X48 heavyweights go head to head

Although Intel’s processors and chipsets have long been embraced by PC enthusiasts, the company’s motherboards have largely been ignored. Years ago, it was easy to see why. Intel motherboards didn’t come with the tweaking and overclocking options that we crave, and that was understandable, since we never really expected Intel to endorse overclocking. However, times have changed, and so has Intel’s tune. The firm now has several products targeted specifically at enthusiasts, including the new DX48BT2 “Bonetrail 2” motherboard that comes loaded with many of the features we’d expect from a modern, high-end mobo.

Based on Intel’s flagship X48 Express chipset, Bonetrail’s second coming faces stiff competition from Taiwanese mobo makers with far more street cred in the enthusiast space—credibility that, for the likes of Asus, is well deserved. Asus one of the biggest players in the motherboard market, and it’s been catering to enthusiasts for as long as I can remember. Asus has embraced the X48 Express, as well, most recently with its Rampage Formula motherboard.

The Rampage Formula and DX48BT2 effectively target the same market, albeit with one DDR2 memory and the other with DDR3. For once, however, Intel is the underdog. Read on to see if the processor giant can beat Asus at its own game.

Manufacturer Intel
Model DX48BT2
Price (Street)
Availability Now

Intel’s DX48BT2 motherboard
Designed for enthusiasts, seriously

Intel introduced its first Bonetrail board, the DX38BT, last year with its then-flagship X38 Express chipset. The X38 has since been replaced by the X48 Express to accommodate the Core 2 Extreme QX9770’s 1600MHz front-side bus, bringing with it a Bonetrail redux in the DX48BT2. We really wish Intel had stuck with the Bonetrail code-name here; DX48BT2 doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue, although we can at least take some solace in the fact that the board avoids banal Extreme Edition branding. If you look closely, though, the BT2’s Bonetrail roots shine through in the form of a couple of stylized skull logos emblazoned on the board.

As if the skull logo weren’t tough enough, the DX48BT2 comes dressed in black and blue, like a tattooed biker in denim and leather.

In theory, Intel has an advantage over competing motherboard makers because it engineered the X48 Express chipset that lies at the DX48BT2’s core. Given intimate knowledge of the chipset and its associated quirks, Intel’s motherboard designers should be able to exploit the X48’s potential fully. There’s more to a good motherboard than pushing the chipset to its limits, though, starting with how all of the various slots, components, and connectors are laid out on the board.

The DX48BT2’s layout begins well enough, with power connectors located along the edges of the board where their associated cabling won’t interfere with airflow around the CPU socket. Intel also does well to place the board’s single IDE port—powered by an auxiliary Marvell storage controller due to the ICH9R’s lack of legacy ATA support—near the top edge where it will be close to the 5.25″ drives bays of most enclosures.

Not that Intel’s stock processor coolers need it, but there’s also plenty of room around the CPU socket for larger heatsinks. The BT2 can easily accommodate Scythe’s massive Ninja heatsink, and since there’s so much room around the socket, installation is a snap. That’s more than can be said for some enthusiast boards, which, if they do provide clearance for larger heatsinks, often leave little room to access the retention tabs that hold coolers in place.

Always the, ahem, rebellious non-conformist, Intel bucks the recent trend toward intricate networks of heatpipe-linked chipset and voltage circuitry coolers in favor of simple passive heatsinks. The modest array of heatsinks makes the Bonetrail board look a little sedate next to its competition, but if anyone knows how much cooling the X48 Express north bridge requires, it should be Intel.

The DX48BT2’s ICH9R south bridge chip gets away with a low-profile passive heatsink that leaves plenty of room for longer graphics cards. Unfortunately, though, double-wide graphics cards have the potential to block access to the board’s Serial ATA ports. The ports are smartly placed out of the way along the edge of the board, and they’re arranged in pairs presumably to provide additional clearance. However, the spacing isn’t quite right, which is problematic if you plan on running a double-wide card longer than nine inches.

If you’re willing to sacrifice SATA ports, you can actually run up to three double-wide graphics cards in the DX48BT2. Thanks to its X48 Express north bridge, the board has 32 lanes of PCI Express 2.0 connectivity split evenly between its top two PCIe slots (blue in the picture above). The third physical PCIe x16 slot gets four lanes of gen-one PCIe connectivity via the ICH9R south bridge chip. This slot could prove useful if you’re looking to run a three-way CrossFire configuration.

Despite the three PCIe x16 slots, the BT2 is actually a little short on expansion capacity. A couple of PCI slots are provided, but that only brings the slot count up to five—two fewer than other X48-based designs. Fortunately, the backward compatibility provisions built into the PCI Express spec will allow the board’s x16 slots to work with PCIe x8, x4, and x1 cards.

Intel populates the DX48BT2’s port cluster with a decent array of connectivity options, including a couple of External Serial ATA ports powered by the same Marvell controller responsible for the board’s IDE port. A TOS-Link digital S/PDIF audio output is also provided, alongside a full complement of analog audio ports backed by an eight-channel Sigmatel 9274D HD audio codec. We don’t see Sigmatel codec chips used much, but the BT2’s implementation was apparently good enough to earn the board a Dolby Home Theater certification.

