First Look at ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP@n Mainboard: Intel P45 Express in Action

Our lab starts getting mass production mainboards based on the new Intel P45 chipset. Today we are going to talk about the first solution – a mainboard from ASUS that demonstrated very ambiguous results during our practical tests.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
08/05/2008 | 07:53 PM

As you know, hunt for maximum performance can never end. It is like a sport without any limits for perfection. You can constantly replace computer hardware components with new ones with higher speeds and new features. This is what keeps the business of many computer hardware companies going. New processors, graphics cards and other types of components with significant internal or superficial cosmetic improvements keep coming out regularly.

 

Nevertheless, small islands of stability sometimes shape up in the middle of these never stopping changes. For example, take the system chipsets for LGA775 platform following the launch of Intel P35. Although this solution was introduced more than a year ago it is still not outdated. The Intel X38 and X48 that followed P35 later on improved its functionality just a little bit, but failed to turn into a solid alternative to it from the price to functionality standpoint. And as for Nvidia’s attempt to strengthen their positions in the LGA775 chipset market, it inevitably produced a new series of specific niche products, nothing else. In other words, it is completely logical that Intel P35 remains the most widely spread platform until today. It features a universal high-performance memory controller, supports all contemporary processors, offers a sufficient number of external interfaces. Of course, it lacks the PCI Express version 2.0 support, however, this feature is not of crucial value for contemporary graphics accelerators.

However, even though the situation in the chipset market seems great, Intel still decided to refresh their top offering. Now they try to replace the successful P35 with a new P45. The first mainboards based on this chipset have already started to appear in stores. We cannot really praise the new Intel P45 chipset. It is not a revolutionary solution, has no evident advantages over the predecessors, and doesn’t promise to set new performance records. In fact, it is a second modification of the good old P35, which is actually a definite advantage of the newcomer. From the functional standpoint, the new core logic set now supports PCI Express 2.0 and has a new South Bridge that differs just a little bit from the usual ICH9.

However, Intel P45 still has a few features that will definitely be of interest to computer enthusiasts. Namely, P45 is the last chipset for LGA775 platform; Intel will not introduce anything new for the Core 2 processor family. Now they put all their engineering efforts into the upcoming Nehalem platform. However, since they will only come to the mainstream market in mid 2009 at the earliest, P45 will have a pretty long life span. In this respect, it would be correct to say hat Intel P45 accumulated all the best Intel has ever put into its chipsets for CPUs with Core micro-architecture. Moreover, Intel P45 is manufactured with a more advanced 65nm technology, unlike its predecessors. So, overclocking fans hope new chipset will help them hit new overclocking heights.

Of course, Intel P45 deserves a separate discussion. However, we didn’t dare talk about it yet, although we had quite a few mainboard samples on this new chipset sitting in our lab for quite some time now. The thing is that all the samples we have received so far were hardly close to mass production and suffered fro a number of problems that they shouldn’t have had. That is why we decided to wait until mass production mainboards appeared that could give us a complete picture of what the new Intel chipset is actually like. We finally received a mass production ASUS mainboard on Intel P45 chipset - ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe.

Closer Look at Intel P45

Even the block diagram shows that Intel P45 MCH (Memory Controller Hub) is a close relative of P35:

The only difference is the new PCI Express x16 2.0 graphics interface support. Just like in P35, it may be split between two graphics slots, each receiving 8 PCI Express lanes. As you know, only X38 and X48 support two complete PCI Express x16 2.0 busses. However, if you use two PCI Express x8 instead of PCI Express x16 for a dual-graphics card Crossfire configuration, it will not affect the performance that much. Especially since 8 PCI Express lanes supporting second version of the protocol provide the same bandwidth as PCI Express x16 1.0.

The new ICH10 South Bridge that replaced its predecessor, ICH9, is certainly very interesting. Especially, they will continue using it even in the post-P45 era, with the first Nehalem chipsets. However, bright future is probably the only thing it can actually boast. It even has the same pin layout as the old South Bridge. They differ by improved remote administration management (AMT) and information security management (TPM).

As a result, if we compare the four discrete chipsets from Intel side by side, we will get a very strange picture:

Most users will consider the differences between these four chipsets to be of purely marketing nature. It is partially true. Moreover, all four chipsets works just fine with CPUs supporting 1600MHz bus and with DDR3-1600/1800/2000 SDRAM, despite the numbers listed in the official documentation. However, if we dig a little deeper, we will be able to see some completely different things:

Despite the fact that MCH is now manufactured with 65nm technology, P45 turns out a much hotter chipset than P35. It should be PCI Express 2.0 support that contributes to increased heat dissipation. That is why X38 and X48 are so warm that Intel tops them with a heat-spreader that neither P35 nor the new P45 have.

