11/30/2008 | 08:32 PM
Speaking of Intel chipsets from the fourth series we first of all imply boards on Intel P45 Express, which is in fact quite logical. Intel X48 Express chipset was the first one to appear, but it is pretty expensive, relatively hot and has only one significant advantage over iP45: it allows two graphics cards to work at full PCI Express 2.0 x16 speed. This chipset is used mostly for high-end mainboards for computer enthusiasts, so there are not that many of them available. Intel G41/G43/G45 Express and Q43/Q45 Express chipsets are pretty popular, like any other Intel chipsets with integrated graphics core. That is why they are manufactured in serious volumes, although the variety of mainboards on them is not very rich. The existing models are more than enough to satisfy the demand for office or budget home systems. Integrated graphics is not powerful enough for playing the latest games. Besides, microATX mainboards usually do not have much overclocking functionality, so gamers and overclockers have no interest in them of any kind.
We have just listed quite natural and evident factors that explain why mainboards on a functionally well-balanced Intel P45 Express chipset are so extremely popular these days. However, we still don’t know why Intel P43 Express got so overshadowed by its elder brother and what the key differences between them are. Let’s find out now!
To figure out the differences between Intel chipsets, you should better consult the manufacturer’s web-site. But we won’t need to look through bunches of technical documents: they have a very convenient and easy to use comparison tool that reveals the differences right away. Now let’s play a popular kid game called “find all differences”.
The first difference is fairly easy to notice: market positioning. Of course, this parameter is pretty relative, vague and may not be determinative. The proof is right in front of you: Intel P45 Express chipset is intended for high-performance systems as well as for the mass market. However, the second and the last difference is quite hard to notice. iP45 differs from the iP43 by allowing the 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes to be split equally in two parts.
If we use only one graphics card, it works at full PCI Express 2.0 x16 speed. However, if we have two graphics cards in our system, the slots switch to PCI Express 2.0 x8 mode. Intel P43 Express doesn’t support anything like that. According to the official chipset specifications, the board based on it may be equipped with only one PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot.
As you understand, this only significant difference doesn’t really matter for most users out there. There are not that many enthusiasts who would use two or more graphics cards in their systems. And at least half of them prefer Nvidia graphics accelerators, however, Intel’s 4th series core logic sets do not support Nvidia SLI. So, you can only use ATI graphics cards in CrossFire mode. Therefore, if we divide the initially not very big number by half, we will see that most users will not actually feel the difference between Intel P45 Express and Intel P43 Express chipsets.
Now it is even more unclear why Intel P43 Express chipset is so undemanded. By all means mainboards based on it should be almost fully identical to boards on Intel P45, but they should cost a little less. So why aren’t they popular? To answer this question we have to compare two products directly. However, it turned out not so simple even in the beginning. The thing is that mainboard makers do follow Intel’s recommendations. Once they were told that Mainstream PCs should be based on Intel P43 Express, they started making small, modestly featured mainboards, which even looked like no serious competitors to Intel P45 Express based platforms. However, we did find a solution that would be up to the challenge: Asus P5QL-E is as good as any of its alleged rivals, which you will soon see from our review.
Asus P5QL-E mainboard is packed into a small glossy box bearing numerous logos of supported technologies:
We have seen enough gigantic boxes for mainboards from the upper price range, so this one seemed unusually thin: only 5cm. It is two or even three times smaller than the boxes of some elite mainboard models. It seems too small inside for the mainboard, not to mention the bundled accessories. However, the board wrapped in an antistatic bag feels quite at home there. It is also wrapped in thin corrugated cardboard sheet providing additional transportation sturdiness. There was also enough room for accessories including the following items:
By replacing a traditional CD disk with a DVD disk allows to include not only the drivers but also the whole bunch of different applications and utilities. The autorun startup window has barely changed. The interface allows installing device drivers and applications, creating floppies with RAID drivers, checking the electronic version of the user manual, getting hold of technical support team.
The only innovation is a very convenient Asus InstAll function that helps installing necessary drivers and tools all at once. It is especially useful for programs and utilities, because there are so many of them that they won’t all fit into one screen.
The bundled DVD disk contains the following programs and utilities:
At this point we can state that Asus P5QL-E has everything necessary with it and a truly extensive list of applications and tools.
