Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1956

"The more alternatives, the more difficult the choice."

This quote by Abbe' D'Allanival conveys our feelings about the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 product. ASRock began operations in 2002 as the value brand group for Asus. ASRock has a history of providing very unique and, at times, unusual products based upon alternative chipsets at inexpensive price points. Although ASRock offers a complete line of products based upon mainstream chipsets from Intel and NVIDIA, it is their products based upon ULi, SIS, and VIA chipsets that are usually far more interesting. More information about the entire line of ASRock products can be found here.

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 motherboard is based on the ULi M1697 and M1695 chipsets. ASRock has done a masterful job in utilizing these recently released chipsets to create a board that might make you think twice about spending any additional money for an NVIDIA nForce4 dual X16 SLI solution. In fact, this board fully supports NVIDIA SLI technology and it works seamlessly with the included ULi PowerExpress Engine Enabling driver although the board is not SLI certified by NVIDIA. Of course, now that NVIDIA has completed their acquisition of ULi, we have to wonder how many manufacturers will be able to provide a similar solution utilizing these chipsets or how long this driver will be available.

Our initial impression of the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 upon opening the box was like a child opening a birthday present, full of surprise and wonderment at the object that we were holding. We were impressed at the extensive list of features included on the board and were very surprised that a board this feature-laden sells at a retail price of US $85. After the initial excitement over our gift from ASRock wore off, we began to wonder if this present would be one that we would toss in the closet, regift to an unsuspecting editor, or cherish over time. The old adage, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is." began to enter our minds as we studied the board's extensive features and read the marketing materials. The only way to come to a decisive conclusion was to test the board thoroughly and utilize it in a variety of situations. We accomplished our goal of running this board through the gamut of test suites with various peripherals while also utilizing it as our everyday office/game system. We were impressed with the board, and our results might change the way that you look at a value based solution.

During our testing and general usage of the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2, we found the board's stability to be exceptional and it delivered competitive results in the latest synthetic and game benchmarks. However, our initial impressions were not as positive at the beginning of the test phase as the board would sporadically produce random results in the synthetic benchmarks while generating lockups in the memory benchmarks. Our issue was with the pre-release test BIOS and was not visible in the production release BIOS on the shipping boards. While the performance of the board was slightly lower in most benchmarks, the stability was superb with the release BIOS.

ASRock utilizes the ULi M1695 HyperTransport PCI Express Tunnel chip for the North Bridge. The ULi M1695 is designed to interconnect seamlessly with other HyperTransport based Host or Bridge chips and, in this case, is interconnected to the ULi M1697 acting as the South Bridge. The M1695 fully supports one PCI Express x16 lane or two x8 lanes for graphics cards and two PCI Express x1 or one PCI Express x4 expansion slot. The M1695 offers transfers of up to 16-bit HTT downstream and 16-bit HTT upstream links at 2.0 GT/s, ensuring an excellent communication path between the processor and connecting bridges.

ASRock utilizes the ULi M1697 HyperTransport PCI Express chip for the South Bridge. The M1697 fully supports one PCI Express x16 lane or two PCI Express x8 lanes for graphics cards and three PCI Express x1 or one PCI Express x4 expansion slot. The M1697 also offers transfers of up to 16-bit HTT downstream and 16-bit HTT upstream links at 2.0 GT/s. The M1697 provides dual channel Ultra-DMA IDE support, four SATA ports featuring NCQ, 3Gb/s, eSATA, Hot Plug, RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, and JBOD operations. High Definition Audio is natively supported along with eight USB 2.0 ports and 10/100Mb/s Ethernet utilizing a properly supported PHY. PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet can be utilized as a discrete solution with a properly supported PHY. Further information about the ULi product line can be found here.

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 offers the full complement of options available including two PCI Express x16 connections (fully supports NVIDIA SLI with PowerExpress driver); one PCI Express x4 connection, three 32-bit PCI 2.2 connections, and a unique CPU upgrade port that fully supports the AM2 940-pin CPU with an AM2CPU daughter board. The board also offers HD audio via the Realtek ALC660 HD 5.1 codec, PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet via the Realtek RT8111B PHY, eight USB 2.0 ports (utilizing two USB 2.0 headers), four SATA 3Gb/s connectors, two eSATA 3Gb/s connectors (shared with two SATA 3Gb/s ports), two ATA133 Ultra-DMA IDE connectors, and IEEE 1394 support via the TI TSB43AB22 1394A capable chipset.

