ASUS A8R-MVP Mainboard Review

We continue our search for worthy competitors to Nvidia nForce4 chipset family. Today we would like to share with you our detailed coverage of the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 Crossfire based mainboard from ASUS enforced with ULi M1575 South bridge chip.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
03/06/2006 | 01:26 PM

Mainboards for the Athlon 64 platform on chipsets from ATI Technologies have been drawing much interest lately just because they are an always-welcome alternative to the dominating nForce4 chipsets from Nvidia, but the tests we conducted earlier showed that the Radeon Xpress 200 was not actually a highly competitive product. It was the South Bridge of the chipset, with its limited functionality and numerous problems, that was the main object of our complaints. Although some mainboard manufacturers have tried to use this mediocre chipset to build products for PC enthusiasts, we can’t honestly recommend them to you.

 

Still, we don’t want to dismiss the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 altogether. After all this chipset, as opposed to the nForce4 SLI, is the only one to support CrossFire technology which allows using two graphics cards on ATI Radeon chips as a single graphics subsystem with a higher overall performance. It just has no alternatives as such. Moreover, the Radeon Xpress 200 may be accompanied with another South Bridge, manufactured by ULi, which helps overcome many limitations of the original South Bridge from ATI. That’s why we are going to review yet another mainboard based on the Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire chipset, but this time it is equipped with the alternative South Bridge. There are few such mainboards on the market, but you can find one if you really want to. We’ve taken a sample of the ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard which has already got positive reviews on some other sites somehow.

Running a little ahead, we’d want to say our opinion about this product differs in many points from the opinion of our colleagues. Our tests show that although the South Bridge from ULi helps to solve some problems of the original ATI SB450 chip, the total of the drawbacks is not at all smaller. Basing on our experience with the ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard, we will show you below that the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire chipset with the ULi M1575 South Bridge cannot be considered as a serious alternative to NVIDIA’s chipsets for the Athlon 64 platform. At least ASUS, a renowned mainboard manufacturer, didn’t manage to make a worthy alternative.

It’s possible that ASUS engineers rather than ATI or ULi are to bear the blame for the poor results we got, but there will probably be no new mainboards using an ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire North Bridge and an ULi M1575 South Bridge. ATI’s partners can hardly expect new shipments of this South Bridge after Nvidia has acquired ULi. So, the maximum we can all hope for is that the existing mainboards with the ULi M1575 South Bridge will still be shipping for some time yet.

Specification and Accessories

Although the ASUS A8R-MVP can be installed in a high-performance platform equipped with two graphics cards, this product doesn’t seem to be a top-end product by itself. It doesn’t offer the wide expansion opportunities expensive mainboards usually offer and its accessories aren’t rich, too. The packaging is also simple, so there can’t be any misunderstanding: the A8R-MVP is positioned as a mainboard for entry-level and midrange computers. Similar products from other companies may cost over $150 whereas the ASUS A8R-MVP is selling in retail for about $100. The characteristics/price ratio of the mainboard looks quite appealing.

The appearance of the reviewed mainboard hardly raises any emotions. It just lacks any modder-targeted features. The color of the textolite is ASUS’s traditional ocher and there are no decorations whatsoever. And here is the official specification of the ASUS A8R-MVP:

ASUS A8 R- MVP

CPU

AMD Athlon 64 for Socket 939

Chipset

Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire (RD480 + ULi M1575)

Hypertransport bus

1 GHz

Clock generator frequency

200-400MHz (with 1MHz)

Overclocking-friendly functions

Independently adjustable PCI Express bus frequency.
Adjustable CPU clock frequency multiplier.
Adjustable Vcore, Vmem, Vchipset and PCI Express bus voltage.

Memory

4 DDR DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM

PCI Express slots

2 x PCI Express x16
1 x PCI Express x1

PCI slots

3

USB 2.0 ports

8 (4 – on the rear panel)

IEEE1394 ports

2 (1 – on the rear panel, by VIA VT6307 controller)

ATA-100/133

2 ATA-133 channels (in the chipset)

Serial ATA

4 Serial ATA-150 channels (with RAID support, in the chipset)

ATA RAID support

RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 in the chipset

Integrated sound

Six-channel HD ADI SoundMax AD1986A codec

Integrated network

Gigabit Ethernet Marvell 88E8001 controller

Additional features

None

BIOS

AMIBIOS v02.58

Form-factor

ATX, 305x244mm

If it were not for the two PCI Express x16 graphics slots, the ASUS A8R-MVP might be characterized as an entry-level Socket 939 platform. Almost all of its functionality, except for network and FireWire which are not implemented at all in the ULi M1575 South Bridge, is the functionality of the employed chipset. There are no extra controllers that would enhance the mainboard’s functionality considerably beyond that. Yet even as it is, the ASUS A8R-MVP may make a solid foundation for a modern Athlon 64 system.