Our initial goal was to find a worthy rival to Intel P45 Express among iP43 based solutions, so we had to make sure that all potential candidates have ATX form-factor. Then we narrowed down out selection using numerous criteria, such as South Bridge with RAID support, 8-pin ATX12V power connector, additional controllers and external connectors. The idea was to find a mainboard that wouldn’t be any different from an average iP45 based solution, except for the missing second PCI Express x16 slot, of course. As a result, Asus P5QL-E turned out the only model that met all these requirements. Although later on we found out that still not quite all of them were in fact met.
The current ATX 2.2 standard includes the whole bunch of technical specifications for mainboards. Namely, it should be 12” long by 9.6” wide or 305 x 244 mm. However, Asus P5QL-E turned out 20 mm narrower. Lack of free space on the PCB and the need to accommodate a lot of additional controllers could have forced the engineers to place a 24-pin power connector in the center of the board:
While we were investigating this matter, we found out that mainboard makers refer to the required length of the PCB when they speak of complying with ATX form-factor standards. As a result, you can buy 305mm mainboards that will be 244mm, 224mm, 210mm or even 193mm wide. However, all of them will be considered ATX models, because this standard implies that the connectors are close to the storage device chassis. But we don’t have a choice and we will continue with our Asus P5QL-E mainboard. Now let’s take a closer look at the upper part of its PCB:
Besides the already mentioned inconvenient location of the 24-pin power connector, there is nothing we could really complain about in the upper part of the PCB. Probably the capacitors placed too close to the processor socket could prevent you from installing any specific cooling solutions with broad base plate. For example popular Scythe coolers that use universal VTMS retention system (Versatile Tool-Free Multiplatform System). Moreover, the pins from these capacitors hanging off the bottom of the PCB may make it difficult to fasten the cooler backplate, like the one we use with our Zalman CNPS9700 LED cooler.
As for the advantages, we should definitely mention 8-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry. Mainboards of this class usually have maximum four phases in this circuitry. Besides, they used low-resistance MOSFET transistors that allowed lower heat dissipation and power consumption even more. Asus used only solid-state capacitors with polymer electrolyte in the processor voltage regulator circuitry as well as on the rest of the mainboard.
The chipset North and South Bridges are topped with very uniquely shaped heatsinks. They work perfectly well when the system is operating in nominal mode, however during overclocking the North Bridge heatsink becomes scarily hot. You have to get some additional cooling for it, but how could you securely attach a fan to a heatsink of such beautiful but complex shape?
There is one definite advantage we should point out: a secure screw-retention for the chipset North Bridge heatsink that ensures full contact. There is an aluminum backplate on the bottom of the PCB that isn’t pressed fully against the board, but serves mostly retention purposes and in addition helps dissipate some heat.
If you look at the lower part of the PCB, besides one PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot, you will also see two PCI Express x1 slots and three regular PCI slots. Intel ICH10R South Bridge supports six Serial ATA connectors and RAID configurations. The additional JMicron JMB363 controller provides support for Parallel ATA devices.
At first we were curious about the LSI L-FW3227-100 controller that we haven’t yet come across before. It provided FireWire support. However, soon we found out that in 2007 Agere Systems Company was acquired by LSI, so this controller is none other but an analogue of a well-known dual-port IEEE1394A Agere FW322 controller, which we have already seen many times on mainboards from different vendors. Strange things do not end up here, though. Asus P5QL-E uses an eight-channel Realtek ALC1200 for the sound codec, but there was no info about it anywhere on Realtek web-site. The story of the gigabit Atheros AR8121-AL1E controller is also pretty mysterious. We only managed to fine a one year old press release on Atheros official web-site that told about the launch of an ultra-compact chip (48 pins at only 36 mm² size). At that time it was supposed to go into notebooks due to small geometrical dimensions and power-efficiency.
