AOpen’s latest enthusiast’s board is a standard ATX affair with the processor socket labelled Socket 479. This is the first desktop motherboard to enter our Labs that will take Intel’s recently launched Core processor. And it doesn’t support this with a 945 chipset, but the full 975X high-end desktop set instead. Once hooked up, the i975 looks like any standard PC board with the exception that the stock heatsink fan supplied is very low profile and quiet in comparison to a Pentium D or Athlon 64 X2’s stock cooler: the Core Duo’s 35W maximum TDP (thermal design power) is less than a third of other desktop parts.
Looking around the board, you’ll find five SATA channels in total, one of which is a backplane-mounted SATA hotplug socket, combining power and signal into one wide connector – a cable is supplied. On top of that, and bucking the usual trend of providing just a single parallel ATA connector in these days of SATA, there are three IDE sockets, allowing for up to six parallel ATA drives. Unusually, RAID is handled by an ITE8212 chipset rather than Intel RAID, since the board uses the ICH7 south bridge rather than the ICH7R variant. This doesn’t allow for the Matrix RAID options of the ICH7R, but aside from that there’s no functional difference. ATI’s CrossFire is supported via the two PCI Express 16x graphics slots, the use of which will need an extra power feed via the onboard Molex connector. There are no serious omissions, with four USB 2 ports, a single full-sized FireWire 400 connector and both optical digital in and out, plus an array of six analogue audio jacks to handle the Realtek High Definition audio outputs. Legacy serial and parallel ports are missing though.
Our pre-production sample came with a passively cooled north bridge, but this wasn’t quite enough; we had stability problems until we bolstered it with a fan. AOpen tells us that production models will ship with a north bridge fan as standard. This is a shame given the general interest in Core not just for quiet systems, but only a small north bridge fan is needed to prevent problems.
For testing, we used a Core Duo T2600 and equipped our test setup with 1GB of PC2-4200 RAM, partnered by an nVidia 6600 GT graphics card and Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 in preference to super-fast, super-loud ancillary components. Even with the stock heatsink and a small north bridge fan, it’s a fast system in absolute terms and very fast in comparison to the noise and heat it generates; with the mid-range supporting components, it still managed a good score of 1.11 in our application benchmarks.
This is good, but not spectacular for a desktop system – the A-Listed Athlon 64 FX-60-based Trinity International PC scored 1.30. But being an enthusiast-level board, the AOpen has full processor frequency, voltage and bus speed controls. To see what sort of potential performance the Core processor and its derivatives might have in the near future, we thought we’d do a bit of overclocking. Amazingly, our 2.16GHz Duo clocked right up to the limits of the motherboard’s 13 x 199 multiplier without a murmur, all using the quiet little stock heatsink, giving us a processor running at 2.58GHz. Running the 3ds Max test, which is the best section of our application benchmark suite for isolating CPU performance, we saw its score jump from 1.11 to 1.27. We then tried running the full benchmark suite and the overall benchmark result came in at a very fast 1.31 overall (one percent faster than the FX-60), and that’s without the 10,000rpm hard disk or superfast RAM of a top-spec machine. The ease with which we clocked the 2.16GHz part up to the maximum the motherboard could handle – and the fact that we did so with the standard heatsink – showcases the performance-per-watt of the Core Duo and strongly suggests the basic design has stacks of headroom for large frequency gains. Our Intel contacts are confident that Conroe, the imminent first ‘proper’ desktop part based on Core’s design, will provide as much of a leap forward in performance as the Core did from Pentium M. Based on these results, we can see they’re probably right, even if the desktop parts weren’t much more than a faster-clocked version of the Core Duo.
The AOpen board itself is too expensive and specialised for most, but as an indicator of what’s to come it’s a fascinating test bed. And if you’re determined to have one of the fastest Intel-based sub-Xeon computing platforms and you’re prepared to risk overclocking components, the combination of the i975Xa-YDG and a Core Duo CPU is a formidable one.