|P5WDG2-WS: Intro, Specs. & Bundle|
Intel's current line-up of desktop processors based on the company's aging Netburst micro-architecture may not have the allure it once did with power users, thanks in no small part to fierce competition from arch-rival AMD, but their core logic chipsets have always been held in high regard. Intel puts an immense amount of resources into designing and qualifying their chipsets. And over the years they've built and solidified a reputation for performance, features, and rock-solid stability.
Another company with a solid reputation for building high performance, feature-rich and stable products is Asus. Over the years, we've tested and burned in a multitude of Asus-built products, and in the vast majority of circumstances, we've found them to be amongst the best in their class. Today at HotHardware.com, we're going to be shining the spotlight on two new Asus motherboards built using Intel's current flagship desktop chipset, the 975X Express. The Asus P5WD2-E Premium is targeted squarely at performance hungry enthusiasts, but the other board we'll be looking at here, the P5WDG2-WS, was built with professional workstation users in mind. Let's kick things off with a detailed look at the P5WDG2-WS. And later on, we'll shift the focus to the more mainstream P5WD2-E Premium.
P5WDG2-WS - Accessory Bundle: Asus included a well-balanced assortment of software and accessories with the P5WDG2-WS. Included with the board itself, we found a very complete user's manual, an easy to use driver CD, and an additional CD loaded with Intervideo's WinDVD Multimedia Ensemble, which includes WinDVD, DVDCopy 2.5, PhotoAlbum 1.0, Disc Copy 2.5, and Creator 2.0.
There were also a total of eight SATA cables thrown in, along with four Molex-to-SATA power adapters, an 80-wire IDE cable, a standard floppy cable, a custom I/O shield, and a trio of expansion brackets. One bracket housed a single Firewire connector, the other a single 9-pin serial port, and the last a pair of USB ports and a 15-pin MIDI / Game port.
|P5WDG2-WS: The Board|
The P5WDG2-WS is member of Asus' "Main Station" line of products, targeted at professional workstations users. As such, this board sports some less common integrated peripherals and features. Some of them are clearly evident just by looking at the board, but others require a bit more of a discerning eye to uncover...
As you can see, the P5WDG2-WS is absolutely packed to the gills. Just about all of the available PCB real estate is taken up by some sort of component or connector. However, even though this is a highly integrated motherboard, the general layout is quite good. All of the connectors and headers are clearly labeled and color coded, and connector placement is good. The 8-pin supplemental power connector is situated at the corner of the board, behind the I/O backplane, and an additional 4-pin Molex and the 24-pin ATX power connectors can be seen just behind the DIMM slots.
Speaking of the DIMM slots, there are positioned in such a way that you can't install or remove RAM when a full-length video card is installed. It seems Asus may have simply run out of real-estate on the P5WDG2-WS and unfortunately had to position the DIMM slots this way.
The P5WDG2-WS is equipped with a pair of PCI Express X16 PEG slots, but because the 975X Express chipset doesn't have 32 PCI Express lanes, only one of the slots has a true x16 electrical connection. By inserting a pair of video cards, the first and second PEG slots' PCI Express lane configuration is automatically changed to a 8x8 configuration. The board also has a pair of PCI-X slots, and another pair of standard PCI 2.2 slots. The PCI-X slots come by way of an Intel 6702PXH bridge chip, which is why you see three heatsinks covering the major chips on the board -- the 975X Northbridge, the ICH7R Southbridge, and the Intel 6702PXH. Another tiny TPM (Trusted Platform Module) slot is incorporated into the P5WDG2-WS as well, which hints to an optional module that'll make this board comply with upcoming DRM standards.
There are also a number of third-party chips and controllers on the P5WDG2-WS. Additional SATA II capabilities are offered by a Marvell 88SE6141 chipset, HD audio by a Realtek ALC882 codec, Firewire 1394a support from a TI TSB43AB22 chipset, and a Marvell 88E8062 PCI Express dual port Gigabit Ethernet controller powers the board's dual RJ-45 LAN jacks.