Let's find out if this alternative offering leads to a difficult choice.

Basic Features: ASRock 939SLI-32 eSATA2

Specification ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2
CPU Interface 939-Pin Socket supporting AMD Athlon 64 / 64FX / 64X2
Chipset ULi M1695 - North Bridge
ULi M1697 - South Bridge
Bus Speeds 150MHz ~ 400MHz in 1MHz increments
CPU Clock Multiplier Auto, 4x ~ 25x in 1x increments
Memory Speeds Auto, 133MHz, 166MHz, 200MHz
PCI Bus Speeds Auto, Sync with PCI-E, 33.33MHz ~ 37.50MHz variable speed
PCI Express Bus Speeds Auto, 75MHz ~ 200MHz in various increments
HT Multipliers Auto, 200MHz, 400MHZ, 600MHz, 800MHz, 1000MHz
HT Link Speed Auto, 8-bit, 16-bit
Core Voltage Auto, 0.800V to 1.400V (in 0.025V increments), (max voltage dependent upon CPU)
DRAM Voltage Auto, 2.55V, 2.6V, 2.7V, 2.8V (Low, Normal, High, Ultra)
Chipset Voltage Auto, 2.10V, 2.20V (Normal, High)
Memory Slots (4) x DIMM, max. 4GB, DDR 400/333/266, non-ECC, un-buffered memory, Dual Channel Operation supported.
Expansion Slots (2) x PCI-E x16 (each slot operates in 1x16 mode)
(1) x PCI-E x4 (operates in x1 or x2 mode)
(3) x PCI 2.2
(1) x AM2 CPU port
Onboard SATA ULi M1697: (4) x SATA II , (2) eSATA II (shared with SATA II)
Onboard IDE ULi M1697: (2) x UltraDMA 133/100/66/33
(4) x SATA II
Onboard USB 2.0 (8) USB2.0 ports (four ports, two headers for four more ports)
Onboard LAN Realtek RTL8111B PCI-E 10/100/1000Mb/s LAN - PHY
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC-660, 5.1 channel capable HD Audio Codec
Onboard Firewire TI TSB43AB22 IEEE 1394 chipset - 1394A capable
Power Connectors 20-pin ATX
4-pin ATX 12V
4-pin 12V SLI
Back Panel I/O Ports 1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x Parallel (ECP/EPP)
1 x Serial (COM1)
1 x Audio I/O Panel
1 x RJ45 LAN 4 x USB 2.0
2 x eSATA II
1x IEEE 1394
Other Features Hybird Booster - Overclocking Engine
Boot Failure Guard - Overclocking Safe Guard
United Overclocking Program - Fixed PCI-E and PCI speeds
Hardware Monitor - BIOS Based
Windows Vista Ready
ROHS Compliant
BIOS AMI 1.0 (2/06/06)

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 is a member of the Socket 939 Series product family and is a value-based board targeted towards the enthusiast user. The board ships with an accessory package that includes the standard assortment of IDE/SATA cables and power connectors. ASRock also includes an extensive driver CD along with desktop utilities.

This is the BIOS setup utility screen, which displays the change configuration categories available on the board.

This is the Advanced BIOS category main screen that contains all of the subcategories available for setup.

The CPU configuration section allows you to set individual parameters manually for voltage, multipliers, and chipset frequency settings. Unfortunately, one of the few issues that we had with the board was the limited CPU voltage settings. The system would not allow a setting over 1.4V for our 4000+ or Opteron 170 CPU choices. The Boot Failure Guard option is a BIOS recovery setting that allows the system to recover from errant overclocking settings. The system worked superbly as we never had to use the clear CMOS jumper.

The CPU Configuration screen also contains the section for controlling memory timing adjustments. The BIOS allows for an Auto setting that will set the memory to the SPD settings or you can adjust the memory timings manually. The Flexibility Option will override the manual settings based upon the ability of the system to operate properly at the requested memory settings. We typically found in our testing that the system would adjust the memory clock settings based upon the latency settings utilized.

The Memory Clock settings are fairly limited on the board with the Auto setting providing an adjusted ratio dependent upon the manual memory settings and bus speeds. The other three memory settings will lock the given memory ratio to the CPU clock.

The Chipset Settings configuration screen allows you to adjust the North and South Bridge link speed and width settings. The voltage adjustments for memory and chipset are also available on this screen. The memory voltage was only adjustable up to 2.8V that definitely played a role in our overclocking results along with the limited CPU voltage settings. We also do not like the memory and chipset settings being alpha instead of numerically based.

ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2: Features

ASRock designed a very well laid out board with all major connections easily reached. The Asrock layout provides excellent clearance for cards and components and it was easy to install in a mid-size ATX case. Although the board features a 3-phase voltage regulator power design, it provided excellent stability and allowed for a decent level of overclocking.

The DIMM module slots' color coordination is correct for dual channel setup. The memory modules are easy to install with a full size video card placed in the first PCI Express x16 slot.

The ULi IDE port connectors are located to the right of the battery and left of the BIOS chip. The IDE port connectors presented connection issues when utilizing the board in SLI operation. The ability to connect our IDE cables with the SLI setup was severely hampered due to the tight space in between the two 7800GTX video cards. The cables were forced to run vertically in between the video cards and then loop over the first video card. This could present an issue for owners having a full size ATX case with optical drives at the top of the case. We also noticed temperature readings of around 56c in between the video cards where the two cables were installed.

The system fan header is located below the ULi SATA ports. The ULi SATA ports are conveniently located below the M1697 chipset and to the left of the battery. The SATA ports feature the new "clamp and latch" design along with it being color-coded. The ULi M1697 chipset is passively cooled with a high rise heat sink that did not interfere with cards installed into the PCI slots. The TI TSB43AB22 IEEE 1394 chipset is located above the M1697 chipset.

The ULi USB connectors, chassis panel, and IEEE 1394 header are located on the left edge of the board. The clear CMOS jumper block is a traditional jumper design located to the left of the orange SATA port connector. The orange and red ULi SATA port connectors are color-coded to match the eSATA2 ports on the I/O panel. ASRock supplies cables to attach the two ports to their matching ports on the I/O panel in order to utilize the external ports.

The board comes with (2) physical PCI Express x16 connectors, (1) PCI Express x4 connector, and (3) 32-bit PCI 2.2 connectors. The layout of this design offers a very good balance of expansion slots for a mainstream board.

The first physical PCI Express x16 connector is located next to the 12V power connector that must be used if two video cards are installed. The PCI Express x4 and second PCI Express x16 connectors are located next and followed by the (3) PCI slots.

We did not have any issues installing our EVGA 7800GTX 512MB or ATI X1900XTX video cards in the first and second x16 PCI Express slots. These dual slot configuration cards will physically render the PCI Express x4 and first 32-bit PCI slot useless. We did not have any issues utilizing these slots with video cards containing single slot cooling systems.

The floppy drive connector is located to right of the number three PCI slot and is inconveniently located for most case designs. The game port header and front audio panel header are located in front of the floppy drive connector and to the right of the number three PCI slot. The internal CD audio connector is located in front of the number two and three PCI slots along with the Realtek ALC660 audio codec. The Winbond Super I/O chipset is located in front of the number one PCI slot.

The board features a dedicated CPU upgrade slot that will fully support the 940-pin AM2 series of CPUs with the proper daughter card. This daughter card option should be available from ASRock shortly after the launch of the AM2 CPUs. The jumpers to the right of the yellow are required to be changed in order to switch from 939 socket operation to the AM2 CPU.

Returning to the CPU socket area, we find ample room for alternative cooling solutions. We utilized the stock AMD heat sink, but also verified that several aftermarket cooling systems such as the Thermaltake Big Typhoon would fit in this area during our overclocking tests. However, due to the large heat sink covering the M1695 chipset, the installation of larger air or water-cooling solutions could be problematic.

The ULI M1695 chipset is passively cooled with a large heat sink unit that did not interfere with any installed peripherals. However, this unit did not keep the M1695 chipset cooled properly. We typically witnessed temperatures hovering near 59c from this heat sink, although we did not notice any stability issues during load operations. We do believe additional cooling in this area is required.

ASRock places the four-pin 12v auxiliary power connector at the top of the CPU socket area along the edge of the board, but out of the way of most aftermarket cooling solutions. The 20-pin ATX power connector is located above the capacitors and behind the rear I/O panel. This 20-pin connector is located in an unusual position and could hamper airflow with cabling that crosses directly over the CPU heat sink/fan; although, we did not have any issues in our case.

