Socket 939 Motherboard Showdown

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2004-09-17 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

It wasn't easy, but we managed to find four motherboards built for AMD's Socket 939 format using updated chipsets from VIA and nVidia. Which one is the right base for your high-end Athlon 64 system?

There aren't a lot of Socket 939 processors out there—the vast majority of Athlon 64 CPUs sold are the Socket 754 variety. That's sort of a shame, since the 128 bit memory interface of Socket 939 offers a nice little performance boost. We also expect AMD's desktop dual-core processors, scheduled to release in about a year, to plug into Socket 939, so it offers a clear upgrade path. Sure the Socket 939 chips are more expensive, but you can get an Athlon 64 3500+ for under $400, so that's no longer a great excuse.

Having said all this, why aren't we seeing a lot more Socket 939 motherboards on the market? Both nVidia and VIA recently released updated versions of their Athlon 64 chipsets, including improved Hyper-Transport link speed and a handful of other tweaks, but most of these are showing up in Socket 754 motherboards. Still, we managed to get our hands on final retail units of four new Socket 939 boards. Three of them use VIA's new K8T800 Pro chipset, and one uses the nForce 3 Ultra from nVidia.

When will we see more 939 boards? Our guess is that Socket 939 chip prices will fall in about 3 to 4 months, around the same time Athlon 64 chipsets appear to support PCI Express (PCIe). That confluence of events should result in a bigger wave of 939 motherboards. If you're not waiting to upgrade, or you want to make use of your existing AGP graphics card, you'll want to check out one of the four boards reviewed here.

Feature Comparison and Test Setup
These are all considered high-end boards, and are all based on new chipsets with a ton of great features. They all include Serial ATA RAID, gigabit Ethernet, and multi-channel AC '97 audio. All have four memory slots, one AGP slot, and five PCI slots. In fact, in terms of raw features, they're more alike than different. What does set them apart is reliability, board layout, and small differentials in performance.

Here's how the basic features stack up:

North Bridge South Bridge Slots Audio Drive Connections RAID USB / 1394 Ethernet
ASUS A8V Deluxe VIA K8T800 Pro VIA 8237 1 AGP, 5 PCI Realtek ALC850 2 PATA, 4 SATA (two from VIA 8237, two from Promise 20378 controller) VIA 8237 and Promise 20378 both support RAID 0, 1, or JBOD 8 USB 2.0, 2 FireWire Marvell 88E8001 Gigabit Ethernet
MSI K8T Neo 2 VIA K8T800 Pro VIA 8237 1 AGP, 5 PCI RealTek ALC850 2 PATA, 4 SATA (two from VIA 8237, two from Promise 20579 controller) VIA 8237 and Promise 20579 both support RAID 0, 1, or JBOD 8 USB 2.0, 3 FireWire Realtek 8110S Gigabit Ethernet
MSI K8N Neo 2 nVidia nForce 3 250gb None 1 AGP, 5 PCI RealTek ALC850 2 PATA, 4 SATA Both PATA and SATA ports support RAID 0, 1, or JBOD 8 USB 2.0, 2 FireWire Realtek 8110S Gigabit Ethernet, nVidia Gigabit Ethernet
Abit AV8 VIA K8T800 Pro VIA 8237 1 AGP, 5 PCI RealTek ALC 658 2 PATA, 2 SATA VIA 8237 SATA supports RAID 0, 1, or JBOD 8 USB 2.0, 2 FireWire VIA 6212 Gigabit Ethernet

We paired each of the motherboards with an Athlon 64 FX-53 CPU and a pair of 512MB Kingston HyperX DDR400 memory modules. Here's the complete test-bed setup:

    • AMD Athlon 64 FX-53
    • 2X512MB Kingston HyperX DDR400 memory, CAS 2.5
    • ATI Radeon X800 XT, Catalyst 4.9 drivers
    • Sound Blaster Audigy 2
    • Seagate Barracuda 160GB SATA
    • ASUS DVD+RW drive
    • Micron 19" monitor
    • Fresh install of Windows XP Pro Service Pack 2
    • DirectX 9.0c

    We made sure each board was running the latest official drivers and BIOS revisions from each vendor before testing. Many retail boxed motherboards ship with some sort of slight overclocking already enabled, or a measure of dynamic overclocking turned on. We disable all of this in the BIOS, running at stock speeds and voltages for the CPU, RAM, AGP bus, and everything else. It's straight-up performance and stability we're concerned with here, not figuring out which vendor can send us the best hand-selected overclocked motherboard.