Eight USB ports fill out the cluster, which is conspicuously devoid of PS/2, serial, and parallel connectivity. We can live without the legacy ports—it’s 2008, folks, time to move on—but Intel would have been wise to offer a little something extra in their place. The DX48BT2 could do with a couple of additional USB ports (onboard headers are available for four more ports), a coaxial S/PDIF output, and a digital S/PDIF input port.

Asus’ Formula Rampage motherboard
X48 goes old-school with DDR2

Manufacturer Asus
Model Formula Rampage
Price (Street)
Availability Now

A testament to its popularity among high-end motherboard buyers (and its ability to produce multiple model variations based on the same basic board foundation), Asus offers no fewer than ten different motherboards based on the X38 Express chipset. The company’s X48 Express lineup is already up to three models, with the Rampage Formula potentially the most attractive to enthusiasts because of its support for DDR2 rather than DDR3 memory.

The X48 Express’ memory controller is flexible enough to handle either memory type, but most of the boards released to date—including Intel’s DX48BT2—have opted to support DDR3, despite the huge price premium it commands over DDR2 modules. If you can afford to drop between $250 and $300 on a high-end motherboard, value probably isn’t your primary concern. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that DDR3 modules typically cost three to four times that of comparable DDR2 DIMMs.

Of course, DIMM slots are perhaps the least interesting element of the Rampage Formula. This is a high-end Asus motherboard we’re talking about, and as such, it’s loaded with all sorts of interesting features and extras. Even with those extra goodies, Asus manages to lay things out intelligently on the board, avoiding major clearance problems while covering the Rampage with close to a metric ton of copper.

Most of that copper can be found around the CPU socket in an ornate array of heatsinks that cover the north bridge chip and voltage regulation circuitry. Some aluminum fins are thrown in for good measure, serving as a mounting point for the board’s auxiliary cooling fan. The fan is only recommended if you’re overclocking or run a water- or passively-cooled system with little ambient airflow, and we didn’t encounter any problems running our board without the fan, even when overclocking.

With so much metal walling in the socket, one might expect the Rampage Formula to sacrifice compatibility with larger aftermarket coolers, but the heatsinks are relatively short, providing just enough clearance for the Scythe Ninja cooler we tried to shoehorn into crowded socket real estate. Installing the Ninja is another matter, though. The Rampage’s heatsink array may be a low-profile design, but it can make getting at a cooler’s retention tabs a little tricky.

The Rampage’s cooler network snakes a heatpipe down to a low-profile heatsink on the ICH9R south bridge. Clearance for gargantuan graphics cards isn’t a problem here thanks to Asus’ use of edge-mounted IDE and SATA ports. Sideways Serial ATA ports don’t always play nicely with extremely tight enclosures that leave little room around the edges of the motherboard, but we’re willing to live with the trade-off for the additional graphics card clearance.

Over on the other side of the board, Asus stacks six expansion slots. The top slot is reserved for an audio riser card that we’ll detail in a moment, so it doesn’t really count toward the total.

Apart from the riser expansion slot, the Rampage features pairs of PCI, PCIe x1, and PCIe x16 slots. These are arranged to ensure that double-wide CrossFire configs will leave users access to at least one PCI slot and PCIe x1 slot. However, expansion cards longer than about six and three-quarters inches won’t fit in the top PCI slot due to the proximity of the Rampage’s DIMM slots.

Like Intel’s Bonetrail board, the Rampage Formula lacks serial and parallel ports. It’s also missing a PS/2 mouse port, but retains a PS/2 keyboard port, presumably for those attached to vintage clickety-clack buck spring keyboards that don’t have USB interfaces.

External Serial ATA connectivity is missing from the port cluster, which is an odd omission for a high-end motherboard. However, you do get a handy CMOS reset button that’s perfect for trial-and-error overclocking. Asus also throws in six USB ports, Firewire, and two flavors of digital S/PDIF audio output.

The rest of the board’s audio ports can be found on a SupremeFX II riser card that houses an Analog Devices ADI 1988B codec chip. In theory, the riser card and its shielding should help to isolate the codec and analog outputs from board-level noise that can degrade output quality. We’ll have to see if our analog audio signal quality tests bear that out.

Extras are a staple of high-end Asus motherboards, and the Rampage Formula is no exception. The board comes bundled with an auxiliary cooling fan and ingenious little front-panel connector blocks that make enclosure wiring a whole lot easier. More interesting, however, is an external POST code display that takes the beep code deciphering out of troubleshooting boot problems. The LCD display isn’t nearly as swanky as the SideShow module Asus has experimented with on some motherboards, but it’s a neat little extra. A recessed CMOS reset button, even if it required a pin to activate, would make this external display even better. After all, if you encounter a POST code error, chances are you’re going to have to reset the CMOS to fix it.

Asus also bundles some software with the Rampage Formula, and it’s something you might actually want: a copy of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.

