Today is the 1st of March! First of all I'd like to congratulate our readers - Spring has come. Winter is gradually retreating, the snow will start melting soon, various living creatures will awake and breed. The same concerns ATI. Probably falling for the total spring mood, it decided to widen its range of chipsets and timed this event to the beginning of Spring 2006.
Joking aside, today ATI has lifted a ban to publish reviews of its new product — ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 core logic (codenamed RD580). Since today you can officially examine this chipset, run tests of the first samples of motherboards on the new Xpress chipset, and even publish your impressions without risking to infringe Top Secret with all the ensuing consequences… In fact, ATI was going to present its new product a month ago, but as it usually happens, the date was postponed and the audience had to wait.
We should say right away that functionality of the new core logic has been reviewed in a separate review. Our objective here is to find out capacities of the first motherboard on ATI Xpress 3200. This motherboard is ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe. But we'll soon see (in mid-late March) motherboards from other manufacturers, such as Sapphire, DFI, ABIT, PCPartners, and MSI. As for now, we have an opportunity to examine only an ASUS product. We'll compare it to other models later. Digressing a little from our topic, let's pay attention to the main RD580 features we'll encounter in this article. First of all, its northbridge supports 40 PCI-E lanes, 32 of which are designed for two PCIEx16 ports, which sets the RD580 to advantage against competing chipset. Indeed, even nForce4 SLI X16 (the only desktop chipset supporting two full-speed PCIEx16 slots) connects the second slot to southbridge (theoretically it gets penalties for transferring data via the interbridge bus). The other chipsets may offer only curtailed combinations of speed for two graphics interfaces.
Secondly, RD580 now allows CrossFire (CF) for X1300 and X1600 video accelerators without a master card (besides, NVIDIA got rid of SLI Bridges). And thirdly, according to the engineers, the new core logic allows to overclock the system easily. As the chipset itself is rather cool, you don't have to use additional cooling. Of course, such bold declarations cannot go unnoticed — as a result, we should check it up. By the way, most motherboard manufacturers prefer to use the RD580 northbridge together with southbridge from ULi (M1575), because ATI SB400/450 is too unpretentious for a top solution. But ATI promises to launch a new southbridge by this summer, which will offer proper functionality.
ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe is a top motherboard - it has rich functionality and a good bundle. We could hardly expect anything else from a motherboard on the top chipset for enthusiasts. FireWire controller, two gigabit network adapters, and HDA codec Realtek ALC882, which demonstrated decent audio quality in our tests, allow to speak of professional expansion of chipset functionality. Additional SATA-II RAID controller will come in handy to connect external hard disk drives, as one Serial ATA port is placed on the rear panel. We also like very much the lack of currently useless (de facto) PCIEx1 slots, which are replaced with PCI slots. So, it's a well-designed top model. In conclusion it should be said that the A8R32-MVP Deluxe is currently the only motherboard from ASUS, equipped with the ATI Xpress 3200 chipset. Success of this model should determine the future of this series.
PCB layout is quite good, there is practically nothing to cavil at. The only drawback we found — the northbridge heatsink is rather close to the CPU socket, which hampers installation of even a compact boxed cooler. But you may have serious problems with installing a CPU heatsink with a large base. And of course, video accelerators with large cooling systems make it extremely difficult or even impossible to install expansion cards into adjacent slots. But there is nothing specific about it for the A8R32-MVP Deluxe. Note that one of wide parallel interface connectors traditionally lies sidelong, but this time it's FDD instead of IDE. Visual diagnostic tools include the traditional ASUS LED that lights up when a computer is powered on (in this case you shouldn't manipulate memory modules, expansion cards, etc, to say nothing of removing/installing a processor). Access to the only jumper is not hampered even when the motherboard is in a case. There is a brief description of jumper functions on the PCB.
The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates four 1000 uF capacitors and eight 820 uF ones. The board is also equipped with a memory voltage regulator (two 1500 uF capacitors and eight 470 uF ones.) Critical circuits mostly incorporate electrolytic capacitors from respected Sanyo and United Chemi-Con (to be more exact, Sanyo capacitors are not electrolytic, but use special polymer for dielectric). Also note that field-effect transistors in the CPU power circuit are cooled by a special heatsink. But judging from temperature readings during our tests (we'll discuss this issue in the corresponding section), the board can do well even without it. The board contains empty seats for 4-pin (peripheral) power connector (for top video cards without their own power connectors) and a buzzer (a small speaker that notifies you of startup failures). The PCB layout also allows to install an expansion board (near the rear panel) for wireless radio interface (802.11g). As a rule, this model comes as a Deluxe/WiFi modification. Motherboard dimensions — 305x245 mm (full-sized ATX, nine-screw mount, all motherboard edges are firmly fixed).
