|Intro, Specs, and Bundles|
If you're a PC hardware enthusiast - and chances are pretty good that you are if you're reading HotHardware - Asus is a company that needs no introduction. Asus' track record for building quality products targeted squarely at power users is well known and documented, so we'll forego the history lesson here and get right to the point.
A couple of motherboards recently landed in the lab that filled a large void in the marketplace. Just after the introduction of Intel's new Core 2 Duo and Extreme processors with 1333MHz front side bus frequencies, if you wanted a motherboard that officially supported one of the new CPUs, that also had a balanced (and flexible) PCI Express lane configuration for better multi-GPU CrossFire support, you were basically up a creek. NVIDIA's nForce 680i SLI chipset supported the new processors, but we all know there is a large contingent of enthusiasts who prefer using Intel processors with Intel chipsets. Them's the breaks. Unfortunately, the P35 chipset was the only game in town with true 1333MHz FSB and CrossFire support, and like the P965 that came before it, its PCI Express lane configuration was unbalanced. With the P35, the first PEG slot got a full 16 lanes of PCI Express connectivity, while the second slot got only 4. In addition, those 4 lanes powering the second slot were connected to the Southbridge, which then in turn has to interface with the Northbridge over another link, adding latency to the equation. This setup works fine for single-GPU configurations, and admittedly works fine for CrossFire, but it doesn't offer optimal performance.
Asus saw the need for an enthusiast-class motherboard based on the P35 chipset, but with a more flexible PCI Express configuration. And leveraging what they undoubtedly learned from designing the PW564-WS , engineered the Blitz Extreme and Blitz Formula motherboards, complete with a PCI Express switch that allowed them to connect the P35 Northbridge's PCI Express lanes to a pair of PEG slots. Asus didn't stop there, however, and also outfitted the Blitz boards with a hybrid air / liquid cooling apparatus and a number of other features that are sure to please.
Save for a couple of minor differences, the Asus Blitz Formula and Blitz Extreme ship with essentially the same accessory and software bundles. What you see pictured here is everything included within the Blitz Extreme's box...
As you can see, the Blitz Extreme ships with a broad assortment of accessories and software. Bundled with the board itself are six SATA cables, a single SATA power adapter, floppy and IDE cables, and a case bracket with additional USB and Firewire ports. In addition to these items, we also found an electro-luminescent custom, I/O shield, three thermal probes, a pack of rubber stand-offs, a baggie with wire ties, another baggie with fittings adn clamps for all types of liquid-cooling, a user’s manual, a pack of Q-Connectors, a couple of optional fans that can be mounted to the board’s cooling apparatus, and a driver and utility DVD complete with copies of Asus' PC Probe II and AI Suite, 3DMark06 and KAV (among other things). Asus also includes a SupremeFX II audio riser card which is powered by an ADI 1988B 8-Channel HD audio codec, an "LCD Poster" and perhaps best of all a copy of the excellent game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
The LCD Poster is an interesting addition. While it doesn't do anything extraordinary in comparison to most other LCD POST code error reporters, it is far more convenient to use. Asus LCD Poster is unique in that it connects to the board via long cable and can be placed right on a desktop. Three no need to bend down and peer into a system to read the LEDs mounted on the PCB itself – with the Blitz, the error codes are clearly visible right on the LCD’s screen, wherever a user decided to mount it.
Before we move on, we should note that the only differences between the Extreme's and Formula's bundles are that the Formula does not include the electro-luminescent I/O panel nor the three thermal probes.
|A Closer Look At The Boards|
Other than their differing memory slots, the Blitz Extreme requires DDR3 memory while the Blitz Formula requires DDR2, there is nothing to physically differentiate the two boards. They look almost identical, so we've only put together a single gallery of images below...
The Asus Blitz Formula and Blitz Extreme are built upon dark-colored PCBs with white and blue slots and connectors. The P35 Northbridge, ICH9R Southbridge, a third chip which we'll get to later, and the components in each board's 8-phase power arrays are cooled by an innovative, copper cooling apparatus, dubbed the Fusion Block System, that's linked together via a heat-pipe and works with either air or liquid-cooling. The Fusion Block is basically a standard chipset water-block, that happens to be linked to the other heatsinks via a heat-pipe. This is a nice touch on Asus' part and should make the Blitz board more appealing to fans of liquid-cooling since they'd need to do nothing more than connect a couple of hoses to reap the benefits of a liquid-cooled chipset, and remember the necessary fittings to do so are included with the board.
Despite the large cooling system, there is ample room around the CPU socket and overall the layout of the boards is quite good. All of the boards' various connectors and headers are situated around the edges of the PCB and the DIMM slots are not in-line with the first PEG slot, so installing / removing RAM is possible when a long graphics card is installed. The Blitz boards feature three PCI Express x1 slots, two PCI Express x16 (PEG) slots, and a pair of standard PCI slots. And they're configured in such a way that even when two double-wide graphics cards are installed, two x1 slots and a PCI slots are still accessible. There are also a couple of handy power and reset switches installed on the Blitz boards.
