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Gigabyte EP45-EXTREME

Date: October 20, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams

Intel’s P45 chipset proves to be one of the best mainstream offerings ever created, and Gigabyte put it to good use on their EP45-EXTREME. The board offers sweet cooling ability (which the help of a lot of copper), amazing overclocking potential (500MHz stable with a Quad!) and fantastic power efficiency – all at a good price.



Introduction

Though it may be hard to believe, it’s already been close to five months since Intel took the veil off their latest mainstream chipsets, G45 and P45. We’ve only taken a look at three of the new boards since then, but today marks the fourth. In our other reviews, we’ve been happy overall with the quality and performance exhibited, so we expect nothing less from the board we’re taking a look at today, Gigabyte’s EP45-EXTREME.

What makes it so “EXTREME”? Well, not the price, for one thing. At ~$245 ($215 with MIR at one e-tailer), the board costs more than most mainstream offerings, but Gigabyte promises to make up for every extra dollar you spend. They do this by tauting extreme overclocking capabilities, including a lot of copper and a water-cooling block, a twelve-phase power solution and more.

Compared to the $400 ASUS Rampage Extreme which we took a look at a few weeks ago, this board promises an awful lot, but for a far more reasonable sum. Coupled with the fact that the board utilizes DDR2, your entire new rig becomes less expensive when compared to ASUS’ “Extreme” (which requires the more expensive DDR3).

Closer Look

Like many other enthusiast P45 motherboards, Gigabyte has gone beyond what Intel states as being the maximum rated spec for both the memory and FSB, with a rating for DDR2-1200 and FSB rating for 1600MHz. Aside from that, P45 brought PCI-Express 2.0 to the mainstream market and also utilizes 8x PCI-E lanes if you choose to run Crossfire. Overall, it’s proven to be a great chipset for the money.

As you can see below, the EP45-EXTREME lives up to Gigabyte’s habit of creating the most colorful boards on the market. Some of us don’t like this, while others love it. I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s good to have eye-candy, but I’m partial to a dark-colored board. Give me a pure black board and I’d be one happy tech-geek.

The bottom-right corner is where most of the good stuff can be found, with a total of six S-ATA ports, including two vertically-mounted ones), a BIOS status LED, power button and the collection of ATX chassis connectors.

Moving on over, we can find three PCI-E slots for your GPUs (tri-Crossfire could be used, though with degraded performance compared to an X48), three legacy PCI slots and also a single PCI-E 1x at the very top. The bottom of the board features both a 4-pin and 3-pin fan connector, the former which is seen in the below photo.

As mentioned earlier, Gigabyte opted for DDR2 support on this board, obviously to save their customers money, and I can’t disagree with the choice. A fan connector is conveniently placed to the side of the DIMM slots – perfect for that RAM fan.

Gigabyte has been doing a great job modeling their chipset heatsinks, both for performance and aesthetics, and this one is no exception. If the likes of Gigabyte and ASUS keep things up, it might be a good time to invest in copper. You can see the twelve-phase power solution surrounding the CPU socket, as well as the BIOS battery hidden underneath the heatpipes in the top center of the photo.

Although Gigabyte wasn’t the first company to include a water-blocked Northbridge, it is appreciated. Even if you don’t have the intention of using a water-cooling system on your rig, the heatsink is designed to effectively dissipate heat either way.

The back I/O section is far from barren, with a total of eight USB ports, two LAN, 7.1 audio and S/PDIF connections, PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports in addition to a Clear CMOS button… just in case things happen to go awry during overclocking.

If you want proof that Gigabyte loves their copper, look no further than the photograph below. This massive add-in “card” is designed to plug into the board, above the PCI-E 1x slot, and intertwine into the Northbridge section, ultimately making the entire passive cooling rig as one. Is it necessary? No. Is it gaudy? Oh yeah. That’s a matter of opinion of course, and it’s difficult to complain about an add-in like this in an already well-priced board.

Finally, included in the accessories you’ll find all the necessary HDD/ODD cables, along with an add-in card that adds some e-SATA functionality to the board, and another for Firewire.

Also included is the manual and driver DVD, along with a few stickers and the back I/O panel.

Overall, this is a great-looking motherboard and packs a lot of functionality. The add-in copper heatsink seems a little unneeded, but there’s little denying it should keep the Northbridge cooler than other solutions. It’s just too bad that it takes up so much room.

Layout-wise, the board also delivers. The most inconvenient thing I found was the location of the 8-pin motherboard connector, but given that most people will only plug this in once or twice, it isn’t that bad. If I had second complaint, I would have loved to have seen two more S-ATA ports vertically-mounted. It’s not that important, but it definitely looks better when all installed.

