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Biostar TForce550 — a Motherboard on NVIDIA nForce 550 (Socket AM2)

August 1, 2006



Biostar aspires to the same positions on the market as ABIT, EPoX, DFI, Albatron, and other so-called second-tier manufacturers. They are all oriented on the retail market in the first place, which never had and never will have such turnovers as the OEM market. Nevertheless, the cost of boxed products (and consequently the margin) is higher. It allows these companies to exist comfortably (even if complaining about hard times), to set up vast displays at IT expos, design unique motherboards and equip them with original options. Unfortunately, not all of them can provide sufficient number of products on the new chipsets to the masses synchronously with first-tier manufacturers. But the lag is not too large.

As success of such companies is directly connected with the positive image in the eyes of consumers (most buyers of boxed motherboards understand hardware issues very well), products from "minor" manufacturers are often technically better. In particular, while the grands are thinking about using elite capacitors for budget models, their colleagues have been offering the "Sanyo & Rubycon" cocktail for a long time already. But as only few companies can do better than first-tier companies in pricing (we can think of DFI LANParty or ABIT Fatal1ty), prices for such motherboards remain quite attractive.

What concerns Biostar, it's famous for a loyal pricing policy, partially thanks to savings on advertising and promotion of the brand itself. At the same time, the famous companies do not spend money on customers' loyalty to their brands out of sheer vanity. That's an objective must, as poor models (to say nothing of poor lots) may slip from any manufacturer. And one of the marketing tasks is to avoid associating all product of the company with single problems. Biostar follows its own way. As a result, many users put this brand on the same level as Jetway, PCChips, and the like — that is the most unassuming segment. But a technical level of the modern TForce line is objectively no lower than in EPoX models, favoured so much in Russia.

The history of AMD support by Biostar motherboards is rich in events. The company didn't miss a single chipset for this platform from its main partners — NVIDIA and VIA. Announcements of motherboards for AMD processors always stand first (later on the company extended this policy to its barebone-kits). Long ago, in the times of the first Athlon processors, you were considered very lucky to have a Biostar motherboard (the line of such models was very short).

Biostar has only seven models for Socket AM2 so far: motherboards on nForce4, nForce4 Ultra, nForce 550, 570 Ultra and 590 SLI, GeForce 6100, as well as mini PC on GeForce 6100. Models on VIA chipsets will probably appear later. Our test lab got hold of a model on the junior discrete chipset from NVIDIA — nForce550, which hasn't been tested yet. That's how it looks like:




The motherboard is called TForce550. It does not echo the chipset name: TForce series includes models on other chipsets as well. The numeric part points at the chipset. As each chipset is currently represented by a single model in the model line from Biostar, such a brief designation is sufficient to ID a model.




PCB layout is praiseworthy. You can easily access all connectors and jumpers even after you install this motherboard into a PC case. Only the 24-pin power connector in the center of the board slightly upsets the perfection. The engineers thought that six on-board USB ports (together with fours ports on a bracket) were sufficient for all peripheral devices, so the PCB has no seat for a FireWire controller. It's probably the only objective drawback.

Active cooling of the chipset is provided by a high-speed 5000rpm fan (as a rule, it runs at a constant speed; but it can speed up in case of overheating, which we failed to imitate). The noise spectrum is relatively low-frequency. You will hardly hear the fan inside a PC case. In return, the cooling quality is up to the mark, the aluminum heatsink is elongated and uses thermal compound of thick consistency. Considering the overclocking "specialization" of this model, such an approach to chipset cooling is justified.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates 3 field-effect transistors per channel, five 1500 uF capacitors from Panasonic and three ones from Chemi-Con (KZG series) - a respectable choice. The voltage regulator of the chipset and memory uses 1000 uF capacitors from OST (high-temperature series RLP for lead-free solder), which are certainly worse than elite components. They are a reasonable compromise. The PCB contains no empty seats. Motherboard dimensions — 305x220 mm (narrow ATX), seven-screw mount, the nearest edge is not fixed on the level of peripheral connectors.

