The Silicon Ecosystem

Published Date
01 - Nov - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Nov - 2007
 
The Silicon Ecosystem


 

All relationships in life are based on compatibility…when it’s there—it works! When absent—kaput! Same goes for our test subjects—the inseparable twosome—motherboards and processors. This time 21 processors and 48 motherboards compete for the space in your cabinet



It’s oft said that the best things in life come in pairs. Even here—in the world of the personal computer, where philosophy and romance take a nose dive out of the window—you’ll find this adage holding good. If you’ve ever shopped for a computer part-by-part, chances are you’ll spend a good deal of time deciding on which processor is right for you—matching processing power with purchasing power.

We at Digit feel the relationship between motherboard and processor is akin to the relationship between chassis and engine, where the choice of one essentially limits the capabilities of the other. Thankfully akin to Maruti’s and BMW’s—there’s something to suit every extremity of demand, with a whole lot of options in between!

The ENGINE

The drops in processor prices—both from Intel and AMD—in the past year have made computing power ridiculously cheap. For Instance, the Intel Core 2 DUO E6700, which retailed at Rs 27,500 when we first tested it, (it was the second-best processor you could buy then) is now available for just Rs 8,250! The cheapest processor that’s available today comes for a paltry Rs 1,600—of course, it’s an AMD—and the sub-Rs 10,000 PC isn’t a myth anymore.

Intel’s Core architecture has paid good dividends, while AMD is still stuck with their older K9 architecture. The newer K10 architecture will debut on the desktop within the next two months, so stay tuned for an update. It’ll be interesting to see whether the new architecture will topple Intel’s dominating Core.

The Core 2 Duo and Athlon X2 have pushed desktops into the realm of dual-core computing, and now, it’s quad-core that’s making its presence felt. Last year, Intel’s Core 2 QX6700 was atrociously priced at Rs 52,000, but it’s now down to a meagre Rs 11,750. While Intel  was first to market with their quad-core processors—two dual-cores slapped on to a single die—AMD is taking their own time to come with a native quad-core processor—designed from the ground up to be quad-core, unlike Intel’s smart approach.

Multi-core might be the future that both Intel and AMD are projecting, but as it stands today, the software we use can hardly tap into power on offer. The software industry will take another two to three years to catch up to the hardware, and it’ll be worth the wait.

We’ve rounded up twelve processors from AMD, from the very basic Semprons to the Athlon64 X2s and the special BE series of power-efficient processors. From Intel, we have most of the updated Core 2 Duos, the Q6600 quad-core, and the top-of-the-line QX 6850. For reference, we have included the older generation Core 2 Duos from our last test—but they aren’t available in the market anymore.

Performance

We start with real-world applications like audio / video encoding, games and 2D / 3D rendering—the performance of these application depends quite heavily on the processor. After that come the synthetic benchmarks—Wprime, Sciencemark 2.0, WinRAR 3.7 and SiSoft Sandra 2007.

Gaming
Company of Heroes

In this RTS game, we see the Core 2 Duo E6850 at the top spot, outdoing even its quad-core sibling—the QX6850—by a small 5 fps. The same peculiarity turns up with the E6600 and Q6600—for some reason, the quad-core processors are taking a hit in this particular game. The top spots are all taken by Intel processors, with fabulous frame rates. The Athlon64 6400 doesn’t quite make a mark here, and there is a difference of 67 fps between it and the E6850. Interestingly, the Athlon64 X2 BE2350 (the power efficient series) processors keep up well with rest of the Athlons—a proper balance of power efficiency and performance.

Far Cry

Again, very similar results—the quad-core processors are barely able to deliver better scores than their Core 2 Duo counterparts. Unless games are programmed to take advantage of multi-processor environments, we’ll see negligible performance gains. Except for the E4400, all other Intel processors gave us better fps scores than AMD’s top-end processors. The Athlon64 5600 fell just shy of the E4400 by one fps, and we think it offers the best value for money among the AMD bunch.

Doom 3

The results for Doom 3 are quite similar to other two games—the quad-core processors from Intel fall short of expectations.
Intel’s processors are clear winners in the gaming arena; no gaming PC should be without one. Interestingly, AMD’s Athlon64 X2 5200 does come close to Intel’s new E4400, and offers similar value.
 

 

 

How We Tested
Machine Configuration
All Intel LGA 775-based processors are tested on an ASUS P5K Deluxe motherboard, based on Intel’s P35 Chipset. For AMD processors, we use an ASUS M2A-VM HDMI motherboard, based on AMD’s 690 chipset. Corsair stays our choice for memory—we used 2 GB of 1066 MHz RAM at 4-4-4-12 settings (wherever possible). An XFX 8800 GTX graphics card was used on this rig, with NVIDIA’s ForceWare version 158.22. On the software front, Windows XP with SP2 was freshly loaded on a Hitachi 7200 RPM, 250 GB SATA drive. Coolermaster Real Power Pro 550 watt powered the rig. The drive was defragmented before each new processor run. The motherboards used were updated with the latest available BIOS patches; driver releases for chipsets and other critical peripherals were updated as well.  

