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Biostar TA690G AM2 - a Motherboard Based on AMD 690G (Socket AM2) Chipset

November 7, 2007



The previous winter in Europe has turned out quite mild. Nevertheless, every gardener knows how important it is to check the condition of trees after the cold season. Spring is a time for the biggest clean-up in the garden. It is a time to clean out old leaves, withered last year's plants, worn-out props and covers, and other garbage left over from fall and winter.

So we too shall have a look at how the winter has affected our "nurslings" - motherboard manufacturers. We need not worry about the condition of the big five: ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, ECS and Foxconn. The motherboard market is growing in terms of absolute volume. Since Gigabyte has remained an independent company, there is no reason to fear monopolization and unfair competition in the near future. And what of the other companies, figuratively speaking, the small bushes and shrubbery? Have they "thinned out", turned to producing Mini-ITX and other built-in industrial grade boards? It seems so, except for a couple of companies, more specifically: abit, Biostar, EPoX and Jetway. Perhaps, a few years ago hardly anyone could have predicted that the list of companies producing full-size PC motherboards would be limited to these. Nevertheless, there are some relatively new names - EVGA and BFG. In addition, Albatron, DFI and some other companies keep ATX models in their series of products. However, the former companies are now basically selling reference boards under their brand and often charge too much for them. The products of the latter companies are hard to find (to be sure, they have to be ordered in advance). That is why it wouldn't be stretching the truth to disregard them altogether. Motherboards under Intel and Sapphire brands are produced, for obvious reasons, using only "select" chipsets that are geared towards system integrators and don't make a difference in retail.

The remaining four are not uniform either. The respectable EPoX brand will not be left without orders for a while. The same is true for Jetway, which is oriented towards low-end products. It can produce on demand a batch or two of boards for anyone interested. That allows it to occupy a small and low-income, but stable position on the market. In contrast, abit's position is still unstable. It is hard to tell whether the company will grow or "wither" by the next season (there is no other choice, it seems). On the other hand, Biostar is not about to give up its ground as a global supplier of motherboards. It is steadily increasing production, and there are reasons for reserved optimism in this case. Considering that in order to buy an expensive motherboard based on an elite chipset consumer is more likely to turn to the aforementioned grandees, models based on low-end discrete chipsets seem to be most interesting. For example, Biostar TForce550. Models based on high-end integrated chipsets also deserve attention, because they are becoming more appealing as a basis for the average household PCs. This article specifically concerns such a model.

Board's layout is almost perfect, which has already become a good tradition for Mini-ATX models. Of the peripheral interfaces only the FireWire is missing. On the other hand, one can increase the number of USB ports to the maximum number supported by the chipset - 10. After the board is installed into the chassis all sockets and jumpers are still easily accessible. 24-pin power supply connector is located near the edge. Only the northbridge heatsink, which resides near the processor socket, may in theory obstruct the installation of a non-standard CPU cooler. But! While this review was still being prepared Biostar has released an updated (5.2) revision of the board. It is the one that is actually going to be manufactured. The height of the northbridge heatsink for the new version has been reduced so that there is no way it can conflict with any processor cooler whatsoever.

AMD 690G chipset as we have already mentioned is one of the most efficient of the modern models with integrated graphics. Even under maximum 3D load it heats up insignificantly (TDP is 9 W). That is why the smaller heatsink still copes with its job. However, due to the location of the chipset close to the CPU, it is preferable to use Energy Efficient processor models in order to get a system with maximum reliability and minimal noise level. Such processors are widely available. Otherwise, you should use a massive cooler, which is not always economically justified. In other words, don't try to artificially reduce rotation rate of the standard CPU cooler fan. High CPU temperature leads to increased chipset temperature, which eventually may adversely affect the term of stable operation (although it is just a theoretical remark).

The thee-channel CPU supply impulse voltage stabilizer uses 3 field transistors per channel, 8 Panasonic capacitors (with polymer electrolyte) of 820 microfarad each and 3 United Chemi-Con - of KZG series, which is a respectable choice. Chipset and memory voltage stabilizer uses 8 1000 microfarad OST capacitors (of RLX series). This characteristic also provides sufficient reliability margin in case you decide to increase memory supply voltage to the maximum value allowed by the board's BIOS. There are no laid-out but unsoldered elements on the board. Board's size is 245x245 mm (Mini-ATX). It is mounted to the chassis using 8 screws. The corner with SATA slots remains unsecured, which, nevertheless, does not cause inconvenience during assembly or when connecting storage devices.

