Date: September 18, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams
DFIs highly anticipated AM2 enthusiast board is finally here, after months of development. Like previous LanParty boards, this one caters to the overclocker, and simply checking out the BIOS screams that fact. Does it please this enthusiast? Read on…
Since before the AM2 platform was launched in May, enthusiasts everywhere were anticipating DFI’s LanParty board. Sadly, we had to wait a little while as they had some kinks to work out. It’s finally here though, so we can all relax and see what it’s all about! DFI made a huge splash early last year with their LanParty Ultra-D and SLI-DR motherboards. Both were craved due to the major overclocking potential that both boards supplied. This quickly led to special versions of the boards being released, like the Expert and the rare Venus.
We took a look at one of ASUS’ top boards a few weeks ago, the M2N32-SLI Deluxe. That board left me impressed, because it’s well rounded for multiple uses. However, where it did lack was the overclocking arena, due to it’s low overall voltage options. However, DFI is not worried about giving the user plenty of voltage and tweaking options to play with… as we will see in our look at the BIOS. If this board is anything to the AM2 platform as the Ultra-D was to the 939, we may just have a winner.
This board is not packed with a slew of extra features like the M2N32-SLI Deluxe was, but that’s a good thing. This board is catered directly to enthusiasts who would never use the extra features included like that board has. As far as AM2 boards go though, this one is packed to the brim with top rate components, such as NVIDIAs top SLI-capable chipset.
For those new to the nForce 590MCP chipset, here are the main features that it offers.
So, now that I have whet your appetite, let’s take a look at the board and it’s layout!
It’s not difficult to predict what LanParty boxes will look like… each new one is usually just a different color. No exception here!
Though catered as an enthusiasts board, DFI has included a colorful manual explaining how to install the board, CPU and memory. Also included is a huge clear decal for your case. Good for showing your support to DFI at lan parties.
There are not that many extras included with the board, but what you will require is supplied. There is a motherboard back plate, SLI bridge, audio card, manual, diskette for RAID drivers and the motherboard installation CD-Rom.
In terms of connectors, we have 4 S-ATA, one IDE with two ends, a floppy connector and a S-ATA power converter for use with a 4-Pin Molex connector.
Here it is, in all it’s orange/yellow glory. At first look, the board looks quite similar to the old Ultra-D, but there are a few immediate differences. The first thing that caught my eye was the placement of the ram slots… I was not sure about this at first but they haven’t caused me issues yet. Actually, cooling the ram has proved easier with this placement. Prior, I just shoved a 120mm fan in with all of the loose PSU cords and hoped it stayed put. Now, since it’s directly in line with the PSU, I taped the fan onto the bottom of it to blow air straight at the modules. Ghetto, yes, but efficient.
One complaint with the Ultra-D was the fact that the north bridge chipset heatsink was directly at the end of the PCI-E slot, and here is no difference. I can’t say I am terribly impressed by this, but I can’t see a reason it would be problematic either, unless for some reason the chipset was severely overheated. The CPU bracket is another part that I found odd. The notches are at the top and bottom rather than the left and right, so this will reflect how you will need to install your cooling. I found this was better in my case though, because the waterblock was easier to install and ended up leaving more room in that area. So, it didn’t affect me, but it may for others.
You might already be asking yourself, “Where in the heck are the S-ATA ports? I only see two.” In the top picture, they are right below the chipset cooler… instead of being exposed like the other two, these are on the side of the board. The reason for this is clear… if you have a RAID setup, you will have a lot of cables sticking up, but this way they come out to the side and are easier to keep tidy.
Overall I can’t complain too much about the layout. Only thing I would have loved to see are more available fan power connectors closer to the chipset. There is only one in that vicinity, and it’s right below the bottom PCI slot. I had to use a 3-Pin to 4-Pin fan converter in order to use the power cords directly from my PSU because I could not reach any of the available fan ports on the motherboard from where it was situated.
Here is a closeup of the north bridge and south bridge, in all of it’s coppery goodness! Also pictured is the BIOS battery and it’s reset switch (red). The actual BIOS chip is found directly beside the battery.