Benchmarks

PCMark 05 and 3DMark 06: These benchmarks from FutureMark are widely used to gauge performance on a system- as well as sub-system-level. Though mostly related to graphics performance, each of these benchmarks has a really well-developed CPU test that taxes the processor to the maximum. We used the default settings and run only the CPU test. Each test was run thrice.
Far Cry and Doom 3: Both these games boast high graphic details, and are quite taxing on the processor, making them ideal processor benchmarks. We ran both of them at 640 x 480 and 800 x 600 to put more stress on the CPU.
Company of Heroes: This is the latest in the breed of RTS games and one that can bring the best of machines down to their knees with its ultra. Settings were kept at high, and since the game doesn’t allow 640 x 480, we used 800 x 600 and 1024 x 768. The built-in benchmark gives the resulting fps.
DivX Encoding: We encoded a 100 MB VOB file to DivX using the DivX 6.2.5 video converter. This benchmark is run thrice for each processor, and the final score is an average of the three encoding times.
CINEBENCH 10.1: CINEBENCH 10.1 is a free benchmarking tool for Windows and Mac OS. It is based on the CINEMA 4D engine. CINEBENCH 10 tests processors for OpenGL processing, multithreading and multi-processing.
POV-Ray 3.6: The Persistence Of Vision raytracer, a tool that creates an image by mathematical calculation. The number-crunching involved is processor-intensive, making it a great processor benchmark. In the default installation, we used the “Chess2” and “landscape” scenes to be rendered at 1024 x 768 resolution without anti-aliasing.
ScienceMark 2.0: ScienceMark 2.0, as the name suggests, is a benchmark based on scientific calculations. This benchmark consists of multiple benchmarks that test the various aspects of a processor. We use the Molecular dynamics, Primordia, Cryptography, Stream and Memory benchmarks.
WinRAR 3.7: WinRAR 3.7 offers a built-in benchmark, operating on random data that is processed in the memory—this prevents hard disk performance from affecting the test results.
W Prime: A small freeware utility that calculates square-roots of large of numbers. This utility is multi-threaded, so takes good advantage of multi-core processors. We use the 32 M calculations option.     
SiSoft Sandra 2007: This is the good old benchmarking tool with newer tests. We logged scores particularly related to the CPU, such as Dryhstone, Whetstone, Multimedia index (Integer and Float) and Cache performance for a 4 MB data block.

 

DivX Encoding
The graph you see is more the shortcoming of the DivX encoder than the processors’—the encoder hasn’t incorporated code for multiple processors. We see better results with increasing clock speeds, and not multiple cores. Again, the quad-core processors trail their dual-core counter parts, albeit by a very small margin. All the top-end Intel processors outdo AMD by a significant margin. The duel between Athlon64 X2 5200 and E4400 should be noted again—they’re separated by a hair’s breadth. The Athlon64 X2 BE 2350 and 2300 trail behind the Semprons—this again is because the encoder favours higher clock speeds, so the lower-clocked BEs take a hit.

CineBench 10

The graph has two bars—the top bar represents CineBench’s using all cores and the bottom bar is the performance achieved with just a single core. Intel’s QX6850 rips apart the competition, as does the affordable Q6600. For the first time, the Athlon64 X2 6400 makes it to the top league. Interestingly, X2 5200 beats the Intel E4400 by a fair margin in both Single as well as multi-core environments.

WPrime

This time we choose Wprime over Super-Pi—it scales better with multi-core processors and clock speed.  The results are a mixed bag, with Intel’s quad-cores taking the top slots—they are able to work with four threads each time, and hence complete the calculation faster. On the dual-core front, higher clock speeds determine the results—the AMD 6400 and 6000 follow, ahead of the E6850 and E6750.

ScienceMark 2.0

Scientific calculations have always been AMD’s strength and we’ve seen this happen in all processor comparisons. AMD’s FPU completely dominates—the Athlon64 X2 6400 comes out top, followed by the 6000 . Intel’s QX6850 and E6850 are separated by a small margin for third place.

WinRAR 3.7

WinRAR’s built-in benchmark gives a good indication of processors’ capability at compressing files, and it also supports multi-threading. As expected, the quad-cores have a clear lead. Except for the E4400, all other Intel processors are clearly ahead of their respective AMD counterparts.

Intel QX6850
The Fastest processor money can buy


3D Mark 06 And PC Mark 05

The quad-cores are at the head of the pack, followed by the top end dual-cores from Intel. AMD’s 6400 also comes very close to third position in the 3DMark benchmark. These benchmarks serve as a good indicator of how well applications optimised for multi-core processors scale when presented with the right environment. AMD’s Athlon64 X2 5200 manages to stay ahead of Intel’s dual-core E4400, and that’s commendable. 