The rear panel contains the standard PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, parallel port, serial port, LAN port, and 4 USB ports. The audio panel consists of 3 ports that can be configured for 2, 4, and 5.1 channel audio connections. Located to the right of the serial and parallel ports are the first two USB 2.0 ports with the IEEE 1394 connector on top. Located next to this series of ports are the next two USB 2.0 ports with the RJ-45 LAN port on top. The eSATA2 ports are located to the right of the USB/LAN ports and to the left of the audio panel.

FSB Overclocking Results

Front Side Bus Overclocking Testbed
Processor: AMD Athlon 64 4000+ (San Diego)
AMD Opteron 170 (Toledo)
CPU Voltage: 1.400V (1.300V default)
Memory Settings: 2-2-2-5 1T - (12x)
2.5-3-3-7 1T - (10x)
2.5-4-4-10 1T - (9x)
Memory Voltage: 2.8V
Chipset Voltage: 2.1V
FSB Voltage: 1.40V
HT Multiplier: 5x up to 240HTT, 4x up to 315HTT
Memory: OCZ PC4800 Platinum Edition
Cooling: Thermaltake Big Typhoon
Power Supply: OCZ Power Stream 520
Maximum CPU OverClock (4000+): 237HTT x 12 (2846MHz) +19%
Maximum HTT OverClock (4000+): 315HTT x 9 (2835MHz) +57%
Maximum CPU OverClock (O170): 270HTT x 10 (2700MHz) +35%
Maximum HTT OverClock (O170): 315HTT x 9 (2835MHz) +57%

Our 4000+ CPU was hampered in overclocking by the lack of additional voltage. This CPU has reached 3.1GHz on 1.475V in past testing. The board definitely has the capability to overclock well, but will not reach its true potential without additional CPU and Memory voltages. At these overclock settings, the system was able to complete all of our benchmark test suites three consecutive times and run Prime95 and SuperPI without issue.

Our Opteron 170 faired better due to the lower voltage requirements of the particular CPU when overclocking. However, this CPU has reached 2.95GHz on 1.450V in past testing. We were able to reach 2800MHz with the 10x280 setting, but we could not complete our test suite due to memory issues. Our memory has been able to reach this HTT setting with 3.0V in the past, but we were limited to 2.8V with this board. At the 10x270 and 9x315 overclock settings, the system was able to complete all of our benchmark test suites three consecutive times and run Prime95 and SuperPI without issue. Overall, the board would make a very good platform for enthusiast level overclocking with additional voltage options.

Memory Stress Testing

Memory stress tests look at the ability of the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 to operate at the officially supported memory frequencies of DDR-400, at the best performing memory timings that the OCZ PC4800 Platinum Edition will support.

ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2
Stable DDR-400 Timings - 2 DIMMs
(2/4 slots populated - 1 Dual-Channel Bank)
Clock Speed: 200MHz
CAS Latency: 2
RAS to CAS Delay: 2
RAS Precharge: 2
RAS Cycle Time: 5
Command Rate: 1T
Voltage: 2.7V

The ASRock 939SLI32 was extremely stable with 2 DDR modules in Dual-Channel mode at the settings of 2-2-2-5 at 2.7V. We will now install all four available memory slots that result in more strenuous requirements on the memory subsystem than testing 2 DDR modules on a motherboard.

ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2
Stable DDR-400 Timings - 4 DIMMs
(4/4 slots populated - 2 Dual-Channel Banks)
Clock Speed: 200MHz (800FSB)
CAS Latency: 2
RAS to CAS Delay: 2
RAS Precharge: 2
RAS Cycle Time: 8
Command Rate: 2T
Voltage: 2.7V

The ASRock 939SLI32 was very stable with 4 DDR modules in Dual-Channel operation at the settings of 2-2-2-8, but required the command rate be increased to 2T that is typical in AMD Athlon 64 based systems.

Test Setup

The ULi M1695 and M1697 chipsets fully support all AMD Athlon 64 processors in both stock and overclocked conditions.

