|Overview and the Chipset|
At first glance, Intel's technical documentation for the new P45 / G45 Express series chipsets, you'll note looks alarmingly similar to the previous generation P35 / G35 Express series that this new lineup of chipsets is meant to replace. As the P35 series was a rather successful architecture, this immediately struck us on a positive first note about the P45. The more we read on, the more we realized that the Intel P45 chipset shares many of the same features and attributes as Intel’s high-end X38 / X48 chipsets, just at a much lower price point.
Initial reports about the Intel P45 have shown the chipset to be strong, as early end-user reports have shown that first generation motherboards are already hitting front side bus speeds well over 500 MHz (2,000 MHz FSB) with preliminary BIOS releases. As the P45 chipset uses a more modern 65nm manufacturing technology (compared to 90nm of previous generations), the strong overclockability of the chipset wasn’t too unexpected. Die shrinks typically do help overclockability, along with lowered power consumption and heat production levels.
As the Intel P35 and P45 are so similar, motherboard manufacturers have been quick to adopt this new product and integrate it into their existing board designs. However, there are some companies, like Asus, who take the P45 to another level that we weren’t expecting this early on in the chipset's lifecycle.
Of course, this all leads up to what we’re interested in here today, Asus’s new high-end motherboard based on the P45 chipset. Typically, motherboards in the Asus "Republic of Gamers" (RoG) family come out a few months after initial products, as it gives them a chance to get a feel for the chipset and really refine the motherboard's design. Apparently that wasn’t needed for the P45 though. Dubbed the Maximus II Formula, this new P45 motherboard takes off where Asus’s P35 gaming platforms, the Blitz-series, left off. So Join us, will you, on a look at the Asus Maximus II Formula Intel P45 motherboard.
Asus Maximus II Formula P45 Motherboard Shipping Box
The P45 Express (commonly shortened in name to "P45") will be Intel’s recommended chipset for most high-end PC’s throughout 2008 and likely throughout a good chunk of 2009. Intel still claims that the newly released X48 chipset is the best option for gamers and performance users, but a close look through the spec sheet reveals almost no difference between these two products. While the X48 certainly has the allure of a top of the line product (along with “official” support for 1600 MHz front side bus speeds), the P45 delivers the same feature set in 95% of the core areas which gamers, enthusiasts, overclockers, whomever, actually use.
Intel P45 Chipset Block Diagram (Source : Intel)
The P45 chipset supports Socket-775 Intel Core 2 Duo and Quad processors and has support for both 65nm and 45nm processors from the get-go. The chipset supports both DDR2 and DDR3 memory modules, and it is up to the motherboard manufacturer as to which memory standard to use on their particular P45 board designs. For this board in particular, Asus opted to go for the more cost-effective DDR2 route, although DDR3-based Intel P45 boards are out there for those who want to go with faster (but more expensive) DDR3 memory modules. DDR3 modules are dropping in price significantly lately, but DDR2 is still a much more cost effective route to go.
This is one of the last high-end chipset releases from Intel which will have the system's memory controller still in the Northbridge. Intel will be moving to an on-die DDR3 memory controller for their next generation processor releases in 2009. This particular motherboard supports DDR2 clock speeds up to 1200 MHz, whereas the original chipset specifications only officially support DDR2 clock speeds up to 800 MHz. If you choose to use faster DDR2 memory in a dual-channel configuration, you can hit memory bandwidth levels of over 19 GB/s on paper. Not too shabby. It is also worth mentioning that Intel P45’s memory controller, when used with DDR2 memory, can address up to 16 GB of memory. So in short, you now have the ability to run server-grade memory capacities on a consumer-level, enthusiast-class motherboard. 16 GB of DDR2-800 memory (4 x 4 GB) can be had for a little over $1,000 now, whereas 8 GB of DDR2-800 memory (4 x 2 GB) can be had for as low as $200.
Most, if not all, P45 motherboards which hit the market will come equipped with two full PCI Express 2.0 x16 sized slots. These slots can support Crossfire multi-GPU operation (or the installation of two independent graphics cards). Unfortunately, the P45 still does not support full PCI Express x16 speeds when multiple cards are installed, splitting the PCI Express x16 lanes into an 8x8 configuration. However, if you are using two PCI Express 2.0 cards in this motherboard, even when connected at x8 speeds, you will be receiving the same bandwidth as a PCI Express x16 (1.0) slot. In reality, this should not be seen as a major limitation, as we have not seen PCI Express x8 mutli-GPU configurations limit gaming performance to any significant degree in a Crossfire configuration.
