Five flavors of Intel’s P35 Express compared

WHEN WE FIRST REVIEWED Intel’s P35 Express back in May, we called the chipset a solid successor to the P965. That might not sound like an enthusiastic endorsement, but the P965 Express has been a fantastic platform for mainstream users and enthusiasts alike, leaving the P35 with rather large shoes to fill. Part of what made the P965 so successful was the wave of motherboards based on it that offered competitive performance, loads of overclocking potential, CrossFire multi-GPU support, and thoughtful onboard extras while consuming relatively little power and operating largely in silence. Those boards came with relatively affordable price tags, too, making the P965 the darling of the enthusiast community.

To find out if the first P35 Express boards are up to the lofty standards set by their predecessors, we’ve rounded up five examples from Abit, Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. Each board puts a unique spin on the P35, whether it’s with support for DDR3 memory, elegant heatpipe cooling, extensive fan-control and hardware-monitoring options, integrated Wi-Fi, or flexible eSATA support. The question, of course, is whether any of them can put together the mix of performance, features, and affordability that made the best P965 boards such standouts.

Join us as we subject the Abit IP35 Pro, Asus P5K and P5K3 Deluxe, Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6, and MSI P35 Platinum to a punishing gauntlet of tests in Windows Vista x64 to determine which boards measure up, which fall short, and whether one stands out as the pick of the litter.

The basics
We covered the P35 Express in great depth in our initial review of the chipset, so I suggest starting there if you’re unfamiliar with Intel’s latest core logic. For most folks, the chipset’s native support for 1333MHz front-side bus speeds (that’s 267MHz of “free” overclocking headroom if you’re using a CPU designed for a 1066MHz front-side bus) and upcoming 45nm Penryn processors are its most laudable attributes. However, the P35 is also the first chipset to support DDR3 memory, and that makes it rather special—even if DDR3 price premiums keep the new memory type out of reach for most enthusiasts.

Fortunately, the P35 also works with DDR2 memory, which is as affordable as it’s ever been. Motherboard manufacturers are eager to pair the P35 with DDR2, too; all of the boards we’ll be looking at today are mid-range to high-end enthusiast offerings, but just one—Asus’ P5K3 Deluxe—is designed with DDR3 in mind.

Of course, there are plenty of differences between these boards besides their choice of memory. We’ve highlighted some of the more notable ones below so we can jump into a quick comparison before examining each board in more detail.

Abit IP35 Pro Asus P5K3 Deluxe Asus P5K Deluxe Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 MSI P35 Platinum
Chipset Intel P35 Express Intel P35 Express Intel P35 Express Intel P35 Express Intel P35 Express
Expansion slots 2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
3 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
Auxiliary storage JMicron JMB363 ATA/eSATA JMicron JMB363 ATA/eSATA JMicron JMB363 ATA/eSATA Gigabyte GSATA ATA/SATA Marvell 88SE6111 ATA/SATA
Networking 2 x Realtek RTL8110SC 1 Realtek RTL8169
1 Marvell 88E8056
1 Realtek RTL8187L Wi-Fi
1 Realtek RTL8169
1 Marvell 88E8056
1 Realtek RTL8187L Wi-Fi
Realtek RTL8111B Realtek RTL8111B
Audio Realtek ALC888 Analog Devices AD1988B Analog Devices AD1988B Realtek ALC889A Realtek ALC888
Firewire Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A Agere FW322 Agere FW322 Texas Instruments TSB43AB23 VIA VT6308P

All five use the same P35 Express chipset complemented by Intel’s new ICH9R south bridge. The chipset itself offers support for CrossFire setups in an x16/x4 configuration, and all the boards we’ll be looking at sport a pair of physical PCI Express x16 slots to complete the multi-GPU package. There is some disagreement over how the remaining expansion slots should be doled out, though.

With six Serial ATA ports in the ICH9R south bridge, these boards aren’t exactly crying out for more SATA connectivity. However, the ICH9R’s lack of an IDE controller all but requires an auxiliary storage controller to provide “parallel” ATA support. Most auxiliary ATA controllers now pack a couple of extra SATA ports, which mobo makers use to provide additional internal SATA ports or external Serial ATA plugs.

While all of these boards feature auxiliary storage controllers, only the Asus P5K and P5K3 Deluxe provide onboard 802.11g Wi-Fi. Dipping into the wireless world hasn’t come at the expense of Gigabit Ethernet, either; both Asus boards feature GigE chips by Marvell and Realtek. However, we should note that the Realtek RTL8169 rides the short PCI bus, so its throughput will be lower than that of PCIe-based GigE chips. That’s rather damning for the IP35 Pro’s networking potential, since it features two RTL8110SC chips that are also bound to the PCI Bus. Fortunately, the Realtek RTL8111B networking controllers found on the Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 and MSI P35 Platinum are PCIe chips.

Audio is another important consideration when looking at onboard peripherals, and today we’re treated with a selection of codec chips from Analog Devices and Realtek. We generally prefer the former, if only because Realtek’s EAX implementation leaves much to be desired. However, Vista doesn’t support EAX, making the crab’s shortcomings on that front less of an issue if you’re going to be running Microsoft’s latest operating system.