Verdict

Overall, the scene hasn’t changed much—Intel clearly dominates most of the benchmarks, except for scientific calculations where AMD’s traditionally strong FPU gives them a small lead. If you want the best CPU available, it’s Intel’s Core Quad QX6850 which retails for Rs 52,000. However, we’re all looking for value within our budgets, so read on to find out which processors give you the best performance for your budget.

Decision Maker

In this graph, we’ve normalised both price and performance with respect to Intel’s QX6850, which is the best processor you can buy.

Reading the graph is quite simple—in a particular price range, compare two adjacent graphs. For example, let’s take the Athlon64 4200 and the Sempron 3800 . For a two-unit rise in price, you can get up to thirteen more units of performance from the 4200 , making it a better buy than the 3800 . Similarly, you can compare other models to figure out which processor gives the best bang for the buck.

We’ve divided the graph into three price ranges. The best performer in each category is used as a point of reference.

Under  Rs 5,000

In the sub-5000 category, we find only AMD processors. It’s quite clear that the Athlon64 X2 4200 offers the best bang for the buck. Both the BE2350 and BE2300 offer relatively less performance, but with a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 45W, they’re aimed at power-conscious users.

Semprons, though good processors, should only be considered if you want the bare minimum configurations.

Rs 5,000-10,000

This is an important category—most of us end up buying processors in this range. The category is fairly large with a wide distribution, so we’ll subdivide it into Rs 5,000-7,500 and Rs 7,500-10,000. In the Rs 5,000-7,500 category, AMD’s Athlon64 X2 5000 offers the maximum value, followed by the Athlon64 X2 5200 . In the Rs 7,500-10,000 bracket, Intel’s E6750 offers good value for money and should be considered over all other processors in this category when building a gaming or entertainment system.

Over Rs 10,000

In this category, both the E6850 and Q6600 are equally good. The E6850 has a clear lead in single-threaded applications (which dominate our everyday lives), but on multi-threaded applications, the Q6600 trounces the E6850—it’s the more future-proof option. The Athlon64 X2 6400 does perform well, but on price / performance scale we won’t recommend it. Intel’s poster boy—the QX6850—is the ultimate number-cruncher money can buy today; if you have dough, go for it.

Of course, behind every good processor is a motherboard—read on to find the perfect match for your purchase.

The Chassis

A couple of years ago, if you thought a good motherboard was a luxury, we’d have forgiven you. Today, because of the slew of motherboard vendors who have flooded our markets over the last year, it’s not any more—in terms of neither availability nor cost. We’re not talking about just a small brand office in a couple of metros, but actual market availability.

We’ve busted another myth this year as well—motherboards based on the latest chipsets aren’t as expensive as you’d expect them to be anymore! Vendors in India have traditionally categorised the market into two sections—those who can afford good boards and those who can’t. The former section of PC users have been wooed with expensive premium offerings, while the latter section have to be content with value boards that are wafer-thin on features. This time round, we’ve truly seen something for everyone, and it’s you—the customers—who are to be thanked for this!

You’ve become more discerning and you know what you want—during one of our sojourns to Lamington Road (Mumbai’s hardware hub) we were pleased to see customers actually asking for boards on the basis of chipsets and brands. In fact, they’d Googled up the specifications and features of the boards they were interested in, and weren’t moved by the shopkeeper who was trying to placate them with other offerings.

Intel P35-based motherboards

Intel’s P35 chipset is their replacement for the older (and excellent) P965 chipset. Motherboards based on this chipset have native support for the 1333 MHz FSB that the new Core 2 Duo processors (E6x50) support. Additionally, they will also support the upcoming 45 nm Penryn. The memory controller supports DDR3, but Intel has left it to vendors to decide whether to provide DDR2 or DDR3 slots. The Southbridge—ICH9R—is also rumoured to be better; the P965’s used the ICH8R.

Features

Of the 15 boards in this category, we chose to compare only 14 on the same platform. The ASUS P5K3 Premium is a luxury even among luxurious boards (a Bentley among Mercs, if you will). It’s the first board we’ve seen embedded with 2 GB of DDR3 memory—there are no memory slots. There’s enough copper on the board for it to be used as a very heavy albeit costly weapon! Priced at Rs 70,000, this is a sinful indulgence—not to mention the sad fact that you cannot upgrade to 4 GB of RAM whatever you do!

