Summary: Today ATI's officially launching their next-generation CrossFire chipset formerly codenamed RD580. ASUS' A8R32-MVP Deluxe is one of the first motherboards on the market to utilize the new chipset and it's stuffed with features: dual Gigabit Ethernet, fanless design, and for the enthusiasts its got tons of headroom for overclocking. See how it compares to RD480 CrossFire in 3D performance (both 4xAA and Super AA) and features in this review!
Now don’t get us wrong, there were plenty of alternatives to NVIDIA’s nForce4 family, particularly in the integrated graphics segment, but on the discrete side, NVIDIA’s nForce4 lineup was dominant, particularly in enthusiast circles. Most hardware enthusiasts weren’t asking which chipset to go with, but rather which nForce4 chipset was best for their needs: nForce4 Ultra or nForce4 SLI.
Part of the reason the nForce4 chipset was so dominant isn’t because of the strength of the nForce4 chipset line itself (although NVIDIA does have a compelling case here, providing some features that were ahead of anyone else on the market) but also because of perception – if you ask any motherboard manufacturer about offering a fully-featured enthusiast-level motherboard based on an alternative chipset they’ll respond with a blank stare. In large part due to the success of their previous nForce chipsets (particularly the nForce2), NVIDIA is perceived to be a premium manufacturer of desktop chipsets for the AMD platform. Because of this, when it comes time to develop a high-end motherboard with all the bells and whistles, motherboard manufacturers choose the nForce4 chipset rather than one of the alternatives from ATI, SiS, or VIA.
Now of course, as we mentioned before, NVIDIA’s integrated some compelling features into nForce4 that no one else has, and that’s gone a long way towards helping their position, but just as SiS learned back in the original Athlon days during the DDR transition (where their SiS 735 chipset smoked everything else in existence) having superior technology isn’t always enough. SiS is perceived as a value player in the chipset market, therefore, SiS 735 motherboards from motherboard manufacturers tended to have features that would cater to the value segment rather than enthusiasts, even though the chipset itself was more powerful than anything else out there.
ATI’s sold millions of chipsets for both AMD and Intel platforms to practically every Tier One OEM and system manufacturer, but they’re perceived as being a mainstream/integrated offering – not a high-end enthusiast-level player like NVIDIA. This is due in part to the strength (or lack thereof) of their previous products; their Radeon 9100 IGP chipset had a nice feature set, but it wasn’t as complete as Intel’s 865 line. ATI’s South Bridge didn’t offer GigE networking or native Serial ATA with RAID (motherboard manufacturers had to provide these features with external chips), while performance wasn’t up to par with competing chipsets from Intel and SiS, and the chipset definitely wasn’t known for its overclocking prowess. The core strength of the Radeon 9100 IGP chipset was its integrated graphics and support for SURROUNDVIEW (this is all basically summarized in our ASUS P4R800-V Deluxe review from 2004)
Because of this perception, for most of last year motherboard manufacturers predominantly used ATI’s XPRESS 200 chipset in their less expensive micro-ATX motherboards. The only high-end XPRESS 200 motherboard that was ever released was Sapphire’s PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480, but this board came to market too late to make any inroads among enthusiasts for ATI.
Now with their CrossFire XPRESS 3200 chipset (previously codenamed RD580), ATI’s taking another shot at the high-end segment.
Like NVIDIA’s original nForce4 SLI chipset, one of the chief criticisms of ATI’s initial RD480-based CrossFire solution was that it was only capable of providing up to eight lanes of PCI Express to each graphics card when running in CrossFire mode. ATI’s new CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset solves that limitation, providing each graphics card with full 16 lane PCI Express capability when running in CrossFire, just like NVIDIA’s nForce4 SLI X16 chipset.
Unlike nForce4 SLI X16 though, the additional PCI Express graphics lanes for the second graphics card are provided by the North Bridge, on NVIDIA’s chipset, the 16 lanes for the second graphics slot hang off the South Bridge. This is an important consideration for ATI’s motherboard partners, as it allows them to provide full 16 lane operation to both graphics slots while still using a third-party South Bridge from ULi. In fact, that’s precisely what ASUS does with their A8R32-MVP Deluxe motherboard, just like the original RD480-based A8R-MVP Deluxe, ASUS uses ULi’s M1575 chip for South Bridge duties.
Besides the added PCI Express lanes, another distinction that separates the A8R32-MVP Deluxe from its predecessor is that the A8R32-MVP no longer needs ATI’s transposer card when running with one graphics card. The transposer card was similar to the selector switch on early nForce4 SLI motherboards and was used to toggle all 16 lanes to the graphics slot when only one card was used – without the transposer card in place on early RD480 motherboards (including ATI’s own reference board) the graphics slot would only run with 8 lanes. Now that the chipset always runs with 16 PCI Express lanes regardless of configuration, the transposer card is no longer necessary.
