Summary: Touting support for their upcoming 6-core Phenom II X6 CPUs and featuring a brand new SB850 South Bridge, the 890GX chipset is AMD's IGP for the performance-oriented DIY'er who wants the best integrated offering AMD provides with the flexibility of upgrading to CrossFire dual GPU cards in the future. In addition to SATA 6Gbps support, the board we're testing, Gigabyte's GA-890GPA-UD3H, also includes support for USB 3.0. See how it fares against the competition from Intel as well as its direct predecessor in today's article!
The introduction of the 790GX chipset was a bit of a redemptive moment for AMD amongst enthusiasts. Thanks to its SB750 South Bridge, the 790GX chipset was the first to offer native support for Advanced Clock Calibration (ACC), AMDís slick feature that could be used to tweak Phenomís internal timings to improve overclocking headroom.
Depending on the processor, ACC typically delivered an additional 200-400MHz when OCíing; thatís a pretty substantial improvement considering that most Phenom CPUs of that era couldnít be pushed much further than 200MHz over their stock frequency: a 2.5GHz Phenom 9850 that may have topped out around 2.7-2.8GHz before ACC could now hit 3.0-3.1GHz with full stability!
And thanks to its Radeon 3300 IGP, the 790GX chipset was the most powerful integrated graphics offering of its era.
Over time though the 790GX chipset became less relevant. Newer 790FX motherboards from ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI and others were updated to include ACC support, and more importantly, AMD resolved the issue altogether with the introduction of newer, more powerful Phenom II and Athlon II CPUs last year. ACC isnít needed to deliver monster OCs with these processors.
Because of these developments, it has become harder for do-it-yourselfers who build their own systems to rationalize the need for 790GX, and because of its higher price tag than other IGP offerings, 790GX was never a viable product with OEMs -- despite offering improved 3D gaming performance over 780G/785G, the platform is just too pricey for use in low-cost PCs.
AMDís got a new generation of 8-series chipsets though, and once again theyíve decided to give the GX variant the new South Bridge first, as their oft-delayed SB850 chip debuts for the first time with todayís 890GX launch.
Letís make things clear though, despite its new name, the 890GX chipset isnít an entirely new, next-generation IGP with DirectX 11 graphics. If you were hoping for that, youíll unfortunately be disappointed, as AMD has opted to wait for their upcoming Fusion CPUs beginning with Llano next year before integrating DX11 graphics.
What the 890GX chipset does bring though is a brand new South Bridge, SB850, and an improved North Bridge built around ATIís Radeon 4290 IGP. SB850 brings with it native support for 6Gbps SATA, making it the first chipset to offer built-in support for the latest SATA standard.
If you recall the relationship between 780G and 790GX, youíll remember that AMD followed the same strategy with these platforms as well. The 790GX was based on the same graphics core found in the 780G, only AMD bumped the clock up to 700MHz.
All four IGPs are largely based on ATIís RV620 GPU. This is the same GPU found in the Radeon 3450/3470 launched in January 2008 Ė two years ago. And donít forget that RV620 was merely a die shrink of the RV610 chip used in the Radeon 2400 from 2007. Clearly this isnít cutting-edge technology.
To AMDís credit though, the Radeon 4200 IGP found in the 785G was updated to include DirectX 10.1, HDMI 1.3, and UVD 2 support. UVD 2 includes support for hardware-accelerated picture-in-picture for watching Blu-ray movies, and video enhancement features like dynamic contrast, HD color enhancement (including flesh tones and color vibrance), and post-processing effects like noise reduction, de-interlacing and HD pulldown detection. The 42xx series IGPs also supports video transcoding on the GPU, freeing the CPU up from performing this task.
Unfortunately, HTPC users will be disappointed to hear that the chipset lacks support for bitstreaming HD audio, and LPCM audio over HDMI is limited to just two channels.
AMDís IGPs all feature 40 stream processors, with the 780G and 785G relying on a 500MHz core clock, while the graphics core on the 790GX and 890GX run at 700MHz. Besides higher clock speeds, one neat feature AMD adds to the GX series chipsets is Sideport memory. This is a pool of memory thatís dedicated just for the IGP, enhancing performance. In order to reduce costs, the G chipsets lack Sideport memory.
