Date: April 19, 2007
Author(s): Greg King
ASUS has been on a roll with their RoG line of motherboards. Their third installment, Commando, looks to impress enthusiasts with the help of Intels P965 chipset. How does this board stack up against others, and is it worthy of the Republic of Gamers name?
As the market heats up with the continual hardware launches specifically aimed at each and every one of our inner gamer, it’s easy to get optimistic about the future of PC gaming. That’s not to say however, that the hardware has never –not- been there, but rather that we are now seeing more and more gaming oriented hardware coming out all the time.
After all, it’s the gamers who are more than willing to line up and pay the premium price for the ultimate frame rate. That’s not to say that the more mainstream products are bad. In fact, companies make the bulk of their money at the budget level but it should also be said that bragging rights are won and lost in the enthusiast trenches that are more often than not completely filled with us gamers.
One company that is leading this charge is the always trusty Asus. With the announcement of their gaming oriented line of motherboards, the Republic of Gamers, or RoG, they have captured the attention, and wallets, of gamers everywhere. Long have they, and most other companies for that matter, produced high quality, high performing motherboards. Now though, we have a product line to call our own.
With the Republic of Gamers, we can now be in elite company. Is this true or could it just be marketing at its best? With RoG, Asus themselves offers “the best hardware engineering, the fasted performance, the most innovating ideas, and we welcome the best gamers to join in.” Strong words to say the least.
Today, we are taking a look Asus’ latest addition to the RoG lineup, and their third overall. Based on the Intel P965 “mainstream” chipset, the Commando is a welcome addition to the RoG series of motherboards as it’s priced considerably less than the Crosshair and the Striker Extreme.
Since the platform first came out, there was been quite a stir about the overclocking capabilities of the P965 chipset. For most, it was obvious that Asus would eventually through their research and development might behind this chipset and bring a gaming oriented motherboard to market. That board is the Commando.
Throughout the past month, we have put the Commando through its paces, run it up against two other motherboards, both using different chipsets and worked to obtain our max overclock. Speaking of overclocking, Asus claims to have reached an astonishing 575MHz front side bus. This seems like an absurd frequency for the FSB but there are screens on the Asus webpage verifying this feat.
Could we get that high with our E6600 and how did the Commando stack up against the 975X based DFI Infinity 975X/G and the DFI ICFX3200-T2R/G? As we get into the review we will see how the Commando performed but first, let’s get a look at what the latest addition to the RoG has to offer.
The spec sheet for the Commando is rather lengthy but we will cover what we feel is the most important.
One thing to note here about the specs is the limited support for ATi’s CrossFire. Originally not intended to support this technology, the chipset, and sub sequentially, the Commando, now support CrossFire, even if it’s crippled on paper. Aside from that, the Commando’s support for quad core CPUs is noteworthy as well.
The parallel port for most optical drives and Ultra ATA hard drives is provided by JMicron as the P965 chipset does not natively support this quasi-legacy technology. This, to me is a welcome sign of things to come. While I still have many Ultra ATA drives, optical and disk, the cables are a pain and SATA is so better in every single way.
Moving onto one of the main things that make a Republic of Gamers motherboard a Republic of Gamers motherboard. We of course would not be talking about the performance of the board, that for a little later in the review. No, this line of boards has built a name for itself thought the extras that come with it as much as it has based on how the board works.
Arriving in its retail packaging, the first thing that we notice of the size of the box that it came in. Coming in a large, motherboard width box, we can tell from the start that this is a RoG motherboard. This notion is reinforced with the large RoG eye logo in the upper left hand side of the box. Also, we see that it not only ships ready for Windows Vista (a much bigger issue at the time of release, more so than it is now) but it also comes with a full version of Futuremark’s massively popular 3D Mark ’06 and Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.
It’s always a welcome sight when a piece of hardware ships with a game and is certainly a breath of fresh air when that game is a quality AAA game such as GRAW.
Moving to the back of the box, we see an assortment of features that the Commando ships with. These include the popular back lit LCD readout on the back of the motherboard (though not near as impressive as the other RoG boards), an HD audio card based on the 1988B codec and the popular title GRAW.
Once open, we see that the Commando comes wrapped not in the usual anti-static bag that most all other motherboards come in, but rather in its own plastic housing. There is another separate box that houses the extras of the bundle.
