Intel’s dual-core chips may be cheap, but they won’t plug into just any LGA775 motherboard. The processors require a chipset from Intel’s 955/945 family or NVIDIA’s nForce4 SLI Intel Edition, so upgrading is more involved than simply buying a new CPU. Fortunately, motherboard manufacturers have flocked to Intel and NVIDIA’s new chipsets, so there’s no shortage of dual-core-compatible motherboards from which to choose.
To help prospective Pentium D purchasers get a handle on the platforms available to them, we’ve rounded up half a dozen motherboards and a small form factor system that support Intel’s dual-core chips. Several chipsets are represented among the competitors, and we also have entries from a number of different manufacturers, including Abit, Asus, Gigabyte, and Shuttle. Read on for an in-depth comparison of these dual-core-capable platforms.
Today’s motherboards increasingly rely on core logic chipsets to define their features and performance, so it seems appropriate to kick things off with a quick look at the chipsets involved in today’s round-up. Examining these chipsets will highlight many of the key similarities and differences between the capabilities of each motherboard.
Chipsets are traditionally made up of north bridge and south bridge chips, which we’ll deal with one at a time. Let’s start at the top with a comparison of the north bridges from Intel and NVIDIA.
|Intel 955X||Intel 945P/G||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI SPP|
|Front-side bus||800, 1066MHz||800, 1066MHz||800, 1066MHz|
|Memory type||Dual-channel DDR2||Dual-channel DDR2||Dual-channel DDR2|
|PCI Express lanes||16||16||19|
|North/south ridge interconnect type||DMI||DMI||HyperTransport|
|Peak theoretical interconnect bandwidth||2GB/sec||2GB/sec||1.6GB/sec|
Even though the only processors to require a 1066MHz front-side bus are currently $1000 Extreme Edition chips, all of these north bridge chips support the faster system bus. Enthusiasts should be astute enough to avoid paying extra for the Extreme Edition chips, but native chipset support for a 1066MHz may come in handy for those looking to overclock more affordable processors. Unfortunately, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition doesn’t work properly with Intel’s most affordable dual-core processor, the Pentium D 820. The Pentium D 820 will run in nForce4 SLI Intel Edition boards, but only in single-core mode, which is a waste.
All three north bridge chips have a dual-channel DDR2 memory controller. Not all memory controllers are created equal, though. NVIDIA and Intel’s memory controllers are obviously not the same, but the memory controllers within Intel’s own lineup also differ. Notably, the 955X memory controller supports what Intel calls Memory Pipeline Technology (MPT), while the 945 family does not. According to Intel, MPT enables a “higher utilization of each memory channel,” which should translate to greater memory bandwidth.
PCI Express is the next feature to be shared by all three north bridge chips, and while NVIDIA consolidates all 19 of the nForce4 SLI’s lanes in the north bridge, Intel’s north bridge chips have only 16 lanes of PCI Express. Intel prefers to offer some of its PCI-E lanes at the south bridge, which may explain why the Intel chipsets have a faster north/south bridge interconnect than the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition. A single PCI-E lane can consume up to 250MB/sec of bandwidth in each direction, and with multiple lanes, that adds up.
While we’re looking at PCI Express, we should note that the nForce4 SLI chipset is capable of splitting 16 PCI Express lanes evenly between a pair of x16 slots, giving each slot eight lanes of bandwidth to play with. This is NVIDIA’s recommended PCI-E configuration for SLI, and one that Intel’s chipsets can’t match. Some 955X-based motherboards do have a second PCI-E x16 slot hanging off the south bridge, but it generally only has access to two or four PCI Express lanes. Thus far, NVIDIA’s graphics drivers don’t support SLI in that configuration, although there’s word that ATI’s CrossFire multi-card technology will be more accommodating.
SLI is decidedly a high-end graphics solution, but for budget types, Intel’s 945G chipset has a GMA 950 integrated graphics processor (IGP). IGPs generally don’t offer much in the way of 3D graphics and gaming performance, and as we’ll see, the GMA 950 is no exception.
|NVIDIA nForce4 SLI MCP||Intel ICH7R|
|PCI Express lanes||0||6|
|SATA peak data rate||300MB/sec||300MB/sec|
|Native Command Queuing||Yes||Yes|
|SATA RAID 0/1||Yes||Yes|
|SATA RAID 0+1||Yes||Yes|
|SATA RAID 5||Yes||Yes|
|ATA RAID support||Yes||No|
|Max audio channels||8||8|
As we turn our attention to the south bridge, we see even more similarities between the Intel and NVIDIA chips. There are a number of key differences to note, though. First, of course, is the Intel ICH7R’s six PCI Express lanes. The Intel chips also support Matrix RAID, which can combine RAID 0 and 1 arrays using only two drives. Matrix RAID’s performance is pretty impressive, and it may be the ICH7R’s most appealing feature.
Unfortunately, though, the Intel south bridge’s ATA support is comparably weak. The ICH7R has only a single ATA channel, but NVIDIA’s nForce4 SLI MCP has two channels and support for ATA RAID. In fact, NVIDIA’s nvRAID software is capable of spanning arrays across both ATA and Serial ATA drives.
The nForce4 SLI MCP also beats Intel in the networking department, where NVIDIA’s hardware-accelerated Gigabit Ethernet controller and Firewall are unchallenged by the ICH7R’s lack of integrated networking. Intel seems content to let motherboard manufacturers use standalone Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and many of the boards we’ll be looking at today actually sport Intel GigE network controller chips.
Intel leads on the audio front, though. The ICH7R’s support for high-definition sampling rates makes the nForce4’s basic AC’97 audio look pretty weak, although neither south bridge’s audio implementation supports hardware acceleration for 3D audio. These days, you need a separate sound card for that.
The chipset defines many of a motherboard’s core features and functionality, but manufacturers often add peripheral chips to provide additional features and capabilities. Motherboard designers can also implement a chipset’s features in different ways. The chart below is a quick summary of the specs of each board, including the chipset used, expansion slot layout, and additional peripheral chips.
|Abit AL8||Abit AW8 MAX||Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe||Asus P5WD2 Premium||Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal||Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Royal||Shuttle SD31P|
|Chipset||Intel 945P/ICH7R||Intel 955X/ICH7R||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI/MCP04||Intel 955X/ICH7R||Intel 955X/ICH7R||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI/MCP04||Intel 945G/ICH7R|
|Expansion slots||1 PCI Express x16
3 PCI Express x1
|1 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
|1 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
|1 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
|Auxiliary storage||Silicon Image 3132 SATA||Silicon Image 3132 SATA||Silicon Image 3132 SATA||
ITE IT8211 PATA
Silicon Image 3132 SATA
ITE IT8212F PATA
Silicon Image 3132 SATA
|Promise PDC20779 PATA/SATA||None|
|Gigabit Ethernet||Broadcom BCM5789||2 Broadcom BCM5789||Intel Pro/1000||Intel Pro/1000
|2 Broadcom BCM5751||Marvell 88E8111||Broadcom BCM5789|
|Audio||Realtek ALC880||Realtek ALC882M||Realtek ALC850||Realtek ALC882D||Realtek ALC882M||Realtek ALC850||Creative P17|
|Firewire||Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A||Texas Instruments TSB82AA2||Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A||Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A||Texas Instruments TSN082AA2||Texas Instruments TSN082AA2||VIA VT6307|
There’s a lot to cover here, so we’ll start near the top. Note how each motherboard maker chooses to distribute PCI and PCI Express slots. The Shuttle XPC SD31P’s small form factor limits it to only two slots, but the other platforms offer plenty of expansion capacity. As you’d expect, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition boards each have a pair of PCI-E x16 slots. Asus’ 955X board also has a second x16 slot, but Abit and Gigabyte’s 955X boards do not. A second x16 slot can come in handy for more than just SLI; with the right pair of graphics cards, users can easily power a pair of DVI displays, or four monitors.
