ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset
Asus' A8R32-MVP Deluxe mobo probed
Review The ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset has been a long time coming, but the bad news is that ATI is only halfway there. The CrossFire Xpress 3200 PCI Express bridge is ready and working, but ATI is still working on its new SB600 South Bridge. However, this isn’t too much of an issue for the time being at least, since most of ATI’s board partners have decided to use the ULi (or is that Nvidia?) M1575 South Bridge for now.
The main selling point of the 3200 chipset is of course its dual x16 PCI Express interface – a first in a single-chip solution. Nvidia already had a single-chip solution for two x8 slots, but its dual x16 solution relies on a second chip for the extra PCI Express bandwidth.
Interestingly, in a Q&A email ATI sent out just before the launch today, ATI claimed to offer more bandwidth than Nvidia and that "this also means that future applications, such as using one graphics card as a physics processor, are also impractical on Nvidia’s platform". So one can only presume that ATI is working on some kind of physics processor solution were one of the two graphics cards will be doing the physics calculations, leaving the rendering to the other.
According to ATI, the 3200 has been redesigned from the ground up and has the smallest North Bridge die on the market - it only measures 39mm². It still packs 22m transistors, thanks to the 110nm manufacturing processes. This also makes for a cool-running chip, and ATI’s TDP for it is a mere 8W.
All of this might be impressive for those that have knowledge of the technological aspects of integrated circuit manufacturing. However, for most of us the important stuff is how well it performs and how much it will cost. Although I’ve only had a couple of days to evaluate the platform so far, it is looking promising. The first board to become available in most of the world appears to be the Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe, and this is also the board that ATI has been promoting as the launch platform.
Abit, DFI, Sapphire and PC Partner should also have boards ready shortly, although it seems like Asus has something of an unfair advantage here by being promoted by ATI. But let’s take a closer look at what is on offer from Asus and the A8R32-MVP Deluxe.
Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe
The A8R32-MVP Deluxe is a huge improvement on its predecessor, the A8R-MVP. Asus has pulled out all the stops with the new board and added pretty much every feature you could possibly want and/or need. Starting with the chipset functionality, the ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 North Bridge is the key feature of this board with its dual x16 lane PCI Express slots. A further two x1 PCI Express lanes are available and Asus has utilised one of these for a Marvell PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet controller while the second lane terminates in a x1 PCI Express slot.
The ULi M1575 southbridge adds four SATA II connectors – with support for RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 and JBOD - two IDE connectors and eight USB 2.0 ports. Asus has added a second SATA controller from Silicon Image which adds a further two SATA II connectors. One of the connectors is located at the rear I/O of the motherboard to allow for external SATA devices to be connected - a neat touch.
HD audio is also part of the package, and Asus has gone for a Realtek ALC882 7.1-channel audio codec. FireWire is included too, although this is through a rear-bracket which offers a six-pin and a four-pin FireWire connector. Finally, a second Marvell Gigabit Ethernet controller connected via the old-style PCI bus rounds out the features.
The backplane of the motherboard sports two PS/2 ports for a keyboard and mouse, a parallel port, optical and co-axial S/PDIF out, the eSATA connector, six 3.5mm audio jacks, four USB 2.0 ports and to RJ45 connectors for the on-board Ethernet controllers. A bracket with two USB 2.0 ports and a game/midi port as well as a third bracket with a serial port are also part of the package.
Asus has also included two IDE cables, a floppy drive cable, five SATA data cables and three SATA power adaptors – two of which has two power connectors.
The 3200 is passively cooled and so is the M1575, so there’s no extra noise being made by any chipset fans.
The board layout is generally good, with most of the connectors where you expect them to be. There are three free fan headers once you’ve fitted the CPU fan in. The only odd aspect to the layout is that one of the USB headers is located just above the top x16 PCI Express slot, which means that if you use this with a front USB port on your case, you’ll have to trail the cable across most of the motherboard.
ATI is targeting the Xpress 3200 chipset at overclockers and the A8R32-MVP Deluxe has an impressive set of overclocking options in the BIOS. I won’t go in to the detail about them, but there are options to change the CPU multiplier (as long as your CPU allows for it), HyperTransport bus speed and a vast range of memory speed options.
The A8R32-MVP Deluxe was tested with an AMD FX-60 CPU, 1GB of 400MHz DDR Crucial Ballistix memory, a 7,200rpm SATA drive and a Tagan TG580-U22 PSU. Asus also kindly supplied two X1600XT graphics cards for CrossFire testing.
I’m waiting for some faster graphics cards to arrive alongside with some additional test equipment for some more intensive 3D benchmarks. None the less, the SYSMark 2004SE numbers produced are very impressive and I haven’t seen anything quite as fast in the past, be it an AMD or an Intel platform. The FX-60 CPU would have something to do with the impressive numbers, but it seems like ATI and Asus has put together an impressive solution for general applications.
The PCMark 05 scores are also very good, if not as impressive as the SYSMark 2004SE scores. Due to time constraints and equipment limitations the 3D benchmark scores are slightly limited, but as soon as I get some faster graphics cards in, more numbers will be run - watch this space. However, the numbers produced are promising, although there still seem to be some CrossFire issues with dual X1600XT cards. At times the game benchmarks would lock up and stutter, or the results would be completely random, something you wouldn’t expect from a retail-ready platform. Some of the numbers don’t quite add up either, but again this looks like a driver-related issue.
ATI claims that the CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset is fast enough to handle two of these cards without a master/slave arrangement, so hopefully this will be resolved with some newer drivers and/or a BIOS upgrade. It's worth noting that the board from Asus was using an early BIOS, which could possibly be part of the reason for the glitches experienced.
Still, the CrossFire Xpress 3200 is a huge step in the right direct for ATI and a huge improvement upon the Xpress 200 CrossFire chipset. At £135, the Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe isn’t coming cheap, but then again, the top-of-the-range products from Asus rarely come cheap.
The ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset is looking very promising, although it’s only halfway here as yet. However, Asus has done an impressive job of incorporating the ATI North Bridge into the A8R32-MVP Deluxe, and it shows that ATI is serious about its performance-oriented chipsets. I’ll reserve my judgement until I’ve conducted some more tests with some faster, more leading-edge graphics cards, but the platform benchmarks are very impressive. ®