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Asrock 4CoreDual-VSTA review

by sswilson     |     April 24, 2007

4CoreDual-VSTA


S939 upgrade path, or recipe for disaster?




Not quite what you were expecting? Don't let the subtitle throw you off, I just wanted to set the ground rules right off of the bat. This is not intended as a standard review for one of Asrock's latest S775 motherboards. Instead, my intent is to examine a budget upgrade path for S939 single core users.


The Problem


It's hard to believe that only as far back as January 2006, the enthusiasts' AMD FX & Intel Extreme CPUs were still single core. Even more surprising is that the current CPU king, Intel's Conroe (first unveiled last spring) only became available for purchase that fall, and that AMD's AM2 platform was released around the same time.


Up until that time, S939 ruled the roost by outperforming anything Intel could come up with, and many gaming enthusiasts were still unconvinced that dual core chips offered a performance benefit over a higher clocked single core.


To further muddy the waters, DDR2's early releases of high latency chips paired with relatively low clock speeds also failed to impress. For this reason, many AMD fans scoffed at the new AM2 platform as not offering any benefit over S939, believing that they were better off with their high end DDR1.


In early 2007 AMD dropped the axe on loyal fans by announcing the end of S939 production. This left users in the unenviable position of requiring a full CPU/Motherboard/Memory purchase for any upgrade other than low-end dual core CPUs.


The Solution?


If you've managed to get this far without your eyes glazing over &/or frantically searching for my e-mail address in order to take me to task for my heathen anti-AMD propaganda, then we're more than likely in the same boat. Where do we go from here?


Even taking budget concerns into account I've dismissed AM2 for the simple reason that AMD has yet to release any info on where it's going with development, and I don't want to take a chance on finding myself tied to another dead platform in 6 months time. That said, Conroe chips aren't exactly cheap, and decent S775 boards are insanely expensive.


Enter Asrock


Asrock has only been around since 2002, but since then they've made quite a name for themselves as a producer of budget priced motherboards to fill just about any niche. Some of their boards seem outright silly (S468+754, 754+939, 939+AM2, and I thought there was a weird one with both Intel and AMD chips which isn't listed on their site), but if somebody has a need, and it's possible to engineer a solution, chances are the folks at Asrock have at least had a look at building a motherboard for it.






I'm not going to bother listing the full specs on this board, you can get them yourself by clicking through the link. What I'm interested in is the kitchen sink of formats it supports. DDR1, DDR2 (both dual channel), SATA, IDE, AGP, & PCIe all on the same board!?!?!? There must be a catch!


Well, there are several.


DDR1 & DDR2 cannot be used at the same time, so you are limited to two sticks of ram. The chipset is an older one that only supports up to DDR2 667. It's not SATA2 so you're stuck with 1.5 transfer rates. The board has some overclocking capabilities, but it doesn't have Vcore adjustments, and even if it did, it reportedly won't post above 300 FSB. Lastly, (and this is the possible show stopper), even though just about every on-line retailer lists it as a X16 PCIe slot it is in fact limited to X4!


Having seen first hand what effect accidentally running a 6600GT in a X2 slot had on graphics benchmarks I was quite concerned with what a X4 slot would do to the performance of my current ATI 1950 pro. The reviews I could find suggested to me that I'd get fairly decent results with my current DDR memory due to lower latencies, but the video cards they used as reference were older models and I was fairly certain that my card would easily saturate the PCIe slot on this board. I didn't want to drop a lot of coin on an upgrade, only to find that my ability to run today's games had been severely degraded.


There might however be a light at the end of this tunnel. Many newer games now take full advantage of dual core processors, and the C2D line of CPUs is quite feisty even when compared to it's higher clocked single core brethren. Could the processor alone be able to muscle through the limitations of a X4 PCIe bus?


Let's see shall we?


The Test


To verify if a C2D processor will be powerful enough to allow the use of DDR memory coupled with a X4 PCIe slot to produce a build capable of playing today's games without a significant drop in performance over the original single core CPU with a X16 slot.


The Contestants


S939 single core A64 3700+ (1M cache, Stock 2.2 Ghz), DFI Lanparty UT nF4 Ultra-D (704-2BTA Modded Bios)


S775 Core2Duo E6420 (4M cache, stock 2.13 Ghz, 1066 Mhz FSB), Asrock 4CoreDual-VSTA (1.60 BIOS Vers.)


The Rest Of The Gear


OCZ GameXstream 600W PSU
Sapphire PCIe X1950pro 256meg
2 X 1 Gig OCZ Gold PC4000 (DDR500) ELGEGXT-K
Thermaltake Bigwater 745 CPU Watercooling
Windows XP Home SP2


The Facts


Both CPUs were tested under conditions as closely matched as possible (Limited time spent with C2D overclock, so there is still some tweaking to be done). The XP install was fresh for the C2D, and less than a month old for the A64. On-board Realtek sound was used for both, as well as the latest chipset drivers & ATI Cat 7.3. All background tasks were disabled. The stock settings for the C2D were left at default settings (low).


