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ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI AMD 780G Motherboard
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Date: Apr 03, 2008
Section:Motherboards
Author: Chris Angelini
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Inroduction and Specifications

AMD made it very clear in our sneak peek at the 780G integrated chipset and Athlon X2 4850e processor that its platform aspirations were coming to pass. Not only did the company introduce a complementary hardware ecosystem, complete with processor, chipset, and graphics solution, but it succeeded in trumping the best effort of its principal rival. Intel’s G35 simply couldn’t keep up with the 780G’s alacrity in gaming and video decoding.  

The 780G chipset demonstrated somewhat playable frame rates—a boast most built-in GPUs cannot make. We heard grumblings that the built-in Radeon HD 3200 graphics weren’t enough to give mainstream gamers the high resolutions and detailed textures today’s titles offer. Why bother if you’re not going to get that “elevated” experience? Isn’t that like dinging Toyota’s Avalon because it won’t yield the guttural experience of a Ferrari when you blast up the Pacific Coast Highway? For the gaming enthusiast who can’t afford to add a GeForce 8800 GT or Radeon HD 3850 to his system, AMD’s 780G could mean the difference between playing Half Life 2: Episode 2 or a compelling night of Solitaire. This is the open door where before there was a wall.

On top of its performance, the 780G/Athlon X2 4850e combination paints a rosy picture of value. The CPU is priced at $89 and the Gigabyte motherboard we used as a test bed in the launch article rings in at $99. Even after adding a $50 Radeon HD 3450 card to take advantage of Hybrid Graphics, you’re still hanging out under the $250 mark.

That Gigabyte board, the GA-MA78GM-S2H, was the one AMD chose for its initial batch of sampling. And it represented the chipset’s built in functionality well, while delivering great stability, an impressive set of features, and modest configurability through Gigabyte’s M.I.T. BIOS controls.

ASUS is hot on Gigabyte’s heels with its own 780G-based board, though. The M3A78-EMH HDMI defies ASUS’ habit of packing in every add-on available at a premium price by sticking to the basics, consequently driving down the price target for a 780G platform by another $10. Expect to find this one around the $89 mark. Should you spend the extra Alexander Hamilton to get eSATA support, optical output, and FireWire on the Gigabyte board or do ASUS’ cuts make good sense to the cost conscious? Stay tuned as we compare the microATX motherboards, and then pit the 780G chipset against Intel’s G35 in a round of high-definition video playback.

ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI
Features and Specifications

CPUs
AMD Socket AM2+ Phenom FX/Phenom/Athlon 64 Sempron
AMD Socket AM2 Athlon 64 X2/Athlon 64 FX/Athlon 64/Sempron
AMD Cool’n’Quiet technology
AMD64 architecture
AMD Live!-ready

Chipset
AMD 780G northbridge
AMD SB700 southbridge

Bus
Up to 5200 MT/s HyperTransport 3.0 interface for AM2+ CPUs
2000/1600 MT/s HyperTransport 1.0 interface for AM2 CPUs

Memory
Dual-channel memory architecture
4 x 240-pin DIMM slots
ECC and non-ECC DDR2 1066/800/667/533 MHz
Support for up to 8GB of memory

Expansion Slots
1 x PCI Express x16 slot
1 x PCI Express x1 slot
2 x PCI 2.2 slot

Storage/RAID
1 x UltraDMA 133/100 connector
6 x internal SATA 3 Gbps connectors with RAID 0, 1, and 10 support

Graphics
Integrated Radeon HD 3200 DirectX 10.1 graphics
Maximum shared memory up to 512MB (per the BIOS)
Supports HDMI with HDCP compliance, maximum resolution up to 1920x1080p
DVI-D with maximum resolution of 2560x1600
VGA with maximum resolution of 2048x1536
Hybrid Graphics support

Audio
ALC883 HD Audio 8-channel codec
Supports jack-detect and multi-streaming technologies
Supports S/PDIF out interface (digital audio module not included)

USB
Supports up to 12 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
Four back-panel ports, eight on-board headers

LAN
PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet

Back Panel I/O Ports
1 x PS/2 mouse port
1 x PS/2 keyboard port
1 x HDMI port
1 x DVI output
1 x VGA output
1 x RJ45 Ethernet jack
4 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
8-channel analog audio I/O ports


Our ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI didn’t arrive in retail packaging. Rather, it shipped as a kit, together with an Athlon X2 4850e CPU, two gigabytes of DDR2-800 memory from Corsair, and a reference cooler—the same type used in our 780G sneak peek to help cut down on noise.

