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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  • Stele - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - link

    IMHO the main disadvantage of using the Sil3114 instead of a newer SATA controller like the 3132 is not so much the 1.5Gbps transfer rate, but the fact that it's PCI-based and hence badly bottlenecked once you fill all four channels. 1.5Gbps is a theoretical maximum and HDDs today are nowhere near that limit - in fact we left ATA-133 without even breaking the ATA-100 limit. Since each SATA HDD gets a dedicated 1.5Gbps channel, arrays won't saturate the SATA interface either - rather, they would saturate the slow PCI interface as previously mentioned. Furthermore, the other significant feature of SATA II - NCQ - is of virtually zero relevance to most users, unless one is using the board in a corporate server; not impossible, but not likely either. Therefore, to harp on a figure that has generally been more a marketing tool (as was ATA-133) than a real necessity says little of the real issues at hand.

    In return, using the Sil3114 means using a tried and tested product whose characteristics are very well known by now. Board engineers would know how best to design around it - what special requirements (signal integrity, trace lengths, coupling etc), if any, need to be factored in, how the controller performs and behaves and so on. Furthermore, the 3114 provides 4 SATA ports for maximum expansion capability - there is no 4-port version of the 3132 as you alluded to in the review - not yet anyway. You may well be right about having a truckload of 3114s to get rid off, so that's likely a factor too. Perhaps when the 3132 gains a 4-port counterpart (and DFI finishes off 3114 inventory) then we may see newer stuff to come. :)

    On another side note, yes there would probably be many people who would appreciate the insane options in BIOS, but I do agree that they should make the UI more user-friendly, e.g. by having Automatic as a choice and/or by placing advanced options in sub-menus to distinguish them from the main options. That would satisfy enthusiasts of all levels, from the mad hatters down to the ones who are just starting out. :)

    Generally a review well done! :)
    Reply
  • Stele - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - link

    quote:

    ... there is no 4-port version of the 3132...


    Perhaps that statement should be clarified/qualified a little - there is no 4-port version of the 3132 (i.e. PCIe + SATA II + 3.0Gbps) in a single controller IC. The 3132 supports, and hence is expected to be used with, SATA port multipliers - primarily the SII 3726, which can support up to 5 drives. In future, DFI could use a 3132 with one SATA channel routed to an external connector (as in the Asus A8N32-SLI) while the other channel could be connected to a 3726 to provide an additional 4 or even 5 internal HDD channels.

    However, this would create two problems - the need for another IC (the board is already very cramped as it is!) and, as already discussed, the need to gain sufficient experience with the new ICs in the lab before they can be confidently implemented and designed around. Cost and time-to-market factors may also have played a role in DFI's choice.
    Reply
  • proamerica - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    This is a poor quality review. The reviewer complains too much about variables that actually improve performance when handled by the right person. The overclocking potential of this board is beyond all other 939 boards I have owned, including the A8R32-MVP... People all over the place are reporting the highest overclocks ever achieved for memory and CPUs. You have to know what you are doing I'm afraid, and yes it requires using all the settings in the BIOS. That is the caveat of buying this board, its hard to use, and it takes time to figure it out, but once you do its worth it. I stably OC'ed my X2 3800 to 2940Mhz, and I currently run it 24/7 at 2700Mhz. Is 2940Mhz the highest OC I have ever gotten with this processor? Yes, stably, by far the highest. One of the greatest aspects of this board is that it will overclock really high but it doesn't take a lot of voltage to get things stable.

    Why does the review say: "but this DFI does make us wonder how many end users will actually devote the time to master 32 levels of drive strength, and DQS skew levels of +/- 0 to 255 in 511 levels." Lets see, an extremely expensive motherboard from a company known for making the most tweakable boards around... And you wonder if end-users are going to bother? Yeah they're going to bother. If they don't, they should have purchased something else.

    Bottom line, this board beats the A8R32-MVP hands down, its just harder to use than the Asus.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, May 09, 2006 - link

    The review pointed out what you clearly found. It's a difficult board to master, but the options and performance can be outstanding. Some want to take the time to master it, others would prefer a board that is easier to overclock. The real poiunt is the DFI CFX3200 still needs work. The BIOS does NOT need to be so difficult to master, and it wouldn't be if more intelligent choices were made for auto settings.

    The CFX3200 is not a bad board, it is just a very difficult board to use and master - even for an experienced enthusiast.
    Reply
  • Zoomer - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - link

    As mentioned by someone else, the auto (default) settings are nicely choosen - for BH5 memory.

    Perhaps it would be wise to point that out somewhere, or provide an option of memory: BH5/Normal/Valueram/Manual
    Reply
  • ozzimark - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    "Running four double-sided 512MB or 1GB DIMMs is much more demanding than running two DS DIMMs, and like almost every board we have tested the Command Rate needed to drop to 2T with 4 DS DIMMs."

    using a high dram drive strength should allow for stable opteration at 1T with 4 double rank sticks in.. :)
    Reply
  • bigtoe36 - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    From the Tweak guide on the bleedinedge forum.

    "Max async latency - options 7 thru 10 are all you should need, 7 for agressive tight timings 10 for high fsb overclocks. This option HAS TO BE SET MANUALLY

    Read Preamble - 4.5 thru 6 is all you need worry about, 4.5 for BH5 etc and 6 for high fsb overclocks. i usually use 5.5 and 6. Again HAS TO BE SET MANUALLY"

    http://www.bleedinedge.com/forum/showthread.php?t=...">http://www.bleedinedge.com/forum/showthread.php?t=... for the full guide.

    Wesley you have the options posted on page 4 the wrong way round, its easy to do as I often get them confused.

    Tony
    Reply
  • ozzimark - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    with dfi boards, it's long been my experience that manually setting MAL/RP is a VERY BAD thing. Reply
  • bigtoe36 - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    Normally that would be the case but DFI were setting 4.5 and 5 as hidden defaults. Now if you are running Bh5 you will have no problems, but most everything else would have issues.

    Thats why i quoted in my guide and on MANY forums you have to set these manually to get the best from the board.
    Reply
  • mbhame - Monday, May 08, 2006 - link

    Where's the USB/Firewire CPU Utilization and I/O? Where's IDE performance?
    Throughput is not indicative of real-world performance for any user I know.
    Reply

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