firewire performance
Our Firewire transfer speed tests were conducted with the same external enclosure and hard drive as our USB transfer speed tests. It’s just a 1394a Firewire enclosure, so it won’t benefit from the higher speeds supported by the C51XEM2AA’s 1394b Firewire chip.

Windows XP doesn’t fully support 1394b Firewire, anyway. In fact, with Service Pack 2, XP throttles the performance of 1394b Firewire devices to below 1394a speeds. This issue is detailed in this Microsoft support document, which provides a patch for SP2 users. We’ve tested both of the C51XEM2AA’s Firewire ports with and without the patch installed. We’ve also tested their performance with Unibrain’s free ubCore 5.0 drivers, which aren’t bundled with the board, but which seem to do a better job of resolving XP’s Firewire problems.

The KA3 MVP and K9A Platinum offer competitive Firewire performance, but keep in mind that only the MSI board offers a Firewire port in its rear port cluster.

 

Ethernet performance
We evaluated Ethernet performance using the NTttcp tool from Microsoft’s Windows DDK. The docs say this program “provides the customer with a multi-threaded, asynchronous performance benchmark for measuring achievable data transfer rate.”

We used the following command line options on the server machine:

ntttcps -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a

..and the same basic thing on each of our test systems acting as clients:

ntttcpr -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a

Our server was a Windows XP Pro system based on Asus’ P5WD2 Premium motherboard with a Pentium 4 3.4GHz Extreme Edition (800MHz front-side bus, Hyper-Threading enabled) and PCI Express-attached Gigabit Ethernet. A crossover CAT6 cable was used to connect the server to each system.

The boards were tested with jumbo frames disabled.

Neither CrossFire board impresses in our Ethernet tests, although each at least provides one Gigabit connection with decent throughput. The MSI board’s second GigE chips is hampered by its pokey PCI interface, but it does better than the ECS board’s RTL8139 controller, which doesn’t have aspirations beyond 100Mbps.

Things look even more dismal when we consider CPU utilization. The ECS board’s 10/100 controller barely consumes less CPU time than Nvidia’s integrated Gigabit Ethernet, which offers ten times the throughput. GigE CPU utilization isn’t all that impressive, either. The Agere and Realtek controllers found on the ECS and MSI CrossFire boards all consume more CPU cycles than the competition.

 

Power consumption
We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up power meter. Power consumption was measured at idle and under a load consisting of a multi-threaded Cinebench 2003 render running in parallel with the “rthdribl” high dynamic range lighting demo.

Power consumption is comparatively low for both boards, with the K9A Platinum consuming slightly fewer watts than the ECS board. Keep in mind that the ECS board is sporting an active VRM cooler and extra storage controller, so it has more to power.

 

Overclocking
The Athlon 64’s memory divider mechanism makes memory overclocking complicated at best and infuriating at worst. As such, we’ve limited the bulk of our overclocking tests to seeking out the highest stable HyperTransport clock for each board. We backed off on the CPU multiplier and memory divider to remove them as potential bottlenecks.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the KA3 MVP. The board spit Prime95 errors with HyperTransport speeds in excess if 210MHz, even with extra chipset and HT voltage. That’s a pretty discouraging overclock, especially if ECS wants to be taken seriously by enthusiasts.

Our overclocking attempts were considerably more successful with the K9A Platinum, which was stable all the way up to a 310MHz HT clock. The board was actually only stable up to a 280MHz HyperTransport clock speed with its default voltages, but modest 0.1V chipset and HT voltage bumps got us to 310MHz with ease. Even with additional voltage tweaks, we couldn’t get the board to POST with a 320MHz HT clock.

As always, keep in mind that overclocking success is never guaranteed. Results can depend as much on the mix of system components as they can on the characteristics of individual samples, and your mileage may vary.

 

Conclusions
The ECS KA3 MVP had the distinction of being the first CrossFire Xpress 3200 motherboard for Socket AM2 to hit the market, and it’s now selling for only $136, which is surprisingly affordable for a board with two full-bandwidth PCI Express x16 slots. Unfortunately, it falls short of our expectations for an enthusiast board. Most seriously, its BIOS lacks basic control over CAS latency and the DRAM command rate, both of which are essential for memory tweaking.

We’re also unimpressed with our KA3 MVP’s overclocking performance. We don’t normally let overclocking weigh heavily on our recommendations because it can vary from sample to sample. However, if ECS wants to be taken seriously by enthusiasts, every single one of its boards needs to do better than a measly 5% HT overclock.