System Monitoring (ITE IT8716F-S, from BIOS Setup Data):

  • Voltage of CPU core, memory, chipset, HT bus, +3.3, +5, +12 V, +5 V Standby and battery;
  • Rotation rate of the 3 fans (CPU, system and chipset (which is not installed and can be used as a second system fan or a PSU fan));
  • Temperature of CPU (by built-in CPU sensor) and of the motherboard (by on-board sensor);
  • Smart Fan - automatic rotation rate control mode of the CPU and system coolers. The standard algorithm can be modified for the CPU fan in order to set the 4 temperature thresholds:
    • CPU Fan Off - fan stops when the temperature drops below the set value;
    • CPU Fan Start - fan starts when the temperature rises (in other words, one can set different values for start and stop in order to avoid the fan toggling frequently between on and off state);
    • CPU Fan Full Speed - temperature value for the maximum rotation rate;
    • Start PWM Value - temperature threshold, above which rotation rate is adjusted gradually;
    • PWM Slope - rotation rate increment for each degree of change in temperature.

A very laudable property - system monitoring data is displayed on the screen during POST. Unfortunately, Smart Fan mode is not available in BIOS version 3.09. However, in the board's description (and in earlier BIOS versions) it was present, so it is reasonable to expect it back in the next BIOS versions. Until then in order to reduce the noise one may use corresponding fan's rotation rate control options of the brand T-Utility in Windows.

Ports, Connectors and Sockets on Board Surface

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, declared support of all AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX/Sempron processors released for this socket);
  • 4 DDR2 SDRAM DIMM sockets (up to 4 GB DDR2-400/533/667/800, dual-channel mode of operation);
  • 1 PCIEx16 graphics accelerator slot;
  • 1 PCIEx1 slot;
  • 2 PCI slots;
  • Power supply connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins), 4-pin ATX12V for CPU supply;
  • FDD slot;
  • 1 IDE (Parallel ATA) slot for 2 chipset ATA133 devices;
  • 4 SATA-II (Serial ATA II) slots for 4 chipset SATA300 devices, disks connected to them can be combined into a RAID of levels 0, 1 and 0+1;
  • 3 bracket headers for 6 extra USB ports;
  • One header for a bracket with an extra COM port;
  • One header for a bracket with an extra LPT port;
  • CD/DVD-drive audio-out header;
  • Block of analog audio-in/out connectors for the computer's front panel;
  • S/PDIF-In header;
  • S/PDIF-Out header;
  • 2 fan connectors with rotation rate control capability, CPU (four-pin) and system (three-pin, JSFAN1) connectors support "intelligent" rotation rate control (the current BIOS version in incompatible with 3-pin connectors).

Board's Rear Panel (Left to Right, by Blocks)


click to view the board in 3/4 perspective from the rear panel side
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports;
  • 1 S-Video;
  • 1 HDMI;
  • 1 VGA, 1 DVI;
  • 2 USB ports;
  • 2 USB ports and 1 RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet) port;
  • 6 analog audio sockets (Center/Sub, Rear-Out, Side-Out, Line-In, Front-Out, Mic-In).

Package Contents

  • Packing: standard-size box in recognizable Biostar style has a unique design for the model based on AMD 690G chipset;
  • Documentation: instructions sheet (main section in English with multi-language specifications);
  • Folder-bag (with a zipper) that contains all the board's accessories;
  • Cables: 1 SATA with a supply adapter for 1 SATA device, 1 ATA66 and a cable for connecting a floppy drive;
  • A rear panel plug that adds corresponding connectors;
  • A CD with drivers and brand Biostar utilities. The set of brand utilities includes T-Utility suite, which can be installed in parts:
    • Over Clock - provides overclocking including changing the clock rate, multiplier and voltage of the CPU core, memory clock rate and voltage, and frequencies of PCI and PCI-Express buses (the latter ability is available only in this utility and is not in the BIOS);
    • Hardware Doctor - monitoring of system parameters;
    • Fan Control - monitoring rotation rate of coolers and temperature of CPU and "the system", enabling Smart Fan mode and setting a constant rotation rate for both fans is also available;
    • BIOS Live Update - automatic BIOS update with the ability to search for the latest version on the manufacturer's web-site.
    Besides that the package includes the antivirus Bullguard Internet Security 6.0 suite (a 90-day trial version).