All the ASUS P35 boards had excellent layouts and were exceptionally well built, with good quality components. We had one major grouse—the first two SATA ports are blocked (though not completely so as to prevent their use) by large graphics cards like our 8800GTX. ASUS provides dual Gigabit LAN ports and integrated Wi-Fi on their Deluxe and Premium boards. The ASUS Blitz series is part of their Republic of Gamers franchise, which means they are more overclocker-friendly than the other boards, have a lot of mostly flashy and sometimes useful LEDs, and cost, well, a lot (Rs 17,000 and above)! The Blitz motherboards also had water blocks on the Northbridge cooling solution for extreme tweakers who plan on using liquid cooling solutions. Furthermore, the Blitz boards have a special LCD screen to display the POST (Power-on Self-test) status—instead of the regular hexadecimal POST display, ASUS offers an LCD that converts the hexadecimal value to regular English—nifty, but you pay a premium for this feature.


Traditional SATA connects interfere with bigger graphics cards and cause clutter


Abit’s IP-35 Pro Off Limits has a very useful CMOS reset switch on the back panel (something ASUS does with a button on their Blitz series). The IP-35 Pro is very overclocker-friendly—very well laid out and numerous BIOS options. It even has a HEX error code poster to make debugging easier. The IP-35 E is aimed at the general audience—and although it overclocks well, it misses out on some of the finer nuances (like the CMOS reset button).

Gigabyte’s P35 DQ6 comes with a lot of copper in the form of an elaborate heat-pipe solution that we found downright ugly. Compared to the ASUS P5K Deluxe and Premium—which dissipate the same amount of heat and are aimed at the same audience (overclockers)—we don’t see the need for such a massive cooling solution. It also boasts of Gigabyte’s “6 Quad” features—though this is more marketing speak than anything significant. While a 12-phase power supply to the CPU sounds good, this is a novelty rather than a very useful feature, and a six- or eight-phase design will do just fine. We did like the high quality, solid state capacitors, which should improve durability significantly.

ASUS P5K premium
The ultimate premium board


MSI’s P35 Diamond is another good looker (though the ASUS boards definitely look better). The BIOS also has a very annoying setting for increasing voltages—you have to keep using the plus ( ) and minus (-) keys to change them. BioStar’s P35 doesn’t allow the CAS latency to go lower than 5—this is a bane for overclockers, and does affect performance during benchmarking. There’s a flaw with the layout of this board—the 24-pin power connector is placed bang in the middle of the motherboard, and right between the CPU and graphics card—two very hot components; we have to wonder what BioStar was thinking!

In terms of overclocking features, all these boards allow you to play around, but ASUS’ BIOS is very newbie-friendly—and you can safely overvolt your CPU with minuscule increments of 0.00625 volts!


SATA ports that face outwords like this prevents cable clutters and won't foil larger graphics cards


ECS’ P35 doesn’t support memory frequencies above 800 MHz—a pity for those who happen to have fast memory—and hence limits overclocking. Additionally, the BIOS doesn’t allow you to fix the multiplier and there’s no option to enable or disable EIST (Enhanced Intel SpeedStep—a standard option on boards for Core 2 Duo processors).

MSI’s P35 Neo is a nice value offering at Rs 6,600 after all the Rs 12,000-plus offerings from ASUS and Gigabyte. It’s well laid out, though shy on some of the extra frills like E-SATA, POST displays and power buttons on the board, copper heatpipes etc.

Performance

We noticed that the DDR3 motherboards performed slightly better—this shows that the Intel Core 2 Duo is sensitive to bandwidth changes (800 MHz vs. 1066 MHz) in spite of the slower timings that plague DDR3.

ASUS’ Blitz Formula, P5K Premium, and Gigabyte’s GA-P35 DS3R were the best performers, followed closely by ASUS’ P5K Deluxe and Abit’s IP-35 Pro and MSI’s P35 Platinum. We aren’t really looking at the DDR3 based solutions as viable till the cost of DDR3 memory falls off its current lofty perch.

Incidentally, the Abit IP-35 Pro cheats a little by keeping the FSB at a default of 272 MHz, and you must manually get it down to 266 MHz (which should be the default speed)—this does give it a slight edge, as the Core 2 Duo X6800 runs at 2992 MHz instead of 2933 MHz.
 

 

 

 

 

How We Tested
We categorised our motherboards based on the way customers like to buy them—on the basis of the all important chipset:
  • Intel P35-based
  • NVIDIA 680i / 650i-based
  • Intel P965-based
  • All boards  with integrated graphics (for those who can’t be bothered with an add-on graphics card
  • We used the following test components:

  • Processor Intel
    Core 2 duo X6800 @ 2.93 GHz
    AMD
    Athlon X2 6400 @ 3.2 GHz
    Memory Corsair Dominator PC2 8500 @ 800 MHz (4-4-4-12) / Kingston
    PC3 8500 @ 1066 MHz (7-7-7-24)
    Corsair Dominator PC2 8500 @ 800 MHz (4-4-4-12)
    Graphics NVIDIA 8800 GTX @ 575/1800 MHz NVIDIA 8800 GTX @ 575/1800 MHz
    HDD Western Digital Raptor 10,000 rpm 74 GB x 2 Western Digital Raptor 10,000 rpm 74 GB x 2
    OS Windows XP Prof SP2 Windows XP Prof SP2
    VGA Driver version Forceware 158.22 Forceware 158.22
In addition, we installed the latest BIOS updates and drivers, downloaded from the manufacturers’ sites.

