Supermicro PDSGE Mainboard Review: Desktop Platform from the Server-Maker

Today we would like to introduce to you a pretty unusual desktop product from the leading server and workstation solutions manufacturer – Supermicro. This desktop mainboard with great networking capabilities, excellent software bundle and reliable operation may certainly attract your attention.

by Platon Scheblykin
10/26/2005 | 07:04 PM

Today we are going to introduce to you an unusual mainboard: PDSGE from Supermicro. What is so unusual about it? Well, it is primarily the origin of this product. To give you a better idea of what we are actually talking about here, I would like to say a few words about the manufacturer.

 

Supermicro Company founded in 1993 deal with servers and server equipment. Of course, they also design mainboards for servers of different levels and types. So, the remarkable thing about the mainboard we are going to discuss today is that the manufacturer doesn’t position it as a server solution. They target it as a desktop platform. Note that this is not the first Supermicro mainboard positioned for the desktop platform market, but there are not too many of them in Supermicro’s product range.

So, today we will try to find out if Supermicro PDSGE will become a good solution for a reliable desktop system.

Specification

Supermicro PDSGE

CPU

LGA775 Pentium4 (D/EE), Celeron (D) 533/800/1066MHz

Memory

4 DIMM slots for DDR2 400/533/667

Chipset

North Bridge: Intel 955X Express
South Bridge: ICH7R

FSB frequency

200-300MHz with 1MHz increment

Graphics card slot

PCI Express x16

Expansion slots

3 x PCI
1 x PCI Express x1
2 x PCI-X(133MHz)

IEEE1394 ports

-

USB ports

8 x USB 2.0

Mainboard connectors

1 x PS/2 keyboard
1 x PS/2 mouse
1 x RJ45 (Gigabit Etherenet LAN)
8 x USB 2.0
3 x Audio I/O(5.1)
Front panel audio header
1 x parallel (SPP/ECP/EPP)
2 x COM
1 x FDD
1x AUX In
1 x CD In

ATA-33/66/100/133

1 x ATA133

Serial ATA-150

4

BIOS

Phoenix Award BIOS 6.0PG.
8Mb flash EEPROM w/ LAN boot, PnP, ACPI, DMI 2.3

Integrated IDE RAID controller

RAID 0/1/0+1/5; Intel Matrix Storage Technology.

Form-factor

ATX 12”x 9.5”

The mainboard we are reviewing today is also available in a more advanced modification called PDSG4. The latter modification is equipped with an onboard SCSI controller and a slower PCI-X bus (100MHz against 133MHz by the PDSGE we have in our lab now).

Package and Accessories

Besides the mainboard the package contains only the most essential accessories:

I would like to specifically stress the comprehensive and understandable user’s manual included with the mainboard. There are no colored pictures and loud praising statements, but as far as efficiency and importance of the information are concerned, it can be a perfect example of how the user’s guides should be written. Another pleasing trifle was a complete list of POST codes for the Award BIOS in one of the appendixes of the manual.

PCB Design

It would be truly naiv to assume that a company that used to deal only with server products would finally roll out a mainboard solution boasting some remarkable exterior looks. And this is absolutely true in our case. PDSGE, just as PDSG4, doesn’t have anything outstanding in its appearance to boast. Supermicro engineers who have already got used to putting reliability and functionality of their products ahead of the exterior design stuck to their principles this time, too. However, the absence of some original decorative elements doesn’t make the product any worse. Let’s take a closer look at this mainboard and find out if it features smart PCB layout and offers good ergonomics.

Despite the great number of various onboard connectors and microchips, the mainboard PCB doesn’t look overloaded with components. All the chips aren’t placed too closely to one another, and the connectors are grouped together very smartly and are mostly sitting in the right-hand side and bottom side of the PCB (if we look at it the way it is usually installed into the system case). As a result, all the connectors can be accessed easily. The DIMM slots are located into pairs, each pair corresponding to one channel of the memory controller. This way the memory modules can work in better thermal conditions, because the memory modules working in dual-channel mode will be sitting far enough from each other and hence will receive better cooling. The benefits of this solution are especially visible when there are only two memory modules installed.

