As an alternative to its pint-sized XPC SN85G4 for 754-pin Athlon 64 processors, Shuttle is serving up the AN50R, a full-sized ATX board based on NVIDIA’s nForce3 chipset. The AN50R isn’t cute or cuddly, and it’s not the size of a breadbox. However, the board will fit in a wide variety of spacious, drive bay-rich ATX cases with plenty of room to spare. For enthusiasts unwilling to part with multiple PCI cards, hard disks, or optical drives, the AN50R has the potential to be a pretty sweet Athlon 64 platform. Does it deliver? Read on to find out.
Before we dive into the board itself, let’s have a quick look at the spec sheet.
|CPU support||Socket 754-based Athlon 64 processors|
|Chipset||NVIDIA nForce3 150|
|PCI slots||5 32-bit/33MHz|
|AGP slots||1, 4X/8X AGP 8X (1.5V only)|
|Memory||3 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 3GB of DDR400/333/266 SDRAM
|Storage I/O||Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
|Serial ATA||2 channels Serial ATA 150 via Sil 3112 Serial ATA controller|
|RAID||Serial ATA RAID 0, 1 support via Sil 3112 Serial ATA controller|
|Legacy ports||1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse, serial and parallel ports|
|USB||4 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
2 additional USB 2.0/1.1 ports on PCI back plate header
|Firewire||1 IEEE 1394 Firewire port via VT6307 Firewire controller
2 additional Firewire ports on PCI back plate header
|Audio||6-channel audio via nForce3 integrated audio and ALC650 codec
analog front, rear, surround, and center outputs
shared analog line in and microphone inputs
digital S/PDIF output port (Tos-Link)
|Ethernet||10/100 Fast Ethernet via nForce3 150
10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel 82540EM Ethernet controller
|Bus speeds||FSB: 200-250MHz in 1MHz increments
AGP/PCI: 66-100 in 1MHz increments
Memory: 100, 133, 166, 200MHz
|Voltages||CPU: default, 0.8-1.7V in 0.05V increments
DRAM: default, 2.7-2.9V in 0.1V increments
AGP: default, 1.6-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Chipset: default, 1.7-1.8V in 0.1V increments
LDT: default, 1.3-1.5V in 0.1V increments
|Monitoring||Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring|
The AN50R has all the usual integrated peripherals, and we’ll be going over each in detail.
Laying it out
With roughly twice the area of an XPC motherboard, the AN50R gives Shuttle’s engineers plenty of board real estate to work with.
If I had to change anything about the AN50R’s layout, I’d move its four-pin power connector to the edge of the board. Having the power connector closer to the power supply helps to eliminate cable clutter that might restrict air flow around the CPU socket.
The AN50R’s CPU socket has 754 pins for AMD’s new Athlon 64 processors. The socket also has a plastic heat sink bracket that’s designed to work with AMD’s new CPU retention system. Intel’s been doing the heat sink bracket thing for years with its Pentium 4, and it’s nice to see AMD adopt a similar system. Heat sink retention brackets generally guarantee that a motherboard’s CPU socket has plenty of clearance for most standard heat sink designs.
On the bottom of the board, a metal plate anchors the retention bracket in place. The plate is actually pretty beefy, so it should have no problem anchoring massive, heavy heat sinks.
With copious amounts of board real estate to work with, Shuttle’s engineers had no problem giving the board’s AGP and DIMM slots plenty of clearance. Not even longer graphics cards with tall memory heat sinks get in the way of the board’s DIMM slot retention tabs.
The AN50R’s three DIMM slots support a total of 3GB of DDR200, 266, 333, or 400 memory. The Athlon 64 doesn’t require registered DIMMs, and neither does the AN50R. The board doesn’t support ECC memory, either.
The usefulness of board-mounted power and reset buttons is probably lost on the vast majority of PC owners, but the buttons are incredibly convenient for anyone running the AN50R outside a case for testing and troubleshooting purposes, or just because it looks cool to have hardware sitting there naked.