BIOS options and tweaking software

For a motherboard to resonate with enthusiasts, its BIOS must be packed with enough overclocking and tweaking options to push a system to its limits—and then some. We expected the Rampage Formula to do well here—I can’t remember ever using an Asus motherboard that wasn’t loaded with overclocking and tweaking options—and were pleasantly surprised to find that Intel did a pretty good job with the BIOS on the DX48BT2, as well.


Asus Rampage Formula

Intel DX48BT2

Bus speeds
FSB: 200-800MHz in
1MHz increments

PCIe: 100-180MHz in 1MHz increments

DDR: 667, 800, 835, 887, 1002, 1066, 1111,
1335MHz

FSB: 133-500MHz in
1MHz increments

PCIe: 100-109.24MHz in 1.32MHz increments
DDR ref: 200, 366, 333, 400MHz

DDR: 800, 1066, 1333, 1600MHz


Bus multipliers
CPU: 6x-8x (Core
2 Duo E6750)
CPU: 6x-8x (Core
2 Duo E6750)
Voltages CPU: 1.1-2.4V in 0.00625V increments

CPU PLL: 1.5-3V in 0.02V increments

DRAM: 1.8-3.4V in 0.02V increments
MCH: 1.25-1.85V in
0.02V increments
FSB:
1.2-2V in 0.02V increments
ICH: 1.05-1.225V in 0.025V increments
ICH
1.5: 1.5-2.05V in 0.05V increments
CPU GTL: 0.62-0.67x in 0.01-0.02x
increments
MCH GTL: 0.49-0.67x in 0.02-0.04x increments
DRAM ref: +/-
0.03V in 0.01V increments
DRAM A ref: +/- 0.03V in 0.01V increments

DRAM B ref: +/- 0.03V in 0.01V
increments

CPU: 1.2875-1.6V in 0.0125V increments

CPU voltage offset: +0.3V

DRAM: 1.5-2.5V in 0.025V increments

FSB: 1.2-1.5V in
0.025V increments
MCH:
1.25-1.7V in 0.025V increments

CPU GTL ref 0, 1: 0-100 in 1x increments
MCH
GTL: 0-100 in 1x increments
MCH DRAM ref: 0-100 in 1x increments
DIMM
A DQ, CA ref: 0-100 in 1x increments
DIMM B DQ, CA ref: 0-100 in 1x
increments


Monitoring
Voltage, fan
status, and temperature monitoring
Voltage, fan
status, and temperature monitoring

Fan speed control
CPU, chassis CPU, chassis

If you’re looking to overclock a Core 2 processor, both of these boards have plenty of front-side bus headroom. The Rampage Formula’s FSB can be cranked 300MHz higher than that of the Bonetrail board, but that should only affect the most extreme of overclocking attempts. Unless you’re packing liquid nitrogen, chances are the DX48BT2’s 500MHz front-side bus ceiling will be plenty.

Of course, if you’re overclocking the front-side bus, you’ll need to keep your system’s memory in check. Both boards offer a wealth of options here, but Asus makes selecting a target memory bus speed much easier. The DX48BT2’s BIOS requires that you set reference and target memory clocks, and for the uninitiated, it isn’t exactly clear how the two work together. We also found that target memory speeds didn’t always work properly with a 400MHz reference clock.

Overclocking, Intel style

On the voltage front, both boards offer plenty of tweaking options, including control over GTL reference values that seem to be quite important if you want to really push quad-core chips. As one might expect, the Rampage yields access to a few more system voltages than the Bonetrail and allows for greater overvolting. Still, the variety and granularity of the voltage tweaking options provided by the DX48BT2 should be more than adequate for conventional overclocking.

When comparing DRAM voltages and bus speeds between the boards, keep in mind that the BT2 uses DDR3 while the Rampage is equipped for DDR2. DDR3 memory runs at higher clock speeds and has a lower default voltage than DDR2.

Overclocking made easier by Asus

Speaking of memory, we should note that both boards provide access to all sorts of timings. The Rampage offers more tweaking options here, but even seasoned enthusiasts probably won’t go beyond the array of timings available for adjustment on the Intel board. That is, of course, unless you know what all of the more obscure memory timings actually do. I haven’t a clue.

Asus offers fan speed control that you can actually control, sort of

BIOS-level fan speed control has become increasingly important for enthusiasts looking to bask in the glory of a silent system, and both the Rampage and Bonetrail boards offer temperature-based fan speed control for their processor and system fan headers. There isn’t much you can do on the Intel board other than simply enabling or disabling temperature-based fan speed control. The Rampage allows one to choose between a few different processor fan speed profiles. Temperature targets and fan ratio (as a percentage of maximum fan speed) control are available for two system fan headers—a feature we’d like to see available for the processor fan. The Asus board’s third system fan header gets speed control, too, but only a manual ratio setting without any temperature-based automatic control.

If you’re not comfortable poking around in a BIOS menu, you probably shouldn’t be overclocking or tweaking system settings. However, if you must, both Asus and Intel offer Windows-based tweaking and overclocking software.

Intel’s Desktop Control Center is still in beta. Although it’s not bundled with the DX48BT2, it’s a free download and a surprisingly solid application. The interface could use some slimming down (the individual tweaking panels under the main interface in the picture above can be closed individually), but overall, it looks much less offensive than the tweaking apps we’re used to seeing from Taiwanese mobo makers. Plenty of overclocking and tweaking options are available, too, including more extensive fan speed control than is offered in the BIOS.

