In compliance with a fashionable trend to assemble system components into a platform for this or that target audience (sometimes giving it a loud marketing label), such "system" offers should be reviewed from a consumer point of view for all components as a unit. That's why first of all we shall sum up what new features are offered for the new processor socket.
DDR2 memory support
As is known, DDR2 technology theoretically possesses three indisputable advantages — it's more economical, it allows twice as much memory size on a single module, and it's cheaper to manufacture (however, the last fact hadn't been reflected in market prices for a long time). When ripened (memory itself and its infrastructure), it promised to excel the best DDR implementations in all performance parameters, that is to demonstrate higher bandwidth and lower access latencies.
The difference in memory power consumption in absolute values is evidently insufficient for taking DDR2 benefits for desktop computers seriously. And memory volumes of over 4GB still concern only the server segment. Besides, 2-GB DDR2 modules are currently too expensive and available only as DDR2-400. Thus, performance gain remains the only relevant point. But our tests demonstrated that the expected memory bandwidth values remained unattainable, though AMD engineers managed to cope with latencies.
We can only establish a fact that neither Intel nor AMD managed to reveal the full potential of this memory type (three years on the market). In the first case, the problem is in a relatively high latency of the external memory controller and limited FSB bandwidth. In the second case — architectural limitations of the processor and, probably, of the current revision of the DDR2 controller. Thus, in future, Intel will have to raise FSB clock to 1600 MHz and AMD will have to make some changes in the CPU architecture to utilize resources of dual-channel DDR2-800.
Can AMD do without DDR2 support now? From the technical point of view, yes, it can. At least, it can easily delay it until the 65-nm K8 core or even until K8L processors and its top models (based on the current core) will still not be limited by memory performance. On the other hand, it has been delayed for too long already. And now support for DDR2 as well as DDR memory is objectively necessary to successfully fill the market with processors from Fab36. Moreover, it may be even more important for the budget sector, where attraction of a platform depends even less on performance nuances. But DDR2 price drops may become a significant factor.
Support for AMD Virtualization Technology
Previously known as Pacifica, the virtualization technology is supported by all processors for Socket AM2, except Semprons. Its technical implementation should be reviewed in a separate article, as the process of virtualization (that is, administrating access of programs, including OS, to CPU, memory, and peripheral resources) cunningly uses the integrated memory controller and Hyper-Transport bus.
No doubts, this technology is very useful in the server segment. What concerns desktop PCs, we cannot expect its wide usage at least until MS Vista. Running several operating systems on a desktop computer and switching between them in real time, or even restarting them independently of each other - it all sounds impressive, but such desktop environment is rarely necessary. In future, virtualization may increase resistivity of a computer to cracking and virus attacks. How will it be implemented exactly? We'll see. It's up to software.
The series has been supplemented with a couple of top Athlon 64 5000+ and FX-62 models, which should consolidate the advantage of the new platform over the old one using an old all-purpose trick — due to higher clocks. There is also a new Athlon 64 X2 4000+ model, which was skipped for Socket 939. It's addressed to those users, who want to buy a dual-core processor with maximum cache size for a relatively democratic price. Before this time, the line of processors with 2MB cache had started from the 4400+ model, except for server models. Single-core Athlon 64 models for Socket AM2 come solely with 512 KB cache and give ground to the expanding line of Semprons. Mass-production models have become more economic — all Athlon 64 X2 processors officially consume no more than 89 W, while 4600+ and 4800+ for Socket 939 officially consume 110 W. The limit for single-core models is lowered from 89 W to 65 W.
And finally, the main addition to this family is Energy Efficient processors. They differ from "usual" models with the same rating solely by reduced heat release. It's planned to print their TDP on the box to distinguish these models.
As we have already heard about the intention to launch processors with reduced power consumption, we were mostly interested in final prices. They are higher only by 5% for dual-core models with TDP of 65 W, which clearly means high percentage of such processors in the overall production. Models with 35W TDP are officially intended for computers in compact cases and media centers with high requirements to a noise level. Considering that the line of 35W models includes a dual-core model and that this level of power consumption is reached with the 90nm process technology, AMD engineers have all reasons to be proud.
As Socket AM2 processors do not require anything from a chipset for their support, the new motherboards will be based on models, which we have already seen in the previous platform. Nevertheless, replacement of a CPU socket is the best time for launching new chipsets. It's much easier to attract manufacturers (and customers) with a new product, when they have to think about creating a new design (purchasing) new motherboards anyway. So there appeared several new models.
ATI has timed the final release of its long-awaited SB600 southbridge to the launch of Socket AM2. It should help it overcome dependence on shipments of third-party southbridges (from ULi). The new series uses old Radeon 1100, 1600 and 3200 as northbridges. They cover the entire range — from integrated video to systems with CrossFire support and a couple of full-speed PCI Express x16. A reference motherboard (top model) has already appeared in our testlab. It will be tested in the nearest future.
