Summary: Planning on upgrading to Core 2 but you're still not sure which motherboard to get? Fear not, this week we'll be taking a look at a few potential options out there. We're starting with Gigabyte's GA-965P-DQ6. This board features a 12-phase power system and is composed of all solid-capascitors, supports up to 8 SATA hard drives, has dual PCI Express graphics slots, and boasts FSB speeds up to 600MHz for overclocking. See how it fares in today's review!
It’s not that the CPU industry has been boring lately, in fact, far from it. We are after all only a little over 12 months out from the debut of the first wave of dual-core CPUs. But the first-generation dual-core chips were prohibitively expensive, and the software infrastructure wasn’t really in place to take advantage of dual-core processing: while Moore’s Law is alive and well in the PC hardware industry, in the software realm it’s the complete opposite. In fact, “when it’s done” is the mantra repeated over and over again by the software industry’s leading developers. In any case, end users are excited about upgrading like never before because of one thing: rapidly falling prices.
$250 can get you a lot of CPU nowadays. Looking over the latest CPU prices on Price Watch, with $250 you can buy a shiny new Athlon 64 X2 4200+ and still have over $50 left over that you can invest in a new motherboard or GPU. A year ago the X2 4200+ sold for well north of $500 buy itself!
But the CPU everyone wants to get a hold of right now is without a doubt Intel’s Core 2 CPU.
Thanks to its revamped micro-architecture, Core 2 boasts more performance than any other CPU on the market right now. The chip features a wider execution core. Unlike previous CPUs, Core 2 is a four-wide architecture, it can issue four instructions at the beginning of the pipeline and retire four at the end. Intel has also widened Core 2’s SSE engine, allowing 128-bit SSE, SSE2 and SSE3 instructions to execute within only one clock cycle. This would require two clock cycles on previous CPUs. Core 2 also features a shorter 14-stage pipeline, allowing the CPU to perform more work per clock cycle.
Intel has also tweaked Core 2’s cache memory subsystem, adding two prefetchers per L1 and L2 cache as well as adopting a new unified L2 cache: the CPU’s L2 cache can be allocated dynamically to each of the processor’s two cores as-needed, increasing efficiency.
All this adds up to a processor that’s capable of delivering more performance than anything else on the market right now. On top of this, Intel has priced Core 2 to move, with official list prices starting well under $200 (keep in mind this is distributor pricing, not the CPU’s street price). As a result, the question a lot of end users are asking right now is what motherboard is best for Core 2?
For a lot of early adopters, the answer to that question has been Gigabyte. Part of the reason why this has occurred is due to bang for the buck. Quite simply, Gigabyte’s Core 2-ready offerings are loaded with features. Rather than offering a mixture of Core 2-ready motherboards based on Intel’s 975X and P965 chipsets, Gigabyte has instead concentrated on the latter option, P965, leaving their 975X lineup unchanged so they can instead focus on providing a flurry of P965 motherboards in a wide variety of configurations and price points. Right now Gigabyte has P965 motherboards with street prices ranging from about $130 to well over $200+. The motherboard we’re reviewing today, the GA-965P-DQ6 (or DQ6 for short) is Gigabyte’s flagship Core 2-ready motherboard and it’s got quite a few features that allow it to stand out from the crowd of P965 motherboards.
Before we get started on discussing the motherboard however, let’s first go over some of the differences between the P965 and 975X chipsets. A lot of people seem to be confused over which chipset is best for their needs, hopefully this will provide a bit more insight into the issue.
As far as Intel is concerned, P965 is officially their “mainstream” chipset, while 975X is their high-end chipset for enthusiasts. But in a lot of ways, P965 is the more forward-looking platform that’s built for the high-end crowd.
One of the most notable examples of this is found in the chipset’s North Bridge. Whereas the memory controller found in 975X is limited to memory speeds of just 667MHz, the P965 chipset supports not only DDR2-667, but also 800MHz DDR2 memory as well. DDR2-800 is capable of delivering 2.1GB/sec of additional memory bandwidth to the system. Peak bandwidth goes from 10.7GB/sec in 975X to 12.8GB/sec in P965. About a month ago we ran some tests with a Core 2 Extreme and Core 2 Duo E6700 equipped with both DDR2-667 and DDR2-800 and found the faster memory provided an additional 2-4% in performance in games, while DDR2-800 shaved a few seconds off our DivX conversion and WME 9 tests in our media encoding testing.
Where P965 really excels in comparison to 975X though is in its South Bridge. Intel’s outfitted P965 with their brand new ICH8 South Bridge, 975X was built around Intel’s older ICH7 South Bridge. ICH8 has a few new features going for it that aren’t found in ICH7.
