Summary: Based on the SiS 645 chipset, Soyo's P4S Dragon Ultra is aimed squarely at hardware enthusiasts. With USB 2.0, onboard ATA/133 RAID, and bus speeds up to 255MHz, it's hard to find anything wrong with this board. See why we were so impressed with this motherboard in our P4S Dragon Ultra review.
It’s been awhile since we’ve evaluated a Soyo motherboard but the company certainly hasn’t gone away. The last Soyo board we officially reviewed, the 6BA+IV was one of the best 2nd-generation BX motherboards, its HighPoint RAID controller and jumperless configuration appealed to the enthusiast market, a segment Soyo was building solid ground with. In much the same way as ABIT has built a name for itself in the overclocking community with its SoftMenu BIOS and excellent feature set, Soyo was aiming for similar success.
However as motherboard design evolved and the tastes and preferences of consumers changed, Soyo was slow to adapt, and as a result its boards fell out of grace with hardware enthusiasts. Instead of implementing more advanced BIOS interfaces and feature sets, Soyo’s motherboards seemed to appeal to the OEM segment. Then, towards the latter half of 2001, everything changed. Overclocking became a concern again as Soyo implemented 1MHz bus speed adjustments in the BIOS of some of its motherboards. Soyo was essentially getting back to the basics that made it such a popular name among the overclocking crowd. However, things in the market have changed quite a bit in the past two years, while ABIT is still well respected in the overclocking segment, Epox has begun to establish itself as a worthy competitor. Does Soyo have what it takes to reenter this competitive market? We’ll be examining how the P4S Dragon stacks up to its competitors but first lets take a closer look at the board itself.
Based on the SiS 645 chipset, the P4S Dragon blends the features normally found in an enthusiasts’ board with the cost of a more mainstream product. Or at least that was Soyo’s plan when developing the P4S Dragon. Thanks to the SiS 645 chipset, the P4S Dragon supports DDR200, DDR266, and DDR333 all in the same package. The chipset also natively supports six bus mastered PCI slots and up to 3GB of memory. Normally a chipset packed with so many features commands a higher price tag, but SiS is actually pricing the 645 chipset to move. As a result, motherboard manufacturers such as Soyo are charging less for their SiS 645 products than their equivalent products based on Intel’s 845 chipset.
SIDEBAR: P4S Dragon Ultra Product Webpage
In addition to the SiS 645 chipset, Soyo adds a few additional goodies on the P4S Dragon to make it even more appealing to hardware enthusiasts. For instance, Soyo includes a mail-in rebate for a free USB 2.0 controller inside the retail packaging of the P4S Dragon. While it’s a bit disappointing that the controller isn’t onboard the motherboard itself, by utilizing an external PCI card end users have the ultimate in flexibility. Just think if you wish to upgrade an older computer to USB 2.0 just plug in the card and you’re good to go! If you don’t mind giving up a PCI slot, this may be the ideal solution for many of you. But hopefully Soyo is prompt at getting USB 2.0 cards in the hands of its customers.
Onboard IDE RAID
Besides the added USB connectivity, Soyo also added HighPoint’s HPT372 ATA/133 IDE RAID controller to the mix. This gives the board full support of the latest IDE hard drives as well as up to eight IDE devices. The HighPoint controller itself supports RAID Levels 0, 1, and 0+1 all in the same package. In comparison, many motherboard manufacturers utilize Promise’s IDE RAID controller. Some of these motherboards only support RAID 0 or RAID 1, or have other weird quirks that aren’t present on the motherboards with HighPoint controllers.
To top it all off, Soyo adds six-channel audio to the package via C-Media’s 8738 audio chip. While we normally frown on onboard audio, the 8738 is a considerable upgrade from the norm. Soyo even includes the S/PDIF bracket for connecting all six speakers to your PC.
While the P4S Dragon supports up to 3GB of memory via its three DIMM sockets, one caveat you’ll have to keep in mind is that only two of those sockets can be used when the board is running with PC2700 (DDR333) memory. In PC1600 or 2100 mode, all three DIMM sockets can be used. This is a limitation of the SiS 645 chipset itself and is something you’ll have to keep in mind on any SiS 645 motherboard.
