Sapphire Pure Innovation PI-A9RX480 mobo
Overclocker's dream - or too expensive?
Review Think of mainboards based around AMD's Socket 939 processors. Now think of the chipsets on which they're based. We bet that Nvidia and VIA would be on the top of most people's lists, and with good reason, as both companies have a well-established heritage in designing chipsets for AMD CPUs.
ATI has tried hard to break into the chipset world. Its various attempts at Socket 939 system logic have met with muted success thus far. Performance hasn't always been as good as its rivals', and the feature-set has lagged behind the times. What's more, ATI chipsets haven't historically overclocked well, making ATI-based mainboards something of a non-issue for the savvy, informed enthusiast.
Sapphire and ATI hope that's all about to change. Sapphire's launching a Socket 939 mainboard with all the enthusiast-oriented bells and whistles, and performance, it says, is class-leading. The Sapphire Pure Innovation PI-A9RX480 arrives with a lot to prove to the naysayers and doubters. Let's see if it can turn the Socket 939 mainboard hierarchy upside down.
ATI's RX480 North Bridge was initially allied to the firm's IXP400 South Bridge. Here, though, Sapphire has opted to use the newer (and arguably better) IXP450 (SB450) South Bridge that's still connected to its counterpart via a couple of x1 PCI lanes, reducing the usable number to 20. Take away the x16 lanes for graphics card PCI-Express support and you have four x1 lanes, with a two on-board and another couple spare for running high-speed peripherals.
The SB450 also adds the HD audio support. ATI, however, doesn't include support for Serial ATA II in this SB update, and we'll have to wait a while before it does. That's why Sapphire chosen to go with the popular Silicon Image PCI Express-riding SATA II-compatible Sil 3132 controller. The SB450, then, isn't the most feature-rich South Bridge out there, but it's an improvement on the original. Users hoping for some CrossFire action will also need to wait until Sapphire releases a compatible motherboard.
There's a gaping hole just behind the huge heatsink-clad power-delivery system. From the screenprinting, we can safely assume that Sapphire had intended to equip the Pure motherboard with dual VGA/DVI outputs, thereby specifying an IGP-equipped North Bridge. It seems as if Sapphire's had a change of heart but left the PCB unchanged. Note the four-pin power connector is located close to the power system.
The RX480 is, then, a GPU-less. It's hidden underneath another passively-cooled heatsink. Indeed, there are no fans present on this enthusiast motherboard, which comes as something of a surprise. The heatsink is close to the CPU retention bracket but installing a larger-than-normal AMD heatsink was no problem at all.
Three huge capacitors sit to the right of the floppy port and main 24-pin power connector. We appreciate the way in which Sapphire has located connectors on the very edge of the board, allowing for a clean physical installation and setup. Four DRAM slots - DDR of course - give you the usual dual-channel memory architecture that's one of the hallmarks of Socket 939 CPUs. One the face of it, it's strange why Sapphire hasn't colour-coded them to signify which slots are required for dual-channel mode, but we reckon it's a case of colour style over a little practicality.
There's another heatsink covering the SB450. Two ATA-133 ports are also sensibly positioned at the edge of the board, and ITE 8712F monitoring chip does a reasonable job of voltage reporting.
Sapphire's added in the ubiquitous Silicon Image PCIe-riding two-port SATA controller, boosting the board's total to six ports and adding SATA II support on the discrete duo. Reviewers and tinkerers will be pleased to see board-mounted power and reset buttons, but we can't see why Sapphire has neglected to label the motherboard-to-case pins. Most manufacturers now use colour-coded pins for easy-as-pie connection. There's space for a second BIOS chip just above, too.
VIA's erstwhile FireWire controller is positioned between the board's two physical PCIe x1 slots. Another is taken by the implementation of a Marvell 88E8052 Gigabit Ethernet controller. Just to the right is the single x16 slot, and we'd urge Sapphire to include a card-locking mechanism here, as it's all to easy for heavy cards to become displaced when a case is moved around.
Taking a look at the top-left of the board, we reckon that Sapphire will be launching a super-deluxe version of the Pure board soon. There's PCB markings for a discrete four-port SATA setup (Sil3134, most likely), a debug LED, much in the vein of ABIT, and, perhaps, another ASIC. What is present, though, is Realtek's ALC 880 eight-channel codec that's run off the South Bridge's HD Audio controller.
Just in front of an ICS clock generator is the remnants of the I/O section. Four USB 2.0 ports, a single FireWire 400, RJ-45, and six ports for the on-board sound round off this section.
Sapphire has obviously paid attention to style with the Pure Innovation board. The packaging, too, makes it look and feel like an expensive, premium board, which it is, retailing at around the £135 mark.
The accompanying bundle, though, doesn't seems a deluxe as it should be. Sapphire provides the basics, with a well-written manual, IDE/floppy cables, a coaxial S/PDIF PCI board with both inputs and outputs. There's also a single FireWire interface, making use of the VT6307 ASIC's second port. The driver CD contained the usual chipset-related drivers and a bonus CD carried a glut of security-related programs.
Given the board's appearance and price, we'd have liked a comprehensive bundle that matched offerings from the likes of ASUS, Gigabyte and ABIT. Still, it has all you need to get started, we suppose.