The Intel P45 chipset also brings along Intel’s new ICH10/ICH10R Southbridges, which are more or less revised ICH9 series Southbridges with no major new features. The ICH10 will bring support for up to 6 SATA-II/300 devices (with RAID support for the ICH10R variant), along with a dozen USB 2.0 ports, six PCI Express x1 connectors, 5.1 Azalia/HD Audio, and Gigabit Ethernet support. ICH9 has been an excellent performing SATA host chip with very solid peripheral support. We are, somewhat confused, that Intel decided on moving the naming up to ICH10 when more or less it’s a small set of tweaks on ICH9. In the past, we typically see larger feature changes between Southbridge variants.
Intel connects their P45 Northbridge to their ICH10/ICH10R Southbridges via a custom 2 GB/s pipe between the two chips, which doesn’t quite seem to be enough if you’re really pushing the system hard, considering the bandwidth requirements a large array of SATA disks or multiple PCI Express slots can use. However, we’ll let our benchmarks be the judge if this is something that users should be concerned about.
|Board Design and Layout|
If one word can be used to describe the Asus Maximus II Formula, that word would be “refined”. Yes, it seems irrational to think of a brand new motherboard with a brand new chipset to be considered refined, but from a hardware point of view, Asus has done a tremendous job of smoothing out the edges and making the Maximus II Formula seemingly bulletproof from day one. The board’s sleek PCB and elegant heatpipe/heatsink based cooling system appear to be extremely well manufactured, and from a visual perspective, this board should appeal to both the high-end enthusiast and the workstation-class professional type as well.
The Maximus II Formula is based on a standard ATX form factor design, and has a huge amount of features for a board of its size. These include Crossfire support with dual PCI Express x16 (sized) slots, six SATA-II/300 RAID ports, support for up to 16 GB of DDR2 memory over four slots, support for the latest generation of quad-core CPU’s from Intel with 16-phase power, eSATA connectivity, dual Firewire ports, 12 x USB 2.0 ports, Creative X-Fi audio, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, along with support for legacy devices like 32-bit PCI, Ultra ATA, PS/2, and floppy drives.
The most eye-catching aspect about this board, however, is its cooling system. Asus utilizes a custom cooling system design that combines multiple heatpipes connecting the Northbridge and Southbridge chipsets together with a series of very well manufactured aluminum alloy heatsink fins, which wrap around the CPU socket. The cooling system is completely passive in nature, and requires no active cooling in order to stay at nominal temperatures. Asus does, however, include an optional fan that you can attach to either of the red brackets on the cooling system for additional airflow.
The beauty of this system is that it’s very effective, but it also stays out of your way. The heatpipe and heatsink system near the south end of the motherboard is short enough so that PCI Express cards installed nearby will not be interefered with. In addition, Asus leaves enough leeway around the CPU socket for large CPU coolers to be installed without issue. For those who are curious about the Southbridge heatsink system, while it may appear to extend into the center of the motherboard to cover another chip, this is not the case. The only chip that the heatsink is touching on the south end of the motherboard is the ICH10R Southbridge chip, which in itself produces very little heat.
The two blue expansion slots are PCI Express 2.0 x16 sized slots, which can support a Crossfire multi-GPU configuration. As mentioned before, when you plug in two cards, your PCI Express bandwidth will drop to an 8x8 configuration, but this is still plenty of bandwidth for high-end ATI cards. We would not hesitate to throw in a pair of Radeon 4850 / 4870 cards into this board for high-end Crossfire setup. Considering you can now pair up a few Radeon 4850 cards at $199 a pop to rival the performance of a $600 GeForce GTX 280 card, the Maximus II Formula quickly becomes a very viable option for high-end gamers looking to save a little cash. We think that ATI’s new lineup of low-power graphics cards along with the low-power P45 chipset with Crossfire support will make for an excellent configuration for gamers who keep a keen eye on power consumption
|Connectivity and Audio|
Checking out the I/O panel of this platform, you’ve got a pretty interesting layout here. On the left edge of the motherboard, you see a small beige connector, which connects up to Asus’s bundled "LCD Poster", which we’ll discuss on the following pages. To the right of that, we have a single PS/2 keyboard slot paired with two USB 2.0 ports. The small button with a rotating arrow is a dedicated Clear CMOS button, which comes in handy if you’re pushing this board a little too hard when overclocking. On the right side, we have two Gigabit Ethernet ports connected to Marvell Yukon PCI Express x1 GigE chips, which sit atop four more USB 2.0 ports. The red connectors which sit in the middle are a Firewire 400 port on top, combined with an eSATA port on the bottom.
