Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 Review Page: 1

Introduction

Early this month, AMD put an end to months of silence with the release of their new 890GX/SB850 Core Logic. Given the arrival of the P55, H55 and H57 chipsets from Team Intel, it was time for a refresh and a much needed successor to the midrange 790GX and 790X chipsets. There aren't many of these boards available just yet, however today we'll be reviewing one of the first to market; The ASUS M4A89GTD PRO/USB3.

Processor Support AMD Socket AM3 Sempron 100/Athlon II X2/X3/X4 and Phenom II X2/X3/X4 Processors
Chipset AMD 890GX / SB850
Memory 4 x DIMM, Max. 16 GB 2000(OC)/1600/1333/1066 Non-ECC,Un-buffered Memory
Dual Channel memory architecture
Expansion Slots 2 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (Operates in Dual 8x/8x mode when both are in use)
2 x PCIe 2.0 x1
2 x PCI
VGA Multi-VGA output support: HDMI, DVI-D, RGB
Supports HDMI with max. resolution 1920 x 1200@60Hz
Supports DVI with max. resolution 1920 x 1200@60Hz
Supports VGA with max. resolution 2048 x 1536@75Hz
Multi-GPU Support ATi CrossfireX Supported
Storage

AMD SB850 Southbridge
6 x SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports

JMicron® JMB361 SATA & PATA Controller.
1x e-SATA 3.0Gb/s
1x IDE 

LAN Supports one PCI Express LAN 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Realtek 8111E.
Audio Realtek® ALC892 8-Channel High Definition Audio CODEC
USB AMD SB850 Southbridge
- 12 x USB 2.0 ports (4 x Rear, 8 x Internal)

NEC USB3.0 Controller
- 2 x rear USB 3.0 ports

 

The outgoing 790GX/SB750 models brought a lot to the table in terms of performance, overclocking and value for money. Can we expect the same from the new kid in town? Let's find out.



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So What's Changed?

Integrated Direct X 10.1 Graphics

Fundamentally there aren’t huge advances in the architecture of the 890GX Northbridge, however there are minor changes that make all the difference. At the heart of the 890GX Northbridge is the new Radeon HD 4290 integrated GPU. While the recent AMD 785G chipset release offers many of the features of this particular GPU, the supposedly “higher end” 790GX chipset was left in the dark with it’s ageing HD 3300 unit. The new GPU brings forward many of the 785G's updated features such as Direct X 10.1, UVD 2.0 and 7.1 channel sound over HDMI. By retaining the updated 40 Stream Processor unit with a Core Clock of 700MHz and 128mb of 1333MHz GDDR3, we expect the Radeon HD 4290 to perform competitively against Intel’s Clarkdale unit.

Much like the outgoing 790GX Northbridge, there are 24 PCI-Express lanes, which will usually consist of two PCI-Express 16x (8x when both are in use) followed by a small selection of PCI-Express 4x/2x/1x slots.

Integrated SATA 6.0Gbps, no USB3.0 and some Axed Features…

By comparison, some of the most significant changes in AMD’s new core logic manifests in the SB850 Southbridge. As some of you might be aware, motherboard manufacturers have been eager to bundle SATA 6.0Gb/s ports as part of their new motherboards, by implementing third party controllers from manufacturers such as Marvell and JMicron. However, SB850 stands as the first southbridge to natively support the new interface by offering as many as 6 on your motherboard. These are of course backwards compatible with SATA and SATA II Hard Disk Drives.

Despite this, AMD didn’t see the need to incorporate USB3.0 to the new southbridge, so Motherboards such as these are bundled with a third party controller.

Interestingly, with the introduction of some new features, AMD have silently removed a feature too…and it’s a big one. Advanced Clock Calibration – The Core Unlocker.

RIP Advanced Clock Calibration

Advanced Clock Calibration was initially launched on the SB710/SB750 for the initial 65nm AMD Phenom Processors. By utilising a previously unused 6 pin link between the Southbridge and Processor Socket, it became possible for certain overrides to occur that often lead to more substantial overclocks. Theoretically speaking, this feature should have become completely redundant with the release of the Phenom II processor as Advanced Clock Calibration had become embedded to the CPU itself. Well, not quite...