Abit’s IP35 Pro

Manufacturer Abit
Model IP35 Pro
Price (Street)
Availability Now

Working class hero The IP35 Pro is one of only a couple of motherboards in Abit’s P35 Express lineup, and it’s easily the more feature-rich of the two. This is also the first Abit board we’ve seen in a while that’s arrived relatively shortly after a new chipset’s launch. Abit was acquired by Universal Scientific Industrial more than a year ago, and it appears to have taken some time to get the revitalized company firing on all cylinders again.

Speaking of cylinders, I can’t resist taking a shot at the box art for the IP35 Pro. We don’t normally critique retail packaging here at TR, but this is the first time we’ve seen a monster truck used to sell motherboards. Apparently, the IP35 Pro will take you “off limits” on a “ride on the wild side,” or something.

The monster truck seems inappropriate for a motherboard, but the more I think about it, the more it suits Abit. After all, Abit’s best motherboards have always been affordable overclockers, allowing enterprising enthusiasts to wring blistering performance from budget processors. The legendary BH6 and BP6 were working-class heroes, and in a sense, the monster truck honors that spirit. So does the board, which is the cheapest of the bunch we’ve assembled today. It even eschews Abit’s penchant for reds and oranges in favor of a blue collar, er, color.

The IP35 Pro’s board layout is spot on. That’s par for the course for Abit, which always seems to pay careful attention to how slots, ports, and other connectors are laid out on a motherboard. A perfect example of this attention to detail is the placement of the auxiliary 12V power connector, which sits next to the top edge of the board where power cables won’t block airflow around the CPU socket or the rear chassis exhaust fan.

Abit has also kept the socket area free of obstructions that would interfere with larger aftermarket coolers. What’s more surprising here, however, is the simplicity of the board’s chipset and VRM cooler. As other mobo makers tangle complex networks of heatpipes and heatsinks, Abit makes do with a single heatpipe that links coolers on the north bridge, south bridge, and voltage circuitry. This simplicity pays dividends when it comes time to install a processor cooler; without a complicated heatpipe network to navigate, it’s easy to get at the four posts that secure LGA775 heatsinks.

The heatpipe keeps the board’s south bridge cooler nice and short, affording plenty of clearance to longer expansion cards. Gargantuan graphics cards won’t interfere with any of the IP35’s edge-mounted ATA or SATA ports, either—a surprisingly rare attribute, even for high-end motherboards built with double-wide SLI or CrossFire configurations in mind.

Ample clearance for longer graphics cards is perhaps only slightly less exciting than a couple of extras that Abit has squeezed into the corner of the board. Here we find a two-digit post code display that makes troubleshooting boot problems much easier. You also get onboard power and reset buttons, which are quite handy when benchmarking motherboards on an open test bench. If you’re into that sort of thing.

We’re still waiting for that first wave of must-have PCIe peripherals to hit, so it’s comforting to know the IP35 has plenty of standard PCI expansion options. Running double-wide graphics cards won’t severely damage your expansion options, either. The IP35 Pro has essentially empty space below its primary PCIe x16 slot to accommodate beefier coolers, so double-wide CrossFire configs will only cost you one PCI slot.

There’s just one problem with the IP35’s slot stack: the auxiliary four-pin molex connector meant to provide additional power to CrossFire setups is squeezed between the secondary PCIe x16 slot and the PCI slot directly above it. Picture a molex connector and its associated wiring sticking out of that port, and it’s clear that you may run into clearance problems with PCI cards that have lots of surface-mounted components around that general area.

Much of the IP35 Pro’s port cluster is standard fare, but there are a few notable inclusions worth singling out. The first is a pair of TOS-Link S/PDIF ports capable of handling digital signals for both audio input and output. Just to the left of those digital audio ports sits a tiny little switch that can be used to reset the BIOS without cracking the case.

Curiously, you won’t find Firewire in the IP35’s port cluster. The board’s two Firewire ports are only accessible via onboard headers, despite plenty of available real estate in the port cluster. Headers for an additional eight USB connections are also available onboard.

Asus’ P5K3 and P5K Deluxe

Manufacturer Asus
Model P5K3 Deluxe
P5K Deluxe
Price (P5K3)
(P5K)

Availability Now

Stick with DDR2 or jump to DDR3 The P35 Express is barely a month old, yet Asus already has a whopping seven different motherboards available based on the chipset. To be fair, many of those boards bear more than just a passing resemblance to one another. Take the P5K and P5K3 Deluxe, for example. The former supports old-school DDR2 memory while the latter is equipped to run the latest and greatest DDR3, but the boards are virtually identical otherwise. We’ve included both in this round-up, and since they’re so similar, we’ll be dealing with them at the same time.

Before getting started, we should note that the DDR3-capable P5K3 Deluxe runs about $25 more online than the P5K Deluxe. Apparently, it costs more to purchase a motherboard for DDR3 memory that’s already considerably more expensive than DDR2 modules, so don’t expect the new memory type to catch on like wildfire.

But let’s get back to the P5Ks, which are pictured below. The first picture is of the P5K3 Deluxe, followed by an almost identical P5K Deluxe.


The P5K3 Deluxe


The P5K Deluxe

Despite slightly different DIMM slots and coolers, the P5K and P5K3 are built upon what appears to be the same base board. That’s a good thing, because Asus has done a generally good job with the layout. The auxiliary 12V power connector is neatly located along the top edge of both boards where cabling won’t crowd the CPU socket, and you get no fewer than seven expansion slots—one more than on the IP35 Pro and P35 Platinum.