    We've begun to phase out the dated Business Winstone and Content Creation Winstone benchmarks, and not a moment too soon: They don't work with Service Pack 2 for Windows XP and haven't been patched yet. Replacing those tests will be BAPCo's SYSmark 2004, a larger benchmark suite that performs similar real-world tests—one suite for internet content creation, one for business applications.

    Overall system performance as measured by SYSmark is extremely close, closer than we've seen in past motherboard roundups. The differences are small enough to be within the statistical margin of error, in fact. All four boards are extremely fast, and bring out the best in the Athlon 64 FX-53 CPU.

    We also determine PC performance with PCMark 2004, the latest benchmark from FutureMark. This version has expanded on the limited repertoire of the original. FutureMark has added several multithreaded tests, as well as expanded to include storage and graphics. We'll look at the overall score as well as the CPU, memory, and hard disk tests. PCMark tests are synthetic—they don't run actual applications—but they call upon commonly used algorithms such as JPEG decoding, WMV video encoding, find-and-replace searches, and so on. PCMark tests are small and tend to fit in the L2 caches of current high-end CPUs, so system bus performance and the like are somewhat minimized.

    Just as with SYSmark, the more-synthetic PCMark 2004 scores are so close together that the differences are "in the noise." Perhaps some other real-world application tests will show a greater variance in performance.

    For our video encoding tests, we ran Windows Media Encoder 9 to recompress a high bitrate AVI file into a 1 megabit CBR WMV9 file, with "CD quality" audio (640x480 video, 16-bit / 44.1KHz audio). Our DivX compression test uses the popular freeware and DivX 5.2. We tested audio compression by converting a 248MB .wav file into WMA9 at the generic "CD Quality" setting using Windows Media Encoder.
    We were hoping perhaps media-encoding tests would show one motherboard to perform better than the others. It's a little disappointing that they don't, but it's good to see everyone running so well.

    The first of our two workstation tests is the SPECviewperf 8.01 suite, which runs a suite of applications that mimic the OpenGL real-time performance of popular content-creation tools such as 3ds max and Maya. It's not unlike 3DMark, only it uses code modules that contain the actual graphics engines from the applications under test. The SPECviewperf benchmark gives results for each of the eight application benchmarks, we average them and present that composite score here. To give a rough idea of offline 3D rendering, we also used Maxon's Cinebench 2003 benchmark, based on the company's Cinema4D engine, which can be found at www.cinebench.com. The readme file goes into substantial detail on the design of the benchmark.
    So do the realtime 3D workstation app tests start to show one motherboard outpacing the others? Nope. Nobody really lags behind, and nobody comes out ahead. The story is the same with Cinebench. Never has a product roundup shown such even-handed performance.

    We ran 3DMark 2003's CPU test, which consists of the frame rate for Game Tests 1 and 3 at low resolution with software vertex shaders. Our real-world game tests include four titles we know to be CPU-limited with high-end graphics hardware: Unreal Tournament 2004, Halo, Painkiller, and Doom 3. These were all run at a resolution of 640x480 with graphics details turned up all the way (so that more detailed models and higher-resolution textures would fill up more system RAM and put more strain on the system bus).

    Product ABIT AV8
    Web Site: www.abit-usa.com
    Pros: Real-time tweaking software (microGuru); rotated parallel IDE ports to reduce cable clutter.
    Cons: A couple of board layout quirks; only two SATA ports.
    Summary: A good board for tweakers and overclockers, provided they only need two SATA ports.
    Price: $116 (check prices)
    Score:

    ASUS has built a good reputation for producing solid motherboards, and their K8V, based on the K8T800 chip that preceded the K8T800 Pro, is one of our favorite standbys. It's no wonder that their update based on the latest revision of VIA's chipset is a great motherboard as well.

    The layout of the board is pretty standard fare, with no major access problems. Both parallel and SATA drive connectors are placed logically, and most of the internal USB leads are on the bottom edge where they won't get in the way. The main power connector is on the upper front edge of the board near the IDE connectors, which is probably the most common location, and it works well. Front panel connectors are colored and labeled well enough that you probably won't have to dig out the manual to figure out where the power switch lead goes. The back panel has four USB, one FireWire, and one gigabit Ethernet jack, plus plenty of audio options—six 1/8" stereo jacks, optical Toslink, and coax SPDIF.

