The New 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, which would 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 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.

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 confess that we have not done very well in actually testing and comparing performance of these features. Our new motherboard tests are designed to correct that.

Starting with this roundup, we are adding iPeak storage tests first used by Anand in his storage reviews. iPeak will be used to establish baseline performance for nForce4 on-chip IDE and SATA performance; iPeak will also be used to test the throughput of the various additional SATA controllers on these SLI motherboards. USB 2.0 and Firewire 400/800 throughput will be measured with a new test developed for motherboard testing. Basically, we create a RAM disk in Windows XP, write a standard test file to the RAM disk, and then copy the file from the RAM disk to a USB 2.0, Firewire 400 or Firewire 800 connected hard drive. We record the time to copy from RAM disk to the connected drive with a timer program developed by our IT Manager.

Ethernet testing uses 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 is our test motherboard. We have talked about the advantages of PCIe over PCI gigabit Ethernet in the past, and in this roundup, you will be able to see the actual difference in the performance of Gigabyte LAN over these two busses.

Audio is an area that is still under development and we will be adding tests of audio quality, as well as do subjective listening in future testing. For this roundup, we have included results from the industry standard RightMark benchmark suite for CPU utilization or overhead. There is only room for so much in a roundup, but in the future, we will definitely be including additional audio benchmarks to our motherboard tests.

Last, we have added some new benchmarks, like the popular video synthetic benchmarks from FutureMark - 3DMark 2005 and 3DMark 2003. These tests are particularly useful for testing SLI, since current nVidia drivers support SLI mode in both benchmarks. We are continuing 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.

We are still experimenting with methods of presenting this new data to you, so please let us know if you have suggestions for the future.

Changes in 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.

Index The Roundup
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  • fitten - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    quote:I still do not understand why this argument is so popular. Why is the general assumption that purchasers of SLI capable boards will immediately want to jump into a dual-card config? The idea is flexibility. Sure, 2 6800's are expensive now, but they will inevitably get cheaper.


    Well, if history serves as a measure... by the time that 2nd board becomes cheap enough to justify its cost, there will be a new board out (say, the nVidia 7800) that will be as fast, or faster than, the SLI combo.

    I used to buy motherboards with two sockets for this very reason (flexibility to upgrade to two CPUs later) until about twice doing this I learned that by the time I was ready for that 2nd CPU, there was one out that was faster than both put together.

    Computers change too fast. If you perpetually buy on the bleeding edge, you cannot plan any upgrades past ~6 months and definitely not past 12 months. By that time, you'll throw away what you have and get the NextBestThing(tm). Buying SLI is bleeding edge. Saying that you'll buy the upgrade card in a year is just a rationalization to buy the bleeding edge now.
    Reply
  • Aquila76 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    Yeah, that's right. Some apps run slower with SLI because nVidia hasn't SLI optimized the driver for that app (so it can then only utilize one card) and the SLI setup uses some overhead, resulting in slower results. Any new game/benchmark will use SLI just fine. The results in Half-Life and Doom 3 as well as if you add the config for stuff like NFS:U2 and whatever are well above one card though. Reply
  • Sunbird - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    Is my brain screwed up or are the 3Dmark03 single scores higher than the SLI scores???

    Reply
  • chup - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    too bad, i thought the MSI was the one to get after nforce2. Reply
  • sphinx - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    From this review, I have come to the conclusion that ASUS is slipping. I have always been a supporter of ASUS but, I think this review shows how much ASUS is all about the money and not making quality products. Right now I am waiting for manufacturers to get the VIA chipset working properly. I haven't seen many news or reviews on VIA's new chipset. One other thing. Who in their right mind would spend close to $250 on nVidia's NF4 if there is really no significant performance jump from the NF3. Reply
  • bigbusa - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    You mentioned the asus manual says use a 500+W PS. if you read the Asus users guid the sli 6800 ultra system also has all pci slots used, all memory dims full, 2 optical drives, and anassortment of other stuff. and they recommend a 500+W, but a 350W PS for a dual 6600GT. See below.

    500+W ps for 55FX, 2x6800 ultra, 4ddr dims, 4 HD's, 2 optical, 1 pcie 1x card, 3 pci card, 1 1394, 6 usp devices. (shit thats alot of gear)

    350W for a 3400(64bit 939), dual 6600GT, 2 DDRdims, 2 hd's, 1 optical drive, no pcie 1x, 1 pci card, no 1394, and 3 usb devices.

    SO the article is misleading a bit.

    The review also did not cover any quad displays and problems one may encounter when setting this up.
    Reply
  • Reflex - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    #70 - None of these boards support ECC. The reason for that is that such support would be implemented by the memory controller, not the motherboard manufacturer. In this particuliar case the memory controller is integrated into the CPU. AMD has a line of CPU's that have ECC support, they are called the Opteron and are designed for workstations and servers.

    In the home user market ECC does not significantly impact stability but it does harm performance by a small amount which is why the feature is not generally available on consumer solutions.
    Reply
  • 1955mm - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    All in all I think that this is the best review of Socket 939 SLI boards that I have seen. I particularly liked the attention paid to storage and I/O capabilities. My one criticism is that although comments were made regarding stability, and a link was made between overclocking and stability, there was no discussion of ECC support. If system reliability is discussed, ECC should not be ignored. As far as I can tell, the only board supporting ECC is the ASUS board. Over the years I have found it difficult to get accurate information on ECC support, having been given misleading information on occasion by both MSI and ASUS. Reply
  • Aquila76 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    D'oh, *SoundSTORM Savior*

    That's it, I'm off to bed. It's quarter of 1:00AM and I have work tomorrow. Uh, today.
    Reply
  • Aquila76 - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    To everyone hoping the MSI upsamples analog 5.1 to Dolby Digital - I don't think so. Like any Creative card, it can either downmix DD-EX/DTS-ES 7.1 streams to 4/5.1 speakers (which is what page 5-11 of the manual is actually talking about doing), decode DD/DTS on-card to 5/6/7.1 speakers (via analog or 'Digital Out', Creative's proprietary digital link for their speaker sets), or can just pass the Dolby Digital/DTS 5/6/7.1 signal (now via the SPDIF coax/optical cable) to any outboard decoder.

    I say this because I have the same exact chip on a stand-alone card, and it does not upsample analog sound to Dolby Digital, like SoundStorm did. 'Digital Out' simply let's you use a proprietary Creative Digital DIN connector to connect one cable from the soundcard to the Creative speaker amp (like on a DTT3500 that I use).

    I also find it highly unlikely that Creative would license a DD Live capable chip to only one manufacturer when they have yet to produce one of their own cards with this feature.

    *Keeps waiting for a SoundStrom Saviour*
    Reply

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