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.