Low-End / Budget DDR2 - Gigabyte EP45-DS3L
While the Intel P45 chipset is indeed capable of performance levels on par with high-end X48 solutions and is usually highly overclockable, it’s easy to forget that the P45 is indeed a mainstream chipset. It’s designed to have the majority of the features of the X48 but at a much lower price point. While most of the motherboards in this comparison today are designed to help the P45 to appeal to the high-end user, there is one board which goes the other direction, bringing the P45 to its lowest possible price point. That board is the EP45-DS3L.
The EP45-DS3L board retails for a little over $100 now, and in time will likely fall into the two digit range. With a price tag at this level, looking at this motherboard is really an exercise of how much they could strip off the platform to get it down to its very basic level without sacrificing performance and still providing all the raw benefits of the Intel P45 chipset. While it doesn’t look like much on first glance, it surprisingly has most of the basic features which most people will want, at a price rag about half (or even one third) that of Gigabyte’s high-end P45 platforms.
The PCB itself on this board is not as wide as the other P45 boards in our shootout, as it simply doesn’t need the extra space given its feature set. The board still supports all manner of Socket-775 Core 2 processors, including newer 45nm models, and officially supports FSB speeds up to 1600 MHz. This board uses a baseline 4-phase power system for the CPU, and VRM modules are left un-cooled, so don’t expect this platform to be a big overclocker in any way.
The Northbridge and Southbridge chips have very basic aluminum alloy passive cooling, which is plenty fine if you’re running the chipset at stock speeds and voltage levels. The Northbridge connects to four DDR2 DIMM slots, capable of holding 16 GB of DDR2 memory. While this is in-line with other Intel P45 platforms, we just wanted to note that it’s great to see support for such large volumes of memory on a low-end platform. In addition, Gigabyte also certifies the board for DDR2 speeds up to 1200 MHz, and of course, it supports dual-channel operation.
Expansio-wise, one of the notable price slashed features is Crossfire support, as this motherboard only has a single PCI Express x16 slot. Granted, it’s still a PCI Express 2.0 slot, so modern cards will run at full bandwidth levels, but multi-GPU configurations are out of the mix. You’ve got an array of 4 x PCI Express x1 connectors and 2 x 32-bit PCI slots. The board also does not support Firewire, but it does have a full 12 x USB 2.0 ports as the Intel ICH10 Southbridge allows for.
Northbridge, CPU Socket, 4-Phase Power
ICH10 and 6 x SATA-II (Non-RAID) Ports
Another price slash happens at the Southbridge level, as this is the only board in our shootout which uses the Intel ICH10 Southbridge rather than the ICH10R. This means that the board cannot support RAID, but it still supports a full 6 x SATA-II/300 ports. We have a single Gigabit Ethernet port in the mix powered by Realtek’s 8111C PCIe x1 Gigabit Ethernet controller, which is plenty for budget users. Realtek’s ALC888 CODEC is used for HD audio, and Gigabyte provides a nice array of audio ports for this low-end platform. You’ve got 8-channel analog audio support along with both optical and coaxial S/PDIF 7.1 digital audio. However, since this board is using the older ALC888 CODEC, it does not have Dolby Home Theater certification like our other platforms, which makes us slightly sad. Just slightly though.
With four-phase power and a smaller 4-pin +12V power connector (all other boards have a full-sized 8-pin +12V ATX power connector), it’s not surprising to hear that this board isn’t great for overclocking. Not only did it reach the lowest peak overclock levels of any of the boards in our shootout, but we could not actually get it to run at FSB speeds of 1600 MHz+, which Gigabyte prints right on the PCB. Our test platform maxed out just shy of that at 390 MHz (1580 MHz FSB). It’s likely we could have hit 1600+ MHz with some more fiddling, but in any case, don’t expect to go beyond this point.
So, you lose the ability to overclock in any significant manner, you lose Crossfire support, you lose RAID support, you lose multiple Gigabit Ethernet Ports, you lose Firewire, you lose Dolby Home Theater support, and I’m sure there are a few more slashes in the mix. Seems like a lot to lose, right? Even so, it’s a pretty nice little platform when you’re looking for the raw basics. It still runs our quad-core testbed platform at the same speeds as our high-end DDR2 platform, and does so at a much lower price tag and with slightly lower power consumption. For $100, it’s not a bad board.