Review: Intel 915 Chipset-based Motherboards

By Loyd Case  |  Posted 2004-11-03 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Roundup: We test five motherboards that use variants of the Intel 915 chipset, plus one 865PE board with an LGA775 socket. Do you really need a pricey 925X board to get the most out of the new Pentium 4 line?

A couple of weeks ago, we took an in-depth look at five motherboards using the Intel 925X chipset . As a group, we found them to be a bit on the pricey side, with the lowest-cost 925X board, the Abit AA8, at about $160.

Not everyone needs the high-priced spread, and it's not clear what kind of performance margin the 925X really offers over the 915 series chipsets. So we put a few motherboards based on variants of the 915 to see how they fare against the 925X. We also tested an LGA775 board based on Intel's older 865PE chipset. Of the five 915 boards, two used the 915G chipset and three used the 915P. One of the 915G boards and two of the 915P boards support standard DDR400 memory, while the rest support DDR2/533.

Of course, not all of these boards are inexpensive. In fact, two are priced right up there with the more rarified 925X boards. Would you pay as much for a 915P board as you would a 925X board? The answer may surprise you. Continued...

We build each test system using an identical set of components, to give each board an even playing field:

Processor: Pentium 4 3.6GHz LGA775 CPU (Prescott) (check prices)
Memory: 2x512MB Kingston ValueRAM DDR2/533 (check prices)
Graphics: Nvidia PCI Express GeForce 6800GT (66.81 drivers)
Audio: Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 (check prices)
Hard drive: Seagate ST160827AS 160GB SATA Drive with support for Native Command Queuing (check prices)
Optical drive: ATAPI DVD-ROM Drive
Operating system: Windows XP Professional / SP2

A clean install of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 was installed. We then ran the following benchmark suite:

  • BAPCO Sysmark 2004, which replaces our now-obsolete Winstone suite.
  • 3D Studio R6 performance, using the SPEC APC test. This benchmark tests both interactive and rendering performance.
  • PCMark 2004, to gauge memory and CPU performance.
  • 3DMark 2005 CPU Test as a memory and CPU check.
  • Windows Media Encoder 9 video encode, to check throughput on encoding.
  • A multitasking scenario using Norton Antivirus 2003 and Photoshop elements. Photoshop Elements runs a scripted sequence of filters while NAV2003 performs a virus scan of a directory of known size.
  • Four games: Unreal Tournament 2003 ET Botmatch, Flight Sim 2004, Doom 3 and Halo.
  • SPEC Viewperf 8.01. This is a mostly graphics intensive test using recordings from a suite of professional 3D applications. It hammers on the graphics interface and actually stresses both AGP and PCI Express a bit more than the game benchmarks.

One other test we ran, which wasn't strictly a benchmark, was Memtest 86+ version 1.27. We ran memtest for several hours on two-DIMM and four-DIMM configurations to check overall memory stability.

Each board was configured to run at stock speeds: 266MHz memory clock and 200MHz frontside bus. The memory timings were set to use the SPD (serial presence detect) chip to run at default timings. All auto-overclocking was disabled.

Normally, benchmark differences among motherboards running the same set of components are really minimal. We used the benchmarks more as a sanity check, and to test stability. It's unlikely that you'd see more than minor differences in performance.

We did run into one exception--probably BIOS-related--that affected three of the motherboards. We'll discuss this when we get to the section on Viewperf 8.01.

We also include the ASUS P5AD2--our top pick among the 925X boards--for comparison. Continued...

As you'd expect, there's a relative sameness to the scores. Note that the ASUS P5GD2 Premium opens up a slight margin, however, in both SYSmark scores. In the PCMark04 tests, we see the P5GD2 posting even higher scores than ASUS's 925X board. It turns out that the P5GD2 runs with a 202MHz frontside bus clock (809MHz effective FSB clock) when set to 200MHz. This board cannot be set to exactly 200MHz. We'll discuss this in the board reviews section. Continued...