As you would expect, there is a slew of available connections at the bottom of the board, including the color coded ATX case connectors. One thing I am pleased to see are the two USB connections right here… and not further down the board. This makes it far easier to reach and maintain a clean bottom of the case. As we’ve come to expect with recent motherboards, there is also a Power/Reset button here for those who are working outside of a case. There are two numbered LED’s that show debug codes, so if you are running into issues, the proper code will be displayed here for you to investigate.
Here is the ITE IT8716F-S monitoring chip that is found on many nForce AM2 motherboards.
An overview of the 2x PCI-E slots, 1x PCI-E 1x, 1x PCI-E 4x and 2 PCIs. There is also a com port connector and also a single fan connector.
The side view shows off the odd S-ATA ports and also the floppy connector.
The board uses a simple socket mount.
In the below picture you can see the IDE connector, 24-Pin motherboard and also the 8-Pin motherboard. Here also are the two extra S-ATA ports and the Silicon Image chipset.
The caps used around the board:
The digital PWM and it’s heatsink:
In this picture, you can see the connector for the audio. That piece doesn’t need to be installed if you have a separate sound card, or just don’t need it.
Finally, here is an opposite view of the last picture. Without the sound card installed, we have 6 USB, 1 Firewire and 2 LAN. In case you are in need of PS/2 mouse/keyboard ports, they are here also.
I am impressed with the motherboard layout overall… no real complaints. DFI did a few things differently here, such as the sideways S-ATA ports, and I have come to prefer them. Depending on your setup, your opinions may vary.
Time to take a hard look throughout the BIOS…
The BIOS used is an Award, so it will be immediately familiar to most. Nothing on the main screen differs from the Ultra-D, but beneath a few of the menus it’s a different story.
Under the first menu you will see all of the drives installed, including the date. I disabled the floppy drive since I don’t have one, and also the error halts.
Under the second menu you can set up the boot order, and whether or not you want to see the splash screen. You can do more drive configuring under the top submenu.
Under the advanced chipset, you will likely not need to touch any of the countless options:
Some fun to be had under the integrated peripherals. If you have a USB keyboard and expect it to work past POST, you will need to enable it here. I disabled a few more functions I didn’t need.
Power Management is straight forward for the most part, but I did not have to adjust anything.
The PC Health screen gives plenty of info regarding voltages and temperatures. You can also configure whether or not you want your PC to turn off if a certain temperature is met.
Genie BIOS is where all the good stuff happens, and if you have had a previous DFI LanParty board, you know what to expect. Though, this time around the options are quite a bit different… some to reflect the AM2 platform specifically.
You can set the HTT, multi and width. Cool’n’Quiet is also here if you are in need of it. The C51/MCP55 options have to do with the link between the CPU and chipset, but I have not seemed to get very far with it… yet.
The PCI Device control allows you to disable lan ports, or the audio. Here you can also set up a RAID.
Here is the most hardcore part of the BIOS, and by hardcore I mean you must play it safe. DFI has given ultimate control over voltages, and that’s no exaggeration. While most motherboards offer Vcore increases of 0.0125v, this doubles the amount of flexibility by allowing increases of 0.00625v. The voltage control begins at 1.0v, and goes straight to 1.6v. This is impressive in itself, because many motherboards still don’t allow 1.6v that easily, at least without the % modifier.
If that was not enough, there is an option for the Special Add %… which ranges from 100.00% to 121.25% that you see in the picture. Choosing 1.6vcore and 121.25% would effectively give you an insane 1.94vcore. This is hardly safe unless you have a very proper setup, and don’t mind a CPU suicide. This much voltage can kill a CPU, so you have to understand what you are getting yourself into. More times than not, the PC just wouldn’t boot if it’s unstable, but sometimes it could go much worse.
The rest of the voltages are rather normal, except for the vdimm. The chipsets do not get to extreme highs like the others, but there is no need. The Vdimm capabilities is one reason I have been enjoying this board so far. Instead of most boards that allow 2.4v or 2.5v to the memory, this board allows you to reach 3.0v with small increments. Like the top vcore, 3.0vdimm can kill your memory… it’s already happened to a few people out there. I have found that there should be no reason to go beyond 2.7v or 2.8v, but even that is dangerous territory. If you need to go beyond that, then you have a poor kit of memory.