The layout and design of the board itself is fairly average. For instance, the aesthetics of the board are exemplary. With the P4S Dragon, Soyo has implemented a distinctive black printed circuit board with purple PCI slots, a unique color combination that we find very appealing. Soyo has integrated a Power LED on the bottom of the motherboard so you’ll instantly know the moment the P4S Dragon receives power, making motherboard troubleshooting easier. In addition, Soyo has done an excellent job labeling the components on the motherboard itself, the pins for all of the external headers are clearly labeled, as are the pins for other system components. As a result, an experienced system builder could easily get the P4S Dragon up and running without ever opening the motherboard manual.
Soyo provides four fan headers on the P4S Dragon. This allows end users more than enough flexibility when it comes to cooling components installed on the motherboard. Also included in the overkill department is the heatsink/fan combo on the North Bridge of the SiS 645 chipset itself. In our experience, we’ve found that the North Bridge hardly gets warm to the touch during operation. In fact, the SiS reference design doesn’t even include a heatsink on the North Bridge of the chipset.
So what knocks the P4S Dragon’s board design down to “average” status? First of all, the board itself is rather large. While the P4S Dragon is by no means the largest board we’ve tested, it is slightly larger than the samples we’ve received from the previous king of manufacturing large motherboards, ASUS. This shouldn’t be a huge issue to the P4S Dragon’s target market, but it is something to keep in mind if you have a small case.
Our biggest gripe however is with the location of the IDE and floppy connectors. Despite being such a large motherboard all four IDE connectors obstruct PCI slots. We were beginning to overlook this limitation as an increasing number of motherboard manufacturers are beginning to do this, but with the GeForce4’s release, this is something end users must keep in mind. With its 128MB of memory onboard, the GeForce4 is one long board. Our reference GeForce4 board was able to fit on the P4S Dragon, but the IDE cables had to be slightly bent to get the board to sit in the AGP slot properly.
SIDEBAR: The P4S Dragon also sports a header for Smartcard readers
The P4S Dragon has one of the most powerful BIOS implementations we’ve seen recently. Not only are bus speeds in 1MHz increments present, the P4S Dragon also allows voltage manipulation of the AGP bus and DDR memory sockets, as well as the CPU itself. For inexperienced computer users, Soyo has created three basic profiles in the system performance setting – normal, fast, and turbo. If you’re hesitant to play with BIOS settings, simply try each of these settings to find the one that’s best for your system.
In addition, the Soyo BIOS has adjustable memory timings in the “advance tune-up settings” menu. Here you can play with your memory’s latency as well as a few AGP settings.
The main feature overclockers will be interested in however is the “CPU clock” setting. This option allows you to choose bus speeds from 100-255MHz in 1MHz increments, giving end users more than enough settings to try when overclocking. Once you’ve got your bus speed dialed in, the memory bus can be adjusted accordingly with the “CPU:DRAM:Clock Ratio” setting. Memory bus speeds of 100MHz, 133MHz, and 166MHz are available at the touch of a button, with the current clock speed displayed below this setting.
Other than all the goodies mentioned above (which can all be found in the Soyo Combo Feature menu), the P4S Dragon’s BIOS interface is pretty much standard fare. Like all of the newer motherboard’s that utilize the Award interface, a help menu is present on the right side of the screen, which provides a brief description for some of the BIOS settings.
With so many tweaking options available, we give the P4S Dragon’s BIOS interface a solid thumbs up. And while it presents its users with a plethora of settings to choose from, the system performance setting makes things easier for untested users who still want to get as much performance as possible from their system.
While we were able to get our P4S Dragon board stable at up to 135MHz, the memory timings we had to use were so conservative that it made the overclocking experience a bit unsatisfying. Therefore, we settled on a bus speed of 106MHz with the multiplier of our Pentium 4 2.0GHz unchanged at 20.0x. This makes our overclocked numbers a bit more realistic, as retail Pentium 4 chips aren’t able to run with the clock multiplier at a lower 15.0x or 16.0x setting.
