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Gigabyte K8N-SLI — a Motherboard on NVIDIA nForce4 SLI (Socket 939)

July 17, 2006



Even though Socket 939 is getting outdated, processors (and motherboards) for this platform will still be sold (and bought) for a long time.

Of course, if you choose a motherboard for maximum life time or you are just used to keeping up with the progress, you may prefer Socket AM2. We are also promised quad-core processors for this socket. Moreover, we can trust these promises, because AMD kept its word last time (the company launched dual-core processors compatible with Socket 939 - not only with the socket itself, which is a minor issue for a consumer, but also with the majority of old motherboards, which required only updating BIOS).

It's quite another matter, when you have to keep as many old components as possible, for example, a good DDR kit or IDE periphery (there is usually only one slot left for such cards these days). In this case a less progressive platform with relatively the same performance level may become preferable. But the main reason consists in adequacy of invested money for the results you get from a computer. Let's take computer games, seemingly the most dynamic sphere, for example. If you have a proper video card, Athlon 64 3500+ or 3700+ processors for Socket 939 not only provide decent fps in any game, but do not act as bottlenecks even with the most powerful video cards. Moreover, having installed a couple of powerful video cards into such an "outdated" computer, you have all chances for easy victory over a configuration with a much more powerful processor with any single video card.

So what follows? Socket 939 motherboards have a right to life and may be an adequate choice in many cases. On the other hand, it hardly makes sense to review expensive motherboards with this socket, because you shouldn't really pay extra money for functions that you don't use right now. You will most likely have no chances for using them anyway. The only exception from this rule in case of a gaming computer is support for two graphics ports and SLI/CrossFire modes. As this support is not very expensive right now (in some cases it even comes for free), there are some chances that it can prolong the life of your computer without a total upgrade. An example of such a motherboard that strives for interest from thrifty gamers is Gigabyte K8N-SLI, the most junior model with SLI support from Gigabyte.




This motherboard has a spacey layout due to its minimal set of additional controllers. We can formally point out only one potential zone of conflict — a full-sized video card may hamper access to SATA connectors. FDD connector is located in a convenient place near the IDE connectors - certainly a better place than the traditional placement near the bottom edge. SATA and USB connectors are equipped with side-fence.

A passive heatsink is responsible for cooling the chipset, an atypical solution for nForce4 motherboards (the manual even mentions that users shouldn't be scared of the hot heatsink, because the chip can work at the temperatures up to 65°C). We have tested the quality of cooling with our standard performance tests running an eMule client (it actively loads a network controller) for six hours in an open testbed without additional cooling for the chipset heatsink. The system was stable. Nevertheless, you shouldn't expect miracles — this motherboard is designed for those users, who strive for maximum acoustic comfort and are ready to buy low-noise components and provide proper operating conditions, at least a spacey PC case.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates two field-effect transistors per channel, three 3300 uF capacitors from Rubycon, four 1500 uF ones from Nichicon, one from Rubicon, and four 1000 uF ones from United Chemi-Con. A praiseworthy choice, especially for such an inexpensive board. Motherboard dimensions — 345x245 mm (full-size ATX), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed. K8N Ultra-SLI and K8N Pro-SLI are of the same design, but they have an additional Serial ATA controller (for 4 ports) and the second Gigabit Ethernet controller; besides, the Pro modification has a FireWire controller (for 3 ports).

System monitoring (ITE IT8712F, according to BIOS Setup)

  • CPU and memory (2.5V) voltages, +3.3 V and +12 V (the system only indicates whether the value is correct)
  • RPM of 3 fans
  • CPU temperature (by the embedded CPU sensor)
  • SmartFan Control — fully automatic CPU fan speed control depending on CPU temperature
  • CPU Fan Manual Control — semiautomatic speed control (you can change the standard algorithm). In the manual mode you can specify four threshold temperatures that correspond to full stop of the fan and its rotation at "low", "medium" and "high" speed. You can also specify fan speeds for the three intermediate values (but Gigabyte chose an interesting way to do it — instead of traditional 0—100%, the range is divided into 128 sections). The motherboard correctly changes the CPU multiplier and voltages (AMD Cool’n’Quiet), even though its BIOS does not have a special option to enable/disable this mode, like in the majority of Gigabyte motherboards.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • CPU socket (Socket 939, officially supports all Athlon 64/X2/FX, Sempron, and Opteron processors for this socket)
  • 4 x DDR SDRAM DIMM (up to 4 GB DDR200/266/333/400, dual-channel mode is available, if slots are filled symmetrically)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 for video accelerators (x8+x8 SLI mode)
  • 2 x PCIEx1
  • 2 x PCI
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins) and 4-pin ATX12V to power a processor
  • 1 x FDD
  • 2 x IDE (Parallel ATA) for 4 ATA133 devices — chipset-based
  • 4 x SATA-II (Serial ATA II) for 4 SATA300 devices — chipset-based, they support RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5
  • 3 connectors for brackets with 6 additional USB ports
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • IrDA connector
  • 4 x fan headers, three of them support rpm control; CPU fan header allows to reduce fan speed to full stop; the fourth 2-pin header can be used for an optional fan to cool the chipset.