Features

Besides all the regular features, we also took a special look at the layout of the motherboards, and rated them on general component layout—capacitors around the CPU region, placements of IDE and SATA connectors, power connectors, memory slot placement, the type of VGA slot retention mechanism and so on. Due to space restrictions in these pages, we’ve shown an average score of all these parameters.
We also looked very carefully at overclocking options that many motherboards today provide. With overclocking becoming very idiot-proof, anyone can play around with BIOS settings safely. Enthusiasts will also find a lot of valuable information as far as CPU and memory voltage parameters go.
We haven’t talked about RAID support—all boards today support RAID 0, 1, 0 1, 5 and 10, so this data is redundant and unnecessary.

Performance Tests
Synthetic Tests

PC Mark 2005: This benchmark runs 48 discrete tests to test each performance-related subsystem—the processor, memory, video and storage. Finally, it throws out a final score—which is a weighted average of the individual results.
SiSoft Sandra 2007 Engineer:
Sandra 2007 has specific benchmarks to test all the subsystems of a PC. It tests a CPU’s floating point crunching ability under both arithmetic and multimedia applications. The application supports multiple cores and scales well in this regard. It also tests the read and write performance of the storage subsystem, and the memory’s bandwidth.
3D Mark 2005: Our graphics benchmark of choice, mainly because it allows for greater variation in results than the newer 3D Mark 2006.

Real World Tests

Video encoding: This is a CPU-intensive test and tells us exactly how optimised the motherboard in question is.
File transfer test: We copy a single 4 GB file from one physical hard disk to another. This tells us a lot about Southbridge data path optimisations on each motherboard, and how fast data is moving around between hard disks.
Doom 3 And Splinter Cell Chaos Theory: Doom 3 uses a very sensitive engine that even responds to changes in memory timings or a hard drive change! Chaos Theory is very scalable and very CPU- and shader-intensive. At a resolution of 640x480 with all details off, we’re basically allowing the CPU to run wild while limiting the role of the graphics card. At 1600x1200—the maximum settings—any game becomes CPU-limited and any increase in frame-rate can be attributed to the graphics card and its respective data paths on the motherboard.

 

A surprise was in store when the MSI P35 Diamond and P35 Platinum came up with very good CPU performance in our video encoding test, in which a difference of one second is huge—especially when you consider the fact that all speeds and voltages were kept identical.

Verdict

We’re impressed by the sheer performance provided by ASUS’ P5K Premium. The fact that it’s a superb looker and comes with an excellent bundle of connectors and add-ons just amplifies our decision to award a Digit Best Buy Gold to this excellent product.

Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DS3R stuck close to the ASUS P5K3 Deluxe (a DDR3-based board) throughout the tests and we’re awarding these two a joint Digit Best Buy Silver.

Other boards that impress on the performance front are the P5K Deluxe and Blitz Formula from ASUS, Abit’s IP-35 Pro Off Limits and Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DQ6.

If you’re looking for an enthusiast solution that overclocks well and simplifies the process, select any of the ASUS boards we’ve mentioned.

If you want something a little cheaper, take a look at Abit’s IP-35 Pro Off Limits, Gigabyte’s GA-P35DS3R or MSI’s P35 Platinum.

If you’re looking for value we suggest either MSI’s P35 Neo or Abit’s IP-35 E Off Limits priced at Rs 6,600 and 8,500 respectively.

We suggest avoiding the cheaper offerings—unless you have an absolute shoestring budget and must have a P35 chipset based board.

NVIDIA 680i/680i LT/650i SLI And 650i Ultra-based Motherboards

NVIDIA’s 680i has been around for a while, but it was a path breaking chipset when launched, and thanks to some future-proofing on NVIDIA’s part, it still has the goods to take on the P35-based boards. The high-end 680i boards are the exclusive domain of the lightning fast Core 2 Duo processors from Intel, so you’ll see no AMD based solutions here. 

 

 

 

 

ASUS P5K3 Premium: Is it worth the money?
Every once in a while, a product comes along that makes us go “Ooh, let’s give this one a special box, shall we?” Why the ASUS P5K3 Premium? Well, for one, it’s four times as expensive (Rs 70,000) as most of its other (already expensive) siblings! For another, it’s got this ultra-large and cool-looking heat-pipe solution that immediately gets the drool out (before we saw the price tag of course)! And then we noticed there were no memory banks for RAM…wha...?