The P5WDG2-WS has a couple of other interesting features worth mentioning as well. First, the motherboard incorporates Asus' "Stack Cool 2" technology. According to Asus, Stack Cool 2 effectively transfers heat generated by the critical components to the underside of the PCB. And second, the P5WDG2-WS is equipped with an 8-phase power array which is beneficial in a couple of ways. The 8-phase array runs cooler, because the load is spread across more components than in a 6- or 4-phase design, and it also does a better job at keeping input and output current and voltage ripple to a minimum.
The P5WDG2-WS' I/O backplane houses a multitude of connectors, including PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs, six more various audio input and output jacks, an IEEE1394a port, a legacy parallel port, dual RJ-45 LAN jacks, and four USB 2.0 ports.
|P5WDG2-WS: BIOS & Overclocking|
The Asus P5WDG2-WS is equipped with an AMI (American Megatrends, Inc.) BIOS, that is relatively complete and fairly easy to navigate. From within the BIOS users have the ability to configure, enable or disable all of the board's various integrated peripherals, and can monitor fan speeds, voltages and clock speeds.
The standard BIOS menu screens don't reveal anything extraordinary, and will likely look familiar to anyone who has worked with an Asus motherboard in the past. They will, however, give you a "feel" for the 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, it is very similar to the Award BIOS derivatives used on most other motherboards, but navigating through Asus' BIOS does take some getting used to if you've never experienced it before.
We should also note that the P5WDG2-WS' BIOS incorporates an Asus proprietary feature dubbed HyperPath 3 that's designed to further reduce memory access latency, over and above what's typically offered with the 975X Express chipset. Here's what Asus has to saw about HyperPath 3:
Although the P5WDG2-WS is targeted at workstation users, Asus still saw fit to incorporate a host of overclocking tools into its system BIOS. With the P5WDG2-WS, users have the ability to alter their processor's front side bus frequency in 1MHz increments, between 100MHz and 450MHz. And they can also set the memory to run at an assortment of frequencies, including 1066MHz when using a processor with a similar FSB. PCI Express and PCI clocks can also be altered, or locked in to their default values.
The board also allows users to tweak memory, processor core, FSB, Northbridge and Southbridge voltages. The memory voltage can be set as high as 2.3v, the Vcore as high as 1.7v, FSB as high as 1.5, and the Northbridge and Southbridge voltages can be set as high as 1.65v and 1.2v, respectively.
Armed with a Pentium Extreme Edition 955 processor, we set out to see how high we could overclock our CPU by altering the multiplier, voltages and the FSB. We bumped our memory voltage to 2.2v and increased the processor core voltage by .1v. Then we jacked up the FSB until the test system was no longer stable. When all was said and done, we were able to take our CPU to 4.26GHz, by upping the multiplier to 15 and raising the FSB to 285MHz. If we dropped the multiplier down to 14, however, we hit a peak FSB of about 302MHz. We could boot into Windows with higher FSB frequencies, but our test system wasn't completely stable once we got past 302MHz.
|P5WD2-E Premium: Intro, Specs. & Bundle|
As we mentioned earlier, the P5WD2-E Premium is also powered by Intel's 975X Express chipset. Unlike the workstation class P5WDG2-WS we showcased on the preceding pages though, this board is targeted at more mainstream, performance minded, enthusiasts. This doesn't make the P5WD2-E Premium inferior to the P5WDG2-WS by any means, however. The P5WDG2-WS and P5WD2-E Premium are both top-of-the-line products. But these two boards do clearly differ in a number of ways. Take a look...
P5WD2-E Premium - Accessory Bundle: The P5WD2-E Premium's assortment of included accessories is very similar to that of the P5WDG2-WS. Along with the board itself, Asus threw in the obligatory user's manual and driver CD, in addition to the same InterVideo WinDVD Suite Multimedia Ensemble. There were also six SATA cables, three Molex-to-SATA power adapters, two IDE cables (one 80-wire, one 40-wire), and a floppy cabled bundled with the board. Over and above the software and cable bundle, Asus included a custom I/O shield and the same three expansion brackets with serial, Firewire, and USB and Game / MIDI ports.
|P5WD2-E Premium: The Board|
The Asus P5WD2-E Premium is a member of Asus' 'AiLife' family of products, which are targeted at mainstream enthusiasts. As you can see, the board is passively cooled by a number of aluminum heatsinks affixed to the VRM, Northbridge (975X Express) and Southbridge (ICH7R). The heatsinks seemed to do an adequate job keeping temperatures in check during testing, and because there are no fans installed, the board's passive cooling doesn't generate any noise.
