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Sapphire's PI-A9RX480 motherboard

The White Motherboard

Price (MSRP)$179

ALTHOUGH BETTER KNOWN for graphics cards, Sapphire has quietly been making motherboards for a while now. Those motherboards haven't really targeted the enthusiast market until recently, with the introduction of Sapphire's "PURE Innovation" PI-A9RX480. The distinctive white board garnered plenty of attention at this year's Computex show, and one has finally made its way to our labs for testing.

Based on ATI's Radeon Xpress 200 chipset for Athlon 64 processors, the PI-A9RX480 has many of the bells and whistles you'd expect from a high-end enthusiast board, including PCI Express, Serial ATA RAID, Gigabit Ethernet, High Definition Audio, plenty of overclocking options, and a truly unique aesthetic. On appearance and specs alone, this board looks poised to make a big splash among gamers and enthusiasts. Join us as we dive in for a deeper look at the PI-A9RX480's features and performance to see if Sapphire has indeed created a classic.

The specs
For starters, we'll glance over the PI-A9RX480's spec sheet.

CPU supportSocket 939-based Athlon 64 FX, Athlon 64 and Sempron processors
North bridgeATI RX480
South bridgeATI RS450
InterconnectPCI Express (1GB/sec)
Expansion slots1 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 4GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via Silicon Image 3132
Audio8-channel HD audio via SB450 and Realtek ALC880 codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
USB 2.0 with headers for 4 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8052

1 Firewire via VIA VT6307 with header for 1 more

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog surround out
1 analog rear out
1 analog line in
1 Coaxial digital S/PDIF output on PCI bracket
1 Coaxial digital S/PDIF input on PCI bracket
BIOSPhoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speedsHT: 200-440MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 100, 133, 166, 200MHz
PCI-E: 100-200MHz in 1MHz increments
LDT: 1000, 800, 600, 400, 200MHz
VoltagesCPU: auto, 0.825-1.55V in 0.025V increments
DDR: auto, 2.50-4.00V in 0.05V increments
NB: 1.22-1.5V in 0.1V increments
HT: 1.22-1.5V in 0.1V increments
PCI-E: 1.22-1.5V in 0.1V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlNA

The PI-A9RX480 owes much of its functionality to ATI's Radeon Xpress 200 chipset, which is made up of the RX480 north bridge and SB450 south bridge components. At the north bridge, the RX480 serves up a 1GHz HyperTransport processor link and 22 lanes of PCI Express. Two of those PCI Express lanes are consumed by the chipset interconnect, which offers 1GB/sec of bandwidth between the north and south bridge chips, and consumes an additional two PCI-E lanes at the south bridge. Since ATI's RS450 south bridge only has two PCI-E lanes, all the board's PCI Express slots and peripherals hang directly off the north bridge.

With all of the board's PCI Express devices off the north bridge, the SB450 south bridge's four-port Serial ATA RAID controller has plenty of interconnect bandwidth at its disposal. Curiously, the integrated RAID controller supports RAID 0 and 1 arrays, but neither RAID 10 nor 0+1. The RS450 south bridge does support Intel's "Azalia" High Definition Audio standard, though. Like many other mobo manufacturers, Sapphire pairs the board's High Definition Audio controller with Realtek's ALC880 HD audio codec. (Sorry, we're fresh out of crab jokes.)

The SB450's a little lacking in the networking department, so Sapphire has recruited Marvell's 88E8052 PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet controller. The board also features a two-port Silicon Image Serial ATA RAID controller that supports 300MB/sec transfer rates. That chip also has a PCI Express interface, leaving VIA's VT6307 Firewire controller as the only on-board component stuck on the PCI bus. Few things grate us more than seeing the performance of RAID or GigE controllers hampered by the pokey PCI bus, so we're pleased to see that Sapphire has all the board's high-bandwidth peripherals connected via PCI Express.