Asus has been refining its Windows tweaking and overclocking software for years, and it shows with the latest AI Suite. Overclocking, memory timings, fan speed control, and the ability to save and load profiles: it’s all there.

For anal types (that’d be me) who like to keep tabs on all sorts of system variables, Asus also throws in its PC Probe II hardware monitoring app. PC Probe gives users plenty of variables to track and even a measure of interface customization, making this app one of the best in its class.

Specifics on specifications

The Asus and Intel boards we’re looking at today consolidate a cornucopia of sockets, slots, ports, and chips, all of which we’ve summed up in a handy specifications chart below.


Asus Rampage Formula

Intel DX48BT2

CPU support
LGA775-based Celeron, Pentium
4/D, Core 2 processors
LGA775-based Celeron, Pentium
4/D, Core 2 processors

North bridge
Intel X48 Express Intel X48 Express

South bridge
Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R

Interconnect
DMI (2GB/s) DMI (2GB/s)

Expansion slots
2 PCI Express x16

2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI

3 PCI Express x16

2 32-bit/33MHz PCI


Memory
4 240-pin DIMM
sockets

Maximum of 8GB of DDR2-800-1200 SDRAM

4 240-pin DIMM
sockets

Maximum of 8GB of DDR3-1066-1600 SDRAM


Storage I/O
Floppy disk

1 channel ATA/133 via JMicron JMB368

6 channels 300MB/s Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 10, 5 support

Floppy disk

1 channel ATA/133 via Marvell 88SE6121

6 channels 300MB/s Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 10, 5 support

Audio 8-channel HD audio via Analog
Devices ADI 1988B codec
8-channel HD audio via Sigmatel
9274D codec
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard

6 USB
2.0 with headers for 6 more

2 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8056
1 1394a Firewire via
VIA VT6308 with header for 1 more

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 digital TOS-Link S/PDIF out
1 digital coaxial S/PDIF
out

8 USB
2.0 with headers for 6 more

1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Intel 82566DC
1 1394a Firewire via
Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A with header for 1 more
2 eSATA via Marvell
88SE6121

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out

1 analog rear out

1 analog surround out/mic in

1 analog line in
1 digital TOS-Link S/PDIF out

There isn’t much here we haven’t already covered. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Asus and Intel boards differ on the Firewire and Ethernet fronts. If you’re after 1394a connectivity, the Rampage Formula provides it through a VIA Firewire chip, while the Bonetrail opts for silicon from Texas Instruments.

Gigabit Ethernet provides a little more intrigue, with the Asus board sporting a pair of Marvell 88E8056s against a single Intel 82566DC. So the Rampage doubles up on the Bonetrail’s GigE connectivity, but that’s not the interesting bit. Back when Intel launched its ICH9R south bridge, the chip’s block diagram showed an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller—one motherboard makers would apparently be able to tap through a simple PHY (physical interface) chip. The design apparently didn’t catch on with mobo makers, and we hadn’t seen any boards take advantage of the ICH9R’s integrated networking capabilities. However, the 82566DC on the Bonetrail boards is a PHY chip that hooks into the ICH9R south bridge, providing our first glimpse of Intel’s integrated GigE solution.

Our testing methods

Obviously, we’ll be pitting the Rampage Formula and DX48BT2 against each other. We’ve thrown in a collection of LGA775 motherboards based on a variety of different chipsets to liven things up a little, as well. Those results should provide a good frame of reference for the kind of performance that can be expected from most of the enthusiast-oriented Core 2 motherboards currently on the market.

All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

Processor

Core 2 Duo E6750 2.67GHz
System bus 1333MHz (333MHz
quad-pumped)

Motherboard


Asus P5K3 Deluxe


Asus P5E3 Deluxe
Gigabyte X48T-DQ6

XFX MB-N790I-UL9


Intel DX48BT2


XFX MB-N780-ISH9


Asus Rampage Formula
Bios revision 0604 0201 F4D 811N1P01 1521.EB 2.053.B2 0219

North bridge
Intel P35 Express Intel X38 Express Intel X48 Express nForce 790i
SLI Ultra SPP
Intel X48 Express nForce 780i SLI SPP Intel X48 Express

South bridge
Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R Intel ICH9R nForce 790i
SLI MCP
Intel ICH9R nForce 780i SLI MCP Intel ICH9R
Chipset drivers Chipset 8.3.1.1009

AHCI 7.8.0.1012

Chipset 8.3.1.1009

AHCI 7.8.0.1012

Chipset 8.3.1.1009

AHCI 7.8.0.1012


ForceWare 9.64
Chipset 8.3.1.1009

AHCI 7.8.0.1012

ForceWare 9.46 Chipset 8.3.1.1009

AHCI 7.8.0.1012

Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs)