ATI-based motherboards have often fallen down with respect to enthusiast BIOSes. Sapphire's looks innocuous on first glance. There's voltage adjustment for just about every conceivable facet here, including bumping up PCIe ASICs. We wonder why you'd want more voltage pumping through Silicon Image's controller. HTT clock and PCIe clock adjustment is impressive, yet DDR and CPU voltages limits are downright extraordinary. Four-Volt DDR matches the highest we've seen on an unmodified motherboard; just make sure you have adequate cooling. 2.15V Vcore for Socket 939 CPUs is also extremely generous. We'd have liked Sapphire to note, in the BIOS itself, that the higher voltages can, and most probably will, cause component damage without excellent cooling. This is probably the widest range of voltages and MHz adjustment we've seen thus far, and the sample board applied reasonably strong voltages to most lines, suggesting that a true 4V was possible.
That's not to say that the rest of the BIOS is lacking. Sapphire uses a general BIOS that has options pertaining to onboard graphics. You can tweak DDR timings to your heart's content. Given the array of options open to the enthusiast, we feel that a BIOS-saving feature is an absolute must. Unfortunately, it's not implemented on the sample's B1-4M BIOS. We hope to see it in production models. Maximum memory clock is limited to DDR 400 at 200MHz HTT, but Revision E models, thanks to an improved on-chip memory controller, can be set to DDR500.
The use of a passive North Bridge heatsink pushes RX480's temperature to an alarmingly high state. What's worrying is that the temperature reported is for a default-clocked motherboard, that is, with a 200MHz HTT clock and 1.22V. We applaud Sapphire's excellent voltage adjustment but wonder if overclocking wouldn't be helped further by the use of a heatsink-mounted fan.
An excellent BIOS in most respects, one designed with the enthusiast in mind.
The benchmarks that follow were conducted with our tried-and-trusted Corsair Xpert XMS3200XL modules in situ. We also tested compatibility with DDR RAM from Mushkin, Patriot and OCZ. Again, there were no problems to report.
The Achilles Heel of the SB400 South Bridge strikes again, unfortunately. SB450 USB 2.0 performance is still lacking when compared to its rivals', and Sapphire suffers as a result. ATI informs us that it intends to resolve the USB 2.0 'issue' in the next iteration of IXP South Bridges. We certainly hope so. Pure performance, which thus far has been good, is only one facet of the motherboard decision-making process.
Overclocking was undertaken by dropping the HyperTransport frequency to 600MHz, RAM to DDR200 at 200MHz HTT, an AMD Athlon 64's FX-55 multiplier down to 6x, and, finally, North Bridge voltage up to 1.32V. No additional cooling was directed at the board and basic stability was determined by running a full loop of 3DMark2001SE without corruption or failure.
Standard stability was achieved at 305MHz HTT. The North Bridge became rather toasty, running at between 75-80²C, although, as mentioned, stability remained unaffected. Adding in a touch more NB juice and installing a 120mm fan directed at the NB, we were able to inch it up a little higher.
Note quite the highest, stable HTT speeds we've seen, but well above average for Socket 939 mainboards, and extremely promising for the slew of CrossFire-compatible boards that we're undoubtedly be seeing in the near future.
Sapphire's aim in producing the PI-A9RX480 was to create a performance-oriented motherboard that offered the enthusiast everything they wanted: speed, stability and overclocking in large portions.
ATI's Xpress 200P chipset seemed like a strange choice, as previous partners' motherboards fell short in almost every department when compared to the established duo. However, with the mix of RX480 North Bridge and SB450 South Bridge, Sapphire has added its own mix of design flair and an enthusiast-friendly BIOS to create a motherboard which is strong in most areas. PI-A9RX480's subjectively stunning looks are complemented by a decent layout and reasonable feature-set, and general performance is good, whilst overclocking performance is just stellar.
The Sapphire Pure Innovation A9RX480 sounds like the Socket 939 motherboard to own, then? Well, as good as it is in certain areas, it's simply not competitive on others. What's problematic is not Sapphire's implementation but rather the underlying core logic. USB 2.0 performance is still significantly slower than the competition's. SATA II support needs to be added via a discrete ASIC, something which is already built into Nvidia's nForce 4 variants, and adding discrete ASICs to make up for a lightweight South Bridge just pushes up the price.
Speaking of which, what also detracts from the package is the asking price of around £135. That's a lot of money for a motherboard that doesn't feature CrossFire. One can buy another motherboard, based on a different chipset, with a similar feature-set and similar performance, albeit perhaps with not quite as much voltage adjustment, for substantially less than the asking price for the PI-A9RX480.
We applaud Sapphire for releasing an ATI-based Socket 939 motherboard that performs well. We'd recommend it if the asking price was around £100. However, at £135, and with due note of just what's available for less money right now, the Sapphire Pure Innovation A9RX480 is just too expensive to be a real contender. Mind you, if individuality and monstrous voltage adjustments are just what you're after, save up the pennies and invest in one. Our ultimate advice would be to wait for a CrossFire Edition, however. So not the absolute best Socket 939 motherboard we've come across, but it has to suggest that Sapphire's foray into high-end motherboards won't be an isolated one.