We’ve already seen that both Intel’s and NVIDIA’s south bridge chips offer loads of storage options, but most of the platforms here also add auxiliary storage controllers to the mix. Silicon Image’s 3132 Serial ATA controller proves to be the most popular. The chip has a PCI Express interface and serves up two Serial ATA ports with support for 300MB/sec transfer rates, Native Command Queuing, and RAID. A couple of boards also use ATA controllers from ITE, with the IT8211 offering a pair of ATA channels, and the IT8212 adding ATA RAID to the mix. Unfortunately, both ITE controllers are stuck on the relatively pokey PCI bus. Gigabyte’s GA-8N-SLI Royal is the only board in the bunch to use an auxiliary storage controller from Promise Technologies. The PDC20779 offers a single ATA channel and two Serial ATA ports with support for 300MB/sec transfer rates. RAID is also supported, but the chip’s performance may ultimately be constrained by its PCI interface.
On the Ethernet front, we have a mix of chips from Broadcom, Intel, and Marvell. With two exceptionsthe Asus P5WD2 Premium’s Marvell 88E8001 and the Intel Pro/1000 on the Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxeall of the GigE implementations take advantage of PCI Express. We’ll see how the PCI GigE chips perform relative to their PCI-E competition soon.
Unlike the diverse collection of Ethernet chips, the audio front is dominated by Realtek codecs. The crab’s working on quite a monopoly. Among the swath of Realtek chips, we have ALC880 and ALC882 codecs for those boards that support Intel’s Azalia High Definition Audio standard. Both of the nForce4 boards use Realtek’s ALC850 AC’97 codec, which doesn’t support high-definition sampling rates and resolutions. The most interesting audio implementation of the bunch comes from the Shuttle SD31P, which eschews its ICH7R’s audio controller in favor of a Creative P17 audio chip. The chip identifies itself in Windows as a SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit.
A single company also dominates the Firewire front. Texas Instruments nearly sweeps the board, although there are a few different chips in play. The most important distinction among them is support for 1394b, otherwise known as Firewire 800. 1394b offers twice the theoretical bandwidth of 1394a, and only the TSB82AA2 and TSN082AA2 support the faster Firewire standard, giving the Gigabyte boards and the Abit AW8 MAX a potential edge in the Firewire department.
Tweakability on a budget
Abit’s AL8 is the only board in this round-up to use Intel’s mainstream 945P chipset, so it’s no surprise that it’s the least expensive of the lot. That doesn’t mean that Abit has skimped on features, though. The AL8 shares the same ICH7R south bridge as high-end 955X boards, and with Abit’s uGuru chip onboard, the AL8 features more robust fan speed control and hardware monitoring capabilities than boards that cost twice as much.
While the AL8’s hardware may be up to the task, the board’s aesthetics could use some work. The reddish orange board color is unique to Abit, and it looks pretty good with the light blue anodized heatsinks. Unfortunately, the red Serial ATA ports and orange-and-green DIMM slots blemish what could have otherwise been something you’d want to look at through a case window.
Its fashion sense might need a little direction, but there are no problems with the AL8’s layout. Both of the board’s power connectors are located along the edges of the board, with the four-pin 12V connector right along the top edge where it won’t clutter the CPU socket. This plug placement is ideal for traditional cases that put the power supply above the motherboard, but it can be a big hassle for some of the newer upside down cases that mount the PSU below the motherboard.
Upside-down cases are part of a trend toward silent computing that has seen the introduction of several massive processor coolers that maintain low noise levels by using huge, low-RPM fans to cool heatsinks with loads of surface area. These new coolers require lots of space around the CPU socket, and the AL8 does its best to oblige. Users may need to rotate the north bridge cooler 180 degrees to accommodate wider coolers like Zalman’s CNPS7700-AlCu, though.
Although it’s nice to have the option of rotating the AL8’s north bridge cooler to provide additional clearance for larger processor heatsinks, we generally disapprove of active chipset coolers because they have a tendency to develop an annoying whine over time. They can also fail without warning. The AL8’s fan-speed-based shutdown and alarm conditions and temperature-controlled north bridge fan address those issues somewhat, but we’d prefer passive north bridge cooling.
Moving south, we can see that the AL8 leans heavily toward PCI Express. Users with existing expansion cards may be unimpressed with the board’s two standard PCI slots, especially given the relative scarcity of PCI Express cards. However, the AL8’s three PCI-E x1 slots do set it up nicely for the wave of PCI Express cards that we hope will arrive sooner rather than later.
From this angle, we can also see the AL8’s handy two-digit POST code display. The display is a boon to basic-level troubleshooting, and it’s much easier to decipher than an annoying beep code.
Around the port cluster, the AL8 has a little bit of everything, from dated legacy ports to swanky digital S/PDIF input and output ports. The board also has PCI bracket hardware for an additional two each of USB and Firewire ports, plus an extra onboard header for another two USB ports.
OTES goes silent
The AW8 MAX is the second Abit board in this round-up, and with a price tag that’s nearly 50% higher than the AL8, it needs to justify its price. Fortunately, Abit has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Fatal1ty branding isn’t one of those tricks, though. Perhaps Abit has finally realized that hard-core gamers have little interest in Intel processors.
At least Fatal1ty branding might have given the board a more coherent color scheme. The black board certainly has potential, but the mix of red, blue, green, and orange ports and slots is a mess. Features and performance are more important than looks, of course, but a little color coordination could have made the AW8 MAX significantly more appealing for the case window crowd.
At least the AW8 is well laid out. That’s impressive considering the board’s wealth of onboard peripherals and components. The extra chips and ports take up space, but Abit manages to squeeze everything in while avoiding major clearance issues.
Like the AL8, the AW8 has its auxiliary 12V power connector mounted along the top edge of the board. Again, while this configuration is ideal for clean cable routing in standard ATX cases, it’s as bad as it gets for enclosures that mount the PSU below the motherboard.
Zooming in on the AW8’s CPU socket gives us a good look at the board’s most notable feature: the Silent OTES north bridge cooler. The cooler links a low-profile north bridge heatsink to a series of copper cooling fins with a single heat pipe. There isn’t a fan in sight, making the AW8 a great candidate for a silent system.
The board also features a quartet of hefty VRM heatsinks. These VRM heatsinks aren’t covered by a shroud or cooled by a fan, so their effectiveness may ultimately depend on case cooling.
As we turn our attention to the bottom of the board, it’s interesting to note that the AW8 has only two PCI Express x1 slots. That extra slot in the bottom left corner of the board (top left in the picture) is actually for the AW8’s audio riser, which we’ll explore in more depth in a moment.
Although the audio riser may ultimately be a good idea, it prevents Abit from squeezing an extra expansion slotbe it PCI or PCI Expressonto the board. An additional PCI Express x1 slot would certainly be welcomed, especially given the fact that a double-wide graphics cooler will cannibalize one of the AW8’s existing PCI-E x1 slots. Heck, even an extra PCI slot would keep the AW8 MAX’s expansion slot selection from looking a little thin.