This board comes with 2 GB of DDR3 memory integrated—and fast memory at that (1333 MHz). The fact that the memory is integrated, and very obviously matched to the board means that it performs better than external DDR3 RAM running at the same speed. ASUS also guarantees that this integrated memory will overclock to 1,500 MHz. It’s evident that the memory used is top-class, simply because we were able to set very tight timings (1333 MHz at 7-6-6-17 at 1.7 volts), which is pretty incredible considering our 1066 MHz DDR3 ran at 7-7-7-24!
We got an overall PC Mark score of 8,535 and a memory score of 6,112, and at the above mentioned timings we got 6329—a very good showing. The only demerit is that you cannot upgrade memory, which remains at 2 GB. If ASUS had come out with a 4 GB variant the board would probably cost close to a lakh, if not more…
We honestly believe ASUS didn’t really expect any takers for such an expensive board. Instead, it’s more like a statement—“Look at what we can do!”—something we’ve come to expect from enthusiast brands.
This is one indulgence we recommend you miss—considering you could build two healthy PCs for the price of this board. If you’re insanely rich (or just insane) then you’d probably discount this bit of advice.

The 680i LT is a lower version of the 680i core logic, and manages to do without faster memory profiles—the 680i is optimised for 1200 MHz SLI-ready memory. These platforms support SLI and a full 16 PCI Express lanes to each graphics card. The 650 SLI offers 8 lanes to each card, while the 650 Ultra is a single PCI Express.

ASUS Striker Extreme

The SLI demon

The 6xx family from NVIDIA also has one very important feature for overclockers—they allow for overclocking independent of memory dividers. This means you no longer have to bother with maintaining memory to FSB ratios while overclocking like you have to with Intel boards. This is a boon for those who have cheaper RAM but want to overclock their machines. On Intel boards, as the FSB speed is bumped up, your memory also has to match up to maintain a pre-defined ratio—typically 2 : 1 or 3 : 1. For example, for an FSB of 266 MHz your memory should be capable of running at 800 MHz (266 x 3) if the memory divider is set at 3.

Besides this, the 680i/LT allows overclockers to set memory reference voltages, as well as set reference voltages for the Northbridge and Southbridge as well as overvolt them (which most chipsets provide an option for).

Features

ASUS’ P5N32-E SLI had perhaps one of the best looking cooling solutions ever, and also was brilliantly laid out. With discrete heat-pipes and sinks for the Northbridge and Southbridge, this board looks better than the Striker, which has a lot more copper and deviates from a clean look.
We like copper heat-pipes and heatsinks, but in moderation, please! Just to prove a point, the P5N32-E SLI also ran cooler than all the other 680i and 680i LT boards. In fact, despite NVIDIA’s 680i Northbridge’s reputation for heat, this board didn’t even break the proverbial sweat!

The PCBs of the 680i / 680i LT chipset-based boards are reference NVIDIA design—in fact, XFX and Galaxy use stock NVIDIA PCBs. This is why all the benefits of the reference 680i layout are seen along with its demerits. For one, the power connector pins on the XFX and Galaxy boards are placed between the memory slots—something we complained about when we reviewed the 680i as a platform last year.

Abit’s Fatal1ty FP-IN9 SLI bears the “Approved by Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel” mark—but we couldn’t find anything that stands out about this board—right from its layout to the choice of components (read capacitors) to the bundle. ASUS’ P5N-E SLI uses the Jurassic SLI switch PCB to toggle between SLI and single card mode.

The Zebronics 650 SLI uses a reference NVIDIA PCB—which has a less cluttered layout than the heavily feature-laden 680i. Galaxy and XFX came up with 650 Ultra boards—the 650i LT and MB-N650-IUL9 respectively. These boards allow a variety of overclocking and tweaking options, and are suitable if you want to stick with a single graphics card.

Performance

Although there’s no must-have among the 680i/LT and 650 SLI boards in terms of pure performance, we see the ASUS Striker Extreme edging out all the others by a tiny margin. Abit’s FP-IN9 SLI does very well in the video encoding test, and it’s a whole four seconds faster than XFX’s MB-N680-ILT9—very good CPU performance! The ASUS Striker Extreme does manage to utilise the Core 2 Duo better when it comes to real-world gaming—it was consistently 4 to 5 fps ahead of the other boards under both games.

Verdict

Let’s face it—enthusiasts don’t have many reasons to go for a 680i-based board, especially considering Intel’s latest P35 and the just-released X38 chipset. The major reason for this isn’t performance or features—the 680i is both an excellent performer and as future-proof as the P35 chipset, which is a year newer: it’s the price (the P35 is much cheaper). The 680i/LT chipset was targeted at enthusiasts who want SLI or just an excellent overclocker that allows fine tuning of every component.

If you want the best SLI solution that won’t bottleneck two 8800 GTX / Ultra graphics cards and money isn’t an issue, pick up the ASUS Striker Extreme for Rs 21,400. There is also a non-extreme version available, which is equally good and around Rs 2,500 cheaper.

