Battle at the Top

The long-awaited Socket 939 Athlon 64 from AMD debuted on June 1 at Computex, but it has taken quite a while for Socket 939 motherboards to make their way into the retail channel. With the Socket 939 still perched at the top of the AMD product line, both in price and performance, the offerings still remain very small. We take a look at 6 new motherboards for Socket 939 from Abit, Asus, ECS, Gigabyte, and MSI.

The Asus A8V Deluxe was not included in the original roundup because Asus told us a new Revision would soon be available. The Asus A8V Deluxe Revision 2.0, with a working AGP/PCI lock, was received a few days ago and has now been added to the roundup. We have included full test results from the Revison 2 A8V and compared it to the other 5 top-end 939 boards in the roundup. DFI has also announced a Socket 939 board based on the nForce3 Ultra chipset, but the retail introduction of that board is still several weeks away.

The Second-Generation chipsets for Athlon 64 represent a genuine improvement in features, flexibility, and performance for AMD's flagship processors. As you saw in our chipset review, the nForce3 has added the features to bring the nVidia chipsets to the competitive edge of Athlon 64 chipsets. The HyperTransport speed, which was widely criticized on the 150 chipset, is now 1000 in the Ultra version of the chipset used for 939. The chipset is, otherwise, the same as the 800 and 1000FSB versions that we saw in our Socket 754 Roundup: Comparing Generation 2. The on-chip Gigabit LAN and on-chip Firewall are unique and truly useful features among Athlon 64 solutions. nVidia also fixed the problems with their implementation of PCI/AGP lock on the 150, and we are finding a working PCI/AGP lock on every nForce3-250 motherboard that we test, just as nVidia promised.

VIA's update to their excellent K8T800 chipset was less dramatic as there are not many new features, but the improvements are just as dramatic under the hood. As you saw in our review of the K8T800 PRO chipset, VIA brings 1000 HyperTransport to the PRO chipset for all Athlon 64 Sockets - 940, 754, and 939. Perhaps the most significant improvement was the addition of a working PCI/AGP lock to the K8T800 PRO. Since all PRO chipsets support 1000 HT, the chipsets used in our Socket 754 Roundup: Comparing Generation 2 are the same as you will see in our 939 roundup.

As reported in the Socket 754 roundup and the Socket 939 launch review, VIA had early problems with their PCI/AGP lock. While we continued to see problems with a working AGP/PCI lock in early 939 samples, we are pleased to report that every vendor in our roundup now appears to have the VIA PCI/AGP lock working. If you have a VIA board with PCI/AGP lock issues, our advice is to contact your motherboard vendor for the latest BIOS or possibly a revised version of your motherboard. The good news is that VIA has worked with manufacturers to fix the issues, and the issues can be solved; the bad news is that there are still many VIA K8T800 PRO motherboards in the market with PCI/AGP lock issues, and some require a motherboard replacement to fix the problem. In some cases, we are looking at a third motherboard revision before we finally receive a working PCI/AGP lock on a VIA K8T800 PRO board.

Today, we are looking at 6 new Socket 939 motherboards, representing the top performance level for the Athlon 64, which is the fastest current CPU. Consider this roundup a search for the best of the best, since Socket 939 supports the top-performing Athlon 64 processors available in the fastest Dual-Channel memory configuration. The Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and MSI K8N Neo2 feature the nVidia nForce3 Ultra chipset, while the Abit AV8, Asus A8V Deluxe Rev. 2, ECS KV2 Extreme, and MSI K8T Neo2 are based on the VIA K8T800 PRO chipset.

Abit AV8: Features and Layout
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  • thebluesgnr - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    "Our FX53 topped out at about 3.59 GHz on the ECS KV2, which is slightly below the 3.6+ achieved on the top 939 boards."

    Is this ECS a P4 board? :P

    This was a great article. I agree with other readers, CnQ should definately have been tested, as well as audio and IDE subsystems.

    btw Wesley, will there be reviews of KT880 socket A mobos in the future?