Speaking of a little thin, the AW8 MAX’s port cluster is pretty bare, at least as far as ports are concerned. The cluster is dominated by the Silent OTES cooler’s copper radiator, with only few ports on the side. A PCI back plate with a couple of extra Firewire and USB ports is also included in the box, and the board has an additional onboard header for two more USB ports on top of that.
But where are all the audio ports?
On Abit’s AudioMAX riser, which plugs into that special slot at the bottom of the board. The riser serves up plenty of analog input and output ports and a digital S/PDIF output. S/PDIF input is also supported, but you’ll have to run the signal through the blue line input port with a TOS-Link 3.5mm adapter. Abit includes the adapter, and an optical audio cable with the board. Despite the fact that all the boards in this round-up have digital S/PDIF outputs, the AW8 MAX is the only one to come bundled with an optical audio cable.
With Silent OTES monopolizing the port cluster, AudioMAX is the only way for Abit to give the board a decent array of audio ports. The AudioMAX riser also lifts the audio codec off the board, keeping it away from noisy surface-mounted components that may compromise audio quality. We’ll see if that has any impact on the AW8’s sound in our audio quality tests later in the round-up.
SLI gets an Intel platform
Asus’ P5ND2-SLI Deluxe is the first of two SLI-capable motherboards among our contenders, and one of only a handful of SLI-capable LGA775 platforms available on the market. To date, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset is the only one NVIDIA has validated for SLI on Intel platforms. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s little price premium associated with this exclusive SLI support; the P5ND2-SLI costs just over $200, which while not cheap, is less than many Intel 955X-based mobos.
Like the Abit AW8 MAX, the Asus P5ND2-SLI comes on a black board with multi-colored ports and slots. Fortunately, none of the port or slot colors are neons, pastels, or otherwise offensive. The board doesn’t draw from a particularly coherent palette, though.
Looks aside, Asus does a pretty good job with the P5ND2-SLI’s layout. Power plug placement favors traditional ATX cases, with the four-pin ATX 12V connector placed neatly along the top edge of the board. The board also has a four-pin Molex connector next to the first PCI Express x16 slot. This is to give the board a little extra juice when dual graphics cards are installed.
Right next to the Molex plug, you’ll notice a little red Serial ATA port. This is one of two ports connected to the P5ND2-SLI’s auxiliary Silicon Image SATA controller. We’ll track the other port down in a moment.
Around the CPU socket, the P5ND2-SLI has plenty of room for larger processor heatsinks. The board is equipped with passive north bridge and VRM coolers, but neither is tall enough to interfere with other system components. Interestingly, the north bridge cooler is a double-wide design that gains surface area by spreading fins beyond the edges of the north bridge chip rather than adding extra height to the cooler.
With two PCI Express x16 slots, a pair of x1 slots, and three standard PCI slots, the P5ND2-SLI has more expansion room than any other board in this comparison. Graphics cards with double-wide coolers could potentially interfere with a couple of those slots, though.
While we’re looking at the P5ND2-SLI’s expansion slots, note that the board uses a “paddle” card to switch between single-card and SLI modes. This hardware switch isn’t quite as slick as some, but if you already have the system opened up to install a second graphics card, flipping the paddle card only takes a couple of extra seconds.
The P5ND2-SLI’s port cluster is loaded with goodies, including two flavors of S/PDIF output. Asus also equips the board with an external Serial ATA port that’s connected to its auxiliary Silicon Image SATA controller. You can’t use a standard Serial ATA cable with the external port, though. External Serial ATA, otherwise known as eSATA, requires a different plug interface and shielded cables.
In addition to what’s found in the port cluster, the P5ND2-SLI has onboard headers for one more Firewire port and another six USB ports. Asus includes PCI brackets for the extra Firewire port and two USB ports, but you’re on your own for the remaining four USB ports. For those who would rather kick it old school, the P5ND2-SLI also comes with a PCI bracket-mounted game port and serial port.
What a bundle
With a $290 street price, the Asus P5WD2 Premium WiFiTV Edition is by far the most expensive board in this round-up. It’s also the only one with a Wi-Fi/TV tuner bundle, so the high price isn’t necessarily unjustified. However, if you’re a little shy about dropping nearly three bills on a motherboard, the P5WD2 is also available without the WiFiTV bundle as the P5WD2 Premium. The boards are the same, but the non-WiFiTV Edition sells for a more affordable $210.
At first glance, you couldn’t be blamed for mistaking the P5WD2 for Asus’ P5ND2-SLI. The boards have the same basic color scheme, and apart from some layout and heatsink differences, they look alike from above. Flipping the boards over reveals a key difference, though. The P5WD2 features an extra PCB layer on the bottom side of the board that Asus claims helps to lower motherboard temperatures. This extra board layer is blue, making it easy to spot.
In addition to its extra PCB layer, the P5WD2 also differs from the P5ND2-SLI when it comes to power plug placement. Instead of using a four-pin ATX 12V connector, the P5WD2 opts for an eight-pin auxiliary power connector. The board is still compatible with four-pin ATX 12V plugs, but it’ll make use of the extra 12V lines if your power supply has them. Auxiliary power can also be provided through a four-pin Molex connector located next to the P5WD2’s 24-pin primary power connector.
Apart from the silver north bridge cooler, the P5WD2’s CPU socket looks similar to that of the P5ND2-SLI. The boards use the same VRM cooler, and there’s plenty of room around the CPU socket on each. However, the P5WD2’s taller north bridge cooler may interfere with extremely large CPU coolers that fan out from the socket.
Bucking convention, the P5WD2 is the only board in this round-up with an Intel chipset and a second PCI Express x16 slot. The slot can be configured through the BIOS to have two or four PCI Express lanes, and Asus even throws a flexible SLI bridge connector into the box. However, NVIDIA’s graphics drivers don’t support SLI on the 955X chipset, and there’s no indication that they ever will. ATI’s CrossFire platform may support the 955X when it arrives later this year, though.
Even if you’re not looking to run a second graphics card, PCI Express slot cross-compatibility allows PCI-E x1, x4, and x8 cards to fit into a PCI-E x16 slot. That makes the P5WD2’s single PCI Express x1 slot a little easier to swallow, as do the three standard PCI slots.
Asus rips the P5WD2’s port cluster directly from the P5ND2-SLI, or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, the clusters are identical, with a pair of digital S/PDIF outputs, eSATA, and plenty of analog audio, USB, and Ethernet ports. It’s a little disappointing that the board doesn’t have a digital S/PDIF input, though. I’d almost rather have one of those than the external Serial ATA port.
With an identical port cluster to the P5ND2-SLI, it’s no surprise that the P5WD2 also comes with PCI brackets for an extra Firewire port, two USB ports, and serial and game ports. The board also has onboard headers for an additional two USB ports.
The P5WD2 Premium WiFiTV Edition’s most notable feature isn’t an attribute of the board itself, but the PCI Wi-Fi/TV tuner card that comes bundled with it. The card’s wireless capabilities are powered by a Marvell 88W8335 Wi-Fi chip that can handle 802.11 flavors a, b, and g. A beefy antenna comes with the card, and on my home 802.11g network, reception was quite good.
In the TV department, the WiFiTV Edition card uses a Philips silicon tuner and SAA7131E encoder chip that appears to rely on software MPEG2 encoding. Thanks to an input dongle, the card supports a multitude of video inputs and even comes with an IR remote. InterVideo’s PowerCinema handles the software side of things, which is fine for basic TV viewing. If you’re building a home theater PC, though, you’ll probably want more robust personal video recorder software and a TV tuner with hardware MPEG2 encoding capabilities.
