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AMD’s 890FX Chipset: An Evolution for the AM3 Platform

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SKYMTL

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When AMD’s Phenom processors were first released, they didn’t quite live up to the hype surrounding them but the mistakes that were made in the first generation products were soon fixed. The newly-revamped quad core processors –dubbed Phenom II- were soon followed by a long list of tri and dual core derivatives that competed quite well with Intel’s offerings on a price / performance level. However, AMD has still not been able to catch the lead horse in the high-end, enthusiast range of the spectrum and many of their chips have been relegated to the status of budgetary solutions to competing Intel products. In the next few months, we may see that gap widen as AMD gradually transitions towards their Thuban six core processors before jumping to a new architecture in the future. As the processor technology evolved, AMD realized their older 700-series AM2+ / AM3 boards needed a bit of a refresh and has now introduced the 800-series.

Back at the beginning of March, AMD released the first of its 800-series chipsets; the 890GX. Motherboards based on it target consumers who are looking for a budget-conscious product with decent integrated graphics along with a broad list of features from native SATA 6GB/s to Crossfire compatibility to 8x / 8x Crossfire support. In our own testing we have found these sub-$150 boards to have surprisingly decent overclocking capabilities as well. However, many enthusiasts are looking for something more than a basic motherboard and want a robust PWM design for overclocking, dual 16x PCI-E lanes for high-end graphics cards and other high-end features. For these more demanding customers, AMD is releasing their 890FX chipset which will be used in flagship motherboards from literally every manufacturer.

The 890FX itself follows closely in the footsteps of the outgoing yet still well respected 790FX and indeed, its specifications are nearly identical to those of the older generation. Nonetheless, with the transition from the Dragon platform to the newly named Leo combination we won’t see a significant jump in price which means that motherboards sporting the 890FX chipset likely won’t retail for more than a lower-end X58 product from Intel’s side of the fence. This translates into the possibility of equipping yourself with one of AMD’s 6-core processors along with a 890FX motherboard for less than a single Intel i7 960. If that doesn’t tempt you, we don’t know what would.

In this somewhat brief article we will be taking a quick look at what the 89-0FX brings to the table in terms of technology and staying power. ASUS and Gigabyte have sent boards as well so while the reviews will be posted in the coming weeks, we’ll also give you a quick look at what the 890FXA-UD7 and Crossfire IV will be bringing to the table.

 
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SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the AMD 800-series

A Closer Look at the AMD 800-series


With the release of the 800-series chipsets, AMD is now moving away from their older “Dragon” and “Pices” platforms towards what they call “Leo” and “Dorado”. Leo will basically be the all-encompassing name for their high end and upper mainstream products while Dorado will end up targeting entry level consumers.

As we mentioned in the introduction, AMD is very much trying to hit every possible price point with their 800-series of chipsets and for the most part their motherboard partners are playing along. One thing that AMD wants to avoid for the time being is to have motherboards priced above what most consumers are willing to pay. Naturally, some motherboards will be priced higher than expected due to expanded feature sets and high-end capabilities but for the most part AMD is staying on track to give every consumer a number of choices within their budget.

Let’s take a look at how these new platforms compare to their predecessors.


Looking at the cart above, it should become apparent that the new SB8xx-based boards aren’t really going to offer anything revolutionary but will rather evolve AMD’s platforms to fit better with today’s market trends. The most important move in our opinions from a compatibility standpoint is the omission of DDR2 support from the newer platforms. It was only a matter of time until the move to a DDR3 / AM3-exclusive platform was made and make no mistake about it; we feel this has been a long time in coming.

At this point and for the foreseeable future, the 890FX will be AMD’s flagship motherboard and rest at the heart of a high-end “Leo” platform. Even though it effectively replaces the outgoing 790FX, its specifications are nearly identical save for a few differences with the Southbridge features. For the most part the Northbridge still equips motherboards with a total of 42 PCI-E lanes of which 32 are dedicated to add in graphics cards. There has also been a jump (no seen in the chart above) to official support for 1333Mhz DDR3 modules from the 790FX’s 1066Mhz but the main difference lies in the power consumption. Even though AMD has maintained the slightly antiquated 65nm manufacturing process from the 790FX Northbridge, TDP (remember, this is NOT actual power consumption) has nearly doubled from about 10W for the older chipset to 19.8W. The reason behind this is partially due to the implementation of IOMMU into the 890FX which benefits virtualization and as such will probably rarely be used by most people. As such, the TDPs of both chipsets should be about the same if virtualization isn’t being used.