We broke with convention by offering the SPECviewperf 8.01 results as a geometric mean of the eight tests. Normally, we'd post the individual test scores, but the geometric mean serves our purpose here, which is to highlight an odd anomaly.

Note that three SPECviewperf scores are substantially lower than the others. Four motherboards (including the 925X and 865PE products) are fairly close to each other, and the other three boards are also close to each other, too. But a nearly 2:1 gap lies between the two groups. What gives?

We're not sure, even after multiple tests. But the three boards that posted low scores all use what appear to be the same revision of the Phoenix BIOS. The four better-performing boards use different BIOSes; the ASUS, for example, uses an AMI BIOS. The three Phoenx/Award BIOSes allow you to tweak PCI Express clock rates and shift between PCI Express "1.0" and "1.0a". Changing these settings appear to have only a small impact.

We suspect that the PCI Express x16 graphics slot is being throttled somehow. This issue will likely disappear in a future BIOS release.

The 3D Studio SPEC APC test shows a more reasonable pattern, offering near-parity across the board. Continued...

We used Windows Media Encoder to convert a 330MB AVI file to WMV9 format. The multitasking test consists of simultaneously running a Norton Antivirus 2003 scan and a Photoshop Elements filter script.

Both tests again end up close, with the ASUS and Gigabyte boards running pretty close to each other. Note that in the multitasking tests, the Soltek board using the 865PE chipset fares the worst, by a notable margin. It looks like the 900 series chipsets have been tweaked to handle the requirements of multithreading and multitasking more effectively than the older Intel chipset. Continued...

Note that the ASUS 915 board posts the highest 3DMark CPU score here, but the difference between its score and the Gigabyte board are in the statistical noise. Interestingly, the boards using DDR/400 (DDR1) seem to fare poorest here. Memory bandwidth seems to trump latency in the 3DMark CPU score.

When running actual games--even CPU-intensive titles like Flight Simulator 2004 and Unreal Tournament 2004--the differences are pretty minor. The P5GD2 does best, because of its slightly overclocked frontside bus speed. Continued...

Now that we've had a chance to examine performance, it's time to take a closer look at each motherboard. Before we dive in, let's compare a few of the key features:

Abit AG8 AOpen I915gm-I ASUS P5GD2 Premium Foxconn 915M03-G-8EKRS Gigabyte GA-8GPNXP Duo Soltek SL-865Pro-775
Format: Full ATX Micro ATX Full ATX Micro ATX Full ATX Full ATX
Chipset: Intel 915P / ICH6R Intel 915G / ICH6 Intel 915P / ICH6R Intel 915G / ICH6R Intel 915P / ICH6R Intel 865PE / ICH5R
Memory support: DDR1/400 DDR1/400 DDR2/533 DDR2/533 DDR2/533 or DDR1/400 DDR1/400
Number of PCI slots: 2 2 2 1 2 5
Number of single-lane PCIe slots: 3 1 2 2 3 0
802.11g in the box: No No Yes (Motherboard down) No Yes (PCI Card) No
Number of gigabit ethernet ports: 1 None (1 10/100) 2 (with slot cover) 1 2 1
Number of SATA ports: 4 4 8 (4 PCI) 4 4 4 (2 PCI)
Number of auxiliary fan connectors: 3 3 3 1 2 2
Backup BIOS support: No No No No Yes No
Number of built-in USB 2.0 ports: 4 4 4 4 4 4
Number of built-in FireWire ports: 1 None 1 (1394b) 1 2 (slot cover) 1
Back panel digital audio support: 1 optical out, 1 optical in None 1 coax out, 1 optical out None 1 coax in, 1 coax out None
Price (estimated street): $125.00 (check prices) $115.00 (check prices) $215.00 (check prices) $140.00 (check prices) $215.00 (check prices) $124.00 (check prices)

This roundup contains a mix of full-size and micro ATX boards, offering feature sets that range from the Spartan to the "kitchen sink" approach. The prices vary widely, too--even more so than the prices of the 925X boards.