A novel approach to power
The GA-8I955X Royal is the first of two Gigabyte boards in this comparison. As the name suggests, the board is based on Intel’s 955X chipset, but it’s much more than just another 955X board. With loads of integrated peripherals and extras that only Gigabyte provides, the GA-8I955X easily stands out from the crowd.
Of course, the turquoise blue board deserves some credit for helping the GA-8I955X stand out. Gigabyte has been draping its motherboards in this color for years, and if you want everything to match, the company’s graphics cards and other internal peripherals are available in the same hue. Color coordination might be thrown off by the rainbow of colored slots and ports that appear on the board, though. Distinctively colored ports are great for less experienced users who may not know what a Serial ATA port or DIMM slot looks like, but the motherboard manual doesn’t reference any of the expansion slots or ports by color.
Interestingly, Gigabyte is the only manufacturer in our comparo to place its motherboards’ auxiliary 12V power connector below the CPU socket. This placement should better accommodate newer case designs that mount the power supply below the motherboard. However, in traditional ATX cases, mounting the 12V connector below the CPU socket can create unnecessary cable clutter around the CPU cooler, ultimately impeding air flow.
We should note that a new revision of the GA-8I955X, which Gigabyte says has already shipped to retailers, features an eight-pin auxiliary 12V connector instead of a four-pin plug. The connector is in the same place and is still compatible with power supplies that have four-pin ATX 12V connectors. We used this newer board revision for testing, since the old one (pictured here) wouldn’t post with our Pentium 4 660 processor.
A little cable clutter won’t impede air flow as much as Gigabyte’s Universal Plus Dual Power System, or U-Plus DPS for short. This add-in card is located directly next to the CPU socket (to the right in the picture) and boosts the board’s existing four-phase power solution to eight phases. Unfortunately, the U-Plus DPS also acts as a wall, restricting air flow around the CPU socket, and possibly from the case as well.
Gigabyte claims that the GA-8I955X will be more stable with the U-Plus DPS installed, but in our testing, the board was perfectly fine without it. Some users may appreciate the light show created by four LEDs mounted on the power unit, though. The LEDs are triggered by system load levels, making the U-Plus DPS and interesting addition for those concerned with cosmetic appeal. I’m not sure if that’s worth the DPS’s impact on air flow and compatibility with larger CPU coolers, however.
The GA-8I955X’s tall active north bridge cooler could also interfere with mammoth processor heatsinks. The north bridge cooler’s fan is actually optional, although in our testing, we found that the system was more stable with the cooler than without. That’s really a shame, since most of the other boards in this round-up manage just fine with passive north bridge cooling.
At least Gigabyte goes with passive cooling at the south bridge. The cooler is slightly taller than some of the other south bridge coolers we’ve seen, but it shouldn’t get in the way of longer PCI cards.
Speaking of PCI, it’s interesting to note that Gigabyte squeezes the GA-8I955X’s PCI slots between its PCI Express x16 and x1 slots. The arrangement is unique among boards in this comparison and ensures that a double-wide graphics cooler won’t cost a user any PCI Express x1 slots.
Below the PCI slots, we can see the GA-8I955X’s dual BIOS chips. Gigabyte’s DualBIOS technology has been around for ages, and it’s a handy feature to have if you need to recover from a failed flash attempt.
With the exception of missing eSATA and Firewire ports, the GA-8I955X’s port cluster is identical to that of the Asus boards. Here, the external Serial ATA port is replaced by a serial port, and the Firewire ports move to a PCI back plate. The board also includes PCI back plates with an additional four USB portsas many as there are headers on the board. We do wish the port cluster included a digital S/PDIF audio input, though.
The GA-8I955X is one of only a handful of boards in this comparison to include something different in the hardware bundle. All of the boards come with a stack of cables and PCI back plate headers, but those aren’t terribly exciting accessories. The Gigabyte board’s included USB Bluetooth adapter is a neat addition. The dongle is tiny, and those with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones or PDAs should find it useful.
U-Plus goes SLI
The GA-8N-SLI Royal is the second Gigabyte in this round-up, and also our second SLI platform. Available for virtually the same price as Gigabyte’s 955X-based GA-8I955X, the GA-8N-SLI has many of the same features and extras as the Intel-based Royal. As we’ll see, those similarities can be both a blessing and a curse.
Depending on your tastes, you may or may not appreciate the fact that the GA-8N-SLI looks virtually identical to the GA-8I955X. Gigabyte uses the same turquoise blue backdrop and multi-colored ports and slots for both boards, making it difficult to tell the two apart. Were it not for the GA-8N-SLI’s second PCI Express x16 slot and SLI card, it could easily pass for a GA-8I955X.
Like its 955X-based cousin, the GA-8N-SLI’s auxiliary 12V power connector is located below the CPU socket. This location is better for upside down ATX cases like Antec’s new P180, but less than ideal for traditional ATX cases that mount the power supply above the CPU socket. Just below the ATX 12V connector, the GA-8N-SLI has a four-pin Molex plug for additional power when running dual graphics cards in SLI.
Around the CPU socket, the GA-8N-SLI is crowded by the same U-Plus DPS power module as the GA-8I955X. Well, virtually the same DPS unit. The GA-8N-SLI’s add-in card is almost identical to that of the Gigabyte 955X board, but its heat pipe has an extra bendnot that the slightly tweaked heat pipe improves the U-Plus DPS’s potentially detrimental impact on air flow around the CPU socket. In fact, on the GA-8N-SLI, the DPS’s heat pipe actually brushes up against the north bridge cooler, as illustrated below.
You know there are layout problems when a motherboard’s own components interfere with each other.
As I’ve said, in theory, the U-Plus DPS seems like a good idea. Extra power circuitry is nice, and the load-sensitive LEDs are a neat touch. However, the DPS’s implementation really needs to be modified to improve air flow around the CPU socket, especially since the add-in card will partially block exhaust airflow in most enclosures.
Gigabyte might also want to work on its north bridge cooler. The fan is supposed to be optional, but in our testing, we found that it was essential to maintain stability under heavy loads. Were the chipset cooler not in direct contact with the DPS’s heat pipe and cooling fins, the board might be able to get away with passive north bridge cooling.
While the CPU socket is in view, we should point out that like the Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe, the GA-8N-SLI can only run the Pentium D 820 in single-core mode.
Turning our attention to the GA-8N-SLI’s expansion slots, it’s interesting to see a PCI Express x1 slot mounted above the first x16 slot. This arrangement ensures that at least one x1 slot will remain free, even if graphic cards with double-wide coolers are installed. The GA-8N-SLI also has a second PCI Express x1 slot between its dual x16 slots.
Although they’re hard to see, the GA-8N-SLI’s dual BIOS chips are located just next to (above in the picture) the board’s PCI Express x16 slots.
In addition to sporting the same dual BIOS chips as the GA-8I955X, the GA-8N-SLI also has an identical port cluster. Here, you’ll find two kinds of digital S/PDIF outputs, plenty of analog audio, USB, Ethernet, and serial and parallel ports for that SpaceOrb and ancient printer you have buried in the closet. The lack of a digital S/PDIF input is still a little disappointing, though. I’d rather have that than my choice of S/PDIF outputs.
There’s no Firewire in the port cluster, but Gigabyte bundles the board with a PCI back plate that provides access to two 1394 ports. PCI back plates with an additional six USB ports are also included.