Much like the 790GX, 785G and some 770-series boards from the last generation, the lower-end 800-series boards will feature integrated graphics. One of the more interesting things about the graphics aspects for these chipsets is the fact that yet another mid-range GX-series board from AMD will feature dual 8x PCI-E lanes for Crossfire use. This is a step up from the 785G that natively supported Crossfire but only in a 16 / 4 configuration. However, it should be noted that it is up to the board manufacturer to implement the necessary on-board automatic switch on an 890GX product to ensure full 16x operation if only the first PCI-E slot is populated. Nonetheless, the 890GX should offer the best combinations of performance and price for budget-conscious consumers.

Both the 890FX and the 890GX share a significant amount of commonality with the higher-end 700-series products (the 890FX with the 790FX and the 890GX with the 785G) but their 850 Southbridge represents a significant step forward on the storage front. Gone is the outdated SATA2 interface and in its place is native compatibility with the new SATA 6Gb/s standard. Even though there aren’t many drives currently on the market that take advantage of the bandwidth “SATA 6” offers, the fact that AMD natively supports it gives them an automatic step up from the competition. Another two USB 2.0 ports are also supported versus the last generation as well.

Meanwhile, the lower end of the 800-series boards holds what can only be considered a carbon copy of the previous generation in some ways. The 870 with its 65nm Northbridge and SB850 seems to be really nothing more than a renamed 770 series chipset with a single 16x PCI-E 2.0 slot but does come with the added benefit of additional USB 2.0 ports and SATA 6Gb/s support.

The 880G on the other hand may look familiar but it is manufactured on a 55nm process and sports a new GPU…or what looks like a new GPU. As we saw in our 890GX article, the HD 4200-series IGP is nothing more than a renamed 3200 series with some increased clock speeds. Other than the IGP, there really isn’t much about this chipset to comment on other than to say that it may be what HTPC users are looking for considering its GPU supports UVD 2.0 and all the latest HD audio and video decoding. There was originally some talk about an “SB810” Southbridge but it seems AMD has instead decided to carry on with the old 130nm-based 710 Southbridge but leaves the option for their motherboard vendors to implement the more expensive SB850 as well.
 

SKYMTL

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The 890FX Under the Microscope

The 890FX Under the Microscope


AMD’s new range of 800-series motherboards spans nearly every single pice range but even the high-end 890FX deftly avoids a price range that will earn it a “very nice but too expensive” comment from consumers. But what makes this chipset tick?


Yes, we know this is the customary and somewhat cliché block diagram that will surely be seen in an untold number of articles but it does go a long way into explaining the functionality aspects of the 890FX / SB850 combination. We have commented that the overall layout of the 890FX was introduced and later refined. Let’s start at the top of this diagram and make our way down.

One of AMD’s most distinguishing features over the last few product generations is their commitment to offering backwards compatibility for their motherboards and forwards compatibility on the processor end of things. Basically, even though the 890FX series boards will feature an AM3 socket making them compatible with all current processors as well as upcoming Phenom X6 products. This will in effect also allow older AM2+ processors to be used on these boards for those of you who may only want to upgrade one component at a time.

While Intel has transferred most of their Southbridge functionality to their processor die, AMD has staunchly adhered to a two-part chipset configuration consisting of a Northbridge and a Southbridge. While this may change in the future, for the time being all AMD AM3 processors only feature on-chip DDR3 memory controllers while all the I/O and expansion slot functions are handled through the chipset. With the 890FX and AM3 processors, we also get native support for DDR3 1333Mhz memory while the processor and Northbridge communicate through a Hypertransport 3.0 link at 5.4 GT/s which should eliminate any bottlenecks.

The Northbridge of AMD’s two-chip solution acts as a controller hub for most of the board’s PCI-E 2.0 lanes and facilitates any communication between the SB850 and the processor. The 32 dedicated graphics card lanes are split up into either two 16x slots or can be evenly dispersed for up to a quartet of 8x slots which gives the 890FX incredible flexibility for Crossfire setups. Meanwhile, the remaining ten PCI-E 2.0 lanes are divided up into one grouping of four lanes while an additional six lanes 1x lanes can be dispersed as needed for integrated components like audio and networking controllers.

Moving on down to the shiny new SB850, we see that AMD has updated the chipset interconnect and is now using a 2GB/s interface dubbed “Alink Express III”. Although we’re not sure exactly what has changed, the older Alink Express II was essentially a 4x PCI-Express 1.1 lane, so bandwidth appears to have been increased – likely to a 4x 2.0 lane - for improved chipset to chipset communication performance.

