In the past few years DFI has emerged from relative obscurity to market-wide recognition as a premier maker of motherboards for the computer enthusiast. Potential buyers eagerly await each new DFI motherboard and DFI features tend to influence the market far beyond the sales those boards generate. That is not to say the DFI motherboards are not big sellers, because some recent releases like the DFI nForce4 series became the number one seller in the AMD market.

For these reasons the DFI partnership with ATI in developing and marketing motherboards based on the new ATI chipsets is particularly interesting. ATI realized early on that if DFI delivered a top performing enthusiast board based on an ATI chipset it could garner instant acceptance of ATI chipsets by the toughest nut of all to crack - the AMD enthusiast. DFI's first effort, the DFI RDX200, was hampered by the complaints that DFI used the less-featured ATI SB450 Southbridge instead of the ULi M1575. As CrossFire finally began shipping there were also early issues with getting certain varieties of CrossFire to work on the RD480-based DFI board. Finally, ATI graphics cards and CrossFire were not fully competitive with NVIDIA SLI when Rx480 launched. RDX200 was an excellent first effort, but it did not deliver enough stand-out features and performance to move the hard-core AMD enthusiast from NVIDIA chipsets.

This next generation DFI CFX3200 that is now shipping offers more features and enters a very different market. It is DFI's first dual X16 video motherboard, since they passed on NVIDIA's dual X16 design based on two discrete chips - one for each X16 slot. The ATI RD580 supports both X16 slots with the Northbridge, which allows the manufacturer to pair it with any Southbridge that might meet their marketing goals. ATI is now at best the current video card performance leader or at worst tied for the video performance crown. (Unfortunately, the only current solutions for using two ATI video cards are ATI CrossFire for AMD, or ATI CrossFire or Intel 975X for Intel. We continue to lament the fact that we can't properly run CF or SLI configurations on chipsets from other vendors - there are drivers hacks that can sometimes get around this limitation, but these are frequently prevented in later driver releases.)

This time around DFI uses the ULi M1575 Southbridge, which offers full support for 3Gb/s SATA2 and competitive USB performance. Competitors in the Rx480 round mostly used the ULi Southbridge, so DFI was in the minority in using the ATI SB450. However, with NVIDIA's purchase of ULi and the developing supply constraints of ULi Southbridges since the NVIDIA takeover, using ULi on any board may be risky - even if the ULi offers a better feature set. That is particularly true on an ATI board, since they are NVIDIA's top competitor. The whole Southbridge issue with ATI should be over very soon, and board makers should be able to use ATI chips for both the North and South bridge functions. ATI has qualification samples of SB600 in the hands of board makers today, and the updated SB600 should be a part of AM2 motherboards for the May 23rd launch.

Any talk of a new socket 939 motherboard begs the question of why invest in a S-939 motherboard with AM2 less than a month away? The answer is not as crystal clear as you might think. As you can read in AMD Socket - AM2 Performance Preview and First Look: AM2 DDR2 vs. 939 DDR Performance, AM2 is expected to have a very small impact on overall performance. DDR2 does offer more memory bandwidth and greater potential for the future, but there is little if any real-world performance advantage for AM2 over the socket 939 DDR-based Athlon 64. It looks as if we will be waiting for a larger cache and/or the die-shrink to 65nm before we will see more substantial improvements in AMD performance.

This means you can buy the DFI CFX3200 today and get similar performance to what you will achieve with the AM2 version of the same board. This is particularly true with the ATI RD580 chipset, which the DFI CFX3200 is based on, since the same Northbridge will be used on both the socket 939 and socket AM2 versions. This is also true of the AMD CrossFire-based ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe, the Sapphire Pure CrossFire, and the Abit AT8-32X. Those who will be buying new memory for their system will likely wish to wait for AM2 versions of these motherboards. However, if you have fast DDR memory you wish to continue using, any of these Socket 939 CrossFire boards will be a good home for that memory. Some additional RD580 boards will also appear at AM2 launch form MSI, ECS, and others who decided to skip the last 2 months of the 939 market and move directly to AM2.

So how does DFI's first dual X16 compare to other top Socket 939 boards? Is it all we have come to expect in performance from DFI?

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  • poohbear - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    nice mobo and all, but is it really worth $240 usd?! i think that money would be better spent on a decent mobo and the savings on a better vid card.:/ Reply
  • cornfedone - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    WAY too expensive and no tangible performance increase over RD480 mobos.

    The mobo companies are out to pork consumers with sky high prices for commodity mobos. The RD480/RD580 chipsets are pretty low cost chipsets and the mobo designs less than stellar to say the least. For that Asus, DFI, Sapphire et al are asking outrageous prices for mobos with long lists of problems. None of these mobo companies has delivered a properly functioning mobo, they provide no tech support and they don't listen to their customers. All they do is use the hardware review sites as PIMPS to SHILL products that aren't ready for Prime Time.

    With no serial port, only one usable PCI slot, a $200+ price tag, Mickey Mouse board layout design, too many BIOS adjustments that have little or no benefit, lack of quality tech and customer support, etc. the DFI mobo can sit on the shelf until Hell freezes over as far as I am concerned. Anyone willing to pay $200 for a malfunctioning mobo deserves exactly what they get or don't get.

    PT Barnum is still alive and flourishing in the mobo industry.
    Reply
  • Marlowe - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    I think the Sapphire PURE Crossfire A9RD580 suffers from the same problems as you mention. Just too many settings in bios to master. I expect you don't have the time to test this motherboard as well? I've actively worked with it to or from in three weeks now.. without even getting the HTT over 290 and get my ram to work at 2,5-3-3 settings :P Also in contrast to DFI, Sapphire has very poor bios and software support :)

    I might just be a n00b tho! But one should think almost a month of focus should be enough to get a computer working..
    Reply
  • Peter - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    And yet again, we are seeing RAM performance attributed to the chipset - on an AMD64 chipset. Page 5 says:

    "Optimum tRAS
    In past reviews, memory bandwidth tests established that a tRAS setting of 11 or 12 was generally best for nForce2, a tRAS of 10 was optimal for the nForce3 chipset, a tRAS of 7 was optimal for the nForce4/ATI RD480/ULi M1697 chipsets, and a tRAS of 10 produced the best bandwidth on the ULi 1695. The ASUS A8R32-MVP review established that a tRAS setting of 8 produced the highest bandwidth on the RD580 chipset."

    Hello? As has been pointed out numerous times with those articles (every time, in fact), and as you certainly know, chipsets on AMD64 platforms do not even connect to the RAM. The CPU does that. Paragraphs like the above quoted are just plain nonsense.

    Dear reviewers, are we being thick or are we just stuck too deeply in cut&paste land? You've been dragging this silly mistake along for three years now.

    regards,
    Peter
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    The CPU does indeed house the memory controller, but that doesn't mean the chipset doesn't have an impact on memory timings. The point is that tRAS was tested at varying levels to determine an optimal settings. While nF4, Rx480, and M1697 got best results with tRAS set to 7, M1695 liked 10 and RD580 appears to do best with ~8. Realistically, the difference between tRAS 5 and tRAS 10 in actual applications (i.e. not memory benchmarks) is going to be less than 1 or 2%. However, it's good to be clear that we're using 2-2-2-8-1T timings because those appear to be better overall than 2-2-2-5-1T. Reply
  • Calin - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    While the memory controller is on the processor (and have very little in common with the chipset), one must note that the chipset will access the memory with different purposes, like DMA (Direct Memory) access from hard drive controllers, or integrated video chipsets needs a lot of bandwidth to the memory. In this, the processor is "left outside" the transfer, and the memory controller on the processor does the copy job.
    I don't know why different chipsets will favour different tRAS values, but the chipset needs to access the memory controller without intervention from processor
    Reply
  • Visual - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    so this board has drive strength settings for everything and their mother... but is that needed? is it ever useful?
    if they all default to max anyway, what good is the ability to set it at 31 lower settings?
    and its porbably the same with many other options - if they're set to the right value already and have a warning "do not change or your system will puke" in the comments, why do we even have those options?
    Reply
  • Calin - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    Maybe when set at the max value, they create "echo" in other nearby lines (disrupting other signals) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    Reaching maximum overclocks - just like fine tuning a typical BIOS - requires a lot of tweaks. Getting top performance from every memory type available using "Auto" settings is not likely to happen. You can discover through trial and error where the "sweet spot" is for your particular RAM, and you might find that it gives you and extra 100-200 MHz.

    For example, memory skew is mostly (as I understand it) a way of increasing stability. You tweak the memory so that signals are read/sent slightly out of phase with "default", and that can be used to compensate for higher clock speeds. You would end up adjusting skew at various overclock levels to maximize stability. Drive strength is another option for tuning the system to work optimally with your RAM and CPU at various speeds; higher voltages and clock speeds would respond differently to varying drive strengths.

    The problem is, finding the optimal values for even one configuration is a trial and error process that can literally take weeks or even months. Do most people need that or even want that? Probably not. For the few that do, they'll probably love this board. That's why Wes says it would be nice to hide the less frequently used options and give them reasonable "Auto" settings. In the extreme, choosing even drive strength and DQS skew while leaving all other settings the same represents 16,744,448 potential settings (three separate drive strengths with 32 potential settings, and 511 skew settings).

    The good news is that there are people out there with a better understanding of the low level details that are writing guides to help others optimize performance without testing every setting.
    Reply
  • Clauzii - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    It looks like CrossFire is becoming a potent and competitive subject, despite what a lot of people said a year ago, and with this board from DFI, it looks like the future is indeed bright for people who want´s ATI Crossfire or thought they didn´t.

    It also looks that DFI has indeed become a star in the motherboard market - especially when the outdated SATA chips get a trip to the eternal outer space silicon fields - and gets an 600 injection.
    To me it also seems that these boards must be near rocksolid, since I don´t see any mentions of strange behavior - nice.

    Crossfire software (CCC and the horror that belongs to it!) needs to be solved by ATI as soon as possible!! as it looks to be the only thing holding back on more people getting it.

    Thanks for a Nice and pretty well written article :)
    Reply

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