Specifications

Taking into account that P45 will become the major mainstream chipset for LGA775 platform for at least a year from now, the mainboard manufacturers hurried to release several solutions on it with different features that would target different price segments. ASUS was no exception here. At this time they offer 9 mainboards on this chipset. Among them are: a Republic of Gamers mainboard, seven models supporting DDR2 SDRAM and our today’s hero - P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP @n designed to work with the today’s newest and fastest DDR3 SDRAM.

Besides DDR3 SDRAM support, this mainboard boasts the richest set of features in the entire P5Q family, including even the 802.11n wireless network support. The complete list of ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP @n specifications looks as follows:

Strange as it might seem, but the features of the new ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe has very little in common with the chipset characteristics. First of all, ASUS doesn’t hide the fact that this mainboard supports processors with 1600MHz bus and DDR3-2000 memory, although Intel never promised anything like that. However, there is nothing surprising about it: all contemporary mainboards from the leading vendors do indeed work with all contemporary Intel CPUs, which we have already proven multiple times. ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe is no exception, so you don’t need to worry that it will be incompatible with any of the currently existing Intel CPUs.

Another remarkable thing is three PCI Express x16 slots. However, don’t expect any wonders here: if you use two graphics cards, the first two slots will share 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes. The third PCI Express x16 slot supports PCI Express x4 logical interface and is connected to the chipset South Bridge.

ASUS engineers equipped their P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard with a ton of additional controllers expanding the functionality of ICH10R South Bridge. They seem to have paid most attention to ATA and networking devices support.

Besides the standard 6 SATA ports provided by the chipset South Bridge and supporting RAID, NCQ and 3Gbps data transfer rate they put in two additional SATA ports implemented via Silicon Image SiI5723 controller. ASUS even announced that their mainboard supported Drive Xpert technology that allows using this controller without installing any drivers for it. However, this was also not enough, so they put in another ATA controller – Marvell 88SE6121. It implements Parallel ATA interface and eSATA port.

As for the networking features, the board has a few Gigabit ports provided by Marvell controllers and an additional WiFi USB adapter laid out on a special daughter card. It is based on Ralink 2700UD chip and supports the latest 802.11n wireless standard.

Networking and ATA controllers are not the only additional controllers on ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe. There is also an LSI chip bringing in a couple of Firewire ports and an eight-channel Analog Devices AD2000B codec that is very similar to AD1988B, typical of most ASUS mainboards.

ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe has one more unique feature: integrated Express Gate flash disk:

This SSD contains a “light” Linux-based operating system aka Splashtop. It can be loaded on system boot-up replacing the traditional OS on your hard drive. It takes not more than 5 seconds to activate, however together with preinstalled applications it gives the ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe user access to internet browser, picture gallery manager, IM or Skype client.

Package and Accessories

ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP @n mainboard ships in a standard box with a carry handle and a “double-top”. The box is designed in a very stylish metallic-blue color with a detailed list of all mainboard’s advantages over other products. The reverse side was big enough to accommodate a photo of the board with a brief specification list.

The box contains an unusually thin user’s manual, a DVD disk with software and utilities and a smaller box with accessories. Among them you can find a pack of cables, I/O Shield for the rear panel, an additional bracket with two USB and a Firewire port, a Q-Connector block, centrifugal rotor fan for the mainboard cooling system and two WiFi antennas.

Mainboard Functionality

At first glance ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe has somewhat strange PCB design. The thing is that ASUS engineers for some reason moved all memory DIMM slots to the center of the PCB lower than usual, so the traditional layout got messed up. However, this non-traditional location of the DIMM slots only affected the second and third PCI Express slots that appeared next to one another. As a result, the third slot cannot accommodate any graphics cards with massive cooling systems at all, while a card with a dual-slot cooler in the second slot will block the third slot completely. Other than that, assembling a system on ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard should be problem-free. All connectors are very smartly placed. Besides, those connectors that could potentially be blocked by the graphics card are turned parallel to the PCB.

So why did they move the DIMM slots? Maybe ASUS engineers decided to implement a three-phase memory voltage regulator that took all the free room above the DIMM slots. I have to say that this complex DDR3 memory voltage regulator circuitry is still very rare nowadays. In fact, we only saw something similar on an ASUS P5E3 Premium mainboard based on Intel X48.