Checking Out the BIOS

I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the BIOS’ used on Gigabyte’s boards, but this one wasn’t too bad to work with. I do feel it was a little bit clunkier than it needed to be – something I really don’t think about when using a BIOS from ASUS. I’d love to see Gigabyte further improve their BIOS’ in the future, both for ease-of-use and slow page refreshing.

That complaint aside, the board offers a slew of tweaking options that will make the enthusiast happier than a peach… if a peach could somehow be happy. The simplest options to stick to include the clock ratio, host frequency, memory multiplier and then select voltages. These options are scattered all over, so you’ll have to scroll up and down constantly.

The voltage selection here is top-notch… better than any other motherboard I’ve ever seen. In some ways it’s a little overkill, but if you have the skills needed to properly handle all these, then you’ll feel right at home. I personally stuck with the CPU, MCH and DRAM primary voltages, which served me well in our overclocking tests, as we’ll tackle later.

I’ll let the rest of the images speak for themselves, since there’s nothing truly new here.

As I hoped, the EP45-EXTREME’s BIOS certainly delivered. Though it’s a little clunky, it offers an intense amount of tweaking-ability, and that’s sure to be appreciated by any overclocker.

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a fully-detailed look at how we conduct our testing.

If there is a bit of information that we’ve omitted, or you wish to offer thoughts or suggest changes, please feel free to shoot us an e-mail or post in our forums.

Test System

The table below lists our machine’s hardware, which remains unchanged throughout all testing, with the exception of the motherboard. Each board used for the sake of comparison is also listed here, along with the BIOS version used. In addition, each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view the respective review of that product, or if a review doesn’t exist, you will be led to the product on the manufacturer’s website.

Component
Model
Processor
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 – Quad-Core, 3.2GHz, 1.30v
Motherboards
ASUS P5E3 Premium – X48-based, 0505 BIOS (06/11/08)
ASUS P5Q Deluxe – P45-based, 0204 BIOS (08/28/08)
ASUS Rampage Extreme – X48-based, 0501 BIOS (08/28/08)
Gigabyte EP45-EXTREME – P45-based, F8 BIOS (09/30/08)
Memory
DDR3: Corsair XMS3 DHX 2x2GB – DDR3-1333 7-7-7-15-1T, 1.91v
DDR2: Corsair Dominator 2x2GB – DDR2-1066 5-5-5-15-2T, 2.10v
Graphics
Audio
On-Board Audio
Storage
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11 x 2
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
SilverStone TJ10 Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
Thermalright TRUE Black 120
Et cetera
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:

To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows Vista from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing slightly inaccurate results. Disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.

Application Benchmarks

When benchmarking a graphics card or processor, performance is expected to scale in a certain manner, but that’s not the case with motherboards. Since motherboards tend to only be as fast as the hardware installed on them, we don’t run an exhaustive collection of benchmarks for the sake of avoiding redundancy. For the most part, one motherboard with an equal chipset to another should offer close to equal performance.

Our primary goal with motherboard-related benchmarking is to see if one motherboard is lacking in a certain area when compared to the rest. These discrepancies, if they exist, are usually caused by lackluster components on the board itself, which is why higher-end motherboards tend to see slightly better results than the more budget-oriented offerings.

To properly test the performance of a motherboard, we run a small collection of system-specific tools, such as SYSmark 2007, Sandra and HD Tune Pro. We then run real-world benchmarks using popular multi-media applications, such as Adobe Lightroom. To see how a board stacks up in the gaming arena, we benchmark using both Call of Duty 4 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

We strongly feel that there is such thing as too many benchmarks when it comes to a motherboard review, so we keep things light, while still being able to offer definitive performance data.

Game Benchmarks

In an attempt to offer “real-world” results, we do not utilize timedemos in any of our reviews. Each game in our test suite is benchmarked manually, with the minimum and average frames-per-second (FPS) captured with the help of FRAPS 2.9.5.

To deliver the best overall results, each title we use is exhaustively explored in order to find the best possible level in terms of intensiveness and replayability. Once a level is chosen, we play through repeatedly to find the best possible route and then in our official benchmarking, we stick to that route as close as possible. Since we are not robots and the game can throw in minor twists with each run, no run can be identical to the pixel.

Each game and setting combination is tested twice, and if there is a discrepancy between the initial results, the testing is repeated until we see results we are confident with.

The two games we currently use for our motherboard reviews are listed below, with direct screenshots of the game’s setting screens and explanations of why we chose what we did.

