Gigabyte’s P45 motherboard plug-fest

Last week, Gigabyte invited a gaggle of international journalists to a “plug-fest” preview of its P45 motherboard line in Taipei, Taiwan. Intel has yet to formally introduce the P45 Express, but given the success of the P35 chipset, we were naturally eager to get a glimpse of its successor. Gigabyte had no less than five different P45 models on display, including a new Extreme board that may well live up to its name, at least as far as overclocking is concerned. The company also unveiled a number of new features that will be spread throughout its P45 family, including an improved version of its Dynamic Energy Saver software, trusted computing compatibility, and a driver-free hardware RAID solution that uniquely combines multiple auxiliary storage controllers. Keep reading for the goods on Gigabyte’s upcoming P45 products.

Guang Hua market: An enthusiast’s paradise

It’s said that to truly get a feel for a city, you should visit its central market. My first stop in Taipei, then, was the famous Guang Hua Market. Guang Hua is the biggest computer market in Taiwan, and quite a bit different from the Neweggs and brick-and-mortar computer shops you’ll find in North America, or indeed most of the western world.

This is a market in the true sense of the word, with little shops filling seemingly every corner and even spilling out into the halls and streets. PC hardware is the commodity of choice in Guang Hua, of course, but one can also find all manner of consumer electronics products, digital cameras, cell phones, and even base electrical components like LEDs, resistors, ICs, and processor sockets. Shops are open well into the evening, and the market itself is only closed two Tuesdays a month, ensuring plenty of shopping time for bargain-hunting enthusiasts.

Even on a Wednesday afternoon, the market was bustling with activity. I’m told it’s an absolute zoo on the weekends.

The sheer volume of PC hardware available at Guang Hua is what makes the market so impressive. The individual shops may be small, but they’re jam-packed with all the latest and greatest components. Motherboards and graphics cards completely lined the walls of one shop, with the latter hanging like action figures in a toy store. How appropriate.

Most of the shops in Guang Hua seem to offer a bit of everything, but many specialize in a few specific components. The shop above easily had over a hundred cases lining its walls in every imaginable configuration, style, size, and color.

Blank media and peripheral shops are popular, too. I’ve never seen quite so many keyboards and mice crammed into such a small space.

Guang Hua shops constantly update their price lists, which are available on individual sheets if you want to wander around and do some comparison shopping. There’s room for haggling, too, especially if you’re buying multiple components at once.

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.

Now with more Extremeness!

In addition to the models it had available for testing, Gigabyte showed us a new Extreme board whose BIOS had not yet been completed. Designed for, er, extreme overclocking, the Extreme features a massive wall of radiator fins hooked into its chipset and voltage circuitry coolers. The heatsink peeks into the outside world through both the port cluster and a PCI bracket, allowing natural convection to drain heat from the system.

For this board, Gigabyte uses five individual overvoltage ICs to provide more granularity for processor, memory and chipset voltage options. The board also gets a two-digit POST code display, not unlike what we’ve seen on boards from Abit and Epox in the past, and a port-cluster-based CMOS reset switch. The front-side bus speed options go all the way up to 1200MHz in the BIOS, too, and that’s before quad-pumping.

Although the Extreme board wasn’t ready to test, Gigabyte still broke out the dry ice for its comparably more pedestrian boards. Here you can see one of the Gigabyte staffers taking a sip.

Overclockers who use dry ice, liquid nitrogen, and other exotic cooling methods are precisely the market Gigabyte is targeting with the Extreme, and the board most definitely won’t be cheap. This one’s for setting records, folks, not powering your moderately overclocked Q9300 with the stock Intel cooler.

Enthusiasts will probably scoff at the Extreme’s expected $300+ price tag, and rightly so, but we wish Gigabyte hadn’t restricted the POST code display and port cluster CMOS reset switch to this board alone. Those features are good for everyone, not just the liquid nitrogen crowd. Fortunately, Gigabyte has plenty of other new features that it’s spreading liberally across its entire P45 lineup.

Perhaps most interesting among these is an “advanced” version of its Dynamic Energy Saver tech, which intelligently scales power phases to reduce power consumption. DES was previously limited to stock-clocked configs, but it can now be used with overclocked processors. A new stealth mode allows users to set a DES configuration once and have the app run as a background service rather than in the taskbar. Gigabyte says there are no technical issues preventing DES from being controlled completely by a BIOS switch, but admitted the marketing folks wanted to have a flashy Windows application capable of wowing users with power saving data. We’ll take a simple and OS-agnostic BIOS option, thanks.

Having DES work with overclocked configurations is a nice bonus, but what’s more interesting is that it also supports a new VRD 11.1 spec that will allow for a deeper sleep state with upcoming Intel processors. VRD 11.1 is implemented across Gigabyte’s P45 line, and with DES, it will allow boards to scale down to powering the CPU with a single power phase in some situations.

Another feature Gigabyte is working into its entire P45 lineup is support for trusted computing. Don your tinfoil hat now, please. The boards feature a 2048-bit Infineon TPM 1.2 chip hanging off the south bridge’s LPC bus, enabling all sorts of offensive digital rights management—but also significantly more secure encryption. The user will be able to store his encryption key on a USB flash drive and put an encrypted, password-protected backup in the BIOS for easy recovery.

Conclusions

Intel is expected to unveil the P45 Express officially at Computex in early June, and you can expect plenty of chipset and motherboard coverage from us. Based on what we’ve seen, the P45 looks like another solid mid-range chipset, and it’s sure to find favor among PC enthusiasts. We’re also quite encouraged by what we’ve seen of Gigabyte’s P45 lineup and by the company’s willingness to engage directly with hardware reviewers about motherboard features the community would like to see implemented.

There’s only so much a single company like Gigabyte can do about larger issues like the lack of standardization of front-panel connector pin outs. However, the company was receptive to adding more extensive fan speed control options to its BIOSes, which have recently had all the overclocking options we could really ask for. Gigabyte also has interest in implementing the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) replacement for the common BIOS, but is waiting until it can deploy such a feature across a full range of boards rather than with one specific model targeted at the hackintosh crowd.

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