    The south bridge on K8T800 Pro boards are the same as they were on the K8T800, so the same set of basic capabilities is there. The VT8237 chip provides two SATA ports with support for RAID configurations, and a separate Promise controller gives you two more and one extra parallel IDE port.

    BIOS options for overclockers are a bit improved over the old model, though. Lots of options let you adjust RAM timings, and you can adjust core CPU clock speeds (analogous to front-side bus speeds on other CPUs) from the basic 200MHz up to 215MHz in 1MHz increments. Voltages for the CPU, RAM, AGP slot, and HyperTransport link can all be tweaked, too. AGP and PCI speeds can be locked down so you can overclock the CPU without making those ports unstable.

    Our version of the board came with an 802.11g WiFi card and antenna, though versions are available without those for a few dollars less. It's a nice extra, but not something strictly necessary in full-size ATX motherboards.

    In all, this is really just a simple update of the K8V Deluxe, using the newer K8T800 Pro revision of the chip that increases HyperTransport speed from 800MHz to 1GHz and offers better overclocking options. That's not a bad thing, but we wish ASUS would have done more to advance the platform.

    Product ASUS A8V Deluxe
    Web Site: www.asus.com
    Pros: Solid and reliable, good board layout, plenty of options for overclockers
    Cons: Not really very different from the previous K8V Deluxe
    Summary: You won’t go wrong with this board, but we’re disappointed it’s such a minor update of their previous socket 939 model
    Price: $134 (check prices)
    Score:

    If the K8N is the nVidia-based board from MSI, why is the VIA-based board the K8T? Why not the K8V? Incongruous naming conventions aside, this is a solid motherboard that has more than just a passing resemblance to the ASUS A8V. The board layout is very similar, the feature sets are nearly identical, and performance is about the same. Curiously, game benchmarks were a few percent lower across the board than with the other products, even though all BIOS settings were comparable and all other test gear identical. It even comes in a Wi-Fi model that includes a PCI 802.11g card and external antenna which looks almost identical to the one ASUS includes.

    Board layout is fairly standard, with the CPU socket near the top of the board, four RAM slots to the front of it, and the IDE, floppy, and power connector to the front of them. All four SATA ports are easily accessible, with two provided by the VT8237 south bridge and two more from a Promise controller (which, like the ASUS board, adds one more parallel IDE port. Front panel connectors are color coded and well labeled.

    The back I/O panel looks a lot like most these days, with five 1/8" stereo jacks for 5.1 audio, optical Toslink, and coaxial SPDIF. There's actually a pair of FireWire jacks back there—a full sized 6-pin one and a small 4-pin.

    BIOS options are pretty good, and we're beginning to sound like a broken record for saying so. You can adjust CPU, RAM, AGP, and HyperTransport voltages, lock the AGP frequency, and tweak front-side bus and CPU multiplier. There are dynamic overclocking options with various levels of severity, including 1%, 3%, 5%, and 7%.

    This is a quality motherboard, but like the ASUS A8V we can't help but wish it pushed the envelope a bit further. It's just a simple upgrade of previous K8T800 models to the new "Pro" chipset.

    Product: MSI K8T Neo2
    Web Site: www.msicomputer.com
    Pros: Good board layout, four SATA connectors, both 6-pin and 4-pin FireWire ports on back.
    Cons: There’s nothing really bad, it just doesn’t make the leap to greatness.
    Summary: A solid, well-featured but unremarkable Athlon 64 motherboard. It’s a good buy, but not something worth bragging about.
    Price: $120 (check prices)
    Score:

    The second board from MSI in our roundup also has the distinction of being the only one not using the K8T800 Pro chipset. Boards using nVidia's nForce 3 Ultra chipset have been hard to come by, even more so if you want a Socket 939 variant.

    Compared with most of the full-size ATX motherboards we see, the K8N Neo 2 has an interesting and unique layout. The CPU socket is pushed down somewhat from the top edge of the board, and rotated 90 degrees. Instead of locating the RAM slots toward the front edge, they too are rotated 90 degrees and instead run along the top edge. It's an interesting arrangement without any real major drawbacks or benefits, save one: If you use a large, oversize CPU cooler, it may block access to your IDE ports. Another design curiosity: Two of the SATA ports are located between the CPU and back I/O panel, near the AGP card. Why is this? They're nowhere near where your drives would be located, and it means you need to route SATA cables past the CPU cooler.

