The Motherboard Test Suite

One of the ongoing concerns at AnandTech has been the tight clustering of performance results in our recent motherboard tests. In general, it is rare to see really wide variations in stock performance with motherboards these days. This has been made even clearer by the AMD Athlon 64 CPU, which has the memory controller on the CPU itself, removing another variable from the chipset equation. This is not bad news for buyers, since more consistent performance at stock speeds makes choosing a motherboard an easier task. Readers have pointed out that we need to do more tests that really differentiate boards, and we have been working on updates to our tests.

First and foremost, we have been including overclocking tests and memory stress testing for some time - simply because motherboards can vary a great deal in these capabilities. This tells you which motherboards overclock well and which ones are poor, and even if you don't ever plan to overclock, the ability of a motherboard to run at much higher than stock speeds tells you something about the quality of components used in a motherboard. Good overclockers generally use better components and are able to regulate power on the board better, so the good overclocking boards often make sense to buy even if you will never overclock. You can reasonably expect better stability and a longer service life.

As you will see in the overclocking tests on these nF4 Ultra motherboards, there is a huge variation in overclocking performance among the seven boards. Some of the boards did very well, others claimed to be aimed at the enthusiast, and then fell short in providing the controls that the enthusiasts demand for overclocking. One well-known overclocking brand turned in a dismal performance, raising questions about the directions of that company. The overclocking tests are revealing, and in this roundup in particular, they truly differentiate the boards.

Features are increasingly important in motherboards these days as well. With USB, Firewire, IDE, SATA controllers, RAID, LAN, and audio commonly found on top-line motherboards, you are buying much more than sockets for a processor and memory. There are potentially great variations in performance of these features, which could be very important for certain uses of the board. AnandTech has done a good job of detailing these features in past motherboard reviews, but we actually began testing and comparing those features in our nForce4 SLI roundup in February. When we have already tested a particular chip or specific feature in past reviews, we do not repeat the tests. There are really very few options being used with nForce4 chipsets, so most of the feature chips seen in this review have already been tested.

We also added iPeak storage tests to the motherboard suite in February. The SiS 180 was the only new chip in this roundup, so we added the results to our previous test data. If you are interested in how storage performance compares, please refer to the SLI review storage section and recent storage tests on SATA II drives.

USB 2.0 and Firewire 400/800 throughput was also measured with a new test developed for motherboard testing beginning in February. Basically, we create a RAM disk in Windows XP, write a standard test file to the RAM disk, then copy the file from the RAM disk to a USB 2.0, Firewire 400 or Firewire 800 connected hard drive. We time the copy from RAM disk to the connected drive with a timer program developed by our IT Manager. USB 2.0 is integrated in the NVIDIA chipset, and the Agere was the only new Firewire chips found in these reviews. You should refer to the Firewire and USB tests results to see how the various chips compare in performance.

We first compared Ethernet in the nForce4 SLI roundup using the Windows 2000 DDK to connect two computers with a CAT 6 crossover cable. We then use a standard host computer as the server and measure the transmission rate and CPU overhead at the client side, which was our test motherboard. We clearly demonstrated the advantages of PCIe over PCI gigabit Ethernet in those benchmarks, and we suggest that you look for PCIe LAN if LAN speed is an important feature to you. Frankly, most users will not come close to taxing regular PCI LAN with broadband internet, but if large file transfers over a gigabit LAN are part of your work routine, then PCIe LAN will be faster. If your LAN is slower than Gigabit, you will see no performance difference between PCI and PCIe LAN.

Audio is an area that is still under development and we will be including additional tests in future motherboard testing. We had one new configuration in this roundup - the Abit audio card - and we ran the industry standard RightMark benchmark suite for CPU utilization or overhead to compare to other solutions.

FutureMark 3DMark 2005 and 3DMark 2003 are useful for testing SLI and will be continued in SLI motherboard testing, but they provided little additional information in single video testing with the same video card. Therefore, we have not included these mostly GPU dependent benchmarks in these motherboard tests. We continued Winstones 2004 for Business and Multimedia, PCMark04, and AutoGK for media encoding. Games are now more heavily weighted toward the most current games with Half Life 2, Far Cry, Doom 3, and Unreal Tournament 2004. Aquamark 3, which is better known as a benchmark than the game on which it is based, is also continued. Return to Castle Wolfenstein-Enemy Territory and Quake 3 have been retained primarily because of their sensitivity to memory performance. It is also a useful reference to include Open GL-based games with so many new game offerings based on Direct X or sporting DX9 front ends.

Memory tRAS Recommendations

In past reviews, memory bandwidth tests established that a tRAS of 10 was optimal for the nForce3 chipset and a tRAS setting of 11 or 12 was generally best for nForce2. In the first memory stress test of a production nForce4 board, tRAS timings were first tested with memtest86, a free diagnostic program with its own boot OS that will boot from either a floppy disk or optical disk. Bandwidth of OCZ PC3200 Platinum Rev. 2, based on Samsung TCCD chips, was measured from tRas 5 to tRAS 11 to determine the best setting.