If you want a really affordable SLI solution, look at Zebronics’ ZEB-650i SLI—at Rs 4,800, you can pick up two 8600 GTs for the amount you’ll save from the ASUS Striker Extreme!

If you want a 680i/LT motherboard for the plethora of overclocking options but don’t want to spend above Rs 15,000, pick up ASUS’ P5N32-E SLI or Galaxy’s 680i LT SLI for Rs 13,800 and 9,200 respectively.

Our winners are the excellent 680i-bearing ASUS Striker Extreme (Gold) and ASUS P5N32-E SLI (Silver), for their mixture of raw performance and overclockability that will deliver the goods to these fraternities.

Intel P965-based Motherboards

An older chipset, the P965 still is an excellent product but it finds itself at the end of its life cycle, and therefore largely redundant with P35-based boards costing a few hundreds more. Do remember that the P965 unofficially supports the 1333 MHz FSB through BIOS updates, so will work with the upcoming Penryn processors. The fact that we have seen P965 boards running at an FSB of over 1600 MHz (overclocked) means that while the P965 platform may be older, toothless it’s not!

Features

The very term features is synonymous with one board here—the ASUS P5B Premium Vista Edition, and about the only grouse we can come up with is its extremely long name! A near-perfect layout, detailed BIOS complete with superb overclocking options (second only to the ASUS Commando), and supreme build quality. But wait… there’s also a remote control unit that allows you to control several functions including the ability to hibernate, power down and even play music. Then there’s the additional tiny LCD screen unit (that looks like a PMP, by the way) that allows you to view important pop-ups such RSS feeds and will sync with Web sites when your PC is on. All this data can be viewed later even when your PC is off!

ASUS’ Commando is another “Republic of Gamers” product complete with extra overclocking options, LED POST display and LED backlit power, restart and CMOS reset buttons on the PCB. The P5B Deluxe is a feature-rich offering that shares an identical layout (right down to the cooler) with the P5B Premium Vista Edition. The P5B-E is a lower version of the P5B Deluxe without a wireless access point and minus a few other frills.

ASUS P5B Premium Vista Edition

Features galore

MSI’s P965 Platinum was the only other feature-rich board in this group—the MSI P965 Neo and Biostar Tforce P965 were the proverbial plain Janes—all the regular features you’d need in a motherboard without the additional pizzazz that the costlier boards show off.

Performance

The sheer toppers in terms of overall performance were the ASUS Commando and the P5B Deluxe—no wonder these were the kings of the ring before the P35 based motherboards came out—and the performance increments are almost insignificant. In fact, all the ASUS boards gave better 3D Mark 2005 scores than the other boards in this category, proving that if you want a gaming platform based on the P965 chipset, you should consider ASUS. Memory bandwidth scores in SiSoft Sandra’s test suite are also noticeably higher.

For some reason, both the MSI boards took a dip in the SiSoft Sandra CPU Multimedia tests. The difference isn’t alarming and won’t be really noticeable in day-to-day applications, but these boards aren’t the best performers around.

Verdict

When we think Gold, we think outstanding product. Going by this principle, it’d be easy to see why ASUS’ P5B Premium Vista Edition gets top honours. At Rs 14,750, it’s not for everyone, though. That’s where our Silver winner comes in. At Rs 7400—the MSI P965 Platinum offers good features and build quality, and enough overclocking features to justify the price tag.

Gigabyte GA-G33-DS3R
The best Intel onboard graphics platform

We don’t really recommend spending on a P965 board unless you must have the show-off features that the P5B Premium Vista Edition sports. Although this is an excellent chipset, it has been replaced in Intel’s product line-up by the P35—a product that, while not markedly better, is definitely more future-proof.

Integrated Graphics Platforms

This category will be important for most—who needs a graphics card when you don’t intend on gaming or doing a lot of HD movie-watching, right? We see boards for both Intel and AMD processors here. The players in this arena are more interested in the volume game, and such boards tend to be focused towards value for money rather than features, performance and overclocking—with a few exceptions, of course.

We’ve got boards based on Intel’s latest G33 and G31 platforms, the older G965 platform and ATI’s proven 690G. Newcomers were NVIDIA’s GeForce 7050 and 7025—two very interesting platforms—and, of course, the older GeForce 6100 platform.

Intel-Based
Features

Gigabyte’s GA-G33-DS3R is a very well-built and attractive looking board. Even better, we liked the compact (Micro ATX) design on the GA-G33M-S2H. This board also has an HDMI port. Gigabyte has also included Realtek’s latest ALC889A codec-based sound solution—the successor the de facto ALC888 codec. It’s easy to see the former being pitched as a high-end product with integrated graphics, while the latter—with its reduced BIOS options—gives lesser expandability and smaller size being a home-entertainment product (hence the HDMI).