Performance Test Configuration
Processor(s): AMD Athlon 64 4000+ utilized for all tests
RAM: 2 x 512MB OCZ Technology PC4800 Platinum Edition Settings- DDR-400 at (CL2-2-2-5, 1T)
Hard Drive(s): 2 x Maxtor MaXLine III 7L300S0 300GB 7200 RPM SATA (16MB Buffer), 1 x Maxtor MaXLine III 7L300R0 300GB 7200 RPM IDE (16MB Buffer)
System Platform Drivers: ULi SATA Driver - 1059
ULi PowerExpress Engine Enabling driver - 1006E
Video Cards: 1 x MSI 7800GTX (PCI Express) for all non-SLI tests
2 x MSI 7800GTX (PCI Express) for SLI tests
Video Drivers: NVIDIA nForce 81.98 WHQL
Cooling: Thermaltake Big Typhoon
Power Supply: OCZ Power Stream 520
Operating System(s): Windows XP Professional SP2
Motherboards: Asus A8N-SLI Premium
Albatron K8SLI
Foxconn NF4SK8AA-8KRS
Asus A8R-MVP (ATI RD480/ULi1575)
Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe

We tested our MSI 7800GTX video cards utilizing NVIDIA 81.98 WHQL drivers to provide recent performance results. Resolution in all benchmarks is 1280x1024x32 unless SLI operation is enabled. Resolution in SLI game benchmarks is 1600x1200x32 with 4XAA and 8xAF implemented where applicable. 3DMark and Aquamark3 benchmarks use a "Standard Score" setup at the 1024x768 video resolution for both SLI and non-SLI testing.

General Performance & Encoding

Graphics Performance

Graphics Performance

Graphics Performance

General Performance

Graphics Performance

MPEG-4 Encoding Performance - 'Sum of All Fears' Ch. 9

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 is very competitive in the synthetic benchmarks with scores consistently in the middle to upper range. The combination of the ULi M1697/M1695 chipsets and ASRock's engineering capabilities has resulted in a very cost-friendly performance solution. The ASRock 939SLI32 board also performs very well in the encoding tests. Our encoding tests will soon change to the DivX 6.1 codec along with additional multimedia tasks.

Memory Performance

Memory Bandwidth Comparison - Read Performance

Memory Bandwidth Comparison - Write Performance

Memory Bandwidth Comparison - Latency Performance

We recently switched to version 2.50 of Everest, so these scores are not comparable to previous tests with version 2.20. The memory latency test shows a slight advantage to the nForce4 boards, but the write performance of the ULi based solution is impressive, considering the two-chip solution utilized.

Overclocking Performance

The overclocking performance graphs have been added to the standard benchmark test suite and should allow for a better comparison on the overclocking capabilities of tested boards. For more details on the specific overclocking abilities of this board, please refer to the Overclocking and Memory Stress Test section in the Basic Features section.

Overclocking - A64 4000+ - (San Diego)

Overclocking - A64 4000+ - (San Diego)

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 would be a very competitive overclocking platform at the stock multiplier and possibly at the high end if the BIOS allowed additional CPU and Memory voltages. Hopefully, this will be addressed in an upcoming BIOS release or in a Vmod solution provided by the enthusiast community. Although we believe the board would make a good overclocking platform for the general enthusiast with additional voltage options, it is not a board designed for the hard-core overclocker.

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

The overall gaming performance of the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 is very good in all titles, except Doom3 where the board consistently produced results up to 9fps lower than the ATI and NVIDIA chipset based boards. In actual DOOM3 game play, the drop in frame rates was not noticeable. We did not witness any further anomalies or issues throughout our test benchmarks and on-line gaming sessions. At stock settings, this board competes very well against boards costing twice as much. The board exhibited excellent stability in all phases of game testing.

SLI Performance

We installed the supplied SLI bridge connector and the ULi PowerExpress Engine Enabling driver with the NVIDIA 81.98 WHQL driver set for SLI testing. Upon installation of the ULi PowerExpress driver and a system reboot, the NVIDIA 81.98 driver properly recognized our additional MSI 7800GTX video card for SLI operation.

Gaming Performance - SLI

Gaming Performance - SLI

Gaming Performance - SLI

Gaming Performance - SLI

Gaming Performance - SLI

The performance of the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 board in our SLI gaming benchmarks is competitive and, at times, equal to our NVIDIA nForce4 boards. The Doom3 scores are almost equal to that of the nForce4 boards and they do not show the anomaly that we witnessed in the single video card testing. However, the F.E.A.R. scores are lower than what we expected based upon the single card testing. This could be the result of the PowerExpress driver not being fully optimized or a potential issue with power delivery under stress testing.

Graphics Performance - SLI

Graphics Performance - SLI

Graphics Performance - SLI

The performance pattern continues in the synthetic benchmarks with the ASRock board, scoring a victory in the 3DMark06 test although it trailed the top NVIDIA based boards in the other 3DMark tests. We were impressed with the general SLI performance of the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 and did not find any performance or graphic issues in our test suites. We extensively tested the board in SLI operation with several game titles without issue and believe the ULi PowerExpress Engine Enabling driver is a very stable solution at this time. However, please note the board has not been certified by NVIDIA for SLI operation.