Once into the bundle, we first see the documentation. Asus has always impressed me with their thorough manuals and the Commando’s does not disappoint in this regard. With information spanning well over 100 pages, the manual provides all the vital information that is needed to not only piece together your PC as well as minor troubleshooting walkthroughs as well. Also shipping with the Commando is a quick start guide and a manual that contains a CD with various media applications.
As promised, the Commando included a retail version of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, as well as a driver disk containing 3D Mark ’06 and the necessary drivers. For good measure, there is also a disk containing various drivers known to work with the latest Microsoft OS, Vista. We found, in our testing that Vista detected all of the hardware itself and we did not need to use the disk once. However, each persons experience might vary so rest assured, the needed drivers are included in the Commando’s plentiful bundle.
Also included is a small fan that is to be mounted on the heatsink that sits on the voltage regulator on the motherboard. In theory, the heat from both the north and south bridge will travel up the heatpipes and into the heatsink. This fan should only be used by those that do not cool their CPU with air. With a heatsink, air should travel across this heatsink, keeping it cool. With water however, air will not be moving across the heatsink. This is where the fan comes into use.
To expand the amount of USB and FireWire ports on your PC, Asus has included a pair of PCI bracket ports. These plug into the appropriate pins on the motherboard and fit in an open PCI slot on the back of the PC. While nothing new, the 4 ports on the back of the motherboard might not be enough for some people… me included.
To connect your SATA hard drives to the Commando, Asus has bundled 6 SATA cables. Three have a 90 degree bend in the connector and three are the standard straight.
For those of you who might not have the appropriate power connectors on your power supply, there are 3 4-pin to SATA power adapters included. Each of these can power 2 SATA drives.
One of my favorite additions to the Commando, and many other Asus motherboards, is the Q-connector. I can only assume that Q is short for quick and that’s exactly what these pieces make your installation. Instead of fumbling around in your case to connect the power, reset and activity headers, you simply plug those same cables into the Q-connector and then place it on the motherboard. It’s one of those things that make you ask yourself “Why didn’t I think of that?” Not only does Asus include one for the power headers, but there is also one for your USB and FireWire connections as well.
Rounding out the bundle is the I/O shield, a pair of cables for IDE and floppy drives, an Asus case badge and an apparently empty plastic bag. Seriously, this bag includes some clear zip ties for those of you concerned with how their cables look in the case. This is a simple addition but one that most people can instantly appreciate.
While not an extremely over the top bundle, it is certainly one of the better ones you can find. It’s obvious that Asus is taking the RoG line of hardware very seriously.
Looking at the board as a whole, the layout is solid and clean. The board itself is dominated by a copper heatpipe running through the center. This not only looks good, but also helps to transport heart away from both the southbridge and northbridge as well as the voltage regulators. As stated earlier, when an air cooler is used, air will be pushed across the top heatsink to help keep everything cool. When water cooling is used, the included fan is needed to keep your system temps in check.
Covering the southbridge is a small, almost passive heatsink with the RoG logo on the top. This is where the heatpipe starts its journey upwards.
Directly to the side of the southbridge, places exactly where they should be, is the PCI-E and PCI 2.2 slots. Notice the PCI-E x1 looking slot at the top (left in this picture.) This is not to be used with anything other than the SupremeFX audio card included with the Commando. Just under it is one PCI slot.
The next expansion slot is the first x16 PCI-E slot, followed by 2 more PCI slots, the final PCI-E slot and finally, the last PCI 2.2 slot. Take note though, the PCI-E slots are not your average x8 by x8 slots when using 2 GPUs. The top one is x16 and the bottom one is unfortunately x4. This is not the fault of Asus, but rather of the chipset as a whole… unless you want to blame Asus for using the P965 altogether. We will hold off judgment until we start testing.
Moving onto the CPU area, we can see the 8 phase voltage system used by Asus.
Working out way down the side of the motherboard, we come to the six 90 degree SATA 3.0 Gb/s ports. I personally like these at the 90 degree angle as it helps the overall appearance of the motherboard when installing in a case.
Just to the right of the SATA ports is the floppy connector.