The memory slots are slightly away from the processor socket, while the other two heat sources, namely, the chipset North Bridge and the processor voltage regulator elements are at a much closer distance to the CPU. It might have been made this way to ensure their additional cooling from the fan of the CPU cooler. All the voltage regulator components that heat up quite a lot, as well as the chipset North Bridge, are equipped with the aluminum heatsink, which is a good thing, of course.

The only thing we were not very happy about was the use of a passive (fanless) cooling solution for the chipset North Bridge. The heatsink itself looks quite stylish, I should say. There are two more heatsinks on the chipset South Bridge (it is fastened with two spring rods) and on the PCI-X hub (it is pressed with a metal wire bracket against the PCB).

Another positive solution used on the PDSGE PCB is the location of the PCIE x16 slot for the graphics card, which is quite far away from the memory DIMM slots. You can install a graphics card of any size into this mainboard, and it will never catch to the DIMM slots clips. To make the graphics card installation so convenient, they had however to sacrifice the distance between the graphics card slot and the nearest PCI slot. In other words, if the graphics card you intend to use in this platform features a massive cooling system onboard, you may lose one of the PCI slots, because the space above it will be taken by the graphics card cooling system.

All connectors, including fan connectors are located very close to the PCB edges, so the cables leading to them will not end up hanging over the platform, and all disk connectors will remain easily accessible even when the mainboard is installed into the system case.

Functionality Indepth

When working on this mainboard Supermicro Company tried to minimize the number of additional microchips onboard and to implement most of the features via the chipset. As we have already mentioned in the specification section, the mainboard is based on i955X chipset, namely it features i82955x North Bridge and ICH7R South Bridge. It is the top-of-the line core logic set from Intel with rich functionality. But let’s discuss everything from the very beginning.

The first thing worth mentioning here is the CPUs this mainboard is designed for. And Supermicro PDSGE will support the entire contemporary Pentium and Celeron line-up designed for LGA 775 socket type, starting with Pentium 4 5xx/6xx and finishing with Pentium D 8xx, including the Extreme models of these processors. The same is true for the Celeron product family. So, the process bus of our mainboard may be 533, 800 and 1600MHz. The processor voltage regulator is designed as a three-phase circuitry, which is currently used on most mainboards.

Supermicro PDSGE supports DDR2 SDRAM memory modules, which have already become traditional for all contemporary Intel platforms. There are four DIMM slots onboard and the memory controller of the i955X North Bridge supports up to 8GB of this memory. Moreover, the memory can work in single-channel as well as dual-channel mode, depending on the number of memory modules and their location in the memory slots.

If we disregard the morally outdated FDD, then the storage subsystem built around the Supermicro PDSGE platform may consist of two IDE PATA devices and four SATA devices. Serial ATA disk drives can be connected together as a RAID array of the following types: 0, 1, 0+1 and 5. The board also supports Intel Matrix Storage technology, which allows creating a RAID 0+1 array, for instance, with only two hard disk drives involved. All these features have been brought to this platform by the Intel ICH7R South Bridge, as we have already mentioned above.

However, you can significantly enlarge the storage subsystem capacity by adding a professional disk controller card to the system. You can install a controller like that into one of the two existing PCI-X bus slots.

PCI-X is actually none other but an enhanced PCI bus featuring optimized transactions processing, working at higher frequency of 133MHz and supporting 64-bit bus width. So, the bandwidth of the PCI-X bus reaches 1064MB/s. It is usually used in high-end server systems for functional network cards and disk controllers. There is a special Intel 6702PXH chip responsible for this bus implementation on the mainboard.

Since we came to speak about buses, we have to mention that there is a PCI-E x16 bus used for the graphics subsystem on the Supermicro PDSGE mainboard. The system allows installing only one graphics card (since there is only one graphics slot laid out), so you will not be able to arrange any SLI- or CrossFire-like configurations. By the way, there is also only one PCI-E x1 slot on the board.

We have already mentioned one controller integrated onto the mainboard PCB. There are two more add-on controllers like that. And of course, there is a sound codec:

The sound is implemented via the Realtek ALC650 microchip. Although it is not a new solution, it provides pretty high-quality six-channel AC’97 sound. Of course, the quality of the sound output also depends on the entire sound tract implementation on the given platform. To test how good the sound quality on Supermicro PDSGE is, we resorted to RightMark AudioAnalyzer utility. Here are the results we obtained:

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

+0.28, -0.32

Good

Noise level, dB (A):

-86.3

Good

Dynamic range, dB (A):

85.9

Good

THD, %:

0.0078

Very good

IMD + Noise, %:

0.024

Good

Stereo crosstalk, dB:

-82.2

Very good

IMD at 10 kHz, %:

0.150

Average

General performance: Good

As we can see, the developers did a pretty good job on implementing the sound tract on the Supermicro PDSGE mainboard.