System monitoring (ITE IT8712F-A, according to BIOS Setup):

  • Voltages on a processor core, memory, chipset, HT bus, +3.3, +5, +12 V, +5 V Standby and battery
  • Rotational speed of three fans (processor, system, and chipset)
  • CPU and board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)
  • SmartFan — automatic rotational speed control for CPU and system coolers. You can influence the standard algorithms of the CPU fan — that is you can specify four temperature thresholds:
    • CPU Fan Off — the fan stops, when the temperature drops below a specified threshold
    • CPU Fan Start — the fan starts, when the temperature grows (in other words, you can specify different values for starting and stopping the fan, in order to avoid frequent ons/offs)
    • CPU Fan Full Speed — a temperature threshold for full speed
    • Start PWM Value — a temperature threshold, when the system starts controlling the rotational speed
    • PWM Slope — rotational acceleration per 1°C.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, officially supports all AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX/Sempron processors for this socket)
  • 4 x DDR2 SDRAM DIMM (up to 4 GB DDR2-400/533/667/800, dual-channel mode)
  • 1 PCIEx16 for a video accelerator
  • 2 x PCIEx1
  • 4 x PCI
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins) and 4-pin ATX12V to power a processor
  • 1 x FDD
  • 1 x "chipset-based" IDE (Parallel ATA) for two ATA133 devices
  • 4 x "chipset-based" SATA-II (Serial ATA II) for four SATA300 devices, connected drives can form RAID 0, 1, and 0+1
  • 2 connectors for brackets with 4 additional USB ports
  • Connector for a bracket with an LPT port
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • S/PDIF-Out connector
  • 3 x fan headers with rpm control, processor (4-pin) and system (3-pin, JSFAN1) headers offer smart speed control from BIOS. The system is fully compatible with 3-pin CPU coolers, including continuous speed control within the PWM temperature range, specified in BIOS.

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





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

Package Contents




  • Package: a standard-sized box in the common style for "T-Series" models, unique design for an nForce 550 model
  • Documentation: User manual (the body of the manual is in English, but specifications are published in various languages)
  • A zipped folder with accessories
  • Cables: 1 x SATA with a power converter for one SATA device, 1 x ATA66, and 1 x FDD cable
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with drivers and proprietary Biostar utilities.

A set of proprietary utilities (T-Utility), which components can be installed separately:

  • Over Clock — overclocking the system, including options to change CPU's clock, multiplier, and voltage, memory's frequency and voltage, and PCI-Express clock (by the way, the last feature is not available in BIOS)
  • Hardware Monitor — monitoring system parameters
  • Fan Control — monitoring speed of coolers and CPU/system temperature, as well as enabling Smart Fan and specifying fixed speed for both fans
  • BIOS Live Update — automatically updating BIOS, downloading the latest version from the official web site.

Besides, the bundle includes Bullguard Internet Security 6.0 (90-day trial).

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on the chipset-based HDA support and Realtek ALC861 codec, 7.1 channel audio, front line-ins/outs and S/PDIF-Out
  • Network Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbit/s, based on the chipset (with its own high-speed interface) and Marvell 88E1116-MNC1 PHY controller.

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the Terratec DMX 6fire sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0,15, -1,29
Average
Noise level, dB (A):
-71,7
Average
Dynamic range, dB (A):
71.9
Average
THD, %:
0.019
Good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.063
Good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-67,3
Good
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.399
Average

General performance: Average (details). The results are surprising, to say the least. This is the case when testing the audio section is justified even for those, who are not used to complaining about audio quality and who don't expect the quality of a high-end sound card from integrated audio. We re-ran the tests several times, reshuffling cards in PCI slots and using different driver versions, to eliminate (and to detect) the source of this audio quality deterioration, but we obtained no noticeable differences from the published results. Bottom line: you shouldn't count on the integrated audio, if you buy this card; fortunately, abundant PCI slots are ready to shelter a sound card, which will solve the problem.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • CMOS Reload Program — saving profiles with BIOS settings (up to 50 saves). But unlike ASUS BIOS Profile, this technology can save profiles into CMOS only, you cannot save to a HDD
  • Self Recovery System — automatically restoring BIOS default settings in case of unsuccessful overclocking.

