Gigabyte shows its hand
We got our first look at Gigabyte's P45 lineup in Taiwan last month when the company revealed plans to produce no fewer than 20 different designs based on the chipset. Two of those boards have now made their way to the Benchmarking Sweatshop: the EP45-DQ6 and the EP45-DS3R. The DQ6 carries a lofty suggested retail price of $260, which doesn't exactly put it in the mid-range territory one might expect from a P45 board. You get what you pay for, though, and the DQ6 has a number of interesting features that warrant closer inspection.
Of course, the DQ6 is more than just an aesthetic statement. Gigabyte has also done an excellent job with the layout considering how many slots, ports, and additional peripherals have been squeezed onto the board's ATX form factor. Even the power plugs are right where we like to see them, located along the edges of the board where their associated cabling won't interfere with typical chassis airflow.Like most high-end motherboards, the DQ6's processor socket is surrounded by an ornate array of heatsinks and heatpipes. The north bridge cooler doesn't look all that extravagant (and it probably doesn't need to be given the P45's 65nm underpinnings,) but there's still plenty of radiator fin surface area dedicated to the board's voltage regulation circuitry. Despite the additional heatsinks, though, the DQ6 can still accommodate larger aftermarket heatsinks like Scythe's massive Ninja cooler.
From this angle we also get a good look at the DQ6's onboard components. The board is a part of Gigabyte's Ultra Durable 2 family, which exclusively uses solid-state capacitors, ferrite core chokes, and low RDS(on) MOSFETs. Higher quality components have become a staple of high-end motherboards, and after losing a couple of older boards to busted or otherwise leaking capacitors, I couldn't be happier.The ICH10R's six Serial ATA ports apparently weren't enough for Gigabyte, because the DQ6 features four more tied to a mix of auxiliary storage controllers from JMicron and Silicon Image. With ten ports in total, clearance problems are bound to crop up with longer graphics cards. However, Gigabyte has paid special care to ensure that the ports most prone to blockage are edge-mounted to sidestep the issue.
While most motherboard makers are content to hang additional Serial ATA ports off a single auxiliary storage controller, Gigabyte's approach with the DQ6 is a little more complicated. The four auxiliary ports are arranged in pairs, with each couple tied to a two-port Silicon Image SATA RAID chip. This chip supports RAID 0 and 1 configurations in addition to a few combinations of the two, ala Matrix RAID. Array-related calculations are performed in hardware by an on-chip RISC processor, and since arrays are presented to the operating system as standard Serial ATA hard drives, additional storage drivers aren't required.
Gigabyte adds another layer of goodness by hanging each Silicon Image RAID chip off a Serial ATA port provided by a JMicron storage controller. This 300MB/s SATA link does introduce a potential bottleneck, but as long as you run the JMicron chip in native IDE mode, there's still no need to install additional storage drivers. One can also set the JMicron chip to run in RAID mode, allowing effective RAID 10 or 0+1 arrays to be built from component parts connected to the Silicon Image chips.
This all sounds like an overly complex way to gain four extra SATA RAID ports, but because the default configuration (JMicron chip in IDE mode and Silicon Image chips running in RAID 1) doesn't require drivers, it actually gives users a relatively easy path to fault-tolerant mirroring. Just don't mind the fancy-looking heatsinks on the additional storage controllers; they're just for show.The DQ6's gravy train of excess continues on the expansion slot front where we find all sorts of PCI and PCI Express connectivity. There are seven slots in total, including two PCIe x4s that are slotted to accept longer cards. Those two slots are actually connected to a PCI Express switch chip whose heatsink you can see just behind them. The switch chip has access to four south bridge PCI Express lanes, which it shares between the two x4 slots and the board's networking chips. We'll get to those in a moment.
In the meantime, note the presence of handy onboard buttons at the bottom of the slot stack. Power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons are present on a few of Gigabyte's high-end P45 boards, although they don't make the cut for some of the budget models.We wish Gigabyte would move the CMOS reset button to the DQ6's port cluster, but it doesn't look like there would be room. This board has not one, not two, not even three, but four Gigabit Ethernet ports, each backed by its own (and brand spankin' new) Realtek RTL8111C networking chip. The GigE ports can be run individually or teamed together, but this sort of networking excess seems more appropriate for server boards than one targeted at PC enthusiasts. I'd much rather see a couple of GigE options alongside a good Wi-Fi adapter.
To no one's surprise, Realtek gets the call on the audio front, too. The DQ6 makes use of the crab's flagship ALC889A codec chip, which is capable of encoding multi-channel Dolby Digital Live audio on the fly. Eight USB ports round out the cluster, with onboard headers provided for an additional four ports. Gigabyte also provides onboard headers for three Firewire ports.
With all the clutter, it takes a moment to realize that the DQ6's port cluster is completely devoid of external Serial ATA connectivity. Gigabyte prefers to provide eSATA ports via PCI back plates that can be attached to any onboard SATA port, which given the DQ6's variety of storage controllers, makes perfect sense.
A more affordable DS3R
Although the EP45-DQ6's cornucopia of extras make a good case for the board's higher price tag, few enthusiasts really need or even want the additional frills. For those folks, the comparably stripped-down EP45-DS3R looks like a much better option. This board carries a suggested retail price of just $150, which is much more in keeping with the P45 chipset's mid-range appeal.
Still, the DS3R features dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, Firewire (that's conveniently located in the port cluster,) and seven expansion slots, including a pair of PCIe x16s. After running the DS3R through our application benchmark suite, we found that the board is every bit as fast as the DQ6, too.