Weak overclocking potential and missing BIOS features make it difficult to recommend the KA3 MVP, especially when we factor in the board’s quirky slot stack. That’s disappointing, because in many respects, ECS is on the right track with the KA3 MVP. Automatic fan speed control has been integrated into the BIOS, and we’re fond of the little extras ECS provides in the box—just not fond enough to look beyond the board’s flaws.

That brings us to the K9A Platinum, which has the enthusiast polish that the ECS board lacks. The K9A Platinum also has fewer layout issues, a better BIOS, and at least with our sample, considerably more overclocking potential. Since it’s based on the same chipset, performance is all but identical to that of the ECS board, too.

Unfortunately, the K9A Platinum isn’t without its own flaws. First, MSI definitely should address the curious compatibility problem with older Western Digital Raptor drives. MSI also needs to get boards out the door and into the channel, preferably with a suggested retail price that’s competitive with that of the KA3 MVP. We see it at only one online vendor in our price-search engine as this review goes online.

In the end, I can’t help but wonder if we’re about to see history repeat itself. Already, there are five different enthusiast-oriented nForce 590 SLI boards on the market from Abit, Asus, and Gigabyte. ECS’s KA3 MVP is pretty widely available, and the KA9 Platinum seems to be creeping into the market. Still, enthusiasts have relatively few Socket AM2 options with which to satiate a CrossFire craving. 

Comments closed
    • Shintai
    • 13 years ago

    I like the ATI solutions for AMD compared to nVidia. nVidia seems to be feature bloated and buggy. Also ATI is power friendly and no angry little fans. Absolutely the best choice.

    • obarthelemy
    • 13 years ago

    I’m really wondering what % of DIY PC builders in general are into overclocking, and also what % of your readers in particular do overclock.

    I’m surprised at how much that very specific issue weighs in reviews. I personally don’t overclock, I know nobody who does… We are all much more focused on reliability, compatibility, silence, IO performance, sound/image quality … and GOD, are there issues there.

    Of course, overclocking is macho, and easily summable in a nice little number for a review, but… relevant ?

      • Dissonance
      • 13 years ago

      Actually, it doesn’t weigh particularly heavily in reviews, as this one states. However, when all a board can manage is a paltry 210MHz HT, that’s a problem, especially when the competition is comfortable at much higher speeds. And I’m not just talking about the MSI board as competition.

      This isn’t just about bragging rights, either. Speed binning has brought us plenty of processors with so-called “free” overclocking potential. Chips like the Athlon 65 3800+, Opteron 165, and the low end of the Core 2 Duo lineup can usually be pushed well beyond their stock speeds without extra voltage, elaborate cooling, or too much other fiddling. That makes them phenomenal bargains if you have a board that’s comfortable at higher speeds.

    • adisor19
    • 13 years ago

    KUDOS for using the Unibrain drivers in your comparative Firewire tests 🙂 It definetly puts the MS ones to shame. Hope it will be part of the standard Firewire tests in future reviews as well expecially when dealing with the Firewire 800 variety 🙂

    Well done Geoff and the Tech-Report !

    Adi

    • eitje
    • 13 years ago

    i thought it was exceptionally clever to have your heatsink spell something. good use of a typically boring component. 🙂

    • flip-mode
    • 13 years ago

    Sheesh! I too have been waiting for some firm Crossfire / SB600 entries. Too bad ’bout the ECS board. Nice job of constructive criticism there at the end Geoff, and a well written article overall.

    Asus and DFI are much needed in the land of Crossfire. DFI need to put an AM2 board out the door regardless.

    Hopefully by the time the 65-nano Athlons hit the street, the AM2 mobo landscape will make some serious headway.

    • Klopsik206
    • 13 years ago

    Finally AM2 Ati board.
    Although I may wait for Asus or Abit one.

    • Jigar
    • 13 years ago

    I was never impresssed with ATI chipsets ,,, but there are shinning for now.. Good

    • spuppy
    • 13 years ago

    I noticed on the overclocking screenshot for the ECS board, that the multiplier was left at 13x… Could that explain why you could only get 210 HTT out of it…?

    • danazar
    • 13 years ago

    It’s about **** time! I’ve been going on about this for so long. Now that MSI board had /[

      • crabjokeman
      • 13 years ago

      As the conclusion pointed out, zipzoomfly.com is carrying the board.

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