Memory type


Corsair CM3X1024-1600C7DHX DDR3 SDRAM
at 1333MHz


Corsair CM2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM
at 800MHz
CAS latency
(CL)
7 7 7 7 7 4 4
RAS to CAS
delay (tRCD)
7 7 7 7 7 4 4
RAS precharge
(tRP)
7 7 7 7 7 4 4
Cycle time
(tRAS)
21 21 21 21 21 12 12
Command rate 1T 1T 1T 1T 1T 1T 1T

Audio codec
Integrated

AD1988B with 5.10.1.6110 drivers

Integrated AD1988B with
7.0.0.0 drivers
Integrated ALC889A with 1.88
drivers
Integrated ALC888S
with 1.88 drivers

Integrated 9274D with 5762.5713.v68 drivers
Integrated ALC888S
with 1.88 drivers
Integrated AD1988B with
6.10.1.6280 drivers
Graphics

GeForce 8800 GT 1GB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.25 drivers
Hard drive
Western Raptor X 150GB
OS

Windows Vista Ultimate x86
with KB936710, KB938194, KB938979, KB940105
updates

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing.

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.

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.

Overclocking

For our overclocking tests, we dropped the CPU multiplier to 6X—its lowest possible value. We also reduced the memory bus speed to keep our DIMMs operating within their limits. Next, we turned our attention to the front-side bus on each board, cranking it up and using a two-way Prime95 load to test stability along the way.

The DX48BT2 was up first, and overclocking it was a bit of a chore. We eventually got the board stable with a 460MHz front-side bus, but no amount of extra voltage or dark magic would coax 470MHz into stability under load.

460MHz is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s hardly spectacular by Core 2 motherboard standards. We’ve had plenty of cheaper P35-based motherboards reach that speed and higher. The real problem with overclocking the Bonetrail board is the fact that you have to reset a motherboard jumper after a failed overclocking attempt. Most high-end motherboards are capable of recovering gracefully from a failed attempt by rebooting with BIOS defaults, which is considerably more convenient.

By comparison, overclocking the Rampage Formula was a snap. The board automatically reboots with BIOS defaults if you push it too far, and even if you go beyond the point of auto-recovery, there’s still a CMOS reset button in the port cluster.

Not that we needed it. The Rampage sailed up to a 500MHz front-side bus without so much as a voltage tweak. We had to increase the front-side bus and north bridge voltages by 0.1V each to get the board stable at 510MHz under load, and that was all she wrote. 520MHz refused to post, even with additional voltages applied all around. Not even the board’s auxiliary cooling fan made a difference.

Of course, as is always the case with overclocking, your mileage may vary.

Power consumption

We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Power consumption was measured at idle and under a load consisting of a multi-threaded Cinebench 10 render running in parallel with the “rthdribl” high dynamic range lighting demo.

The Rampage and BT2 have virtually the same power draw under load, but the Asus board is more frugal at idle. It’s curious, though, that the idle power draw of Asus and Gigabyte’s X48 boards is lower than that of Intel’s own.

Memory performance

Memory subsystem performance doesn’t always track with real-world applications, but it’s a good place to start our performance benchmarks

Things don’t look so hot for either board here, with the Rampage and DX48BT2 filling out the back of the pack in our memory bandwidth and latency tests.

Memory controllers don’t always handle four DIMMs gracefully, so we popped an additional two memory modules into each system for another round of tests. In these tests, we had to back off to a 2T command rate for the nForce 780i SLI, Rampage Formula, and DX48BT2—a common adjustment for four-DIMM configurations.

Moving to four DIMMs only makes matters worse for the Rampage and BT2. The Rampage’s access latencies are quicker this time around, but neither board manages to match the performance of Gigabyte’s X48-based X48T-DQ6, let alone the others.

WorldBench

WorldBench uses scripting to step through a series of tasks in common Windows applications. It then produces an overall score.

Now here’s an interesting result: the bottom three rungs in our WorldBench results are occupied by boards based on Intel’s flagship X48 Express chipset. So much for a high-end performance advantage.

To be fair, only four points separate the fastest boards from the slowest here. The results are somewhat tainted by inconsistency in WorldBench’s WinZip test, which seems to be affected by Vista’s supposedly intelligent caching scheme. The Rampage Formula and X48T-DQ6 both turn in completion times in the WinZip test close to a minute slower than their competition for no apparent reason.

Gaming

Even at these relatively modest resolutions, games tend to be bound more by the graphics card than by a system’s motherboard. The biggest gap in performance comes with Quake Wars, and even then, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between 119 and 130 frames per second.

Motherboard peripheral performance

To provide a closer look at the peripheral performance you can expect from these motherboards, we’ve complied Ethernet, USB, Firewire, Serial ATA, and audio performance results below. You’ll notice that there isn’t much variance from one board to another, but there are a few things worth pointing out. The Rampage Formula and DX48BT2 are highlighted and in bold to make them easier to pick out from the crowd.