Disk Controller Performance

With the variety of disk drive benchmarks available, we needed a means of comparing the true performance of the wide selection of controllers. The logical choice was Anand's storage benchmark first described in Q2 2004 Desktop Hard Drive Comparison: WD Raptor vs. the World. The iPeak test was designed to measure "pure" hard disk performance, and in this case, we kept the hard drive as consistent as possible while varying the hard drive controller. The idea is to measure the performance of a hard drive controller with a consistent hard drive.

We played back Anand's raw files that recorded I/O operations when running a real world benchmark - the entire Winstone 2004 suite. Intel's iPEAK utility was then used to play back the trace file of all I/O operations that took place during a single run of Business Winstone 2004 and MCC Winstone 2004. To try to isolate performance differences to the controllers that we were testing, we used the Maxtor MaXLine III 7L300S0 300GB 7200 RPM SATA drive in all tests. The drive was formatted before each test run and a composite average of 5 tests on each controller interface was tabulated in order to ensure consistency in the benchmark.

iPeak gives a mean service time in milliseconds; in other words, the average time that each drive took to fulfill each I/O operation. In order to make the data more understandable, we report the scores as an average number of I/O operations per second so that higher scores translate into better performance. This number is meaningless as far as hard disk performance is concerned, as it is just the number of I/O operations completed in a second. However, the scores are useful for comparing "pure" performance of the storage controllers in this case.

iPeak Business Winstone Hard Disk I/O

iPeak MM Content Creation Hard Disk I/O

The performance patterns hold steady across both Multimedia Content I/O and Business I/O, with the ULi based disk controllers providing the fastest I/O operations followed by the on-board NVIDIA nForce4 SATA controllers. In particular is the excellent performance generated by the ULi IDE controller logic while the SATA performance is up to 12% better when compared to the nForce4 chipset.

Firewire and USB Performance

After looking at many options for Firewire and USB testing, we finally determined that an external USB 2.0, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800 hard disk would be a sensible way to look at USB and Firewire throughput.

Our first efforts at testing with an IDE or SATA drive as the "server" yielded very inconsistent results, since Windows XP sets up cache schemes to improve performance. Finally, we decided to try a RAM disk as our "server", since memory removed almost all overhead from the serving end. We also managed to turn off disk caching on the USB and Firewire side by setting up the drives for "quick disconnect" and our results were then consistent over many test runs.

We used 1GB of fast 2-2-2-5 system memory set up as a 450MB RAM disk and 550MB of system memory. Our standard file is the SPECviewPerf install file, which measures 432,533,504 bytes (412.4961MB). After copying this file to our RAM disk, we measured the time for writing from the RAM disk to our external USB 2.0, Firewire 400, or Firewire 800 drive using our Windows bases timing program. The copy times in seconds were then converted into Megabits per second (Mb) to provide a convenient means of comparing throughput. Higher Rates therefore mean better performance in this particular test.

USB Performance

Possibly the most striking finding in our Firewire and USB throughput tests is the continued performance of an external hard drive connected to Firewire 800. Our benchmarks show Firewire 800 is up to 46% faster than a drive connected to the more common Firewire 400, and about 29% faster than USB 2.0.

The ASRock board offers a TI based IEEE 1394 Firewire option with performance equal to that of other TI solutions. The USB 2.0 performance is consistent with other ULi based controllers and continues to lag behind the NVIDIA nForce4 chipset solutions in throughput.

Ethernet Performance

The current motherboard test suite includes LAN performance measurements. All of these boards utilize PCI Express controllers with the only difference being the supplier of the core logic.

The Windows 2000 Driver Development Kit (DDK) includes a useful LAN testing utility called NTttcp. We used the NTttcp tool to test Ethernet throughput and the CPU utilization of the various Ethernet Controllers used on the Intel motherboards.

We set up one machine as the server; in this test, an Intel system with an Intel CSA Gigabit LAN connection. Intel CSA has a reputation for providing fast throughput and this seemed to be a reasonable choice to serve our Gigabit LAN clients.