So, let’s continue. Another onboard controller, that we haven’t yet mentioned is the Gigabit Ethernet controller connected to the PCI-E bus. It is Intel 82573V chip.

The second microchip is none other but Super I/O and Hardware Monitor in one:

This time it is Winbond W83627EHG chip. Thanks to this chip you can actually connect up to 5 fans to the mainboard.

And in conclusions to our functionality discussion I would like to point out a few more things. Firstly, Supermicro PDSGE has all the supported USB ports laid out: 6 of them are available on the mainboard back panel among all other connectors, and the remaining two are laid out as onboard connectors.

A pretty interesting feature is a special light emitting diode that can be connected to the case front panel and will indicate the failure of any of the fans connected to the mainboard by blinking. If this LED is constantly lit on, it means the system is getting overheated.

The mainboard itself is equipped with three LEDs. The first one indicates if +5V power is driven to the mainboard, and the other two serve as a simple POST indicator. The list signals and their means are given in the user’s manual.

BIOS, Overclocking and System Monitoring

The BIOS of the Supermicro PDSGE mainboard looks not quite common. Usually there are white fonts against the blue background, and the menu items are listed in two columns. In our case, the menu items of the BIOS Setup are all listed in one line at the top of the screen, and the details behind each menu item get automatically displayed once the cursor is pointing at it. The color gamma is also not quite traditional, I should say: blue fonts against gray background. The only other mainboards that have BIOS Setup organized in the same manner are probably ASUS boards. And even though CMOS Setup looks quite unusual, the BIOS of Supermicro PDSGE mainboard is based on the pretty widely spread Phoenix Award v.6.0 PG code.

Even after a really quick look at the CMOS Setup we understand that its structure is very smart and convenient: all the settings are grouped very smartly together, most of them have corresponding informative descriptions, and the range of settings in general is very diverse. It is not for nothing that I used the word “in general” here: the list of overclocking friendly options appears to be quite scarce. Here is a screenshot that will give you a better idea of what I am talking about:

The page called Advanced/Processor & Clock Option/ offers the options for adjusting only the FSB frequency with 1MHz increment. The supported FSB frequency range depends on the nominal frequency of the CPU. The regular Pentium 4 CPU (not the Extreme Edition one) allows setting the frequency between 200MHz and 265MHz.

And the page Advanced/Advanced Chipset Control/ offers the memory controller settings, namely DRAM Timing Select: if you change this parameter from “By SPD” to “Manual”, you will be able to adjust most major memory timing settings.

DDR2 Frequency

Divider FSB:DRAM

400

1:1

533

3:4

667

3:5

These are all the settings that can be adjusted to boost the system performance. For instance, you cannot change the processor Vcore on this mainboard. Therefore, we can conclude with all certainty that the Supermicro PDSGE mainboard is not intended for overclockers. The only thing we can actually check out here is how the mainboard is going to react to the increased FSB frequency. But we are going to play around with the FSB frequency a little bit later, and in the meanwhile we have to say a few words about the system monitoring tools.

We will start with the monitoring system in the mainboard BIOS. All the status reports and the corresponding settings are available in Advanced/Hardware Monitor/ page. Let me list all of them in order of appearance:

The CD disk with the drivers bundled with the Supermicro PDSGE mainboard contains a monitoring tool that allows monitoring all the parameters from the operating system. This tool is called Supero Doctor III. There is a Windows versions as well as a Linux version of this software, which consists of two major modules. The first module is called Supero Doctor III for Local and is a Web-oriented tool for monitoring remotely the status of Supero mainboards via the local networks. The second module is called Supero Doctor III Client and it allows monitoring the status of the system it is installed in. Of course, we are more interested in the second module, so we will dwell on its peculiarities in the first place.