Mem timings for A64 were 3-3-2-7 (1t). Timings for C2D were 3-4-3-7 (1t).


A64 OC was 3050 with DDR508 (Prime Stable 29 hrs :) ) Stock was 2200 with DDR400


C2D OC was (quite low due to limitations of the board) 2360 with DDR442 (Prime Stable 9 hrs) Stock was 2050 with DDR384


Super-Pi score was average of 3. Files conversion test was windows “Send to compressed (zipped) folder” of 5.11 Gig mixed music video files.


All graphics tests were carried out using latest available free apps.




The Figures






No big surprises here. C2Ds have been ripping through super-pi scores since their release, and with the limitations of the motherboard I wasn't expecting the sub 20 numbers others have reported on OC'd rigs. The C2D outperformed the stock A64 in compression tests, but these numbers show what a heavily overclocked single core can still do for apps which aren't optimized for dual core.





Aquamark is often used as an indicator of the balance between GPU & CPU. The closer the benchmarks between the two, the smaller the chance that one of them is bottlenecking the system (I'm not all that concerned with balance, given the “Frankenstein” nature of this motherboard). This benchmark was written long before anybody considered running two cores on a desktop system so I'm at a loss as to why the C2D performed as well as it did, but, aside from the apparent imbalance that's not a bad thing.






Now we're getting somewhere. `03 was written for single core CPUs, but even with the lower CPU score, the C2D still manages to eke out better total scores. `06 results look positive, but what about that `05 total score? It's not as bad as it looks, even under this single lower result, the difference is less than 5%. Much lower than the possible 20% performance hit that's been bandied about the Internet.






Finally!!! Some real numbers to crunch, and look... in tests of where the rubber hits the road (FPS) the X4 slot is now showing its true colours. In every single detailed `06 test the OC'd A64 beats the C2D. That said, the performance hit is still (in the worst case) a manageable 5.3%. If you're using settings where that's going to seriously affect your gameplay, you are probably already pushing the limits of your GFX card.


Conclusion


Going into this, I was under no false impressions. I knew that this upgrade path would only offer moderate improvements to daily use, and that I would more than likely take a hit in gaming performance. My main concern was how large of a hit I would take, if it was too large I would have just shelved the C2D until I could afford to purchase a full featured motherboard along with DDR2 ram.


Setting the board up was easy, yet also frustrating. I was expecting some pain getting the mixed bag of components to work together, but everything worked as advertised right out of the box. The frustrating part was not having my expectations met when I tried to use the overclocking abilities of the board.


In the past I've had good luck overclocking Asrock boards and was disappointed to to find neither Vcore nor CPU multiplier adjustments. The mem settings sometimes take on a life of their own (depending on OC settings), and without the use of a third party modded bios the FSB seems to hit a wall as it approaches 300 which severely limits overclocking of the 1066 FSB C2Ds (I only managed about 11%).


That said, I wasn't looking for a strong performer, I was looking for a board which would allow me a cost effective entry into the world of C2D with an eye to upgrading in the future. This board does that and then some.


IMO a 5% hit to frame rates is a fair trade-off considering I would have had to come up with an extra $350 - $400 to do a full upgrade right away. As it stands, this upgrade only cost me $296 for the CPU (CPU prices dropped like a rock the week after I bought it, and the e4300 chip would overclock better on this board due to the 300 FSB limit) and $91 for the motherboard. Now I can spread the expense of the full upgrade over the next couple of months by first purchasing DDR2 memory, and then a full featured motherboard for the overclocking abilities/improved specs.


For a cashed strapped (or frugal) S939 single core user I strongly recommend you consider this path if you find yourself never quite able to commit to a full build.


Pros
  • Combines S775 compatibility with just about any hardware you want to throw at it
  • Relatively low cost compared to other S775 boards
  • It actually seems to work with all those different hardware formats without too much fuss
  • Some overclocking features
  • S775 doesn't look like it's going away any time in the near future
Cons
  • Older chipset doesn't support DDR2 800 or SATAII
  • Overclocking features are limited (no Vcore adjustments, FSB limited to 300 FSB)
  • X4 PCIe
  • Only two fan headers
  • Placement of 20 pin power connector makes cable management near impossible
  • Has an adapter for HDMI_SPDIF, but stangely no coax (RCA) spdif output on rear
  • Would it have cost too much to include a 1 cent jumper for the cmos reset pins?????
Comments, suggestions, questions (or if you'd rather direct those e-mails taking me to task for my heathen anti-AMD propaganda to a more public forum... :) ) can be made in this thread Comment Thread