NTttcp Ethernet

performance
Throughput (Mbps)
CPU utilization
(%)

Asus P5E3 Deluxe (88E8056)
939 14.6

Asus P5E3 Deluxe (RTL8169)
379 40.0

Asus P5K3 Deluxe (88E8056)
937 15.2

Asus P5K3 Deluxe (RTL8169)
362 37.8

Asus Rampage Formula (1)
941 17.6

Asus Rampage Formula (2)
943 15.4

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6 (1)
930 46.7

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6 (2)
931 46.6

Intel DX48BT2
941 13.3

XFX MB-N780-ISH9 (1)
819 21.5

XFX MB-N780-ISH9 (2)
814 20.5


XFX

MB-N790-IUL9 (1)
822 17.4


XFX

MB-N790-IUL9 (2)
829 21.6

The Rampage Formula and DX48BT2 both do well in our Ethernet performance test, with the Intel board registering the lowest CPU utilization of the lot.

HD Tach
Firewire performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus P5E3 Deluxe
42.3 37.5 28.8 1.7

Asus P5K3 Deluxe
42.3 37.4 28.8 0.7

Asus Rampage Formula
33.1 30.1 21.7 1.0

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6
42.1 37.5 28.7 2.3

Intel DX48BT2
42.0 37.6 28.7 2.0

XFX MB-N780-ISH9
42.2 37.5 21.8 3.0


XFX

MB-N790-IUL9
42.2 37.6 21.8 1.3

Repeat after me, Asus: I will not use slow VIA Firewire chips on $300 motherboards.

HD Tach
USB performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus P5E3 Deluxe
33.9 32.5 29.9 4.3

Asus P5K3 Deluxe
33.9 32.6 25.9 4.0

Asus Rampage Formula
33.9 32.6 29.9 5.7

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6
33.9 32.6 30.1 5.7

Intel DX48BT2
33.9 32.6 29.9 4.0

XFX MB-N780-ISH9
33.9 32.6 32.3 4.0


XFX

MB-N790-IUL9
33.9 32.6 32.3 7.7

Nothing to see here. Move along.

HD Tach
Serial ATA performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)

Access time (ms)
CPU utilization

(%)


Asus P5E3 Deluxe
133.5 75.2 101.0 2.0 8.4

Asus P5K3 Deluxe
133.7 75.2 98.7 3.7 8.3

Asus Rampage Formula
132.7 75.2 93.7 3.3 8.4

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6 (GSATA)
129.5 75.2 47.4 5.3 8.1

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6 (ICH9R)
133.2 75.2 94.5 2.7 8.3

Intel DX48BT2
132.0 75.2 96.7 2.0 8.3

XFX MB-N780-ISH9
131.9 75.2 87.0 4.0 8.4


XFX

MB-N790-IUL9 (JMB362)
109.8 75.3 42.7 20.3 8.7


XFX

MB-N790-IUL9 (nForce 790i)
132.2 75.2 87.5 3.3 8.3

Yeah. Uh-huh.

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality

Overall score

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz

Asus P5E3 Deluxe
4 5 3 3 3 1 3 4 3

Asus P5K3 Deluxe
4 5 3 1 3 1 3 4 3

Asus Rampage Formula

4

5

3
3
3

1

3

4

3

Gigabyte X48T-DQ6
4 5 3 3 3 1 3 4 3

Intel DX48BT2
4 5 3 3 3 1 3 4 4

XFX MB-N780-ISH9
4 5 3 3 3 1 3 4 3

XFX nForce N790-IUL9
4 5 3 3 3 1 3 4 3

So much for audio risers. The Rampage Formula’s SupremeFX card does little for the board’s score in our RightMark Audio Analyzer signal quality tests. The Rampage doesn’t score any better than the BT2 with its Sigmatel codec.

Conclusions

The DX48BT2 motherboard proves Intel is indeed capable of building a decent enthusiast-oriented motherboard complete with overclocking and tweaking options. The Bonetrail board even has a leg up on the Rampage Formula in the features department, offering a third PCI Express x16 slot and external Serial ATA connectivity. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make up for the board’s shortfalls, which include SATA port layout problems and BIOS quirks that make overclocking more frustrating that it needs to be. It doesn’t help that the board is no faster than much cheaper alternatives or that it’s bound to extremely expensive DDR3 memory.

The BT2 isn’t a bad board by any stretch, and at $244 online, it’s one of the most affordable X48-based motherboards on the market. But it’s just not up to the standard set by Asus’ Rampage Formula. The Asus board has better BIOS functionality, a superior layout, additional features like an external CMOS reset button and POST code display, and apparently greater overclocking headroom. Throw in a copy of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and all the money you’ll save by being able to use DDR2 memory, and we’d be more inclined to pay the higher $292 asking price for the Rampage.

Not that Asus has the perfect, er, formula for the X48 Express. The Rampage’s lack of eSATA connectivity and its slow Firewire chip are a little embarrassing for such a high-end offering. Asus would have done well to take advantage of the X48 Express’ support for more than two-way CrossFire configurations, as well. But the real problem that besets the Rampage Formula, and indeed all other X48 motherboards, is the fact that they offer little or no performance advantage over much cheaper alternatives based on the P35 Express chipset.

Then again, high-end motherboards are probably more about bragging rights and convenience than sheer value. By those standards, the Rampage Formula is certainly a better option than the DX48BT2.

Comments closed
    • Shinare
    • 11 years ago

    Its hard to justify anything more than a $90 gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L mobo these days when recommending a system to someone. Very hard.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 11 years ago

      Yup. I totally agree.

