Summary: Since launching the 690 chipset back in Feb, AMD's quietly integrated a number of improvements into their chipset to make it even more attractive to enthusiasts. In this article we take a look at these changes as they are implemented on Gigabyte's GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard. With a sub-$80 price tag, DVI, HDMI, and VGA outputs on the backplane, it may be the very best HTPC motherboard on the market. Find out why in today's article!
Back when AMD announced they were buying ATI, there was lots of talk about platforms and the importance of being able to deliver a fully-packaged, complete platform to system manufacturers, much like Intel has done with their family of desktop and mobile chipsets. Based on AMD’s recent success with AMD-690, it looks like a lot of this talk was more than just hype.
With the AMD-690 chipset launch successfully behind them, you’d assume AMD would be hard at work on their next generation RS740 and RS790 chipsets, but actually they’ve been working on improving the 690 platform.
The 690 chipset…A quick refresher
In case you’re not familiar with the specs of the AMD-690 chipset, we’ll provide a very quick recap. The most significant aspect of the chipset is its built-in multimedia/video features. AMD-690 was the first chipset to offer support for two independent digital outputs. This allows motherboard manufacturers to include both DVI and HDMI outputs directly on the back plane of the motherboard, in addition to the standard VGA output. In fact, the motherboard we’re looking at today, Gigabyte’s GA-M69GM-S2H, supports this particular feature. One item we should note here is that the 690 chipset supports dual-link DVI and HDMI 1.3. This means that the chipset supports resolutions as high as 2560x1600, which is the native res of 30” LCDs like the Dell 3007WFP
Obviously AMD has already established a pretty solid baseline for their 690 chipset, and as such, the tweaks AMD have recently implemented into 690 have been designed to enhance the core product, not redesign it.
The Gigabyte GA-M69GM-S2H Motherboard
As we discussed on the previous page, the feature that really separates Gigabyte’s GA-M69GM-S2H from other AMD-690 motherboards is its display connectivity. Not only does the motherboard feature DVI and VGA outputs on the back plane of the motherboard, you’ll also find an HDMI connection as well. This gives you the full gamut of display options supported by the AMD-690 chipset natively right on the back of the motherboard.
There are other AMD-690 motherboards with out-of-the-box support for all three display options, but most of these other motherboards require the use of riser cards to get all three display outputs (usually its an HDMI riser card). This is less than ideal, as you must plug the riser card in your motherboard’s PCI Express graphics slot in order to get full functionality. You can also see the S/PDIF audio output right next to the HDMI output.
Audio duties on the GA-MA69GM-S2H are handled by Realtek’s ALC889A HD Audio CODEC. This is the exact same chip Gigabyte uses on their high-end P35 Bearlake motherboards. Considering the multimedia/video intentions of the GA-MA69GM-S2H, it’s good to see that Gigabyte didn’t compromise here.
For networking, Gigabyte employs another chip from Realtek, the RTL8110. The RTL8110 is one of Realtek’s older network controllers, and while it boasts Gigabit Ethernet functionality, it’s unfortunately hobbled by the PCI bus. This was obviously a cost-cutting move by Gigabyte as newer PCIe controllers from Realtek have been readily available on the market for some time. Considering the target audience of the GA-MA69GM-S2H board though, this is one oversight that can probably be forgiven.
Because the board is so small, officially measuring 24.4 cm x 24.4 cm, there isn’t a lot of space for lots of extras. Fortunately Gigabyte did find room for a PCI Express graphics slot, as well as an additional x4 PCIe slot, and two conventional PCI slots. The x4 PCIe slot offered on the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard provides more flexibility for expansion than other AMD-690 motherboards, which typically only provide one x1 PCIe slot.
Cooling the RS690 North Bridge and SB600 South Bridge is a simple aluminum heatsink – no active cooling on the motherboard is necessary, even when overclocking. This is due in large part because AMD uses UMC’s 80-nm manufacturing process, giving it the smallest process of any other chipset in the industry. The die itself is tiny, measuring just 50mm^2.
On the surface Gigabyte provides the obligatory BIOS settings for configuring storage devices, enabling/disabling onboard controllers, power management, etc, but dig a little further and you’ll discover settings for overclocking the board. By pressing “Ctrl+F1” the “Advanced Chipset Features” menu is unlocked. From here you can then tweak settings such as DRAM configuration, HT Link, PCI Express configuration, and CPU multiplier adjustment (among other things).
Under this menu Gigabyte provides a few options for overclocking, but not everything. For instance, Gigabyte provides HyperTransport speeds from 200-500MHz in 1MHz increments – more than enough to satisfy the needs of 99% of AMD enthusiasts – but there aren’t any BIOS settings for adjusting voltages. CPU, DRAM, PCIe, NB/SB, HT Link, none of these voltages are available for adjustment in the current BIOS for the GA-MA69GM-S2H. Because of this, your overclocking endeavors are limited to the stock voltages for these components.
This is a little disappointing to us, as we’d at least like to be able to adjust the DRAM voltages. Many enthusiast-level memory modules require 2.2V of juice or more to run at the lower timings you can clearly adjust in the GA-MA69GM-S2H’s BIOS -- what’s the point of having so many BIOS settings for tweaking memory timings if you aren’t given the voltage options you need to run those timings with stability? We’d also like to see Gigabyte add a few voltage options for the CPU. Even if the voltages available were to be capped to an artificially low number of settings, something is better than nothing.
Fortunately, you can adjust speeds for the IGP, memory, and adjust the CPU multiplier setting.
The lack of voltage options didn’t seem to hinder our overclocking endeavors with the GA-MA69GM-S2H. Running all components at stock voltage, we were able to hit HyperTransport speeds of up to 294MHz with complete stability.
We could actually POST and boot into Windows at speeds as high as 302MHz, but the system was a little flaky at this speed.
Company of Heroes 1.3
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
HL2 Lost Coast – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
Our gaming tests showed a performance improvement anywhere from 5-12% overall. FEAR seemed to benefit the most from the newer AMD drivers, although we saw gains in the high single digits in Company of Heroes as well. We also managed to shave a few seconds off our media encoding tests with DivX and Windows Media Encoder, although LAME MP3 performance was the same.
The really sweet part about the performance enhancements though is that they can be had by all. Whether you purchased a 690 motherboard three months ago or three days ago, you’ll see the improvements. They’re also universal among all motherboard manufacturers.
Gigabyte’s GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard is our favorite implementation of the 690 chipset we’ve seen so far. DVI, VGA, and HDMI connections are all easily accessible on the motherboard’s backplane, while the x4 PCIe slot is a little more versatile than the x1 slots that are found on most motherboards due to its backward compatibility.
Our biggest gripe with the GA-MA69GM-S2H would obviously be its lack of voltage options within BIOS, but in all honesty OC’ing probably isn’t such a good idea for this system if it’s going to be housed inside a small HTPC chassis anyway; there just isn’t enough room for adequate airflow in this kind of environment.
If you really want to OC you should probably buy one of the full-sized ATX AMD-690 motherboards like Gigabyte’s GA-MA69G-S3H
We had no problems hitting an HT speed of 294MHz with the GA-MA69GM-S2H, so imagine what you could do with one of those boards.
What really excites us about Gigabyte’s GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard is its price. These motherboards can be found on Newegg for just $76.99. That’s just $2 more than the ASUS M2A-VM and $7 less than the MSI K9AGM2 boards we took a look at back in February. That’s an outstanding deal when you consider the feature set of the Gigabyte board and as such, we’re awarding it with our Bull’s Eye Award.
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