ECS’ P33T-A board was an anomaly. While all the G33 and G31 boards are mated to the ICH9 Southbridge, this motherboard had an older ICH7 Southbridge—the same one on the much older 975X platform—a very negative move.

Abit’s Fatal1ty F-190HD is another HDMI port-sporting board based around (surprise, surprise) ATI’s 690G platform—which is basically a combination of Radeon x1250 graphics and an SB600 Southbridge. We figure this board is part of an endangered species—what with ATI having been taken over by AMD—which is a pity, simply because choice breeds competition, and Intel and NVIDIA have run out of the latter as far as platforms for Intel processors go. This board, despite bearing the “Fatal1ty” moniker, fails to impress as a hardcore enthusiast product.

Performance

To be honest, there’s very little variety in the performance of the Intel-based motherboards—with the exception of the ECS P33T-A, though to be honest, with a Southbridge that is two generations old we expected this board to lag behind—particularly in the storage based tests. Surprisingly, it lagged in the graphics and gaming tests!

Both the Gigabyte boards do prove their mettle here, and both the MSI boards keep them close company.

Verdict

If you want an Intel-based solution, consider the duo from Gigabyte—the GA-G33-DS3R, (Rs 9,500) if you want something fast and feature rich and the GA-G33M-S2H, (Rs 5,950) if you’re looking for unbeatable value and HDMI thrown into the kitty. Both these boards are very different beasts despite being from the same stable—the former is an enthusiast solution with greater overclockability, solid state capacitors and an ATX form factor and the latter is more for the cinema buff. These two steal our Gold and Silver awards—the GA-G33-DS3R placing first and its cheaper sibling placing second.

AMD-Based
Features

ASUS had two offerings—M2A-VM and M2A-VM HDMI. These are basically the same board with one difference—the presence of an HDMI port. Abit’s AN-M2HD was a nice offering—micro ATX, a full 4 memory banks, HDMI, and a display solution that supports NVIDIA PureVideo.

Zebronics’ ZEB-N61M2 was the old timer in this category—the GeForce 6100 is an older Northbridge, and the nForce 410 Southbridge has been around for some time as well.

Performance

The MSI K9AGM2 (690G) performs quite superbly, taking our X2 6400 within striking distance of the newer X6800 (although a slight clock advantage is retained by the AMD part). In fact, one look at our CPU scores—especially under PC Mark 2005—will testify to the Gigabyte and MSI boards simply blowing away the other 690G based boards.

Although NVIDIA’s 7050 / 7025-based boards trail behind, we won’t be too critical—simply because these chipsets are really new, and we newer drivers should optimise things for better performance. The Abit AN-M2HD and the Galaxy AN68M boards were the only ones to cross the 190 fps mark.

Verdict

With everyone jumping on the Core 2 Duo bandwagon, it seems AMD is left out in the cold for now. However, we’ve seen a few solid platforms for AMD processors, and these do make viable solutions for those looking for a powerful multimedia or Home Entertainment PC. If you’re looking for value, it’s hard to ignore the Galaxy AN68M. A spanking new chipset that promises a lot, decent layout and expandability, HDMI connectivity (for home-cinema buffs)—all this at an unbelievable price of Rs 3,300! If you want something with a little more punch, we recommend the MSI K9AGM2 (690G)—priced a little higher at Rs 4,000. It’s got support for 8 GB of memory on 4 DIMM’s, and HDMI.

Gigabyte’s GA GA-MA69G-S3H is our Gold winner for AMD’s processors—a great combination of features and performance. The Zebronics ZEB-N61M2 steals silver mainly because of its unbeatable pricing—Rs 2,150.

Gigabyte GA-MA69G-S3H
The best 690G chipset based board

In Retrospect
Going by the steady increase in the number of players (and the number of products), our markets are teeming with options for various kinds of solutions. The enthusiast options—motherboards that come with everything—at a price.

Then there are those products aimed at prosumers—who are less discerning than enthusiasts. Home Cinema buffs will also find something from among our plethora of options.

Just when you think, “Hey—couldn’t get much better, right?” something new comes out! Intel’s new Penryn processors are about to enter the consumer space—and a whole new platform (Intel’s X38) with support for an FSB speed of 1600 MHz among a host of other goodies!

NVIDIA has promised a successor to their 680i chipset, we don’t even know whether it’ll be called the 780i or something else, but we’re as excited as the next guy! We’ve already seen the still shiny P35 become a reliable, powerful platform.

Then there’s the AgenaFX / Agena from AMD—the desktop spin off from their workstation processor Barcelona. New processor equals new platform. So much for 2008!

2009 should see the advent of native six- and eight-core processors in the form of AMD’s Sandtiger and Intel’s Nehalem—both of which should make today’s quad-cores look prehistoric.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.