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





Click the image to open the rear view of this motherboard
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard
  • 1 x SPDIF In (coaxial), 1 x SPDIF Out (coaxial), 1 x LPT, 1 x COM
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 2 x USB
  • 3 x Analog Audio (Line-in, Line-out (Front), Mic-in)
  • 3 x Analog Audio (Surround, Center/Sub, Rear)

Package Contents




  • Package: a standard box for K8N Triton motherboards on nForce4 chipsets
  • Documentation: User's Guide in English
  • Cables: 2 x SATA, 1 x ATA66, power converter for one SATA device, FDD cable
  • SLI Bridge
  • SLI holder for the rear panel
  • Rear panel bracket for two USB ports
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with drivers and proprietary Gigabyte utilities as well as Norton Internet Security 2005 (antivirus and firewall).

Proprietary utilities include standard tools to flash BIOS under Windows that can also seek and download the latest versions from the official web site (@BIOS) and EasyTune5 used for monitoring system parameters and overclocking (it can change CPU clock and multiplier, PCI Express frequency within BIOS limits, as well as memory and CPU core voltages) and configuring SmartFan modes, FaceWizard utility for editing the boot image.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on the AC’97 support by the chipset and Realtek ALC850 codec, 7.1 channel audio, connectors for front-ins/outs, CD-In and S/PDIF-In/Out
  • Network, based on the chipset and PHY controller Vitesse VSC8201RX, supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s, proprietary high-speed interface and ActiveArmor (see the details in the chipset description).

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:
+0,06, -0,58
Good
Noise level, dB (A):
-83,2
Good
Dynamic range, dB (A):
82.1
Good
THD, %:
0.043
Good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.060
Good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-81,9
Very good
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.192
Average

General performance: Good (Details). There is nothing unexpected here, we have already studied well the quality level of AC’97 codecs in nForce4 chipsets.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

The motherboard offers Q-Flash - emergency BIOS flashing by pressing F8 at startup (you must have a BIOS version on a floppy, in this case you don't need to boot up under your operating system, which may be problematic in case your boot sector is damaged). There is also a traditional function of restoring a previously backed up HDD partition using a BIOS utility - Xpress Recovery2. The difference from the traditional utilities (like Acronis True Image) is that you don't have to boot up from a CD to restore data. But its functions and interface are certainly more unassuming: in particular, you can keep only one backup image. There is no support for hard drives in RAID as well as external USB drives.

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper To be more exact, the board has two contacts, which should be short-circuited with a metal object — e.g. a screwdriver or a jumper (if available)
In Award BIOS v6.00PG Allows to disable specific CPU functions -  
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, Min RAS Active Time, RAS to CAS Delay, Row Precharge Time, Row to Row Delay, Row Cycle Time, Row Refresh Cycle, Read-To-Write Time, Write Recovery Time, Write-To-Read Delay, Refresh Rate, Read Preamble Value, Async Latency Value
Memory frequency selection + Multiplier to HTT frequency: 1, 1.33, 1.5, 1.66, 2, 2.16, 2.33, 2.5 (it means support for DDR200-DDR500 memory)
HT bus setup + Multiplier: x1, x1,5, x2, x2,5, x3, x4, x5
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCI-E = 100—150 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 200—456 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from x5 at 0.5 steps
CPU core voltage control + 0.800—1.700 V at 0.025V steps
Memory voltage control + +0.1 and +0.2 V
HT bus voltage control + +0.1—0.3 V at 0.1V steps

We used BIOS F8 dated 15/03/2006, 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 range of overclocking settings is up to the mark, except for memory and HT bus voltages, which can be changed only within narrow limits - such a limited range of memory voltages can have a noticeable negative effect on the overclocking potential. There is a traditional solution to this problem, you can try several memory kits and choose the one that allows to raise its frequency to the maximum level or use fractional multipliers for memory. Anyway, overclocking this motherboard should be accompanied by reinforcing chipset cooling.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 4000+
  • Memory: 2 x 512 MB Corsair XMS3200 TwinX (DDR400, 2-2-2-5)
  • Discrete video: ATI Radeon X800 XT, 256 MB DDR
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec GPS-400AA
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We decided to compare the model under review with the recently tested EPoX 9NPA3J.

Test EPoX 9NPA3J Gigabyte K8N-SLI
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 7:29 7:37
MPEG4 (DivX) encoding, min:seC 3:47 3:51
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 61.4 66.3
Unreal Tournament 2004 (High@1024x768), fps 55.5 62.3
Doom3 (Low@640x480), fps 117.7 111.9
Doom3 (High@1024x768), fps 103.7 101.2

A slightly different result in the archiving test probably has to do with tougher minor memory timings in the EPoX motherboard. Nevertheless, this peculiarity had no effect in game tests. On the contrary, Gigabyte K8N-SLI even has a higher result in Unreal Tournament 2004.

Bottom line

Gigabyte K8N-SLI is quite an interesting solution for its price for those who don't want lots of functions and integrated controllers and don't plan on buying a motherboard that will outlive several processors.

Passive cooling copes with its task in the standard mode in a spacey PC case. But it obviously lacks any safety margin for overclocking (a long video card can make it impossible to upgrade the standard heatsink, for example, to a Titan-series cooler). Thus, we can recommend this motherboard to those, who want to assemble a low-noise configuration. Full-stop fan mode, supported by BIOS, contributes to the same conclusion. Pay attention to coaxial S/PDIF In and Out on the rear panel.

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

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer





Dmitry Vladimirovich (lpt@ixbt.com)
July 31, 2006.



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