Asus Maximus II Formula I/O Panel
The obvious question is, where are the onboard audio connectors? That’s where this board gets a little interesting and unique. Bundled with the motherboard is the Asus SupremeFX add-in card, which is the first Asus board we’ve seen that is packaged with the Creative X-Fi label. Despite Creative’s woes in the industry (and newfound competition in the audio-card space from Asus’ own Xonar lineup), Asus has decided to go with a name that gamers know and respond to for this board.
The add-in card is incredibly small, barely occupying the space needed to connect to a PCI Express x1 port. The Maximus II Formula has a PCIe x1 port that sits right by the I/O panel which is designed to accommodate this board. The board includes an array of analog audio connectors along with S/PDIF coaxial and optical outputs, and touts support for EAX audio extensions, the most popular method of modern positional audio in gaming environments. This is, however, not really an X-Fi card, as we soon found out.
In reality, what this card is, is a small PCB that houses an ADI Soundmax AD2000B 8-channel CODEC, which is not different from a variety of onboard audio solutions today. We’re not dealing with a true hardware Creative X-Fi implementation, we’re basically seeing software-layer X-Fi support, which Creative calls "X-Fi MB". It basically means that you can use Creative’s software layer on top of another manufacturer’s CODEC. You still get all the Creative goodies like EAX4 (not EAX5 like on true X-Fi cards), X-Fi Crystalizer (a favorite of mine for improving audio contrast), X-Fi CMSS-3D (faux 3D emulation for 2.1 speaker setups), and Creative’s general high-quality software setup.
If you’re running true 3D positional audio, you’ll still be relying on the system’s primary CPU for processing, as the chip used in this card is not a true hardware audio solution. In our testing, audio sounded great through a digital S/PDIF connection, and definitely on par with a dedicated X-Fi card, but we’re under no impressions that this is a true X-Fi replacement. However, for an onboard audio solution, it’s a step above what the competition is offering. This solution also recieves bonus points, since the card has an illuminiated SupremeFX logo which is backlit by a blue LED that looks surprisingly slick when installed. This card can also connect to front panel audio ports properly, whereas traditional X-Fi cards more often than not do not have the necessary connectors.
One of the other truly interesting aspects of this motherboard are its storage capabilities. The motherboard supports 8 x SATA-II/300 ports altogether, along with a single eSATA port on the I/O panel, although it’s not as clear and simple as that. Six of the Serial ATA-II/300 ports on the motherboard, seen in blue, are connected to Intel’s ICH10R Southbridge controller. These ports can support RAID levels 0, 1, 0+1, and 5, and can be configured through the RAID menu in the BIOS. Asus keeps four of these ports rotated at a 90 degree angle while two are direct connects to the motherboard, as is a popular option on modern motherboards.
Serial ATA-II Port Cluster and iROG Dual BIOS Feature
The interesting aspect is the two dark gray/black Serial ATA-II/300 ports near the bottom of the motherboard, which Asus dubs “Speeding HDD” ports. These ports basically are Serial ATA-II/300 ports which are connected to a small Silicon Image "Steelvine" 5723 storage controller nearby. Through the use of some clever software trickery, a pair of hard drives connected though these ports can be configured in RAID-0 (dubbed "Super Speed") or RAID-1 (dubbed "EZ-Backup" - ugh) without the need for drivers. To the operating system, these drives are seen as single disks, but the chip is controlling RAID functionality on a hardware level behind the scenes. For those who want a simple RAID setup for performance or backup purposes without the fuss of driver installations, this is an innovative little solution. It comes in especially handy when installing an operating system on a newly created RAID array, which can be done sans drivers.