The GA-8N-SLI also comes with the same Bluetooth adapter as the GA-8I955X. The adapter is a solid addition to the bundle, even if Bluetooth seems to be one of those technologies that’s always on the verge of becoming the next big thing. Maybe this year.
And now for something completely different
This started as a motherboard comparo, but we couldn’t resist including Shuttle’s new XPC SD31P. The SD31P is the first small form factor system to support Intel’s dual-core processors, and the system also gives us a chance to check out the performance of the 945G’s integrated GMA 950 graphics processor. Comparing an XPC to a stack of motherboards isn’t easy, though. For one, the SD31P costs nearly $500significantly more than any of the boards in this round-up. Just keep in mind that the $500 price tag also gets you a case, CPU cooling system, and a 350W power supply.
As its name implies, the SD31P is based on Shuttle’s P-series chassis. The P-series isn’t the smallest XPC platform around, but with support for dual hard drives, an integrated memory card reader, an external 3.5″ drive bay, tool-free internals, and near silent cooling, the extra size is easily worth it.
With the exception of varied face plate colors, all of Shuttle’s P-series systems tend to look alike. The understated appearance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the SD31P’s grey face plate might be a little too bland for some. If you’re into the conservative look, you’ll appreciate that Shuttle stealths the SD31P’s drive bay doors and front port cluster, giving the front of the system a smooth, clean look. Those looking for a system that will seamlessly blend in with its surroundings will also appreciate the fact that the brightness of the system’s blue power LED can be adjusted in the BIOS.
With the system’s outer skin removed, we can marvel at the P-series chassis’ tool-free design. All internal drives are secured with snap-on rails, and power and data cables are neatly routed to all the right places. The smaller form factor does have some limitations, though. For starters, there’s only room for two DIMM slots.
Limited real estate also only allows the SD31P two expansion slots, forcing a choice between PCI and PCI Express. Shuttle sides with the newer expansion standard, equipping the SD31P with PCI-E x1 and x16 slots. The inclusion of a PCI Express x1 slot instead of a standard PCI slot gives the system a more future-proof spec, but you won’t be able to run today’s PCI peripherals. Let’s hope that the SD31P’s integrated SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit audio chip performs well enough to stave off the desire for a sound card upgrade.
Zooming in on the SD31P’s internals, we get a look at one of the SD31P’s three cooling zones. The shrouded left-to-right wind tunnel neatly isolates processor airflow from the rest of the system, ensuring that heat from the CPU doesn’t interfere with other system components.
With CPU airflow isolated, the rest of the SD31P’s internal components are cooled by a series of exhaust fans located at the rear of the system. This cooling arrangement works well, but the passive north bridge cooler can’t handle the heat when the integrated GMA 950 graphics chip is subjected to heavy and sustained GPU loads. The passive cooler is certainly adequate for basic 2D applications, but anyone dabbling in the third dimension will probably want to add a discrete graphics card. As far as performance goes, a passively cooled GeForce 6200 TurboCache card will be a huge upgrade over the GMA 950, anyway.
A discrete graphics card will also get you a DVI video output, which the SD31P’s port cluster lacks. That’s really the only disappointment around the rear, where we find dual S/PDIF outputs, S/PDIF input, an eSATA plug connected to the system’s ICH7R south bridge, and even a recessed CMOS reset button. Firewire, USB, and analog audio ports also make an appearance. If you prefer those up front, the SD31P’s front port cluster includes a pair of USB ports, one Firewire port, and headphone and mic jacks.
Now that we’ve explored the chipsets, peripherals, and layouts for each board, it’s time to turn our attention to the BIOS. Here’s how the boards stack up in that department.
|Abit AL8||Abit AW8 MAX||Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe||Asus P5WD2 Premium||Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal||Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Royal||Shuttle SD31P|
|Bus speeds||FSB: 133-450MHz
|FSB: 133-450MHz||FSB: 197.5-400MHz
DRAM: 400, 533, 667MHz
DRAM: default + 0.1-0.6V
PCI-E: default + 0.05-0.35V
FSB: default + 0.05-0.35V
DRAM: default + 0.1-0.6V
PCI-E: default + 0.05-0.35V
FSB: default + 0.05-0.35V
|Dividers||CPU:DRAM: 1:1, 3:4, 3:5, 4:3, 4:5, 2:3, 1:2, 2:5||CPU:DRAM: 1:1, 3:4, 3:5, 4:3, 4:5, 2:3, 1:2, 2:5||NA||CPU:DRAM: 1:1, 4:5, 2:5, 1:2, 3:5, 3:4, 3:2||CPU:DRAM: 1:1, 4:3, 5:3, 3:2, 3:4, 5:4||NA||NA|
|Memory timings||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP, tRC||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP, tRC||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP||tCAS, tRAS, tRCD, tRP|
|Fan speed control||CPU, NB, SYS, AUX1||CPU, NB, SYS, AUX1, AUX2, AUX3, AUX4, AUX5||CPU||CPU, SYS||CPU||CPU||CPU, System|
|Alarm triggers||Fan speed, voltage, temperature||Fan speed, voltage, temperature||Fan speed||Fan speed||Fan speed, temperature||Fan speed, temperature||None|
|Shutdown triggers||Fan speed, voltage, temperature||Fan speed, voltage, temperature||None||None||None||None||None|
Each platform’s BIOS has a reasonable array of bus speeds, voltages, and dividers, but some are certainly better equipped for overclocking than others. For instance, the nForce4 SLI boards’ memory speeds deserve a little extra attention. These boards support a whopping 45 memory dividers between their high and low memory bus limits, something that none of the Intel-based boards come even close to matching. Setting the memory speed with the nForce4 SLI boards is a little different, too. Rather than selecting a divider manually, one simply keys in a target memory clock. The BIOS then draws from its bounty of dividers and returns an actual memory clock that’s as close to the target value as possible. That’s certainly more convenient than having to sift through 45 dividers by hand.
Of course, there’s more to boosting memory performance than just turning up the clock speed. Fortunately, all of the boards support the four most common memory timings options. The Asus boards also give users access to the row cycle time, or tRC.
BIOSes have long been popular playgrounds for overclocking and performance tweaking, but they’ve become increasingly important players in the battle against system noise levels. However, while all of the boards have temperature-based fan speed control for the CPU fan, only a handful also support system fan speed control. Not satisfied with simply controlling two fans, Abit’s uGuru-equipped AL8 and AW8 MAX give users four and eight temperature-controlled fans, respectively. Abit’s fan speed control is particularly notable because unlike that of the other boards, it can be used to set reference temperatures, temperature thresholds, and fan voltages for each temperature-controlled fan.
As if offering the best fan speed control of the lot wasn’t enough, the Abit boards also boast the most robust array of alarm and shutdown conditions. Users can have their systems sound an alarm or shut down automatically based on temperature, fan speed, or voltage thresholds. In fact, none of the other boards offer any user-configurable shutdown conditions, and only a few have temperature or fan-based alarms. Shockingly, the SD31P, whose small form factor is perhaps the most prone to damage from a fan failure or overheating, lacks both alarm and shutdown conditions.
Tweaking and monitoring software
If you’re not comfortable tweaking your motherboard in the BIOS, many manufacturers offer tweaking and hardware monitoring software for Windows. The capabilities of these applications vary quite a bit, though.