The connector panel looks up to all contemporary requirements. It features PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse, six USB, one FireWire, one eSATA, network RJ45 connector, coaxial and optical S/PDIF and six audio-jacks. The outdated COM-port is not on the rear panel, but it is laid out on the PCB as a pin-connector. Although they had to move it in front of the PCI slots, because of lack of free space. Overall, you can get a better idea of the layout advantages and drawbacks by looking at the following component scheme:
2cm narrower PCB may actually result in huge savings during mass production, but in the end the user winds up with a board that cannot boast the best components layout. This is where most layout drawbacks actually come from. The lack of free space on the PCB, however, cannot explain the use of non-traditional controllers. Windows users have nothing to worry about, but you may encounter problems trying to find drivers for alternative operating systems such as Linux, for instance.
However, despite smaller dimensions engineers managed to equip Asus P5QL-E mainboard with a full range of contemporary features, including those implemented by additional controllers. Just take a look at the detailed list of its specifications and see for yourselves:
Not all the features are implemented in full. For example, JMicron JMB363 controller besides PATA can also offer support for two SATA ports, however, there is only one eSATA on the rear panel. But we shouldn’t complain, because there is no other Intel P43 Express based mainboard out there that could compare to Asus P5QL-E in terms of features and functionality. Extensive functionality should allow Asus P5QL-E to equally compete against a solution on the top Intel P45 Express core logic set. However, before we make any statements, let’s check out the BIOS functionality of the Asus P5QL-E mainboard.
Asus mainboards use BIOS based on AMI micro-code. The first page looks the same on Asus boards of all types:
The second page called Ai Tweaker will determine everything. It contains almost all overclocking related settings and it didn’t disappoint us. Even a quick glance at the available functionality is enough to understand that none of the features have been cut off:
By setting Ai Overclock Tuner to Manual, we can adjust the FSB frequency in the interval from 200 to 800 MHz and PCI Express frequency in the interval from 100 to 180 MHz. FSB Strap to North Bridge parameter is set automatically depending on the FSB and memory bus frequencies and can be at 200, 266, 333 and 400 MHz. If you haven’t changed its setting, then DRAM Frequency parameter will show the entire list of available memory frequencies. It is very convenient that once the FSB frequency is changed, the DRAM Frequency parameter will be adjusted accordingly showing the actual memory frequency at the time.
Three informational lines right below the DRAM Timing Control parameter show the current memory timings settings. If you set DRAM Timing Control to Manual, you will be able to adjust all of them yourself:
DRAM Static Read Control, DRAM Read Training and MEM. OC Charger parameters are also very important. They may be set to Auto, Enabled or Disabled, and help improve the memory’s ability to work at higher frequencies. Ai Clock Twister parameter has direct influence on the memory overclocking potential and its performance. It may be set to one of the following:
Ai Transaction Booster parameter allows changing Performance Level - a very important setting that has serious effect on the memory subsystem performance.
The next group of settings deals with mainboard chipset fine tuning and the possible settings for CPU Margin Enhancement parameter speak for themselves:
Next we see subsection dealing with voltage adjustment. The supported intervals and increments are the following:
Slightly increased voltages will be highlighted regular blue color, the warning is indicated by yellow, the next warning stage by purple and at last the extremely high voltage settings are highlighted red.
I have to say a few words about the processor core and chipset North Bridge voltages. The thing is that only if you have previously reset the corresponding mainboard jumpers, you will be able to set them to their maximum values. By default, the processor Vcore may be raised to 1.7V, and North Bridge voltage – to 1.9V.
I have my doubts about the need for these jumpers. I could probably imagine that someone may want to use Asus P5QL-E mainboard for CPU overclocking experiments involving extreme cooling and the available 1.7V will not be enough in this case. But can you think of a situation when extremely high 1.9V on the chipset North Bridge may not be sufficient?
Load-Line Calibration parameter will allow overclocking fans to avoid modifying processor voltage regulator system called VDroop mod. When the processor workload increases and so does the corresponding power consumption, processor voltage drops. However, voltage drop causes system instability and overclockers have to increase processor Vcore in advance, to limit their overclocking, or to perform a special modification that will keep the voltage at a certain preset rate. Asus P5QL-E owners will not need to do it, because they can lock this voltage by setting Load-Line Calibration to Enabled. Finally, fine tuning of the Ai Tweaker parameter called CPU GTL Reference may be very helpful during quad-core processor overclocking.
The next section called Advanced includes a number of sub-sections:
Here we should first of all check out the CPU Configuration section that reports the CPU specifications, allows adjusting the clock frequency multiplier, supported functions and technologies.
