11/11/2011 | 01:24 PM
We have recently started a series of reviews dedicated to Socket AM3+ mainboards based on AMD’s 9th series chipsets and supporting new Bulldozer processors, which currently available version is known as Zambezi. Our first article compared three mainboards from Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. Unfortunately, there was no real rivalry there. It turned out that despite the numerous delays of the new AMD processors launch only Asus Crosshair V Formula mainboard provided fully-fledged support for Socket AM3+ processors. Therefore, it will make sense to allow other makers a bit more time to eliminate all problems and imperfections and in the meanwhile continue checking out new Asus mainboards. There are currently only two mainboards in Asus’ lineup that are based on the top-of-the-line AMD 990FX chipset. We have already reviewed Asus Crosshair V Formula from the ROG (Republic Of Gamers) series, and now time has come for Sabertooth 990FX from the TUF (The Ultimate Force) series. The mainboards from TUF series stand out due to their unique design and superior-quality components. The manufacturer points out increased stability and longer life span as their primary distinguishing features.
Asus Sabertooth 990FX comes in a box of standard size. Its exterior is pretty typical for all TUF series products: the cardboard box is designed as if it were a metal one. The front panel can be flipped open and you can find detailed description of some mainboard features on the other side of it. There is a photograph of the mainboard and a list of its technical specifications on the back of the box.
The mainboard itself sits in individual packaging with a plastic cover, with all the accessories hidden beneath that package:
TUF series mainboards are manufactured using only high-quality electronic components, which undergo strict certification testing, like the military class products. The visual reminder of this fact is the color scheme they chose for their mainboards that consists mostly of khaki and camouflage shades.
The “DIGI+” digital processor voltage regulator circuitry is designed as 8+2 phases and boasts increased efficiency and lower component temperatures, which prolongs their service life. Moreover, as we will see in the chapter devoted to the mainboard BIOS, “DIGI+” allows the users to flexibly adjust the voltage regulator settings. The heating components of the circuitry are covered with an additional heatsink, which is connected to the North bridge heatsink with a heatpipe. The unique “CeraM!X” ceramic coating of the heatsinks creates grainy surface, which dissipates heat much better than traditional metals. All heatsinks, including the third one on the chipset South Bridge are secured in place with reliable screws.
The expansion card slots and the layout of the graphics card slots are exactly the same as we have just seen on Asus Crosshair V Formula. You can install one or two graphics cards that will work at full PCI Express 2.0 x16 speed, or even three graphics cards that will in this case work as x16/x8/x8. The fourth slot has only four PCI-E 2.0 lanes provided by the South Bridge at its disposal. Besides the six SATA 6 Gbps ports provided by the AMD SB950 South Bridge, there are also two SATA 3 Gbps ports implemented via additional JMicron JMB362 controller. The second controller like that provides support for the eSATA ports on the back panel.
Here is the list of all ports and connectors on the back panel:
Just like other Asus mainboards, Sabertooth 990FX features convenient wide “Q-Slot” latches on graphics card slots and one-sided “Q-DIMM” locks on the memory module slots. There is MemOK! button that allows the mainboard to successfully start even if there are some problems with the system memory. A peculiar feature of all TUF mainboards is the so-called Thermal Radar technology. There are several thermal diodes integrated onto the mainboard, which monitor temperatures of the most critical knots. This technology uses the readings taken off these diodes to automatically adjust the rotation speed of the processor and system cooling fans to achieve maximum efficiency at the minimal level of noise. By the way, the mainboard has six fan connectors, five of which are four-pin ones. All system fan connectors are able to adjust the rotation speed of the three-pin fans, while in case of processor fans it is only the four-pin ones that can be adjusted. We specifically said “fans” in reference to CPU fan for a reason; the mainboard is equipped with two CPU fan connectors. It is no secret that many CPU coolers can significantly improve their efficiency with an addition of a second fan, and some of them even come with a retention kit for a second fan already included. However, it is often difficult to connect the second fan: even if the cable is long enough to reach one of the additional connector, how could we ensure that both fans will react identically to the CPU temperature changes? Of course, having two CPU fan connectors resolves this issue completely.