The general layout of the P5WD2-E Premium is much like that of the P5WDG2-WS, they have a similar color scheme and everything is well labeled. But because there are somewhat fewer components on the P5WD2-E Premium, it has a couple of advantages with regard to its layout. First, you can install and remove RAM when a full length video card is installed in the P5WD2-E Premium, and this board sports an additional PATA channel as well.
Because the board isn't equipped with Intel's 6702PXH bridge chip, there are no PCI-X slots to be found. Instead, the P5WD2-E Premium has a pair of PEG slots, a PCI Express x1 slot, a PCI Express x4 slot, and three standard PCI 2.3 slots. And the slots are situated in an ideal position. Even with a pair of dual-slot video cards installed, users would still have access to two PCI slots and the PCI Express X1 slot. The P5WD2-E Premium is very flexible in the expansion department.
Additional functionality on this board comes by way of a Marvell 88SE6141 SATA 3.0Gb/s / PATA RAID chipset, Marvell GbE 88E8053 LAN chipset, and Firewire 1394a support is offered by a TI TSB43AB22A chipset. Audio is handled by a Realtek ALC882M hi-definition audio codec.
The P5WD2-E Premium is equipped with a 4-phase power array, which generates a bit more heat than the 8-phase design used on it's counterpart, hence the cooler, but it does feature Stack Cool 2 to help lower on-board component temps.
Lastly, the P5WD2-E Premium's I/O backplane is home to a myriad of connectors, including PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs, six more various audio input and output jacks, an external SATA port, a legacy parallel port, dual RJ-45 LAN jacks, and four USB 2.0 ports. We should note, that if the external SATA port is used, internal SATA port 4 is disabled.
|P5WD2-E Premium: BIOS & Overclocking|
Like the Asus P5WDG2-WS, Asus' P5WD2-E Premium motherboard is equipped with an AMI (American Megatrends, Inc.) BIOS. Each boards' BIOS has a very similar look and feel. In fact, they were both updated on the same day recently, which further hints to their similarity.
From within the BIOS users have the ability to configure, enable or disable all of the board's various integrated peripherals, and can monitor fan speeds, voltages and clock speeds.
Just like the Asus P5WDG2-WS, the P5WD2-E Premium's standard BIOS menu screens will likely look familiar to anyone who has worked with an Asus motherboard before. Each individual screen has a host of menus that tunnel deeper and deeper as the options get more complex. And the P5WD2-E Premium incorporated Asus' HyperPath 3 feature as well, to reduce memory access latency.
The P5WD2-E Premium's BIOS is also equipped with a host of options geared for tweakers and overclockers. From within the BIOS, the processor's front side bus frequency can be set to any value between 100MHz and 450MHz in 1MHz increments, as can the PCI Express clock (between 90MHz and 150MHz). The CPU Voltage can be set to "Auto", or configured for any value between 1.325v and 1.700v. DRAM voltages between 1.8v and 2.4v are available, FSB termination voltages between 1.2v and 1.5v, MCH chipset voltages between 1.5v and 1.65v, and ICH chipset voltages up to 1.20v.
Overclocking with the P5WD2-E Premium yielded similar results to the P5WDG2-WS. We overclocked our CPU by altering the multiplier, voltages and the FSB. As we mentioned earlier, we bumped our memory voltage to 2.2v and increased the processor core voltage by .1v. Then we jacked up the FSB until the test system was no longer stable. When all was said and done, we were again able to take our CPU up to 4.26GHz, by upping the multiplier to 15 and raising the FSB to 285MHz (This seems to be the limit of this CPU without using more exotic cooling). If we dropped the multiplier down, however, we hit a peak FSB of about 355MHz with the P5WD2-E Premium.
|Our Test Systems & SANDRA|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." 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 768MB 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, 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 four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, Cache, and Memory) with the Pentium Extreme Edition 955 installed into our test rigs. All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 3.46GHz.