 Memtest86 Bandwidth
DFI nForce4 with Athlon 64 4000+
5 tRAS 2191
6 tRAS 2242
7 tRAS 2242
8 tRAS 2242
9 tRAS 2141
10 tRAS 2141
11 tRAS 2092

The best bandwidth was achieved with this combination of nForce4/4000+/TCCD in the 6 to 8 range, so a mid-value tRAS of 7 was chosen for all tests. It appears that optimal tRAS timings may also be memory dependent on the nForce4, so we recommend a quick series of memtest86 to establish the optimum tRAS timings for other memories.

Processor Architecture The Roundup
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  • tribbleva - Tuesday, December 20, 2005 - link

    Every single one of these MBs has a fan on the NB... where are the passively cooled mobos? The last thing I want is one or TWO more tiny fans just on the mobo to worry about failing... Reply
  • Zebo - Friday, July 22, 2005 - link

    "someof you take Anandtech's word as the word of GOD"

    It's as close as you can get without dying.:)
    Reply
  • Zebo - Friday, July 22, 2005 - link

    Viper - You should come inside the forums for specfic help.. Reply
  • dg3274 - Saturday, July 16, 2005 - link

    The article states that the Abit board has a problem with 1:1 overclocking. I disagree. I think the problem is that it does not provide enough ram voltage to run the RAM at high 1:1 FSB. 2.8 volts is not enough to run ANY ram much higher than 280 or so FSB. Reply
  • Viper4185 - Thursday, July 14, 2005 - link

    No one wants to help me with my n00b questions :( Reply
  • Marcel - Tuesday, July 12, 2005 - link

    #67 I must be a little a slow …

    In the test “Maximun CPU Clock ( Lower Multiplier )”

    For Chaintec, Abit, etc you use the multiplier in “11”, and only for Epox and DFI you use the multiplier in “9”, then you show a diagram with nothing more than the fsb.
    http://images.anandtech.com/graphs/nf4%20ultra%20r...

    The first question is WHY ?? there is no explanation for use different multiplier in the review. Not some guys, but ALL ones have better result in chaintec and abit with a lower multiplier.
    Reply
  • TheGlassman - Monday, July 11, 2005 - link

    Thanks Wesley, I did find you had checked HTT, and as I stated in my last post I don't understand what the problem was. But the deeper I looked into the review, the better job you seemed to have done, so sorry if I impied you didn't try very hard.
    DFI has a dual core (beta) bios available, dated 6-23-05
    Epox has a dual core (release) bios available, dated 6-29-05
    These were not used in testing.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, July 11, 2005 - link

    #59 and #60 - One of the first articles I did a couple of years ago about Athlon 64 was how to overclock by manipulating HTT frequencies. I ALWAYS test manual HTT dividers I know should work for certain 1:1 memory clocks as well as Auto HTT if it is an available option.

    #58 - I was very CLEAR in the review that I tested with the BIOS that would allow the X2 A64 to work. We did check each board with an X2. That is the ONLY reason we tested and used very recent Beta BIOS'. Also there are 2 other very recent Chaintech reviews at other websites who had test results almost equal to what I found on the Chaintech, so there are at least 2 other Chaintechs loose with less than stirring overclocking. In the end, as I stated in the review, the Chaintech is a decent board, but at about the same price as the Epox, with poorer overclocking results, it was hard to give it an Editor's Choice this time around. The results found in this roundup should remove anyone's concern that we get cherry boards from manufacturers. I am a good overclocker, and very experienced in air overclocking and memory overclocking. What I got from these boards on air is all they could do with the TCCD memory that is all but standard test memory for motherboards these days. The capabilities of the memory we used is also well known and I tweaked for TCCD if settings were available if the board was not doing well at stock memory settings and our normal test timings.

    I am really pleased some of you experienced better performance than I did with the Chaintech and Abit boards, but I can only report what I actually found in my tests. I don't think you come to AnandTech for a survey of what other websites or Forums found, because I find overclockers are notorious at exagerrating what they can reach with overclocks. We try to provide a consisten test environment for overclocking that will give repeatable overclocking results. Results, of course, always vary board to board, but having said that, OC results are usually pretty consistent on better boards from sample to sample.
    Reply
  • lefenzy - Saturday, July 09, 2005 - link

    Sorry, wrong link. that one was for the SLI version.

    http://www.foxconnchannel.com/productsDownload_mot...
    Reply
  • lefenzy - Saturday, July 09, 2005 - link

    Foxconn has a BIOS release that allow for multiplier adjustment.

    http://www.foxconnchannel.com/productsDownload_mot...

    Reply

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