Other sub-sections provide access to configuration parameters for the chipset, integrated controllers, USB and Plug and Play.
Power section is pretty common:
Here we should check out the Hardware Monitor sub-section:
The fan settings look quite good. We can control the rotation speed of all four fans that can be connected to the mainboard and adjust the rotation speed of three of them. It is important that the CPU fan uses a four-pin power connector. We can control only two temperatures, and the voltages monitoring definitely leaves much to be desired. We don’t know any voltages except the CPU Vcore, although Asus P5QL-E mainboard allows adjusting seven of them. The saddest thing is that neither third-party utilities, such as HWMonitor, nor Asus PC Probe II utility, will be able to help us. The latter reports very scarce readings:
Boot section allows setting the boot-up devices order, startup parameters and access passwords:
Tools is the last section that is worth checking out here:
It contains a very convenient BISO reflashing tool called EZ Flash 2:
There are tools for launching and configuring Express Gate – an alternative Linux based operating system. Here you can also check the network cable status on AI NET 2 page and save two full BIOS settings profiles using OC Profile function. Too bad that we can save only two profiles without any names or descriptions, however, we can save profiles on any external media of choice.
The very last section contains traditional options for loading setup defaults and exiting BIOS Setup.
When we checked out the functionality of the Asus P5QL-E BIOS Setup the only two things we were not completely happy about were hardware Monitor and OC Profile functions. However, overall the board boasts truly impressive variety of available settings. Now we have absolutely every reason to say that Asus P5QL-E mainboard will indeed be a worthy rival to any competition. Now all we have to do is check out all these great settings in practical experiments.
There are a lot of pretty interesting aspects that we could discuss within the chapter devoted to practical use of Asus P5QL-E mainboard. For example, it would be nice to check out the bundled software or at least Asus branded utilities. We could say quite a bit about power consumption and power-saving technologies. Here everything looks not as rosy as in the promotional commercials. However, we don’t want to lose your interest because the article is too long, so we have decided to set those things aside until the next time. Today we are going to take a quick look at Asus Express Gate technology.
Asus Express Gate is a small operating system, namely, it is special interface for launching preinstalled applications. It is built on Linux-based Splashtop system designed by DeviceVM Company. At this time it is shipped only with mainboards, notebooks and nettops from Asus, although other manufacturers start joining the initiative. I used to believe that Express Gate system was only available on high-end mainboards, where it is preinstalled into integrated flash-memory. However, it turned out that it could be also used on Asus P5QL-E, however, first it needs to be installed onto the system hard drive, USB-HDD or USB Flash Drive from the bundled DVD disk or downloaded from the Asus web-site.
It promises to boot up within 5 seconds, and even though they say that the actual startup time depends on the system configuration, the boot-up process doesn’t take long. Now we will see the following screen instead of the POST status or default startup logo image:
It will disappear in 10 seconds or a different amount of time depending on what is set in the Tools section of the mainboard BIOS, but if you move your mouse pointer the timer will halt. Three icons in the lower right corner will help continue booting the base operating system, access BIOS Setup or shut down the system, if the start button was pressed by mistake. Or you could take advantage of one of the Express gate features. It looks as follows:
Small configuration panel will help you set date and time, select the language and keyboard layout (it supports many languages), change the location of the startup panel, confirm network settings, change the theme, screen resolutions and sound volume.
Now you can use the browser based on Mozilla FireFox…
… play online games of different genres…
… launch a slide show from pictures and photographs…
… send a few messages to friends using multi-protocol Pidgin client…
… or connect using Skype.
There is even a File Manager supporting multi-window mode. You can guess its origin from the way the icons look: it definitely comes from Gnome:
Of course, everything we mentioned above is just a part of rich functionality available to you. With Internet access you can check your e-mail using web-interface, watch videos or listen to music. It was really frustrating to see no video player among preinstalled applications offered by Asus Express Gate, since it used to be part of the Splashtop system used as a basis for this OS.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of limitations and faults that prevent Asus Express Gate from being widely used. You can install this system onto a SATA HDD only if it works in IDE mode. You can install it onto a flash drive, but in this case you won’t be able to write anything on it or to view the folders with files. Why does File Manager have access only to USB devices, while the image viewer can show photos stored on the hard drive? Why did they write it using Macromedia Flash that slows it down a lot? Couldn’t they find some other decent graphics editor among open source Linux software? Where is the promise file exchange if it doesn’t see the network PCs and drives? Why did they limit maximum screen resolution to 1440x1050?