Abit’s uGuru software is easily the most flexible tweaking tool of the bunch, if only because the uGuru-equipped motherboards offer more hardware monitoring and fan speed control features than their competition. The latest version of the uGuru software consolidates hardware monitoring and overclocking into a single application, which is better than previous uGuru software suites that split monitoring and tweaking between two applications, each with a different interface.
From the uGuru control panel, users can access the AL8 and AW8 MAX’s bevy of fan speed settings, shutdown and alarm conditions, clock speeds, and voltages. The app even lets users save various configurations, which may come in handy for those who want to run an overclocked system during the day for maximum performance, but one tuned more for silence in the evening. You can even associate profiles with individual applications, allowing the system to change uGuru profiles automatically after an application launch.
Unlike Abit, Asus splits hardware monitoring and tweaking between two applications. The latter is handled by Asus’ AiBooster software, which allows users to manipulate front-side bus speeds, CPU and memory voltages, dividers, and the like. Interestingly, AiBooster also has rudimentary hardware monitoring features.
Those monitoring capabilities are duplicated by Asus’ PC Probe II monitoring utility, which, among other things, lets the user set a target CPU temperature for the motherboard’s variable-speed CPU fan. That particular capability is notable because it’s not exposed in either Asus board’s BIOS. PC Probe II also outshines Asus’s BIOSes by allowing one to set temperature and voltage-based alarm conditions in addition to fan speed alarms.
Perhaps the nicest thing about PC Probe II is its configurable user interface. The interface can be tweaked to display as much or as little information as the user wants without consuming too much desktop real estate. It’s not quite as unobtrusive as Motherboard Monitor’s taskbar variable tracking, but it’s nice to be able to tone down the interface and only monitor the essentials.
In the Gigabyte camp, EasyTune5 handles overclocking and hardware monitoring in Windows. The app can be used to set fan speed and temperature warnings, adjust the smart CPU fan’s temperature thresholds and speeds, tweak voltages, and adjust both the CPU multiplier and the front-side bus speed. CPU multiplier adjustments require a reboot, and although they’re pictured, we weren’t able to get the PCI Express and memory clocks working properly.
Shuttle is the only manufacturer without a Windows hardware monitoring and overclocking app, and that’s a shame. The company’s XPC Tools software has been in beta for what feels like forever, and Shuttle doesn’t seem to be in any rush to release it. Beta versions circulating online forums are only compatible with a limited number of older XPCs, not the SD31P.
Were the SD31P powered by an NVIDIA chipset, it might have been able to take advantage of NVIDIA’s free nTune system utility. nTune can be used to tweak clock speeds, voltages, memory timings, and fan speeds on motherboards with NVIDIA chipsets. nTune can even monitor system voltages and temperatures. The app won’t work with just any nForce platform, though. Motherboard manufacturers need to insert hooks into their BIOSes to allow nTune to manipulate and monitor system variables.
Sadly, neither Asus’s nor Gigabyte’s nForce4 boards support all of nTune’s features. On the Asus P5ND2 Deluxe, nTune functionality is restricted to front-side and PCI Express bus control, memory timing manipulation, and limited temperature and voltage monitoring. That’s more than can be said for the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Royal. The Gigabyte board has access to the same clock speed and memory timing control, but doesn’t support nTune’s monitoring features at all. These boards’ so-so nTune support is a little disappointing, especially since I think NVIDIA’s interface looks much better than any of the manufacturers’ utilities. Then again, maybe flashy colors and gaudy gauges play well with under-aged overclockers.
Motherboard manufacturers have a tendency to fudge front-side bus speeds to eke out small performance advantages over the competition, and all the platforms in this comparison are guilty to some extent. With 200MHz set in the BIOS, the Asus, Gigabyte, and Shuttle platforms all ran the front-side bus closer to 200.9MHz than 200.0MHz. That’s not particularly egregious, especially since everyone is doing it, but it’s worth pointing out.
Abit’s front-side bus fudging is a little different since by default, the AL8 and AW8 MAX run the front-side bus at 204 rather than 200MHz. The boards make no attempt to hide the fact that they’re running a faster front-side bus, either.
With our Pentium 4 660’s 18x CPU multiplier, the Abit boards would have a 64MHz CPU clock speed advantage over the competition. That’s not peanuts, so to keep things reasonably fair, we backed down on the AL8 and AW8 MAX’s clock speeds to ensure that they were running between 200 and 200.9MHz. Abit may claim that its boards are engineered well enough to handle the 4MHz front-side bus boost, but the rest of a system’s components may not be as tolerant.
Speaking of BIOS quirks, we should note that auto-overclocking features found in the Asus and Gigabyte BIOSes were disabled for all tests. We also disabled the Asus boards’ PEG Link mode, which can automatically overclock a system’s graphics card. Asus isn’t the only one doing graphics card overclocking on the fly, though. The Gigabyte boards have an option called Robust Graphics Booster (RGB) that apparently enhances “graphics bandwidth” by increasing graphics card clock speeds. There’s no option to disable this feature in the BIOS, which is unacceptable in our view. Users who don’t want a motherboard’s BIOS messing with their graphics card’s clock speeds should be able to disable such a feature. In fact, features like PEG Link mode and RGB should be disabled by default. Fortunately, RGB doesn’t appear to enhance the performance of our GeForce 6800 GT graphics card. Perhaps it’s not as robust as the name implies.
Finally, we should note that although we tried to maintain consistent 3-3-2-8 memory timings across all platforms, the SD31P refused to set an 8T cycle time (tRAS). With the BIOS tRAS set to 8T, CPU-Z would report 12T in Windows. This problem initially afflicted the Intel-based Abit and Gigabyte boards, too. BIOS updates resolved the issue for them, but Shuttle has yet to provide us with a BIOS that correctly sets an 8T cycle time.
Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||Intel Pentium 4 660 3.6GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus P5WD2 Premium WiFiTV Edition||Abit AL8||Abit AW8 MAX||Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal||Shuttle XPC SD31P||Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe||Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Royal|
|BIOS revision||0422||Beta 14||Beta 11||F5||SD31S00V||0801||F2|
|North bridge||Intel 955X||Intel 945P||Intel 955X||Intel 955X||Intel 945G||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI SPP||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI SPP|
|South bridge||Intel ICH7R||Intel ICH7R||Intel ICH7R||Intel ICH7R||Intel ICH7R||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI MCP||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI MCP|
|Chipset drivers||Intel 22.214.171.1245||NVIDIA ForceWare 7.13|
|Memory size||1GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair CM2X512A-5400UL DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz|
|CAS latency (CL)||3||3||3||3||3||3||3|
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||3||3||3||3||3||3||3|
|RAS precharge (tRP)||2||2||2||2||2||2||2|
|Cycle time (tRAS)||8||8||8||8||8||8||8|
|Hard drives||Western Digital Raptor WD360GD 37GB SATA|
|Audio driver||Realtek HD 1.22||Creative 126.96.36.1997||Realtek 3.73a|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT with ForceWare 77.72 drivers|
|OS||Microsoft Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2, DirectX 9.0c|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- SiSoft Sandra Standard 2005 SR2a
- WorldBench 5.0
- TCD Labs HD Tach v3.01
- Futuremark 3DMark05 Build 120
- DOOM 3
- Far Cry v1.3
- Unreal Tournament 2004 v3323
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5
- RightMark 3D Sound 1.24
- Cinebench 2003
- Sphinx 3.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the Medium 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.
Asus leads the pack in our memory subsystem tests, with the P5WD2 enjoying a surprisingly healthy lead. Tighter chipset timings are apparently responsible for the P5WD2’s strong performance here, although Asus declined to elaborate on exactly which timings Asus is pushing in the north bridge.