We ran some quick performance tests on hard disks connected on the Silicon Image “Speeding HDD” controller setup compared to the Intel ICH10R controller. Our tests showed that disks connected in single disk or RAID-0 modes performed better across the board when connected to ICH10R to the tune of about 5%. ICH10R also has much better burst transfer rates compared to the Silicon Image controller chip. However, average transfer rates and CPU utilization were surprisingly close between the two controllers.
|The BIOS, Overclocking and Power Consumption|
The Asus Maximus II Formula is powered through an AMI BIOS which has been highly customized for the release of this board. Nearly all of the settings which enthusiasts and overclockers care about are listed in one menu, dubbed “Extreme Tweaker”. All of your clock speed, voltage, and timing options are available here for your choosing. Asus also is introducing a new CPU Step-Up feature, which detects which model CPU is currently installed in the motherboard, and will provide you overclocking settings for the clock speeds of the next higher-up models. For example : If you had a Core 2 Quad Q6600 processor, you would have Q6700 and Q6800 listed in your CPU Step-Up menu. Selecting one of these options would allow the motherboard to configure itself to run at these higher clock speeds, and will handle all of the necessary timing and voltage alterations needed. An interesting feature, but considering this is an enthusiast class motherboard, we’re guessing most overclockers will set their timings manually.
We found the overclocking options to be more than suffice for our needs, as we were not limited in any fashion in regards to timings or voltage levels. Of course, we should mention that the P45 chipset is still linked between the front side bus and memory bus. This means that if you start pushing the front side bus speeds up by sizeable amounts, you will have to use fairly high-speed DDR2 memory in order to keep up. As noted by our screenshot, even though this board only “officially” supports DDR2-1200 speeds, you basically have a limitless range here in terms of memory speeds, as long as the modules themselves can keep up.
With a slick cooling setup, a brand new chipset, and a BIOS tuned towards enthusiasts, we were expecting this board to overclock quite a bit. Previous generation Intel P35 motherboards were excellent overclockers in their own right, and the die-shrunk P45 looks to expand on that. With our overclocker-friendly Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 “Wolfdale” chip in tow and a huge dual 120-mm cooled, six-heatpipe based cooler, we went to town.
Hitting 500 MHz FSB (2,000 MHz quad-pumped) is a piece of this cake on this motherboard, and assuming your CPU is capable, the board can easily handle these levels of front side bus speeds. Beyond 500 MHz FSB is a bit trickier. Through some voltage tweaks, we were able to get our board with an air-cooled CPU up to 520 MHz FSB (2080 MHz quad-pumped). Once we maxed out the FSB, we cranked up the CPU ratio for a maximum overclock of 4.16 GHz from our 3.16 GHz chip. Not bad at all, we say.
Asus has a few tools on the hardware side for this board that overclockers may appreciate. First is the LCD poster unit, which connects through the I/O shield directly to the motherboard. This is a simple, small little LCD panel which relays BIOS POST information to you in a visible area. This can be useful for quick diagnostics if your chassis is closed, but once your system is up and running, it’s not that useful in the long-run (you can have it show the time, however, for an impromptu desk clock – or basic hardware stats). It’s nice, however, not anything to get too excited about.
Much more useful for testers and overclockers are these big, beautiful buttons at the bottom of the board. These are hardware power-on and reset switches, which allow you to control these very basic aspects of your board without having to short jumpers. Not only do they look (and feel) nice, but when you’re in a dark room, you can see that Asus equipped these buttons with backlight LED’s, so you can locate them without a flashlight. Don’t you want to press that big, red button? Yeah, you do.
When the lights go down, backit LED's light up the board's start and reset buttons.
Shrinking the die manufacturing process when producing a chipset in general tends to yield a product that consumes less power. We wanted to test this theory with the new P45 by running power consumption numbers between it and competing chipsets. Our power consumption numbers are for the entire system (not just the motherboard) as recorded by a hardware AC wattage monitor. Idle mode is testing while sitting at the desktop with basic CPU power saving modes enabled. Full load mode is testing with all four CPU cores maxed out with Orthos Prime and maxing out the GPU with our realtime DX9 shader test.
Honestly, we were a bit surprised, as our P45 board consumes significantly more power than our previous generation P35 based platform at both idle and full load modes. The P45 still consumes significantly less than Nvidia 680/780-series products at idle, and just a bit less under full load. The P45 is definitely not a power hog of a chipset, but from these first numbers, it’s not as efficient in terms of power consumption as we would have expected. We should note however that motherboard configurations and on-board peripherals can have an a significant effect on system power consumption readings.