The Asus P5WD2-E and P5WDG2-WS both performed similarly in the SiSoft SANDRA benchmarks we ran, which is to be expected considering both boards are built by Asus and feature the same core-logic chipset. The CPU arithmetic benchmark had each board performing near the top of the charts, with only the Athlon 64 X2 4800+ reference system besting Asus' offerings in the ALU portion of the test. In the multimedia benchmark though, the 955XE processor and Asus motherboard combinations were was clearly the performance leaders. And in the memory bandwidth benchmark, both boards put up respectable 6.3GB/s+ bandwidth scores.
|PCMark05: CPU & Memory|
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. We incorporated PCMark05 into our benchmark suite soon after its release, and have found it to be even more robust in terms of test features than its predecessor. That said, the CPU and Memory test modules we use for comparison are very similar to the 04 version of the test suite. For those interested in more than just the graphs, however, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work.
"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.
From this point forward in this showcase, we'll be comparing the performance of Asus' 975X Express chipset based motherboards to Intel's own D975XBX, and an AMD Athon 64 X2 4800+ powered Asus A8N32-SLI motherboard that's based on the NVIDIA nForce 4 SLIX16 chipset.
As you can see, PCMark05's CPU performance module had both of Asus' 975X Express based boards outperforming Intel's offering by a slight margin. The AMD powered system lagged behind by a measurable margin though.
"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.
According to PCMark05's memory performance module, the Asus P5WD2-E Premium offers the best overall memory performance of the bunch, followed closely behind by the P5WDG2-WS. The Intel board and A8N32-SLI took the third and forth positions. The fact that Asus is marketing the P5WDG2-WS' as a workstation class product, probably led them to tweak the BIOS for maximum stability rather than peak performance, hence the slightly lower scores versus it's enthusiast-class counterpart here.
|Office XP SP2 & Photoshop 7|
PC World Magazine's Worldbench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmark, that has replaced the aging and no-longer supported Content Creation and Business Winstone tests in our suite. Worldbench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance. Below we have the results from WB 5's Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.
All of the Intel powered systems were tightly grouped in Worldbench 5.0's Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 performance tests. The P5WD2-E Premium was once again the fasted board in the Intel-based group by a couple of seconds, but the P5WDG2-WS finished right behind it. The Intel D975XBX performed well, but the Asus boards were just a bit faster in both tests. However, AMD powered A8N32-SLI smoked all of the Intel based machines in the Photoshop 7 test, outpacing them all by almost 30 seconds.
|3ds Max & WME Standalone|
We continued our testing of Asus' 975X Express offerings with a few more tests that are part of the Worldbench 5.0 suite. Up next we have some performance results of WB 5.0's 3Ds Max (Direct 3D) test. A number of different 3D objects are rendered and animated in this test, and the entire time to needed to complete the tasks is recorded. As is the case with all of the individual Worldbench tests, a lower score here indicated better performance.
The Asus P5WD2-E Premium completed Worldbench's 3ds Max test one second faster than the P5WDG2-WS and three seconds faster than Intel's D975XBX. The A8N32-SLI was markedly faster than all of the 975X Express based boards however, thanks to the performance of the Athlon 64 X2 4800+.
For our next test, we moved on to a benchmark based on Windows Media Encoder 9. PC Worldbench 5's Windows Media Encoding test reports encoding times in seconds, and like the tests above and on the previous page, lower times indicate better performance.