Call of Duty 4

1680×1050
2560×1600


The Call of Duty series of war-shooters are without question some of the most gorgeous on the PC (and consoles), but what’s great is the fact that the games are also highly optimized, so no one has to max out their machine’s specs in order to play it. Since that’s the case, the in-game options are maxed out in all regards, except the Anisotropic Filtering, which is set to the center of the slider bar.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

1680×1050
2560×1600

It might have been four-years-ago that we were able to play the first installment of the Half-Life 2 series, but it’s held up well with its new releases and engine upgrades. This is one title that thrives on both a fast CPU and GPU, and though it’s demanding at times, most any recent computer should be able to play the game with close to maxed-out detail settings, aside from the Anti-Aliasing.

In the case of very-recent mid-range cards, the game will run fine all the way up to 2560×1600 with maxed-out detail, minus Anti-Aliasing. All of our tested resolutions use identical settings, with 4xAA and 8xAF.

SYSmark 2007 Preview

Synthetic benchmarks have typically been favored for performance testing, but the results they provide can be fairly abstract, and the methods they use to assign their scores can be dubious at times. By contrast, real-world application benchmarks provide performance metrics that apply directly to real-world usage, and we endeavor to apply both in our performance comparisons.

SYSmark 2007 Preview from BAPCo is a special case, because its synthetic scores are derived from tests in real-world applications. However, we still believe that synthetic benchmarking scores are best used to directly compare the performance of one piece of hardware to another, and not for developing an impression of real-world performance expectations. SYSmark is more useful than most synthetic benchmarking programs in our opinion, because its tests emulate tasks that people actually perform, in actual software programs that they are likely to use.

The benchmark is hands-free, using scripts to execute all of the real-world scenarios identically, such as video editing in Sony Vegas and image manipulation in Adobe Photoshop. At the conclusion of the suite of tests, five scores are delivered: an E-learning score, a Video Creation score, a Productivity score, and a 3D Performance score, as well as an aggregated ‘Overall’ score. These scores can still be fairly abstract, and are most useful for direct comparisons between test systems.

A quick note on methodology: SYSmark 2007 requires a clean install of Windows Vista 32-bit to run optimally. Before any testing is conducted, the hard drive is first wiped clean, and then a fresh Windows installation is conducted, then lastly, the necessary hardware drivers are installed. The ‘Three Iterations’ test suite is run, with the ‘Conditioning Run’ setting enabled. Then the results from the three runs are averaged and rounded up or down to the next whole number.

Overall, the results aren’t too far different from each other, but Gigabyte’s board consistently scored less. I’m unsure the reason, but we’ll see if other discrepancies exist in our real-world benchmarks.

Multi-Media: TMPGEnc Xpress, Adobe Lightroom, 3ds Max

When it comes to video transcoding, one of the best offerings on the market is TMPGEnc Xpress. Although a bit pricey, the software offers an incredible amount of flexibility and customization, not to mention superb format support. From the get go, you can output to DivX, DVD, Video-CD, Super Video-CD, HDV, QuickTime, MPEG, and more. It even goes as far as to include support for Blu-ray video!

There are a few reasons why we choose to use TMPGEnc for our tests. The first relates to the reasons laid out above. The sheer ease of use and flexibility is appreciated. Beyond that, the application does us a huge favor by tracking the encoding time, so that we can actually look away while an encode is taking place and not be afraid that we’ll miss the final encoding time. Believe it or not, not all transcoding applications work like this.

For our test, we take a 0.99GB high-quality DivX H.264 AVI video of Half-Life 2: Episode Two gameplay with stereo audio and transcode it to the same resolution of 720p (1280×720), but lower the bitrate in order to attain a modest filesize. Since the QX9770 we are using for testing supports the SSE4 instruction set, we enable it in the DivX control panel, which improves both the encoding time and quality.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Photo manipulation benchmarks are more relevant than ever, given the proliferation of high-end digital photography hardware. For this benchmark, we test the system’s handling of RAW photo data using Adobe Lightroom, an excellent RAW photo editor and organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic.

For our testing, we take 100 RAW files (in Nikon’s .NEF file format) which have a 10-megapixel resolution, and export them as JPEG files in 1000×669 resolution, similar to most of the photos we use here on the website. Such a result could also be easily distributed online or saved as a low-resolution backup. This test involves not only scaling of the image itself, but encoding in a different image format. The test is timed indirectly using a stopwatch, and times are accurate to within +/- 0.25 seconds.