In fact, ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe design suggests that the number of phases in voltage regulators of various mainboard knots turned into a sort of fetish for ASUS engineers. For example, Intel P45 chipset North Bridge has a triple-phase voltage regulator, although no one ever used anything like that for MCH before. We hope these sophisticated engineering solutions are serving not only marketing purposes, but can also affect the mainboard stability and overclocking potential.

However, the cherry on top was actually the processor voltage regulator on ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe: it consists of 16 phases. We have never seen so many phases in CPU voltage regulators on LGA775 mainboards. According to ASUS, it reduces the MSFET load, their heat dissipation and energy losses dramatically. I also have to add that the processor voltage regulator circuitry is managed by ASUS EPU chip (Energy Processing Unit) that dynamically reduces the number of active phases to four under low electrical load.

In fact, we are eager to question the need for processor voltage regulators with such huge number of phases. There are a lot of boards out there that do perfectly fine with six-phase regulators, and still offer great stability and overclocking potential. It is much more important in this case to make sure that only high-quality electrical components are used. However, we cannot complain about any of that on ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe. The board uses solid-state Japanese capacitors with polymer electrolyte and high-frequency MOSFET.

Although the voltage regulator uses 16 phases, MOSFET still needed a heatsink. Moreover, these heatsinks on ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe are surprisingly large. They are so tall that you may experience certain difficulties installing massive processor coolers.

Two heatpipes connect one of the two heatsinks on the CPU voltage regulator components with the chipset North Bridge heatsink. The latter in its turn is tied up to the South Bridge heatsink with another heatpipe.

This cooling system looks pretty cool. It seems efficient due to heatsinks with a lot of ribs. Nevertheless, it still has a few drawbacks typical of other ASUS mainboards. Namely, the heatsink ribbing and bases are made of painted aluminum that looks like copper and they are secured against the chips with weak plastic clips.

The mainboard rear panel carries one universal PS/2 connector, six USB 2.0 ports, IEEE1394 port, two Gigabit network ports, eSATA port, an optical and coaxial SPDIF Outs, six analogue audio-jacks and two WiFi antenna connectors.

Another IEEE1394 port, four USB 2.0 ports and a serial COM port are laid out as pin-connectors along the lower edge of the PCB. Right next to them there are Power On and Reset buttons that may be very handy if you are using the board in an open testbed.

BIOS Setup

P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard was tested with BIOS version 0704 of June 19, 2008.

We thought that the new ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard will be very similar to its predecessors based on Intel P35, X38 and X48 chipsets. However, it turned out not quite like that in reality. ASUS engineers did their best to make the new mainboard more attractive than the previous ones, even though the P45 chipset is in fact not so innovative at all. As a result, the BIOS Setup of the new board can offer much more parameters to play with than the BIOS of P5K and P5E mainboard series.

The BIOS of ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe is based on AMI micro-code and has pretty common internal structure, typical of all ASUS boards. However, since it is equipped with Express Gate SSD, you may see Splashtop launching screen instead of the traditional boot-up logo when you turn on your system.

All overclocking friendly features of the BIOS Setup are gathered together in a separate page called Ai Tweaker.

Here you can manually adjust the processor clock frequency multiplier, FSB frequency within 200-800MHz interval, PCI Express bus frequency and FSB Strap. Alternative automatic FSB configuring implies the use of XMP profiles (if your DDR3 supports overclocker profiles in SPD). If it is enabled, the mainboard adjusts the system bus frequency on its own, judging by the most optimal memory work modes.

As for the memory frequency, the mainboard offers you a few options, depending on the FSB:Mem dividers provided by Intel P45 chipset. They are exactly the same as the dividers offered by the previous Intel chipsets, because P45 MCH uses the same memory controller as the previous generation core logic sets. We would like to remind you that far not all dividers ensure the best results during FSB frequency overclocking. Therefore, during overclocking you’d better use only those memory frequency settings that refer to FSB Strap 333MHz or 400MHz. However, these limitations are less serious for ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard, than for the boards on previous chipsets.

The BIOS of our board offers great functionality when it comes to memory timings adjustment. However, there is still one important option missing: Command Rate adjustment.

The mainboard reports the current timings right next to the adjusted parameters. It can help a lot during timings fine tuning.

I would like to pay special attention to a slightly changed Transaction Booster option that allows manipulating directly the most important North Bridge parameter – Performance Level.