Because the 790GX and 890GX chipsets are outfitted with the same number of shaders and identical clocks, the only differentiator as far as 3D gaming performance is concerned is the 890GXís addition of DirectX 10.1. Only in games that utilize DX10.1 to provide enhanced performance for lighting effects like screen space ambient occlusion (SSAO) will the 890GX be able to pull away from the 790GX.
As anyone thatís run STALKER: Clear Sky or Call of Pripyat can tell you though, SSAO is a very graphically-intensive effect, itís possible that the Radeon 4290 IGP doesnít have the shading horsepower to run this and still deliver playable performance. Weíll be testing this theory out with Tom Clancyís HAWX later in this review.
Like other AMD chipsets, the 890GX retains support for ATI SurroundView, and the IGP itself can drive up to two displays. Hybrid Graphics support is also provided, with support limited to the Radeon 5450 GPU. With this feature you can pair the Radeon 4290 IGP with a Radeon 5450 graphics card to improve 3D performance (similar to CrossFire). Hybrid Graphics support is limited to just five titles (Battleforge, Bioshock, Company of Heroes, HAWX, World in Conflict) with the Catalyst 10.3 beta we used for testing though, and AA/AF isnít supported yet either, so we skipped testing this feature.
For enthusiasts who may want to run two graphics cards at some point down the road, 890GX also offers CrossFire support. When two cards are installed for CrossFire, the PCIe lanes will be split evenly between the cards, with 8 lanes for each graphics slot (vs all 16 lanes when one card is used).
While the IGP is pretty familiar, AMD has made a couple of improvements with 890GX however. AMD has doubled the bandwith linking the North Bridge to the South Bridge. The most significant addition to 890GX is without a doubt, its SB850 South Bridge.
SB850 is a brand new chip thatís been designed to address SB750ís shortcomings. It offers more USB support (14 USB 2.0 ports in SB850 versus SB750ís 12), a native Gigabit Ethernet MAC, and two additional x1 PCIe 2.0 lanes.
Its most notable feature though is its 6Gbps SATA support, a first for any chipset. SB850 supports up to six 6Gbps SATA drives.
One additional feature youíll see many motherboard manufacturers pushing with their 890GX motherboards is USB 3.0 support, but this isnít natively provided by the chipset, instead itís provided by an external USB 3.0 controller. NECís USB 3.0 controller is the popular one at the moment, as it was the first to receive certification, but the downside is that NECís controller is limited to supporting just 2 USB 3.0 ports. A native solution wouldíve provided USB 3.0 to all of the motherboardís ports. Oh well.
Thankfully, to facilitate full-speed USB 3.0 transfers, AMDís chipset team did think ahead and provides an x1 PCIe 2.0 link that hangs off the 890GX North Bridge. More specifically, six x1 PCIe 2.0 lanes are provided. AMD tells us that besides USB 3.0, motherboard manufacturers could use this to provide added features like additional SATA controllers, LAN, x4 PCIe slots, etc.
Going back to USB 3.0 though, the significance of integrating PCIe 2.0 lanes on 890GX instead of PCIe 1.0 should give them an advantage over competing H55 chipsets from Intel, which still rely on PCIe 1.0. This could lead to bottlenecks on H55 boards with USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA, as youíre limited to just 250MB/sec bandwidth. USB 3.0 alone tops out at 480MB/sec.
Gigabyte equips the board with a wealth of features. As a part of their ď333Ē series of boards, the GA-890GPA-UD3H includes support for USB 3.0, with NECís popular D720200F1 USB 3.0 controller used to provide USB 3.0 functionality. The GA-890GPA-UD3H also features Gigabyteís 3X USB power boost feature. As a result, both the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports on the board are capable of supplying three times more power to USB devices than traditional motherboards.
In the case of the USB 2.0 ports, Gigabyteís latest boards provide up to 1500 milliamps of power, versus the standard 500mA, while their USB 3.0 ports support up to 2700mA.
With more power per port, you can run power-hungry devices through one USB port instead of two. Many external USB hard drives for instance require two USB ports, one port is dedicated for data transfers, while the second is used solely for providing power to the device. With Gigabyteís latest boards, you can run that same USB hard drive through just one USB port.
Weíve tested this feature with an old KingWin USB 2.0 drive we keep on hand for storing game patches and other critical files needed for testing and can verify that the Kingwin drive ran perfectly with just one USB port.