On the next page we'll get started looking at the individual boards in depth. Continued...

The AG8 falls squarely into the "Spartan" column of feature sets. It lacks amenities like wireless LAN, additional SATA ports (beyond the four integrated ones) and other add-ons. It has a solid core of features, including digital audio output and input ports. It also has the same goofy, sideways-mounted north bridge fan as its 925X sibling, the AA8.

This board is slightly shorter than a standard ATX layout, so the top row of screw holes may not match up with many ATX format cases. The overall layout is clean, with lots of space around the CPU socket for massive coolers. 3-pin headers allow three additional cooling fans, in addition to the CPU and north bridge fans. The two PCI slots lie outboard of the three PCIe single lane slots, so if you're using a PCI sound card, lots of space exists between the graphic card fan and the sound card. Power connectors are laid out such that no wires cross the CPU cooling fan. However, the floppy disk connector is located over by the outside PCI slot, so you'll need a long floppy cable if you use a floppy drive.

The AG8 offers comprehensive built-in I/O, including a digital optical audio input as well as digital audio out. Continued...


As with most Abit boards, the focus is on the ability to tweak the hell out of the BIOS settings. This board's BIOS settings seem almost sparse, but the key elements are there, in the second "tab" of the microGuru BIOS setup screen. Note that at the default setting, the frontside bus ran at 204MHz. But that setting generated lots of Memtest86+ errors with our Kingston ValueRAM. At 200MHz, which we had to set manually, it ran fine.

Under the Abit EQ BIOS tabs are a host of monitoring functions:

These tend offer more detailed information in a cleaner layout than some competitor's BIOSes.

The BIOS isn't the only way to change the AG8's parameters. Like many enthusiast boards these days, the AG8 ships with a tweaking utility, which Abit dubs the OC Guru. You can use the OC Guru to change parameters like FSB and voltage manually, or you can allow the board to automatically take care of overclocking. You can also save presets as well. There's even a "quiet mode" setting.

In the end, the Abit AG8 isn't the fastest board, nor the most feature-rich. We would like to see a BIOS update that fixes the issue with PCIe x16 throughput. But the board is otherwise an excellent value, and the feature set should satisfy most users. The extensive BIOS support for tweaking will certainly appeal to some, while the bargain pricing should attract others. Continued...

Product: Abit AG8 915P Motherboard
Company: www.abit-usa.com
Pros: Low cost; good tweaking feature set; stable at default speeds.
Cons: PCIe x16 slot seems to be running at sub-optimal speed.
Summary: You get a basic board at a basic price, but it's highly tweakable and stable, provided you use premium, brand-name memory. PCI Express graphics issues suggest a BIOS update is needed.
Price: $125 (check prices)
Score:
Sometimes you just need something basic, with few bells and whistles--and a price to match. This Micro ATX board from AOpen certainly fits the bill. At a scant $115, it eschews Gigabit Ethernet for 10/100 fast Ethernet, supports DDR1 memory, and only has one PCI Express x1 slot.

The back panel I/O is basic--dare we say old fashioned? The VGA port for the integrated graphics is set next to the 9-pin serial port. While the board does offer full support for 6.1 channel audio, it lacks provision for digital audio I/O.

Performance was on a par with the other non-overclocked 915 boards for the most part. So support for DDR/400 doesn't seem to have had an adverse impact on performance. Note that we ran the DDR/400 module at a stock CAS 2.5-3-3-7.

The AOpen board has some overclocking functionality, but that's really not the purpose of this board. At $115, it's the least-expensive board we tested, and it gets the job done. It would be a fine choice for a Pentium 4–based office workstation, with its integrated graphics and DDR memory support. However, we would like to see a BIOS update that fixes the PCIe x16 throughput issue. Continued...