Same old SB450 South Bridge
While ATI was expected to debut their next-generation SB600 South Bridge with RD580 CrossFire, sadly SB600 still isn’t finished. ATI’s SB600 is rumored to bring with it full support for 300MB/sec Serial ATA with NCQ as well as a reworked USB controller promising improved USB performance, so ATI needs to get SB600 out the door as soon as possible. In the meantime motherboard manufacturers are free to use ULi’s M1575 South Bridge (as ASUS has done) and we expect that many of them will choose to do so.
Finally, just in case that wasn’t enough to convince you of the board’s buget-oriented origins, perhaps the A8R-MVP Deluxe’s bargain-basement price will – street prices on these boards can be for under $100, making the A8R-MVP Deluxe the least expensive dual-GPU motherboard offering ASUS provides.
Unlike the original A8R-MVP though, their A8R32-MVP Deluxe board is clearly targeted for the high-end crowd. For starters the board supports dual Gigabit Ethernet. ASUS outfits the board with two controllers from Marvell, the 88E8053 and the 88E8001. The primary 88E8053 controller utilizes PCI Express while the secondary controller continues to reside on the PCI bus.
The audio subsystem has also been enhanced on the A8R32-MVP Deluxe, as ASUS replaces the Analog Devices 1986A CODEC with Realtek’s ALC882 8-channel High-Definition Audio CODEC. The ALC882 is Realtek’s latest CODEC, boasting a signal-to-noise ratio of over 100dB, five 24-bit stereo DACs and three 20-bit stereo ADCs. The ALC882 also supports EAX 1.0/2.0 as well as HRTF 3D positional audio.
Serial ATA on the go
One cool feature of Serial ATA that often goes underutilized is hot-plugging. Like USB, Serial ATA drives can be plugged in without having to turn off the PC. With this feature, external Serial ATA drives were expected to be all the rage, but up to this point, most external CD/DVD burners and even external hard drives still utilize USB or IEEE-1394 (FireWire).
While the original A8R-MVP donned an unassuming, almost boring board design/layout, ASUS has pulled out all the stops for the A8R32-MVP Deluxe. Like all of ASUS’ high-end motherboards, the board sports ASUS’ distinctive black PCB, while shorter capacitors surround the CPU socket (in comparison to the A8R-MVP). The caps are now even shorter than the heatsink retention bracket. This change provides more clearance for larger heatsinks and is commonly found on many of the newer nForce4 SLI X16 motherboards.
Another criticism of the original A8R-MVP Deluxe was the limited amount of space between the PCI Express graphics slots: dual-slot cards like the Radeon X1800 XT and X1900 XT/XTX fit on the motherboard, but there was hardly any clearance space once two cards were used.
Fortunately ASUS has rectified this problem for the A8R32-MVP Deluxe, providing roughly an extra inch between the two graphics slots.
All isn’t quite perfect with the A8R32-MVP Deluxe’s board layout however, as ASUS places the board’s only x1 PCI Express expansion slot directly underneath the primary graphics slot. This means if you own a dual-slot graphics card, you’ll effectively lose the use of this slot. While the lack of PCI Express-based devices (outside of graphics) today lessens the severity of this problem, in the future once PCI Express components become more common this could be a huge issue for A8R32-MVP users. ASUS probably should have placed this slot above the primary x16 graphics slot rather than below it.
For overclocking Athlon 64 FX processors, ASUS provides multiplier options ranging from 4.0x to 25.5 in 0.5x increments, while ASUS also provides BIOS settings for running the memory bus asynchronously. Clocks can be locked at 100, 133, 166, 183, 200, 216, 233, or 250MHz on the memory bus.
ASUS provides a wealth of options for fine-tuning memory performance, not only can you set the clock speed, but timings can be tweaked to your heart’s content as well. We’re not just talking basic settings like CAS Latency, command rate, TRAS, TRP, and TRCD either, ASUS provides the entire gamut of memory timings to adjust and tweak. ASUS even provides a new feature known as AI Clock Skew. With this feature the clock signal of both memory channels can be adjusted by end users to provide enough setup time to hit just the right memory speed with complete stability (the setup time is the amount of time that the chipset needs to prepare to receive the data read from memory). ASUS provides settings that allow end users to adjust the clock signal manually, or if you’d rather not touch it, “auto” and “normal” options are available within BIOS as well. To improve your chances of overclocking at higher memory speeds, you may want to delay the DDR clock skew, particularly if you intend on using 1T memory timing.
In terms of voltages, the results are a little more mixed. While ASUS provides a nice range of options for adjusting memory voltage (from 2.6V-3.2V in increments of 0.05V) and even provides voltage adjustment for the chipset’s North Bridge, PCI Express, and HyperTransport (1.2V, 1.3V, 1.4V, and 1.5V for all three components), as well as South Bridge over-voltage, ASUS only provides CPU voltages ranging up to 1.4V in 0.025V increments. Considering that the ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe’s predecessor, the original A8R-MVP Deluxe provided CPU voltage options of up to 1.55V, many enthusiasts may consider this 1.4V limitation a step backwards (hopefully ASUS will address this in a future BIOS update). UPDATE 3/7/06: ASUS actually provides CPU voltage options up to 1.6V on "E"-stepping Athlon 64 CPUs via their over-voltage BIOS setting. Therefore the previous statement has already been addressed.
