|Introduction, Specifications & The Bundle|
Once the dominant player for chipsets compatible with AMD's Athlon, VIA has fallen out of favor lately, it seems. The company introduced its K8T890 chipset with PCI Express support way back in November of last year. Yet, we've heard very little about retail products centering on the platform until recently. The PT-series, destined for an epic battle against Intel's Pentium 4 chipset family, is still missing in action, with NVIDIA's competing core logic approaching at breakneck speed.
And then there's the VT8251 south bridge, an integral component in the grand scheme of things responsible for establishing parity with the latest crop of I/O controllers. It was originally slated to add Serial ATA 2 compliance, more PCI Express connectivity, and high-quality audio. No Gigabit Ethernet, but PCI Express controllers are better in that department, anyway.
Despite significant tardiness, a number of manufacturers have adopted VIA's K8T890 chipset and are selling motherboards designed to go up against NVIDIA's nForce4 lineup, specifically the nForce4 and nForce4 Ultra models. Soltek is one of the adventurous few; its K890Pro is actually well-equipped and it's affordable, too.
Given its aggressive price point, Soltek is light on value-added extras, as we might expect. You do get an extra USB back-panel header, a couple of power adapters for SATA hard drives, four SATA data cables, IDE cables, a floppy cable, driver discs, and documentation.
The included quick installation guide wasn't very helpful. Stick with the 104-page user manual for guidance installing the board instead. And, interestingly, Soltek's Red Storm 2 overclocking utility is part of the K890Pro's software bundle as well, yet it's incompatible at this time. A rough start, to be sure, but the board's feature set is much more compelling.
|Soltek's SL-K890-Pro 939|
In mid-2004, VIA's K8T890 chipset may have turned some heads with its PCI Express support for AMD's processor lineup. After all, the market was pretty bare at that point, and anyone looking at a high-end PCIe graphics card was being pushed toward Intel. At this point, we've already seen what SLI is capable of, and none of VIA's Athlon 64 offerings really come close from a feature perspective.
At the same time, Soltek covers the most important bases, enabling Gigabit Ethernet (not a standard VIA feature), eight-channel audio, Firewire, and even a supplementary SATA controller.
Layout is, overall, very clean. You'll find that the Socket 939 processor interface is fairly roomy. There's a 20-pin ATX power connector--a first that we've seen for PCI Express motherboards--and a four-pin auxiliary 12V connector, both placed in reasonable spots to keep from obstructing airflow. All three 40-pin IDE connectors are lined up neatly, right above the color-coded SATA ports. Soltek's floppy connector placement is less than ideal, but it's certainly workable.
VIA's K8T890 north bridge is passively cooled, and the VT8237R south bridge is completely bare. Surely, that bodes very well for thermal output and minimal noise pollution. The two components communicate through VIA's proprietary 8x V-Link interconnect running at 533 MBps, which is surprising considering that the combination supports Ultra V-Link that couple operate twice as fast. Nevertheless, performance should still be impressive since most of the potential traffic, generated by PCI Express, is handled by the K8T890's 20-lanes of connectivity.
Those peripherals that do remain bound to the aging south bridge include VIA's integrated SATA controller and its two SATA 1.5 Gbps ports, both ATA-133 channels, the eight-channel audio, up to eight USB 2.0 ports running at 480 Mbps, the Firewire chip (sitting on PCI), Promise's SATA RAID controller (also maxing out at 133 MBps on PCI), and the Gigabit Ethernet chip (the third contender for limited PCI traffic).
Understandably, Soltek couldn't have been too enthused about loading up on PCI add-in slots. Perhaps that's why the board only has two. There's also a trio of x1 PCI Express slots, which are perfect for adding your own Gigabit Ethernet controller or TV tuner card once they're available. Of course, the single PCI Express x16 port is your key to the latest and greatest graphics cards.
There's little differentiation in memory support due to the Athlon 64's built-in controller. You get the standard four slots that each work with up to 1GB modules of DDR400 RAM. Soltek color-codes them to make dual-channel installations a little bit easier, but you might find that they're a little close together. Any module with heat-spreaders should be fine; however, you'll may have problems with a Corsair XPERT kit.