Product: AOpen I915gm-I 915G motherboard
Company: www.aopen.com
Pros: Least expensive board tested; stable
Cons: PCIe x16 slot seems to be running a sub-optimal speed; limited feature set.
Summary: This board has a very spare feature set, but gets the job done. It's a good choice for a general office system.
Price: $115 (check prices)
Score:

This board is essentially a clone of the P5AD2, which uses the 925X chipset. Key features include lots of SATA ports. You have the four ICH6R ports, plus four more made possible by a Silicon Image SiL 3114 PCI SATA controller. The P5 GD2 also builds in additional parallel ATA RAID support, through an IDE 8212F parallal ATA RAID controller. ASUS has integrated 802.11g support directly onto the motherboard.

If you don't have a case large enough for all those drives, ASUS even supplies a Serial ATA extension module, allowing you to connect external SATA drives. In fact, this board comes with a veritable cornucopia of riches in the way of accessories.

The P5GD2 has two PCI slots and two PCIe x1 slots. The slot layout leaves a gap between the PCIe x16 graphics card slot and the first PCI slot, to accommodate a double-wide graphics card. The layout is a typical ASUS layout. Power cables can be routed so they don't pass over the CPU socket. Given the increasing size of socket 775 CPU coolers, this can only be a good thing.

The P5GD2 ATX I/O cluster is quite busy, and the designers have chosen to dispense with 9-pin serial ports entirely. It's too bad they left out a digital audio input port. Note that the FireWire connector supports FireWire 800 (1394b). Continued...

The P5GD2 BIOS screen layouts are essentially identical to the P5AD2 screens, which you can check out in our review of the P5AD2.

One feature that ASUS touts is "AI Overclocking"--yet another auto-overlcocking mode. You can set it in the BIOS, and ASUS supplies you with a utility to manage the settings.

Like our past experiences with ASUS boards, the P5GD2 Deluxe was rock-solid in all testing. Even the Viewperf 8.01 test ran as expected. Overall performance was at or near the top in all categories.

In fact, the ASUS P5GD2 even outpaced its slightly pricier cousin, the P5AD2, which uses the 925X chipset. The main reason for the higher benchmark scores is that the ASUS runs at a default frontside bus clock of 202MHz (809MHz effective) when you manually set the board to 200MHz. This boosts the speed of our 3.60GHz test CPU to 3.64GHz. We could not set the board to 200MHz FSB. If you set the board to 199MHz, it runs at 199MHz.

Despite this, the board ran all our Memtest 86+ tests without a single burp. So while we generally frown on this type of pre-tweaking, we have to grudgingly accept that it works, and that ASUS will stand behind it.

The P5GD2 tied the Gigabyte GA-8GPNXP for the high-price championship. But it's superb stability, great performance and rich feature set make it a price worth paying. Note that ASUS also supplies a lower-cost "Deluxe" version without the external SATA module and second Ethernet port for about $185. Continued...

Product: ASUS P5GD2 Premium Motherboard
Company: www.ASUS.com
Pros: Stable and fast; incredible array of accessories and options; more tweaks in the BIOS than you can shake a fist at.
Cons: Pricey.
Summary: "Deluxe" is certainly the right description for this board. If you're willing to pay the price, you'll have a solid, fast board with lots of tweakable options and a ton of add-ons.
Price: $215 (check prices)
Score:

This Foxconn 915G board is the other Micro ATX board we tested. It also wins the award for longest product name of this roundup.

The 915M03 offers a surprisingly robust feature set in a small board. It includes onboard FireWire, ICH6R RAID support and DDR2/533 memory sockets. In many ways, it's the antithesis of the AOpen board--forward looking, rather than conservative. It even offers two PCIe x1 slots, but only a single, 32-bit PCI slot.

The I/O cluster on the ATX back panel isn't quite as forward looking, though. We would have liked to see the serial port dumped and digital audio I/O in its place. The FireWire port is present, as is Gigabit Ethernet, seven-channel audio and four USB 2.0 ports.