The mainboard box is designed demurely in gray colors. There’s nothing particularly interesting inside:

This is a typical set of accessories supplied with inexpensive mainboards and we shouldn’t be complaining about them considering the price of the ASUS A8R-MVP. The only really surprising thing here is the bracket with an antiquated Game port.

To some regret, the A8R-MVP doesn’t have more expensive, “Deluxe” modifications. This is the single product of its kind. Furthermore, the description of this mainboard vanished for some time from the ASUS website for some reasons, which is a disturbing fact. We hope it doesn’t mean the manufacturer is going to suddenly stop to ship and support this product. We do expect, however, that the A8R-MVP will be leaving the production lines after the release of the A8R32-MVP Deluxe mainboard on the new ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset.

Functionality

There’s no sense in our enumerating the CPU and memory types supported because the ASUS A8R-MVP doesn’t differ in this respect from any other modern Socket 939 mainboard.

Based on the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire chipset, the mainboard features two PCI Express x16 slots for graphics cards. This configuration is meant to support ATI’s multi-GPU CrossFire technology. Like with mainboards on the Nvidia nForce4 SLI chipset, the graphical slots work as PCI Express x8 as soon as you install two cards on your ASUS A8R-MVP. If there is only one graphics card installed, the user should plug in the included dummy card into the second graphical slot to enable the correct operating mode of the PCI Express bus. The latest BIOS versions make this dummy card unnecessary, though.

Besides the two graphical slots, the mainboard carries one PCI Express x1 and three PCI slots. There’s no empty space in between, so the rightmost PCI and the PCI Express x1 slots will be inaccessible if you’ve got two high-performance graphics cards with massive coolers.

As mentioned above, the capabilities of the ASUS A8R-MVP are mostly determined by the characteristics of the South Bridge as this mainboard has but few additional controllers. The ULi M1575 South Bridge is employed instead of the traditional ATI SB450 chip here. This is possible because ATI’s Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire chipset uses an open PCI Express x2 bus as a link between the Bridges.

Of course, replacing the ATI SB450 with the ULi M1575 is an attempt of the manufacturer to improve the mainboard’s characteristics without spending much money or much effort. Well, let’s see in what points the ULi M1575 chip surpasses the South Bridge from ATI and if it endows the ASUS A8R-MVP with functionality similar to that of Nvidia nForce SLI-based mainboards.

ATI SB450

ULi M1575

NVIDIA
nForce4 SLI

PCI support

7 devices

7 devices

6 devices

USB 2.0

8 ports

8 ports

10 ports

Firewire

None

None

None

Serial ATA

1.5 Gbit/s

3 Gbit/s

3 Gbit/s

NCQ

None

Yes

Yes

SATA ports

4

4

4

PATA ports

2

2

2

RAID ports

0, 1
(only for SATA)

0, 1, 0+1, 5
(only for SATA)

0, 1, 0+1

Ethernet controller

None

10/100 Mbit

1 Gbit/s

Secure Networking Engine

None

None

Yes

Integrated sound

High Definition Audio

High Definition Audio

AC97

The table suggests that the South Bridge from ULi boasts a good implementation of the Serial ATA RAID controller. It supports the SATA II interface, with NCQ and 3Gbit/s bandwidth. The integrated RAID controller supports the now-popular RAID 5 configuration. Unlike the nForce4, the ULi M1575 doesn’t permit to use Parallel ATA drives in the RAID array, but this is not so very important today.

Another advantage of the ULi M1575 South Bridge is its support for High-Definition Audio whereas the competing chipset from Nvidia offers the lower-quality and lower-performance AC’97 solution. These advantages, however, don’t make the combination of ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire with ULi M1575 a worthy alternative to the nForce4 SLI chipset.

Unfortunately, the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire can’t offer up-to-date networking opportunities with either of the South Bridges. Neither the ULi M1575 nor the ATI SB450 has an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, so mainboards with these South Bridges have to use external network controllers, and the ASUS A8R-MVP is not an exception.

But let’s first see what functions of the ASUS A8R-MVP are provided by the ULi South Bridge. This chip is responsible for all the eight USB 2.0 ports available here, four of which can be found on the mainboard’s I/O panel. The remaining four ports are implemented as two pin-connectors on the PCB, one of which can be employed through the back-panel bracket included with the mainboard and the other is supposed to be connected to the front panel of your PC case.