Looking at some of the various chips around the Commando, we come across a Winbond chip and a Marvell Ethernet chip used to power one of the 2 onboard NICs.
Moving to the DDR2 DIMM slots, we see them color coded for those running dual channel RAM. I would venture to guess that this is about 95% of all users and is nice to see. These will run DDR2 533, 667 and 800 MHz memory. Just beside the DIMM slots, we see the power 24 pin power connector as well as the IDE connector.
Not happy with just one power connection, the Commando, and all other 775 motherboards for that matter, needs another 8-pin power connection. This can be found just above CPU and to its left in the top left hand corner of the motherboard. There is a cap on four of the pins. Should you only have a 4-pin connector, this can be used to keep dust and whatever you have floating around in your air out of the open four pins.
At the bottom right of the motherboard, we see a set of buttons. These are have become more and more popular with the enthusiasts as it allows them to have full functionality with the motherboard outside of a case on, say, a bench. Asus as taken this one step further and again catering to the enthusiast crowd, and placed a clear CMOS button on the board as well. Gone are the days or small little jumpers, or better yet, removing the CMOS battery to clear a bad overclock. Simply press this button down when the PC is off and you are off to the races again.
Just above the buttons, we find the CMOS battery and the power LED. Also, to the left of the power button, there is the USB pins for an external USB port such as the PCI one included in the bundle.
Rounding out the bottom of the motherboard, we have, in order from right to left, the FireWire headers, 3 fan controllers and the three USB headers.
Getting to the back of the Commando, the I/O ports is where the RoG motherboards start to pull away from the pack. Most notably, there is a LCD display that will give POST status and report error codes should the system hang during boot. When running normally, this will display the time. While this is a nice addition, how many people, benchers aside, will have clear access to the back of their motherboard?
Just under the LCD display is a lonely FireWire port. To the left of the LCD display there is the standard PS2 mouse and keyboard ports and the coaxial and optical audio ports. To the right there is two columns, both containing one gigabit Ethernet port and each with a pair of USB ports below them.
As stated earlier, the most dominate feature on the motherboard is the long set of heatpipes that run from the southbridge, across the northbridge and up to the voltage regulators. This wraps around the bottom and left sides of the CPU area and overall, gives the motherboard a clean look.
Focusing our attention back to the socket area, Asus has left more than enough space for one to mount any cooler of almost any size. Not only is it spacious around the socket, there are also no tall standing components around the CPU area as well. This will allow the user to use an array of wide coolers to keep their CPU running temps in check, as well as keeping the surrounding components cool too.
Taking a look at the back of the motherboard, we see… a back of a motherboard. Nothing out of the ordinary here.
Finally, we take another look at the southbridge cooler and then down along the heatpipe.
The final piece that ships with the Commando is the SupremeFX audio card. As covered earlier, the SupremeFX is a discrete sound card using the ADI 1988B audio chip. The card provides 8 channels of high definition audio as well as the S/PDIF that can be found on the rear I/O of the motherboard. I am certainly not an audiophile so if anyone has any audio related questions, hop in our forums and Taterworks can hook you up with as many answers as you can fire at him.
As stated earlier, the top slot on the motherboard is not to be used with a x1 PCI-E card. Its sole purpose is to provide a dedicated home for the SupremeFX daughterboard.
One thing that enthusiasts, and many gamers for that matter, look for in a good motherboard is an equally strong BIOS. This is where the tweaker’s expectations can be met or supremely let down. The majority of overclocking friendly boards have an equally friendly BIOS. In the past, I have worked with well laid out setups and my fair share of poorly planned ones as well.
With Asus marketing this motherboard directly as gamers, and with the many reports of record overclocks using this chipset, I fully expect the BIOS to be as robust as any we have worked with in the past.
The first screen we see is the basic, everyday setup screen. On the “main” screen, we have the option to change the displayed date, time as well as view our system information. Nothing to over the top here.
On the next tab over, we start to get into the meat of the BIOS. In the “Extreme Tweaker” section, we find where all of the overclocking tools reside. By default, everything fun is turned off. Should you wish to just run your Commando at stock settings, no changes need to be made on this screen. If you wish to overclock the hell out of your CPU, come on in.