Among the other boards, notice how well NVIDIA’s nForce4 SLI Intel Edition memory controller stacks up against Intel’s 955X. For NVIDIA’s first Pentium 4 memory controller, that’s pretty impressive. Also note the slightly slower performance of the 945-based Abit AL8 and Shuttle SD31Pwithout Intel’s Memory Pipelining Technology, they’re a little behind the rest of the field.
The GMA 950-powered SD31P can’t complete WorldBench’s OpenGL 3D Studio Max test, resulting in a lower overall score. Otherwise, though, all our platforms are evenly matched.
Our first round of gaming tests are confined to low resolutions and detail levels, and the Asus and Gigabyte boards do rather well. The Gigabyte GA-8I955X stumbles unexpectedly in Unreal Tournament 2004, though.
As you might expect, our 945-based Abit and Shuttle systems are stuck in the back of the pack, with the GMA 950 bringing up the rear. Even at low resolutions with medium in-game detail levels, the GMA 950 can’t manage frame rates that most gamers would consider acceptable.
SLI gaming performance
Our first round of gaming tests were conducted with low in-game detail levels and display resolutions, but we’ve cranked things up for a second round. These tests use high resolutions, high detail levels, and anisotropic filtering and antialiasing, so they should be more indicative of how gamers play in the real world. They also present a nice environment for our SLI-capable systems to show off with a second GeForce 6800 GT graphics card installed. For obvious reasons, we didn’t run these tests on the SD31P’s integrated GMA 950 graphics processor.
SLI provides a big performance boost in 3DMark05, DOOM 3, and Far Cry, but not in Unreal Tournament 2004. Asus comes out on top again, suggesting that even though we disabled PEG Link mode, the P5ND2-SLI may still be benefiting from a little graphics card overclockingor maybe the Asus board’s advantage has more to do with its superior memory subsystem performance.
Again, the Gigabyte 955X board has problems in Unreal Tournament 2004. The game’s use of 3D audio may be giving the board problems.
With the exception of slow performances from the GMA 950-equipped SD31P in the OpenGL shading tests, all the boards are pretty close in Cinebench. The field spreads ever so slightly in the OpenGL hardware shading test, with the Asus boards maintaining a slight lead over the field.
Sphinx speech recognition
Memory performance is king in Sphinx, so it’s no surprise that the Asus boards lead the way. That said, all the 955X- and nForce4-based platforms are pretty even. Scores for the 945-based platforms are close as well, although they’re a little off the pace.
Although the SD31P is the only system with an integrated Creative Labs audio chip, its 3D audio performance isn’t anything special. None of the boards perform particularly well in our 3D audio tests, with the Gigabyte GA-8I955X having especially high CPU utilization. That may explain the board’s relatively poor performance in Unreal Tournament 2004, which uses 3D audio.
I used an M-Audio Revolution 7.1 card for recording in RightMark’s audio quality tests. Analog output ports were used on all systems. To keep things simple, I’ve 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.
The SD31P’s Creative audio chip finds redemption in RightMark Audio Analyzer’s audio quality tests, where it has better dynamic range and noise levels than the rest of the pack. Note that the SD31P’s audio quality isn’t consistent between the system’s front and rear outputs, though.
Among the rest of the field, the nForce4-based boards have a poorer frequency response than the Intel High Definition Audio platforms, although we’re not testing with high-definition bitrates. The AW8 MAX’s AudioMAX riser doesn’t seem to improve audio quality beyond what’s available on other boards. At least it’s not doing any harm, though. We can’t say the same for the GA-8I955X’s audio implementation, which leaves much to be desired. The GA-8I955X’s box may have a fancy “Designed for Dolby Master Studio” logo, but its performance in RightMark Audio Analyzer is sub-par.
ATA performance was tested with a Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 ATA/133 hard drive using HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.
With a +/- 2% margin for error in HD Tach’s CPU utilization test, only the read burst and write speed tests show any variance in ATA performance. Surprisingly, it’s the PCI-bound ITE ATA controllers that lead the field in the burst test, embarrassing south bridge ATA implementations. ITE’s domination is short-lived, though; the ITE controllers fall to the back of the field in the write speed test, with NVIDIA’s nForce4 ATA controller taking the lead.
Serial ATA performance
Moving to Serial ATA, we tested performance with a Western Digital Raptor WD360GD SATA hard drive. Again, we used HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone test.
Taking HD Tach’s margin for error in the CPU utilization test into account, the only Serial ATA test with much of a performance difference between platforms is the burst speed test. There, the nForce4 leads the way, followed closely by Intel’s ICH7R south bridge. Silicon Image’s PCI Express 3132 SATA controller does pretty well, although some implementations prove superior to others.
Our USB transfer speed tests were conducted with a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure connected to a 7200RPM Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 hard drive. We tested with HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.
Intel’s chipsets are generally regarded as the best in the business, but the ICH7R’s USB write performance leaves much to be desired, especially when compared with that of the nForce4.
Curiously, USB CPU utilization seems less bound by chipset manufacturer. The Asus P5ND2-SLI and Abit AW8 MAX have much lower CPU utilization than the rest of the field, but they use NVIDIA and Intel USB controllers, respectively.
Our Firewire transfer speed tests were conducted with the same external enclosure and hard drive as our USB transfer speed tests. The enclosure’s speed is limited to 1394a, so our 1394b-equipped motherboards won’t be able to fully stretch their legs.
Incidentally, enclosure speed may not be the limiting performance factor for 1394b. Windows XP Service Pack 2 has performance problems with 1394b devices, and although Microsoft has issued a patch to address the issue, performance with 1394b Firewire controllers is still rather poor. Third-party drivers are available that apparently bring Firewire 1394b up to speed, but neither Abit nor Gigabyte make such drivers available for their 1394b-equipped motherboards. Since rolling back to Service Pack 1 is a rather unattractive solution to the problem, we’ve tested the motherboards that sport 1394b Firewire chips with and without Microsoft’s SP2 Firewire fix.
Without the SP2 fix, 1394b Firewire transfer rates are horrible. The Microsoft patch improves performance, but not by enough to catch the motherboards with older 1394a. It would be easy to blame Microsoft alone, but Abit and Gigabyte bear some responsibility for not being aware enough of the issue to bundle appropriate drivers with their boards.
We evaluated Ethernet performance using the NTttcp tool from Microsoft’s Windows DDK. The docs say this program “provides the customer with a multi-threaded, asynchronous performance benchmark for measuring achievable data transfer rate.”
We used the following command line options on the server machine:
ntttcps -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a
..and the same basic thing on each of our test systems acting as clients:
ntttcpr -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a
Our server was a Windows XP Pro system based on Chaintech’s Zenith 9CJS motherboard with a Pentium 4 2.4GHz (800MHz front-side bus, Hyper-Threading enabled) and CSA-attached Gigabit Ethernet. A crossover CAT6 cable was used to connect the server to each system.
The nForce4 boards were tested with the NVIDIA Firewall and Jumbo Frames disabled.
This is why we don’t like PCI-based Gigabit Ethernet controllers. The PCI-bound Intel and Marvell GigE chips on the Asus boards have much lower throughput than other Gigabit Ethernet implementations. Were the PCI GigE chips’ CPU utilization dramatically lower than the rest of the field, one might be able to make an argument for overall efficiency. That’s not the case, though. Fortunately, both the P5ND2-SLI and P5WD2 have faster GigE options onboard.
