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ASRock ALiveXFire-eSATA2 — a Motherboard on AMD 480X CrossFire (Socket AM2)

April 19, 2007



CrossFire has already become no less popular than SLI. Video cards based on Radeon 1650XT/1950 PRO processors that appeared in Autumn, 2006, can be united into CrossFire with a bridge and do not require a master card. What's also important, the cards are quite competitive and popular in their segments.

You can argue whether it's expedient to buy a CrossFire (as well as SLI) Ready system — a motherboard with two graphics ports - and install just a single video card. But this option looks more than logical, if such a motherboard is not much more expensive. At least for a gaming computer. There are more chances that you will decide to add a much cheaper second video card (identical to what you already have in your system) than that you will use all 6—8 SATA ports and a couple of gigabit network adapters, typical of expensive motherboards.

However, this reasoning is spoilt by the fact that there are much fewer inexpensive motherboards for Socket AM2 supporting CrossFire than models for SLI. That's why we decided to pay close attention to the offer from ASRock.




The PCB layout is rather tight. Fastidious users may grumble about the location of the floppy connector in the very bottom as well as about the way eSATA ports are connected. They do not work by default, they must be connected to a couple of standard SATA connectors with long cables that go through the entire motherboard. It should be noted that the cables may not be included into the bundle (we had no such cables in our bundle), they are mentioned as optional components in the manual. However, most motherboards in this price segment do not have eSATA ports at all.

The chipset does not grow very hot. So a couple of heatsinks, usual for AMD/ATI chipsets, cope with their task under any load. However, Northbridge heatsink is installed so that a CPU cooler can contribute to its cooling. As usual, we recommend that you should not neglect this opportunity, especially if you are an overclocker.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates two field-effect transistors per phase, six 1500  uF capacitors from OST and four 1000 uF capacitors from Nichicon. It's a balanced choice for an inexpensive motherboard.

The PCB has no empty seats - it's the only motherboard on this chipset in the line of ASRock products, so it has a unique design. Motherboard dimensions — "narrow" ATX (305×208 mm), seven-screw mount (the right edge is not fixed on the level of memory slots).

System monitoring (Winbond W83627EHG, according to BIOS Setup)

  • CPU voltage, +3.3 V, +5 V, and +12 V
  • RPM of 2 fans
  • CPU temperature (by the built-in CPU sensor, you can monitor two values — Internal and Ambient; this option really shows core and under-cap temperatures) and PCB temperature (by the on-board sensor)
  • CPU Quiet Fan — smart control of CPU fan speed depending on CPU temperature. You can specify a temperature threshold within 45°—65° and the target fan speed. As far as the temperature remains below the threshold, the cooler runs at a constant speed (high, average, or minimal, depending on the target frequency). When the temperature grows above the threshold — fan speed gradually grows to maximum or until the temperature stops growing. Unfortunately, only 4-pin fans can be controlled.

Motherboard monitoring and management features are also available via SpeedFan 4.31. This program also detects an additional sensor installed in a less hot part of the motherboard (it can be used to monitor temperature inside a PC case).

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, officially supports all AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX, Opteron and Sempron processors for this socket)
  • 4 × DDR2 SDRAM DIMM (up to 8 GB DDR2-400/533/667/800, dual-channel mode)
  • 2 × PCIEx16 for video cards (they work in "x8+x8" mode; in case of a single video card they can be reconfigured with an additional card into "x16+x0") with CrossFire support, pay attention to the list of video cards tested for compatibility
  • 1 × PCIEx1
  • 3 × PCI
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.1 (20 pins), 4-pin ATX12V for a processor and an additional "peripheral" connector, which should be used when you install two video cards
  • 1 × FDD
  • IDE (Parallel ATA) for two ATA133 devices — "chipset-based"
  • 6 × SATA, four of them are chipset-based Serial ATA II connectors for four SATA300 devices (connected drives can form RAID 0, 1 and 0+1); another two SATA II connectors near eSATA II connectors on the rear panel can be joined with the pair of main connectors using standard cables to activate eSATA connectors on the rear panel. Thus, the total number of available SATA connectors is four, but two of them can be installed on the rear panel to plug external devices
  • 4 connectors for brackets with 8 additional USB ports
  • 1 × CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • IrDA connector
  • Connector for the HDMI S/PDIF input on a video card
  • Connector for a bracket with a Game/MIDI port
  • 2 fan headers with rpm control; the 4-pin header for a CPU fan supports smart fan control.

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





Click the image to open the rear view of this motherboard
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard jacks, 1 x LPT and 1 x COM
  • 2 × eSATA
  • 2 × USB and 1 × RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 3 × analog audio jacks (Side-Out, Rear-Out, Center/Sub)
  • 3 × Analog Audio (Line-In, Front-Out, Mic-In).

Bundle




  • Package: a small box of the traditional ASRock design for motherboards, it lists proprietary features of the model, including some overclocking option that increases performance by 12.5% and the HDMI Ready statement (S/PDIF-Out and an appropriate bundled audio cable for a video card with HDMI)
  • Documentation: User's Manual in many languages (no Russian though) and a brochure with instructions how to hot plug SATA devices
  • 1 × Serial ATA
  • 1 x SATA power converter for a single device
  • 1 × ATA66, 1 × FDD
  • 1 × HDMI S/PDIF
  • Rear I/O shield
  • A rear panel bracket for two USB ports
  • CD with drivers and McAfee VirusScan.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on the chipset support for High Definition Audio and Realtek ALC888 codec, 7.1+2 channel audio, front line-ins/outs supporting an additional stereo channel, CD-In, and HDMI S/PDIF jacks
  • Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps based on PCI-E controller Realtek RTL8111B.

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0.01, -0.03
Excellent
Noise level, dB (A):
-91.0
Very good
Dynamic range, dB (A):
90.5
Very good
THD, %:
0.0041
Very good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.016
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-91.9
Excellent
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.0097
Very good

General performance: Very good (details). The motherboard is praiseworthy in terms of integrated audio.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • AM2 Boost — this mode automatically raises frequencies and reduces timings, it's declared to increase memory performance by 12.5%
  • Boot Failure Guard — rolling back to the default BIOS settings in case of a failed overclocking attempt.

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper  
PS2_USB_PWR jumper Wake on keyboard and USB (you have to enable a corresponding option in BIOS)
AMIBIOS 2.61 Allows to disable specific CPU functions + K8 Cool’n’Quiet
AMD Virtualization
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, Min RAS Active Time, Row Precharge Time, RAS to CAS Delay, Row-To-Row Delay, Row Cycle Time
Memory frequency selection + Auto, 400, 533, 667, 800 MHz (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + Frequency (200-1000 MHz at 200 MHz steps) and capacity (8 or 16 bit)
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCIE = 100—104 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI IRQ manual assignment -  
FSB frequency setup + 150—400 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from ×4 at ×0.5 steps
CPU core voltage control + 0.800—1.400 at 0.025 V steps
Memory voltage control + 1.85—2.05 V at 0.05 V steps
Chipset voltage control + Auto, Ultra High, High, Normal, Low (for Northbridge)
HT voltage control + Auto, High, Low

We used BIOS 1.50 dated 08.03.07, the latest available BIOS version at the time of our tests. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested.

The motherboard offers quite a narrow memory voltage adjustment range. So you shouldn't use it with modules requiring increased voltage (modules for overclockers), especially as it makes no sense - the motherboard is not good at overclocking. You can enable an enhanced compatibility mode in BIOS, which can provide operating stability, if your memory modules are not quite supported by the motherboard. To all appearances, this mode significantly increases all latencies. Performance dropped much in our tests, so we do not recommend using this mode, if you don't really have to.

Overclocking

In order to evaluate the motherboard and its BIOS, we overclock our testbed processor to a maximum stable level. We use all features of the motherboard in this test, including raising CPU voltage and adjusting multipliers and frequencies of system and peripheral buses, if necessary (but if, for example, reducing Hyper-Transport frequency does not improve overclocking, we leave the default multiplier). Memory is set to the standard frequency for a given memory module (multiplier correction), if a manufacturer does not publish any ways to improve memory overclocking. Otherwise, we analyze their efficiency as well. In order to evaluate stability of the overclocked system, we load Windows XP and run WinRAR performance test for 10 minutes (Tools — Benchmark and hardware test). As overclocking potential is an individual property of a given motherboard sample to some degree, we don't set the task to determine overclocking potential to within a single MHz. In practice, we are to find out whether CPU overclocking will be limited by a motherboard as well as to evaluate its behavior in non-standard modes, including automatic restoration of a correct frequency after a failed overclocking attempt, etc.

  Clock, MHz FSB Clock, MHz Core voltage (according to system monitoring in BIOS), V HT bus frequency (multiplier), MHz
Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.0 GHz)
2500
250
1.416
1249 (x5)

It's not an outstanding result. The motherboard does not allow to increase CPU voltage. Moreover, the full potential is not revealed even at the standard voltage (our processor can yield 2750 MHz at 1.4 V). Neither increasing chipset voltage nor reducing HT bus multiplier improved overclocking. Besides, we have gripes with the function that rolls back to default BIOS settings, when your system freezes. Nothing was restored in our case even after a forced reboot or power-off-and-back-on. We had to reset CMOS with a jumper. The automatic overclocking mode works only when you set all parameters by default (including memory frequency and timings). But as the motherboard would stubbornly set our memory to DDR2-533, increasing memory frequency to DDR2-800 yielded better results.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+
  • Memory: 2 × Kingston KHX7200D2K2/1G (DDR2-800, 5-5-5-15-1T)
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Video card: ATI Radeon X1900XTX, 512 MB GDDR3
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec CFT-560-A12C
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We decided to compare our model under review with ASRock AM2XLI-eSATA2 on ULi M1697, as it's a similar ASRock model for an inexpensive SLI system.

Test ASRock AM2XLI-eSATA2 ASRock ALiveXFire-eSATA2
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 6:35 6:40
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:00 6:03
DOOM III (Low@640×480), fps 139.6 140.5
DOOM III (High@1024×768), fps 139.2 137.4
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640×480), fps 61.1 60.5
Unreal Tournament 2004 (High@1024×768), fps 57.9 57.5

The results are practically identical.

Conclusions

You will definitely like this motherboard, if you want an inexpensive CrossFire system. Along with other chipsets with SB600 Southbridge, AMD 480X CrossFire looks competitive enough. Support for the external SATA interface, even if not quite elegant, also seems like a good point for this model, if you are thinking about an external hard drive with the most progressive connection method. There are just two USB ports on the rear panel — not much for these days. But on the other hand, the bundle has a bracket for another two ports, and the total number of ports supported by the motherboard reaches 10 (owing to SB600 Southbridge). Only overclockers will most likely be displeased and prefer a different model with a higher overclocking potential.

This model on the manufacturer's web site (Russian mirror)

The motherboard was kindly provided by ULTRA Electronics





Dmitry Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
April 19, 2007




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