Shuttle has something for everyone in the AN50R’s port cluster. In addition to a handful of legacy ports, there are also four USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port, and a couple of Ethernet jacks. An additional two USB 2.0 and two Firewire ports are available via PCI back plate headers.
On the audio front, the AN50R’s port cluster has analog front, rear, and center output ports in addition to a digital S/PDIF digital output port. The rear and center analog outputs are shared with the board’s mic and line-in ports.
Behind the board
NVIDIA has amalgamated traditional north and south bridge features into a single chip for the nForce3 150. The nForce3 150 rolls AGP 8X, ATA/133, USB 2.0, and 10/100 Fast Ethernet into a single chip. NVIDIA will be adding software RAID levels 0, 1, 0+1, and JBOD support in an upcoming “ForceWare” driver update. Unfortunately, those who want integrated Gigabit Ethernet and Serial ATA will have to wait for future nForce3 chips.
The nForce3 uses 600MHz HyperTransport links to communicate with the Athlon 64. The HyperTransport spec actually gives chip manufacturers quite a bit of flexibility in their designs, and NVIDIA has chosen to give the nForce3 150 8-bit upstream and 16-bit downstream links. On paper, that gives the nForce3 150 1.2GB/sec of upstream bandwidth and 2.4GB/sec of downstream bandwidthplenty for the nForce3’s needs, according to NVIDIA. However, our Athlon 64 FX-51 review shows VIA’s K8T800 chipset to be a superior performer. The K8T800 uses 800MHz bi-directional 16-bit HyperTransport links that may offer lower latencies than NVIDIA’s nForce3 Pro 150.
NVIDIA’s already includes its own 10/100 Fast Ethernet controller in the nForce3 150, but that wasn’t enough for Shuttle. To bolster the AN50R’s networking capabilities, Shuttle uses Intel’s 82540EM Gigabit Ethernet controller, which is a PCI device.
The nForce3 150 doesn’t include IEEE 1394 support, so Shuttle uses VIA’s VT6307 Firewire controller to breathe life into the AN50R’s three Firewire ports.
Although NVIDIA’s original nForce and subsequent nForce2 chipsets have had robust integrated audio support, the nForce3 150 only gets basic AC’97 functionality. Like just about every other motherboard manufacturer, Shuttle uses Realtek’s ALC650 codec chip to perform analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions for the AN50R’s audio. Only integrating basic audio functionality in the nForce3 makes the chips easier for NVIDIA to sell cheaply, which no doubt makes motherboard manufacturers happy. However, fans of NVIDIA’s nForce APU are out of luck if they want to move to the Athlon 64. NVIDIA doesn’t yet offer an nForce3 flavor with anything other than AC’97 support, and that’s really a shame considering that the nForce APU’s real-time Dolby Digital encoding capabilities have yet to be equaled by discrete audio chips.
Because the AN50R is more appropriate for 64-bit desktops and low-end workstations than media-centric PCs, basic AC’97 functionality is adequate. Overall, the AN50R’s audio doesn’t actually sound that bad, but as you’ll see in a moment, gamers will have a compelling reason to fill one of the board’s PCI slots with a discrete audio card.
NVIDIA also left Serial ATA out of the nForce3 150, so Shuttle tapped Silicon Image to give the AN50R Serial ATA support.
Silicon Image’s Sil 3112 Serial ATA RAID controller feeds the board’s two Serial ATA ports. The Sil 3112 supports single disks and also two-drive RAID 0 and RAID 1 arrays.
Shuttle seems to have its act together with the AN50R’s hardware, but what about the board’s BIOS?
On the surface, the AN50R’s BIOS looks pretty complete. HyperTransport bus speeds between 200 and 250MHz are supported, and AGP bus speeds are available between 66 and 100MHzboth in 1MHz increments. Memory speeds available include 100, 133, 166, and 200MHz, but the board lacks arbitrary PCI bus speed control.
Sadly, the AN50R’s BIOS falls flat when it comes to memory timings. The BIOS offers no control over CAS latencies and command rates, so enthusiasts may have a hard time pushing high-end DIMMs to their limits.