NVIDIA has launched a series of discrete chipsets nForce 500, consisting of four models. The ranking system inside the series is inherited from nForce4. You can read the details on this chipset in a separate article. In this review we shall examine two MSI motherboards, based on two middle-end models — 570 SLI and 570 Ultra. Integrated video from NVIDIA on Socket AM2 is still based on well-known GeForce 6100 and 6150 together with southbridges nForce 410 and 430.
MSI K9N Platinum
Besides DDR2 memory slots, the new platform is given away by a modified socket frame. The frame is fixed to the motherboard in four instead of two points. But rumors about the incompatibility with Socket 939 coolers are exaggerated. Indeed, the retention system of the new boxed coolers has been modified (four holes at the edge of the frame), but traditional projections are preserved as well for compatibility. For the only difference that Socket 939 has three of them at each side of the socket, and now only the central one is left. Thus, only coolers with the original retention system may be left out of it - their installation required removing the standard frame and securing the assembly right through the mounting holes in a motherboard.
Look at the passive cooling of the chipset - such a solution was exotic for nForce4, but it promises to become typical for the 500th series. MSI engineers use a long low-profile heatsink. It's not installed on the center of the chip. It overhangs a motherboard at one side, tied to it through an insulating pad. The heatsink gets very hot. But active cooling is not necessary, because this chip can operate at up to 90°C and its own heat release is reduced. The motherboard was stable at the standard frequencies. But if you plan on testing this system in an overclocked mode, you will still need additional cooling. Note that enthusiast series (MSI Diamond, in particular) will be still bundled with robust cooling systems for this chipset. And single-chip solutions from NVIDIA are still highly integrated and predictably hotter than competing products (though much less than nForce4).
Even though the motherboard is based on the chipset, which officially does not support SLI, it still has two PCI Express x16 ports. The second port (yellow), always operating in PCI Express x1 mode, can be used for the second video card - for another pair of monitors. Considering that the PCB layout is identical to the model on nForce 570 SLI, we cannot rule out a possibility of unlocking additional PCI Express lanes and SLI mode, which will probably be available in the Ultra version of the chipset.
The board is equipped with a 4-pin ATX12V connector. Besides, video cards in PCI Express x16 slots can be powered from the standard 4-pin peripheral connector. The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates 3 field-effect transistors per channel, six 3300 uF capacitors and four 1500 uF ones. All capacitors are always from one manufacturer, but not from the first echelon (unknown brand). Memory voltage regulator uses capacitors from Rubycon and is reinforced with L elements. There are no empty seats on this motherboard — Platinum series from MSI traditionally differs from "simple" models by a full set of additional controllers, provided by the board design. It's inferior to the Diamond series only in its bundle and "safety margin" of the cooling system. Motherboard dimensions — 305x245 mm (full-size ATX), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed.
System monitoring (Winbond W83627EHG, 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
Note the support for two gigabit network adapters, integrated into the new chipset.
We used BIOS 9.03 dated 20.04.06, 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.
MSI K9N SLI Platinum
As the top model is identical to the previous one (including the same BIOS version), except for the installed chip of the core logic and SLI support (x8 + x8), there is no need to list its features separately.
Note that the motherboard has no jumpers to select video slot modes, they are switched on the chipset level.
The core logic chip on the first production-line motherboards has an official designation already.
We decided to take the ECS KN2 SLI Extreme motherboard on NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 for our Socket 939 comparison - it had demonstrated "reference" performance in our tests.
Memory operating in DDR2-667 shows an ambiguous picture versus DDR400 — a small lag, which exceeds the measurement error, in media encoders and archivers, compensated by symmetric break-away in games. The "serious" subgroup of our tests gains a little from DDR2-800 (with properly "softened" timings) compared to DDR400, while game results are not that simple. We can see further performance gains in some cases (DOOM 3), sometimes the result is contrary (UT 2004). The most likely explanation is that games depend differently on memory latency and bandwidth.
On the whole, the difference in test results between the new platform and the old one is expectedly low (under equal conditions). So there is absolutely no point in upgrading your system with a Socket 939 processor (which still satisfies your requirements) just for the sake of DDR2 memory.
But what should you prefer in a new computer? Perhaps, while the new components are filling the market, their prices will be higher than those for similar models for Socket 939. So the budget choice is crystal clear — just sum up the costs (both platforms are equipollent in other respects.)
It's quite another matter, if you want to buy a low-noise computer, especially in a tight case, and do not want to sacrifice performance. In this case, new Energy Efficient models should certainly be included into your choice list.
The motherboard and the processor have been kindly provided by MSI
Dmitry Vladimirovich (email@example.com)
May 23, 2006
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