Worldbench 5.0's Windows Media Encoder test had the P5WD2-E Premium finishing ahead of the other two Intel powered rigs by a few seconds, but the A8N32-SLI / Athlon 64 X2 4800+ combo was measurably faster than the rest of the pack.
|WME Multi-Tasking & LAME MT|
We continued our testing of Asus' 975X Express based motherboards with another Windows Media Encoder benchmark, but this test is very different from the one on the previous page. In this test, which is also part of the Worldbench 5.0 suite, a video is encoded using Windows Media Encoder, while an instance of the Mozilla browser is also running and navigating through various cached pages. Because the system is multi-tasking with two different applications, this test is more taxing than the one on the previous page, hence the longer times reported below.
The Athlon 64 X2 4800+ powered machine smoked the Intel powered rigs by a wide margin in this test, but if we disregard that result the Asus P5WD2-E Premium was once again the fastest of the bunch, followed closely behind by the P5WDG2-WS, and then the Intel D975XBX.
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. In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
We know, we're beginning to sound like a broken record. But the numbers are the numbers. In our custom LAME MP3 encoding tests, whether running in single-thread or multi-thread mode, the Asus P5WD2-E Premium was the fastest of the bunch, followed very closely behind by Asus P5WDG2-WS, and then the D975XBX. This time however, the A8N32-SLI trailed the Intel-based rigs by a significant deficit.
Next we ran Kribibench, a 3D 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: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and a gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.
We had a bit of a role reversal in the Kribibench benchmark. With these two 3D rendering tests, the workstation class Asus P5WDG2-WS took the top spot among the Intel powered systems, followed by the P5WD2-E Premium and then Intel's own board. The AMD based rig was the fastest overall in the "Sponge Explode" test, but the Intel rigs jumped ahead when rendering the huge, "Ultra" model.
|Cinebench & 3DMark05: CPU|
The Cinebench 2003 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in seconds).
All of the Intel powered rigs were evenly matched in the Cinebench benchmark. Only a fraction of a second separated the "fastest" and "slowest" Intel based systems in both the single- and multi-threaded tests. The AMD based system was clearly fastest in the single-threaded test though. However, in the multi-threaded test, the Intel rigs were slightly faster.
3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between 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 processor. The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.
The performance trend we noted earlier, reemerged with 3DMark's CPU performance test. Here, the Asus P5WD2-E Premium was technically the best performer in the group, followed closely behind by its workstation-class counterpart, and then the Intel-built D975XBX. There was a less than 100 point delta separating the top three finishers in this test though, which translates to a less than 2% difference.
|Half Life 2 & Quake 4|
To start our in-game testing, we did some low-resolution benchmarking with Half Life 2. When testing a processor with HL 2, we use a specific set of game engine initialization settings that ensure all of the systems are being benchmarked with the exact same in-game settings and graphical options. Like the other in-game tests in this review, we used low-quality graphical settings and a low screen resolution to isolate CPU and memory performance.
The AMD powered system was clearly the fastest in our custom Half Life 2 benchmark, outpacing all of the Intel based rigs by roughly 30 frames per second. If we look past the AMD result though, we see the Asus P5WD2-E Premium finished with the highest framerate when compared to the other Intel-powered rigs, followed by the other Asus board once again.
For our next game test, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom single-player Quake 4 timedemo. Here, we installed the v1.05 patch which is SMP capable, cranked the resolution down to 640 x 480, and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. Although Quake 4 typically taxes today's high-end GPUs, when it's configured at these minimal settings it too is more CPU and memory-bound than anything else.
The results from our custom Quake 4 benchmark mirrored those of the Half Life 2 tests. The AMD rig was again the fastest, with the Intel based systems finishing in the same order as before -- P52D2-E Premium, P5WDG2-WS, and then the Intel D075XBX.
|Our Summary & Conlcusion|
Benchmark Summary: Asus' P5WDG2-WS and P5WD2-E Premium 975X Express based motherboards both performed very well throughout out entire battery of benchmarks. The workstation class P5WDG2-WS slightly outperformed the Intel-built D975XBX in the majority of the tests we ran, and the enthusiast class P5WD2-E Premium performed better still. The P5WD2-E Premium nudged ahead of the P5WDG2-WS in the synthetic, gaming and desktop application tests, but the P5WDG2-WS took the top spot in a couple of the 3D rendering tests.