    When you take a look at the back panel, though, you notice one of the nicest features of this board. Sure it's got the standard set of 1/8" jacks, Toslink optical, and coax SPDIF, along with 4 USB ports and a FireWire jack. But it's got two gigabit Ethernet jacks, not just one. One is provided by the nForce 3 Ultra chipset, the other by a Realtek controller. In these days of increased home networking, dual Ethernet jacks can come in surprisingly handy.

    The software side of things is much like it has been with nVidia's nForce chipsets, with a good unified driver approach but not a lot of tweaking and monitoring software. You can grab an Nvidia System Utility application from the company's web site. This allows for lots of real-time tweaking, but it's not included on the CD that came with MSI's board. The biggest addition in the nForce 3 line is the nVidia Firewall, a detailed and very capable personal firewall that integrates directly with the chipset.

    Performance is right in line with most of the other new socket 939 boards, not faster or slower enough to be significant. There are scads of BIOS options for tweakers: You can adjust everything under the sun from RAM timings to voltages and bus speeds or clock multipliers, and there's an option to adjust the AGP frequency independently of all other settings in 1MHz increments, from the default 66MHz all the way up to 100MHz. At stock settings, our test system ran well, but it was about on par with MSI's VIA-based 939 board, not quite as fast as those from ABIT and ASUS. All differences in performance are small enough to be within the statistical margin of error, so your buying decision really shouldn't come down to raw performance, but rather hardware, software, and BIOS features.

    Product MSI K8N Neo2
    Web Site: www.msicomputer.com
    Pros: Dual gigabit Ethernet, nVidia Firewall, and 4 SATA connectors
    Cons: Two SATA connectors are put in a bad location, expensive
    Summary: We love the dual Ethernet, but if you plan to populate all four SATA ports the layout can be annoying.
    Price: $139 (check prices)
    Score:

    It's a bit disappointing to visit major online retailer sites and find only three or four Socket 939 motherboards in stock. When the socket format was restricted to just a couple of ultra-high-end CPUs, this may have been excusable, but now that prices are dropping, we would hope to see more variety. The Socket 754 motherboard market is thriving for Athlon 64s while 939 languishes.

    This is probably because vendors don't want to commit heavily to "in between" chipsets like the K8T800 Pro and nForce 3 Ultra when there are far more substantial upgrades on the way. PCI Express (PCIe) chipsets for Athlon 64 processors are only a couple short months from flooding the market, and it's likely that most of the vendors are waiting for the substantial upgrades coming with nForce 4 and K8T900. The solutions from nVidia will continue to use only a single chip, while VIA presses forward with work on a new south bridge, too.

    Should you wait for one of the new PCIe enabled boards? Without reviewing them and uncovering any potential reliability problems, it's hard to say for sure. There's plenty of life left in AGP and DDR, but PCIe and DDR2 are clearly the future. Note, however, that the first generation of Athlon 64 PCIe boards will use DDR1, because of the embedded memory controller in the Athlon 64 die. Until AMD integrates a new memory controller onto the die, Athlon 64 systems will be limited to DDR1. That said, significant gains in performance probably won't be seen until DDR2/667 is supported. Those who need to build a computer now will be well served by the updated K8T800 Pro and nForce 3 Ultra chipsets. If the purchase is less urgent, it's almost always better to wait and see if the new thing is really that much better.

    All four of these boards are so similar that it's quite hard to seriously recommend one over another; none of them will do you wrong. Out of four products reviewed, three scored an "8" and one scored a "7" so choosing between them is less a case of "which is best" and more a case of "which is best for me?" They all have comparable BIOS features for tweakers and overclockers, a vast array of settings that should satisfy anyone willing to gamble with their system stability and lifespan in the name of added performance. They all offer lots of USB and FireWire ports, gigabit Ethernet, and lackluster AC'97 audio that is best replaced with an add-in sound card. Though there is some variation in performance, the differences are small enough to essentially call it a wash. The only things left are board layout, software, and price.

    If you're really into tweaking and tuning, we recommend the ABIT AV8 for its microGuru software. If you find yourself always fiddling with home networking, the dual Ethernet ports and great firewall software on the MSI K8N Neo 2 make it a winner. But our overall top pick goes to the ASUS A8V. We're disappointed that it's so similar to their previous K8V, but the board layout and performance are among the best of the bunch.

 
 
 
 
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.

 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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