The third feature Gigabyte offers with their 333 boards is third-generation SATA 6Gbit/sec support. This feature is of course provided natively by the 890GX chipset though and isnít unique to Gigabyte.
In terms of power delivery, the GA-890GPA-UD3H features a 4+1 phase power design. With four power phases devoted to the CPU, the board is capable of supplying enough power for the latest AMD Phenom II CPUs, including the 140W Phenom II X4 965. The board will also support AMDís upcoming six-core Phenom II X6 CPUs when theyíre released later this year.
The boardís power design also provides enough headroom for good OCíing, we managed to hit 4.0GHz with our 125W C3 965 sample quite easily, and were able to hit HyperTransport speeds up to 294MHz before stability became an issue.
When compared against its direct predecessor, Gigabyteís socket AM3 790GX-based GA-MA790GPT-UD3H board, the GA-890GPA-UD3H has a number of improvements beyond the new chipset though.
For starters, the board sports more powerful cooling for the chipsetís North Bridge and VRM circuitry. Gigabyte uses a heatpipe to cool these components now, the GA-MA790GPT-UD3H relied on heatsinks only for these components. Interestingly enough, the heatsinks themselves that are used on the GA-890GPA-UD3H are carbon copies of the units used on the GA-MA790GPT-UD3H. A single heatpipe is merely added to improve cooling.
The other significant addition Gigabyte has added to the GA-890GPA-UD3H is extra SATA ports. The board features eight SATA ports compared to the older 790GXís six.
If thereís one thing weíve noticed with Gigabyte boards lately, itís all of the extra SATA ports their latest motherboards are outfitted with. Their high-end P55 and X58 offerings ship with 10 SATA ports!
On the graphics side, Gigabyte equips the Radeon 4290 graphics core with 128MB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory. One neat feature thatís been added to the board is you can also OC the graphics memory (in addition to the IGP) if you wish. Memory speeds of 667-2000MHz are all provided inside the boardís BIOS.
Gigabyte even brags that the IGPís graphics core can be OCíed up to 1150MHz right there on the box for the GA-890GPA-UD3H board.
In terms of connectivity, the back plane of the GA-890GPA-UD3H is pretty standard fare amongst GX boards. Six USB ports are offered out back, with the two blue ports devoted for USB 3.0 devices. VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs are also provided along with a SPDIF out. Finally, IEEE-1394, Ethernet, 8-channel audio, and a combo PS2 mouse/keyboard connections are also provided.
Board layout is one of the key issues that can plague many IGP motherboards. Layout issues can range from sockets that donít provide enough clearance for large CPU coolers, to SATA ports that can interfere with long graphics cards like the Radeon 5870 because theyíre rotated perpendicular to the plane of the motherboard instead of parallel to it.
Fortunately though the GA-890GPA-UD3H doesnít suffer from these problems as Gigabyte has placed everything well, with no interference issues with any of the boardís core components. Youíll find plenty of room in the AM3 socket area for the largest CPU coolers from Scythe and Thermalright, and thereís also more than enough room between the DIMM slots and the primary PCI Express Graphics slot (PEG), so you wonít have to install your system memory before the graphics card.
Speaking of the graphics slot, Gigabyte equips the board with two of them in order to provide proper CrossFire support. Two x1 PCIe slots separate the PEG slots, so thereís plenty of room for dual-slot graphics cards like ATIís latest Radeons. A third x1 PCIe slot is located right next to the 890GX North Bridge.
Like all of Gigabyteís motherboards made in the last 15 months, the GA-890GPA-UD3H features a 2-ounce copper PCB. Gigabyteís patented dual BIOS is also included on the board.
We do wish the board had built-in power/reset and clear CMOS buttons though. This is a feature thatís traditionally reserved for high-end motherboards. Apparently Gigabyte feels the GA-890GPA-UD3H doesnít qualify.
Gigabyte didnít skimp on the GA-890GPA-UD3Hís BIOS. Everything an enthusiast would need for OCíing can be found in here. HyperTransport speeds up to 500MHz are available in 1MHz increments, and if you find the Radeon 4290 IGP a little sluggish in your favorite game, clock speeds ranging from 200-2000MHz are also available in 1MHz increments.
It doesnít stop there however. As we mentioned earlier, Gigabyte also offers adjustable Sideport memory speeds. Inside BIOS youíll find options all the way up to 2GHz.