Despite a strong feature set, the performance of the Foxconn board lagged just a bit behind most of the other boards; we need to stress, however, that the differences are actually quite small. The key performance problem is the PCIe x16 graphics throughput issue we've seen with other boards using the Phoenix/Award BIOS. We're hoping it's fixed fairly soon.

You do pay a little more for the additional features. In fact, the Foxconn board costs more than the full-size Abit AG8. But if you need a compact LGA775 board with a robust feature set, then the 915M03 is worth checking out. Continued...

Product: Foxconn 915M03-G-8EKRS
Company: www.foxconn.com
Pros: Good feature set for a Micro ATX board.
Cons: Slightly underperforming.
Summary: This board offers a few additional amenities for a compact board, including ICH6R RAID support, but the performance could be a bit better.
Price: $140 (check prices)
Score:

In an effort to be all things to all people, Gigabyte has designed a board that supports both DDR2/533 and DDR/400 memory. The 8GPNXP has four DDR1 sockets and a pair of DDR2 slots. Note that you can't run both memory types simultaneously, but at least you can use your existing memory currently and then move to DDR2 later, if you like. We tested stability using Memtest 86+, and the board was stable with single-sided DDR DIMMs in all four DDR1 sockets. Gigabyte suggests that more than two double-sided DIMMs are a bad idea.

All our benchmarks were run with 2 x 512MB DDR2/533 modules.

The Gigabyte box is an elaborate, clamshell package that houses the motherboard and primary accessories in one box and a number of optional items in a second package. It's also a nuisance to unpack.

The Gigabyte board's layout is somewhat awkward, a result of a couple of factors. One is the use of an additional (but optional) power regulation module that is, by now, a Gigabyte trademark. If you plan to do a lot of overclocking, you may want to insert this module.

The problem is that this additional module is mounted dangerously close to the CPU active cooler. In fact, some larger coolers may not be able to coexist with this--which defeats its purpose. But it does have a cool, blinking blue LED. The moral is to be sure you check if the CPU cooler will fit.

The other layout problem is in the slot configuration. The floppy and primary parallel ATA slots are directly behind the PCIe x16 graphics card slot. This means that inserting a long graphics card, like the PCIe GeForce 6800GT we used, proved to be a bit awkward.

The ATX I/O cluster gives up an RS-232 port for a pair of coax digital audio ports (one out, one in). This board also directly supports two Gigabit Ethernet ports, one PCIe and one PCI. FireWire is also available, but that requires installing a slot cover bracket. Continued...

Like the ASUS board, the Gigabyte board actually runs with a 202MHz frontside bus clock when you manually set it to 200MHz. We really wish this sort of BIOS one-upmanship would become a thing of the past. Don't get us wrong, if the manufacturer wants to ship with an overclocked FSB, and support it, we think that's great. They should still allow the board to run at stock speeds, though.

The GA-8GPNXP, like the P5GDA, uses an AMI BIOS. This shows up in the SPECviewperf 8.01 test, which essentially runs at full speed on the Gigabyte board. It offers the usual set of tweaks you'd expect. Gigabyte also supplies a software utility to assist in managing tweaks from within Windows.

Overall stability of the Gigabyte board was excellent, even at the tweaked clock rate. But this board ties its ASUS competition as the most expensive board of the roundup. While it offers comparable features and performance, some annoying layout issues keep it from snatching the brass ring. Continued...

Product: Gigabyte GA-8GPNXP Duo
Company: www.giga-byte.com
Pros: Good performance and stability; rich feature set.
Cons: Expensive; odd layout quirks.
Summary: Gigabyte's premium 915 board is a solid contender, but some odd layout decisions detract from an otherwise great product.
Price: $215 (check prices)
Score:
This Soltek board allows current generation Socket-T CPUs to run on older chipsets. There are a couple of potential benefits. If you're heavily invested in AGP graphics cards—having just bought, say, an ATI X800 XT AGP card—then the thought of buying yet another graphics card may be depressing. Also, companies who are invested in system images based on older chipsets can migrate to faster Pentium 4's and still retain those images.