Asus has even managed to make the boards look decent in spite of the myriad of multicolored ports, slots, and connectors. All those connectors and onboard peripherals makes things a little crowded, and that creates a few problems around the socket area of each board.


The P5K3 Deluxe’s CPU socket


The P5K Deluxe’s CPU socket

Both PK5s employ a collection of heatsinks and heatpipes to cool their chipsets and voltage circuitry. The P5K3’s cooler is the more elaborate of the two, almost completely encircling the CPU socket. Unfortunately, ringing heatpipes around the socket makes it quite difficult to get at some of the posts that hold LGA775 heatsinks in place, especially for those of us with short, meaty digits.

I can’t help but wonder if this extensive heatpipe array is really necessary, especially since the P5K makes do with two fewer pipes. DDR3 memory runs at lower voltages than DDR2, so the P5K3 Deluxe shouldn’t need a more elaborate heatpipe array than the P5K. It certainly doesn’t look like the P5K is losing $25 worth of copper. And that board’s less elaborate chipset cooler actually makes it easier to get at two of the socket’s retention posts, allowing for much easier heatsink installation than on the P5K3.

From the socket down, the P5K and P5K3 Deluxe are identical, so we can dispense with two sets of pictures. Here we see the P5K3 Deluxe’s low-profile south bridge cooler leaving plenty of clearance for longer expansion cards. Cards like the GeForce 7900 GTX and Radeon X1900 XTX won’t obstruct access to any of the six SATA ports, either. However, extremely large cards, such as EVGA’s GeForce 8800 GTX ACS³ Edition can block up to four SATA ports.

Speaking of blocked ports, we should note that even a GeForce 7900 GTX installed into the lower PCIe x16 slot can complicate access to the IDE port on the P5K and P5K3. You should still be able to snake the cable under the card, and the bottom two SATA ports are unaffected, but it can be a little tricky to route things neatly.

Clearance issues aside, at least the P5K and P5K3 should make everyone happy on the expansion slot front. The boards feature dual PCIe x16 and x1 slots in addition to three PCI slots, although you’ll lose two standard PCI slots to double-wide CrossFire configs.

Over to the left in the picture above, you can see a PCB jutting out perpendicular to the board. This protrusion houses a Realtek RTL8187L Wi-Fi chip that provides the P5K3 and P5K Deluxe with wireless networking capabilities straight out of the box. Wi-Fi seems like a perfect peripheral for motherboard makers looking to differentiate their products, yet only Asus has aggressively pursued onboard wireless networking solutions. Others would do well to follow.

Since Wi-Fi reception probably isn’t very good inside your system, the wireless module has a standard antenna jack that pokes out of the port cluster. There, it’s joined by a myriad of expansion pots, including coaxial and TOS-Link digital S/PDIF outputs. A PS/2 mouse port is curiously absent from both the P5K and P5K3, though. That probably won’t irk most folks—everyone and his mother has at least a USB mouse these days. However, those hoping to use the P5K series with PS/2 KVM switches will have to make do with just a keyboard. That’s a reasonable trade-off, I think. The vast majority of users are going to get more utility from two additional USB ports than they would from a PS/2 mouse port. If you must run the P5K series through a KVM switch, it’s time to upgrade to one with USB support.

If they really wanted to please everyone, Asus could have included an onboard header for an optional PS/2 mouse port. Instead, they’ve provided headers for an additional Firewire port and six more USB ports, just to rub it in.

Asus throws a couple of goodies into the box along with the P5K and P5K3, including handy header blocks that make connecting front-panel case wiring much easier when a motherboard is installed in an enclosure. An auxiliary blower that snaps onto the boards’ chipset coolers is included, as well, although Asus only suggests it’s needed for water-cooled systems that lack sufficient ambient airflow to circulate air around the chipset cooler. Rounding out the bundle is a simple Wi-Fi antenna that seems to do a relatively good job of picking up nearby signals. You may want something more robust if you intend to leech Internet access from your neighbors, though.

Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DQ6

Manufacturer Gigabyte
Model GA-P35-DQ6
Price (Street)
Availability Now

A model for cities of the future In the wake of the Core 2 Duo launch, Gigabyte’s P965 boards quickly became popular among enthusiasts looking for an affordable overclocking platform for Intel’s latest CPU. The GA-P965-DS3 was a particular favorite among forum fanboys whose enthusiasm spawned several revisions that are still widely recommended today. The P965 has since been supplanted by the P35, and Gigabyte has moved to embrace Intel’s latest chipset with open arms.

The new GA-P35-DQ6 is one of an almost unbelievable nine Gigabyte boards based on the P35 chipset. However, several of those boards differ only in their memory support, much like the Asus P5K and P5K3. The DDR2-ready GA-P35-DQ6, for example is virtually identical to the GA-P35T-DQ6, which supports DDR3 memory.

In typical Gigabyte fashion, the GA-P35-DQ6 comes on a turquoise board loaded with multicolored slots and ports. This is a look that Gigabyte has worn for years. Though a little garish for some, it’s become one of the most distinctive hallmarks of the Gigabyte brand.