But that didn’t stop us from digging into the retail box’s bundle. When you buy the M3A78-EMH HDMI, you get the board, a driver CD, the user’s manual, an I/O shield, an array of storage cables, and a SATA-to-Molex power adapter. Notably missing from the package is a DVI-to-HDMI adapter, which you do get with ASUS’ Intel G35-based P5E-VM HDMI board. There’s also no digital audio connectivity. ASUS’ documentation talks about an audio module, but it doesn’t ship alongside this board.

There’s no question that ASUS built the M3A78-EMH HDMI to curl toes in the living room, the home office, and at work. Just be aware that the bundle is minimalist, and if you want to hook up to either of the digital video outputs, you’ll need the right cables since ASUS doesn’t provide adapters.

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The ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI

Like the Gigabyte board, ASUS’ M3A78-EMH fits on a microATX PCB, great for those home entertainment chassis that slide into an A/V rack. Whereas Gigabyte colors its offering blue, the ASUS board is a blasé shade of brown. No matter—these aren’t the boards you’d drop into case with a clear panel and light up with LEDs.

We were initially impressed that Gigabyte managed to cool both the 780G northbridge and SB700 southbridge passively using small, aluminum heatsinks. ASUS does even better by covering both pieces of core logic with copper. The result is a postage stamp-sized piece of metal on the SB700 and a northbridge cooler slimmer than Gigabyte’s, but also significantly taller.


     


At first blush, most of the M3A78-EMH’s built-in extras look like what we saw on Gigabyte’s board. However, ASUS employs three-phase power to Gigabyte’s four. You’ll also notice that the M3A78-EMH lacks a FireWire controller. As far as external storage is concerned, we’d be fine without FireWire if the board included eSATA, but ASUS leaves that out as well, instead choosing to expose all six SATA 3 Gbps ports internally.

 

   


We’re also a bit perplexed by ASUS’ decisions on which digital audio and video functions to enable. The board’s rear I/O panel gives access to VGA, DVI, HDMI, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and 7.1-channel sound through 1/8” mini-plugs, but there is no optical or coaxial audio connection on the back panel. If you were planning to take the platform into a home theater environment, you’d either need to go through the HDMI connection or a discrete sound card for digital audio transfer. And while you probably won’t be switching back and forth from the DVI and HDMI video outputs, picking one or the other requires moving two jumper blocks on the board itself. In contrast, Gigabyte lets you switch between digital outputs with a BIOS switch.


   


ASUS gives you the same expansion options on the M3A78-EMH HDMI that Gigabyte enables on its GA-MA78GM-S2H: one PCI Express x16 slot, one PCI Express x1 slot, and two PCI slots. Naturally, the PCI Express links are all compliant with version 2.0 of the bus spec.

Everything else about the M3A78-EMH HDMI’s layout is average fare. You get plenty of headers for front-panel USB connectivity, one floppy connector, a single parallel ATA header, and standard power connectivity. Four DDR2 sockets take up to 8GB of DDR2-1066 memory—plenty for a mainstream board like this one. No fancy frills. You get a solid list of specifications mostly attributable to the hard work AMD’s engineering team put into its 780G chipset.

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Bundled Software and BIOS

ASUS, like most motherboard vendors, augments its hardware offerings with software bundles intended to add value. We’d split the M3A78-EMH’s bundle up into two categories: software utilities that complement hardware functionality and standalone apps that you’d (ASUS hopes) want anyway, even if they weren’t included with the board.


  


From the first category, ASUS bundles its Cool’n’Quiet utility, PC Probe, RAIDXpert (AMD’s Web-based software RAID driver), and ASUS’ own online BIOS updating utility. Between those few apps, you have the tools in-hand to make sure the platform is running as it should. And while the RAIDXpert utility isn’t as polished as Intel’s equivalent storage interface, it’s a step in the right direction for enabling basic mirroring and striping.

The second category is significantly more forgettable. A 90-trial for Norton Internet Security greets you with incessant reminders that you need protection beyond its 90-day window of availability. Corel’s SnapFire Plus helps arrange photos and burn them to DVD—ideal if you’re too inept to do the job on your own, but hardly a value. InterVideo’s DVD Copy CopyLater could be considered more useful, since it transcodes media files to the format of your choice. No, it doesn’t rip copy-protected DVDs to your desktop, in case you were wondering.