If we set the AI Tuning to Manual, this opens up kinds of settings. This is where we can adjust the FSB, tweak our voltages and enable the C.G.I. (Cross Graphics Impeller) but more on this later. If you notice, the FSB can be cranked all the way up to 650 MHz. A bit optimistic on Asus’ part if you ask me but it’s nice to know that you have the headroom.
If you wish to completely fry your CPU, it should be noted that you can crank up your VCore up to 1.85v too.
Starting at 1.8v, the memory voltage can be kicked all the way up to 3.375v should you so desire.
By setting the Configure DRAM Timing by SPD, we can now go in and manually set our RAM timings should we want to do so. If you are going to want to have success overclocking on any motherboard, you are going to have to get very familiar with what you RAM can and cannot do. This includes their timings.
Moving down the line, in the “Advanced” tab, we can tweak our CPU even more should we want to. It is here that you can change your CPU multiplier if your CPU grants you the ability to.
The next tab is for power settings.
Here is where we can adjust our boot sequence as well as change the importance of one hard drive compared to another. Obviously your boot drive will want to take precedence over any other media drive you might have connected.
In the “Tools” column, we have the ability to use Asus’ built in BIOS flashing utility. We can also save successful overclocking settings in the O.C. Profiles section.
Finally, in the “Exit” column, we can either discard our settings or save them to have them applied at the next reboot. In this section, we can also restore the setup defaults if we get a bit out of hand in our setting changing endeavors.
Included with the Commando, Asus provides some simple utilities that allow you to monitor your temperatures, fan speeds, voltages, and usage of each core. You can also tweak your system, in Windows, if you either do not feel comfortable enough doing so in your BIOS or need to eek the last extra little bit of performance out of your machine with settings you can’t get to pass POST. There is also a utility that will allow you to control your fan speeds. These utilities, in their entirety, are called the Asus A.I. Suite.
First up is A.I. Gear. This will allow us to control our fan speeds by manipulating this cool little shifter. Kind of hokey but kind of cool.
There is also A.I. N.O.S. Now this isn’t a shout out to all you ricers out there, but rather an acronym for non-delay overclocking system. This will intelligently up the PC performance in the most demanding situations.
With A.I. Booster, you can overclock your CPU without having to get out of Windows and boot into your BIOS. This can not replace the reliability of overclocking through the BIOS, but it is good for mild overclocks and for those who have found the max that their PC can boot into but still want to try to squeeze out the last bit of performance they can.
In the A.I. Suite alone, you have the primary display. Here you can monitor your voltage, CPU usage and pretty much everything we talked about earlier. You control your utilities with the buttons on the left hand side of the window as well.
Finally we have Q-Fan. This utility gives us the ability to fine tune our fan speeds. It’s as simple as that.
Outside of the A.I. Suite, there is a system tray residing program called PC Probe II. For any of you that have used Asus boards in the past, this program, in one version or another, has accompanied Asus motherboards everywhere they went. This will give you a definitive display of all of the voltages, fan speeds, clocks and temperatures on your motherboard.
The final utility that Asus bundles with the Commando is the Asus update console. From here, you can retrieve a BIOS update from online, or from a locally saved file, and use the tool to update your BIOS. Some swear by this utility while others will only use a floppy drive and update at startup. Whatever you use, I will say this. I have never once had a problem with this program. I am either lucky or the Asus update utility actually does what it says it should.
In this review, and in all other motherboard reviews that this editor does, the following hardware will be used. As the number of motherboard we review continues to grow, our goal is to keep the numbers as constant as possible. Should hardware change, aside form the board being tested, we will run the tests again on each board being compared. Until we see a need to change the testing hardware though, we will keep the test setup the same in the hopes that the information is remains as congruent as possible.
Throughout the tests, on all of the motherboards used in this review, we will be using a suite of benchmarks that we have not only used extensively in the past, but also feel to reflect directly upon the performance capabilities of the motherboards themselves.
Some are game benches where we use FRAPS to capture the rough average of frames per second and some are as synthetic as they come. All, when used correctly and fairly, should give us an order of performance between all three of the motherboards being tested in this review. The programs used/ran are:
First up, in Cinebench, we can see that there is very little performance difference between the three boards in CPU performance but out of them all, the Commando comes out on top slightly.
