Single page Print

A deep P45 lineup unveiled
Of course, not even the Guang Hua market had what we were looking for: motherboards based on Intel's upcoming P45 chipset. For that, we visited Gigabyte's headquarters in Taipei County for a "plug-fest" benchmarking event.

Unfortunately, since Intel has yet to launch the P45 chipset, we're not free to publish any actual benchmark results from our test sessions. But Gigabyte wanted us to play with the boards anyway, if only to see if we might have suggestions to improve them.

Over 40 journalists were flown into the event—a veritable all-star team of international, er, beta testers—making for a crowded conference room packed with test stations. It's a wonder we didn't trip a circuit breaker during our testing sessions.

During those sessions, we had access to all manner of PC hardware, including our choice of four different P45 motherboard models. All were pre-production samples with early drivers and BIOS revisions, so we wouldn't have been able to make too many definitive declarations about overall performance anyway.

The four board variants on offer started with a budget DS3R model and scaled all the way up to a high-end DQ6. All use the same chipset and offer similar feature sets, with the higher-end boards sporting additional power phases, auxiliary peripherals, and more extensive cooling solutions. Performance should be identical across the line, but even at this early stage in the production process, we were curious to see whether overclocking potential differed between budget and high-end models.

We started with the high-end DQ6 and immediately ran into a problem running the front-side bus at 400MHz (an effective 1600MHz with quad-pumping taken into effect) and beyond. The P45 chipset only offers official support for 1333MHz front-side bus speeds, but Gigabyte pledges that its boards will do at least 1600MHz. Unfortunately, the DQ6's early BIOS wasn't quite up to task; it would only allow faster front-side bus speeds with single-channel memory configurations.

Obviously, this issue will need to be resolved before the DQ6 is ready for prime time, and Gigabyte says it's already working on a fix.

At nearly the top of Gigabyte's P45 lineup, the DQ6 is the picture of excess, boasting a ridiculous four Gigabit Ethernet ports. The ports can be used individually—each is backed by one of Realtek's new RTL8111C GigE chips—or they can be teamed together should you require obscene amounts of network bandwidth.

Realtek was on hand at the event touting the energy efficiency of its new networking chip, which was surprising to us given the high CPU utilization we've observed with the RTL8111B. Sure, the 8111C's integrated power switching controller and its ability to adjust signal power dynamically based on detected cable length sound neat, but processor cycles ultimately have a higher power consumption cost than a wee networking chip, which sort of defeats the purpose. Fortunately, Realtek says its new chips' CPU utilization is much improved thanks to the implementation of receive side scaling to balance loads across multiple CPU cores.

Speaking of the crab, you'll see ALC889A audio codec chips all over Gigabyte's P45 lineup. Dolby Home Theater certification even allows the DQ6 to do a SoundStorm impression, encoding Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the fly.

Seasoned enthusiasts will quickly spot one of the DQ6's most intriguing bits of silicon: an IDT PCI switch chip hiding beneath a heatsink between the board's PCI Express x16 slots. All of the north bridge chip's PCI Express lanes are tied up in the board's graphics cards slots, leaving just six lanes of PCIe connectivity in the south bridge that must be split between onboard peripherals and two x4 slots. Four of those south bridge lanes run to the IDT switch, which shares them among the board's PCIe x4 slots and its quartet of Gigabit Ethernet chips. It's a nice little trick that makes up for the ICH10R's relatively modest PCI Express payload, and we like that it doesn't compromise PCIe bandwidth to either of the board's graphics card slots.

Keeping the excess flowing, the DQ6 gets a whopping ten SATA ports. Don't get all impressed by the heatsinks on the adjacent chips, though; they're just cosmetic.

Beneath them, however, lies a new approach to onboard RAID. The big chip labeled "Gigabyte SATA 2" is actually a JMicron storage controller with two 300MB/s SATA ports. Each of those ports runs down to a Silicon Image 5723 RAID chip that has two ports of its own. The Silicon Image chip has a hardware networking stack that can handle RAID 0 and 1 arrays and even mix the two like Intel's Matrix RAID. More impressively, those arrays are presented as standard hard drives, so RAID drivers aren't required. Gigabyte is setting up the Silicon Image chips to default to RAID 1, so users won't have to mess with array configuration beyond plugging in a pair of drives.

Gigabyte hopes this simplified implementation will popularize RAID 1 among users who might not have otherwise bothered with drive arrays. And if you'd like to fiddle further, the JMicron chip can be configured in a RAID mode of its own, allowing you to combine arrays on each Silicon Image chip to roll larger RAID 0 or 1 arrays, or to mix your own RAID 10 or 0+1.

Obviously the JMicron chip has the potential to be a bottleneck here, but Silicon Image claims performance close to that of the ICH10R with lower CPU utilization. They've also addressed the issue of monitoring array integrity with a driverless design—a software utility will be able to peer beyond the Silicon Image chip's single-drive facade to alert users of individual drive failures.

All of those extras should make the DQ6 one of the most expensive P45 boards on the market, but Gigabyte has plenty of options at lower price points, as well. There's the DS5, for example, which retains the DQ6's RAID goodies (sans their cosmetic heatsinks) but loses the fancy PCIe switch chip and quad-GigE silliness. And then there's the DS4, which ditches the extra RAID chip for a third physical x16 slot. With a whopping 20 different P45 variants in the works, Gigabyte has a little something for every niche.

The DS3R is the most basic P45 offering we saw, lacking many of the frills and extra peripherals found on more expensive boards. Like the rest of the line, the DS3R leads with DDR2 memory; the P45 chipset can handle DDR3, but DDR3 boards understandably aren't a priority for Gigabyte given current memory prices.

Note that the DS3R has the same basic board design as more expensive models. It shares the same BIOS, too, and in our limited experience with pre-production hardware, overclocked nearly as well.