Nobody expected Advanced Clock Calibration to have an effect on the AMD Phenom II until end users tried to use the parameter in BIOS with their Dual and Tri Core Processors. AMD appears to have grudgingly let this slide for well over a year now and Motherboard Manufacturers have also had a field day cashing in on the ACC glitch, so in some ways it comes to no surprise that the feature has been “removed” with the new SB850 southbridge. Without native support, the onus now remains with the intelligent motherboard designers and engineers to develop a comparable solution. To this date, the only SB850 based motherboard to include a core unlock feature is the Asus M4A89GTD PRO.

Let's take a look at the product sample.



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Packaging & Initial Impressions

Asus M4A89GTD PRO BoxAsus M4A89GTD PRO Box

Arriving in a typical Asus box, we knew exactly what to expect. We weren't wrong either, as once again our sample survived the terrors of today's courier systems. At the top of the box are the board's included accessories and under the false floor you will find the board itself.

The accessories list consists of SATA and IDE cables, an extensive users manual, a Driver's CD and a VGA switch card? Yes, you heard me. A Switch Card for the motherboard to split PCI-Express lanes correctly. We'll elaborate on this later...

Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 MotherboardAsus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 Motherboard

The board itself seems very well thought out. At the rear, you will find 6 USB ports, a single PS/2, 7.1 channel audio, Firewire and e-SATA. Additionally, you have the choice between DVI, HDMI or VGA outputs should you wish to use the integrated GPU.

Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 MotherboardAsus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 Motherboard

One of the most notable aspects of the M4A89GTD PRO is it's large heatsink setup. It's interesting how things have changed over the years in that the power regulation chips now have a larger heatsink than the Southbridge or even Northbridge. The system is completely passive and uses a single heatpipe. Also notice the VGA Switch Card placed in the blue PCI-Express 16x slot.

The installation process was nigh on trouble free and within no time, all drivers were installed and the test bed was ready to go. I did however notice that our graphics card was operating at a reduced PCI-Express 2x rate despite using the VGA switch card. It didn't take long to realise that the switch card had to be placed in the motherboard's upper PCI-Express slot and so the graphics card had to sit in the lower slot. This is all very strange, particular for a motherboard designed in 2010...

Our Graphics Card Restricted to PCI-Express 2x?Now Resolved with the Graphics Card in the bottom slot...

Anyway, let's proceed to the testing.



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Testbed 

AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition "C3"
Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3.0 Motherboard
4GB Corsair XMS3 PC3-12800C8 RAM
Samsung Spinpoint F1 320GB SATA II Hard Disk Drive
XFX Radeon HD 5670 1GB GDDR5 Graphics Card
Samsung 22x DVD+/-RW SATA
Windows 7 Home Premium x64

Express Gate

Asus include a basic operating system with a number of motherboards, known as Express Gate. Once installing it via Windows and enabling it in BIOS, you now have access to a secondary operating system for basic uses. This may prove useful for quick and simple tasks when you’re in a rush and can’t wait for Windows Vista/7 to boot.


As an OS, it includes just about everything you need, such as an Internet Browser, Calendar, Email Application and Instant Messaging. Our System booted into Express Gate within 7 seconds of power up.

Turbo Key II

Alongside the Core Unlocker switch, you will also find a switch labelled “Turbo Key II”. This is an automatic Overclocking facility that should hopefully allow for a stable performance boost with minimal end user intervention. Let’s put it to the test, shall we?

Asus M4A89GTD PRO Overclock with Turbo Key II

This instant overclocking tool offered us a result frequency of 3.67GHz with our Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU. A voltage increase of 0.05V appears to have been applied, which for this chip is unnecessary below 3.80GHz. Regardless, this isn't a poor show at all. We will return to manual overclocking shortly.

Core Unlocker

Core Unlocker & Turbo Key Switchwews

As previously mentioned, the Advanced Clock Calibration function does not exist on the SB850 Southbridge. However, one would gather that motherboard manufacturers have been able to interpret the logic that leads to core unlocking behaviour, allowing them to implement solutions of their own. At any rate, Asus have done so by means of a hardware switch on the PCB itself.  



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BIOS

The Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3's BIOS has very much in common with it's predecessors. The structure of menus are suitably intuitive even for those who are less familiar with BIOS in general.

Plenty of theoretical headroom...

The BIOS offers just about all the parameters you will need for a successful overclock.

Fully unlocked Northbridge Multiplier for Black Edition CPU's

Manual Overclocking

As per usual with an AMD based system, we wanted to determine the board’s overclocking ability in terms of both Maximum HTT Base frequency and Maximum CPU Northbridge frequency. On the basis of what we attained with those parameters, we will then try and determine the best compromise between them and overall CPU frequency.

Maximum HTT & Northbridge Frequency

As per usual, we began our overclocking adventures by dropping memory frequencies, HT Link and CPU multipliers then raising base HTT frequency. With our particular AMD Phenom II X4 965 C3 Black Edition processor, we were expecting to run into trouble at around 240-250HT but we didn’t. Infact, we were left feeling very surprised as the motherboard successfully booted into windows with every 5MHz increment. All in all, our journey ended in BSoD glory at no less than 350MHz Base HTT. We were able to verify our Maximum Stable HTT just 10MHz shy of this and with a CPU Northbridge Frequency of 2720MHz.

A substantial achievement with a peak HTT of 340MHz

I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that this was achieved at default voltages.

Maximum CPU Overclock

Based on our findings, we decided to operate our AMD Phenom II X4 965 at a resultant frequency of 3885MHz, with a Base HTT of 242MHz, a Northbridge Frequency of 2640MHz and a memory frequency of 1604MHz. This will be our overclocked parameters for the following benchmarks.

A peak CPU Frequency of 3.88GHz



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CPU Performance

SiSoftware Sandra (the System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is an information & diagnostic utility capable of benchmarking the performance of individual components inside a PC.

CPU Arithmetic

CPU Multimedia


CPU Queen

CPU Queen is based on branch prediction and the misprediction penalties that are involved.


CPU Photoworxx

PhotoWorxx as the name may suggest tests processors by means of invoking functions that are common to Photo Manipulation including Fill, Flip, Crop, Rotate, Difference and Colour to B&W conversion.

CPU ZLib

This is an integer based benchmark that will test the CPU and Memory by means of the CPU ZLib compression library.

 WinRAR

 WinRAR's embedded Benchmark focuses on the processor's File Compression capability.


In terms of CPU performance, our M4A89GTD PRO appears to have taken full advantage of our Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition processor. The figures are very competitive against it's predecessors.



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Memory & Hard Disk Drive Performance

SiSoftware Sandra (the System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is an information & diagnostic utility capable of benchmarking the performance of individual components inside a PC.


Everest Ultimate Edition's memory testing suite determines the performance of your memory and your system's memory controller. Both Read and Write operations are tested.

Hard Disk Performance

HDTune

HDTune analyses the performance and health of your Hard Disk Drive. It's comprehensive test will determine minimum, maximum and average transfer rates.


Once again, this should be a given but we have successfully verified that the M4A89GTD PRO offers competitive SATA performance and that the processor's integrated memory controller is performing as it should.



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Integrated Graphics Performance

3DMark06

Futuremark's 3DMark06 is a means of testing a system's capability as a gaming machine. It has aged a little, however remains to be an excellent benchmark for all round 3D testing.

Flash HD - Youtube.com


Watching Flash based High Definition video is often more tasking on a system than you'd be led to believe. Without Flash Player 10.1 which enables GPU acceleration, many systems would have otherwise grinded to a halt. Let's see how our test setup performs here.

Microsoft's HD Suite contains a variety of 720p and 1080p video clips. We selected one 1080p Video Clip and gauged performance on the basis of CPU utilisation and fluidity.

Left 4 Dead is a very popular hit and as such was a game that we wanted to throw at our Core i3 530's Integrated GPU. Let's see how well it performs.

All in all, the Radeon HD 4290 has proven itself to be a very capable performer. The CPU Utilisation figures from the Windows Media HD Video Suite were a little higher than expected however the rest of the results paint a very promising picture about the GPU. Combined with it's H.264 acceleration and 7.1 channel sound over HDMI, it's proficiencies truly lie as a HTPC based unit



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Dedicated Graphics Performance

3DMark Vantage

3DMark Vantage is Futuremarks flagship gaming oriented benchmark at present and is considered to be a demanding one at that. Our tests were carried out under the "Performance" prefix.

Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is a very popular hit and should be an interesting choice to take our testbed for a spin. Let's see how well it performs.

 Microsoft Flight Simulator X

Flight Simulator X remains to be a terribly demanding game for it's age. Known for being very demanding on the CPU but also requiring a level of GPU power in the process, we thought it'd be interesting to see how it faired.

Crysis Warhead

Crysis Warhead is without a doubt one hard nut to crack, especially at higher resolutions and a dash of Anti Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering.

DiRT 2

DiRT2 is a very recent race driving game, known for it's Direct X 11 support.

And so we complete our round of games testing with very promising results. Let's conclude.



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Conclusion

The Asus M4A89GTD PRO has scored very highly in our tests, representing competitive performance across the board (pun not intended). Despite being an integrated graphics solution it has also presented itself as the potential basis of a performance orientated system and a logical successor to the previous generation of 790GX and 790X motherboards.

Its Overclocking capability proved itself to be in a league of its own where to this date we have not attained such Base HTT Frequencies with so little effort. Even for those who wish to stay well clear of manual overclocking, Asus’ Turbo Key II utility offered a very respectable overclock out of our Phenom II X4 965 processor.

 
Furthermore, the M4A89GTD holds a unique selling point (at present) against all other 890GX/SB850 boards on sale with it’s core unlocking functionality. On the basis that the success rate of a CPU Unlock is often reasonably high (your mileage may vary) and that within the next year, there could well be crippled Hex Core CPU’s in circulation, this is most certainly a must have feature.
 

Also, from an I/O perspective, SATA 6.0 Gb/sec support means you are able to take full advantage of today’s latest Hard Disk/Solid State Drives, more so if you have fast RAID configurations in mind.

Finally, for those who wish to utilise the motherboard’s Integrated GPU, we are able to confirm that the Radeon HD 4290 is a capable enough solution for general multimedia purposes and even light gaming. Its major advantage over it’s competition is that it can be configured to run purely on it’s 128mb GDDR3 memory and thus leaving your system memory alone.

All in all, the M4A89GTD PRO has something to offer for almost everyone, from the lower midrange to the higher end user. The board’s only limitation lies with it’s Crossfire mode restricted to dual 8x, which may restrict certain graphics cards’ performance. About the only reservation that we have with the product is the inclusion of a VGA Switch Card. We first saw these with the introduction of first generation nVidia SLI boards as a means of splitting PCI-Express lanes correctly but for years the motherboards have been doing this automatically... or at least within BIOS. I could almost get over this cost saving measure but what's truly irritating is that we were unable to operate the upper PCI-Express 16x slot at anything over a 2x rate in single card mode.

Now let’s talk price. Today it is possible to buy the M4A89GTD PRO PRO/USB3 for £119 or if USB 3.0 doesn’t take your fancy, the vanilla flavoured M4A89GTD PRO weighs in at £105. At this price point, the M4A89GTD PRO directly competes with it’s 790X/790GX predecessors making it strikingly apparent that you will not even have to pay a premium for the new technology. On the basis that it overclocks so well and is capable of delivering high end performance, we have no trouble in recommending this product.

 

The Good
- Superb Overclocker
- Auto Overclock functions works well
- Core Unlock Function- Native SATA 6.0Gb/sec Support
- Quiet Heatpipe Solution

The Mediocre

- The implementation of a VGA switch card

The Bad
- Must use bottom PCI-Express slot for full 16x operation. Good grief...

 

We would like to thank Asus for todays sample, you can discuss our findings in the forums.