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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  • fozzymatic - Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - link

    "So, is SLI worth the cost and the effort? For some, the answer will be a definite no. The SLI boards still cost a great deal, setting up the system is still a daunting task, and the cost of two top-of-the-line video cards will be just too much for many to consider SLI to be a real option."

    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. So why not buy one now and then profit form your forward thinking later down the line when the price of a second card is cut in half and there are more SLI-supported games available. I concede that the mobos are 50$ more than a non-SLI board but, for 50$, I'll take the enhanced upgrade path. Out of the gate the SLI boards are the fastest single or double-card NF4 mobos available, so whats to lose?
    Reply
  • justly - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    Wesley, well done, although I have to admit I skipped over some of the pages describing the individual boards as I am not personnaly intrested in buying a SLI system.

    One thing about the bar graphs, it could have been a little easier to compare between a single card and SLI if you had used split bars like in this graph
    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/video/ATI/rade...
    using the top half of the bar for single card and the bottom for duel cards.

    It would also be nice to see a comparasion of disk controller, firewire and USB performance (and anything else that is chipset specific) using all the different brand chipsets.

    I don't think you are the person that does power supply reviews, but with all the concerns recenty about power supplies it would also be nice to see an article that not only describes some of the differences in power supplies but what components draw power from what rails and how much they draw (I have seen power supply guides that give an idea of how many total watts is needed but very little information on how those watts are divided up between rails).

    One last thing, I have a little problem with this statement "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". If every motherboad had a perfect BIOS and they all had the same overclocking options then your statement could be true, but that is not the case. Would you call all Intel branded motherboards poor quality just because Intel doesn't put overclocking options in their motherboards BIOS? What if an OEM decided to use one of these great overclocking boards in a prebuilt system and the only change they made to the board was to eliminate the overclocking options from the BIOS, is that board now poor quality?


    Reply
  • Viper4185 - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    Well well well, seems you are right. The MSI nForce 4 Ultra board in Australia even has 1x PCI Express slot...

    http://www.msi.com.tw/program/products/mainboard/m...

    Does anyone know which boards support Firewire 800 (1934b)?

    Also to Wesley, thanks for the reply, do you have a rough idea when the nForce 4 Ultra comparison would be available?
    Reply
  • falcc - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    There seems to be different version of MSI's SLI boards depending on where you live. In Australia the SLI board is a MSI K8N Diamond. The interesting thing about this board is that it has two PCI Express x1 slots. as well as the two x16 slots for SLI. It also has a wlan option. Reply
  • falcc - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    Reply
  • ChineseDemocracyGNR - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    #43, I'm aware it needs a PHY, but I always thought it worked the same way as it did since the nForce3-250Gb, with no PCI-E involved.

    I checked out the manual for the MSI K8N Diamond and ASUS A8N-SLI, from them:

    MSI
    "Dual LAN
    ? Supports dual LAN jacks
    - 1st LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by nForce4 SLI
    - 2nd PCI Express LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Marvell 88E8053"

    ASUS
    "nForce4 built-in Gbit MAC with external Marvell PHY :
    - NV ActiveArmor
    - NV Firewall
    - AI NET2"

    I couldn't find a reference that the chipset LAN is tied to PCI-E.
    Reply
  • ajmiles - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    Excellent, thanks Wesley. Every response I've had from now has been, quote:

    "With regards to the overclockability, it has AI Overclock, PEG link, and other options, the extent of the overclockability was not promised and unfortunately some customers expect amazing overclocking abilities when the 1T overclock is still a good feature and is overclocking in action."

    Perhaps what you would expect them to say when their board clocks more than 60mhz lower than some competitors.

    If you could keep me apprised of their response either here or at amiles(at)gmail.com that'd be great. Thanks again.
    Reply
  • JoKeRr - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    I really wish MSI could pump a bit more voltage for the ram, 2.85 is a bit low, especially considering the Asus is giving 3V and DFI is giving 4V!! Guess if u want to run your good old BH5 sticks at 250mhz 2-2-2-7, DFI will be the way to go. But I really liked the MSI mobo. o well, guess u can't have everything. Reply
  • JoKeRr - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    #6 & #56 - I saw the same behavior with the A8N-SLI Deluxe during our testing, and I shared my results with Asus. I forwarded your comments and my own to the Asus A8N-SLI BIOS and Engineering team. Reply

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