The table below sums up all the technical characteristics of Asus Sabertooth 990FX mainboard:
Overall, Asus Sabertooth 990FX looks quite worthy. The functionality of AMD 990FX chipset has been significantly extended with onboard controllers that deliver additional SATA and eSATA ports, USB 3.0 support and IEEE1394 (FireWire). The mainboard supports both types of multi-processor graphics sub-systems, AMD CrossFireX and Nvidia SLI. The use of superior-quality components guarantees exception quality of the product and allows for 5-year warranty.
In our previous reviews of Asus mainboards we already saw EFI BIOS – a pretty successful implementation of the UEFI standard (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). By default, when we enter the BIOS, we see EZ Mode screen that mostly performs informational functions, because it hardly allow users to adjust anything at all. You can find out basic system specs, check several monitoring parameters, select energy-efficient or performance mode and set the boot-up devices order by dragging and dropping them with a mouse pointer.
You can easily switch from “EZ Mode” to “Advanced Mode”, but it will be more convenient to set it up as a startup mode right away. In this case the first screen we see on entering the BIOS will be the well-familiar “Main”.
Note that you can change the interface language. If you do so, not all parameters will be translated, and the BIOS looks very unusual even funny in any language other than English, but I am sure it will be very helpful for commencing computer users who do not speak English.
Most overclocking-friendly options are gathered in “Ai Tweaker” section. The new Asus EFI BIOS only looks unusual: the well-familiar functionality of the Asus mainboards BIOS is all still there. However, we also notice a lot of new options that mostly relate to power supply and consumption and appeared because of the new digital “DIGI+” voltage regulator circuitry. You can now configure right in the BIOS Asus’ proprietary power-saving technologies, which adjust the number of active voltage regulator phases depending on the current CPU utilization. “CPU Load Line Calibration” technology that counteracts the processor voltage drop under heavy load can be not just enabled or disabled. Now you can even adjust the degree of this counteraction to your liking. You don’t need to go over to the monitoring section to control the current voltages: they are all displayed right here, next to each of the corresponding adjustable settings. Very convenient.
Some parameters are traditionally moved to individual sub-sections to make the main section less busy. Namely, the memory timings configuring is available on separate pages.
We are very well familiar with the functionality of the sub-sections in the “Advanced” section. Besides, their names are quite descriptive. We would only like to point out that since recently all SATA drives on Asus mainboards work in AHCI mode by default.
The “CPU Configuration” sub-section tells us the basic info about the processor and allows setting up some processor technologies.
“Monitor” section reports current temperatures, voltages and fan rotation speeds. You can select preset adjustment modes (Standard, Silent or Turbo) for the processor and case fans. Or you can also adjust the parameters manually.
The “Boot” section allows you to configure settings involved in system startup.
Next comes the “Tools” section.
It contains a built-in utility for BIOS updating called EZ Flash 2. It is one of the most convenient and functional programs of the kind. However, some things have gone worse after the transition to EFI BIOS. Namely, now it saves the current BIOS version in the root partition of the drive by default.
Just like the mainboards from other manufacturers, Asus Sabertooth 990FX allows us to view the information recorded in the memory modules SPD.
Asus mainboards allow saving and quickly loading eight full BIOS settings profiles. Each profile can be assigned a brief name reminding of its contents.
The last section is “Exit”, where you can apply the changes, load the default settings or return to the “EZ Mode”.
New Asus EFI BIOS is an excellent example of how the functionality of the old BIOS could be expanded without losing the existing convenience of use. Its major advantage, the numerous adjustable and configurable parameters, is also a drawback to some extent, because it may completely overwhelm and user. However, the settings in default mode are mostly optimal, so you can have a fine working system without changing anything at all. Unfortunately, some small issues, which we uncovered a few months ago already during our first encounter with Asus EFI BIOS haven’t been fixed yet. You can’t save the disabled startup logo in the settings profile, and the current BIOS version is now only saved in the root folder of the drive instead of the folder you select yourself. However, these aren’t really big problems, but mostly minor inconveniences, which do not really interfere with system configuring or overclocking.
We carried out our tests on a testbed that included the following components:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 22.214.171.1240, Nvidia GeForce Driver 280.26 graphics card driver.