Intel Pentium 4 2.0GHz
ABIT TH7II-RAID (i850)
ASUS P4B266 (i845 DDR)
SOYO P4S Dragon Ultra
SiS 645 reference motherboard
256MB Corsair PC2100 DDR SDRAM
NVIDIA GeForce3 Ti 500 reference board
Driver version Detonator 23.11
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA/100 Hard Drive
AFREEY 12X DVD-ROM
Windows XP Professional
Desktop Resolution: 1024x768x32
3DMark2000 ver 1.1 – 16-bit, 16-bit textures
3Dmark2000 – Directx 7
3DMark 2001 - DirectX 8
The P4S Dragon Ultra isn’t quite able to keep up with the reference board in 3DMark 2000 or 2001, but it competes closely with the ASUS P4B266 in both tests, winning some battles while losing others. Lets take a closer look with the framerate results with 3DMark 2001.
3DMark 2001 - Car Chase
3DMark 2001 - Dragothic
3DMark 2001 - Lobby
3DMark 2001 - Nature
Serious Sam - OpenGL
Once again the P4S Dragon isn’t quite able to keep up with SiS’s reference board, but we do see that the board comes out on top among retail DDR boards. Once overclocked, the P4S Dragon becomes quite a strong platform.
Quake III - High Quality
The P4S Dragon continues to score well when running with 333MHz DDR memory, although its 266MHz scores are a bit behind the 845 platform. Of course, once you crank up the resolution, the video card plays a larger factor than the motherboard.
Return To Castle Wolfenstein MP Test
Wolfenstein is much more CPU-limited than Quake 3 and Serious Sam, as a result the platforms represented here perform much more closely. You’ll be hard pressed to see a difference here.
The P4S Dragon outperforms all the other Pentium 4 platforms we tested in SYSmark 2001, including the SiS 645 reference and ABIT’s TH7II-RAID board with Rambus RDRAM.
SiS 645 chipset: With full support of DDR 200, DDR266, and DDR333, the SiS 645 chipset is arguably the most versatile of the Pentium 4 chipsets currently available. VIA’s P4X266A chipset is a definite competitor, but legal problems between VIA and Intel have limited this chipset’s presence here in the US. The SiS 645 chipset is also easy to setup, the only drivers you have to install for the chipset are the AGP driver and drivers for sound and networking. If you’ve had your fair share of hassles with VIA’s 4-in-1 drivers, this is a definite blessing.
Price: While we feel the P4S Dragon Ultra is well priced considering its features, some may still find its price tag a bit too much to swallow for a motherboard based on the SiS 645 chipset. With most SiS 645 boards commanding prices in the $100 price range, the $150 price tag of the P4S Dragon Ultra may be a bit too much for some consumers. Soyo should probably consider a stripped version of the Ultra without the onboard RAID and USB 2.0 that retails around the $100 price point most other SiS 645 boards are currently going for.
Soyo’s P4S Dragon Ultra scores a direct hit in our opinion. With most motherboard manufacturers deciding to place their SiS 645 products in the value segment of their Pentium 4 lineups, hardware enthusiasts that want the SiS 645 chipset aren’t left with many options. ABIT’s SD7-533 doesn’t offer onboard RAID or USB 2.0; the same applies for the ASUS P4S333.
The only competitor that has stepped up to the challenge is Epox and even it doesn’t offer six-channel audio or USB 2.0 support. While it’s disappointing to see such a strong chipset stripped of the placement it deserves consumers benefit by getting such a powerful platform at an incredibly inexpensive price – many SiS 645 motherboards can easily be found for under $100 on Pricewatch! When you consider the absence of SiS 735 products on the market, it’s good to see SiS making some inroads among motherboard manufacturers. Hopefully SiS can build on this momentum to bring even more inexpensive chipsets to consumers, it’s certainly surprising to see Pentium 4 motherboards priced so inexpensively.
Soyo deserves tons of credit for building such a powerful product on the SiS 645 chipset. The P4S Dragon Ultra delivers everything we look for in an enthusiast board: a plethora of bus speeds to choose from, a strong BIOS interface that is powerful yet easy to use, performance, and all the IDE and USB goodies we’ve come to expect from high-end products. Soyo wraps all this up in a package that is attractively priced and very well rounded (with the software bundle and USB box being perfect examples). Soyo has an excellent product on its hands with the P4S Dragon Ultra, which is why it’s our hands down choice for the best SiS 645 motherboard currently available on the market.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of the P4S Dragon? Are you interested in a SiS 645 motherboard or do you plan on sticking with 845? Voice your thoughts in the news comments!
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