The ULi M1575 South Bridge is also responsible for all the Parallel and Serial ATA ports. Thanks to this chipset, the ASUS A8R-MVP allows uniting the attached Serial ATA drives into RAID arrays of level 0, 1, 0+1 and 5 and thus surpasses nForce4-based mainboards in this respect. The Serial ATA controller complies with the Serial ATA II standard, including support for NCQ technology.

The integrated sound of the ASUS A8R-MVP is provided by the South Bridge through a six-channel AC’97 codec from Analog Devices, the AD1986A chip. The codec isn’t very good, frankly speaking. At least, its parameters are overall inferior to those of the popular HD codec Realtek ALC882. The ASUS A8R-MVP offers the user only three analog audio outputs and a single coaxial SPDIF output. The mainboard’s IEEE1394 ports are connected to a Texas Instruments controller. One port is on the mainboard’s I/O panel. To use the other, you should attach the included IEEE1394 back-panel bracket to the appropriate onboard header.

The networking capabilities of the mainboard aren’t superb, either. The South Bridge lacking a networking interface, ASUS had to install an external Gigabit Ethernet controller, a Marvel 88E8001 chip. This chip, however, is connected to the PCI rather than to the PCI Express bus, which means it cannot provide a bandwidth of near the theoretical maximum.

So, there’s nothing extraordinary in the functions the ASUS A8R-MVP offers to the user. The manufacturer has clearly saved on additional controllers and some of the mainboard’s features are worse than they might be. But well, this is all justified by the low price of the product.

PCB Design

You will hardly want to put an ASUS A8R-MVP into a system case with a side window. It doesn’t shine in the dark, lacks any pretty features and looks quite plain. Even the color of the textolite is traditional.

The PCB design is ordinary, too. Note only that the first graphical slot (painted blue) is placed closer to the left edge of the mainboard rather than to the CPU. The graphical slot near the CPU socket is secondary and is meant for a second graphics card only.

Most connectors for peripherals and additional ports are located in the left part of the PCB. They are shifted towards the front or left edge of the mainboard where possible. It is generally easy to assemble a system with an ASUS A8R-MVP, so we have no complaints here.

The MOSFETs in the three-channel CPU power circuit on the ASUS A8R-MVP are covered with an aluminum heatsink which is more of a decoration since the MOSFETs don’t heat up much at work. It’s good the manufacturer didn’t save on the components when making this mainboard. The CPU voltage regulator uses high-quality capacitors from Chemi-Con and ASUS uses them in its expensive mainboards, too.

The mainboard is powered up through a 24-pin connector located in front of the DIMM slots and a 4-pin connector near the CPU power circuit. There is also an additional Molex connector on board, marked as EZ-PLUG, near the second PCI Express x16 slot. ASUS’s engineers recommend using it if there are two graphics cards in your system or if your power supply has a 20-pin rather than a 24-pin ATX power connector.

The chipset’s North and South Bridges are cooled by passive aluminum heatsinks of a rather popular design. The mainboard thus carries no fans at all and may come in handy if you’re assembling a quiet computer.

The rear panel of the ASUS A8R-MVP follows the best traditions of last-century mainboards, even having one parallel and one serial port. Besides them, there are PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, four USB 2.0 ports, one IEEE1394 port, a network RJ-45 port with two diagnostic LEDs, three audio jacks and a coaxial SPDIF audio output.

The enclosed brackets for the back panel of the system case will add two more USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE1394 port and a Game port to the back of your computer.

BIOS and Overclocking

We tested the ASUS A8R-MVP with the BIOS dated December28, 2005, which was the latest BIOS version at the time of our writing this review.

The BIOS of the ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard is based on the AMIBIOS microcode, so the Setup program differs a lot from most other mainboards. The options offered are typical enough, though. This BIOS gives you the basic options to configure the mainboard’s devices, but doesn’t offer any extras. We are as usual curious about the overclocking opportunities we have, so here are the overclocking options the mainboard offers to you:

Besides these options, the mainboard’s BIOS Setup contains an information screen where you can learn detailed info about the installed CPU, including its core stepping.

Even with these overclocking options available, the ASUS A8R-MVP cannot meet the requirements of advanced overclockers, particularly due to the low maximum of the CPU voltage setting. You can hardly set any records with this mainboard, yet it may suit for “mild” overclocking.