One of the staples in our benchmarking here at Techgage is Sciencemark. In Sciencemark, we run two individual and separate benchmarks. As the graph shows, there is very little difference between the three motherboards in both Molecular Dynamics and Cipher Bench alike.
In PC Mark ’05, the contestants start to distance themselves from each other a bit more. In this benchmark, the program will test how the PC responds in various everyday activities. It does a good job of testing out each component of the system to give us an individual score for each. Since we are using the same hardware for every test, it should give us a rough idea of how each component us utilized by the motherboard. In this run, we ran everything at default settings and at the end, recorded the scores for the hard drive, graphics, memory and CPU tests. There is also an overall score that is produces that will be recorded as well.
Another favorite of most benchmarkers is another Futuremark product, 3D Mark ’06. Being the latest offering from Futuremark, ’06 tests the PC in a gaming environment by not only stressing the video card, but the CPU as well. Again, since all of the hardware remains the same from motherboard to motherboard, this should give us a good picture of how the Commando uses each part of the system.
In Sandra, we can use the benchmarking suite to test out individual components. This ranges from a network connection to the bandwidth of our memory. For this review, we run the CPU arithmetic and Multimedia tests, as well as the memory bandwidth.
In this benchmark, we could not get the program to start up on the DFI ICFX3200. No matter what we tried, it would not open up. Because of that, only the Commando and the DFI Infinity will be represented on the graph.
Notice how the CPU and memory scores are almost even. There is a slight difference in the favor of the Commando.
Ahh, the benchmarker’s perennial favorite, Super Pi. This is a fun little program that calculates the digits of Pi to a set amount. Super Pi is very dependant on memory bandwidth and raw CPU power and frequency. While all close at 1 million places, the Commando starts to pull ahead of the pack as the decimal places start to add up.
In our final benchmark, we will test the speed of a SATA hard drive and one that is connected over the USB port. This is something that affects us all and should give us a “real world” idea of media performance.
Now that we have all of that done and finished with, lets turn our attention to what most gamers are going to be interested in… games. For each of the three games used, a unified game save is used for each motherboard. As similar of a course throughout the level as possible is kept to keep the experiences in one run as similar to the experiences in the other runs. Each game’s FPS is recorded by FRAPS for a duration of 60 seconds and is repeated 2 more times. The average of the three runs, per game is recorded as the final performance number.
When we get into the overclocking results in any review, be it CPU, RAM, or GPU, the results are somewhat of a sticky issue to report on. The old saying that your mileage may vary cannot be overused. Overclocking results basically come down to two things. First is your experience in working with the hardware you have. In doing so, you’re past experiences and knowledge of each and every BIOS setting comes into play. To tweak the absolute maximum out of your hardware, a lot of time and effort has to be put into your work and sometimes then, there will be others who trump your highest clocks.
The second part of overclocking is the hardware itself. No two motherboards, processors, video cards and memory are the same. It could be that you have read a report of someone’s success with a certain set of hardware and think that by buying that exact setup, you will get the same results. This is a frustrating reality in overclocking… nothing is guaranteed.
What we are trying to say is that we hope that no one reading our reviews will take our findings and accept them as the de-facto maximum results capable by that hardware. I know personally that I am an average overclocker. I am not great, but I do understand a majority of what the settings do. For everyone of me, there is a hundred people better at overclocking and I understand that. If you look around the net, you will find many sites obtained better results and that’s fine. That’s just the gauntlet that we run when we bench. With that said, let’s get into our findings.
One of the most heralded features of the P965 chipset is its ability to produce incredible overclocks. In working with the Commando, this rumor was proven as fact. While not as high as others have gotten to, the performance of the board, even with everything in BIOS set to AUTO. I was able to quite easily get the FSB up to 406 MHz with everything set in the BIOS as AUTO. Once the CPU multiplier was dropped however, as we continue on our AUTO settings rampage through the BIOS, we eventually settled at an impressive 432 MHz FSB. Again, this was with everything set to AUTO. This includes memory timings, voltage settings… everything.