      • boing
      • 11 years ago

      I prefer the MSI P35 Neo2 FIR I’m using myself. Costs as much and you also get Firewire and 2 external SATA-ports.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    All of the weapon- and death-theme named boards make me sad 🙁 Intel should push a more positive corporate image, I propose a ‘happy flower’ line of motherboards, there are lots of flower names to choose so they won’t run out. Maybe a ‘happy dog’ line for the graphics cards when they come out..

      • Ruiner
      • 11 years ago

      Wow. Over twelve hours and nobody has called you a pu$$y yet.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        Well, I believe you just did in a noncommital manner there, so who’s the pu$$y now? 😛 heh

      • swaaye
      • 11 years ago

      I’m with ya. 🙂

      The stupid “hardcore” naming of “enthusiast” products is rather tiresome. It reeks of low-quality and immaturity to me, honestly, and speaks volumes of who they think buys their products (ignorant gaming jocks). Fatal1ty branding is especially nausea-inducing, IMO.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        I’ts not all THAT bad I was just trying to make a joke. But sometimes it can be a little silly. I don’t mind marketing naming all that much, it’s better than completely cryptic alphanumeric strings but I prefer something that lets you identify the details of the product from the name alone. For example Gigabyte’s board naming scheme is nice that way.

        • jodiuh
        • 11 years ago

        That’s ridiculous. I can go by Jodius Maximus now.

    • Randy2
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve have the DX38BT board and can tell you that for the 6 months I’ve owned it, I have been glued to the support forums and watch Intel’s site daily for bios updates. It’s kind of funny that every site that has reviewed these boards never happens to run across any of the many issues related to these boards.

    Take a look – Intel has released 9 bios revs for this board that has been out for 6 months. One bios was so bad, they released a new one 3 days later.

    That’s great you say ? Intel really is on the ball ironing out the issues ? I’d say that many revs in that short of time is the sign of some major desperation on Intel’s part. And they still haven’t got everything sorted.

    Oh yeah, this article is about the BT2, not my lowly BT. Well, the BT2 is the same board running the same bios, with cherry picked X38 chips that become X48’s.

    • henfactor
    • 11 years ago

    NVIDIA, bloody hell, give up your SLI to intel, I want that chipset!

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    Just recently upgraded to a Gigabyte EP35-DS4R and I’m glad I did. I just haven’t seen anything compelling with the post-P35 releases.

    This X48 platform seems like an expensive e-peen platform more than anything else.

    • titan
    • 11 years ago

    On page 3, you stated:
    l[< ...Back when Intel launched its ICH9R south bridge, the chip's block diagram showed an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller—one motherboard makers would apparently be able to tap through a simple PHY (physical interface) chip. However, nearly a year has passed, and we've yet to see a motherboard actually make use of the ICH9R's apparent networking capability. With even Intel snubbing the ICH9R's GigE MAC, we have to wonder if perhaps something wasn't quite right with the implementation. Feel free to formulate your own conspiracy theories.<]l Intel states that, "The Intel® 82566DM/MM and Intel® 82566DC/MC Gigabit Ethernet Controllers are compact, single-port integrated physical layer devices that connect to appropriate Intel® chipsets with an integrated Media Access Controller (MAC)." §[<http://www.intel.com/design/network/products/lan/controllers/82566.htm<]§ So, unless I'm not understanding something, Intel has been making use of the integrated MAC. And has been doing so for a while because I have looked at Intel motherboards at NewEgg.com that also have either the same or similar chip to enable the GigE capabilities.

      • Dissonance
      • 11 years ago

      Fixed.

      • Prototyped
      • 11 years ago

      I have a DG33FB from last August — an inexpensive G33 board, as the name suggests — and it, too, uses the ICH9DH’s 82566DC-2 controller, as do most other Intel Bearlake-chipset boards, as I understand it. Some non-Intel vPro motherboards also use the 82566DC-2 PHY rather than utilizing discrete Ethernet controllers on PCI Express lanes, since vPro requires NIC support, and the chipset-linked 82566DC-2 and 82566DM PHYs are among the few devices to support vPro. (Examples include MSI’s Q35MDO motherboard and Asus’ P5E-VM DO.)

      Another element of Intel’s ICH9* formula seems to be a Marvell controller for PATA. (My motherboard only has the one PATA port; eSATA is not provided.) And yet another is the TI IEEE 1394 controller.

      I have to wonder what the point of eliminating PATA from ICH8 and ICH9 was. Even all of Intel’s boards carrying those southbridges continue to provide PATA ports (off Marvell discrete chips).

      I actually /[

    • flip-mode
    • 11 years ago

    Wow that was completely unspectacular. BT2 wins on peripherals but can be totally written off due to DDR3. The Rampage wins at overclocking and wisely goes with DDR2, but connectivity and peripheral performance slightly tarnish it.

    I sure wish you’d have put /[

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      Huh, how is it busted?

      I believe the southbridge’s NIC was used in the tests and showed virtually identical performance to the competition. That hardly qualifies as a bust.