Autodesk 3ds Max 2009

Autodesk’s 3ds Max is without question an industry standard when it comes to 3D modeling and animation, with DreamWorks, BioWare and Blizzard Entertainment being a few of its notable users. It’s a multi-threaded application that’s designed to be right at home on multi-core and multi-processor workstations or render farms, so it easily tasks even the biggest system we can currently throw at it.

For our testing, we use two project files that are designed to last long enough to find any weakness in our setup and also allows us to find a result that’s easily comparable between both motherboards and processors. The first project is a dog model included on recent 3ds Max DVD’s, which we infused with some Techgage flavor.

Our second project is a Bathroom scene that makes heavy use of ray tracing. Like the dog model, this one is also included with the application’s sample files DVD. The dog is rendered at a 1400×1050 resolution, while the Bathroom is rendered as 1080p (1920×1080).

Both our TMPGEnc Xpress and Lightroom 2 tests showed the EP45-EXTREME to perform the worst (although the differences are still incredibly minor), while our 3ds Max test put it right in line with the rest.

System: HD Tune Pro, SiSoftware Sandra 2009

While application performance shouldn’t vary much between motherboards, one area where we can see greater differences is with synthetic benchmarks – at least with those that test both the storage and memory bandwidth/latency. Even still, if differences are seen, you are very unlikely to notice the difference in real-world usage, unless the performance hit is significant, which we’ve not found on any board we’ve tested in the past.

To test the storage I/O, we use a tool that we’ve been using for a number of years, HD Tune. The developer released a “Pro” version not long ago, so that’s what we are using for all of our storage-related benchmarking. The drive being tested is a secondary, installed into the first available Slave port, and is not the drive with the OS installed. To avoid potential latency, the drive is tested once Vista is idle for at least five minutes, and CPU usage remains stable at >1%.

Things weren’t shaping up too well for Gigabyte’s board at first, but this storage benchmark shows it’s no slouch in that area.

SiSoftware Sandra 2009

Yet another classic tool from our toolbox, SiSoftware’s Sandra is one of the ultimate benchmarking sidekicks around, allowing us to test almost every-single component in our PC, from CPU to GPU to memory to storage. In the case of our motherboard reviews, we stick with the memory bandwidth and latency tests, since its an area where some differences could very-well be seen.

As mentioned above, the results here don’t represent real-world performance, and if one motherboard sees the memory 4ns slower, the chances of you noticing the hit in real usage is highly unlikely, if not impossible. If any scenario would be effected, it would be processes that last the course of a few hours, not a few minutes.

It looked like the HD Tune test was going to turn things around, but Sandra shows that the EP45-EXTREME is a wee bit lacking on the overall memory bandwidth and latency side. Again, these differences are small, and it’s doubtful to affect real-world application, but it’s a difference nonetheless.

Gaming: Call of Duty 4, Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Crysis Warhead might have the ability to bring any system to its knees even with what we consider to be reasonable settings, but Call of Duty 4 manages to look great regardless of your hardware, as long as it’s reasonably current. It’s also one of the few games on the market that will actually benefit from having a multi-core processor, although Quad-Cores offer no performance gain over a Dual-Core of the same frequency.

For our testing, we use a level called The Bog. The reason is simple… it looks great, plays well and happens to be incredibly demanding on the system. It takes place at night, but there is more gunfire, explosions, smoke, specular lighting and flying corpses than you can shake an assault rifle at.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The original Half-Life 2 might have first seen the light of day close to four years ago, but it’s still arguably one of the greatest-looking games ever seen on the PC. Follow-up versions, including Episode One and Episode Two, do well to put the Source Engine upgrades to full use. While playing, it’s hard to believe that the game is based on a four+ year old engine, but it still looks great and runs well on almost any GPU purchased over the past few years.

Like Call of Duty 4, Half-Life 2: Episode Two runs well on modest hardware, but a recent mid-range graphics card is recommended if you wish to play at higher than 1680×1050 or would like to top out the available options, including anti-aliasing and very high texture settings.

Once again, results are as we expected. No board excelled in any benchmark, gaming included, which is a good thing. You don’t really need a top-of-the-line motherboard for improved gaming performance, and that’s how it should be. Next up, overclocking.

Overclocking the EP45-EXTREME

Before tackling our overclocking results, let’s first clear up what we consider to be a real overclock and how we go about achieving it. If you regularly read our processor reviews, you may already be aware that I personally don’t care for an unstable overclock. It might look good on paper, but if it’s not stable, then it won’t be used. Very few people purchase a new piece of equipment for the sole purpose of finding the maximum overclock, which is why we focus on finding what’s stable and usable.

