Summary: Up to this point, NVIDIA's nForce4 chipset has dominated the AMD motherboard market among enthusiasts, but what if we told you Sapphire and ATI have been working on an alternative to nForce4 Ultra? The product? Sapphire's PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480. Join us as we take a look at this XPRESS 200 motherboard!
With all these flashy new features, many enthusiasts forgot about alternative offerings from ATI and VIA -- once the first wave of retail motherboards based on the nForce4 chipset hit store shelves, they were quickly picked up, catapulting NVIDIA’s market share to the favorable position it enjoys today.
But NVIDIA isn’t the only player in the AMD chipset business that’s been gaining share lately. Archrival ATI has been too. In fact, ATI’s chipset division has been doing extraordinarily well lately. At the end of Q3, ATI’s desktop integrated business revenues quadrupled year-over-year. This was due in large part thanks to surging sales of their XPRESS 200 chipset for both AMD and Intel platforms, which picked up design wins with a number of OEMs and system integrators. Tier One motherboard manufacturers such as MSI and Gigabyte have signed on as well.
The XPRESS 200 chipset has proven popular with these manufacturers on the AMD platform in large part due to the XPRESS 200’s unique position as the only chipset on the market to offer an integrated graphics core. Neither NVIDIA or VIA have delivered an integrated solution for the AMD platform, giving ATI a distinct advantage which they’ve exploited over the past few months – NVIDIA’s C51 chipset is expected to finally integrate an as yet unannounced graphics core (it’s rumored to be a variant of the GeForce 6200 TC) onto the nForce4 platform, but the chipset hasn’t officially launched yet and isn’t expected to debut until the end of this month, while VIA’s plans for an integrated chipset are even further off.
Until then, ATI’s XPRESS 200 chipset will continue to flourish. PC manufacturers have been using XPRESS 200 in their value offerings, which are typically paired with Sempron and budget Athlon 64 CPUs. These $500 PCs pack a pretty good punch, especially in comparison to equivalent Intel-based offerings, thanks in large part due to their superior DX9 graphics and the strength of the CPU.
Now Sapphire is bringing their own XPRESS 200 motherboard to market, and they’re targeting a totally different segment: hardware enthusiasts.
Normally when you think of Sapphire, the first thought that comes to mind is their excellent line of ATI-based graphics cards, which are sold under the Hybrid, TOXIC, and ULTIMATE Edition brands. On this front, the Sapphire brand is well established, as one of ATI’s largest and oldest board partners, they’ve developed an excellent track record for building great products. Now, with the help of ATI’s platform division, Sapphire’s taking that expertise and applying it to their PURE motherboard line, the Sapphire PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 is the first fruit from that effort.
By now you’re probably wondering how experienced Sapphire is at making motherboards. What you may not know is that the PI-A9RX480 isn’t Sapphire’s first motherboard. In fact, it isn’t their second, third, fourth, or fifth either. Sapphire’s been in the motherboard business for quite awhile, we’ve seen quite a few of their motherboards on display at Computex and other trade shows in the past, this is however Sapphire’s first real attempt at getting their feet wet in the US motherboard market under the Sapphire brand, previously they’ve focused their efforts overseas. In fact, Sapphire’s parent company, PC Partner, has quite a bit of experience producing motherboards. One quick glance at PC Partner’s website reveals an extensive line of products.
Now Sapphire’s going after the market hardcore, and as we just mentioned, ATI’s platform division – the same guys who developed the “Bullhead” and “Grouper” RADEON XPRESS 200 reference boards – have been playing a key role along the way during the board’s development. ATI first briefed us on the project back in January, just before the PI-A9RX480’s debut at the Computex tradeshow earlier this year. ATI was just as determined as Sapphire to show enthusiasts what the XPRESS 200 chipset could do. This is why they sponsored the overclocking competition at the Texas Gaming Festival (TXGF) back in February of this year. At the TXGF event, ATI gathered three of the top overclockers in the world to overclock their XPRESS 200 reference board and an Athlon 64 FX-55 processor to speeds in excess of 3.7GHz!
Sapphire’s PI-A9RX480 builds largely on the ATI XPRESS 200 Grouper reference board. In fact, with the exception of a couple of minute changes, the PI-A9RX480 is largely the same as the reference motherboard used for overclocking at TXGF.