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio controller is based on chipset HDA support and Realtek ALC888 codec with the ability to connect 7.1 audio systems, connectors for the front panel audio- ins and outs, S/PDIF-In/Out and CD-In;
  • Network controller: Gigabit Ethernet that supports 10/100/1000 Mbit/s is based on Realtek RTL8111 PCIE controller.

We have evaluated quality of the integrated audio in 16-bit 44-KHz mode using RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 testing suite and ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 KHz), dB: +0.01, -0.03Excellent
Noise level, dB (A): -77.3Average
Dynamic range, dB (A): 77.5Average
THD, %: 0.010Good
IMD + N, %: 0.033Good
Channel crosstalk, dB: -81.6Very good
IMD at 10 KHz, %: 0.031Good

Overall rating: Good. Beyond any doubt, there are positive changes in comparison to the previously tested Biostar TForce550. It is important, because the probability of a user relying on integrated audio controller for a model with integrated graphics is much higher than in case of a board based on discrete chipset. We could complain about the narrow dynamic range, however, it is not as critical to audio perception as distortions (which have been taken care of in this case). Subjectively the quality of this audio support can be rated as a B+ (by integrated audio standards, of course).

Brand Technologies and Features

  • Boot Menu - ability to choose boot-up disk in a separate express-menu without having to change settings in the main BIOS menu;
  • BIOS Flash Utility - built-in utility for rewriting BIOS from a floppy disk without having to load the OS;
  • CMOS Reload Program - ability to save BIOS settings profiles (up to 50 records), but, in contrast to ASUS BIOS Profile technology, storing is provided in CMOS area only (not on an external disk);
  • Self Recovery System - automatic restoration of BIOS settings to default values in case of excessive overclocking.

Settings

Based on jumpers and switchesCMOS reset jumper 
2 buttons (power and restart) Allow to switch on and reboot the computer without having to connect corresponding cables from the chassis front panel to the board
Through BIOS based on Award WorkstationBIOS v6.00PG Ability to turn specific CPU functions off + K8 Cool'n'Quiet
Memory timing settings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, Min RAS Active Time, RAS to CAS Delay, Row Precharge Time, Async Latency, Row to Row Delay, Row Cycle Time, Write Recovery Time, Read-To-Write Time, Write-To-Read Time, and a wide selection of additional timings and Drive Strength parameters
Memory clock rate selection + Auto, 400, 533, 667, 800 MHz (actually sets multiplier relative to HTT frequency)
HT bus operational settings + Frequency (200, 400, 600, 800 and 1000 MHz), width: 8 or 16 bit and additional Drive Strength settings
Ability to set frequencies of peripheral buses - PCI and PCI-Express frequency can be set using T-Utility in Windows
Manual distribution of interrupts by slots +  
Adjusting FSB frequency + 200-600 MHz in 1 MHz increments
Adjusting CPU multiplier + from x4, in integer increments
Adjusting CPU core voltage + +0.012-0.787 V in 0.012 V increments
Adjusting memory voltage + 1.95-2.65 V in 0.05 V increments
Adjusting HT bus voltage + 1.20-1.35 V in 0.05 V increments
Adjusting chipset voltage + 1.20-1.35 V in 0.05 V increments

For testing we have used BIOS 03/09/07 version provided by the manufacturer. The aforementioned BIOS capabilities are available in the specified version of the BIOS. Non-standard settings were not tested for operability.

Overclocking capabilities offered by the board are simply unheard of for models with integrated chipsets. Three automatic overclocking modes with names hinting at automobile engine designations (V6, V8 and V12) are offered as well. They are described as corresponding to "Extra, Extreme and Extraordinary" degrees of overclocking. In case of our processor the resulting clock rates were 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5 GHz accordingly. Unfortunately, automatic mode only increases FSB frequency without caring to decrease the HT multiplier, let alone to increase the voltages. As a consequence, automatic overclocking may produce worse stability of operation in comparison to a system manually overclocked to even higher values.

The ability to save BIOS settings profiles and a built-in updating utility are also untypical of the boards of this level. These features definitely deserve a positive mark.