For inexperienced users who are new to overclocking, ASUS provides presets that will automatically overclock your system based on percentage, this is accomplished with ASUS’ AI Overclocking feature. Inside AI Overclocking are a range of settings. If you want to play it safe, you can overclock your system by 3%, 5%, or 10%. If your system still runs fine at 10% overclock, you can then crank up AI Overclocking higher as percentages of 15%, 20, and 30% (max) are also available. With A.I. N.O.S., the motherboard will automatically overclock the processor a given percentage once the CPU is under load (say for instance, gaming), returning the CPU to stock speeds once you’re finished. Here ASUS offers settings of 3%, 5%, 7%, 10%, 15%, and 20%.
Another feature that ASUS provides that has drawn a little controversy in the past is called PEG Link. Once PEG Link turned on, PEG Link automatically adjusts the graphics core and memory speeds of certain graphics cards automatically. ASUS doesn’t provide a lot of options for PEG Link, just settings of “auto, disabled, normal, fast, faster”, so most enthusiasts will probably want to turn this feature off and overclock their graphics card manually with their favorite tool of choice, whether its ATI Tool, RivaTuner, Coolbits, or some other method.
During our RD580 briefing, we were explicitly told that the chipset was overbuilt specifically for overclocking. With this in mind we were eager to see how high we could push our A8R32-MVP Deluxe motherboard, and we’re happy to say that ASUS didn’t disappoint. We were able to hit HyperTransport speeds of up to 334MHz without any problems. That’s an overclock of just over 40%! Beyond that speed we’d run into BSODs and other errors in Windows XP. This overclock was achieved with 100% stock components (right down to AMD’s reference design heatsink) and no additional system fans blowing cool air on the motherboard or its components, perhaps with third-party aftermarket cooling on the chipset and a case fan or two we could have gone even further.
Call of Duty 2
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
3DMark 06– Direct3D
3DMark 06– Direct3D
Battlefield 2– Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Performance: Even before the CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset was released, the older Xpress 200 CrossFire/Radeon X1900 combination was a terrific performer, delivering clearly superior to performance when running in Super AA mode thanks to ATI’s reworked compositing engine present in the X1800/X1900 family. With the addition of dual x16 graphics slots in Xpress 3200, the performance potential is even greater
We use the word “potential” because although on paper the CrossFire Xpress 3200’s dual x16 graphics slots theoretically deliver twice the peak bandwidth to two Radeon X1900 graphics cards running in CrossFire mode, our performance results with actual applications showed little performance improvement from the added bandwidth for the most part. The only applications that really showed an advantage were 3DMark 06 and surprisingly, Call of Duty 2 rather than F.E.A.R. We saw a performance improvement of up to 9% in Call of Duty 2, while our 3DMark 06 overall score improved by just under 2%. Keep in mind that this higher score was based largely on the performance of one game test – Canyon Flight – one of two tests to utilize HDR lighting extensively.
BIOS: The A8R32-MVP Deluxe’s BIOS is quite robust. ASUS provides tons of options for tweaking memory timings and performance, as well as a wealth of HyperTransport, and PCI-E speeds to choose from. Voltage selections for the other motherboard components are pretty good too.
Of course, if you’re new to overclocking, ASUS continues to provide their A.I. Overclocking feature, which will automatically overclock your CPU by a fixed ratio. Seasoned overclockers will want to tune everything manually though.
ASUS-added features: In addition to the standard features supported by the Xpress 3200/ULi M1575 chipset combination, ASUS provides several features that go beyond the basics. If external Serial ATA drives catch on, Serial ATA To-Go could become an important feature. With it, ASUS provides an external Serial ATA port on the back plane of the motherboard, right alongside IEEE-1394 and USB connections. ASUS also provides dual Gigabit Ethernet networking on the A8R32-MVP Deluxe, although it’s important to note that one LAN controller is bound by the PCI bus.
Another feature ASUS is well known for is called Q-Fan 2. With Q-Fan 2, the motherboard dynamically adjusts the fan speed of the CPU and chassis fans depending on temperature. The A8R32-MVP Deluxe also supports ASUS’ Crashfree BIOS 2 which can allow you to restore your BIOS in case it gets corrupted, while EZ Flash allows you to update your BIOS from within Windows.
Socket AM2 transition: In a matter of just a few months, AMD’s going to unleash their brand new Socket AM2 platform. The new platform will not only require a new CPU and motherboard, but also new heatsinks and DDR2 memory. With such a dramatic change just around the corner, many users may not want to spend the money on a brand new Xpress 3200 motherboard like the A8R32-MVP Deluxe only to see it outdated so quickly.