So a board like Soltek's 865Pro-775 has a place, though it is somewhat of a niche player. Still, it was intriguing comparing 865PE performance on DDR400 to the lastest 915 boards running DDR2/533. The net result was mostly a wash, but the Soltek revealed one notable deficiency: The newer chipsets seem to handle multithreading and multitasking more efficiently than the 865PE.


The board layout is a bit cluttered, and the ATX12V cable does pass over or around the CPU socket. Since it's an 865PE board, it lacks any PCIe slots, but does have five 32-bit PCI slots. We ran our benchmarks using an AGP GeForce 6800GT running at default clock rates.

Overall performance tended to trail the 915 boards by a small margin in games and other tests that were memory bandwidth-intensive. However, it did run the SPECviewperf 8.01 test at essentially full speed.

In the end, if you really need a fully AGP compliant board that's capable of LGA775, the Soltek SL-865Pro-775 can certainly do the job. The question is more one of lifespan. Certainly if you're building a new system from scratch, you should consider more modern technologies. Continued...

Product: Soltek SL-865Pro-775
Company: www.soltek.com.tw
Pros: Stable; supports AGP graphics cards; reasonable price.
Cons: Game and multitasking performance lags the 915 set.
Summary: If you need to support older chipset system images and AGP graphics cards, then this Soltek board should get the job done.
Price: $125 (check prices)
Score:

Of the two 915G boards, our nod would go to the Foxconn 915M03, but the AOpen board is certainly capable and inexpensive in its own right. Soltek's 865PE hangs in there for the most part, and is certainly an inexpensive choice if you need to support older AGP graphics cards.

It's pretty apparent that the ASUS P5GD2 is our favorite in this set of motherboards. Its feature set is rich, performance fast, and stability rock solid. But it's far from the only show in town. The Abit AG8 also impressed us with its stability, decent feature set, tweakability, and exceptionally low price. Gigabyte's 8GPNXP is certainly a contender, too, though it's somewhat awkward physical attributes mar an otherwise capable product.

PRODUCT RATING PRICE
Abit AG8 915P Motherboard $125 (check prices)
AOpen I915gm-I 915G $115 (check prices)
ASUS P5GD2 Premium $215 (check prices)
Foxconn 915M03-G-8EKRS $140 (check prices)
Gigabyte GA-8GPNXP $215 (check prices)
Soltek SL-865Pro-775 $124 (check prices)
 
 
 
 
Loyd Case came to computing by way of physical chemistry. He began modestly on a DEC PDP-11 by learning the intricacies of the TROFF text formatter while working on his master's thesis. After a brief, painful stint as an analytical chemist, he took over a laboratory network at Lockheed in the early 80's and never looked back. His first 'real' computer was an HP 1000 RTE-6/VM system.

In 1988, he figured out that building his own PC was vastly more interesting than buying off-the-shelf systems ad he ditched his aging Compaq portable. The Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive from his first homebrew rig is still running today. Since then, he's done some programming, been a systems engineer for Hewlett-Packard, worked in technical marketing in the workstation biz, and even dabbled in 3-D modeling and Web design during the Web's early years.

Loyd was also bitten by the writing bug at a very early age, and even has dim memories of reading his creative efforts to his third grade class. Later, he wrote for various user group magazines, culminating in a near-career ending incident at his employer when a humor-impaired senior manager took exception at one of his more flippant efforts. In 1994, Loyd took on the task of writing the first roundup of PC graphics cards for Computer Gaming World -- the first ever written specifically for computer gamers. A year later, Mike Weksler, then tech editor at Computer Gaming World, twisted his arm and forced him to start writing CGW's tech column. The gaming world -- and Loyd -- has never quite recovered despite repeated efforts to find a normal job. Now he's busy with the whole fatherhood thing, working hard to turn his two daughters into avid gamers. When he doesn't have his head buried inside a PC, he dabbles in downhill skiing, military history and home theater.
 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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