Overclocking

In order to evaluate the overclocking capabilities of the board and its BIOS, we overclock our testbed CPU to the highest frequency possible that also allows for stable operation. Applying this test procedure, we are able to effectively use all of the test board's supported abilities, including increasing processor core voltage, and if necessary, correcting multipliers and adjusting system and peripheral bus frequencies. However, if lowering Hyper-Transport frequency, for example, doesn't improve overclocking performance, the default multiplier is used instead. RAM is set (by using multiplier correction) to the standard frequency for the modules being used, unless the manufacturer specifies methods for improving memory overclocking, in which case their effectiveness is also explored. In order to evaluate the overclocked system's stability, we load Windows XP and run performance tests built into WinRAR (Tools menu - Benchmark and hardware test) for 10 minutes. It is important to realize that overclocking performance varies by motherboard and is, to some extent, an individual characteristic of each specific unit. For this reason, it is impossible for us, and any other review, to determine the overclocking potential of any board with megahertz precision. The practical goal of our test is to find out if the CPU's high overclocking potential is hindered by the board and to evaluate the board's behavior in non-standard BIOS modes. This test also assesses the board's ability to automatically revert to correct frequencies in the case of system hang-ups, excessive overclocking, etc.

  Clock rate, MHz FSB frequency, MHz Core supply voltage (according to BIOS system monitoring), V HT bus frequency (multiplier), MHz
Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.0 GHz) 2800 280 1.53 840 (x3)

This is not a record-breaking but a decent result, nonetheless. We must note the flawless operation of the SRS, which is Biostar's support of automatic parameter restoration after a hang-up due to excessive overclocking. Default settings are used only for booting up. After that the user is directed to a BIOS menu, where the previous parameter values are shown in order to be corrected.

Performance

Testbed configuration:

  • Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+
  • RAM: 2 Kingston KHX7200D2K2/1G (DDR2-800, 5-5-5-15-2T) modules
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Graphics card: ATI Radeon X1900XTX, 512 MB GDDR3
  • PSU: Chieftec CFT-560-A12C
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

For comparison we have chosen MSI K9AGM2-FIH, a motherboard based on the equivalent chipset. In addition, besides testing Biostar's board using Catalyst 7.2 drivers (which were used to test MSI's board) we have also used the current version (7.4). That way we checked the effect of optimizing the drivers, which is likely to happen, because the chipset has just recently been released. The table shows Biostar results for the 7.4 version only, because results for the 7.2 have turned out almost identical to MSI's. Therefore, in terms of integrated graphics performance we can consider the two boards to be identical.

Benchmark Integrated graphics Discrete graphics
MSI K9AGM2 (Catalyst 7.2) Biostar TA690G AM2 (Catalyst 7.4) MSI K9AGM2 Biostar TA690G AM2
Data compression using 7-Zip, min:sec 6:45 6:30 6:35 6:27
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:08 5:58 6:04 6:01
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 32.1 32.9 59.6 60.7
Unreal Tournament 2004 (High@1024x768), fps 22.4 24.6 56.5 57.7
FarCry (Medium@800x600), fps 32.3 35.8 128.1 128.3
DOOM III (Medium@800x600), fps 14.1 14.8 133.3 136.5

The ability to manually set the clock rate and memory timings in BIOS, as one could have expected, has had a positive impact on computational test results. However, as far as games are concerned, the updated driver has resulted only in 5-10% improvement, which nevertheless is still nice.

Conclusions

It is clear that the Biostar's motherboard based on AMD 690G chipset that we have examined is not going to be lying around unsold on the store shelves. We hope that it isn't going to be because the scarce supply of Biostar's boards will fall short of the potential demand. It is a rare chance to see a board with integrated chipset come with such a gorgeous BIOS in terms of overclocking settings. Not to mention such an interesting set of brand features, which includes, by the way, 4 video-out ports on the rear panel. Of course, you cannot use all of them to output a different picture onto each of 4 displays. HDMI and DVI are "coupled" so a monitor can be connected to only one at a time. Another monitor can be connected to a VGA port, while the S-Video can translate the same signal onto a TV. High-quality components are used in power supply circuits. The memory slots are marked in correspondence to first and second channel, which is a small, but nice feature. All that makes the overall positive impression complete.


The motherboard was provided for tests by the manufacturer

Dmitriy Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
November 7, 2007

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