The layout starts well, too. Although you can’t see it clearly in the picture above, the auxiliary 12V power connector is tucked away in the top left-hand corner of the board where we generally prefer it. This plug placement works well for traditional enclosures that put the power supply above the motherboard, but it’s considerably less convenient for “upside-down” cases that mount the PSU below the mobo.

While we’re talking about power connectors, note that the four-pin molex connector recommended for use with CrossFire configurations is located in the top right-hand corner of the board, just above the 24-pin primary power connector. This placement should keep power supply cables from criss-crossing the board or interfering with expansion cards.

Narrowing our focus to the CPU socket reveals one of the oddest chipset coolers we’ve ever seen on a motherboard—or any PC component, for that matter. The cooler almost looks like a collection of buildings in a city of the future, with extra bits jutting out here and there. This is certainly one of the most intricate motherboard coolers we’ve seen, but I can’t help but think it looks cobbled together, as if a Gigabyte engineer revisited the design several times to add more cooling fins.

Regardless of how it looks, the cooler does wall off the CPU socket on three sides. Gigabyte has also buried the CPU fan header in the tightest corner of the cooler, ensuring at least a couple of minutes of frustrated struggling for those of us with stumpy fingers.

There’s more to the GA-P35-DQ6’s cooling scheme than what you can see up top. Flipping the board reveals copper plates that cover the CPU socket and north and south bridge chips. These plates aren’t linked into the DQ6’s heatpipe array as they are on the company’s latest nForce 680i SLI board, but Gigabyte says they still help to lower CPU temperatures.

Returning topside, we see that Gigabyte has neatly clustered the DQ6’s storage ports in the bottom right-hand corner of the board. As long as they’re kept in the top PCIe x16 slot, longer double-wide graphics cards won’t interfere with any of the storage ports, either. However, a GeForce 7900 GTX plugged into the lower x16 slot will block access to four of the orange SATA ports. You’ll be able to get at a couple of them using right-angle SATA cables, but it’s at best a tight squeeze.

Running double-wide graphics cards in both x16 slots will cost you PCI and PCIe x1 slots, but that still leaves you with two of the latter and one of the former. The top PCIe x1 slot is a little close to the chipset cooler’s, er, superstructure, as well. There’s enough clearance for an x1 expansion card, but only just.

With chipset cooling from the future, I didn’t expect to see serial and parallel ports appear in the DQ6’s port cluster. In fact, this is the only board in the roundup with the old-school ports. And Gigabyte hasn’t tipped its cap to the old guard at the expense of more modern conveniences, either. The DQ6 sports coaxial and TOS-Link digital audio outputs, four USB ports with onboard headers for eight more, and one Firewire port with onboard headers for an additional two. The only thing really missing here is external Serial ATA connectivity, to which Gigabyte has a rather unique approach.

Rather than saddling users with a set number of eSATA ports that are unequivocally tied to an auxiliary storage controller, Gigabyte ships the DQ6 with expansion slot cover plates capable of transforming any internal SATA port into an eSATA connection. The board comes with two of these plates and all the necessary cables to power four eSATA ports, and you can run those ports off either the ICH9R south bridge or the auxiliary “GSATA” Serial ATA controller. Flexibility is really what makes this eSATA implementation for me, and if you have no use for eSATA, you can dedicate all eight of the DQ6’s SATA ports to internal drives.

MSI’s P35 Platinum

Manufacturer MSI
Model P35 Platinum
Price (Street)
Availability Now

Best chipset cooler… ever MSI isn’t the flashiest motherboard maker, but they’ve built some solid and affordable products over the years, many of which we’ve quite liked. At first glance, the P35 Platinum looks to continue that trend, at least as far as affordability goes. The board is selling for less than $180 online, making it less expensive than the Asus and Gigabyte offerings we’ve looked at today. Abit’s IP35 Pro is a little cheaper, so the Platinum will need more than just an attractive price point if MSI wants to entice enthusiasts.

The P35 Platinum is perhaps best described as quirky, with all the positive and negative connotations that come along with that distinction. MSI has always marched to its own drumbeat, and with the P35 Platinum, it’s an erratic tune that leaves me delighted and confused all at the same time—not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’d rather listen to Aphex Twin than Fatboy Slim.

Apart from an incredibly ornate chipset cooler, the P35 Platinum isn’t much to look at. The black board is set off with multicolored ports and slots, but the hues are dark enough that the board doesn’t end up looking too much like a rainbow.

We don’t start to run into problems with the Platinum until we take a closer look at its layout. This is the only board in the round-up that doesn’t mount the auxiliary 12V power connector along the top edge of the board. Instead, the secondary power connector is located near the lower left-hand corner of the socket where it disrupts a collection of heatpipes tied to the chipset cooler. The area is so cramped that the board actually comes with a plug extension that raises the 12V connector up above the sea of heatpipes.

Readers have no doubt tired of my harping on motherboard makers to move auxiliary 12V connectors to the top edge of the board, but doing so does eliminate problems like this one.

Extravagant heatpipe coolers are all the rage on motherboards these days, but the P35 Platinum manages to set a new standard in artistic flair with a pair of loops that look like they belong in a theme park. This cooler has inspired us to include a Most Outrageous Heatsink category in this year’s TR Awards, if only as an excuse to take more pictures of it.

The board’s intricate cooler flanks the CPU socket on three sides as it snakes heatpipes between the chipset and voltage regulation circuitry, but it doesn’t crowd the socket as much as some of the other chipset coolers we’ve seen today. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not that difficult to get at the CPU cooler’s retention posts, either.

MSI uses a taller south bridge cooler than the other boards, but it doesn’t interfere with double-wide graphics cards. Longer cards with double-wide coolers can block access to some of this board’s Serial ATA ports, though. A GeForce 7900 GTX installed in the primary PCIe x16 slot leaves just enough room to get at all four purple SATA ports, but throw in a card with a longer double-wide cooler, and you can lose up to two SATA ports. When installed in the secondary (yellow) x16 slot, cards like the 7900 GTX will also block access to the blue SATA port connected to the Marvell storage controller.

Unlike the boards we’ve seen from Abit, Asus, and Gigabyte, the P35 Platinum only taps the ICH9R south bridge for four internal Serial ATA ports. The south bridge chip’s remaining two SATA ports appear in the rear port cluster in eSATA form. This arrangement is a little odd—motherboards usually rely on auxiliary storage controllers from their external Serial ATA connectivity—and I suspect some folks won’t be eager to lose south bridge SATA ports to external devices.

Moving to the slot stack, the Platinum serves up pairs of PCIe x16, x1, and standard PCI slots. Running a single double-wide graphics card only costs you a PCIe x1 slot, but adding a second card in a CrossFire config will cannibalize an arguably more valuable PCI slot.

We don’t have many PCIe x1 cards in-house, but there’s a chance that longer cards could conflict with the Platinum’s tallish south bridge cooler. Keep that in mind if you plan to run PCIe x1 peripherals. And do let us know if you’re able to find any.

Regardless of the ports that lie within, the P35 Platinum may have the ugliest port cluster we’ve ever seen. It’s the chunky block of USB ports that throws me, and I’m surprised MSI didn’t come up with something a little more elegant given the artistic attention it paid to the board’s chipset cooler. There’s certainly room there to squeeze in some additional ports, such as an S/PDIF digital audio input.

Still, the Platinum’s port cluster is reasonably complete. An additional Firewire port and six more USB connections are available via onboard headers, as well.

BIOS options
A good BIOS is essential to squeezing the best possible performance from a system, and all these boards come well equipped. However, there are some important differences between their tweaking capabilities, which we’ve highlighted in a handy chart below.

Abit IP35 Pro Asus P5K Deluxe Asus P5K3 Deluxe Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 MSI P35 Platinum
Bus speeds FSB: 133-600MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 100-200MHz in 1MHz increments
FSB: 200-800MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM (1066 FSB): 667, 800, 889, 1067MHz
PCIe: 100-150MHz in 1MHz increments
FSB: 200-800MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM (1066 FSB): 800, 889, 1067MHz
PCIe: 100-150MHz in 1MHz increments
FSB: 100-700MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 90-150MHz in 1MHz increments
FSB: 1-1000MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 100-200MHz in 1MHz increments
Bus dividers CPU:DRAM: 1:1, 1:1.2, 1:1.25, 1:1.5, 1:1, 1:1.66, 1:2 NA NA NA CPU:DRAM: 1:1, 1:1.2, 1:1.25, 1:1.5, 1:1, 1:1.66, 1:2
Bus multipliers NA NA NA DRAM: 2.5, 3, 2, 2.4, 3.33, 4 NA
Voltages Vcore: 1.325-1.895V in 0.01V increments
Vdram: 1.8-3.0V in 0.025V increments
Vcpu vtt: 1.2, 1.23V
Vmch: 1.25-1.72V in 0.04-0.08V increments
Vich: 1.05-1.38V in 0.03-0.07V increments
Vich io: 1.5-2.0V in 0.05-0.1V increments
Vddr2 ref: -4-2% in 2% increments
CPU gtlref 0&2: 45-80% in 1% increments
CPU gtlref 1&3: 45-80% in 1% increments
Vcore: 1.1-1.7V in 0.0125V increments
Vcpu reference: 0.57x-0.63x in 0.02x increments
Vcpu pll: 1.5-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Vdram: 1.8-2.15V in 0.05V increments
Vfsb termination: 1.2-1.5V in 0.1V increments
Vnb: 1.25-1.7V in 0.15V increments
Vnb ref: 0.61x, 0.67x
Vsb: 1.05, 1.2V
Vcore: 1.1-1.7V in 0.0125V increments
Vcpu reference: 0.57x-0.63x in 0.02x increments
Vcpu pll: 1.5-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Vdram: 1.5-1.85V in 0.05V increments
Vfsb termination: 1.2-1.5V in 0.1V increments
Vnb: 1.25-1.7V in 0.15V increments
Vnb ref: 0.61x, 0.67x
Vsb: 1.05, 1.2V
Vcore: 0.5-2.35V in 0.00625V increments
Vdram: +0.05-1.55V in 0.05V increments
Vpcie: +0.05-0.35 in 0.05V increments
Vfsb: +0.05-0.35V in 0.05V increments
Vmch: +0.025-0.375V in 0.025V increments
Vcore: 1.275-2.0625V in 0.0125V increments
Vdram: 1.8-2.6V in 0.05V increments
Vcpu vtt: 1.175-1.55V in 0.025V increments
Vnb: 1.25-1.625V in 0.025V increments
Vsb io: 1.5-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Vsb: 1.05-1.15 in 0.1V increments
Fan speed control CPU, SYS, AUX1, AUX2, AUX3, AUX4 CPU, SYS CPU, SYS CPU CPU, SYS

Although the boards differ in terms of the maximum front-side bus speeds they support, each offers enough headroom for serious overclocking. They all serve up CPU multiplier control with run-of-the-mill Core 2 processors, as well.

The BIOSes start to diverge on the memory front. You get a standard array of timing options with each board, but how the memory speed is set varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Abit and MSI favor a simple CPU:DRAM divider, and there are plenty of options to choose from. These manual settings are particularly important for the P35 Platinum, since our board’s BIOS never seemed to get the hang of the “Auto” setting. We also had to pump additional voltage into our Corsair DIMMs just to get that board to boot.

Coming at memory clocks from a different direction, the GA-P35-DQ6 makes six memory multipliers available. That’s one less option than you get with the Abit and MSI boards, but at least two more than with the Asus P5Ks. Those boards only offer a handful of memory speed options.


Gigabyte consolidates much of its BIOS functionality on one screen

Moving to voltages, we have a myriad of options available on each board. The DQ6 provides the highest voltage ranges for both the CPU core and system memory, making it the most likely candidate for extreme overclocking. All five boards offer enough voltage tweaking functionality for the liquid-nitrogen-free end of the overclocking spectrum, though. The IP35 Pro and P5Ks have the distinction of offering more voltages up for manipulation, although most folks will only need access to the basics.


Abit’s excellent FanEQ fan speed control


Plenty of hardware monitoring, too

We see more divergence when moving to fan speed control and hardware monitoring, where Abit’s phenomenal µguru takes the cake. The IP5 Pro’s BIOS offers temperature-based fan speed control for all six of the board’s fan headers, and you can dictate not only temperature thresholds, but actual fan speeds and reference temperatures for each. Combine that with extensive hardware monitoring capabilities that allow users to set alarm and shutdown conditions for system temperatures, fan speeds, and a wide range of voltages, and the IP35 Pro looks much better equipped than its competition.

Abit hasn’t upgraded µguru’s capabilities in years, likely because the rest of the industry still lags far behind. You do get automatic fan speed control with the other boards, but such control is limited to one or two fan headers and lacks the fine-tuning options that µguru provides. None of the other boards offer anything close to µguru’s BIOS-level hardware monitoring, either.


Abit’s µguru Windows software

µguru’s functionality extends to Windows, where you can manipulate just about every bus speed, voltage, fan setting, and alarm or shutdown condition with software that Abit provides. System setting profiles can also be saved and invoked automatically when certain applications are launched, allowing the board to ramp performance for games and lower noise levels for media playback.


Asus gives you AI Suite…


And PC Probe

The others have Windows tweaking and hardware monitoring software, too. Asus offers an app for each, with PC Probe covering hardware monitoring and AI Suite handling overclocking and fan speed control. PC Probe is particularly flexible, especially when it comes to interface customization, but the AI Suite feels a little basic next to µguru’s wealth of tweaking options and profile support.


Gigabyte’s Easy Tune

At least the Asus software offers a better interface than Gigabyte’s Easy Tune 5. This app gives you basic overclocking and fan speed control, but it looks awful and isn’t particularly easy to use. You’re better off poking around in the BIOS.


Dual CoreCenter from MSI

MSI’s Dual CoreCenter isn’t much prettier than Easy Tune, but it offers more tweaking options and an easier-to-use interface. The app also monopolizes entirely too much desktop space. Why can’t mobo makers build tweaking applications that actually look like Windows apps?

Our testing methods
We’ve moved to Windows Vista x64 for motherboard testing, and we have also tinkered with our test suite, updating various applications and replacing a few. Unfortunately, Vista’s lack of EAX support limits our ability to test 3D positional audio performance, but we’ve managed to cover all of the other bases.

Keep in mind that the P5K3 Deluxe is running with DDR3 memory while the rest of the systems are equipped with DDR2. We’ve elected to use DDR3-1066 here, since on the P5K3 Deluxe, running the memory at 1333MHz requires a front-side bus of the same speed.

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

Processor Core 2 Duo E6700 2.67GHz
System bus 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard Asus P5K3 Deluxe Abit IP35 Pro Asus P5K Deluxe Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 MSI P35 Platinum
Bios revision 0201 10 1101 F4 A7345IMS
North bridge Intel P35 Intel P35 Intel P35 Intel P35 Intel P35
South bridge Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R
Chipset drivers Chipset 8.3.0.1013
AHCI 7.5.0.1017
Chipset 8.3.0.1013
AHCI 7.5.0.1017
Chipset 8.3.0.1013
AHCI 7.5.0.1017
Chipset 8.3.0.1013
AHCI 7.5.0.1017
Chipset 8.3.0.1013
AHCI 7.5.0.1017
Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair CM3X1024-1066C7 DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz
CAS latency (CL) 7 4 4 4 4
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 7 4 4 4 4
RAS precharge (tRP) 7 4 4 4 4
Cycle time (tRAS) 21 12 12 12 12
Audio codec Integrated ICH9R/AD1988B with 5.10.1.6110 drivers Integrated ICH9R/ALC888 with 1.67 drivers Integrated ICH9R/AD1988B with 5.10.1.6110 drivers Integrated ICH9R/ALC889A with 1.67 drivers Integrated ICH9R/ALC888 with 1.67 drivers
Graphics GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB PCI-E with ForceWare 93.71 drivers
Hard drive Western Raptor X 150GB
OS Windows Vista Ultimate x64

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.

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.

Finally, we’d like to thank Western Digital for sending Raptor WD1500ADFD hard drives for our test rigs. The Raptor’s still the fastest all-around drive on the market, and the only 10K-RPM Serial ATA drive you can buy.

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.

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

Gigabyte takes top honors in Sandra’s memory bandwidth test, with the P5K Deluxe lagging behind by a couple hundred MB/s. Asus’ DDR2 board doesn’t fare well in CPU-Z’s memory latency test, either. Again, the DQ6 is in the lead, this time followed by the P5K3 Deluxe and P35 Platinum, with the IP35 Pro slotting into fourth place.

Asus recently released a new BIOS with 1T command rate support that should improve the P5K’s memory performance, potentially bringing it up to par with its competitors.

Not all motherboards handle four-DIMM configurations well, so we popped in an extra couple of memory modules to look for problems. For the DDR2 systems, we added another pair of Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 modules. However, we don’t have four matched DDR3 DIMMs, so we added a pair of Corsair CM3X1024-1333C9DHX sticks to the P5K3 Deluxe.

Interestingly, the GA-P35-DQ6 pulls bigger leads in our bandwidth and latency tests when four DIMMs are installed. The rest of the pack is clumped together in Sandra’s bandwidth test, but the P35 Platinum does manage to bridge the gap a little in CPU-Z’s latency test.

WorldBench

We’re using the latest version of WorldBench here—version 6 beta 2—and Abit’s IP35 Pro leads Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DQ6. Only three points separate the fastest board from the slowest, with the latter distinction going to Asus’ DDR3-equipped P5K3 Deluxe.

Gaming

With just one exception, our first wave of gaming tests show little difference in performance between the boards. Even F.E.A.R. only spreads the field by 10 frames per second, which isn’t much considering how smooth frame rates are overall.

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 high levels of anisotropic filtering and antialiasing. We’ve tested each board with a single GeForce 7900 GTX, and also with a Radeon X1900 XT in single-card and CrossFire configurations with ATI’s Catalyst 7.5 drivers. Our purpose here isn’t to compare graphics cards, but instead to look at how performance scales from one card to two on each board.

Cranking in-game detail levels doesn’t leave much room for these motherboards to differentiate themselves. A couple of the boards are a few frames per second faster here and there, but the margins aren’t wide enough to really make a difference.

Cinebench rendering

Cinebench scores are close, with the Asus boards holding a slim lead in the OpenGL hardware shading test.

Sphinx speech recognition

Sphinx tends to favor faster memory subsystems, so it’s no surprise to see the DQ6 out ahead in this test. However, it’s only a hair faster than the P5K3 Deluxe and IP35 Pro. In fact, all the boards are pretty close here.

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.

Not much to see here. RightMark Audio Analyzer scores all five boards similarly, with only the P35 Platinum pulling ahead of the field in the stereo crosstalk test. This latest version of RMAA also provides an aggregate score, and the MSI board’s single breakout performance isn’t good enough to elevate it above the pack overall.

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.

Only the burst speed test shows much of a performance gap between the boards, and there the MSI P35 Platinum and Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 trail the leaders a little.

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.

Don’t, er, read too much into these HD Tach write speeds. Intel has confirmed that a bug with Western Digital’s Caviar RE2 hard drives can affect performance in this test when combined with ICHxR south bridge chips. We’re using Western Digital Raptor drives here, but this is the same behavior we observed with the Caviar RE2, so it’s likely the same problem. You can read more about the issue here.

Apart from not-so-blistering write speeds, the main storyline here is the performance of auxiliary storage controllers on the Gigabyte and MSI boards. The DQ6 looks to have the edge with faster burst and write speeds, but its CPU utilization is a little higher. Of course, HD Tach’s margin of error in the CPU utilization test is +/- 2%, making those results a bit of a wash.

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.

The P35 Platinum somehow manages marginally higher USB burst and write speeds than the rest of the pack, which sticks pretty close together.

Firewire performance
Our Firewire transfer speed tests were conducted with the same external enclosure and hard drive as our USB transfer speed tests.

Firewire performance is tight, at least for the Asus and Gigabyte boards. The IP35 Pro and P35 Platinum trail here, with the latter turning in the slowest transfer rates in each test.

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.

Can you guess which Gigabit Ethernet options are constrained by PCI bus bandwidth? I thought so. At least Asus bolsters the P5Ks’ networking capabilities with PCIe GigE controllers that can manage over 900Mbps. The IP35 Pro isn’t so lucky; it’s stuck with two PCI-based GigE chips that put it a good 200Mbps off the leaders in Ethernet throughput. To Abit’s credit, the IP35 Pro does manage low CPU utilization during the throughput test, but it’s pushing fewer bits, so it should. Among the boards with proper throughput, the P35 Platinum and GA-P35-DQ6 offer the lowest CPU utilization.

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 9.5 render running in parallel with the “rthdribl” high dynamic range lighting demo.