System monitoring (ITE IT8712F-A, according to BIOS Setup):
Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors
Back panel (left to right, blockwise)
Click the image to open the rear view of this motherboard
Various cables and brackets with additional ports support nearly all expansion capacities of the motherboard, which makes a very nice impression. Moreover, the only vacant connector for two USB ports is intended for an expansion card with a network adapter (802.11g) in the WiFi/Deluxe modification. It does not lack a bundled bracket for a petty economical reason. However, considering a great number of PC cases with USB ports on the front panel, this motherboard connector will find its usage.
General performance: Very good (details).
Proprietary technologies and peculiarities
We used BIOS v.0201, 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.
Payback time :). We shall not do anything scary, we'll just try how easy it is to overclock RD580 and ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe and measure temperatures during this process. What concerns operation at standard frequencies, the situation with heating is OK, meaning that it's on an acceptable level. Note that temperature of the field-effect transistors in the CPU power circuit remains surprisingly low. This fact makes the heatsink on these transistors a precaution rather than a necessity. Proceeding further, we overclocked the system by 20% of the nominal frequency. Motherboard has passed all our tests, temperature of its main elements (bottom line in the table) kept within the norm, though being a tad higher than just at standard frequencies under load.
Problems started at 30% overclocking: we set the CPU multiplier to 12, FSB frequency was increased to 250 MHz (the resulting processor clock was 3 GHz) and the PCI-E frequency — to 130 MHz. The system started up and loaded OS, but it was unstable during our tests and froze sometimes. We stopped terrorizing the motherboard and stopped at 20%, as the easiest and harmless overclocking. Of course, it's a tad lower than we could expect from a chipset for overclockers. But an updated BIOS may improve the results. Anyway, one experiment is not enough for building statistics. On the other hand, if you understand little in BIOS Setup, you can still overclock the system by 20% with a single key press, which is not that little.
The chipset of our today's motherboard under review certainly provokes interest to its CrossFire capacities. A pair of video cards has been tested by reputed Andrey Vorobiev (our Video editor). The tests were carried out with video cards, which would do best for the CF mode (according to the developers), namely: ATI Radeon X1300 Pro (256 MB), X1600 XT (256 MB) and X1900 XT (512 MB).
Detailed results of our shootout can be found on a separate web page. Here we shall publish only brief comments, kindly provided by Andrey. Most tests demonstrated good performance together with problems in image quality in CrossFire mode. As we carried out our tests on the motherboard with a preliminary (and probably buggy) BIOS version and the motherboard itself appeared in our testlab before the official shipments started, these factors might be the reasons for such problems. In the nearest time we'll try to re-run the tests, because when we published this article, there appeared a new final BIOS version. In that article we'll scrutinize image quality in CrossFire mode.
Now let's analyze the results from a practical point of view. These days ATI Radeon X1300 Pro costs about $120, X1600 XT — about $230, and X1900 XT — about $680. In order to determine advantages of these solutions, we should just compare their test results. Two ATI X1300 Pro cards (~ $240) demonstrate approximately the same performance as a single X1600 XT (~ $230), so your choice will be governed mostly by personal preferences. Situation with the next pairs is more complex: In the majority of tests ATI Radeon X1900 XT (~ $680) outperforms a pair of X1600 XT cards (~ $460). The difference between them generally amounts to 20—30% (sometimes up to 50%) depending on a resolution, AA+ANIS, and a test. But among other things, X1600 XT CF and a single X1900 XT are separated by an abyss of more than $200, so buying a couple of X1600 XT cards may be a good compromise between price and maximum performance. Of course, the above said concerns only the comparison of three video cards and cannot reflect the picture on the whole (we haven't discussed similar solutions from NVIDIA). But the positive tendency that gradually brings CrossFire close to a regular user with the average income is good news.
Getting back to standard motherboard tests, you can see in the table below that ASUS A8R32-MVP is on quite a decent level, though it's slightly outperformed by our reference models in the majority of tests. We've chosen the following models as a reference point: MSI motherboard on ATI Xpress 200 CFE (RD480) and ASUS model on NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16.
But we use a single video card in these tests, so CrossFire is out of the question. But the results of A8R32-MVP Deluxe are a tad low — we'll write it off to the preliminary BIOS version. We'll check whether the new version has improved the situation.
On the whole, the ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe left a nice impression. We found no serious drawbacks during our tests, though the retail price may become one of them. Indubitable advantage of this model is its functionality, including support for the full-speed x16+x16 mode for CrossFire. The bundle is also good. It was pleasant to find out that the engineers did not play cunning when they spoke of easy overclocking without overheating problems (though our sample couldn't be overclocked too high ). What concerns CrossFire, it's too early to draw final conclusions: for now we have gripes with the image quality, only additional analysis may clarify the issue. You can evaluate CrossFire prospects by the test results. In brief, we can say that buying a couple of video accelerators (X1300 Pro or X1600 XT at minimum) will not be unjustified, though it will not provide obvious gains.
The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer
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