We didn’t experience any difficulties assembling the system on Asus Sabertooth 990FX mainboard. However, we have a few things we would like to say about the process. First of all, it is really interesting to find out when we will finally get a Socket AM3+ mainboard that will work with a Socket AM3+ processor right from the start. So far we have to install an old Socket AM3 CPU and update the BIOS before we can work with the new processor. The second thing I would like to mention has to do with power-saving technologies, which are partially disabled by default. As we will see later on, in our Power Consumption chapter, enabling them could have made the system much more energy-efficient.
In our previous review we checked out the “OC Genie II” function for immediate overclocking on Micro-Star mainboards, but for some reason e left out a similar option available on Asus boards. As you remember, when you press the OC Genie button on MSI 990FXA-GD80 or select the corresponding function in the BIOS, the base clock frequency increases to 225 MHz, the memory frequency multiplier drops, the timings are set to more aggressive values, the voltages increase. As a result, the processor overclocks to 4 GHz and the memory frequency drops to 900 MHz. A serious problem with this primitive overclocking is that all power-saving technologies get disabled. Therefore, even in idle mode the CPU will continue running at very high frequency and voltage.
When you select the OC Tuner option in the BIOS of Asus Sabertooth 990FX, the base clock frequency increases to 230 MHz, but at the same time the memory frequency increases, too. Overall, the automatic overclocking on Asus mainboard produced better results than on MSI, only the memory timings could have been set lower, because the board is quite capable of taking them from the modules SPD.
Moreover, power-saving technologies stay up and running and lower the processor clock frequency multiplier and Vcore in idle mode, so we can totally recommend this overclocking as a starting point for commencing users.
However, everyone knows that automatic overclocking tools may one be useful when you do not have time or desire to search for optimal parameters, but they can never compare with the efficiency of manual overclocking, when every little adjustment has been carefully tested and confirmed. In this respect, Asus Sabertooth 990FX didn’t yield even a tiny bit to Asus Crosshair V Formula and confidently overclocked our processor and memory to the maximum possible frequencies in the provided conditions. Since there is HPC Mode support in the BIOS, the processor frequency doesn’t drop under heavy load.
We always overclock mainboards in such a way that they could be used permanently in this mode. We do not try to make our life easier by disabling any of the mainboard features, such as onboard controllers, for example. We also try to keep the CPU's power-saving features up and running normally. Asus Sabertooth 990FX was overclocked in this manner, too. When idle, it lowered the CPU voltage and frequency multiplier to save power.
Overall everything looks good, only one thing left a not very good aftertaste: periodically increasing noise during long-lasting stability tests in overclocked mode. We always install an additional 80x80 mm fan for cooling the area around the processor socket during our overclocking experiments. Its nominal rotation speed is about 2300 RPM, but we usually do not need it working that fast. A slight airflow from this fan is usually enough to significantly lower the temperature of all heatsinks around the processor, so we normally slow it down to 75% or even 50%. The power consumption and heat dissipation of the new AMD platform turned out so high that we had to use this fan even in the nominal mode with a “Silent” preset. However, in overclocked mode during long stability tests the fan would occasionally speed up to its maximum, which created certain acoustic discomfort.
However, it would be totally unfair to consider more aggressive approach to fan rotation speed adjustment a drawback. First, it is the mainboard’s job to maintain adequately low temperature of its components to ensure that they last. Second, we have at our disposal a flexible tool for adjusting temperatures, voltages and fan rotation speeds – Thermal Radar technology, which requires installing a special program with the same name.
This program allows monitoring the current voltages, temperatures and fan speeds with the help of numerous diodes. By default the fan speeds depend on the CPU temperature that is why as its temperature increases, the fans speed up to their maximum. However, Thermal Radar program allows us to change the fan rotation speed adjustment parameters. For example, we can limit the maximum rotation speed threshold or make the adjustment dependent on the readings from another thermal diode.
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we also included the results from the recently tested flagship Bulldozer mainboards from Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. The results are sorted out in descending order on the diagrams. I would only like to remind you that Asus Crosshair V Formula mainboard by default set the memory timings at 9-9-9-24-1T, Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD7 – at 7-7-7-20-2T and only on Asus Sabertooth 990FX and MSI 990FXA-GD80 mainboards we saw the correct timings from the memory modules SPD – 7-7-7-20-1T.