Speaking of the Southbridge, the most significant new feature that is has been brought to the table is 6Gbps SATA support. That’s right, those lucky enough to own one of the new Sandforce 1500 based SSDs can now enjoy Read/Write performance well beyond 300MB/s. Aside from updated SATA support, the remainder of the Southbridge is consistent with the older SB750. We unfortunately don’t get to enjoy integrated USB 3.0 support at this point in time, as the SB850 remains a USB 2.0 controller.


On the topic of USB 3.0, we should note that AMD was very careful to point out that USB 3.0 controllers can be interfaced to the chipset using the 1x PCI-Express 2.0 lanes for a maximum theoretical throughput of 500MB/s. Coincidentally, Intel’s new H55 and H57 are limited to half bandwidth lanes and a maximum of 250MB/s to off-chip USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 controllers. This likely won’t be of concern for USB 3.0, but having on-chip SATA 3.0 support is certainly a benefit as the only bottleneck is the 2GB/s Alink interface between the chipsets and the 1x component interface lanes don’t need to be used at all.
 

SKYMTL

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Deeper into the Leo Platform’s Feature Set

Deeper into the Leo Platform’s Feature Set



In this section we are going to take a quick look at some of the features AMD has implemented into their Leo platform. From software overclocking tools to special memory profiles, what we are seeing here is a culmination of years of refinement finally being put into an ecosystem that is deep enough for enthusiasts and yet not overly daunting for first timers. Remember, these features listed below represent just a sample of a nearly countless number of things AMD has thrown into this platform.


AMD Overdrive


AMD’s Overdrive utility is a utility which allows users access to all of the high and low level system settings necessary to tweak their system for the best performance possible. Think of this as the CPU, memory and chipset overclocking sections of a motherboard BIOS all rolled into a simple Windows-bound utility with a bit of system monitoring thrown in for good measure. In our past experiences, Overdrive provided an stable and nearly perfectly laid-out platform and even though many enthusiasts balk at software overclocking, we can attest to how good this one really is. Expect version 3.2.1 to be publically available at the same time as the 890FX motherboards on game.amd.com.



Black Edition Memory Profiles


By now, we should all be used to Intel’s Extreme Memory Profiles (XMP) which basically sets aside a pre-selected space within memory modules for specific SPD profiles. This benefits everyone from overclockers to novices as it gives them pre-defined values for specific usage scenarios.

Following in Intel’s footsteps, AMD has now introduced Black Edition Memory Profiles or BEMP. While BEMP certainly doesn’t have a particularly sexy ring to it like XMP, its functionality is virtually the same and can be controlled directly by the user. One of the main differences between XMP and BEMP is the way profiles are stored; XMP uses a portion of unallocated space within the modules themselves, AMD’s solution uses online profiles for the memory. This allows for the memory manufacturers to add additional profiles once their products have shipped but it also means BEMP is tied at the hip to AMD’s Windows-specific Overdrive utility. Once set up properly, these memory modules will effectively increase memory frequency, lower timings and bump the Northbridge frequency for additional performance.



AMD Fusion Utility


Harmony between all of a system’s components is the central basis for AMD’s Fusion concept. Their Fusion desktop utility takes this concept to the next level by giving users the capability to ensure their whole system is running up to their expectations. It allows for everything from one-touch overclocking to power management within an easy-to-understand interface. Naturally, most enthusiasts will want more control than Fusion offers for anyone who wants a set it and forget it program that can increase performance, it may be worth a try.



Turbo Core Technology


When paired up with a supporting motherboard, AMD’s new Phenom X6 processors have the capability to dramatically increase their performance in applications that don’t support multiple threads. Basically Turbo Core technology allows three of the CPU’s cores to go into an idle state while boosting the remaining three cores by up to 500Mhz.



The Age-Old Question: SLI for AMD Boards?

We know that some of you may be looking at the Leo platform remembering the close relationship NVIDIA and AMD used to have when it came to chipset support. Unfortunately, as NVIDIA has moved out of the MCP business the only thing that’s left for possible SLI support on both Intel and AMD platforms is SLI licensing agreements. Without a competing GPU solution, Intel let their motherboard partners make the choice of whether or not to support SLI. AMD on the other hand has their own extremely popular GPU solutions that are part of the Leo platform (the HD 5000 series) so they don’t really have much reason to directly support NVIDIA.