P5Q3 Deluxe offers very extensive voltage settings and includes the following parameters:

Parameter

Supported range

CPU Voltage

0.85 - 2.1V with 0.00625V increment

CPU PLL Voltage

1.5 – 2.78V with 0.02V increment

FSB Termination Voltage

1.1 – 1.9V with 0.02V increment

DRAM Voltage

1.5 – 2.78V with 0.02V increment

NB Core Voltage

1.1 – 2.2V with 0.02V increment

SB Core Voltage

1.1 – 1.4V with 0.1V increment

PCIE SATA Voltage

1.5 – 1.8V with 0.1V increment

Note that all voltages may be set to Auto. In this case the mainboard will search for the most optimal settings depending on the CPU and memory frequencies. If you are configuring everything manually, the settings will be highlighted blue, yellow or red depending on their potential danger for the other system components.

I would also like to single out an extremely useful Loadline Calibration option among other voltage settings. Thanks to the special design of the CPU voltage regulator it minimizes the harmful Vdropp effect during overclocking. ASUS also allows users to adjust CPU GTL Voltage Reference. These settings may be very helpful during quad-core processor overclocking, because they allow setting threshold FSB voltages individually for each physical core. Thorough configuring of these particular parameters guarantees reaching really high FSB frequencies during quad-core processors overclocking.

The next BIOS Setup page is called Advanced. The only interesting thing here is CPU Configuration where you can play with all processor technologies.

The Tools page also looks a little unusual. Besides ASUS’ traditional the built-in EZ Flash 2 for BIOS reflashing and O.C. Profile for saving settings profiles, you also get to manage Drive Xpert and Express Gate options.

The first group of settings offers to select Stripe or Mirror mode for SiI5723 SATA controller. The second group manages the display time for the Splashtop OS starting screen.

Testbed and Methods

We put together the following testbed to check out the performance and overclocking potential of our today’s hero – ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard:

Overclocking Experiments

To check out the overclocking potential of ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe we needed to find out the maximum FSB frequency at which this mainboard can work stably with dual- and quad-core processors.

The results of dual-core Core 2 Duo E8500 overclocking based on a 45nm core turned out pretty good. We performed the tests with the CPU clock frequency multiplier lowered to 8x and the mainboard was perfectly stable at up to 535MHz FSB. Unfortunately, it is FSB Wall for our processor sample, so we overclocked it to maximum 4.28GHz.

At this point the system passed long-term Prime95 stability tests as well as a one-hour run of OCCT Perestroika.

However, the ability of ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe to ensure stable CPU performance at relatively high FSB frequency without any hardware modifications and cooling system enhancements is not it main advantage. We were much more excited about the fact that ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe didn’t need us to push the chipset North Bridge, CPU PLL and FSB Termination voltages to their maximum. For example, this mainboard could easily reach 520MHz FSB with only CPU Voltage increased just a little bit. This is a truly unique peculiarity of the ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard.

As for the result on the screenshot above, we had to raise the processor Vcore to 1.4V, NB voltage – to 1.3V and FSB Termination Voltage – to 1.2V. Other voltage settings remained at their nominal values. In other words, ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe overclocks dual-core processors brilliantly.

To check out the situation with quad-core processors overclocking, we took a Core 2 Extreme QX9650 CPU sample. Unfortunately, overclocking didn’t go as smoothly as with the dual-core CPU. The mainboard that worked perfectly fine a few minutes ago at high FSB speeds suddenly started to give trouble. As a result we spent hours trying to achieve at least some acceptable results.

Nevertheless, the mainboard didn’t work at FSB frequencies over 450MHz, not to mention any far more impressive speeds. We tried all possible voltage settings, played around with memory dividers and FSB Strap frequencies, even raised the Performance Level, but the promising ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe still failed to work stably with the significantly overclocked quad-core processor. The best we could do at FSB speed over 450MHz was to boot the OS and run a few minutes under workload until system hung or displayed the BSOD.

Here we have also to add that the mainboard behaved absolutely inexplicably in case of over-overclocking. We are all familiar with a well established procedure of resetting the BIOS Setup parameters to their default values and offering the user the opportunity to adjust them, if the system is unable to start. On ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe it actually works from time to time. Sometimes, the mainboard clears CMOS, erasing not only timings, frequencies and voltage settings from the BIOS Setup, but also all others, including even system date and time. Of course, it gets pretty annoying when you are trying to find the most optimal parameters for your overclocked system.