We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 4.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score. This score is obtained in a special physics test that emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system working with numerous objects:
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
Everyone knows that there is hardly any performance difference between related mainboards and in identical testing conditions in most applications the mainboards should work at about the same speed. However, we notice pretty serious discrepancies, which result not only from the specific distinguishing features of the individual mainboards, but also from different testing conditions, because the mainboards set different memory timings by default. However the good news is that we now have correct reference point for performance in the nominal mode – it is Asus Sabertooth 990FX. This mainboard not only have the CPU working normally, but also sets correct memory timings and therefore is in the lead almost in all tests.
Now let’s run the same tests with the CPU and memory overclocked. You can see the difference in the system parameters in the following table:
Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD7 mainboard didn’t participate in overclocking tests, because it didn’t let us test the stability of the overclocked processor under load and always dropped its frequency. As for the other mainboards, the Hyper-Transport bus frequency on them remained at the nominal 2600 MHz, the North bridge frequency was increased from 2200 to 2400 MHz and the memory frequency – to 1866 MHz. However, Asus mainboards allowed us to overclock our test processor to 4.5 GHz, while on MSI mainboard we had to stop 4.3 GHz that is why it is falling behind in all tests. Speaking of the two Asus mainboards, we can conclude that their performance in the overclocked mode is almost the same, which is what we would expect from related mainboards working in identical conditions.
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer’s power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX (both at the default and overclocked system settings). The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.
We often point out that on many mainboards certain power-saving technologies are disabled by default. This time we decided to illustrate our discontent with this issue with numbers. We measured the power consumption of test systems in idle mode with default settings and then with all power-saving technologies manually enabled.
On Asus mainboard Cool’n’Quiet and c1E power-saving technologies are disabled that is why it consumes more than others. If we enable them and also enable their proprietary technologies that allow to dynamically change the number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry, the power consumption drops substantially. The same is true for the MSI board. As for Gigabyte, there is good and bad news. The good news is that all processor power-saving technologies are enabled by default and you don’t need to worry about turning them on manually. The bad news is that you need to install Easy Energy Saver utility in order to be able to use their proprietary power-saving tools, because there is still no option in the BIOS that could allow using them. As a result, we failed to lower the board’s power consumption in idle mode and it became the most energy-hungry of the three, although in the beginning things were completely different.
As for the power consumption of Asus Sabertooth 990FX under load, it doesn’t really stand out in the nominal mode.
During overclocking Asus mainboards consumed much more than MSI, which is quite logical since they allowed higher CPU overclocking and therefore required a significant increase in voltages. Gigabyte mainboard is missing on this diagram for the same reasons as before.
In our previous review we praised Asus Crosshair V Formula mainboard, because it was beyond comparison with the participating competitors. Of course, the question we ask today is: is Asus Sabertooth 990FX better or worse? The correct answer will be: this board is different, but it is just as good. Let’s compare the two. The boards support the same processors and memory, have the same number of graphics card slots with the same operational configuration. The boards differ by the number and variety of onboard controllers. Asus Crosshair V Formula has three USB 3.0 controllers, while Asus Sabertooth 990FX - only two, which is still more than enough. Asus Crosshair V Formula supports SATA and eSATA 6 Gbps, while Asus Sabertooth 990FX support 3 Gbps, but has more ports and also has IEEE1394 (FireWire) support. Just like other “ROG” (Republic of Gamers) mainboards, Asus Crosshair V Formula may be manipulated from a different computer due to “ROG Connect” technology, while Asus Sabertooth 990FX supports “Thermal Radar” technology just like other “TUF” (The Ultimate Force) mainboards. Asus Crosshair V Formula is priced at about $240, while Asus Sabertooth 990FX will cost significantly less – around $190. However, the biggest advantage of the Asus Sabertooth 990FX is its five-year warranty. And don’t be scared by the title of our today’s review: “five years with Bulldozer processor” doesn’t at all mean that you have to stay with their current not particularly successful Zambezi modification. Later on new Bulldozer models will come out, which will obviously be better than the current ones, but Asus Sabertooth 990FX mainboard will still be ready for them. Moreover, five years is just the warranty period, and in reality this board may last six years or even more. So, it is not quite correct to ask, which Asus mainboard is better. They are both good, each in its own way.
In conclusion we would like to award Asus Sabertooth 990FX with our Recommended Buy title: