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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  • rqle - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    "...breathlessly waiting for DFI's AM2 and Conroe motherboards."
    Great board, but not sure where this new mainboard will fit in since AM2 is coming, many can opt for the nforce expert if they need a board before AM2.

    hoping AM2 version is in the works and will be release soon as well.
    Reply
  • electronox - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    *sigh*

    as far as gaming benchmarks go, what we really need to learn to do is to focus on the lowest framerates rather than the highest framerates (or even the average framerate). fink, anand, and co., you guys offer a progressive tech-journalism and no doubt have thought about what FPS performance really means.

    in its most important application, FPS performance means the ability to convey a smooth, fluid visual experience without noticeable dips or jerks in motion. sadly, with the way things are marketed now, the overall fluidity of gaming is sacrificed to reach those peak framerates we all obsess about in our benchmarking suites.

    as a long time gamer and enthusiast-sector consumer, i wish such high profile websites as yours would pay more attention to the worst parts of FPS gaming - the parts of the game where the intensity of in-game content is notched up, but often our video settings must be turned down in order to prevent epileptic siezures. such media attention might, in turn, lead industry developers to optimize their drivers for this exceedingly common problem which, in my opinon, is just as easily quantifiable and ever bit as important as average FPS performance.

    my thoughts, electronox.
    Reply
  • Dfere - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    I have to agree. I make good money, but I no longer have the time to play with bleeding edge components and do modding. I know this is an enthusiast site, but at least for me , and I think a large amount of readers, an analysis of the max you might get out of a bleeding edge system is not all the value your site brings. A lot of posts by the readers show they have mid range systems. Thus I can only agree that an analysis of the FPS "issues" described above with a mid range system would help readers identify what would best go with their current system, not just a top of the line upgrade. I know your testing tries to determine , for example, CPU limits or GPU limits...... but it really only does so on bleeding edge systems..... and these comments were already mirrored in the latest AGP vid card releases......(why compare a new AGP card with new processor when most AGP owners have 754 systems.... etc) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    I think it all depends on what game you're talking about, and how the impact is felt in the fluidity of the FPS score. These days, the vast majority of first-person shooters have a pretty consistent FPS, at least in normal gaming. In benchmarks, you're often stressing the games in a somewhat unrealistic sense -- playing back a demo at three or four times the speed at which it was recorded. Why does that matter? Well, depending on the game engine, loading of data can occur in the background without actually slowing performance down much, if at all. In a time demo, you don't generally get that capability, since everything moves much faster.

    There are several other difficulties with providing minimum frame rates. Many games don't report instantaneous frames per second and only provide you with the average score. (Doom 3, Quake 4, Call of Duty 2, Half-Life 2, Day of Defeat: Source all generate scores automatically, but don't provide minimum and maximum frame rates.) If we notice inconsistent frame rates, we do generally comment on the fact. About the only game where I still notice inconsistent frame rates is Battlefield 2 with only 1GB of RAM -- at least on a system of this performance level. (I suppose I should throw in Oblivion as well.)

    Sure, we could use tools like FRAPS together more detailed information, but given that there's a limited amount of time to get reviews done, would you rather have fewer games with more detailed stats, or more games with average frame rates? Realistically, we can't do both on every single article. Our motherboard reviews try to stay consistent within motherboards, our processor reviews do the same within CPU articles, and the same goes with graphics cards and other areas. If we have an article where we look at results from one specific game, we will often use that to establish a baseline metric for performance, and readers that are interested in knowing more about the benchmark can refer back to that game article.

    Average frame rates are not the be-all, end-all of performance. However, neither are they useless or meaningless. we run into similar problems if we report minimum frame rates -- did the minimum frame rate occur once, twice, frequently? As long as people understand that average frame rates are an abstraction representing several layers of performance, than they can glean meaning from the results. You almost never get higher average frame rates with lower minimum frame rates, or conversely lower average frame rates with higher minimum frame rates -- not in a single game. In the vast majority of benchmarks, an increase in average frame rate of 10 FPS usually means that minimum frame rates have gone up as well -- maybe not 10 FPS, but probably 7 or 8 FPS at least.

    In the end, without turning every article into a treatise on statistics, not to mention drastically increasing the complexity of our graphs, it's generally better to stick with average frame rates. Individual articles may look at minimum and maximum frame rates as well, but doing that for every single article that uses a benchmark rapidly consumes all of our time. Are we being lazy, or merely efficient? I'd like to think it's the latter. :-)

    Regards,
    Jarred Walton
    Hardware Editor
    AnandTech.com
    Reply
  • OvErHeAtInG - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    Good answer :) Also I think that minimum framerates (while very important in gameplay) are much more impacted by the videocard used. With a motherboard review, we're much more concerned with overall performance, which is exactly what you gave us with the avg. framerate numbers... Reply

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