Settings for adjusting PCIe speeds (up to 150MHz), memory ratios (speeds up to 1800MHz), North Bridge frequency (4000MHz), and HT link (up to 2600MHz) are also configurable.
For voltage adjustment, Gigabyte provides a ridiculous array of options thanks to their precision OV IC controller. Voltages as fine as 0.015V are offered for the RAM, which goes up to 2.445V. CPU voltages are offered in increments of 0.025V with voltages up to 1.975V. You can even adjust the Sideport memory voltage!
Everythingís color coded so youíll know instantly if youíre pushing the voltages too far. Gigabyte also shows you the current values for important settings like bus speeds and voltages, so youíll know exactly what your settings are before and after each BIOS setting change.
Any enthusiast is going to enjoy this boardís BIOS.
AMD Phenom II X4 965
Intel Core i5-661
4GB (2x2GB) OCZ Reaper HPC @DDR3-1333
2TB Seagate Barracuda XT
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Far Cry 2
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
Left 4 Dead - DirectX 9
CoD: MW2 Ė DirectX 9
Crysis Ė DirectX 10
Far Cry 2 Ė DirectX 10
Resident Evil Ė DirectX 10
Batman:AA Ė DirectX 9
HAWX Ė DirectX 10/10.1
Intel isnít expected to add 6Gbps SATA to their chipsets until next year with their 6-series family coming in early 2011, so AMD will be able to boast this advantage for quite some time.
True, Seagateís 6Gbps drive, the Barracuda XT isnít anywhere close to pushing the limits of the new SATA interface, but once 6Gbps SSDs hit the market later this year, expect things to change.
And while the chipset doesnít officially offer USB 3.0 support, AMD thought ahead by providing the PCIe 2.0 lanes needed to run USB 3.0 devices at full bandwidth. Motherboard manufacturers wonít have to integrate PCIe bridge chips to provide full bandwidth for USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA, which adds to the cost of the motherboard.
We do wish AMD had done more to differentiate the Radeon HD 4290 IGP from previous integrated offerings though. Even if weíre willing to forgive the lack of DX11 support, which likely wouldnít deliver playable performance in an IGP with 40 shaders anyway, we do think AMD shouldíve put more effort into separating 890GX from its direct predecessor, 790GX, in 3D performance. Both chipsets are armed with the same number of stream processors and the same clocks. The only difference between them is that the newer 890GX supports DX10.1, while 790GX is limited to DX10.
As a result, unless youíre specifically running a DX10.1 game, and also remember to turn on eye candy effects that can be sped up with the newer 10.1 shader model like SSAO, the two IGPs will perform the same.
Clearly based on our OCíing results, AMD has tons of frequency headroom built in to the IGP, so thereís no excuse why they couldnít bump the 890GXís clock speed up another 50-100MHz. Obviously cranking up the clocks to these speeds will have a negative effect on your TDP, something AMD apparently didnít want to live with.
Because of this though, Intelís Core i5-661 and its 900MHz IGP actually managed to outrun 890GX in a few of our benchmarks. This is the first time weíve seen an Intel IGP ever outperform anything!
Keep in mind that the Core i5-661 is built specifically for 3D graphics; the IGP used in Intelís other Clarkdale CPUs is clocked at 733MHz, so the other Core i5 and Core i3 processors wonít put up as strong a showing against the 890GX platform. Still, the message is clear: itís taken them a few years, but Intel is finally gaining on AMD when it comes to the 3D performance of their IGP. AMDís been stagnant for too long here.
If youíre shopping for a new 890GX board, Gigabyteís GA-890GPA-UD3H is a pretty sweet offering. The boardís feature set is quite good, with heatpipe cooling, USB 3.0, and Gigabyte unique features like their 2-ounce copper PCB and of course DualBIOS rounding out the boardís long list of features. We also really like the BIOS interface and its extensive OCíing support, including fully adjustable speeds and voltages for the IGP and its Sideport memory. Sideport memory speed adjustment wasnít present on 790GX boards.
Depending on where the price ends up, this could be the 890GX board to buy.
Now we eagerly await the arrival of the rest of AMDís 800-series chipset lineup, including 880G and 890FX, as well as the first 6-core Phenom II X6 CPUs which are rumored to be coming at the end of April. This will likely be the last of AMDís performance-oriented IGPs. From here on out, the future is Fusion.
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