The K890Pro back panel is endowed with plenty of ports, such as standard PS/2 fare, a serial port, optical input and output for audio, four USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE 1394 connector, one RJ-45 connector for Gigabit Ethernet, and six, 1/8" mini-jacks for analog audio I/O. You also get a nifty little LED diagnostic readout for troubleshooting POST issues.
|The BIOS & Overclocking|
Most of Soltek's BIOS settings are pretty standard. From the Advanced BIOS Features to the Advanced Chipset Features menu, most of what you'll see is run-of-the-mill. Fortunately, you do have access to a fairly comprehensive DRAM Configuration menu that includes 1T command rate options, along with several timing settings and a manual memory clock value. The LDT Bus Control menu exposes HyperTransport multiplier options in the form of actual frequencies, adding bus width selections, too.
A separate OnChip IDE menu controls the integrated SATA controller, the Promise add-on chip, and VIA's parallel ATA modes. The OnChip PCI Device menu flexes control over the audio codec and USB controller. Interestingly, there's no option to turn either the Ethernet port or Firewire controller on or off. Finally, a SuperIO menu controls the legacy I/O.
Soltek calls its hardware monitoring applet the SmartDoc Anti-Burn Shield, but none of the menu's options are configurable. Instead, it's essentially just a passive hardware monitor.
The most immediately gratifying feature when it comes to overclocking the K890Pro is its graceful recovery from overly optimistic settings. Whereas many motherboards force you to shut down, clear your BIOS jumpers, and start from scratch, the Soltek board deserves special credit for detecting unstable options, resetting bus speeds back to stock settings and giving you another go roughly 15 seconds later, without needing to manually reset anything.
Otherwise, Soltek enables many of the standard overclocking options you'd expect to find on an Athlon 64 motherboard. All of them do need to be manipulated in the BIOS, though, since Soltek's Red Storm 2 Windows application doesn't work with this board just yet.
Using processor voltages as high as 1.7V, we were able to hit an FSB speed of 230MHz with an 11x multiplier and 800MHz HyperTransport frequency. That's quite a bit lower than some of the other boards we've seen go through the lab, but no combination of lower HT speeds would allow a higher FSB setting. No matter, performance in 3DMark05 wasn't improved much anyway, though the CPU metric did rise from 5081 to 5439. Cinebench shed roughly a second and a half, while SiSoft Sandra reflected bandwidth improvements of up to 10 percent.
|Our Test System & SANDRA|
In order to get each platform running in top notch shape, we optimized all three BIOS' for the best memory performance, including low timing and 1T command rates. We installed Windows XP with Service Pack 2, got DirectX 9.0c up and running, and turned off all of the power-saving features normally associated with the default Windows installation. Auto Updating and System Restore were similarly both turned off.
One very important point that does warrant attention is system drivers. NVIDIA is very proud of its Unified Driver Architecture, which lets you upgrade from an nForce2- or nForce3-based motherboard directly to nForce4 without having to format. You turn the system on and all of the devices just work. Should you find it necessary to install just the nForce4 standalone driver kit the drivers can be uninstalled, minimizing potential software conflicts.
VIA's driver package is another story entirely. Switching from K8T890 to K8T880 Pro and vice versa results in a failure to boot. Moreover, installing Windows from the K8T800 Pro board requires a driver floppy disk, while the K8T890 and its VT8237R don't. We'd certainly like to see VIA dedicate the same level of attention as NVIDIA to developing a more robust driver package.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory). All of these tests were run with our processor set to its default clock speed of 2.4GHz (12x200MHz). (Note: Some of these boards ran the processor with a default FSB higher than 200MHz. Where necessary, we manually set the FSB to 200MHz to keep the playing field level.)
For the most part, our processor tests come out fairly equal--as they should, given the consistency of our test systems. Even memory bandwidth numbers are somewhat flat, which makes sense since the Athlon 64 processor controls that link as well and all of our systems were set to identically low memory timings.
|3DMark05 & WME 9|
It may not be an actual game, but 3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance among similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance. This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central host processor. The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.
In the 3D test, both PCI Express platforms score comparably, slightly outpacing the older AGP 8x system. The Soltek board is just slightly slower than ASUS' much more expensive A8N-SLI, which bodes well for gamers looking to save some money by looking to an alternative platform.
The processor test turns things around a little, as the AGP-based K8T800 Pro board takes the lead. Both PCI Express platforms trail slightly, with Soltek's K890Pro taking a narrow last-place finish.
We continued our testing with a video encoding benchmark using Windows Media Encoder 9. In this test, we took a Digital Video file and encoded to WMV9 streaming format. The encoding times were recorded in minutes:seconds, with lower times indicating better performance.