To help find the maximum stable overclock on any given motherboard, we focus on sticking to the simpler voltages, such as the ones for the Northbridge and CPU, and also the DIMM if it’s required. We try to work within safe limits, because anything too high is going to only kill your hardware faster. Luckily, all computer components nowadays are designed to handle some abuse, so you never need a lot of voltage to get anywhere.

The front-side-bus is what’s important on a motherboard, so that’s where we keep our focus. Because the FSB overclock can vary widely between a Quad-Core and Dual-Core (it’s much easier to achieve a higher OC on a Dual-Core), we test using both the QX9770 and E8400 to see how far we can get. Also, because our 4GB memory kit of choice isn’t that overclockable, we revert to a 2GB kit for the Dual-Core testing in order to achieve much a much higher FSB frequency.

Overclocking Gigabyte’s EP45-EXTREME

First and foremost, I’ll say that overclocking this board wasn’t the most enjoyable of experiences. I found a lot of simple settings that should have been stable, weren’t, and the overall navigation of the tweaking section was finicky – it didn’t refresh fast enough and made scrolling up and down a chore. The good thing is that’s the worst of it, and the potential of the board is good.

With a modest 1.6v on the Northbridge, we managed to push the board to a comfortable 500MHz using our Quad-Core. Granted, for that kind of FSB to be useful, you’ll want a really good CPU cooler, since Quad-Cores will get very hot – unless you happen to be running a six multiplier, but that would defeat the purpose of overclocking the FSB!

For some reason, I found the Dual-Core overclocking to be even more complicated, but all it takes is a little bit of patience, and great heights can be reached. In our case, we found 570MHz to be completely stable, which I find to be rather incredible, and at first, I wasn’t expecting it. Our ASUS Rampage Extreme takes the cake at 580MHz, but when you get this high up there, a few megahertz isn’t going to break your mood.

Overall, I do wish the overclocking experience was a little smoother, but we hit some fantastic clocks that are going to be appreciated by any overclocker, regardless of skill. This kind of potential is how record overclocks are achieved, so it’s good to see the “EXTREME” in the board’s title has the right to be there.

Power Consumption, Final Thoughts

It goes without saying that power efficiency is at the forefront of many consumers’ minds today, and for good reason. Whether you are trying to save money or the environment – or both – it’s good to know just how much effort certain vendors are putting into their products to help them excel in this area. ASUS and Gigabyte are two that immediately come to mind that have put a lot of R&D into this, and I’m sure with their leadership, power consumption will consistently get better.

To help see what kind of wattage a given motherboard eats on average, we use a Kill-A-Watt that’s plugged into a power bar that’s in turn plugged into one of the wall sockets, with the test system plugged directly into that. The monitor and other components are plugged into the other socket and is not connected to the Kill-A-Watt. For our system specifications, please refer to our methodology page.

To test, the computer is boot up and left idle for ten minutes, at which point the current wattage reading is recorded. To test for “full load” wattage, 3DMark Vantage is opened and run at the Extreme setting, while two instances of SP2004 (one copy on one core each) is run. This gives us a typical scenario where someone is gaming and using half of their Quad-Core CPU.

Although the EP45-EXTREME failed to outpace our other motherboards, it excels where power efficiency is concerned. The gains in power efficiency could almost overshadow the minor lack in performance, depending on what you are looking for.

Final Thoughts

When all said and done, Gigabyte’s EP45-EXTREME is a great board that offers a lot for everybody. It’s not the least expensive out there (at ~$245, but lower with some MIR’s), but it’s a high-quality offering that allows very high stable overclocks and enough copper to melt down into pennies so you can buy the board a second time.

The board itself offers a great layout and has the benefit of looking good. The add-in copper Northbridge cooler is huge, but I can see how it would appeal to some. I’m not really one of those people, but I do admit it looks good – it’s just so big. It’s a great solution in lieu of water-cooling, but I can’t see it being much use if you do choose to take the water route.

Overclocking-wise, this board delivered with 500MHz FSB with a Quad-Core and 570MHz FSB with a Dual-Core. It’s hard to discredit those kinds of results, and the best part is that each one of those clocks were stable with relatively modest voltages.

The EP45-EXTREME is another great showing from Gigabyte, and while it didn’t blow my socks off, it’s definitely a capable board for the money. It’s a little more expensive than some other mainstream P45 boards, but what you get with it is warranted, mainly with the overclocking. It’s hard to go wrong with this one – just be sure to look around for the best price and get an even better deal.

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