The Core 2 Duo’s C1E Enhanced Halt State doesn’t appear to be working properly on the P35 Platinum. We could only get the board to throttle processor clock speeds when we used Vista’s “balanced” power management setting, but that invokes clock throttling through SpeedStep rather than C1E.

When we first reviewed Intel’s P35 Express chipset with Asus’ P5K motherboards, we were alarmed to see just how much power the chipset appeared to consume compared to its rivals. We decided to reserve judgment until we could see the chipset in action on other boards, and it’s a good thing we did. The P5K and P5K3 Deluxe consume considerably more power than the other P35 boards, particularly at idle.

The Gigabyte and Abit boards prove the most frugal when it comes to power consumption, with each taking a turn at the front of the pack. The P35 Platinum does well here, too, but its idle power consumption is a little high, even when SpeedStep is throttling clock speeds.

Note also that DDR3’s potential power saving attributes don’t show up in the P5K3 Deluxe. Despite the new memory type’s lower operating voltage, the P5K3 consumes more power at idle and under load than the P5K.

Overclocking
For our overclocking tests, we swapped in a retail Core 2 Duo E6300 processor and lowered its multiplier to 6x. Next, we backed off our memory timings and dropped the FSB:DRAM ratio to 1:1—the lowest available setting on each board.

Turning our attention to the front-side bus, we stepped up in 10MHz increments until the system was no longer stable looping Prime95 and the rthdribl HDR lighting demo. We were able to hit the following front-side bus speeds with each mobo:

  • Abit IP35 Pro — 490MHz
  • Asus P5K Deluxe — 490MHz
  • Asus P5K3 Deluxe — 490MHz
  • Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 — 490MHz
  • MSI P35 Platinum — 490MHz

Somewhat surprisingly, all five boards hit a front-side bus speed of 490MHz with our E6300, suggesting that the CPU itself may not be capable of running at higher bus speeds. 490MHz is the fastest front-side bus we’ve had running with this processor, and no amount of fiddling with voltages could coax our systems to boot at 500MHz.


490MHz on, well, take your pick

We should note that although each board hit 490MHz, only four reached that milestone without additional voltage. The IP35 Pro needed an extra millivolt running to the processor to maintain stability with front-side bus speeds above 470MHz.

As is always the case with overclocking, success depends on numerous factors, including the mix of system components, luck, and the freshness of your virgin sacrifice. Your mileage may vary.

Conclusions
This first batch of motherboards bodes well for Intel’s P35 Express chipset. However, as good as they are, we have issues with each, some of which are more serious than others.

MSI’s P35 Platinum is probably our least favorite of the bunch. The board is priced well at under $180 online, but the BIOS definitely needs some work to resolve memory setting problems and a lack of support for the Core 2 Duo’s C1E Enhanced Halt State. We’re also not crazy about losing two of the ICH9R’s Serial ATA ports to eSATA. However, the Platinum easily has the most impressive chipset cooler of the lot, and its performance was quite good, so a BIOS update could make this board considerably more attractive down the road.

We’ve only had a couple of weeks with the P35 Platinum, but Asus’ P5Ks have been running in our labs for much longer. They’ve grown on me, in particular because they offer a nice array of integrated peripherals, including 802.11g Wi-Fi. Those extras go a long way toward justifying the price premium you’ll pay for the boards. The P5K Deluxe costs around $225 online while the P5K3 Deluxe is selling for closer to $250. Asus has turned out a solid BIOS for each board, as well, and their performance is competitive with the others.

Unfortunately, the P5K3 Deluxe is saddled with DDR3 memory that costs significantly more than DDR2 without any real performance or power consumption benefits. That leaves the P5K Deluxe as a viable option, but it consumes close to 40W more power than the competition at idle, and around 30W more under load. Such a significant wattage gap is curious, to say the least, and makes it difficult to recommend the P5K Deluxe for a power-efficient Core 2 build.

So we’re left with Abit’s IP35 Pro and Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DQ6. The former costs just $175 online, making it a bargain compared to some of the other boards we’ve looked at today. Even at that lower price, you get the best fan speed control and hardware monitoring options of the lot. However, Abit has cut corners, and the IP35’s lack of PCIe-based Gigabit Ethernet definitely hurts this board’s appeal. This board’s Firewire performance isn’t that hot, either, but those are more minor issues that are easily balanced by the board’s great layout and low price. If I had to buy one board out of the five we’ve looked at today with my own money, it would probably be the IP35 Pro, and that earns it a share of our Editor’s Choice award.


Abit IP35 Pro
Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6
June 2007

However, the IP35 isn’t the only board that will be swarmed by Editor’s Choice groupies. Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DQ6 is also a phenomenal option, and one with fewer flaws than Abit’s working-class hero; the DQ6’s Firewire performance is up to snuff and it’s not stuck with pokey PCI-based Gigabit Ethernet. We also like the DQ6’s speedy performance, and we prefer Gigabyte’s flexible approach to eSATA connectivity. But this board isn’t perfect, either. It has only one GigE controller, and that’s a little stingy given its $240 street price. These factors conspire to keep the DQ6 from solo Editor’s Choice glory.

We may not have found the perfect P35 Express-based motherboard today, but in the IP35 Pro and GA-P35-DQ6, we have a couple of very good candidates. If this is how boards look just a month after the P35 chipset’s release, its future is very bright indeed.

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