Articles: Mainboards

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Intel DG45FC

We decided to start our discussion of Mini-ITX mainboards with a solution that appeared in the market earlier. One of the first Mini-ITX mainboards with LGA775 processor socket to become widely available was Intel DG45FC. Intel picked their own G45 Express chipset to become the basis for their compact platform. It is the analogue of a well-familiar Intel P45 Express but features an integrated Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD graphics core. Although Mini-ITX form-factor sets certain limitations on the mainboard functionality that are primarily determined by the physical dimensions of the board as well as the size of corresponding system cases, Intel decided to use a fully-fledged chipset designed for performance desktop platforms. Intel G45 Express core logic set supports dual-channel DDR2 and DDR3 SDRAM, add-on PCI Express x16 graphics cards and comes with ICH10 South Bridge providing Gigabit network, 6 SATA-300 and 12 USB 2.0 ports.

In other words, G45 Express boasts pretty up-to-date functionality, which, however, is evidently excessive for a compact Mini-ITX platform. Therefore, let’s not dwell on the chipset that much, because many of its functions are not implemented on Intel DG45FC, but focus on the actual mainboard instead.

The first thing that you should pay attention to when you get to know the new mainboard is its layout. For logical reasons it is dramatically different from the typical ATX and Mini-ATX layouts. The LGA775 processor socket alone with the free space around it necessary for successful cooler installation takes a significant part of the PCB. No wonder that the mainboard designers had to make all other functional units much smaller. Even the processor voltage regulator circuitry on Intel DG45FC consists only of three phases. And its capacity only allows using CPUs with 65W maximum TDP. It means that Intel DG45FC can only work with dual-core CPUs on Core microarchitecture or recently announced energy-efficient quad-core processors. However, we didn’t expect anything else here, because powerful processors would require large coolers that could definitely never fit into a Mini-ITX case.

Although the processor socket and two core logic chips take almost all of the PCB, there was enough space along its edges to accommodate several expansion slots. First of all, we should mention two DDR2 memory slots that enable dual-channel memory mode. The board supports CPUs with 800, 1067 and 1333MHz bus frequencies, but the memory can only work as DDR2-667/800 SDRAM – DDR2 memory types that are officially supported by the 4th series of Intel chipsets. No wonder: the mainboard developers follow closely the recommendations of their colleagues from the chipset division. The board supports maximum 4GB of memory. However, it is important to remember that the integrated graphics core also uses some of this memory.

Besides DDR2 SDRAM DIMM slots that occupy the entire right side of the PCB, Intel DG45FC also had enough room for one PCI Express x1 slot that can be used for different expansion cards. However, you will hardly ever use it: the ICH10R South Bridge already supports all interfaces a contemporary system might need for external devices. There are four SATA-300 ports that can also be used for RAID arrays of type 0, 1, 0+1 and 5; two pin-connectors for USB 2.0 ports and pin-connector for an infra-red port. The back panel of the board offers another six USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA connector, Gigabit network port and audio-ports: five analogue and one optical SPDIF.

Note that Intel DG45FC uses an eight-channel IDT 92HD73E sound codec that may not seem very familiar at first glance. In fact, it is a legal successor of the Sigmatel sound chips. This codec supports Dolby Home Theater technologies and provides 95dB signal-to-noise ratio.

The mainboard connector panel also bears the following video outputs: Dual-Link DVI and HDMI 1.3 (with audio support), which are implemented in the integrated graphics core - Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD. From the integrated graphics standpoint, it is a pretty advanced solution that supports high resolutions up to 2048x1536 and can display the image on two devices such as a monitor and an HD TV set, for instance. The important thing is that this graphics core features a special hardware engine called Clear Video Technology that should provide hardware acceleration of HD video playback. Thanks to this technology, Intel DG45FC mainboard can decode HD video content recorded with the most popular codecs (H.264, VC-1 and MPEG2) with minimal CPU utilization.

Moreover, GMA X4500HD also boasts some 3D acceleration features. This core working at 533MHz has 10 unified shader processors. Therefore, taking into account that GMA X4500HD is DirectX 10 compatible, we can expect it not only to work with Aero-interface, but also to demonstrate acceptable performance in some 3D games with no complex graphics.

However, at the same time Intel G45 Express chipset with the integrated GMA X4500HD graphics core is quite economical. The maximum calculated TDP of its North Bridge is 24W, which allows it to do with just a small aluminum heatsink. However, this heatsink heats up to scary temperatures during work, so you might want to think of putting together an optimal cooling solution for your Intel DG45FC based system.

It is hard to expect a miniature and highly integrated mainboard like Intel DG45FC to offer too many enthusiast-friendly functions. So, it is not surprising that the board initially targeted for HTPC or media servers has only the simplest options in its BIOS Setup. Of course, any overclocking is out of the question. The configuration settings include the options for changing DDR2 SDRAM frequency and timings and graphics core settings allow choosing the maximum amount of system memory that can be used for the video needs.

I have to say that Intel bundles their DG45FC mainboard with a pretty good set of commercial software including Acronis True Image backup tool, Norton AntiVirus, Diskeeper 9 system utilities set for OS optimization, DivX Pro codec and a couple of other applications of different practical value. But unfortunately, there is no video player among them that could be very handy considering the positioning of Intel DG45FC solution for multimedia use.

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