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper  
Memory voltage increase jumper Forced 2.2 V
2 x "USB +5 V Standby" jumpers Wake on USB, for rear panel ports and ports on brackets separately
"Keyboard +5 V Standby" jumper Wake on PS/2 (you have to enable a corresponding option in BIOS)
Two buttons (power on and reset) They allow to power on and reset a computer without connecting corresponding cables to the front panel
Award WorkstationBIOS v6.00PG Allows to disable specific CPU functions + K8 Cool’n’Quiet, K8 NPT C1E, SSE/SSE2 Instructions
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, RAS to CAS Delay, Row Precharge Time, Min RAS Active Time, Async Latency, Row to Row Delay, Row Cycle Time, Write Recovery Time, Read-To-Write Time, Write-To-Read Time
Memory frequency selection + Auto, 400, 533, 667, 800 MHz (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + Frequency (x1—x5 multiplier at integer steps) and capacity (8 or 16 bit)
Peripheral bus frequency control -  
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 200 — 450 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from x4, at integer steps
CPU core voltage control + 0.800—2.310 at 0.025 V steps
Memory voltage control + 1.95—2.10 V at 0.05 V steps; a separate menu (!) Drive Strength, where you can control the strength of control signals that run along the memory bus
HT bus voltage control + 1.25—1.40 V at 0.05V steps
Chipset voltage control + 1.55—1.70 V at 0.05V steps

We used BIOS N5TAA615 BS dated 15.06.06, provided by the manufacturer. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested. The motherboard has a Boot Menu — an express-choice of a boot disk without modifying BIOS settings. A built into BIOS Setup utility allows to flash BIOS from a floppy without booting into OS.

The motherboard offers excellent overclocking capacities. There is an interesting peculiarity: you can raise memory voltage in BIOS only to 2.1 V; in order to raise it to 2.2 V, you have to use a special jumper. Here lies probably the only gripe with this model — the engineers were too clever by half: modern DDR2 modules allow increasing the voltage to 2.3–2.5 V, supported by some motherboards (in software control mode). It can help overclocking elite modules, which voltage is often raised relative to the standard value.

There are three automatic overclocking modes for casual users, which names hint at car engines (V6, V8, and V12) - "Extra, Extreme, and Extraordinary" overclocking. Our processor easily coped with all the three modes, the resulting clocks reached 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5 GHz.

It's not quite apparent why BIOS contains Memtest 86 utility (Version 1.60): when you enable extended memory testing, a computer wastes 15-20 minutes on a stability test each time it boots up - it hardly makes any practical sense. Even if you are into overclocking, it's more logical to run stability tests under OS once to test your settings.

Performance

Testbed configuration:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+
  • Memory: 2 x 1 GB 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 the model under review with the Foxconn 6100M2MA motherboard on the inexpensive integrated nForce 6100 chipset. It demonstrated a reference performance level. We publish the results with discrete video, of course.

Test Foxconn 6100M2MA Biostar TForce550
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 6:45 6:46
MPEG4 (DivX) encoding, min:sec 4:34 4:35
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 76.7 76.6
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 72.3 72.5
Doom3 (Low@640x480), fps 133.8 128.9
Doom3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 108.1 107.7

What else can we say, except for the fact that this motherboard (like all the other models for AMD64 without evident and hidden problems in implementation) matches the typical profile for this configuration — processor + memory + video card?

Conclusion

Biostar offers a decent model that can interest overclockers (thanks to advanced BIOS settings, reliable chipset cooling, and elite components in the voltage regulator), as well as "civil" users that prefer models on discrete chipsets. Their pros are traditionally moderate prices for motherboards from this manufacturer, excellent implementation of Smart Fan, four PCI slots. The problem with integrated audio quality is disappointing, of course. But it does not ruin the reputation of this motherboard as much as it would have, if the same situation occurred with an integrated chipset. Users of motherboards without integrated video (which are no cheaper than good all-in-one models) do not count on integrated audio.

At the same time, almost the only objective reason for choosing a full-size motherboard on an inexpensive discrete chipset today is a sufficient number of PCI slots, so that a user could assemble a configuration to his or her liking. This Biostar model is nearly unique in this parameter. It will certainly attract many users, who want an inexpensive model for Socket AM2 that can be easily expanded.

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer





Dmitry Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
July 28, 2006.



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