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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  • Heinrich - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link


    Wesley did you spend any time at all on this link, I consider this to be a serious issue

    http://www.rhcf.com/sisubb/ultimatebb.php/topic/21...
    Reply
  • Heinrich - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link


    When I set up my MSI board I cannot get surround sound out of the optical digital cable except for DVDs. I verified this on a few web sites. Not why there is conflicting information but mine is real world experience with current drivers (did not use packaged CDs)
    Reply
  • giz02 - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    #28, 31 and 32...
    The onboard Creative Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit samples at 192 KHz instead of 96 KHz (like Realtek's ALC880/880D and 850) and features full support for Creative's EAX HD technology. Additionally, the soundcard has also passed Dolby certification for Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital EX and has an integrated Dolby interactive content encoder!
    Snip from PCStats review:
    http://www.pcstats.com/articleview.cfm?articleid=1...

    Dice Dice baby.. (couldn't resist)
    Reply
  • giz02 - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    #41 I've got a TT WS0049 PS, so I should be good with the -5v.

    #43 I've already cancled my DFI SLI DR board. MSI here I come ($238 cdn... so it's cheaper too) :D

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

    #42 - The on-board nF4 LAN requires a PHY (Physical Layer) gigabit LAN to function properly, but is specified as PCIe. All 4 SLI boards implement PCI Express Gigabit LAN with the PHY chips (Vitesse or Marvel). If you check all 4 manuals you will see Gigabit PCIe LAN specified by all 4 for the on-chip LAN.

    #40 - From the MSI manual Audio specifications:
    "Dolby Digital Encoder. 24-bit/96-192kHz audio quality. Up to 100db SNR. 7.1 channel H/W audio."
    Reply
  • ChineseDemocracyGNR - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    Wesley,
    "all 4 SLI boards implement PCIe on Gigabit #1"

    I don't think the onboard LAN on the nForce4 chipset uses the PCI-E bus, are you sure about this?

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

    Here's the address for a MSI forum note concerning the problem with the Creative onboard sound and power supplies without a -5 volt connection.

    http://diamondclub.msi.com.tw/eng/forum/viewthread...

    And, if you take a look at the ATX12V Power Supply Design Guide, you can see that the lack of a -5 volt connection on many current power supplies should not have come as a surprise to MSI.

    http://www.formfactors.org/developer/specs/ATX12V%...

    Space
    Reply
  • giz02 - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    WOW! This is looking good...
    Manual available here:
    http://www.msi.com.tw/program/support/manual/mnu/s...

    Page 5-1 of the MS 7100 manual (At MSI)
    CA0106
    Brand new Azalia Spec
    8 Channel & SPDIF audio effect

    Page 5-8
    After installing teh creative audio driver, you are able to use teh 2-,4-,6- or 8- channel and the SPDIF audio featre now..

    Page 5-11
    Decoder shows SPDIF Passthrough option!!!

    I am not familiar with the old Creative Live 24 hardware or menu settings, but is this new?
    Reply
  • giz02 - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    BTW: If this is the case, I am canceling my DFI preorder (I've been waiting almost 1 month for this board to become available....)

    Good things may indeed come to those who wait! There is no better way to hook up to my Z5500's if the encode is supported!
    Reply
  • giz02 - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    #28, #31, I'd really like to know as well...

    #32, I guess this is brought up, because of this statement in the roundup (on the first MSI Page)
    "The Audio also fully supports Dolby Digital encoding, which will matter a great deal to some users."


    Anand, is this some sort of typo, or can the onboard solution in facte ENCODE dolby digital audio. The ENCODE assumes that it can take .wav audio and encode it to dolby digital and place it on any (analog/SPDIF Coax/Toslink) output (ala IntelHD and SoundStorm)

    Let us know :D
    Reply

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