    Reply
  • TrogdorJW - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    Just a few comments. It's a little (*little* mind you) unfair to compare FX-53 to P4 560, given the price advantage of the P4. Then again, comparing it to the P4EE is a little unfair in the other direction. It might have been nice to include one or two other systems in the benchmarks, though, like a 3400+. Sure, we can cross-reference other articles, but if you have all the data already it would be a lot cleaner. I'm especially interested in seeing AutoGK benchmarks with the "lesser" Athlon 64 processors (3500+ and 3400+ would be good, or maybe even 3200+ - not everyone has $400+ to spend on a CPU!)

    Of course, while it might be less fair to Intel, I would like to get AutoGK numbers using Xvid as well. That's how I use it, as I feel the quality is a little better than DivX. Oh, and while you state that you used 2-pass encoding, what was the target resolution? 640x360, or 720x408, or something else? And did you specify a target size, or was it on unlimited quality? All those are important questions, I think.

    One final request: I truly appreciate the memory stress testing benchmarks. However, I would like it taken a little further. All of the boards claim that they can support up to 4 GB of RAM. I would love to see some tests showing this configuration. After all, 64-bits is really about breaking that memory barrier. Even if the boards need to run 4x1GB at DDR266 or DDR333, it would be good to know. (Too bad there simply aren't many good 1 GB DIMMs available yet.)
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    #14 & #20 - Perhaps tests with the X800 XT on nF3 compared to the 6800 Ultra will at least shed a little light on where the efficiencies lie - in the nF3/nV Video combo or in the nF3 itself.

    #16 - We will make an effort to talk a bit more about Cool'n'Quiet in individual board reviews, but in a roundup like this it is difficult to explore that level of detail, and still hold the article length to anthing you might want to read. We try to do more with features in individual reviews.

    #19 - We report the full range of vCore in our board charts for people like you who are interested in umdervolting. If you notice some boards begin vCore at default, while others make a wide undervolt range available as well as overvolt. We try to report this range as accurately as possible for this reason.
    Reply
  • Pete - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    Wesley, very interesting numbers. Halo is supposedly limited by some inefficient DX9 layers/commands, so I at first thought maybe nV had somehow optimized or bypassed some DX9 calls. The office and Content Creation benchmarks advantage is more puzzling, though. Could nV's performance edge be the result of some intelligent caching or either the HD or the CPU?

    Testing an X800 for reference is a good idea for Halo. Just be sure to retest the office and Content Creation suites, too, as the performance boost there is equally curious, IMO.

    I found one typo, on the system specs page. It's Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, not Wolfenstein: Enemy Within. :)
    Reply
  • JKing76 - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    Sure there's Cool'n'Quiet, but how about adding manual undervolting capabilities to the review? A lot of mobos only allow upping the vcore, but undervolting is a great tool for creating a truely cool and quiet system without losing performance. Reply
  • XRaider - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    Love that FX53 and the MSI K8N Neo2 together. Sure is purdy nice!! ;) But must...hold...out...until...price..drops...some..more.. ;o)
    Great article BTW!
    Reply
  • XRaider - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    Love that FX53 and the MSI K8N Neo2 together. Sure is purdy nice!! ;) But must...hold...out...until...price..drops...some..more.. ;o)
    Great article BTW!
    Reply
  • jojo4u - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    I miss information about Cool'n'Quiet. It's a shame that anandtech.com only is insterested in overclocking and speed. Reply
  • esSJae - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    Nice, another article touting the non-existent MSI K8N Neo2.

    Sure, you can go to MSI's Taiwan site and download the manual and BIOS, but doesn't seem to be much point in that.
    Reply
  • DAPUNISHER - Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - link

    "We never expected the nVidia nForce3-250 Ultra to be a better performer in Winstone benchmarks than the VIA K8T800 PRO. However, both the nF3-250 boards are outperforming the VIA boards by a significant percentage. Since the nVidia 6800 Ultra video card was used for all benchmarking in the roundup, we plan to verify these results with an ATI X800 XT as soon as that board is available to the Motherboard Lab for testing"

    Is this to determine if it's a result of forceware opts that is responsible for the difference observed?
    Reply

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