At the server side, we used the following Command Line as suggested by the VIA whitepaper on LAN testing:
Ntttcpr -m 4,0,‹server IP› -a 4 -l 256000 -n 30000
On the client side (the motherboard under test), we used the following Command Line:
Ntttcps -m 4,0,‹client IP› -a 4 -l 256000 -n 30000
At the conclusion of the test, we captured the throughput and CPU utilization figures from the client screen.

Ethernet Throughput

Ethernet Overhead

The M1697 natively supports 10/100Mb/s Ethernet operations, so the choice of the PCI-E based Realtek RTL8111B 10/100/1000Mb/s Ethernet PHY is an excellent addition to this board. The combination of the ULi M1695 and M1697 chipsets provides the necessary PCI Express lanes for ASRock to utilize a discreet PCI-E Gigabit solution. The performance of the Realtek PHY is very competitive with the Marvell based PHY solutions on the nForce4 boards and certainly exceeds the PCI based solutions.

All standard Ethernet tests were performed with standard frames and the NVIDIA Active Armor suite disabled unless otherwise noted. Gigabit Ethernet supports Jumbo frames as well and provides a further reduction in CPU overhead.

Audio Performance

We limited audio testing to the Rightmark 3D Sound version 2.2 CPU utilization test and tested with sound enabled to show the performance effects on several games. The Rightmark 3D Sound benchmark measures the overhead or CPU utilization required by a codec or hardware audio chip.

The Realtek ALC-660 HD audio codec was tested with the recently released 1.31 driver set. The Realtek DirectSound audio drivers do not support more than 32 hardware buffers and the OpenAL 1.1 drivers do not support more than 30 hardware buffers at this time. So, the scores cannot be directly compared to the HDA Mystique 7.1 and Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-FI cards in the benchmarks. The Realtek OpenAL 1.1 driver increases CPU utilization up to 20% more than the Realtek DirectSound drivers.

Audio Performance - Empty CPU - 32 Buffers

Audio Performance - 2d Audio - 32 Buffers

Audio Performance - DirectSound 3D HW - 32 Buffers

Audio Performance - DirectSound 3D EAX2 - 32 Buffers

The Realtek ALC-660 HD audio codec has average CPU utilization rates with reductions of up to 4% in the 3D tests compared to the previous driver release. The HDA Mystique 7.1 Gold has the highest overall utilization rates of the audio solutions tested, but its scores improved up to 20% with the last driver release. BlueGears is no longer supporting the card directly, but HDA continues to offer support. The Realtek ALC-660 performance is equal to the ALC-850 (driver set 3.82, 26 Hardware Buffers available) and offers significantly better audio quality. The Sound Blaster X-FI has the lowest overall rates as expected. Let's find out how these results translate into real world numbers.

Game Audio Performance - Serious Sam II - Branchester Demo

Game Audio Performance - BattleField 2

Game Audio Performance - Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

Game Audio Performance - Call of Duty II - Demo 5

Game Audio Performance - F.E.A.R. - Performance Test

The audio performance numbers remain consistent as the Realtek ALC-660 continues to finish behind the HDA Mystique 7.1 and SoundBlaster X-FI. Serious Sam II suffers an incredible loss of 43%, Splinter Cell at 2%, Battlefield 2 at 28%, Call of Duty 2 at 5%, and F.E.A.R. at 4%. The output quality of audio with the Realtek ALC-660 is very good and continues to improve with each driver release. The majority of users should have no issues utilizing the ALC-660 as the primary audio solution, considering the overall quality of audio and performance at this time.

However, if you are a serious gamer, then a dedicated sound card is still a requirement to ensure consistent frame rate averages across a wide variety of games. We noticed in previous testing of our Battlefield 2 and Half Life 2 benchmarks that the Realtek HD audio codecs would cause stuttering in intensive scenes. The 1.31 driver release has now eliminated all stuttering in our current benchmarks while improving performance across the board except in Serious Sam II. We did not notice the same performance degradation in Serious Sam II with the 1.31 driver set and the Realtek ALC-882 codecs on the Intel chipset boards. We are still investigating this issue.

The Realtek driver installation installs a basic control panel that features a built-in 10-band equalizer along with the standard mixer and speaker controls. We found the control panel to be user friendly and a definite improvement over the standard windows audio properties application.

Final Words

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 offers excellent performance and a wealth of features at a bargain price. The performance of the board in the majority of the benchmarks was extremely competitive with the ATI and NVIDIA chipset offerings. The stability of the board was superb with the production release BIOS at stock settings. We still find it surprising that a board with this feature set and performance is being offered for a retail price of US $85.

