Gigabyte Does Spring Break In Taipei
Perhaps more interesting is Gigabyte’s Smart Backup storage subsystem. Intel’s ICH10-R I/O Hub enables six of the DQ6’s SATA 3 Gb/s ports. From there, attached to a single PCI Express x1 link, you’ll find a chip labeled Gigabyte SATA 2, which is really a JMicron JM363 PCIe-to-SATA II host controller. Two Silicon Image SiI723 storage processors attach to the JM363 enabling two SATA ports each for a total of 10 ports. Now, here’s the impressive bit. Because the SiI723s are hardware-based controllers, they don’t require drivers. In other words, you attach a hard drive and it’s recognized. By default, the integrated RAID logic is configured to build RAID 1 arrays, so attaching a pair of drives automatically creates a backup configuration that Gigabyte’s product manager hopes takes the learning curve out of RAID storage. The user simply installs a monitoring utility and if a drive goes out, they’re instructed to replace it, whereby the array is rebuilt in the background.
The P45, ICH10, and IDT PCIe bridge chip
Gigabyte's SATA 2; the JMicron JM363
Here’s where our interests really cranked into high gear. The EP45-DQ6 has two PCI Express x16 graphics slots. It also includes two x4 links and a x1 expansion slot. Add up the integrated extras next. There are four PCIe x1 Gigabit chips and the JM363 controller. Grand total: 41 lanes of onboard expansion and five lanes populated by onboard components. That’s a bit of a math problem, considering the P45 offers 16 lanes of PCI Express 2.0 connectivity and the ICH10-R is still limited to six lanes of PCI Express 1.1.
Gigabyte’s workaround is intelligently implemented. When two graphics cards are installed, the P45 gives each x16 slot eight lanes of PCIe 2.0 connectivity—plenty for a CrossFireX configuration. Moving south, the JMicron SATA controller gets its own PCIe connection, as does the x1 expansion slot. Then, four PCIe lanes are routed to an IDT 89HPES16T7ZH PCI Express switch. The switch uses those four lanes to enable the x4 expansion slots and quad Gigabit chips. A Gigabyte representative correctly surmised that four Gigabit connections will rarely, if ever, be fully utilized. The same goes for a pair of x4 expansion slots, even if someone adds a high-end SAS or 10 Gb Ethernet card. While a bottleneck is possible, chances are good that it’ll never be realized.
Intel's P45 MCH, makes close contact with the copper cooling solution
IDT's PCIe bridge chip, responsible for driving the x4 PCIe slots and four GigE controllers
Also worthy of note is the board’s official support for DDR2-1066 memory, an upgrade from the P35. Gigabyte is arming each of its P45 offerings with an Infineon Trusted Platform Module—a feature normally reserved for Intel’s Executive series business boards. What does a home user or enthusiast need with 2048-bit data encryption? Good question. The feature may very well go unused, but we like the option to protect sensitive financial information or work-related documents saved at home.
Working Our Way down the Line
Gigabyte undoubtedly has many more P45 SKUs planned at various price points. However, the company is leading off with four. Of course, one is the EP45-DQ6, which initial estimates tag in the $300 range. We won’t be alone in suggesting that a $300 P45 board is going to be far too rich for a majority of folks. After all, you’ll find very attractive X48 motherboards in the same price range with official 1600 MHz FSB support. It’s a good thing, then, that Gigabyte is working on a comprehensive lineup, which it says will drop in roughly $30 increments from the DQ6.
Back of the EP45-DS5, with FireWire instead of quad GbE
Six-phase power, as opposed to the DQ6's virtual 12-phase arrangement
Next on the list is the EP45-DS5, noted for sacrificing the quad Gigabit controllers, retaining the Smart Backup subsystem, and relying exclusively on Intel’s P45/ICH10-R combination for all of its PCI Express connectivity. Instead of x4 links, the DS5 features a trio of PCI Express x1 slots to complement the twin x16 connectors. Humorously, we noticed that the DS5’s JM363 and SiI723 chips aren’t covered with copper heatsinks as they were on the DQ6, suggesting the cooling is more cosmetic than anything. If Gigabyte’s pricing structure holds true, the DS5 at $260-$270 will make a lot more sense to budget-minded performance enthusiasts.
A step down in the feature department and $30 cheaper, the EP45-DS4 seemingly appeals to an entirely different user. Gone is the elaborate secondary RAID subsystem, replaced by a third PCI Express x16 slot. Remember that Intel’s P45 supports CrossFireX, so Gigabyte says it will be possible to drop in a third graphics card. Obviously, we’d have some concerns about bandwidth from the restricted third slot. But if you’re looking to build an extravagant multi-monitor setup, this could be an ideal platform.
Slot configuration on the EP45-DS5; notice the power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons
Gigabyte's Dual BIOS feature, live and in effect
It’s worth noting that the top three boards introduced thus far all come with onboard power, clear CMOS, and reset buttons, which make working under the hood very easy. Headers are also very clearly labeled, making it very hard to flub up and plug a front-mount FireWire port into a USB 2.0 connector’s socket, for example. We liked the diagnostic LEDs each board sported as well, though the two-digit POST readout found on competing platforms is an even slicker way to troubleshoot boot-up issues. Apparently, Gigabyte is saving that feature for its highest-end P45 board.
Fourth in the lineup (and in the $175 range, according to our calculations) is the EP45-DS3R. A much simpler platform, you still get two PCI Express x16 slots for multi-card rendering. Gone are the enthusiast-oriented onboard buttons, though. The fancy copper heatpipes connecting the P45 and ICH10 are missing as well. Nevertheless, it looks to be a capable board with its dual Gigabit controllers, onboard FireWire, 1600 MHz FSB support, and four DDR2 memory slots. Keep an eye on the DS3R once Gigabyte launches the full lineup. It might be missing the frills, but it may offer the best value in the P45 family.