Another point also is that the Maximus II Formula supports the Asus “EPU” (Energy Processing Unit), which can work in conjunction with software for decreased energy usage levels. Of course, in order to save significant amounts of power, you will be looking at decreased computing power, but in this day and age of high energy prices and ridiculously powerful home systems, giving a bit of control over to the motherboard to bring power levels down might not be such a terrible thing.
|Testbed and Sandra|
Starting off with the basics, CPU and memory, we see the new Maximus II Formula board getting off to a somewhat rough start. While the board keeps up with its competitors in terms of raw CPU performance, this P45 board does not score extremely well in terms of memory performance. The new Asus P45-based board shows the least amount of memory bandwidth of our boards in testing, along with the highest latency, not a good combination. Especially considering the P45 is supposed to include Intel’s memory acceleration technology that is present in the X38/X48 series chipsets and that the P35 doesn’t have. This can improve in the future with later BIOS revisions, but it’s unlikely to change the game too much.
|3DMark and PCMark Vantage|
Memory issues aside, the Maximus II Formula P45 board scored top marks in our 3DMark/PCMark Vantage test suites. Granted, not by a huge margin, but considering that the platform is seemingly going in with a disadvantage in terms of memory speed and to score above its competitors, well, that’s encouraging. Let’s check out some real-world games and applications for further insight.
|Crysis and Half Life 2|
Looking good so far in the gaming tests. Both Crysis and Half Life 2 are friendly towards this new P45 platform, giving top performance marks in both of these tests. Even more impressive is that this is with an NVIDIA card, which supposedly should work better on an NVIDIA based motherboard. However, our tests showed our GeForce 9600 GT card running a bit faster on our Intel P45 platform more than any of our other motherboards.
|Divx Author and Adobe Photoshop CS3|
Not much variance between the motherboards in terms of application performance and encoding speed. Our Intel platforms tended to run a percentage point or so quicker than NVIDIA in our encoding test suite, but Photoshop CS3 shows almost no difference between these motherboards and chipsets.
In terms of storage performance between the boards, we threw on a Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1 TB SATA-II/300 hard disk with 32 MB of cache at these boards to see which could run it the fastest. The end result is that all the boards/chipsets averaged out at around 83 MB/s sustained transfer rate. Our Intel boards showed greatly enhanced Burst Transfer Rates, and the new ICH10R enabled P45 shows a terrific 175 MB/s burst transfer rate from this disk. CPU utilization also proved to be a bit lower with the Intel solutions, finally showing some significant improvements over ICH9R.
Considering that Intel’s P45 Express chipset just launched a few weeks ago, the fact that we’re seeing this level of quality so early on in the game is certainly encouraging. Asus has wasted no time in getting a souped up, enthusiast-class board out for a public eager and willing to gobble it up. From what we’ve seen in forum threads thus far, most early adopters who have gone with this platform have been very pleased with the overall product, as are we. The Maximus II Formula is a top notch board, and we’re left with a very positive impression overall by it.
On the down side, this is an expensive platform, with a $299 MSRP (street price is about $250). Considering most P35 platforms are available for about $100-$150, you’re looking at a significant price increase in going to a board of this caliber with the new P45 chipset. What you’re getting for that extra money is a very nice cooling system, a BIOS that is tweaked for the enthusiast/overclocker mind-set, support for up to 16 GB of DDR2 and speeds up to 1200 MHz (and beyond), and a very clean, refined board design as a whole. The board isn’t perfect, and we still feel that it could use a few more BIOS revisions in order to be truly rock solid (we had some issues it not resuming operation after going into sleep mode, and a few random crashes when doing serious overclocking – nothing serious), but as a whole, it’s still a better platform than most P35 based motherboards we’ve seen to date.
While we thought we would be excited about the Creative X-Fi support, we were a bit let down when we found that the board does not actually include an X-Fi processor from Creative. Using a third party CODEC and overlaying the X-Fi software on top of it is not the same thing, and even though it’s an improvement over most onboard audio software. It still feels like a let-down as we were expecting a full hardware APU onboard. Perhaps Asus can move their Xonar chips onboard for future motherboards, which we would be just as happy with compared to a true X-Fi audio card. While we appreciate Asus trying to improve their onboard audio quality, we feel that SupremeFX w/ X-Fi kind of misses the mark as to what gamers and enthusiasts actually wand and is even slightly misleading.
We’re nit-picking though. As a whole, the Maximus II Formula delivers what we were expecting in a $300 Intel P45 platform; refinement, superb cooling, solid performance, and top notch overclockability. Paired together with a quad-core CPU, 4 GB of DDR2-1200 memory, and a pair of Radeon 4870 cards in Crossfire, this board could make for an absolutely top notch gaming platform for a reasonable investment. While it’s not without its quirks, as a whole, we’re extremely impressed with the Maximus II Formula and would definitely recommend it.