AMD is a company that not too long ago was on top. They had done something that no one thought possible; they were able to outperform Intel clock for clock. But they had a problem; they had a winning CPU but had to rely on others for a solid platform to run on. This prompted AMD to buy ATi (one of the companies that had a good chipset for AMD) which gave them a GPU business and a chipset business. The problem has been paying the bill on that particular purchase. This has prevented them from putting a lot of money into R&D and has also led to some, well unimpressive products (on the CPU side not the GPU). We have worked through several CPUs and chipsets; each one improving a little over the other but never really catching up to what Intel has on the market. Now things could be different; nVidia has allowed SLI on an AMD chipset and AMD is making good strides in terms of what their chipsets can do (with limitations from the CPU and IMC). We have their latest chipset in the form of the Gigabyte 990FXA-UD5. This is a Three-Way SLI AMD motherboard with lots to offer. We are going to look at the design, layout, and cover some design philosophy and features along the way.
The Box and Goodies -
The Gigabyte 990FXA-UD5 has a box that will catch your eye, but it won’t make it water like some of the packaging that I have seen on shelves (and in the lab too). It is a glossy black with a fade in image of the board’s socket and cooling. Below this you do get some marketing material but it is not as bad as it could be. The most important (or at least eye catching) item is the small SLI logo on the front. It has been a very long time since true SLI was allowed on AMD’s product but here it is again.
Flipping the box around we find a much busier box. Here the marketing people have gone a little crazy. You have a picture of the board complete with pointers to interesting items, information on the 2oz of copper in all Gigabyte motherboards and more. Again the really interesting item is the 3-way SLI logo that we find. Hmmm I wonder what a Phenom II X6 1100T would do with three 4xx series GPUs in it?
Opening the box yields… well not much really. You get a couple of manuals, a few SATA cables a Driver/Utilities DVD, I/O shield, and a couple of GPU bridges. One of these is the all-important three-way SLI bridge. I guess with this light of a haul, Gigabyte spent all of their money on components and licensing.
The Layout -
The layout of any motherboard is important. Even simple mistakes in component placement or the signal traces can cause major issued in performance and stability. With the ATX form factor we find that this is even more true; the devices we drop onto them demand more and cleaner power while the signal speeds push faster and faster. I have said this before; I like the direction that Gigabyte is taking with their board designs. They are getting more stylish and starting to get out of the “mass production” mind set and really cater to the potential performance of a product. We are seeing this on multiple products from them and now get to see this translate over to the AMD 990FX. Of note are the new rounded heatsinks that help to maintain the board level cooling (a simple heatpipe system) This sits on a matte black PCB and is rounded out with all black peripheral slots (including the CPU socket). It is a nice effect.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Starting off at our usual spot we see that new black ZIF socket (ZIF- Zero Insertion Force). This is right on the inside of the bank of four Dual Channel RAM slots. You can also see the 24-pin ATX power connector and if you look closely you can see some of the Driver MOSFETs that Gigabyte is using these days. Something else that is very nice (and different) is the new open cooler mounting hardware. In the past this was a closed piece of plastic. It was also a great way to keep a nice pocket of hot air around your CPU. By opening this up Gigabyte is allowing more cool air to flow around the actual CPU (which helps in more ways that just overclocking). The power regulation area is clean with a row of solid capacitors right in from of a row of ferrite chokes. (under the heat sinks are more driver MOSFETs which contain voltage a driver and two MOSFETs. These all combine to make up the 8+2 phase power system on the board (the +2 is for the RAM).
There is a down side to all of this though. You see due to the space needed for the AM3+ CPU socket, the RAM and the power setup there is very little space for the 8-Pin Aux power connector. As you can see I was barely able to get my fingers around the header without a cable attached. Once you get this into a case it will be even more difficult.
Moving down the board to the peripheral slots; ok let’s count them out. You get the following;
1 x1 slot (Mechanical and Electrical), Slots one and three are x16 Mechanical and electrical when used together they still maintain x16 on both slots though (one runs off of the 990FX chipset and the other off of a bridge chip). Slots two and four are x4 electrical and x16 mechanical while slot five is x8 Electrical while showing x16 mechanical. For those of you looking to run three-way SLI or crossfire you will want to use slots one, three, and five. Gigabyte has thrown in a legacy PCI slot for good measure. Do you see that 108db label printed on the board? That is Gigabyte bragging about their 108db Signal to Noise ratio ALC889 HD audio CODEC they have thrown in.
Moving around to the front of the board we find a real USB 3.0 header right next to a header for a Trusted Platform Module. I have said this before and I will say it again; I am not sure why this gets put in. You cannot really buy these on the open market and it is doubtful that any OEMs will be dropping them in with a board like this so why not save space and tracing. The cooling here has been redesigned also. Again the edges have been rounded and lifted a little from the board. it gives it a sloped effect and also helps with heat as it rises and expands (giving it more room to do both and cool more efficiently).
The 990FXA-UD5 gives you the typical six SATA 3.0 ports along with two extra ports that are run by a Marvell 88SE9172 SATA 3.0 controller. This chip also controls a single eSATA 3.0 port on the back. The three ports can be setup to run as RAID if that is something you want.
Speaking of the back I/O ports we have arrived at them. Gigabyte offers you eight USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a single PS/2 port, an eSATA 2.0 port, an eSATA 3.0 port, a 1394 port and the outputs for that ALC889 HD audio CODEC.
The layout looks clean and neat. There are also some nice components in the 990FXA-UD5. It should perform fairly well given what we are seeing here, but we won’t know that for sure until later.
In the current market motherboard (and indeed almost all components) performance is very close. The days of a large performance advantage between boards using the same chipset are long gone. That is unless someone makes a HUGE mistake (like runs traces completely wrong). Now, the thing that differentiates different products is the features. These are things like power management, extra slots, better audio CODECs etc. It is these items that R&D teams work so hard to drop into what are really identical pieces of hardware at their most basic level.
The 990FXA-UD5 does have some features besides three-way SLI. It is just that three-way SLI is huge on an AMD motherboard. Still we do not want to take away from the other parts of the board that make up a good feature set.
New cooling design
8+2 Phase power design
Driver MOSFETs and Solid Ferrite chokes
108db SNR Audio CODEC
Three-way SLI and Crossfire (on an AMD board!)
Like we said there are other features of this board beside the three-way SLI. We were happy to see an audio CODEC rated at 108db SNR. We still need to see if there is any power behind this, but it is a good start. The components listed are excellent when you consider the power that your average Phenom II x6 pulls in.
In the middle (sort of good) -
Multiple 4-pin Fan headers
3TB Drive support
XHD (auto RAID)
Even the mid-range features are solid. I could see anyone of these tipping the scales in favor of a purchase
Floor Mats -
2oz Copper used on the board
These are pretty much stock features now and nothing that would really sway you one way or the other. Still they are nice even if they are common.
Conclusion Part I -
So far I like what I am seeing with the Gigabyte 990FXA-UD5. It is a clean board with what looks like a lot of potential. The 8+2 phase power system should keep things humming even with the most power thirsty AMD CPUs while leaving enough to make sure you can push your RAM to its limits too. AMD has had some good luck with their integrated SATA controller and we see no reason to think we will not get at least the same if not betting performance from this board. Like I said, I like what I see and there is so much more to talk about. We are going to diving right into this product and see just what we can get from it. We will also do what we can to try out the three-way SLI and Crossfire…
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