Though its support for memory tweaking is weak, the AN50R’s BIOS has plenty of voltage options. Processor voltages are available between 0.8 and 1.7V in 0.05V increments. Memory voltages can be set between 2.7 and 2.9V, AGP voltages between 1.6 and 1.8V, and chipset voltages between 1.7 and 1.8V, all in 0.1V increments. Extreme overclockers may not be satiated by the AN50R’s 1.7V processor voltage ceiling, but the board’s BIOS should provide more than enough voltage options for the rest of us. Unfortunately, it appears AMD has locked the multiplier of its 754-pin Athlon 64 processors, so it’s no loss that the AN50R’s BIOS lacks multiplier control.
On the safety front, the AN50R’s BIOS offer a CPU temperature shutdown threshold, but nothing else. A temperature-triggered shutdown condition is the probably the most vital safety feature that a BIOS can include, but I don’t see why Shuttle (and many other motherboard manufacturers) don’t provide more fan- and temperature-based shutdown and alarm conditions in their motherboard BIOSes. Is it really that hard?
Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|LAN Party NFII Ultra||KT6 Delta||AN50R||SN85G4|
|Processor||Athlon XP 3200+||Athlon 64 3200+|
|Front-side bus||400MHz (2 x 200MHz)||HT 16-bit/600MHz downstream
HT 8-bit/600MHz upstream
|Motherboard||DFI LAN Party NFII Ultra||MSI KT6 Delta||Shuttle AN50R||Shuttle FN85|
|North bridge||nForce2 Ultra 400 SPP||VIA KT600||nForce3 150|
|South bridge||nForce2 MCP-T||VT8237|
|Chipset driver||nForce unified 2.45||Hyperion 4.49||nForce K8 3.43|
|Memory size||512MB (2 DIMMs)||512MB (1 DIMM)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3200 PC2700 DDR SDRAM|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 9700 Pro|
|Graphics driver||CATALYST 3.6|
Maxtor 740X-6L 40GB 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive
|Operating System||Windows XP Professional
Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b
Today we’ll be looking at the AN50R’s performance against Shuttle’s Athlon 64 cube, the SN85G4. I’ve also rounded up KT600 and nForce2 platforms with an Athlon XP 3200+ to show the performance gap between AMD’s old and new Athlons.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- SiSoft Sandra Standard 2003
- ZD Media Business Winstone 2002 1.0.1
- ZD Media Content Creation Winstone 2002 1.0.1
- TCD Labs HD Tach v2.61
- Futuremark 3DMark03 Patch 330
- Quake III Arena v1.31
- Unreal Tournament 2003 demo
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.1
- RightMark 3D Sound 1.0
- Cinebench 2003
- Sphinx 3.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the high detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.
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.
When it comes to memory bandwidth, the Athlon 64 platforms lead the way. The AN50R achieves just a hair more bandwidth then the SN85G4, but not much.
The AN50R offers lower memory latencies than the SN85G4, too.
Disk controller performance
When we look at disk controller performance, the AN50R generally performs well. However, the board’s read burst speed is a little low with the Sil 3112 controller.
Business and Content Creation Winstone
The AN50R just barely trails the SN85G4 in the Winstone tests, and it’s quite a bit faster than the Athlon XP systems.
In our gaming tests, the AN50R performs well. Here, our Athlon XP 3200+ doesn’t have a chance. So much for performance ratings.
The AN50R leads the pack in Cinebench, just ahead of Shuttle’s Athlon 64 cube.
Sphinx speech recognition
In our Sphinx speech recognition test, the AN50R essentially ties the SN85G4 for the lead. The Athlon XPs don’t stand a chance.
The AN50R doesn’t have any hardware audio acceleration, so its CPU utilization is a lot higher than platforms with more robust integrated audio solutions. Software acceleration works, but it eats up precious CPU cycles when complex 3D audio environments are used. Gamers will definitely want to mate the AN50R with an audio card that supports hardware 3D acceleration.