The PI-A9RX480 is based on ATI’s RADEON XPRESS 200 chipset, in particular, the board is composed of the RX480 North Bridge and ATI’s SB450 South Bridge. Since it’s targeted towards enthusiasts, the PI-A9RX480 doesn’t feature integrated graphics, unlike earlier XPRESS 200 motherboards. To avoid any confusion, it’s also important to note that the PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 isn’t a CrossFire board. While it was first announced at Computex back in June, retail CrossFire products are still officially missing in action. Until then, the PI-A9RX480 is intended to take on nForce4 Ultra motherboards head-on.
From a features perspective, the PI-A9RX480 is well equipped for this mission. The board supports all they key features you’d expect to find in an enthusiast level nForce4 Ultra motherboard. Its SB450 South Bridge natively supports four Serial ATA hard drives (with RAID 0,1 support), while an additional storage controller from Silicon Image (the Sil 3132) adds support for two more Serial ATA hard disk drives, bringing total support for up to six drives. The Sil 3132 isn’t your average SATA storage controller either, supporting such features as native command queuing (NCQ) and 3Gbps Serial ATA II transfer speeds. To ensure optimal performance, the Sil 3132 utilizes an x1 PCI Express link, good for up to 2.5Gbps.
For networking duties, Sapphire skips ATI’s SB450 South Bridge, opting instead to use a Gigabit Ethernet network controller from Marvell, the 88E8052. Like the Silicon Image controller, the 88E8052 is a PCI-E device. This is important, as an older PCI-based GigE network controller could theoretically saturate the PCI bus with one large file transfer.
By sticking with PCI-E devices for their network and storage controllers, Sapphire ensures that the PCI bus’ 133MB/sec of peak bandwidth won’t bottleneck these components.
One of the chief criticisms that was directed towards the XPRESS 200 chipset and the Bullhead reference platform in particular was its plain-jane 5.1 audio support. As a result, board partners relied on South Bridge solutions from ALi to get around this. Fortunately this oversight has been corrected in ATI’s newer SB450 South Bridge, with the chipset natively supporting Intel’s High Definition “Azalia” 7.1 audio.
To round out the package, Sapphire uses VIA’s popular VIAFire VT6307 FireWire controller. The VT6307 is one of the older FireWire controllers on the market and can be found on dozens of motherboards we’ve tested. As such, it’s bound by the PCI bus. Finally, Sapphire includes four USB ports on the back plate of the PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 board itself. Since the motherboard ships without an external USB header, these are all the ports the board supports out-of-the-box.
As we mentioned earlier, Sapphire’s PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 board is based on ATI’s “Grouper” reference board for the XPRESS 200 chipset. Unlike the original “Bullhead” reference XPRESS 200 board, which was more of a proof-of-concept, “Grouper” was designed from the ground up for performance and high clock speeds. ATI feels that no punches were pulled in designing Grouper – like many reference motherboards the Grouper board was overbuilt – so the PI-A9RX480 starts off from a solid base.
The most distinctive feature you’ve no doubt noticed is the board’s white PCB. In addition to the white PCB, you’ll note the board’s red memory sockets and IDE connectors, while the PCI-E slots and SATA ports are colored burgundy. Definitely an interesting color combination don’t you think? In addition, like DFI’s LANPARTY boards, the PURE Innovation’s slots glow under UV light.
But an exotic coloring scheme isn’t the only technique Sapphire employs to target enthusiasts, the board also sports power and reset buttons on the board itself, which may come in handy for starting up or resetting the board during troubleshooting (it certainly made things easy for us during testing). Sapphire also outfits the board with red LEDs for the power LED and system standby LED. But that’s not all, as Sapphire even includes Serial ATA and IDE drive activity LEDs! One LED is responsible for Serial ATA ports 0-3, while a second LED is used for port 4. Finally, Sapphire uses two LEDs for the primary and secondary IDE controllers. All this adds up to give you a wealth of information about your disk drives.
Another positive that the PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 board has going for it is its passive cooling. Unlike nForce4 Ultra, and even ATI’s own XPRESS 200 reference boards, the PI-A9RX480 is able to get by completely with just heatsinks, no fan is required to keep the North Bridge of the chipset cool. Sapphire even employs heatsinks on the South Bridge and multiple voltage regulator modules – one massive heatsink sits near the VRM circuitry next to the CPU socket, while smaller, individual heatsinks can be found near the RX480 North Bridge. As we said earlier, ATI and Sapphire designed this board for high clock speeds.