Another key difference between ICH7 and ICH8 is USB support. The newer ICH8 South Bridge supports up to ten USB 2.0 ports, whereas ICH7 is limited to eight.
Despite these positives in favor of P965, it does have one glaring deficiency for enthusiasts: lack of support for multi-GPU solutions like ATI’s CrossFire technology. While there are P965 motherboards on the market with two PCI Express graphics slots, including Gigabyte’s own GA-965P-DQ6, the chipset doesn’t support CrossFire or SLI. Instead the idea is that you can connect a second PCI Express graphics card to drive additional LCD or CRT displays. It’s a little deceiving if you’re a gamer who had his heart set on transferring his CrossFire or SLI setup to Core 2, but keep in mind that it’s a limitation of the system chipset, not the motherboard.
Other than these key differences, the P965 and 975X chipsets are pretty similar, both chipsets support bus speeds of 1,066MHz, 800MHz, and 533MHz, up to six x1 PCI Express devices, Intel High Definition audio and Matrix Storage technology, as well as Gigabit Ethernet networking. Performance between the two chipsets is similar as well, in fact the GA-965P-DQ6 outperformed 975X motherboards in some of our tests.
For their GA-965P-DQ6 motherboard Gigabyte has loaded the board with features, after all, Gigabyte refers to it as their first six-quad motherboard. The so-called “six-Quad” consists of the following features:
With the initial Core 2 launch now behind them, Intel’s now focusing their efforts on releasing follow-up Core 2 CPUs at higher clock speeds (up to 3.2GHz for the Extreme Edition) as well as their first CPU with four processor cores (quad-core) codenamed “Kentsfield”, which will be released in the fourth quarter of this year.
This feature refers to the GA-965P-DQ6’s Silent Pipe cooling solution, which uses a combination of copper heat-pipes and heatsinks to cool the North and South Bridge of the P965 chipset, as well as the board’s MOSFETs. Finally Gigabyte includes their “Crazy Cool” copper block on the underside of the motherboard, which is designed to help keep board temperatures down.
One feature Gigabyte has prided themselves on is their BIOS recovery subsystem, a feature that’s been a hallmark of Gigabyte motherboards for well over 5 years now. Not only does Gigabyte provide two distinct BIOS chips on their GA-965P-DQ6 motherboard (one BIOS is the primary while the second chip serves as a backup BIOS), Gigabyte also includes a third copy of the board’s BIOS that you can recover from on CD, while a fourth copy can be saved to your system’s hard drive.
Quad eSATA 2
One of Serial ATA’s advantages over parallel ATA is that like USB, it’s hot-swappable, meaning you can connect or disconnect your Serial ATA drives without powering the system off. When you couple this with the huge capacities of today’s latest Serial ATA hard drives (500GB+), this enters in a new era of semi-portable storage capability.
Quad DDR2 slots
This feature refers to the fact that the GA-965P-DQ6 has four DDR2 DIMM sockets. The P965 chipset can address up to 8GB of RAM, so all high-end P965 motherboards have four DIMMs. In other words, this feature isn’t unique to Gigabyte.
We’ll start by talking about storage. As we stated earlier, the P965 chipset natively supports up to six Serial ATA drives, so it’s no surprise to see six SATA ports on the GA-965P-DQ6. But if you look closer you’ll notice two additional purple SATA ports bringing total support for up to eight SATA drives. These additional SATA ports as well as the motherboard’s parallel ATA connector are driven by JMicron’s JMB363 storage controller. The JMB363 supports up to two 3Gb/sec SATA drives with NCQ as well as one parallel ATA/133 channel (supporting up to two drives), utilizing PCI Express x1 to accomplish this.
Gigabyte color codes everything, including the SATA ports: the fluorescent orange SATA ports are driven natively by the chipset, while the purple SATA ports are controlled by the JMB363 controller. Gigabyte even color codes headers, like the USB and SPDIF headers, as well as the DIMM sockets, PCI Express slots, and even the pins for hooking the motherboard up to your case. This makes installation much easier, especially for inexperienced computer users.
Cramming so many features onto the GA-965P-DQ6 is an impressive feat, particularly since the board relies on the standard ATX form factor, with the board measuring in at 305x244mm. But as you can imagine this does present a challenge getting everything on the board without running into issues.
For starters the board’s IDE connector is located awfully low on the motherboard. This could present a problem for those of you with larger cases that have your optical drives located at the top of the case – your IDE cable simply may not be long enough to accommodate this. It would be nice if the IDE connector were a little higher up on the motherboard.