The BIOS Setup offers a wide, but not quite comprehensive selection of settings to configure the memory subsystem:

It’s nice the BIOS Setup supports step-up as well as step-down divisors for the memory frequency: without overclocking the CPU, you can set the memory mode not only as DDR400, but also as DDR443, DDR466 or even DDR500 SDRAM on this mainboard.

The memory subsystem parameters can be set up automatically. In this case the BIOS Setup hides the variety of settings to avoid shocking an inexperienced user. There is one hitch, however. The mainboard will automatically set the Command Rate parameter at 2T in this case to sacrifice speed in favor of higher stability. Our tests prove the mainboard has a reason to do so because of you manually set the Command Rate at 1T, the ASUS A8R-MVP is rather unstable even in its regular mode, not to mention overclocking, and this is a very serious drawback of the reviewed product. So, due to some internal deficiencies, the performance of computers with this mainboard may be about 5% lower than that of similar configurations but with other mainboards.

Although the ASUS A8R-MVP had disappointed us with its problems at 1T Command Rate, we still wanted to check it at overclocking. So, we assembled a system with this mainboard and an Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor (on the Manchester core). We first wanted to see at which clock-gen frequency the mainboard would lose its stability. The CPU frequency multiplier was reduced to 7x for this purpose and the memory frequency was reduced, too, so that they wouldn’t interfere with our overclocking. We also set the HyperTransport frequency multiplier at 3x for the same reasons.

The maximum clock-gen frequency the mainboard remained stable at was not as high as with competing products. We achieved 300MHz only. A rather average result, but this should be enough for CPU overclocking considering that the mainboard doesn’t allow setting the CPU voltage too high.

DDR SDRAM can be made to work at high frequencies easily on this mainboard, but don’t forget that the memory subsystem works in the “relaxed” mode, with 2T Command Rate. So, there should be no problem as you are increasing the memory bus frequency. As for the maximum frequency of the employed CPU, we only managed to reach 2500MHz on the ASUS A8R-MVP, having chosen the maximum possible Vcore (1.5V) and keeping the CPU multiplier default (10x).

That’s not the best result possible, but it’s good nonetheless. Other Socket 939 mainboards overclock better because they allow setting the CPU voltage higher. The memory subsystem worked in sync with the clock generator in this case and the OCZ PC4000 EB Dual Channel Platinum Edition modules we use in our tests are always stable in this mode.

So, our tests suggest that the overclocking potential of the ASUS A8R-MVP is rather limited. It doesn’t allow setting the CPU voltage too high, is unstable at Command Rate = 1T and doesn’t support really high clock-gen frequencies. All this is enough for true PC enthusiasts to shun this product.

Well, the ASUS A8R-MVP has some good points, too. As we noted above, this mainboard can do for a quiet computer. It lacks any fans and all its chips are cooled with simple passive heatsinks. The mainboard also offers advanced tools to control the speeds of the fans you attach to it. The smart speed-control QFan technology allows setting temperatures for each fan at which the fan is turned off/on and is made to work at its full speed.

The ASUS A8R-MVP also fully supports Cool’n’Quiet technology. If you like silent computers, you will certainly appreciate this.

Software Bundle

ASUS mainboards are always accompanied with a rich software bundle. ASUS A8R-MVP is no exception of course. The CD disk that is shipped with the mainboard contains at least three interesting utilities:

Unfortunately, ASUS doesn’t bundle the standard mainboard package with any overclocking tools for work with clock generator frequency from Windows.

Testbed and Methods

In conclusion to our today’s discussion of ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard I would like to offer you the detailed performance report. And since this mainboard differs from all other solutions on the same chipset by the ULi M1575 South Bridge, we will run the tests in a few additional benchmarks to give you a better idea of the solution performance. We will also pay special attention to the performance of different subsystems of the platform, which will allow us to make a more indepth conclusion about its features and efficiency.

We will compare ASUS A8R-MVP against one of the most famous Nvidia nForce4 Ultra based platforms: DFI LANParty UT NF4 Ultra-D, and against ATI Radeon Xpress 200 Crossfire mainboard equipped with the default ATI SB450 South bridge – DFI LanParty UT RDX200 CF-DR.

So, as a result, we assembled the following test platforms:

The memory subsystem parameters were all set at their defaults.

Performance

USB 2.0

As we have already mentioned in our reviews before, the USB 2.0 interface implementation is a weakness of ATI’s south bridges. However, ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard features a different chip onboard, a South Bridge from ULi. We decided to see how well the USB 2.0 is implemented by ULi, so we measured the USB bus bandwidth and CPU utilization during data transfer along this bus to and from Maxtor OneTough 250GB hard disk drive.