With that said, let's move on to our performance opinions regarding this board.

In the video area, the inclusion of dual PCI Express x16 slots provides x16 SLI capability for half the price of the NVIDIA nForce4 x16 SLI chipset. The performance of the board under SLI testing was competitive with our nForce4 boards and offered full SLI compatibility when utilizing the ULi PowerExpress Engine Enabling driver. We tried this driver with the 81.85, 81.95, 81.98, and 82.12 drivers without an issue in a myriad of benchmarks and games. The board fully supported our ATI X1900XTX video card in limited testing. In fact, in discussions with the ULi engineers, we understood the next revision of the M1697 chipset would have offered full ATI CrossFire support with a similar PowerExpress Driver being offered. We doubt that this will occur now with ULi being fully owned by NVIDIA, but it certainly would have made this board even more desirable in the market place.

In the on-board audio area, the ASRock board offers the Realtek ALC-660 HD audio codec. While the ULi M1697 chipset fully supports 7.1 HD audio, ASRock provided 5.1 capability probably due to the implementation cost of the Realtek ALC-882. The audio output of this codec in the music, video, and DVD areas is very good for an on-board solution. The audio quality in gaming was good, but it did not match the output of the Sound Blaster X-FI. If you plan on utilizing this board for online gaming, then our recommendation is to purchase an appropriate sound card for consistency in frame rates across a wide range of games. However, the Realtek ALC-660 should suffice for the majority of users, and with constant driver updates, the performance will continue to improve.

In the storage area, the ASRock board offers the full complement of storage options afforded by the ULi M1697 chipset. The board offers RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, JDOB capability, NCQ, Hot Plug, eSATA, and 3Gb/s support along with dual channel ATA133 Ultra DMA capability. The board also offers eight ULi USB 2.0 ports when utilizing the two USB 2.0 headers and IEEE 1394 capability via the TI TSB43AB22 chipset. The performance of the ULi SATA and IDE controllers were excellent and easily exceeded the nForce4 solutions.

In the performance area, the ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 generated very good benchmark scores in most applications, considering the price of the board. The overall performance of the board in all areas was very competitive with boards costing significantly more. The stability of the board was excellent during testing and general usage. At stock speeds, there were no issues, but once we started overclocking the board, it became twitchy (due to limited voltage options) as we explored the limits of the board.

The ASRock 939SLI32-eSATA2 is a board designed and marketed for the AMD enthusiast on a budget, yet it excels in most areas. ASRock is the first manufacturer to market with the ULi M1695 and M1697 chipset combination, offering full dual x16 SLI capability along with the necessary driver patch to implement SLI operations although the board is not certified by NVIDIA. We applaud ASRock for the inclusion of dual x16 SLI capability on a value priced board and hope other board manufacturers can follow suit.

However, we feel that ASRock made the following errors in the design and execution of the board. The limited CPU and Memory voltages will hamper the marketability of this product into the AMD enthusiast community. When we utilized our Opteron 170 CPU, it was obvious that the board performed very well in overclocking situations where the CPU and Memory voltages were not a concern until reaching the limits of the CPU. While we understand the value nature of the board, the fact that it offers so many features and a fairly robust BIOS setup leads us to believe that the board's true performance potential will not be fully realized. However, even with additional voltage options this board was not designed for the hard-core overclocker.

Our other issues include the location of the floppy drive connector at the bottom of the board, the extremely tight clearance of IDE cables when utilizing an SLI setup, and the cooling capability of the heat sink on the ULi M1695 chipset. We also have to wonder about the inclusion of the AM2 CPU upgrade slot that seems more like a marketing gimmick than something that will be useful in the future. We certainly feel like the exclusion of this CPU upgrade slot would have afforded the opportunity to upgrade the already good 3-phase power delivery system, offering additional voltage settings, an additional slot space in between the PCI Express x16 connectors for custom video cooling solutions, and maybe the Realtek ALC-882 7.1 HD audio codec( we are being greedy now) at the same or slightly higher price point.

We believe that ASRock has done an incredible job in bringing a board with this feature set and performance to market at a very low price point. We feel that it is unfortunate that the ULi chipsets utilized on this board will probably have a limited life span in light of the NVIDIA acquisition, but are glad at this time to see more alternatives in the market place for the AMD enthusiast. The wide variety of alternatives now available in the market leads us to a difficult choice, but we believe this board offers the best overall combination of performance and features available on AMD motherboard under $100 at this time.

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