In an attempt to find the highest, stable front side bus frequency, we again lowered the E6600’s multiplier to 6, but instead of leaving everything as AUTO in the BIOS, we started to mess with the memory timings and voltage settings. The RAM being used is the same Kingston set that Rob reviewed a few weeks ago. In the review, Rob was able to push the RAM up to 621 MHz and at that frequency; the RAM should not be the limiting factor in our attempts. After loosening the timings quite a bit to 5-5-5-15, upping the voltage to the RAM to 2.35v and the northbridge voltage to 1.475v, we were able to push the board to an even more impressive 475MHz. For many users of the Commando, this is the norm. For me however, this frequency was a wall that we just couldn’t seem to get over. Even with speeds that high, it’s still 95MHz lower than the claimed 570MHz that Asus has achieved. As stated earlier, overclocking is the consummate example of the saying “mileage may vary.”
You may have noticed the CrossFire setup in one of the above pictures. I am disappointed to report that the picture was as far as we got with CrossFire on the Commando. Once we loaded any 3D games, the screen would flicker at a slow, deliberate pace. This was not corrected when different drivers were used, Windows was reinstalled, cards were switched in the slots, the BIOS was updated and holy water was sprinkled around the bench. We even switched out the power supply. During testing, we were using the Enermax Galaxy 850W power supply, which should have been overkill for that system but while CrossFire worked perfectly on the two DFI motherboards, we thought that it might help to switch out the power supply. We then went with an Ultra 800W but the problem persisted.
In a single GPU setup, things are quite different. In almost all of the benchmarks, the Commando bested the value offering from DFI and its bigger, more expensive brother, the ICFX3200. We were never able to figure out what was causing the problems with CrossFire but it very well might be related to the chipset. P965 was originally designed not to allow the user to run a pair of GPUs in parallel and while we have proof that others have not had this problem, this was something that we could not figure out. With that said, the performance of the Commando using a single GPU was superb.
As far as stability is concerned, the Commando, in typical Asus style, was as stable as a rock. After approximately 24 hours of stress testing, the Commando was still looping away. This is above all, a testament to the time and effort that the engineers at Asus put into their products.
In Windows Vista, our experiences were similar to those using XP Pro. The response of the OS on our test bed was quick and we ran into zero problems. Earlier we mentioned that the Commando comes with a driver disk just for Vista. After Windows Vista loaded, we checked in the device manager to see what hardware still needed to be installed. To our surprise, Windows recognized everything that the disk was not needed. Working with the stock Windows drivers was smooth and after a few rounds of GRAW, we have no problems recommending this motherboard for anyone building a Vista PC.
All in all, the performance of the Commando speaks for itself. The single GPU scores are strong and while we did have our problems with CrossFire, the overall experience as a whole was a positive one. Having said that though, with the Commando bearing the markings of a Republic of Gamers product is the Commando really suitable to wear that badge? Our answer is a pretty ambiguous one at best. Our stance on it is yes… and no. On one hand, gamers deserve the very best if the product is specifically marketed towards that one group. Gamers, being early adopters of everything as well as wanting the best performance that they can afford, are more likely to be the ones running a dual GPU setup. This just so happens to be the Commando’s Achilles heel.
To counter that argument though, how many people actually own a pair of video cards? By taking a quick look at Valve’s steampowered hardware survey results, out of 1,165,194 unique samples, only 16,931 use a multi-GPU setup. This is either because you don’t exactly need to have a pair of GPUs to run Half Life 2 anymore or more realistically, people choose to spend their money elsewhere. So when saying that 1.45% of the total participants of the Steam survey use multi-GPUs kind of puts the CrossFire issues into perspective. And I know that their survey doesn’t speak for the entire gaming community but realistically, almost everyone I know runs Steam. Everyone loves the Half Life series and finally, where else is anyone to get the broad stats that are offered at Valve’s site?
For those that don’t need a CrossFire motherboard, I 100% stand behind the Asus Commando. It’s stable and it performs exceptionally well. The layout of the board is clean and well thought out. When installed in a case, the lights from the buttons, along with the black PCB and copper heatsinks and pipes are just dead sexy. For those of you looking for a solid motherboard, the Commando should be near the top of your list. For those of you who do not need an LCD display on your I/O panel, or just cant justify dropping $200 on a motherboard, you might want to look towards the popular P5B line of motherboards from Asus. For those that want an exclusive motherboard and want to show it off, the Commando is certainly for you.
Taking everything into consideration, the Commando gets an 8 out of 10.
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