The CPU fan header is also placed below the LGA-775 socket. This is a less than ideal location as you have to run your CPU’s fan cable back across the fan. In other words, the fan cable could potentially get caught in your CPU fan. Fortunately Intel provides clips on their CPU cooler so you can neatly arrange the fan cable, but most aftermarket CPU coolers don’t have this feature. Most of the LGA-775 motherboards on the market have the CPU fan header placed above the LGA-775 socket for this reason.
Another gripe we have with the GA-965P-DQ6’s layout is the location of the uppermost PCI Express x1 slot: it’s located too high on the motherboard. As a result, the uppermost PCI Express slot is basically unusable for any long x1 PCI Express card. For example, our PowerColor Theater 550 Pro PCI Express TV tuner card won’t fit in the uppermost slot because it bumps up against the heatsink cooling the chipset’s North Bridge. When using a dual-slot graphics card like the Radeon X1900 XTX, the only useable PCI Express slot is the x1 slot on the very bottom, which rests just above the secondary PEG slot.
All these aforementioned gripes are relatively minor though, and can be overcome relatively easily with the right placement of system components. Again, considering the sheer amount of features Gigabyte has integrated on the GA-965P-DQ6, it’s practically impossible to get a perfect board layout. Our biggest grievance though goes to the Crazy Cool cooling on the underside of the motherboard. Quite simply, the cooler gets in the way of several aftermarket coolers that require the use of a back plate on the underside of the CPU to mount the fan.
As you’ve no doubt probably noticed by now, the motherboard has a number of hotspots on it that generate a disproportionate amount of heat in comparison to the rest of the motherboard. One of those hotspots is the area around the CPU. What Gigabyte and other motherboard manufacturers have come up with to combat this are a number of ways to dissipate this heat so that the motherboard (and ultimately the entire system) can run cooler. One method Gigabyte employs is their Crazy Cool cooler.
Crazy Cool is basically a massive copper block that rests on the underside of the motherboard, directly underneath the LGA-775 socket and the North Bridge of the system chipset. The idea is that Crazy Cool will take some of the heat off these components and the motherboard, where it can then be distributed across the system case’s aluminum back plate. In practice, we’ve found the system works pretty well, the use of copper rather than aluminum helps to increase the effectiveness of the system.
But many aftermarket coolers require the use of a separate bracket that sits underneath the LGA-775 socket. This bracket provides the stability needed for these large aftermarket fans, which are often composed of copper rather than aluminum, making the cooler quite heavy: it just wouldn’t work without the bracket in place. Pundits would argue to just stick with the stock Intel fan provided with all retail CPUs, but as anyone who’s used the stock Intel CPU fan will tell you, it’s not a very good cooler. Aftermarket coolers are capable of not only cooling the CPU more effectively than the stock Intel cooler, but also while generating little noise. Any enthusiast who cares about their CPU and its lifespan is going to want to use an aftermarket cooler.
So what’s an enthusiast with the GA-965P-DQ6 supposed to do if they want to use an aftermarket cooler with this motherboard? Simple: find longer screws.
We happened to have a couple of very long screws that we were able to adapt for use with the GA-965P-DQ6 and our Zalman CNPS7700-Cu fan, otherwise the combo wouldn’t have worked. We suppose another option would be to remove the Crazy Cool cooler, but then that defeats the purpose of having it on there in the first place.
The rest of the board’s layout
Going over the rest of the GA-965P-DQ6 motherboard, you’ll notice two PCI Express graphics (PEG) slots. As we mentioned previously, the P965 chipset doesn’t support dual-GPU technologies like ATI’s CrossFire or NVIDIA’s SLI. Instead the second PEG slot is used for those who may want to hook up more than two monitors to their system. The idea is that you can have the primary (blue) graphics slot for your performance graphics card (like a GeForce 7600 GT or Radeon X1900 XT) with the secondary PEG slot being used to drive additional monitors. In this slot you could house a cheaper card, like the GeForce 6200 TurboCache or Radeon X300 SE HyperMemory. The primary graphics slot would run at full x16 speed, while the second orange PEG slot only utilizes four PCI Express lanes (x4).
Another feature Gigabyte touts with the GA-965P-DQ6 is their all-solid capacitor design. Gigabyte is the first motherboard manufacturer to support this feature. Every capacitor on the GA-965P-DQ6 is an aluminum solid capacitor with conductive polymer. Typically motherboard manufacturers use a mixture of conductive polymer aluminum solid capacitors with more traditional electrolytic capacitors. In these configurations, typically the solid capacitors are used to power the CPU, while the electrolytic capacitors are used for powering less intensive areas of the motherboard. On Gigabyte’s DQ6 motherboard however, every capacitor is a solid capacitor. With all solid capacitors onboard, the idea is that the capacitors will last longer while also boosting system stability under extreme conditions.
