A Tour Of The Board
Even at first glance, it's clear that the Sapphire Pure Innovation PI-A9RX480 is a different sort of animal. Not only is this motherboard based on a different chipset than most other enthusiast-class socket 939 motherboards, but its got a unique color scheme as well.
Overall, the layout of the PI-A9RX480 is very good. All of the ports, headers and power connectors are situated around the edge of the board, which makes it much easier to neatly manage the cables within a system. The ATX and 12v power connectors are located behind the floppy connector along the front edge of the board, and behind the PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors in the backplane, which are ideal locations in our opinion. Also notice along the bottom edge of the board the integrated power and reset switches. These make testing a motherboard without fully wiring it to a case much easier. We love to see these on a mobo when it arrives in the lab. One problem with the layout, however, lies right next to these power switches. The header that houses all of the case LED / switch connectors is not color coded or labeled, and it doesn't follow a familiar layout, so wiring it to a case will mean you'll need the manual.
The PI-A9RX480 doesn't support CrossFire, so it's got only a single PCI Express X16 graphics slot, along with a pair of PCI Express X1 slots and a pair of standard PCI slots. For those that are counting, that means of total of 18, of the Radeon Xpress 200's 22 PCI Express lanes are used for expansion. Two more of the lanes are used as the interconnect between the Radeon Xpress 200 northbridge and the SB450 southbridge. And the final two are used for the Silicon Image 3132 SATA-II RAID controller and the Marvell 88E8052 Gigabit LAN controller. The SB450 southbridge isn't as feature-rich as some other competing chipsets, so in lieu of integrated features, LAN and SATA-II come by way of separate controllers.
While we're on the subject of the SB450, by now you're all probably familiar with its lackluster USB 2.0 implementation. We did some quick testing with the PI-A9RX480, SANDRA, and a USB 2.0 7200 RPM hard drive, and found that USB 2.0 is still an issue with the SB450. The PI-A9RX480 managed to transfer data off of the USB HD at a rate of 16MB/s, while the exact same drive connected to an nForce 4 transferred data at 27MB/s. Other than the raw performance though, the USB 2.0 implementation "works" fine. Mice, network controllers, USB keychain drives, and even a KingWin PowerPoint Laser Pointer / Remote all worked properly in our testing. So, don't let this issue scare you off. Unless you're transferring large files on and off a high-speed external HD, it probably won't impact daily USB 2.0 functionality.
Another noteworthy feature of the Sapphire Pure Innovation PI-A9RX480 is the boards extensive passive cooling configuration. The nothbridge, southbridge, VRM, and a few of the other chips scattered across the board are all adorned with aluminum heatsinks. Active cooling isn't necessary with this chipset, so as long as the system is well ventilated, users shouldn't have to contend with the added noise of extra fans on the motherboard itself. The I/O backplane doesn't have any legacy serial or parallel ports, which explains the gaping hole between the two PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, and the first block of USB and Firewire ports. In total, there are four USB 2.0 ports, a single Firewire port, one RL45 LAN jack, and 6 audio related jacks. Firewire duties are handled by VIA's VT6307 controller, while audio comes by way of Realtek's ALC880. The Realtek ALC880 is another plus for the PI-A9RX480 as it is one of Realtek's HD audio codecs. Like recent offering from Intel, the Sapphire Pure Innovation is equipped with an 8-channel high-definition (HD) audio codec that is far superior than the more common AC'97 CODECs being used for integrated audio.