For RightMark’s audio quality tests, I used an M-Audio Revolution 7.1 for recording. Analog output ports were used on all systems.
To keep things simple, I 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.
Despite the board’s lack of hardware accelerated audio, the AN50R’s audio quality is actually pretty decent for an integrated solution. The board’s audio output can’t touch the various 24-bit audio solutions currently on the market, but it’s alright for casual listening on low-end or mid-range speakers.
Our USB 2.0 and Firewire transfer speed tests involve transferring a mix of files totaling 1.89GB from a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure to the test system. The hard drive enclosure houses a 7200RPM Maxtor DiamondMax D740X hard drive.
The AN50R can’t touch VIA’s KT600 USB 2.0 implementation, but it does have the best Firewire performance of the lot.
Our Ethernet speed tests involve downloading the same 1.89GB batch of files used in our USB and Firewire tests from a file server based on Intel’s Springdale platform. The Springdale board’s CSA-attached Gigabit Ethernet port was used to serve the files, and both the server and test systems were connected to a 100Mbit Ethernet switch.
Our Ethernet transfer speed test shows the AN50R lagging behind our Athlon XP platforms, but the board is at least faster than the SN85G4. Since we’re only using a Fast Ethernet switch, the AN50R’s Gigabit Ethernet controller doesn’t give the board much of an advantage.
In testing, I was able to get our test Athlon 64 3200+ stable with a 210MHz HyperTransport bus speed on the AN50R. In trying to push beyond a 210MHz bus (which was stable on the SN85G4), I actually managed to fry my Athlon 64. You’d better really enjoy these overclocking results to make the sacrifice worth it.
My little Athlon 64 cooking experience nicely highlights the fact that overclocking success is never guaranteed. Not every AN50R will necessarily be stable with a 210MHz front-side bus, nor will every Athlon 64 3200+ processor. And there are no guarantees that a processor won’t be fried in the process, either.
Since cranking the Athlon 64’s front-side bus speed also boosts the speed of the processor’s on-die memory controller, we get a nice performance boost from overclocking the AN50R.
The AN50R is a capable and stable ATX platform for AMD’s Athlon 64 that proves that Shuttle hasn’t completely forsaken the ATX crowd. The fact that the AN50R showed up in TR’s benchmarking sweatshop weeks before the Athlon 64 was officially launched shows that Shuttle is definitely on top of AMD’s new desktop platform.
Despite the fact that NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 chipset isn’t exactly feature-rich, Shuttle manages to integrate all the right peripherals into the AN50R. However, there’s a big difference between peripheral integration and impressive peripheral performance. The AN50R’s Firewire and Serial ATA are well done, but its pedestrian AC’97 audio is incredibly weak for anything other than basic 2D audio playback.
As far as the board’s Gigabit Ethernet goes, I’m a bit torn. Having GigE capabilities on board is certainly a plus for the AN50R, but hanging the Gigabit Ethernet controller off the PCI bus will severely limit real-world transfer speeds.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that boards based on VIA’s K8T800 chipset are outperforming those based on NVIDIA’s nForce3 150. I don’t have any K8T800 boards in the benchmarking sweatshop just yet, but Damage’s Athlon 64 FX-51 review shows the K8T800 out ahead of the nForce3 150, possibly because of the latter’s slimmer, slower HyperTransport link.
At the end of the day, the AN50R feels more like an entry-level workstation board than an enthusiast platform. For businesses looking to get in on Gigabit Ethernet and AMD64, the AN50R could be a great low-cost alternative to more expensive 940-pin Opteron platforms. Unfortunately, the fact that 754-pin Athlon 64 processors are currently only available in one expensive speed grade, the $400 3200+ model, puts a significant damper on the AN50R’s potential value.
I couldn’t find any AN50R’s for sale online, and I suspect that the board is suspended in limbo until AMD releases cheaper Athlon 64 speed grades. When that happens, the AN50R should be a pretty sweet platform for 64-bit business systems and low-end Socket 754 workstations, but it will probably never be a perfect platform for performance-hungry gamers or enthusiasts.