    • continuum
    • 11 years ago

    No Quad-core FSB overclocking yet? Is that in TR’s plans as a regular part of your MB testing at some point in the future?

      • Forge
      • 11 years ago

      Amen and ditto. I’ve had radically different limits on FSB with quads than with duals. My 680i would do 1600+ FSB with duals, 65nm and 45nm, yet would not go a step past 1333 with a quad. Only my newish P35 shows no reluctance to shoot to 1600+ with a quad installed.

    • boing
    • 11 years ago

    About time the manufacturers started to get rid of the PS/2 ports. My MSI P35-board lacks serial and parallell-ports.
    Really sad though that, just as the review stated, they didn’t replace it with more USB-ports.

      • Hdfisise
      • 11 years ago

      I like having them as it means if one of my new mice dies I can use a backup from years ago. However I would be willing to sacrifice the mouse PS/2 for more USB, but good job on the asus for keeping the keyboard one.

        • DrDillyBar
        • 11 years ago

        long live PS/2 keyboard!

      • Anomymous Gerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Seriously, who cares if there’s a PS/2 port on the back, so long as it doesn’t stop any other ports from appearing there (and it’s not like there never some wasted space back there).

        • deepthought86
        • 11 years ago

        Quiet, do you dare to imply that newer is not always automatically better?

        Are you one of those people who complain about throwing out perfectly functioning IDE drives and replacing them with SATA equivalents that offer 3% better performance?

        heh

        Apropos, does anybody think it boneheaded that Intel threw out IDE support in their chipsets and everybody ([italic]including Intel![/italic]) ends up adding an extra chip to support it anyway?

          • boing
          • 11 years ago

          I don’t use IDE and haven’t used it for years for harddrives. My last use was a few weeks ago with a DVD-RW that suddenly stopped working so I had to buy a new one and went with SATA there as well.

          I had no troubles throwing out my old IDE-harddrive. It was only 80 GB in size and is now replaced with a 320 GB and a 1 TB harddrive, both SATA.

          Whilst I felt AGP was enough, you get both faster and cheaper PCI-E gfx-cards. Not necesserily because the interface is faster, but because newer cards are produced for the newer interface in mind. Same goes for harddrives. Just get on with the times.

            • Deli
            • 11 years ago

            I keep hearing that there are problems with SATA DVDRW drives with certain software, that’s why i’m sticking with IDE and i HATE SATA plugs (not the cable, just the plugs)…god dangit.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    I’d probably spend just as much on a motherboard as I would on a Video card. You should be seeking longevity in a motherboard, more so then you’d expect from a CPU or GPU. As an example, I got my current mobo (975x) before the 965’s were even on the market, and with ASUS keeping up on the BIOS update front, it’s supported practically every LGA-775 CPU from the P4 days up to the current 45nm chips. Long-lived service FTW.

      • enzia35
      • 11 years ago

      I agree, skimping on motherboard is a pretty bad mistake to make.

      • Mithent
      • 11 years ago

      Though LGA775 has less than a year left in it now.. there’s an argument that now is not a good time to buy an expensive motherboard. Nehalem won’t work on X48.

      • swaaye
      • 11 years ago

      Oh, I dunno. I find these loaded mobos to be homes to extra stuff that can die or be proven to be cheap value-added junk in the long run. I prefer to buy more basic mobos, equipped with chipsets such as P35 and P965 and lacking loads of goofy extras I’ll never use. These boards can come with longevity-enhancing hardware too, such as solid caps and quality inductors, etc.

      I was a fan of Shuttle’s basic mobos for a while. I had a Shuttle AN35N NF2U board that I sadly killed, but it was an excellent, reliable board for years. I also have a working Shuttle AK31A KT266A mobo that still is running here with a AXP-M ghetto rigged into it with a wire mod. 🙂

      Remember the Soyo Dragon Plus series? They were loaded. I got one of those (KT266A era) for a friend. It had gotten rave reviews from all the typical review sites. The thing slowly died over years. USB stopped working entirely. It became unstable. Bad experience there with a “high-end” mobo.

      So, I don’t really believe in the perceived quality if “high-end” mobos. Unless we’re talking server-level stuff that is sold with guarantees about quality.

    • leor
    • 11 years ago

    These intel boards are getting crazy with the pricing!

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      Yet, a decent P35 board overclocks almost as well for 1/2 of the price!

      Intel’s problem is that it made P35 too good.

        • Convert
        • 11 years ago

        Hardly. Intel just needs to make the x48 better. They released something just to release it.

          • Krogoth
          • 11 years ago

          Too bad that Socket 775 is approaching EOL and X48 is most likely going to be final high-end S775 chipset.

          Nehalem is going to be the new talk of the town among with its chipset platforms.

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    It is because, P35 provides practically everything a X38/X48 delivers. The upcoming P45 is just a revision, die-shrinkage of the P35.

    PCIe 2.0 *cough*AGP 4x *cough* is pointless for the most part. It will likely never see any significant usage until Nehalem’s successor comes along.

    • mongoosesRawesome
    • 11 years ago

    Who brags about their motherboard?

      • crabjokeman
      • 11 years ago

      Apparently, you’ve never been to [H]ardOCP

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