The results of our tests indicate that ULi M1575 South Bridge is free from the USB 2.0 implementation issues typical of the ATI SB450. So, I have every right to conclude that ASUS A8R-MVP has definitely won from acquiring a new South bridge, and not only from the functionality point of view.

Serial ATA RAID

ULi M1575 South Bridge boasts truly impressive specs of the Serial ATA RAID controller, we have already mentioned that in the previous chapters of our review. However, does it really work fast? To find out the situation in real applications we ran some tests from Futuremark PCMark05 suite. The measurements were taken for RAID 0 array built with Western Digital Raptor WD360GD drives.

According to the obtained results, Serial ATA RAID controller of the ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard boasts quite impressive performance. Thanks to ULi M1575 South Bridge chip this mainboard can easily compete with NVIDIA nForce4 based platforms in terms of the storage subsystem performance.

Gigabit Ethernet

As for the networking features of the ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard, I cannot praise it that much, unfortunately. The Marvel 88E8001 network controller they used here is connected to the PCI bus, while a lot of advanced solutions already boast PCI Express x1 connection. That is why we were not surprised when the performance results turned out quite low.

However, low bandwidth of the ASUS A8R-MVP network controller is not the only disappointment. During our tests we noticed that this controller would hang every now and then under heavy workload. And this is a truly serious issue. Although, if you are going to use this platform for a mainstream home PC, you will hardly have any problems with network implementation.

Integrated Sound

We have already mentioned before that it looks like ASUS was trying to save a few bucks by equipping its ASUS A8R-MVP platform with Analog Devices AD1986A codec. This sound solution has less attractive formal characteristics than the alternative codecs out there, but also performs worse in real-life applications.

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:

+0.21, -0.31

Good

Noise level, dB (A):

-76.8

Average

Dynamic range, dB (A):

76.3

Average

THD, %:

0.0050

Very good

IMD, %:

0.063

Good

Stereo crosstalk, dB:

-75.2

Very good

IMD at 10 kHz, %:

0.048

Good

General performance: Good

However, if we compare this sound subsystem with what most Nvidia nForce4 based mainboards have to offer, it will look just fine, even better, I should say.

As for the CPU utilization in case of high vocal tract workload, it lies within a typical range for solutions of the kind.

The numbers you can see on the comparative diagram belong to ATI SB450 with Realtek ALC882 codec and Nvidia nForce4 Ultra with the typical Realtek ALC850 codec.

General Performance

Now that we have taken a closer look at different ASUS A8R-MVP subsystems, it’s time to see how fast it is in typical general applications and benchmarks:

The obtained results are quite interesting. Although ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard works only with 2T Command Rate, it performs quite well in some cases. But still, the overall performance rate for ASUS A8R-MVP is quite average, I should admit. I only hope that the upcoming BIOS versions for this platform will allow this mainboard to work stably and reliably with aggressive memory timings. In this case ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard can be expected to show very high performance.

Conclusion

First of all I would like to say that ATI Radeon Xpress 200 Crossfire chipset looks much better when it is bundled with ULi M1575 South Bridge rather than with the default ATI SB450. ULi chip is faster and boasts much more up-to-date specifications. It can easily compete with nForce4. Among the definite advantages of the ULi M1575 South Bridge I should mention Serial ATA II support, advanced RAID controller, and high-quality sound solution. This South Bridge doesn’t have any issues with USB 2.0 implementation that are typical of ATI SB450 chip. Only one thing is kind of upsetting here: ULi Company has been purchased by NVIDIA< and will soon stop shipping its solutions to ATI partners.

However, getting a great South Bridge chip is certainly not enough to build a successful product on ATI Radeon Xpress 200 Crossfire. ASUS A8R-MVP is a very good example that this is true. Trying to design an inexpensive solution ASUS engineers didn’t use all the potential of the chipset. The product we have just discussed features a slightly worse sound and network implementation than it could have had. But these are also not the main drawbacks that have to be mentioned here. Unfortunately, this mainboard is not stable enough at 1T Command Rate, which forces the users to have it running with less aggressive memory controller settings. And as a result, ASUS A8R-MVP turns out a not very fast platform for Socket 939 processors.

A few critical things should also be mentioned about the overclocking features of ASUS A8R-MVP platform. Unfortunately, they are not as attractive as those of other similar products. The mainboard doesn’t allow increasing the clock generator frequency a lot and doesn’t allow raising the processor Vcore over 1.5V. So, if you are an overclocking fan, then ASUS A8R-MVP may not be the best way to go.

Highs:

Lows: