Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA6G expansion card Page: 1
Introduction
 
Every now and then a product comes a long that causes a stir among enthusiasts. Usually it's the next gen graphics card or CPU but it's a rare day indeed that we get excited over a hard disk controller. Today however, Asus sent us a card promising twice the speed the latest motherboards have to offer, not in terms of memory, CPU speed or PCIe lanes but the latest generation of Hard drive controller based upon 6G technology.
 
6G is the direct replacement for SATA2. The reason for not calling the format SATA3 is due to the fact SATA2 allows 3GB/s and could become confusing so as 6G allows up to 6GB/s of transfer speed. The GEN2 card from Asus will allow two SATA 6G hard disks to be installed such as our test hard disk, the Seagate Barracuda 2TB XT 6G.
 
Initially it was hoped that all motherboards based on the P55 chipset would include 6G technology but due to the problems with the on-board Marvel controller and PATA devices, this feature was pulled from early releases. Intel now do not have any plans on integrating the technology until 2011 so those holding out for a motherboard with this feature could be in for a long wait. To counter this, Abit were first on the scene with there controller but this two failed to truly deliver speeds due to bottlenecks between the PCIe port and the hard drive. Asus have researched the problems and with there own version sporting the Marvel 9123 6GB/s controller chip have eradicated the issues previously encountered, claiming there card gives up to twice the amount of speed previous gen cards allowed. The issue was solved by including an expansion bridging chip courtesy of PLX, allowing true PCIe GEN2 bandwidth. Better still, the card is also backward compatible with SATA 1&2 hard drives.
 
But do you really need SATA6G?
 
While SATA6G will certainly offer the user much more future proofing, the boost in performance 6G offers is not currently expected to be massive due in part to it being in the infancy of its development. However, once the devices that attach to the controller catch up, we can expect to see worthwhile boosts in speed. For example, if you look at the way bandwidth has increased over the years from PATA (100MB/s), SATA 1.5GB, SATA 3.0GB and now SATA 6.0GB it is not hard to imagine that the latest technology will certainly offer greater flexibility and performance as the SATAII format is close to being saturated by multiple SSD's in raid arrays so the progression of technology will certainly be welcomed by those looking for optimal bandwidth. Todays storage hungry applications also demand ever increasing capacities of hard disks and it is now common place for the average desktop user to have over 1TB of storage space available. So with the ever increasing hard drive capacities, it is becoming important that the speed of the drives also follow suit and for the drives speed not to be bottlenecked by the controller. SATA6G promises these faster data speeds as well as double the storage bandwidth.
 
Specification
 
The following specification was taken from the instruction manual from our sample and as such are subject to change.
 
 Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA 6G Expansion Card
Internal Connectors
2xSATA 6GB/s ports supporting upto 2 SATA Hard Disk Drives
Backward compatible
Interface
PCI Express x4
Compatible with PCI Express x4, x8 and x16 slots
Configuration supported
AHCI Mode
Operstaing System
Windows7/ Vista/ XP (32bit/64bit)
Features
TRUE SATA 6GB/s: Native Support PCIe GEN2 bandwidth
Hot plug function
Native command queueing (NCQ)
Accessories
2 x Serial ATA 6GB/s cables
1 x Support CD
1 x User Manual
Form Factor
4.8" x 3" (12.2cm x 7.6cm)
 
 As you can see from the specification above, the card is small enough that it should not cause issue upon installation assuming you have a spare PCIe slot of x4 or above.
 
Without further delay, let's take a look at the card and its packaging...


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Packaging and Appearance
 
The appearance of the outer box is akin to the deluxe range of motherboards offered by Asus. The outer skin has a blue chrome effect with the main title in white plastered across the front of the box along with a very basic specification underneath. Highlighted to the bottom right of the box front is the claim of up to 2x the bandwidth but behind that is a shot of the SATA 6G chip found on the P55 Evo motherboard we previewed here. Sadly the retail version does not come with this feature and hence the release of this card.
 
Flipping the box over we see a shot of the card along with a much more in-depth specification readout detailing everything you will need to know about the card. Also to the rear of the box is a basic diagram showing the benefits this card offers over previous 6G offerings.
 
box front box rear
 
Opening the box up, we are greeted by the bulk of the accessories first, the driver CD, 2x 6G SATA cables and a small instruction and installation booklet. While I welcome the inclusion of an instruction booklet with even the most basic of components, I  do feel that this product guide is little more than a token gesture as there was very little information regarding the product contained therein. Not that you need a guide of biblical proportions but I would have liked to have seen some examples of the performance expected so I can assess whether or not the card is working as it should. That said we would then be out of business so I guess it's no bad thing in hindsight!
 
accessoires accessories 2
 
The card itself is relatively compact, perhaps of a similar size to the SupremeFX sound card included with some premium Asus motherboards. The PCB has spacing for the USB 3.0 NEC controller and empty slots heading toward the blanked off I/O backplate but no such ports were included which is a shame, especially for those hoping to use external devices with this card. There were no heat sinks present on the card either so I expect the card to produce minimal heat. The rear of the card showed nothing of interest other than solder points for the missing SATA ports.
 
card top card bottom
 
Here we see the guts of the card: The PCIe PLX bridging chip (PEX8613) and the Marvel 6G controller (88SE9123). As stated previously, Asus deemed neither chip to produce any significant heat hence the omission of heat sinks. Other 6G cards did not have the bridging chip and as such were limited to250MB/s thanks to the PCIe x1 bandwidth despite having the potential to reach much higher. Thanks to the PCIe bridging chip which connects to the P55 chipset through the x4 PCIe port (supporting 10GB/s), the Asus card can now hit the speeds advertised (optimal - 500MB/s) thanks to the additional bandwidth.
 
The inherent problems with the Marvel controller have been removed, literally thanks to the omission of an on-board PATA controller on the card which conflicted with the SATA 6G controller. The same 88SE9123 controller chip is here so it appears the problem is still present but not on this card as it does not support PATA devices.
 
brdige chip MArvel
 
The interface of the card relies on your motherboard providing at least one x4 PCIe port. Do not fear though because if your motherboard does not have this port or you  don't have one spare then you can use a x8 or even a x16.
The 2xSATA 6G ports look identical to standard SATA ports and are positioned perpendicular to one another on the leading edge toward the rear of the card for easy access. The positioning is such that once the cables are attached they should not clash with expansion cards in adjacent ports.
 
PCIe 4 sata 3
 
There are two SATA cables which are labelled specifically as 6G and one noteworthy point is that Asus have finally made use of a latching system to ensure the cable does not come lose once attached, something I dearly wish they would use with there range of motherboards.
 
sata 6g latch
 
All in all it is a basic package yet contains everything you need to get started. I was initially concerned that such a small card would need an external power source such as the smaller Xonar sound cards which would have taken the edge off the product somewhat but I am happy to report this card is pretty much plug and go once the installation drivers have been installed, which brings me to our test setup stage of the review...


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Test Setup
 
The test setup we will be using today for evaluation of the GSkill Falcon drive is fully optimised for compatibility and performance for testing SSD drives:
 
Processor: Intel Core i7 870 @ 2.93
Motherboard: MSI P55-GD80
Memory: 8GB Corsair Dominator GT
SATA Controller: Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA6G
Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 2TB XT
Chipset Drivers: Intel 9.1.0.1007
Operating System: Windows Vista x64 Ultimate SP1 + most recent Updates
 
 
The BIOS was left pretty much stock but the usual Intel power saving features were disabled along with C-State technology. The hard drive used is Seagate's latest in the Barracuda series and is built around four 500MB platters running at 7200rpm with ramp loading for the heads and 64MB of cache. This drive is the first drive to offer support for the SATA 6GB/s interface and as such was the ideal drive to use in the testing of the Asus expansion card.
 
Installation
 
Installation was pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a x4 PCIe slot on our test mainboard, we were forced to use a spare PCIe x16 port. This is not an issue with the card though as it is compatible with the card but will still only run at x4 speed. The driver CD is as basic as the instruction booklet but as you can see from the screen shots below installed without issue on Windows Vista 64bit:
 
asus setup setup 2
 
setup 3 setup 4
 
Testing
 
Along with many other synthetic benchmarks run today, I decided to perform several day-to-day operations (such as file transfer and Windows start up) in addition to the synthetic benchmarks. The full set of tests can be seen below
 
Synthetic Benchmarks
ATTO Disk Benchmark v2.34
PCMark Vantage HDD benchmarks
CrystalDiskMark 2.2.0f

File Write & Manipulation
Random file creation (15GB)
Sequential file creation (100GB)

OS & Gaming
Windows Vista Startup time.
Windows Vista Shutdown time.
Unreal Tournament III map load time.
 
Let's see how the Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA6G card and Seagate Barracuda XT combo performed...  


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CrystalDiskMark
 
CrystalDiskMark is a free utility maintained by Japanese company Crystal Dew World. CrystalDiskMark evaluates the performance of your hard drives based on two tests – a sequential read/write test and a random read/write test. You can select the drive to test, the number of test and the size of the data to test which can be 50MB, 100MB, 500MB and 1000MB. The results displayed below have been conducted using 5 rounds of the 500MB test.
 
Without SATA6G controller                                      With SATA6G Controller
 
without  with
 
ATTO Disk Benchmark
 
ATTO Disk Benchmark may be one of the oldest hard disk benchmark utilities still in service, but many would argue that it still remains the best. Unlike HDTune Pro and many other benchmarking utilities, ATTO can be configured to write up to 256MB of data to the disk in file sizes varying from 5KB to 8MB. This is especially useful for SSD drives and indeed RAID configurations where performance can be heavily reliant on the cluster size of the disk. All tests were run with the default settings of 0.5KB through 8192KB transfer sizes with the total length of 256MB. For clearer comparative purposes, the key stages of the benchmark are included in the graphs below:
 
Without SATA6G controller                                       With SATA6G Controller
 
atto without atto with
 
Dummy File Creation
 
When performing manual "file copy" benchmarks, the performance of the drive that the files are being copied from can directly and negatively affect the results of the drive they are being copied to. This is something that needs to be taken into consideration when benchmarking high performance hard disks such as the OCZ Vertex SSD as it's performance easily exceeds that of a standard hard disk. Therefore, to test the write performance of each storage device a freeware utility called Dummy File Creator was used to generate files directly to each of the hard disks. The first 16GB benchmark writes a collection of files ranging in size from 1GB to 100KB, whereas the 100GB benchmark writes a single file of exactly that size to the disk.
 
 
 
Results Analysis
 
 Across the range of results, you can see that there are improvements at all stages of the benchmarks. Both read and write speeds are improved and this is exemplified by the 'real world' testing of writing large files to the hard disk where the time was significantly cut when comparing like for like. Overall we can see a 10%+ improvement with all the benchmarks run when the Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA6G card is used.
 
Let's take a look at what Asus claim is the jewel in the 6G controllers crown - burst speed...


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HDTach RW
 
HD Tach is a low level hardware benchmark for random access read/write storage devices such as hard drives, removable drives (ZIP/JAZZ), flash devices, and RAID arrays. HD Tach uses custom device drivers and other low level Windows interfaces to bypass as many layers of software as possible and get as close to the physical performance of the device possible. The benchmark was run with the drive in a clean, unformatted state. The results can be seen below run on the ICH10R controller first then with the Asus 6G controller:
 
Without SATA6G Controller                           With SATA6G Controller
 
without with Asus
 
HDTune Pro
 
HD Tune Pro is a complete hard disk benchmarking, status and erasing utility by EFD Software. Capable of benchmarking performance across 100% of the disk HDTune is especially useful for mechanical hard drives that have greater performance towards the centre of the platter. As SSD drives do not suffer from any noticeable performance degradation across the entire capacity of the disk, this makes HD Tune an excellent utility for displaying the differences in performance between the two types of media. Our testing procedure involved running both the read and write benchmark tests on each of the drives with screen shots of the results being taken at the end of each benchmark run. The benchmark was run with the drive in a clean, unformatted state.The results can be seen below:
 
Without SATA6G Controller                                 With SATA6G Controller
 
without read with read
 
without write write
 
 
Results Analysis
 
Both HDtune Pro and HDTach RW showed improvements were to be had using there expansion card. However, the results were not that significant, boosting the speed of the ICH10R controller by a little over 10MB/s in all the tests run evening out at around 9% improvment by using the Asus 6G controller. What IS significant is the burst rate which increases by a fair margin in both read and write tests with improvements that double in HDTach RW and increase by over 50% in HDtune pro. Burst speed gives an indication of the controllers speed and as the above results show, the Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA6G controller performs admirably in this department. In todays market, storage space is still held high on the list and perhaps the biggest reason why SSD's are still not as popular as mechanical hard disks so this leap in burst speed will no doubt be greeted with open arms by those looking for a large storage solution AND speed.
 
Let's see what our other benchmarks make of the expansion card...


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PCMark Vantage
 
PCMark Vantage may sound like potentially the most 'synthetic' benchmark on the market, but this couldn't be further from the truth. In a whitepaper published by Futuremark (developers of 3DMark and PCMark) they describe how PCMark mimics actual PC usage by performing application launches, web browsing, video playback, photo editing, file searching, and other day-to-day tasks. This potentially makes PCMark Vantage the most 'real world' benchmark of them all, and therefore we will be breaking down the HDD Suite benchmark into its various sections in the graphs to give you the whole picture.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Results Analysis
 
PCMark Vantage really liked the Asus 6G controller spewing out scores that were on average 30% better in favour of the Asus card. The media centre score in particular was startling, showing a dramatic 51% improvement over Intels ICH10R. While I do appreciate PCMark Vantage is a synthetic benchmark, it does use real world applications to assess a components ability and with results such as these it is no surprise Asus are shouting from the rooftops about there latest product.
 
Let's head over to the conclusion..


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Conclusion
 
After assessing the test results in this review one thing is clear, there are benefits to be had by adding a card such as the Asus PCIe GEN2 SATA6G to your system. No matter which benchmark we ran, the results showed a 10-50% improvement in speeds when compared to the stock Intel ICH10R found on most Intel motherboards today.
 
Obviously, you will need more than just the card itself, a 6G compatible drive will also be needed if you want to take advantage of the latest technology which means further investment. These drives are available now for around the £240 mark and while there are no confirmed prices for the Asus card, the much hyped Asus U3S6 which DOES have USB3 was expected to retail around the $30 so I would expect this card to come in a little cheaper. Bargain? Well yes and no. Sure the card itself is cheap enough but when you consider the price of the drives needed to make full use of the card then it becomes a seriously expensive piece of kit. While this is not the fault of Asus, one has to consider the benefits SATA6G and a couple of 6G drives has over an SSD setup in raid. The only advantage I can see is capacity. SSD's will still be faster, way faster and until SSD's come in 6G format then the usefulness of this card for out and out speed freaks is lost unless you are wanting to add extremely large hard disks.
 
The speed of SSD's will not be seen until SSD manufacturers, or indeed the controllers used on the SSD's are enhanced to take advantage of this new technology as like the magnetic, mechanical counterparts, current SSD technology is limited by it's internal design and while I will stick my neck on the line and say SSD owners will see a boost by using this card, it won't be current owners with technology based on the SATAII format. While it is true that SATA6G will unlock the potential of SSD, it won't be until the new SSDs arrive with the controllers tweaked to take advantage of the additional bandwidth offered by SATA6G.
 
That said, if new technology is your bag and you simply cannot wait until motherboards support this feature then this card is right up your street. It works, plain and simple. The results speak for themselves when compared to the ICH10R controller. It is not just another gadget that will add bragging rights to your PC setup, the speed increases are there for all to see and if you are wanting to take early advantage of the new range of huge hard drives running at the speeds they were designed for, I cannot see any reason why you would not want to splash a relatively small amount of cash on this exceptional little expansion card.
 
The Good
- SATA6G support
- Exceptional Burst speed
- Easy setup
- Included cables (latch mechanism at last!)
- The price (estimated)
 
The Mediocre
- Basic User Guide
 
The Bad
- No USB 3.0 despite having space for it
 
 
Thanks to Asus for supplying the PCIe GEN2 SATA6G card used in todays review. Discuss in our forums