Looking at CPU utilization, the GA-8N-SLI’s Marvell 8053 GigE controller is way behind the rest of the field. Curiously, the nForce4’s ActiveArmor-accelerated Gigabit Ethernet doesn’t perform as well as one might expect given its purported hardware TCP acceleration. Well, maybe that’s not so curious. NVIDIA seems to have struggled with ActiveArmor since it launched its nForce4 chipsets.
We approached our overclocking tests in several stages. First, we dropped the CPU multiplier and ramped the front-side bus to find the fastest stable speed. Next, we dialed back our memory timings to 2.5-4-4-12 and started playing with memory dividers to determine the fastest memory bus speed with our overclocked front-side bus. Finally, we inched up on the CPU multiplier to see if there was any untapped headroom in our Pentium 4 processor.
Since our Pentium 4 660 processor’s lowest possible CPU multiplier is 14, it’s quite possible that some of these boards can handle much higher front-side bus speeds. A lack of memory dividers on some boards limited our ability to overclock the memory with certain front-side bus speeds, so it’s also possible that some of the boards are capable of running a faster memory bus. And, of course, overclocking success is never guaranteed.
Since our motherboards are running with different CPU multipliers, front-side bus speeds, and memory bus speeds, it’s hard to directly compare them. There are several important things to take away from the results though. First, note that at 3.84GHz, the SD31P achieved a higher processor speed than any other platform. That alone is a testament to the XPC’s effective CPU cooling system.
Although the SD31P’s overall CPU speed was impressive, the system wasn’t stable with a front-side bus faster than 240MHz. The GA-8N-SLI and AL8 were also uncomfortable at higher front-side bus speeds, despite the fact that both support a 1066MHz front-side bus.
Looking at memory overclocking, the GA-8I955X stands out as the worst performer because we just couldn’t get its memory to run any faster than 663MHz. The next step up for that board is 705MHz, but it wouldn’t post at that speed, even with extra memory voltage.
It’s hard to pick the best overclocker from this lot, especially considering how little headroom we had with our Pentium 4 660 3.6GHz. However, the Abit AW8 MAX deserves some recognition for hitting the highest stable front-side bus speed, as does the P5WD2 Premium for achieving the fastest memory speed. I should also note that even though they didn’t hit the fastest speeds, the multitude of memory dividers offered by the nForce4 boards allowed for much more memory clock fine tuning than the Intel-based boards.
This round-up has covered a lot of ground, so before we single out our favorites, we’ll summarize our thoughts on each board.
Abit AL8 The AL8 is the cheapest board in this group by nearly $70, making it an ideal candidate for a budget dual-core system based on a Pentium D 820. You may not get the hottest memory controller or a lot of extra onboard peripherals, but performance is decent and the ICH7R has enough built-in functionality to handle most enthusiast’s demands. The AL8’s uGuru hardware monitoring and fan speed control blow even most high-end boards out of the water.
Abit AW8 MAX Given the fact that Asus manages to cool a 955X north bridge with a simple passive heatsink, the AW8 MAX’s Silent OTES cooler might be overkill. Silent OTES is certainly a well-executed design, but it may ultimately be more appropriate for motherboard layouts that demand a low-profile north bridge heatsink. Still, the AW8 MAX did manage the highest stable front-side bus speed of the lot, and the Silent OTES cooler may have had a hand in that victory. The board also has an impressive suite of uGuru hardware monitoring options, including flexible fan speed control for an astounding eight fan headers. Unfortunately, poor Firewire performance and the lack of a second PCI Express x16 slot hold the AW8 MAX back from Editor’s Choice glory, but overclockers should seriously consider the board.
Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe With more expansion slots than any other board in the round-up and a second x16 slot with SLI support to boot, the Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe is off to a pretty good start. The board also benefits from the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset’s wealth of memory dividers, but it suffers from the chipset’s lack of support for Intel’s Pentium D 820 processor. That really hurts the board’s appeal for budget-conscious enthusiasts, although with a $206 price tag, the P5ND2-SLI probably wouldn’t have appealed to the budget crowd in the first place. It should appeal to the performance crowd, though. The P5ND2-SLI Deluxe was consistently near the front of the pack in our performance tests.
Asus P5WD2 Premium WiFiTV Edition With close to a $300 street price, the Asus P5WD2 Premium WiFiTV Edition is easily the most expensive board in the comparo. The WiFiTV bundle goes a long way toward justifying the high price tag, though. Bundle aside, the P5WD2 Premium’s easily the fastest board of the lot. It also scores points for being the only 955X board with a second PCI Express x16 slot, but the pokey PCI-bound secondary Gigabit Ethernet controller is a little ghetto for a high-end offering.
Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal With a nip here and tuck there, the Gigabyte GA-8I955X could have a lot going for it. After all, the board is relatively inexpensive, especially considering its plentiful integrated peripherals and nifty Bluetooth bundle. However, this board’s audio quality and performance are quite disappointing. The GA-8I955X also exhibits poor Firewire performance, a problem that Gigabyte could have avoided by bundling the board with proper 1394b drivers for Service Pack 2. Ultimately, though, the GA-8I955X’s fate rests in the U-Plus DPS’s hands. Eight-phase power and load-sensitive LEDs could have been enticing features if they weren’t stuck on an awkward auxiliary power unit that restricts air flow around the CPU socket and case exhaust fans, directing heat toward the north bridge and processor.
Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Royal The GA-8N-SLI has a great feature set, plenty of integrated peripherals, SLI support, and a bundled Bluetooth adapter, all for less than $210. That resume would normally put the board in the running for an Editor’s Choice award, but like the GA-8I955X, the GA-8N-SLI’s appeal is ultimately limited by the poorly implemented U-Plus DPS.
Shuttle XPC SD31P Although the Shuttle XPC SD31P costs significantly more than the motherboards in this comparison, it comes with its own case, power supply, and a very quiet CPU cooler. The small form factor enclosure is the real kicker here, and the largely tool-free P-series chassis is among the best in the business. It’s not all roses for the SD31P, though. The system’s passive north bridge cooler needs to be beefed up to ensure that the IGP doesn’t overheat under heavy 3D graphics loads. We wouldn’t recommend gaming on the GMA 950, but it shouldn’t overheat. At this price, users should also get dual video outputs for the IGP, at least one of which should be DVI. That alone could make the SD31P considerably more attractive as a corporate desktop.
With our summaries complete, it’s clear that none of the boards in this round-up are perfect. Each has high points and drawbacks, but a couple stand out as better options than the rest. Our first Editor’s Choice recipient is an easy pick. With a comparably low price tag, decent all-around performance, and fantastic uGuru hardware monitoring and fan speed control, the AL8 is a perfect companion for a budget dual-core system based on a Pentium D 820.
While it was easy to single out the AL8 as our favorite platform for a budget system, picking the best high-end board is more difficult. In my view, it comes down to a battle between the Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe and P5WD2 Premium WiFiTV Edition. Both were performance leaders, and each has something a little different to offer. For the P5WD2, it’s the WiFiTV bundle, and for the P5ND2-SLI it’s support for SLI.
In the end, I think the P5ND2-SLI Deluxe has the edge. The P5WD2’s WiFiTV bundle is certainly fancy, but it only appeals to those with a hankering for Wi-Fi and a TV tuner. You can build a better Wi-Fi/TV tuner bundle on your own with the P5WD2’s $100 price premium, and it’ll probably take more than a C-note to convince NVIDIA to support SLI on the Intel 955X chipset.