ASUS M3A78-EMH
BIOS Menus

The AMI-based BIOS ASUS uses is ample for a mainstream machine, but it’s decidedly less configurable than Gigabyte’s GA-MA78GM-S2H, which facilitates independent clock control over the Radeon HD 3200 GPU along with almost every other facet of processor, HyperTransport, and memory performance.

ASUS’ processor overclocking window lets you manually key in a reference clock manually or tweak by percentage, automatically increasing the processor and HyperTransport frequencies. There’s also an option to change the HyperTransport’s link frequency and width to a setting lower than the default—perhaps useful if HT speed is holding back your overclocking efforts.



   


You don’t get access to graphics core settings; however, ASUS does expose extremely granular memory timing adjustments, letting you experiment with 17 different parameters for the most bandwidth possible. We saw in our 780G preview that the chipset’s graphics performance is extremely sensitive to memory and HT bandwidth, so any increase you can add will yield faster frame rates. Memory frequency can be tweaked in bigger jumps, from 200 to 533 MHz in 66 MHz increments.

There are only two real video tweaks: you can manually set aside a block of system memory up to 512MB or you can turn SurroundView on and off. SurroundView is the feature that lets you add a discrete card and take advantage of up to four independent display controllers, yielding serious multi-monitor configurations.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive motherboard to overclock, look elsewhere. The ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI has a handful of rudimentary speed tweaks. Without any voltage adjustments, though, you’ll be severely limited in what you can do. We took our 2.5 GHz Athlon X2 4850e from 2.5 GHz to 2.625 GHz with a 10 MHz reference clock increase, but 3DMark06 wasn’t at all responsive to the jump.

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Our Test Sustems and 3DMark06

The ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI press kit that AMD shipped was identical to what we received for our 780G preview, right down to the Corsair memory modules populating two of the board’s slots. Once again, we used the Athlon X2 4850e 45W CPU and a passively cooled Radeon HD 3450 card in order to test Hybrid Graphics.

Interestingly, the platform didn’t want to output a picture with our monitor plugged into the onboard VGA connector while a discrete card was installed. Removing the add-in board or moving the monitor to the add-in board’s VGA output fixed the problem. Keep that in mind if you pair the ASUS board to a discrete graphics card.

Once again, we tested using AMD’s RC 8.47 Vista x32 driver instead of the WHQL-approved 8.452 package, if only to normalize our results. We also used the same updated direcpll.dll file in order to get Futuremark’s PCMark Vantage benchmark suite running properly.

Test Systems
Intel and AMD Inside!

AMD System

AMD Athlon X2 4850e 2.5GHz processor

ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI motherboard
Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard
(AMD 780G/AMD SB700 chipset)

2GB Corsair CM2X1024-6400C4 DDR2 memory
2 x 1GB modules

Integrated Radeon HD 3200 graphics
Discrete Radeon HD 3450 graphics

1 x Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 500GB SATA hard drive

Windows Vista x32

Intel System

Intel Pentium E2200 2.2 GHz processor

ASUS P5E-VM HDMI motherboard
(Intel G35 chipset)

2GB Corsair CM2X1024-6400C4 DDR2 memory
2 x 1GB modules

Integrated Intel GMA X3500 graphics

1 x Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 500GB SATA hard drive

Windows Vista x32


Preliminary Testing with 3Dmark06
Synthetic Benchmarks

Argue the validity of synthetic benchmarks until you’re blue in the face—no matter which side of the fence you’re on, 3DMark06 enables granular analysis of individual features and capabilities using the latest graphics architectures. The overall score takes all of the individual tests into account for a holistic view of what a solution can do under extreme duress.




Given the same core logic with an integrated graphics processor running at the same 500 MHz clock speed (and no way to tweak it northward), we’d expect to see the ASUS and Gigabyte boards pacing each other. And that’s exactly what we get. Our results with the GA-MA78GM-S2H and Radeon HD 3450 show what you get when you add a $50 discrete board to the mix, while ASUS’ P5E-VM HDMI shows what Intel’s G35 chipset can do. Clearly, when it comes to 3D performance, AMD has the upper hand.

The 3DMark06 processor test is closely matched as well. ASUS’ 780G offering does edge out Gigabyte’s by two percentage points here, though both integrated configurations trail the Hybrid Graphics setup.

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PCMark Vantage

 Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Synthetic Benchmarks


We ran both the AMD 780G and Intel G35 platforms through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric built especially for Windows Vista, PCMark Vantage. Our first hiccup came when the 780G system wouldn’t progress past the initial hardware scan. It turned out that one of the benchmark’s DLLs was failing to recognize the chipset and thus hanging up. A replacement file from AMD took us past that point. We’re always skeptical of tweaked .dlls coming from hardware vendors, but the fix was posted to Futuremark’s site and all was good. The next hang-up came from Intel’s G35 failing two of the eight test suites. As a result, Vantage refused to assign the G35 an overall score. Those tests that were scored are reflected below.


The ASUS and Gigabyte motherboards trade blows here. ASUS’ M3A78-EMH HDMI comes out ahead in four of the seven individual suites. When all is said and done, though, the Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H pulls out a slim overall victory by less than one percent.

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Cinebench and USB Performance

 

 Cinebench R10
 3D Rendering Benchmarks

Cinebench, based on Maxon’s CINEMA 4D rendering tool, is a processor-intensive test having less to do with the chipsets we’re pitting against each other. Release 10 of the benchmark features a new scene that incorporates light sources, procedural shaders, ambient occlusion, and multi-level reflections.
 


We all looked at the Cinebench results from the 780G sneak peek and commented on how evenly matched our AMD- and Intel-based platforms really were. AMD clearly did its homework when it was pricing the Athlon X2 4850e. The chip hangs right alongside the dual-core Pentium E2200 in Cinebench.

 USB Performance
 Testing Transfer Speeds

ATI’s chipsets have, in the past, taken flak for lackluster USB 2.0 transfer speeds. Now that AMD has taken over, we were curious to see how that story has changed. To test, we attached a 500GB Maxtor OneTouch II drive to the AMD and Intel platforms and timed the transfer of a 500MB folder of music, movies, Web pages, and documents of various sizes.


From our 780G preview:

There’s some variance between the 780G numbers with and without Hybrid Graphics, despite the many times we ran these numbers. Nevertheless, the real story seems to be that AMD and Intel are on par here. When you divide the numbers out, you get between 11.1MB/s and 10MB/s of throughput.

The ASUS board puts down similar numbers to Gigabyte’s 780G platform.

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LAME MT and Compression

 

 LAME MT
 MP3 Encoding Benchmark


Multi-threaded encoding is going to have less to do with AMD’s 780G chipset and more to do with the Athlon X2 4850e sitting on its HyperTransport interface. The comparison here is $89 spent on a dual-core AMD Athlon X2 versus the same amount of money spent on Intel’s Pentium E2200. For our purposes, we used a 622MB copy of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

We restarted our ASUS-based test bed several times in order to ensure that these results were accurate, and it turns out that the M3A78-EMH HDMI simply edges out the Gigabyte platform we presented in the 780G preview. The even bigger news is that all three AMD-based configurations blow past the Intel G35 setup, driven by a dual-core Pentium E2200 processor.

 Windows .ZIP
 File Compression Benchmarks

Next up, we measured the time it took for Windows to compress a 500MB folder of music, movies, Web pages, and documents of various sizes and timed the operation until it completed. Bear in mind these tests have to be run several times in Vista for accurate results since the operating system has a proclivity for running background tasks that skew performance numbers.

The M3A78-EMH HDMI takes a few seconds longer to compress our 500MB folder full of files than the Gigabyte board, but again all three 780G-based numbers trump the G35 scores.

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Gaming: HL2 - EP2

 Half Life 2: Episode 2
 DirectX Benchmarks


Valve’s Half Life 2 looks great, no doubt. But it’s also an immersive game made that much better by a great story line. The DirectX 9 engine provides attractive visuals without bogging down capable GPUs. To get a good feel for how these integrated solutions handled the game’s eye candy, we cranked up the settings, taking care to keep anti-aliasing off with trilinear filtering.





Our Half-Life 2 numbers are incredibly close. At least 3D performance is consistent between these two 780G-based motherboards.

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Gaming: Company of Heroes

 Company of Heroes
 DirectX 10 Benchmarks

Relic’s WWII RTS originally centered on a DirectX 9 engine, but now includes DX10 functionality able to tax modern graphics architectures. Once again, the game’s visual options were maxed out in a bid to demonstrate the eye candy possible with AMD’s latest platform. After we saw what the numbers first looked like, however, we turned the settings down to High, hoping for more playable numbers using the built-in performance test.





A series of demanding sequences drag down the average performance of ASUS’ board in Company of Heroes’ built-in benchmark. We did see peaks in the 30+ frame per second range, so it is possible to get playable performance from this WWII RTS.

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Gaming: ET - Quake Wars

 Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
 OpenGL Benchmarks

Based on id’s Doom 3 engine, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars demands enough from discrete card; never mind the integrated graphics cores we’re throwing at it today. We created our own timedemo benchmark using the Pacific map and turned the graphics options all of the way up. For the sake of mercy, we didn’t use any anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering.





Once again, the ASUS and Gigabyte motherboards spit back similar benchmark results, just as we’d expect from identical chipsets with graphics cores clocked similarly. After actually playing the game at 800x600, it’s safe to say that’s a solid resolution if you’re set on cranking up the eye candy.

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Hi-Def Video Impressions


There’s no question that the 780G is being positioned as a solution for living room PCs. After all, the chipset supports AMD’s Live! initiative and it includes built-in HDMI. AMD wouldn’t go to the trouble of cramming its hardware-based UVD into the northbridge unless it hoped home users would put the video functionality to use.

On top of our standard benchmark suite, we wanted to put ASUS’ M3A78-EMH HDMI to task in some real-world video tests to help determine whether the value platform, powered by an $89 CPU and featuring integrated graphics, could handle the rigors of high-def playback. Then, we added background processing to the challenge by running a full Windows Defender scan, typical of what a home user might experience as they watch a movie at home.

 
Hasta La Vista, Baby...

According to AMD, the UVD built into its 780G chipset accelerates VC-1 and H.264 decoding, in addition to MPEG-2 offloading. We grabbed the VC-1-based Terminator 2 1080p clip from Microsoft’s WMV HD gallery and ran it in a loop on the ASUS board. CPU utilization averaged around 35% throughout the clip, leaving plenty of room for multi-tasking. Then, we started a Windows Defender scan and watched utilization jump to about 60% with spikes as high as 80%. In both cases the video clip played with zero stuttering. Given smooth playback throughout, we’d call that a pass.

We fired up the Intel G35 platform next. Contrary to what we were expecting given AMD’s marketing material, ASUS P5E-VM HDMI returned smooth playback as well. With Windows Media Player running by itself, CPU utilization hovered around in the 45% neighborhood. With Windows Defender cranking alongside, utilization rose to a modest 70%. Despite lackluster gaming performance, Intel’s G35 will in fact churn through high-def content without performance issues.

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Power and Our Conclusion

When it comes to power consumption numbers, we’re used to making concessions for massive energy hogs like multi-card setups and flagship CPUs. The 780G is a different kind of beast, though. In our preview we saw the 780G-based Gigabyte board idling around 80W and sucking down 130W under full load. Its idle was just under that of Intel’s G35 platform, and both configurations turned in similar results under full load.

 
 Power Consumption 
 Tested at the Outlet

AMD and Intel continue turning in energy-efficient consumption numbers. The ASUS board cuts its draw by a couple of watts at idle and a single watt under load. We’re also able to compare those numbers to what you’d see with a Radeon HD 3450 sitting in the board’s one available PCI Express x16 slot. The rise in energy flow is offset by significant performance gains in most of the 3D titles we tested.





We’ve already reached the conclusion that AMD’s 780G chipset is a huge step forward. It’s significant for the mainstream market because the core logic delivers DirectX 10 functionality and enough muscle to actually drive some of today's current gaming titles. To AMD, the chipset represents a foundation for its new platform message—something it hasn’t had before. Expect AMD to run with the idea that its processor, chipset, and graphics solutions are all better together.

The real question is: which 780G motherboard do you buy? AMD has a long list of partners planning to unveil their own unique designs. But right now there are still only a handful of choices. You have the Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H, the ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI we’re evaluating today, and an even less expensive offering from ECS that might prove a formidable contender at $69.

With a street price of $99, Gigabyte’s board is the most expensive. ASUS follows at $89. Based on price alone, it’s tempting to crown ASUS the winner here since it delivers comparable performance at a statistically significant lower price. However, ASUS may want to make a couple changes to the board before it’s able to claim the value title. Currently, you give up too much for that $10 savings in out opinion. From BIOS flexibility to optical output and even eSATA support, which we see as an increasingly important feature.  If you don't need those features, go ahead and save yourself the 10 bucks, otherwise Gigabyte’s GA-MA78GM-S2H remains our top choice.


  • Solid gaming performance
  • An affordable $89 street price
  • Low CPU utilization in HD video playback
  • Copper cooling
  • Minimalist BIOS
  • No optical audio output or eSATA
  • DVI/HDMI switch controlled by jumpers



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