However, this is a two way street and even though we’re sure NVIDIA wants to desperately sell more GPUs, they may be hesitant to sell their SLI licensing to what amounts to a competitor’s platform. Whether or not they have been actually been approached to this end is anyone’s guess but we’re sure most motherboard manufacturers would be more than happy to sell an upscale 890FX board with Crossfire and SLI support.

According to contacts we have, certain motherboard manufacturers have 890FX motherboards running with SLI setups but without licensing, they can’t go ahead and sell the product. After all, SLI doesn’t require any special hardware on the motherboard itself to ensure proper functionality.

The alternative as we understand it would be Lucid’s Hydra engine which is anything but a perfect solution and whose very mention causes some companies to cringe. The growing process for Lucid’s technology hasn’t been pretty so far and the future doesn’t look any rosier if their software doesn’t mature soon.

So where does that leave us? Well for the time being at least we won’t be seeing any official SLI support on AMD platforms. Sorry folks.
 

SKYMTL

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The ASUS Crosshair IV Formula 890FX Motherboard

The ASUS Crosshair IV Formula 890FX Motherboard


ASUS’ illustrious Republic of Gamers series has always been known to contain many of the best motherboards on the market. In order to usher in the release of AMD’s new 890FX chipset and Phenom II X6 processors, another board is being added to the RoG lineup: the Crosshair IV Formula.

Retailing for about $229 USD puts the latest ASUS board firmly into the enthusiast category but the number of features you get for this price will boggle the mind. Let’s take a close look at what the Crosshair offers. For a more in-depth look, you can go to our full preview or wait for our review to be posted in the coming weeks.


As with all RoG boards, the Crosshair IV comes in a striking red box which is surprisingly compact in size. For accessories, you get the usual assortment of black SATA cables, a backplate, USB break-out panel, Crossfire bridge and USB cord for using the RoG Connect feature. A sheet with cable labels is also included.


The Crosshair IV Formula is one striking board with a combination of black, red and white being put to good use. Unlike some of the other high-end motherboards currently on the market, ASUS has decided to use a standard ATX form factor instead of EATX.


With the 890FX Northbridge putting out up to 19.6W of heat, a robust cooling solution is needed and ASUS has decided to go with an interesting solution. Rather than build an overly tall heatsink, they went with a number of angled fin arrays that have a vaguely diamond-like appearance and actually look a lot like architect Daniel Libeskind’s work.

Digging a bit deeper we see what looks to be a piece of foam acting as a shim between the Northbridge and its heatsink. The reasoning behind this isn’t clear but it looks to be a way to ensure the heavy heatsink doesn’t damage the chipset package.


The Crosshair IV has several other unique features that are sure to interest enthusiasts who want to push their system to the limits. Next to the 24-pin ATX connector are a number of ProbeIT points which can be used (with a multimeter) to determine the exact voltage going to your components.

Moving slightly further down the board we come to six SATA 6Gb/s ports as well as the Southbridge heatsink. Since the SB850 isn’t particularly hot-running, ASUS is able to get away with a smaller heatsink here which is then tied into the rest of the cooling assembly via a heatpipe.


The bottom edge of the Crosshair IV is where all the fun happens. Here we see buttons for loading overclocking profiles, unlocking cores (useful for some tri and dual core AMD chips), Start and Reset which should all come in handy for those of you who are using this board outside of a case. It should be noted that most of these options are also available through the RoG Connect.


As we have already discussed, the 890FX Northbridge chipset comes equipped with 42 PCI-E lanes of which 32 are dedicated to graphics functionality. According to AMD's chipset diagrams, these can either be set up in a 16x / 16x configuration for dual GPUs or 8 / 8 / 8 / 8 if four graphics cards are installed....but not on this board. Interestingly, ASUS has decided to forego this setup and instead has the option to either use dual 16x slots or run three graphics cards at 16 / 8 / 8. The final PCI-E 2.0 slot you see only runs at 4x and cannot be used for graphics cards.
 
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SKYMTL

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Gigabyte's 890FXA-UD7 Motherboard

Gigabyte's 890FXA-UD7 Motherboard


Gigabyte has a long standing tradition for releasing some of the most stable and overclocker-friendly motherboards on the market. Their UD7 series is in itself well known as being the pinnacle of Gigabyte’s motherboard lineup and they are now bringing this series over into the AMD space once again. The 890FXA-UD7 is a feature-rich board that packs everything from USB 3.0 to SATA 6Gb/s and true support for up to four graphics cards. Naturally, this puts its price into the upper echelon of AM3 boards with an MSRP of $250 USD.


