|Introduction and the EP45-DQ6|
Enthusiasts love high-end hardware, and when it comes to Intel chipsets, that means the X48 and X38 Express platforms. The 910GL Express sits at the polar opposite of the company’s lineup, shoring up sales of entry-level systems where price is the principal consideration. In between, you have a massive list of discrete and integrated chipsets with mainstream appeal. These are Intel’s best sellers—the platforms you can find in everything from sub-$100 value boards to $200+ prosumer offerings.
The P35, in particular, is a solid win for Intel. From Gigabyte’s $75 P35-S3G to DFI’s $230 LanParty P35 T2R, the mid-range chipset is incredibly flexible because it supports the most popular enthusiast features, while keeping a watchful eye on value. There’s no DDR3 memory requirement, for example. So, power users on a budget can score 4GB of DDR2-800 and still run a speedy 1333 MHz front side bus asynchronously.
Given the P35’s potential, it’s hardly a wonder that Gigabyte is excited about the chipset’s successor: the P45. The company is so enthused, in fact, that it flew a multi-national crew of media from their respective home bases to its own headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan for two days of hands-on testing. During the event, Gigabyte gave us access to four SKUs based on P45 and an early look at a fifth extreme series board that will show off the P45’s flexibility in a $300+ package.
We’ll get the bad news out of the way first. Because Intel hasn’t yet launched the P45 chipset (Gigabyte predicted the official unveiling will take place at Computex during the first week of June), none of the benchmarks we ran were allowed to be published—nor should they be, since all of the P45 boards made available at the event were based on early PCB revisions, not-quite-complete BIOSes, and Eaglelake drivers loaded onto pre-configured Windows XP partitions. Not quite the controlled environment we’d normally use. The same story goes for overclocking results, though to be honest, what we saw wasn’t necessarily representative of what we’d hope to get out of shipping hardware anyway.
The way Gigabyte organized the event put different, randomly-selected boards into each journalist’s hands, along with a miscellaneous bundle of graphics cards, memory modules, and processors. We actually brought our own hardware from our lab, which allowed us to generate numbers (and test compatibility) with Intel’s Core 2 Extreme QX9770, Corsair modules, and an EVGA GeForce 8800 GT graphics card (Gigabyte was distributing Radeon HD 3870s, for the most part).
Our choice in processor turned out to be a good one, since the P45 officially tops out with a 1333 MHz front side bus. As a result we were able to put Gigabyte’s claims of 1600 MHz compatibility to the test on what will turn out to be its flagship at launch, the EP45-DQ6. After burning our first sample during a BIOS update, we got the DQ6 running smoothly on a 1600 MHz front side bus using a string of automatic BIOS settings. Unfortunately, a memory compatibility issue kept us from trying our hand at overclocking, as we later found out the DQ6 would only respond to altered settings with a single memory module installed. Gigabyte assured us the issue would be ironed out before launch.
Beyond its colorful PCB loaded with slots, connectors, and passively-cooled copper heatsinks, the EP45-DQ6 is definitely Gigabyte’s most feature-rich board. You can tell just by looking at it—four Realtek RTL8111C Gigabit Ethernet controllers matched up to a quartet of RJ-45 ports is hard to hide. What could you possibly want out of four GbE connections? Individually, they’d be difficult to employ. However, if you’re somehow pushing the bandwidth of a single Gigabit connection today, the DQ6’s ports can be teamed, letting you harness the bandwidth of two or more of the controllers. That certainly beats an investment into a 10 GbE-over-copper adapter.
Also on board you’ll find a Realtek ALC889A audio codec equipped with Dolby Digital Live support. Representatives from both Realtek and Dolby were on-hand to extol the virtues of each company’s respective technologies. There really wasn’t much in the way of new information, though. These are technologies that have been around for at least a year.
|The Rest of the Lineup|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Power-Savings and More|
A Family Full of Features
Gigabyte is keeping a number of features consistent across all of the P45 boards, regardless of price. For example, all of the boards we sampled boasted a Dolby Home Theater package, including Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Headphone, Sound Space Expander, Natural Bass, and Dolby Digital Live, used to encode 5.1-channel mixes in real-time.
There’s also the Dual BIOS feature, which saved us a couple of times during testing. The concept is quite simple (and by now quite mature, since it was first introduced in 1999). If there’s a corruption of the primary BIOS, a backup automatically re-flashes the main IC to recover it. Then you boot back up as if nothing had happened.
As mentioned, you’ll find the Infineon Truster Platform Module (TPM) across the entire P45 series, too.
Of the features found on all of the new Gigabyte boards, we heard most about the company’s Dynamic Energy Saver Advanced. Much of the discussion centered on accusations that one of Gigabyte’s competitors is fudging the effectiveness of a similar capability, but that’s neither here nor there. In case you’re unfamiliar with Gigabyte’s DES, the function adjusts power consumption in real-time by altering voltages, using fewer power phases, and throttling the host processor depending on the settings you choose. The new Advanced version of the technology adds several capabilities to make DES more user-friendly. Mainly, it continues affecting power use even when the software component is closed and taken off of the task bar. It also supports overclocking and configurations with user-modified voltages. And because DES Advanced works with the VRD 11.1 spec, it’ll power CPUs using a single power phase when they’re in a deep sleep state. More interesting perhaps is that the feature scales power delivery as the processor comes out of sleep—the trickiest part of implementing the feature, according to Gigabyte representatives.
|Gigabyte Breaks out the Extreme|
To the Extreme
The last thing we were shown before being bused off to dinner was a first example of Gigabyte’s EP45-Extreme motherboard—a product that will cost more than the EP45-DQ6 (already estimated at $300) and offer an advanced suite of features decidedly directed toward the overclocking crowd.
The EP45-Extreme will be the only Gigabyte P45 board with a double-digit POST code LED output. Also, the board sports five overvoltage control ICs that enable 20mv increments for finer control of power delivery. Again, these are features seen as important to overclockers, though we’d argue their importance to all enthusiasts.
While it sounds like the EP45-Extreme will have lots of potential, we’re having a hard time imagining anyone paying more than $300 for a board based on Intel’s mainstream chipset, even if it offers special overclocking features. Then again, if the extra onboard copper actually proves effective in achieving never-before-seen frequencies, there will likely be an enthusiast following. We wait with bated breath.
An End to Spring Break
Gigabyte’s informational P45 preview might have been called a spring break “plug-fest,” but at 100 degrees with serious humidity in Taipei, we’d say the event was more of a sizzling summer trip. With that said, it was great to get an early look at the P45 chipset before it’s launched at this year’s Computex. And considering the progress Gigabyte made with Intel’s P45 in the span of two weeks (shipments of the chipset from Intel were delayed), we’re looking forward to seeing how the entire lineup matures as its launch approaches.
As the event came to a close, Gigabyte took questions and suggestions from the crowd on how to improve its products. There was very little input from the group of professional critics. Clearly, Gigabyte is doing something right in its efforts to become are more influential motherboard supplier. In addition, it appears they're keen on being first to market with Intel's new mainstream P45 chipset. We'll have to see how things shake out in the next few weeks but to Gigabyte we'd offer, keep up the good work.