However, I have to say that these quad-core CPU overclocking problems could be connected with our particular mainboard sample from one of the first mass batches. Especially, since you may come across a few articles describing successful quad-core CU overclocking on ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard. But we believe this is hardly an excuse for ASUS. Our experience with ASUS mainboards over the past year shows that first mass production samples of their new products are very often defective. ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe is the fourth mainboard already since last July that suffers from certain issues affecting its overclocking potential. We believe this statistics may indicate that the quality of ASUS mainboards lowered. It is especially frustrating, that these boards usually work perfectly fine in nominal mode, so you may not be able to exchange or return them.

EPU-6 Technology

We were pretty upset about our quad-core processor overclocking ordeal. However, we were willing to rehabilitate this promising mainboard on one of the most advanced Intel chipsets at least partially.

So, what else can ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe please its potential owners with? Performance? No, the new Intel P45 chipset uses the same exact memory controller as the previous chipsets that is why the mainboards based on it performs practically as fast as the previous generation solutions. This is the reason we didn’t test ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe performance this time. Instead, we decided to focus on its power consumption, because ASUS’ enormous marketing efforts in promoting their EPU-6 technology simply cannot remain unnoticed. According to the marketing slogans, power efficiency is the main advantage of the new ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe.

In reality, it turned out that this board works not exactly the way you would expect it to. At first we were sure that the main advantage of EPU-6 is still the special EPU chip managing the processor voltage regulator circuitry. This chip switches the number of active regulator phases from 16 to 4 in order to increase its performance index and reduce the losses with low current.

However, it turned out that EPU-6 is a more overwhelming technology. Namely, its main core is not the chip, but a special program called Six Engine. Without this program EPU-6 can’t work at its full potential.

This utility adds to the hardware part of the technology, the EPU chip. It controls dynamically the bus frequency and processor multiplier. Namely, it lowers the FSB speed below the nominal value. It also sets the multiplier at the minimal value during low CPU utilization and slightly overclocks the processor during high CPU utilization. The frequency intervals can be adjusted in this case.

So, Six Engine offers to additionally tweak the default processor power-saving technologies. And it could certainly be as interesting as the EPU chip itself, however, unfortunately, in most cases it will be useless, because Six Engine doesn’t work if you overclock your processor manually.

Moreover, power-saving is not the best feature of ASUS mainboards lately. Contemporary ASUS boards disable EIST technology during overclocking, so that we ca no longer optimize the processor power consumption in idle mode. Moreover, it suddenly turned out that the overclocking potential of ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe mainboard worsens significantly once you enable C1E. Therefore, overclockers may want to disable this power-saving technology, too, otherwise the mainboard is unstable even at 450MHz FSB.

We have all witnessed recent mutual accusations of ASUS and Gigabyte marketing departments that blamed the competitor for being careless about power consumption. The reality shows that both companies actually deserve it. In fact, neither ASUS, nor Gigabyte thinks economical here: it is all nothing but big slogans. In reality, ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe can be economical only when operating in its nominal mode. During overclocking the mainboard not only prevents you from using any of its own power-saving tools, but also eliminates the effect from all processor power-saving technologies. Therefore, we are not very enthusiastic about their EPU-6 technology.

Conclusion

The new Intel P45 Express chipset has no evident advantages over its predecessors. Nevertheless, it is extremely interesting as a very new solution and for a number of objective reasons, such as the use of more advanced production process. Therefore, enthusiasts pin a lot of hopes on Intel P45 expecting the boards on this new chipset to become one of the best overclocker platforms out there.

However, we cannot reassure the readers at this point. We haven’t tested a single Intel P45 based mainboard yet that would demonstrate better overclocking potential than any of the previously acknowledged overclocker boards on earlier Intel chipsets. ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP @n we tested today didn’t change anything. Unfortunately, our sample of this promising mainboard turned out pretty average during quad-core processors overclocking experiments, thus ruining our expectations.

The only excuse for ASUS we can think of at this point is that we simply had bad luck with this particular mainboard sample. And we could have accepted it, if it hadn’t been for one fact: it is not the first time we are having “bad luck” like that with ASUS boards. This suggests the idea that ASUS product quality has become lower. Therefore, we would strongly suggest that ASUS pay more attention to stability of some really demanded overclocking-friendly features of their mainboards and to the overall product quality instead of developing doubtful technologies like EPU-6.

Hopefully, we will get a chance to check out a few other ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP @n samples. We are going to get back to discussing this mainboard once we get our hands on another sample, which will hopefully work better.