We converted a video clip for streaming in this test, using DVD-class video and CD-level audio quality. Soltek takes a first-place finish here and is followed by the nForce4 and K8T800 Pro boards, both of which score identically.
|Cinebench 2003 & KribiBench v1.1|
Cinebench is multi-processor aware, but because we aren't yet looking at dual-core processors (or Hyper-Threaded Pentium 4s, for that matter), the test only runs in single-processor mode. The results are measured in the number of seconds required to render a 3D scene.
All three contenders fall fairly close to each other, with the Soltek board taking a first place, followed by ASUS's nForce4 SLI and then the K8T800 Pro platform.
Next up, we ran the Kribibench rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer. A 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU, and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: an "Exploded Sponge" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and an absolutely gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys...
There's little difference when you compare the Ultra benchmark; all three motherboards perform on par with each other. The exploding sponge test puts ASUS' nForce4 board in the lead, followed by the older A8V Deluxe, and then Soltek's K890Pro motherboard.
Far Cry remains one of the most visually immersive games on the market, and consistent updates by Crytek enable new functionality within the game. We ran tests at both 1024x768 and 1600x1200 here to illustrate subtle differences between the three platforms at lower resolutions and then to better reflect the performance you'll really see while gaming at higher resolutions.
Surprisingly, the older K8T800 Pro board, with its AGP 8x GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics card (running at 425MHz/1.1GHz in order to compete with the PCI Express cards), takes first place at 1024x768. The delta is minor, of course, as ASUS' nForce4 SLI board falls just three frames behind. Soltek brings up the rear at 113.2 frames per second.
There's even a noticeable difference at 1600x1200, where the ASUS SLI board takes first place, is followed by Soltek's K890Pro, and trailed by the K8T800 Pro motherboard.
There's little doubt that Doom 3 is another one of the most graphically intensive games out there, love it or not. It's capable of bringing even the most powerful graphics cards to their knees, which is why we again sampled the lower-res 1024x768 setting and a higher 1600x1200.
Again, our K8T800 Pro shows some real fortitude at 1024x768, where it jumps up ahead of the other PCI Express platforms. The margin isn't massive, but it's certainly measurable. Soltek swings a second place finish behind the ASUS A8V, while the A8N-SLI finishes up in last place.
The situation changes at 1600x1200, where ASUS' A8N-SLI jumps into first place, followed by its A8V Deluxe. Soltek again falls into the rear.
|Half Life 2|
Lauded for its graphics, praised for exciting physics, and long-anticipated by the entire gaming community, Half-Life 2 is as demanding on your processor as it is your graphics card. We ran the game at both 1024x768 and 1600x1200 to get a feel for how performance differs at the two settings.
Soltek claims a first-place finish at 1024x768, followed by the nForce4 and K8T800 Pro boards, respectively. There's not a whole lot of difference between the three platforms, though, as they all verge on 100 frames per second.
The old K8T800 Pro takes the lead at 1600x1200, while Soltek's board falls to last place.
|Our Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: It's always a little difficult to peg the performance of a chipset, especially so with the Athlon 64 platforms currently available. Between the integrated memory controller and copious I/O, there's very little holding any of the chipsets back, and perhaps that's why all three of our test beds swap places in our benchmarks. There's no real definite winner here and it's fair to say that even if you invest in a K8T890 motherboard, you'll get performance that's very much competitive with anything else out there today.
What really separates one Athlon 64 chipset from another is features. If you want the very best of the best--SLI graphics technology--you'll pay a premium for that. Should you decide to retain just one graphics card, an nForce4 Ultra board can be had for significantly less money. And if your only interest is bottom-dollar value, NVIDIA sells its vanilla nForce4. VIA's K8T890 chipset falls somewhere between those two lower options.
Soltek does an excellent job of bolstering VIA's somewhat dated feature set. Gigabit Ethernet replaces the 10/100 Mbps option, eight-channel audio comes standard, an add-on SATA controller brings the board's total number of SATA ports up to four, and PCI Express connectivity makes for a more modernized platform.
Priced around $115, however, we'd be hard-pressed to recommend the K890Pro over any of the nForce4 Ultra boards available online hovering around the same price. Although you'll realize comparable performance, the difference in available features is simply too significant to ignore. Chaintech's VNF4/Ultra, for example, is less expensive, enables SATA 3.0 Gbps (you don't get NCQ support on the VIA chipset), and more USB 2.0 support. While we commend Soltek for trying something new, you might want to weigh your options before adopting the K890Pro motherboard. We're giving the Soltek SL-K890 Pro-939 a 7.5 on the Heat Meter.