Sapphire’s got more tricks up their sleeve for enthusiasts though. With the RADEON X850 XT series requiring a dual-slot cooler, Sapphire leaves plenty of room between the x16 PCI-E graphics slot and the first x1 PCI-E slot for a dual slot graphics card like the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition.
The rest of the board’s layout is pretty good as well. While the area around the CPU socket is pretty crowded, we were able to mount our oversized AMD reference cooler with no problems. Sapphire doesn’t make any rookie mistakes such as placing the ATX power connector(s) in the way of the CPU fan, although it would’ve been nice to see the Silicon Image-powered SATA ports somewhere higher up on the board.
Sapphire’s implementation isn’t without its faults though. For instance, color-coded front panel headers for the power switch, power and HDD LEDs and reset switch would have been nice, color-coded DIMM sockets and USB/IEEE-1394 headers would have been a good idea as well. Many motherboard manufacturers have even gone so far as to offer color-coded SATA ports, so you can see which ports are slaved to the chipset, and which are mated to an external controller, but Sapphire doesn’t do any of this with their board. ASUS, DFI, MSI, and others offer rounded corners on their boards, but you won’t find that on the PI-A9RX480. You also won’t find a retention mechanism for the graphics card either.
By far our biggest gripe though are the cables bundled with the board. While the PI-A9RX480 supports up to six SATA hard drives, Sapphire only bundles one Serial ATA data cable with the board. That’s right, just one cable. While most enthusiasts probably have spare SATA data cables lying around from previous builds, this is still no excuse for Sapphire to skimp so aggressively. We also would have liked to see a USB header included with the board, as well as round IDE cables.
With this in mind, Sapphire didn’t half-step with the PI-A9RX480’s BIOS implementation.
All the standard settings you’d expect to see on a high-end motherboard are here. For instance, you’ve got memory voltages ranging from 2.5V all the way up to a whopping 4.0V in 0.05V increments. As a result, you may as well consider the PI-A9RX480 ready for high-end memory modules such as OCZ’s Voltage eXtreme (VX) memory or Mushkin’s Redline series, both of which are good for up to 3.5V. Meanwhile, voltage options for the RX480 North Bridge include 1.22V, 1.32V, 1.40V, and 1.50V (1.22V is the default setting) while the HyperTransport and PCI-E voltages are also adjustable.
Bus speed settings are flexible. With the flick of a few keystrokes, bus speeds from 200-440MHz are available, while PCI-E clock settings from 100-200MHz can also be found within the board’s BIOS.
Navigating through the board’s BIOS isn’t flawless though. While the BIOS features Award’s familiar interface, some settings are a bit hard to find. For instance, settings for adjusting the CPU’s clock multiplier and voltage are buried under the Power Management menu, even though there’s an Overclocking Features Menu right below it that seems like a more natural fit for these settings.
The PI-A9RX480’s BIOS could have used more flexibility here also. CPU voltage options range from 0.0825V-1.55V in increments of 0.025V. This is hardly enough voltage options for most enthusiasts. Fortunately, CPU clock multiplier settings range from to 4.0-25.0x in 0.50x increments, so you’re pretty well covered there.
We also would have liked to see some form of dynamic fan speed control. ASUS introduced the motherboard world to this feature with their Q-Fan technology. Now practically every motherboard manufacturer out there has some form of dynamic fan speed control that adjusts the speed of the CPU’s fan and for that matter, all other fans on the board based temperature(s) that you can preset. This comes in handy for setting up silent or near silent systems.
SiSoft Sandra 2005
Far Cry – Direct3D
IL-2: FB – OpenGL
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
F.E.A.R. Beta – Direct3D
F.E.A.R. Beta – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
Performance: Sapphire’s PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 turned in impressive performance numbers, especially in our gaming tests. Here the PI-A9RX480 earned a clean sweep against nForce4. In Half-Life 2 the PI-A9RX480 outran our nForce4 SLI-based ASUS board by 6% at 800x600. But the surprising results weren’t just limited to one game, the PI-A9RX480 blew by the nForce4 SLI board in IL-2 Sturmovik and Far Cry too, with the margins only tightening up in F.E.A.R. beta.
Hardware accessories bundled: With motherboard manufacturers bundling everything but the kitchen sink with their high-end boards nowadays, the hardware accessories Sapphire bundles with their PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480 is woefully inadequate. The board ships with one Serial ATA cable, 0 USB headers, one IEEE-1394 header, and a SPDIF header.