DFI gives a lot of “power” to the user, but it still is up to you to make sure you play it safe.
Under the DRAM configuration is what you would expect… drive strengths and timings.
As you can see in the picture below, there are many options here that many other boards don’t offer. There’s something else here that I like even more than this fact though. Ever go into your BIOS to change a setting that’s set to Auto, and have no -sweet- clue what you should set it to? Well, here it will show in gray what the current setting is, so you know where to start. This is awesome because it prevents you from running SysTool or some CPUID program to see what current timings are at.
Well, Drive Strengths are not always as important as timings, so that fact proves even more useful here. “Oh no! What should my tRRD be?”. Well, as we can see, it’s 3 right now, so it may prove challenging to tighten, but there’s only one way to test! Yes, I love the fact that the settings are displayed there… it makes things much, much easier if you don’t want to memorize everything.
That aside… this is a feature rich BIOS as you can tell. All of the timings you need are available you to, including the ability to use EPP features if you have memory equipped with them. Of course, if you are a “real” overclocker, EPP is laughable.
One of the primary features that LanParty boards have become known for is the CMOS Reloaded. This effectively allows you to save up to 4 BIOS profiles so that you can return to your preferred overclocked or stock settings quickly. It works well… and the settings have all stayed after forcibly resetting the BIOS, which was nice to see.
I have to say though, after using the BIOS included with the M2N32-SLI, I am not as impressed with CMOS Reloaded. The ASUS board actually allows you to save settings to a thumb drive, and restore them from the same drive or even a CD-Rom. I would love to see something like that incorporated into LanParty boards in the future.
I am impressed with what the BIOS does offer overall though, because it caters directly to overclockers. Because of that, it lacks some various features found in other boards, but those are most likely not desired by people who want this board anyway.
As enjoyable as the BIOS is though, the version included with the board is far from perfect. I had quite a few problems within the first week of using it, which got quite aggravating quickly. The problem I was suffering was a random lockup after surfing through the first menu, regarding the time and hard drives and such. This is a known “IDE bug” and has been fixed in this beta BIOS.
Since switching over to this new BIOS, I have not had a single problem. However, this was quite a huge bug to be included with a board that currently ships. After looking around some forums, it seems I am not the only one who had the problem. I would have expected better QA prior to a board being released, but I am pleased that the beta BIOS has fixed the problem perfectly. So… if you plan to pick up this board, you will want to upgrade to this BIOS as soon as you can unless you want to risk running into the similar problems.
Throughout all of our benchmarks regardless of what we are reviewing, testing is done in a clean and stand-alone version of Windows XP Professional with SP2. Prior to testing, these conditions are met:
If you are interested in using the same benchmarks as us, feel free to visit the developers website:
The testing rig used for today’s benchmarking is as follows:
I will be comparing the results of this board to the recently reviewed ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe. Many results are borrowed straight from our original 4600+ testing, except for the graphics based ones which were re-run due to a different GPU being installed.
Sandra is a benchmarking tool I use often, but not usually for CPU testing. The Arithmetic and Multi-Media thrive on CPU power though, so they are perfect scores to go by.
The DFI board was outrun by the ASUS board in the stock speed tests, and also the top speed tests. However, the story was different regarding the two middle testing settings. Paying attention to our 2.85GHz results though, the DFI proved 100 points lower, or 0.6%.
Not surprisingly, the exact same results have stemmed in the Multi-Media tests also. Here, the differential between both boards at the top overclock is 0.65%.
In the Everest tests, each board has their strong runs but the ASUS came out in top overall.
Close results once again here, but the DFI board outperformed the ASUS in the majority of the tests. The 3D Mark 06 results are from the CPU test only, for reasons that I can’t explain because I tend to not use my brain. I really have no other excuse.
Haven’t had enough benchmark results yet? Good, let’s move on.
Ever since I found out about Sciencemark, it has become one of my favorite benchmarks. It’s in-depth, in that it’s results are far more info packed than whatever other tools spit out. The tests are also quite interesting… one is a Molecular Dynamics algorithm and also a cipher break.
All times are in seconds, so the lower the better. Again the boards swapped top places throughout the different runs, so it’s hard to declare a winner here. All of the results are far too close to one another, really.
Cinebench is a tool to measure your multi-media rendering… in this case a high-resolution image. It has two small separate tests, one single threaded and the other multi-threaded. As you can see by the results, one board didn’t have an advantage over another. Where one was higher than another, it’s incredibly minimal. That’s a good thing.
All results here are in seconds and obviously lower is better. We can see similar results that SANDRA showed… the first and last tests is where the DFI fell short, but the two middle settings they proved higher. Again, not a large difference, the biggest being 2s slower in the 8M run.
I used two scenarios when dealing with real-world multi-media tests. First, I had ripped a copy of the first CD from DJ Tiestos “In Search Of Sunrise 5” album to a solid *.wav, which weighed in at close to 800MB. I then used the standard version of the LAME encoder, and also the Multi-Threaded version. I chose to use the popular 3.97b2 for these tests.
For the DVD re-encoding, I first ripped Bad Religions music DVD, “Live at the Palladium”, and then re-encoded it using Nero Recode. Default settings were used, but it essentially compresses the full DVD into one that would fit on a normal 4.5GB disc. The time shown is the result of compressing the DVD, not the ripping process.
This graph shows some interesting results. Whereas the ASUS board beat the DFI in the standard LAME tests, it lost in the LAME MT and DVD Recode ones. In fact, the DFIs LAME MT results proved 10 seconds faster on average on each setting. The differences were not as high with the DVD recode, but is still a gain nonetheless.
The only gaming test I usually run is Half-Life 2… a true classic. I use the d1_canals_07 level, and use default graphics settings (0x AA. 0x AF, 1024*768). I use FRAPS to record the Min/Avg frame rate, which is calculated over a 5 minutes run. Each run is different due to manual play, so these scores can’t be scaled to one another… but rather reflect real world gameplay.
No board had a huge advantage, but the DFI just inched over the ASUS in the majority of the tests.
Time to test the on-board sound and also see how compatible the board is with Linux!
To give the on-board sound a test, I used my Turtle Beach HPA 5.1 headphones. I do not have a proper 5.1 speaker setup due to lack of room, so these headphones are the next best thing. For subjective listening, I chose to use a few of the samples used in this review. I first took a listen to DJ Tiestos “In Search of Sunrise 5”, which left me impressed. Trance music is a genre that’s somewhat hard to listen to on low-end sound cards, just because there is so much bass which can cause static on some setups. However, it sounded great here. It didn’t seem as clear as the Chaintech AV-710, but it came very close. The Chaintech is one budget card that’s hard to beat, especially for headphones use.
I also gave Half-Life 2 a run with the card and felt the quality to be identical to what I hear from the Chaintech card. The gunfire was crisp and the enemies voices clear. Well, as clear as the Combine can be, really.
Overall, I like the on-board sound. You will not complain about having to use it over a separate sound card. However, I did find the Chaintech AV-710 better overall throughout the different songs I listened to, but no real differences between gaming. Of course, if I had an actual 5.1 speaker setup, my findings would be more accurate. So don’t take these findings too seriously, as headphones are not the best thing to go by.
Since the AM2 launch, Linux has proved a little sticky. Chances are if you are installing off a CD or booting a Live CD that uses a 2.6.17 or earlier kernel, you will need to boot up differently in order to succeed. I have not tested the 2.6.18 kernel, but I’ve been told it fixes some problems… so hopefully some of the more popular Linux distros will make that version a standard to avoid these problems.
If you boot up with a Linux CD, chances are past the boot screen, you will see nothing. I found that sometimes noapic would fix the problem, and if it didn’t then noacpi did. I am unsure what the problem is exactly and why it has to be averted, but I’ve had the same problems across four distros on both motherboards.
At any rate, SLED10 installed no problem with the noapic boot prompt. The network functioned, in addition to the on-board sound. Once the NVIDIA driver was installed, it was a fully functional system with no noticeable bugs at all. So, this board doesn’t seem to have a problem with current Linux versions at all as long as you disable apic or acpi.
In the pictures above, you can see the output of lspci, cat proc, et cetera. Overall, I am quite impressed with the result of Linux on this board… there was nothing tested that would not work. The fact that the audio worked no problem was a nice surprise… as it’s usually sketchy with a brand new board.
Onward to our final thoughts.
When you think of performance parts for each type of hardware, there’s always a specific company that stands out in your mind. When it comes to motherboards, DFI is usually on top due to their passion for overclocking. These guys don’t just push out motherboards for the sake of it… they build motherboards because they, like us, have a passion for computing and tweaking. So, that usually results in a fantastic product.
Like the Ultra-D last year, the M2R/G packs a lot of promises. “Designed for Enthusiasts” could not be any more true. Just looking at the BIOS is awe inspiring… full of potential. That’s actually one of the main reasons this board will sell. Having the ability to reach such high voltages for both the Vdimm and Vcore is going to be welcomed by many. The board should actually come with a huge warning encouraging people to not use those settings unless they know what they are dealing with. I can see lots of CPU’s and Memory modules dying by those who are not paying attention :-)
What this board does provide, I am very satisfied with. One thing that did hit me the wrong way was the BIOS problems dealing with the IDE settings. I am unsure of the bug exactly, but on a stock BIOS, there is a good chance of freezing up in the first menu. To combat this bug without updating, you can surf through the other menus before heading into the first one, and then everything will be ok.
That in itself is a workaround, and I can highly recommend upgrading to the newest BETA BIOS if you pick up the board. Because of these issues though, I have to wonder what DFI’s QA is like. I am not the only one who suffered these problems… so it’s odd that it wasn’t caught during testing. Even more odd is the fact that the stock BIOS is still not available on their website, even though the boards been commercially available for a few weeks. This doesn’t look good from a business standpoint. So, if you are going to flash to the newest BETA BIOS, you may want a fresh dump of the stock one before you do. Hopefully DFI will have that BIOS on their website sooner than later, though.
In regards to the board itself, I am pleased with the layout. At first I didn’t think I’d enjoy the vertical ram slots or even the way the socket bracket is, but I’ve come to prefer them over previous methods. However, one thing I found about the ram slots is that for whatever reason, it makes it harder to install modules. More times than not, installing ram can be a mindless process… I’ve done it many times. However here I actually felt that I needed to be careful so as to not accidental snap the modules pins. You need to grip the module well and carefully push it down and secure it. A few times I thought I had the modules turned around the wrong way, but I didn’t. This is not a big deal, but was the first time I encountered this problem with a board.
The socket bracket may affect how you install your cooling solution. It could actually make things more difficult on you, depending on the specific cooler. Take the Zalman 9500 for instance. It’s designed to have a fan sucking air through, and push it towards the back of the case. In this instance though, after being installed the fan would either be blowing air up to the roof of the case or towards the bottom, instead of towards the back. As for water cooling though, in my instance it actually proved far better, leaving more actual room for airflow around the case. Again, your situation may differ.
Everything else is placed well on the board though. I do wish there were a couple fan power connectors close to the chipset, since there are absolutely none in that corner of the motherboard. There is one below the bottom PCI slot, but that’s the closest one to that area. Again, not really a problem per se, but it would have been welcomed.
Despite the harsh BIOS problems, I am awarding the SLI-M2R/G a 9 out of 10, in addition to our Editors Choice award. I must admit, the BIOS issue got to me, but the BETA takes care of the problem completely. If I run into further problems with this new BIOS I will update the review. However, in the couple days of using and tweaking with it, things are running smooth. The problem with the stock BIOS shouldn’t take away from the fact of what a great board this is.
In the time I’ve used it, the board has proved extremely stable sans the BIOS issue. It’s readily accepted five different kits of memory I installed, which says a lot. In the Ultra-D days, it seemed only 75% of kits would work well in the board. So, I am happy to see better compatibility here. In the end, this is going to be the AM2 overclocking board. The tweaking potential is intense… especially the fact of high voltages and extremely tight increments. This is the board we will likely see behind AM2 world records.
If you are an overclocker, aspiring overclocker, or just an enthusiast in general, this board was made for you. Don’t hesitate to pick one up.
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