The packaging and accessories that come with this board are typical Gigabyte with a predominantly white box and multi-coloured cables. Additionally, two Crossfire bridges are also included.


The board itself sticks to Gigabyte’s blue and white colour scheme and unlike the ASUS Crossfire,it approaches E-ATX spec when it comes to size.


While extensive heatsinks aren’t necessarily needed to disperse the heat from the 890FX chipset, Gigabyte seems to have erred on the side of caution and has equipped their UD7 board with some serious cooling potential. Not only does it feature massive coolers over the VRM modules but also a water block atop the Northbridge. In addition, Gigabyte has also decided to go with some legacy support for those of you who still use older drives along with a total of eight high speed SATA 6Gb/s ports.


In the last few pictures you may have seen some buttons off to the corners. Oddly enough, Gigabyte has decided to put their onboard power, reset and CMOS clear buttons on the right-hand side of the board instead of the more traditional bottom-mounted locations.


If there is one thing that the UD7 isn’t lacking is PCI-E slots. Not only is this board capable for quad Crossfire across four 8x PCI-E 2.0 slots but it also sports and additional pair of PCI-E 4x slots. Basically, things could be a dream come true for all those [email protected] users who want to cram in the most GPUs possible.


As a final point, we wanted to show you what Gigabyte has supplied just in case the current Northbridge water block isn’t to your liking: a massive, heatpipe-totting cooler than the user can install in the place of the stock chipset cooling solution. If this isn’t a lesson in excess, we don’t know what is.
 
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SKYMTL

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890FX: Initial Impressions

890FX: Initial Impressions


There is no doubt in our minds that AMD is really onto something with their Leo platform. Not only are they keeping prices down in markets which have all too often seen inflated high costs but are also making high performance computing accessible to a huge audience. Consumers have caught wind of AMD’s price structure for the platform’s primary components through various leaks on the internet and there is an almost palatable excitement about this launch. An excitement we share as well.

The 890FX chipset itself is an interesting creature that doesn’t represent a total revolution in AMD chipset design but it is what we would call the perfect evolution of an existing platform. Let’s be honest here; in a market that is so conscious about how much they can afford on an upgrade, revolutions are too costly and would accomplish very little on a platform that has been around for the better part of four years. So even though the near lack of any real technical tour de force may upset some people, the vast majority will be more than happy with the expanded feature set 890FX boards bring to the table.

Speaking of features, it is in this category that the latest chipsets from AMD (and by extension their associated motherboards) really shine. Being the flagship product means the 890FX chipset is geared towards the enthusiast mindset with everything from a massive number of PCI-E lanes to the latest SB850 Southbridge for native SATA 6Gb/s support. As we understand it, many motherboard manufacturers will also be adding USB 3.0 support which is definitely a welcome addition. We know these next generation storage options may still be in their infancy and don’t have many supporting products yet but in our opinion it is better to have them available than not include them at all.

So how do we think these new motherboards will stack up to those from Intel? Considering a very basic X58 boards without SATA 6Gb/s start about $180USD and finding a board with it installed may put you back almost $300, AMD’s $200 890FX looks pretty good in our books. Meanwhile the feature rich ASUS Crosshair IV Formula and Gigabyte’s 890FXA-UD7 will be retailing for $229 and $249 respectively which makes them significantly less expensive than their X58 or even P55 brethren. Naturally, neither of these AMD-based motherboards boasts support for NVIDIA’s SLI but that’s a feature many are willing to give up if it means better value.

If there is one negative point that we can come up with about the 890FX in particular it is the fact that it may be too close specification-wise to the 790FX. Other than the addition of SATA 6Gb/s, there really isn’t any feature that distinguishes itself as a must-have for people who already own 790FX or even upscale 790GX boards. Granted, AMD’s partners have been working night and day to come up with products that are head and shoulders above any previous AM2 or AM3 motherboards but will this be enough? We hope certainly so considering the perfect pairing one of these high-end boards makes with a Phenom II X6 processor.

With that all said, even though we have only used the retail 890FX boards for an extremely short amount of time, it is more than obvious they are ready for prime time. This isn’t a next generation chipset. Rather, it is the next step in the evolution of the current generation which offers a tantalizing glance into the future of ultra fast storage solutions and multi GPU technology.

 
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