I could continue the list of questions, but it is evident that the limited functionality of Asus Express Gate will not let it fully replace any base operating system. At the same time I wouldn’t say that this system is totally useless. Why would you boot the bulky default OS if all you need to do is just send an IM to a friend, look through the current news headlines, check your e-mail or the weather forecast for the night? Thanks to almost momentarily loading, Express Gate is an excellent alternative at least until we don’t have internet access in refrigerators, TVs and hallway mirrors :)
We tested Asus P5QL-E mainboard in an open testbed with the following hardware and software components:
We have just seen from the previous chapter of our review that Asus P5QL-E mainboard ahs the entire range of features necessary for successful processors and memory overclocking. To find out the maximum bus frequency when the board remains stable with a dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor, we lowered its clock frequency multiplier to the minimal setting of x6, lowered the memory frequency, increased Vmem and Vmch.
We decided to start with relatively low frequency of only 450MHz, but the mainboard refused to boot. After a while we found out that the board would only boot at 430MHz FSB. Even without any voltage increase our processor can overclock to 450MHz bus frequency, so we returned its multiplier to the nominal x9. The board could boot the OS, but refused to reboot. We couldn’t reach stability even at 425MHz FSB, but at 420MHz the system was fully stable and passed all the tests.
An Intel P45 Express based mainboard with the extensive functionality of Asus P5QL-E could easily go past 500MHz FSB. Not the best model could probably fall a few MHz short of that number, however, 420MHz FSB is way too lot for an operational bus frequency. Maybe our sample was not the best one for overclocking experiments? However, after looking through some related forum posts I arrived at the conclusion that almost all mainboards on Intel P43 Express chipset from various manufacturers can only overclock to 420-430 MHz FSB. This could be the greatest difference between the two chipsets from the same family.
It was pretty disappointing, but we could only work with what we had at our disposal. Now we have to try increasing the memory frequency that so far has been working at very low frequency of 840MHz. I would like to remind you that our DDR2 Corsair Dominator TWIN2X2048-9136C5D memory modules can theoretically work at 1142MHz with 5-5-5-15 timings and 2.1V voltage setting. The actual values are usually a little lower, so I wasn’t surprised with instability at 1119MHz. The system refused to start at all at 1053MHz memory frequency, which could also happen because of “inconvenient” dividers. However, even when we lowered the memory frequency to 1009MHz – an absolutely real and attainable value – we still couldn’t achieve stability. So, we had to go back to where we came from: 840MHz. Unfortunately, the board works with the memory as poorly as it overclocks CPUs.
Let’s try optimizing the memory performance at least a little bit to achieve higher speeds. First let’s lower the timings from 5-5-5-15 to 4-4-4-12. It worked.
However, the mainboard set Performance Level 13 by default, which was way too high. Using Ai Transaction Booster parameter we lowered this setting to 8, which immediately affected the performance: read speed increased and latency reduced.
We have one more option to check out: DRAM Static Read Control, DRAM Read Training and MEM. OC Charger – the BIOS parameters that help improve the memory performance at high frequencies. We don’t need any help at ridiculously low 840MHz, so we set them to just the opposite: Disabled instead of Enabled and the other way around. Ai Clock Twister will be set to maximally aggressive setting: Stronger. These measures help improve the situation a little more.
Now looks like we have done everything we could and the system is ready for a competition. However, we discovered one very unpleasant issue: every “cold” start always failed. The system would refuse to boot, reset all parameters and report over-overclocking upon next restart. But then it would work just fine and pass all tests without any settings changes. I have to admit that this is hardly normal, so we had to lower the bus frequency to 415MHz. Only then we could get the system to boot fine, work stably, restart without any issues and Asus P5QL-E shut-downs.
Before we got down to performance tests, we decided to see how well the board could handle quad-core processors overclocking. Our system equipped with an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 processor would boot only at 430MHz FSB, but reported an error on restart. We have already experienced all that during our dual-core CPU overclocking experiments, so to save some time and effort we went on to 415MHz FSB right away. Tests confirmed system stability; the system would boot, work, restart and shut down flawlessly.