One of the more interesting feature unique to the Blitz line of motherboards is dubbed Crosslinx. Crosslinx is essentially a PCI Express switch that takes the 16 PCI Express lanes connected to the P35’s Northbridge and splits them to two PEG slots in an x8 / x8 configuration when dual graphics cards are installed. As we've already mentioned, other P35-based boards do not have a flexible PCI Express lane configuration, so the second PEG slot on non-Crosslinx enabled boards have only an x4 electrical connection, and that’s to the chipset’s Southbridge. Thanks to Crosslinx, Asus’ Blitz motherboards are the only P35-based boards currently on the market to offer a balanced PCI Express lane configuration for multi-CPU graphics (i.e. CrossFire).
The I/O backplanes on the Blitz Formula and Blitz Extreme motherboards house six USB 2.0 ports, a single Firewire port, two Gigabit LAN jacks, Coaxial and optical audio digital audio outputs, a single PS/2 keyboard port, two eSATA ports, and a convenient clear CMOS switch. Take the overclocking a little too far and you simple have to reach around to the back of your system to clear the CMOS - no more fumbling with jumpers inside the machine. As we mentioned on the previous page, the boards' audio duties are handled by an ADI 1988B HD codec. Its GigE LAN functionality comes by way of a Marvell 88E8001 controller and Firewire by way of a VIA chipset.
|Exploring the BIOS and Overclocking|
Both the Asus Blitz Formula and Blitz Extreme are equipped with an AMI BIOS derivative that is very complete and relatively easy to navigate. From within the BIOS users have the ability to configure, enable or disable all of the board's integrated peripherals, and monitor voltages and clock speeds. The Blitz boards also have a very complete set of memory timing options that offer excellent flexibility for fine tuning memory performance.
The Blitz boards' standard BIOS menu screens don't reveal anything out of the ordinary, but they will give you a "feel" for the general layout and organization of the options. Each individual screen has a host of menus that tunnel deeper and deeper as the options get more complex.
Overall, other than the color scheme, they are very similar to the BIOS derivatives used on most other high-end motherboards today, but navigating through Asus' BIOS menus does take some getting used to if you've never experienced them before.
Both of the Blitz boards' have easily some of the more tweaker-friendly BIOS offerings available, regardless of the platform. And it's withing the "Extreme Tweaker" section of the BIOS that overclockers will find what they're looking for.
From within the "Extreme Tweaker" section of the BIOS, users have the ability to alter clock frequencies and voltages for virtually every major on-board component. The CPU and PCI Express frequencies can be altered in 1MHz increments, and the CPU multiplier and memory ratio can also be manipulated manually. We should note that the Blitz Extreme officially supports a 1333MHz DDR3 memory speed, which is how we tested teh board; the Formula has the ability to run its DDR2 RAM at speeds higher than DDR2-800 as well. There are also extensive voltage options for the CPU, Memory, chipset, and PLL.
With all of the overclocking tools available on the Blitz boards, we had high expectations for their overclockability and were not disappointed. To overclock each board, we dropped our CPU multiplier to 6, and lowered the memory speed as well. Then we raised the CPU voltage to 1.4v and gave the memory, chipset, and PLL all a .1v bump for good measure. All tests were conducted in an open-air environments with stock air-cooling. With these basic tweaks made via each board's BIOS we were able to hit a stable 500MHz FSB (2GHz quad-pumped) with each board. When equipped with the latest BIOS files available on Asus site, both the Blitz Extreme and Blitz Formula are able to acheive excellent overclocking results.
While we were overclocking, we also hooked up a Zalman Reserator liquid-cooler to the Blitz Extreme board's cooling apparatus to see if it had any impact. We were not able to hit a higher front side bus frequency, but the chipset's temperature was brought way down. As you can see in the picture, the base of the heatsink only hit 33'C (the BIOS reported a Northbridge temperature of 41'C). We think having the ability to liquid-cool the chipset on these boards is a welcome addition, but the stock cooling apparatus does a great job even with air-cooling alone.
|Our Test Systems and SiSoft SANDRA|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOS and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for either DDR2-800 with 4,4,4,12 timings or DDR3-1333 with 7-7-7-18 timings. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the drivers necessary for our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were then disabled and we set up a 1024MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA XI, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran six of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA XI suite with a Core 2 Duo E6750 installed in the Blitz motherboards ( CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Multi-Core Efficiency, Memory, Cache, and Memory Latency) . All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed of 2.66GHz.
The results reported by the various SANDRA test modules we ran fell right in line with our expectations. The CPU and Multimedia benchmarks were nearly identical between the two boards, which is expected considering they were equipped with the exact same CPU, graphics card, and hard drive. The memory bandwidth results, however, illustrate the difference between DDR2-800 and DDR3-1333MHz RAM. The DDR3-enabled Blitz Extreme offered about 800MB/s more bandwidth than the DDR2-based Blitz Formula (6.3GB/s vs. 7.1GB/s).
|PCMark05: CPU and Memory|
For our first round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05 suite.
"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
Talk about a photo finish. In PCMark05's CPU Performance module, both Blitz boards and another Asus P35-based motherboard, the P5K Deluxe, posted nearly identical scores. The memory performance module will paint a different picture, however.
"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing." - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
PCMark05's memory performance module reported an approximate 300 point advantage (5%) for the DDR3-1333 equipped Asus Blitz Extreme motherboard. We should note that with DDR3-1066 memory installed in the extreme board, it scored 6,067 here. At this point in time most DDR3 memory kits have higher CAS latency timings than high-end DDR2 kit, which hinders their performance in this benchmark.
|Office XP SP1 and Photoshop|
PC World Magazine's Worldbench 5.0 is a Business and Professional application benchmark. The tests consist of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of popular applications to gauge performance.
Despite offering more memory bandwidth, the Blitz Extreme trailed the Formula in Worldbench 5's Office XP and Photoshop performance tests by a few seconds in each. All else being equal, these tests are more sensitive to memory latency, hence the Extreme's slight lower score here.
|LAME MT and Sony Vegas|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.
There's not much to talk about here. In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding benchmark, all three of the boards we tested put up the exact same scores in both the single- and mult-threaded versions of this test.
The DDR2-based Blitz Formula took the pole position in the Sony Vegas benchmark, followed by the P5K Deluxe (also DDR2), and finally the Blitz Extreme. There's only an 8 second delta separating the first and third place finishers, however, which is a negligible difference in this test. (It fluctuates by a few seconds inbetween each run.)
|Cinebench R9.5 and 3DMark06|
The Cinebench 9.5 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others.
And of course it's very demanding of system processor resources.
The Cinebench R9.5 results here, somewhat mirror those of the LAME MT benchmarks from a couple of pages back. Once again, all three of the motherboards we tested put up idential scores, regardless of whether or not the test was run in single or multi-threaded mode.
It was another right race in the 3DMark06 CPU Performance benchmark. Here, the Blitz Extreme came out on top, followed by the P5K, and then the Blitz Formula. We're talking about a miniscule delta of 6 points (.2%), however, which falls well within the margin of error for this test.
|Quake 4, F.E.A.R., and Crosslinx|
For our last set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Quake 4 and F.E.A.R. When testing processors and motherboards with Q4 or F.E.A.R, we drop the resolution and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
The additional memory bandwidth afforded by its DDR3-1333 memory give the Asus Blitz Extreme a marked advantage in the game tests. Quake 4 only showed a minor difference, but in F.E.A.R. 12 frames per second (4.6%) separated the Blitz Extreme from the Blitz Formula.
For one final test, we swapped out our E6750 CPU for a Core 2 Extreme X6800 and installed a pair of Radeon HD 2900 XT cards running in CrossFire mode into the Blitz Formula to see what, if any, impact the Crosslinx PCI Express switch had on performance in F.E.A.R.
This time around, we upped the resolution to 1280x1024 and enabled 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering. We compared the Blitz Formula's performance to a 975X Express-chipset based board, which has a flexible PCI Express lane configuration and offers an x8 electrical connection to each PEG slot, and to the P35-based P5K Deluxe, which has a x16 / x4 PEG slot configuration. As you can see, there was virtually no difference in performance, at least in the one game we tested.
|Our Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Both the Asus Blitz Extreme and Blitz Formula performed very well throughout our entire battery of benchmarks. In some of the synthetic tests and in the game tests, the DDR3-1333 equipped Blitz Extreme was the best perfomer thanks to the increased memory bandwidth afforded by its faster RAM. In the desktop application benchmarks, however, which are more sensitive to latency, the Blitz Formula took the top spot more often than not.
The Asus Blitz Extreme represents the pinnacle of DDR3-enabled P35-based motherboards in our opinion. The board features an innovative cooling apparatus that's equally effective with air or liquid-cooling, it's highly overclockable, it has an extensive set of BIOS options, and the Crosslinx PCI Express switch makes it an ideal solution for ATI's CrossFire multi-GPU technology. The Blitz Extreme also proved to be a good performer at stock settings, it was completely stable, and it includes some handy extra's like on-board power / reset / and clear CMOS switches and the LCD Poster. Unfortunately, the Blitz Extreme isn't available just yet so we don't have street pricing, but we expect it will be in the $330+ dollar range when it finally arrives. That's pretty steep, especially considering DDR3 RAM is still relatively expensive, but if we were too recommend a high-end motherboard that supported Intel's latest processors and DDR3 to any of you, this one would be it. We're giving the Asus Blitz Extreme a well deserved Editor's Choice Award.
We're also giving the DDR2-enabled Blitz Formula an Editor's Choice award for many of the same reasons - it's just as fast or faster in most cases, it's also very overclockable, and it proved to be very stable as well - but we also like it becuase it offers an easier upgrade path to those of you who already own DDR2 RAM and are looking to ditch a P965 or 975X-based motherboard in favor of the newer P35, which will officially support future 45nm Intel processors. The Blitz Formula isn't available just yet either, but we expect it to sell in the $270 to $299 dollar range, which makes it a better value than the Blitz Extreme as well.