Powering the onboard 8-channel audio (although it’s actually capable of up to 10 channels) is Realtek’s ALC888DD HD-Audio CODEC. The ALC888DD is one of the most advanced integrated offerings out there supporting Dolby Digital Live and DTS. For networking duties, Gigabyte has employed Marvell’s 88E8053 GigE controller, while Firewire duties are handled by a chip from Texas Instruments.
The most notable example of this are the CPU voltage options provided in BIOS. Gigabyte provides voltage options in BIOS ranging from 0.68750V-2.37500V in increments of 0.00625V! Normally motherboard manufacturers will limit CPU voltage options based on the CPU you’re using, for instance a Prescott-based Pentium 4 CPU would have voltage options available to it that a Presler Pentium D wouldn’t, and vice versa. This is done to ensure that the end user doesn’t feed their particular CPU with too much juice, but a lot of times these artificial cutoff points are too conservative.
It seems like with the DQ6, Gigabyte has decided to open up all the voltage options to the end user regardless of the CPU installed. At least that’s the case for now, with a future BIOS update this could all be reversed, as clearly some end user may not realize that it wouldn’t be a very good idea to feed their brand new Core 2 CPU with over 2.0V of juice!
Memory voltages provided by the GA-965P-DQ6 are equally robust. Gigabyte provides voltage options ranging from the stock 1.8V all the way up to +0.775V in increments of 0.025V, that works out to up to 2.575V for DDR2 memory. With most over-volted memory modules topping out somewhere between 2.2V-2.4V the GA-965P-DQ6 should be ready voltage-wise for pretty much any memory module out there. Gigabyte also provides voltage adjustment for PCI Express 0-+0.35V in 0.05V increments, front-side bus 0-+0.35V in 0.05V and North Bridge voltage 0-+0.75V in 0.05V increments.
In terms of bus speeds, FSB speeds range from 100-600MHz in 1MHz increments, while PCI Express speeds can be adjusted from 90MHz-150MHz. Memory bus multipliers of 2.0, 2.5, 2.66, 3.0, 3.33, and 4.0 are also available so you can fine tune memory speeds, say in case you want to run your FSB at 1066MHz (via the 266MHz FSB setting) with 1066MHz memory, just select a memory multiplier of 4.0. For CPU clock speed adjustment, CPU multipliers from 6-11 are available within BIOS.
For end users who are new to overclocking and don’t understand concepts like the relationship between the FSB and memory bus, Gigabyte provides their C.I.A.2 BIOS setting. C.I.A.2 takes all the guesswork out of overclocking, automatically overclocking the CPU at predetermined levels. Options range from “Cruise” (the lowest setting), all the way p to “Full thrust” (the highest setting). In between you’ll also find three additional settings, for a grand total of up to five options.
We should also note that we didn’t even have to press Ctrl F1 to access the advanced menus for overclocking either. On most Gigabyte motherboards the end user must press the Ctrl and F1 keys in order to access the overclocking menus. Hopefully Gigabyte will continue to provide easy access to the advanced BIOS menus in future BIOS releases for the DQ6.
Overall Gigabyte offers more than enough to please most enthusiasts with the DQ6’s BIOS. Sure, it may not have some of the features found in other enthusiast motherboards like BIOS profiles, but the settings themselves that are available are pretty robust. In fact you could argue that the CPU voltage options offered in particular may be a little too robust.
With many end users reporting FSB speeds in excess of 400MHz with the GA-965P-DQ6 and its cousing the GA-965P-DS3 we were eager to see how far we could push the DQ6.
LAME MT MP3 Encoding (MS Compiler)
Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9
LAME MT MP3 Encoding
Performance: According to Intel, the P965 chipset that Gigabyte’s GA-965P-DQ6 is based on is their “mainstream” chipset, but as you saw in our benchmark results today clearly the GA-965P-DQ6 is capable of putting up performance numbers that are just as good as any 975X motherboard. In fact, you can argue that the P965 is in some ways faster than 975X, as it’s officially capable of running its memory bus at 800MHz whereas that’s technically considered overclocking for 975X (we ran all of our benchmarks with the memory bus at 667MHz).
Price: The GA-965P-DQ6 is one of the most expensive P965 motherboards on the market right now. Currently the lowest listing on PriceGrabber for the DQ6 is $238.24, that’s a couple dollars more expensive than Intel’s D975XBX motherboard, and only $17 less than ASUS’ P5W DH Deluxe. In other words, Gigabyte’s GA-965P-DQ6 is priced in 975X territory even though it’s a P965 motherboard.