This is a very low result, of course, but it was good to see that the board could overclock quad-core processors the same way it could overclock dual-core ones, and not any worse.
Now we should compare the performance on mainboards built on two different chipsets. We are going to compare the performance of our Asus P5QL-E against that of Gigabyte GA-EP45-DQ6 mainboard. Of course, this is far not a standard Intel P45 Express based solution, but it overclocks processors very well, and works with DDR2 memory, too.
As far as we know, systems based on Intel P45 Express and Intel P43 Express and otherwise alike perform identically in nominal mode. However, we have come across situations when one of the equally performing systems would fall far behind the other during overclocking. We already know that Intel P43 Express based board is hopelessly behind the rival in processor and memory overclocking. But will it also be slower during identical overclocking?
Since we have to take the potential of Asus P5QL-E mainboard as a starting point, we overclocked our dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor to 415MHz FSB, i.e. to 3735MHz. The memory was working at 830MHz with 4-4-4-12 timings. Performance Level was set to 8. We tried synchronizing all other additional memory timings, however, some settings still differed and, surprisingly, not in Gigabyte GA-EP45-DQ6’s favor. Looks like this as well as numerous memory performance optimizations made in the mainboard BIOS were the reasons why Asus P5QL-E outperformed its competitor in almost all tests:
Of course, these results do not state that Intel P43 Express based boards are better than Intel P45 Express based ones in general, or that Asus P5QL-E is faster than Gigabyte GA-EP45-DQ6 in particular. Remember that Asus board showed all it got: maximum CPU overclocking, maximum stable memory frequency with minimal timings and enabled optimizations. At the same time, Gigabyte mainboard wasn’t allowed to overclock the processor or the memory to their maximum, it was limited to far not the most favorable conditions, so that we could call it a fair competition for Asus P5QL-E. These numbers are not the most important thing for us here. What is important, it is the fact that Intel P43 Express based mainboards do not really yield to Intel P45 Express based ones.
I have to admit that I personally wasn’t very happy about Asus P5QL-E mainboard. However, you absolutely have to disregard my subjective opinion here. Try to be unbiased about this board:
I am frustrated, because I feel deceived. I was misled by Asus P5QL-E mainboard, its excellent technical specifications and outstanding BIOS functionality. It costs less than $130, but looks worth $260, or at least $200. Of course, I expected from it the same I would from any Intel P45 Express based mainboard, having forgotten that it was based on Intel P43 Express and not knowing that they have dramatically different overclocking potential. That is why I wasted too much time trying to get it to work at high bus frequencies and then at high memory frequencies. That and only that is the reason why I am unhappy.
You, on the other hand, may look at it from a completely different prospective. In fact, Asus P5QL-E has very few objective drawbacks, which we have already mentioned in our review. They are not very serious, by the way, and have been caused mostly by smaller dimensions of the PCB. However, despite the lack of available PCB space, Asus engineers managed to fit in all the necessary controllers, so from the functional standpoint Asus P5QL-E is as powerful as any Intel P45 Express based solution out there.
The next thing: poor CPU and memory overclocking potential. It is a serious drawback. We couldn’t overclock any of our test processors. Besides, our super-fast DDR2 9136 memory was working almost as regular DDR2 6400. But remember the unannounced rule: inexpensive mainboards for inexpensive processors. Knowing what this mainboard is actually capable of, you can easily find a suitable processor for it that will have a high clock frequency multiplier, for example, a CPU from Intel Pentium Dual-Core or Intel Core 2 Duo E7xxx family. Asus P5QL-E functionality will be more than enough for their successful overclocking. Besides, you will not need to spend a ton on super-fact memory: just go with the regular DDR2 800 instead of highly overclockable and therefore expensive elite modules.
We won’t lose anything here, as we have just seen, Asus P5QL-E will not lose to any other mainboard. However, we will be able to use the money saved on mainboard, CPU and memory for a faster graphics card, larger hard drive or anything else we need. So, objectively, Asus P5QL-E is an excellent choice for users who want to ensure their investment is worth it. Although it still cannot compare against solutions on Intel P45 Express.