EQS A72K9-CF Inverness
After months of waiting, CrossFire, ATi's dual-graphics technology and the company's competitor to Nvidia's SLI, has finally launched. That said, it's CrossFire motherboards that have arrived. To actually run two graphics cards in one of these boards, you need a standard card to run as 'slave', and a special master card. At the moment, you can only buy Radeon X850 master cards, which doesn't make a lot of sense, as one of these will cost about £250, the same price as a brand-new X1800XL or GeForce 7800 GT.
With at least another month or so until X1000-series master cards are due to make an appearance, it's fair to say CrossFire has got off to a slow start. SLI, on the other hand, has been a great success story. It's now available for Socket 754 and 939 AMD CPUs, and for LGA775 Intel CPUs, and if you're buying a new motherboard, it's very difficult to avoid. This isn't a bad thing, however, as the nForce4 SLI chipset is packed with features in addition to dual graphics, including native support for S-ATA II hard disks and a hardware firewall.
The first CrossFire motherboard we saw was the LGA775 PA1 MVP Extreme from ECS, and it wasn't brilliant. At stock speeds, it was outperformed by Intel 955X-based boards, and didn't offer great overclocking. Put it this way: the 'CPC favourite CrossFire board' slot is still unfilled.
EQS's A72K9-CF is the first Socket 939 CrossFire board we've had in for review. EQS is well ahead of the other manufacturers, so the company is obviously very keen on being the first to market.
CrossFire motherboards use a special version of the Radeon Xpress 200 chipset. We saw the single-graphics card version of this chipset in action last month, powering the Sapphire Pure Innovation A9RX480. The A9RX40 was a great motherboard that performed very well at stock speeds, and it had plenty of overclocking options, so it's clear that in the right circumstances, the Radeon Xpress 200 can hit the right notes.
Performance aside though, there are areas in which the Radeon Xpress 200 is lacking compared to nForce4 SLI - there's no native S-ATA II support, no hardware firewall - but the onboard sound is usually very good. The EQS carries on the good work here, using a Realtek ALC880 chip to provide 8-channel HD Audio. It's heaps better than the aging AC97 audio used by nForce4 SLI. There are four S-ATA ports, and although they're run by a separate Silicon Image chip, it doesn't have S-ATA II capabilities, which is disappointing.
As well as the four S-ATA ports, there are two EIDE channels and the all-important floppy port. We say all-important, and we mean it, because during installation, Windows XP refused to recognise the S-ATA ports; Silicon Image drivers from a floppy disk are required if you want to install to a S-ATA disk. Annoyingly, this disk wasn't provided, but the drivers were on the CD. This isn't a big problem if you have access to a second PC to transfer the files to a blank disk, but if not, it could provoke a moment of 'curb your enthusiasm' style frustration.
The EQS includes an old 20-pin ATX connector, instead of the new 24-pin design. Considering that a lot of SLI motherboards have a Molex connector, as well as a 24-pin connector, buried in the board to provide more power when running two graphics cards, it made us wonder whether the EQS would be happy in CrossFire mode. Sadly, without X1000-series master cards, there's no way of testing this at the moment.
As this is a dual-graphics motherboard, the PCB is obviously dominated by the two high-speed PCI-E slots. They're quite tightly spaced, though, and as CrossFire doesn't need a small PCB bridge between the two cards, we don't know why ECS didn't increase the space between the cards to aid cooling. In addition to the two high-speed PCI-E slots, the EQS also has three PCI slots and two 1x PCI-E slots.
The EQS's features and layout aren't really attention-grabbing, and the BIOS continues in this middle-of-the-road way. However, before we go any further, we should tell you that our EQS was a very early sample, so the BIOS wasn't finished. In the version we had, you could only overclock the memory to 232MHz, and although multiplier adjustment was included, it's buried away on the power management page. Still, we could up the memory voltage to 2.9V and the chipset to 1.35V, although we were only given the option of adding 0.1V to our Athlon 64 X2 4200+ test CPU. There's also support for changing the memory command rate to 1T or 2T.
If you have the right processor then there's support for asynchronous DDR500 memory. The one interesting aspect of the BIOS was that it lets you specify how many PCI-E lanes each graphics slot uses, although we're not quite sure why you'd use this.
Sapphire's A9RX480 showed how potent the Radeon Xpress 200 can be, as its average frame rate was nearly 5fps faster than most nForce4 SLI boards in Far Cry. The A9RX480 isn't a CrossFire board, however, so we were interested to see how the EQS performed. The EQS was a lot slower than both the Sapphire and the Asus nForce4 SLI X16 A8N32-SLI Deluxe in our new Battlefield 2 test. This is partly due to the fact that Asus boards have a PEG link, which enables them to automatically overclock the graphics card. Gaming performance also depends on how accurately and aggressively the motherboard sets the memory timings and command rate, and the EQS seems to be more conservative than both the Sapphire and the Asus in this respect.
The EQS didn't do too well against the Socket 754 EPoX SLI motherboard either; it was only 2fps quicker at 1,280 x 1,024 with 2x AA, despite the EPoX using a 1.8GHz Sempron 3300+.
The EQS was slower in the 2D tests too. Overall, it scored 1.25 - hardly brilliant when you compare it to the Asus, which scored 1.31. This isn't a problem with the Radeon Xpress 200, either, as the A9RX480 also scored 1.31 overall. The EQS is slow, particularly in the image editing and multitasking tests, so it could be to do with the Silicon Image S-ATA chip, or the fact that, despite having an option for the 1T command rate in the BIOS, it defaults to 2T.
While the fact that the BIOS has a reasonable, if not exciting, spread of overclocking options, the afternoon we spent playing with the available options wasn't productive.
Although the board would boot into Windows at 215MHz, it wasn't stable, and didn't work with any setting over 200MHz. It's clearly a problem with the early BIOS, because other Radeon Xpress 200 motherboards, such as the Sapphire, overclocked brilliantly.
The 'CPC favourite CrossFire board' slot remains unfilled. The EQS's early BIOS wouldn't overclock and wasn't aggressive enough in memory optimisation, so it was slow at stock speeds. With no X1000-series master cards available yet, the EQS's main feature remains inaccessible. If you really want to shell out for two graphics cards then boards based on Nvidia's nForce4 SLI are still the best options.
Author: Andrew Spode Miller