Supero Doctor III Client features pretty standard interface: it is not very multi-color, it doesn’t have any superior graphics, but is nevertheless very illustrative and informative. The “Summary ” menu item allows checking the entire system status at a glance. It displays all the current voltages, rotation speeds of all fans, system and CPU temperatures, and has a chassis integrity indicator.

The menu item called “Fan ” shows the graphs for the fans connected to the mainboard in real time.

Also there is the actual speed of each fan right under the corresponding graph.

Voltage ” is responsible for voltages monitoring. These values are also displayed on the time-scale diagrams with the indication of current voltage values for each parameter.

The last menu item with time-scale diagrams is “Thermal ”. As you may have guessed from the name, this page is responsible for the temperatures of the CPU and system in general:

The red lines on all the diagrams indicate the critical values of the monitored parameters. It is very convenient when you are checking the system status, because it allows you to better evaluate the danger from different upsurges.

In the “Item ” page you can check those parameters that should be monitored. All the unchecked parameters will not be monitored at all.

The next item is very unusual and interesting. It is called “Alert ”. It allows setting the alert system that will warn the user in case of system issues. Once all the settings have been adjusted here, the user may receive failure alerts by e-mail or pager message. Of course, you need Internet access in the first case and a modem connected to the telephone line in the second.

Configuration ” page is intended to set the operation parameters, program boot-up and log-file recording.

The last page, called “Overclocking ” doesn’t reveal anything special, actually. The only parameter you can adjust here is the FSB frequency.

However, there is one button here, which pleased us a lot. It is called “CPU-Z ”. Yes, it launches the so dear to many of you CPU-Z utility. Well, this is a trifle, of course, but a very nice one. The Supero Doctor III launches CPU-Z version 1.29.

Well, the monitoring software bundled with the mainboard is truly great. Excellent functionality and unusual concept make it unique among the analogous monitoring programs by other manufacturers. And if we take into account that the software version bundled on the CD disk that goes with the mainboard is only 1.11, there is every reason to hope that Supermicro is going to release more advanced Supero Doctor III versions in the future.

As far as overclocking is concerned, we didn’t manage to achieve any impressive results, as we have actually expected. We used an engineering CPU sample in order to keep the processor frequency as close to the nominal as possible during overclocking: when we increased the FSB frequency, we reduced the clock frequency multiplier. When we reached 224MHz, the mainboard started freezing, and when we raised the frequency even more it simply refused to boot. And there was nothing we could do about it, because BIOS didn’t offer us any solutions.

Here are the screenshots from the CPU-Z utility showing how far we managed to get:

 

Performance

This time we didn’t run any tests on an overclocked system, because it can hardly be of any interest to you. The performance gain due to FSB frequency increase was so low, that we couldn’t make the CPU work at the nominal frequency by reducing its clock multiplier. As a result, we couldn’t reveal the true performance gain from the system bus overclocking. Therefore, the performance table below contains only the results obtained at the nominal FSB frequency.

We ran our benchmarks on the following platform:

Here are the obtained results:

Benchmark

FSB=200 MHz

Sisoft Sandra 2005, RAM Buffered Bandwidth (MB/s)

4919(int), 4916(flo)

3Dmark05 v1.2.0, Default

3962

3Dmark 2001SE, Default

18770

PCmark05 v1.1.0, Default

3436

PCmark04 v1.1.0, Default

4534

WinRAR , KB/sec

464

SuperPI 4M, sec

187

Quake 3 Arena (four)

397.5

Doom 3, Medium quality,1024x768

76.7

FarCry (Regulator),1024x768

47.44

Half-Life 2(xdog), 1024x768

62.66

Unreal Tournament 2004 Demo, 1024x768

96.42

Conclusion

The Supermicro PDSGE mainboard coped with the task we set for it in the beginning of our review: it supports all contemporary technologies and has all the features necessary for a reliable desktop system targeted at a not very demanding user. Although, overclockers and gamers will hardly be interested in it.

Supermicro PDSGE mainboard is best suited for those hardware enthusiasts who would like to build up their own local network. In this respect Supermicro PDSGE offers such powerful tools as PCI-X bus and remote system monitoring. Well, the company specializing in servers did design a “server-oriented” desktop mainboard, no wonder.

Time will show if this approach to home desktop system is justified or not, and we will only look forward to new nonstandard solutions from Supermicro.

Highs:

Lows: