GIGABYTE is one to do things big and one thing they wanted to be a part of first up is the SATA-III (6Gb/s) and USB 3.0 revolution. Now, whilst still considered premature as far as wide adoption goes, this is not a bad thing. After all, we already have USB 3.0 controller chips from NEC and SATA-III controller chips from Marvell starting to show their faces, which is extremely impressive. In fact, until AMD and Intel start to integrate SATA-III and USB into the next generation of Southbridge's, we are going to have to rely on the external chips like we did when USB2.0 and SATA-II came out.
The new wonder of the world we have here today is GIGABYTE's P55A-UD6, an upgraded variant of the P55-UD6 we previously reviewed here. And if this board is anything like the original, I think we will have a winner on our hands. The P55-UD6 managed to impress us with extremly impressive speeds, a fantastic overclocking result and a good price tag. In fact, the P55A-UD6 comes in at $249.99 USD over at Newegg which is still very cheap for this level of board. How well will it perform? - Let's have a look.
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
As far as the box is concerned, there isn't much changed apart from a few new logos on the top. The new 333 logo which we will explain later and the new board model number are the major changes, while the colour scheme stays the same.
GIGABYTE places a lot of its marketing hype on the back of the box. Some explanations of the features including the new 333 design are there, along with a colour photo of the board with box-out info.
For the documentation side of things, GIGABYTE has gone crazy here. There are four user manuals in total. You get the standard motherboard user manual, one for the Smart6 technology, one for the Smart TPM technology and a multilingual setup manual. The Included DVD comes with drivers, software and gadgets for Windows XP, Windows Vista and now Windows 7 in both x86 and x64 variants.
GIGABYTE's cable bundle hasn't changed from the P55-UD6. There are four SATA data cables, an IDE cable and an I/O shield making up the main components. All of the cables are SATA-III compliant, so you can plug and go out of the box at full speed (providing your hard disks are 6Gb/s equipped.
Once again, the very same cable bundle is in place with the additional eSATA expansion bracket cover, cables and SLI bridge cable.
Now it's onto the board itself. If you don't really look too close, you may be forgiven for mistaking this board as the P55-UD6. However, there are a couple of subtle changes. The same full 30x24cm blue PCB is used that the P55-UD6 was based on and it's part of the Ultra Durable 3 line which includes 2 ounces of copper layered into the PCB to help cool it better.
The 24 pin ATX power connector is located in the same place behind the six DDR3 memory slots and yes, this board uses the same banking arrangement as the P55-UD6, so if you want to populate all six slots, the four blue slots can only have single sided memory. To be honest, this is more a waste of PCB space. The 4/8 pin EPS power connector is located in its usual spot behind the PS/2-USB combo tower.
GIGABYTE is one for keeping things powered. In fact, the new GIGABYTE top end boards come with 24 power phases for the CPU alone. That's extremely impressive from an overclocking stand point and this board would be ideal for clean voltages at ultra high speeds using LN2 cooled rigs. To keep things cool the Mosfets for the 24 phases are cooled by a heatpipe assembly that cools the P55 single chip, Southbridge/controller hub and the additional SATA controller chips.
Moving along, we have our storage connectors; this is where things change from the P55-UD6 which had six blue and four white connectors. There are six blue connectors, but only two white connectors. The reason for this is that the white connectors are run off a new Marvell PCI Express to SATA-III controller chip.
This chip is connected in to the board in a rather funny way. If you decide to run this chip, or the PCIe based USB 3 controller that the board also has, you will not only experience degraded graphics performance, but also one of the two chips must surrender to a x1 connection. How GIGABYTE has worked this is if you enable either chip at full speed, eight lanes for the lynnfield CPU's PCI Express controller (the same one that gives the graphics cards its PCIe connectivity) are diverted to the chip the user selects in the BIOS to run at the higher speed.
Unfortunately the P55 chipset itself has no PCIe gen 2.0 lanes on it and therefore doesn't have enough bandwidth to run either controller chip at full speed. Only X58 has enough lanes to run a graphics card at full speed as well as run both controllers at full speeds. This hopefully will be resolved in later revisions with a PLX PCIe controller bridge that ASUS is currently using to get around this problem.
Moving along to the rear I/O, things change a bit. You will notice that the board has the same eSATA/USB combo ports that the P55-UD6 introduced us to, coloured yellow, but there are two blue USB ports as well. These are the USB 3.0 ports controlled by the NEC controller chip. While we are on the subject of the ports, we must mention the 333 system that GIGABYTE introduced. 333 triples the power given to the USB 2.0, USB 3.0 and eSATA power ports. So rather than the max 500mA that USB 2.0 gives, GIGABYTE gives you 1500mA per USB port; more than enough to run an external 2.5" HDD on a single USB cable. USB 3.0 gets more power as does the power of eSATA; 3x as much as specified by the USB and eSATA standards. This is a huge plus.
Lastly, the slots. The layout configuration hasn't changed from the P55-UD6; three PCIe x16 slots are included which run 16/1/4 or 8/8/4, depending on what you want. However, if you enable either or both USB and SATA-III controller chips, the middle PCIe x16 slot can't be populated as the lanes from this are routed to the controller chips. Two PCIe x1 slots and two PCI legacy slots make up the final arrangement.
BIOS and Overclocking
GIGABYTE's BIOS, again like the P55-UD6, is the Award modular 6 version that they have used for some time. However, a few re-arrangements from previous BIOS versions have been made, but most importantly, the overclocking and tweaking options still reside under the Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T) menu.
The Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker menu holds a series of sub menus rather than directly housing the overclocking settings like previous BIOS revisions. This is a much cleaner and easier setup to use.
The Advanced Frequency Setup Sub menu; this holds the BLCK, PCIe CLK, memory divider ratios and options.
Advanced Memory options; this sub menu holds extra memory tweaking options including XMP setup and timings.
Advanced Voltage settings; this is where all the voltage options for the board are located. GIGABYTE has made it easy for you to know the default norms for each setup and what the safe/high and extreme level voltages are for each voltage option.
GIGABYTE's boards are pretty good when it comes to overclocking; we have had a few issues in the past with some boards, while others have proven to be the best in their class.
Our P55-UD6 board we tested clocked quite nicely. The P55A-UD6 in comparison is a rocket ship. We managed to increase the BLCK to 210MHz completely stable with a 20x multiplier for a clock speed of 4.2GHz CPU clock on the Core i7 870. This is by far the most impressive I have personally seen with a P55 based board.
You can see the validation here.
As all overclocking results are dependent on the hardware you use, your results may vary. Results of our overclocking tests are included in the performance section with the stock scores.
Important Editor Note: Our maximum overclocking result is the best result we managed in our limited time of testing the motherboard. Due to time constraints we weren't able to tweak the motherboard to the absolute maximum and find the highest possible FSB, as this could take days to find properly. We do however spend at least a few hours overclocking every motherboard to try and find the highest possible overclock in that time frame. You may or may not be able to overclock higher if you spend more time tweaking or as new BIOS updates are released. "Burn-in" time might also come into play if you believe in that.
Test System Setup and Comments
Processor: Intel Core i7 870 (2.66GHz)
Memory: 2GB Kingston KHX12800D3T1K3/3GX (Supplied by Kingston)
Hard Disk: Intel X25-M 80GB SSD (Supplied by Intel)
Graphics Card: GIGABYTE GTX285 1GB (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 212 (with an extra fan) (Supplied by Cooler Master)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Drivers: Intel INF 184.108.40.2067, ForceWare 190.38
The GIGABYTE P55A-UD6 was flawless to set up. Some GIGABYTE boards we have setup in the past have experienced the loop of death when setting up a new CPU and/or memory. The symptom is where the board will power up, turn off and power on again in an endless cycle; the only way to fix it is to remove all power and pull the battery out of the board to actually hard force the BIOS to reset to defaults.
The P55A worked straight off the bat; Windows 7 loaded and tests were done without fail. As for overclocking, we managed to get to 210MHz in three steps; pushing further proved to be a bit impossible in the time we had allotted for overclocking. However, if 210 was possible straight off with little in the way of tweaking, imagine what can happen if you give it a bit more time. This we will be testing later.
Synthetic Tests - Part I
With any system you will want to see a combination of synthetic testing and real-world. Synthetics give you a static, easily repeatable testing method that can be compared across multiple platforms. For our synthetic tests we use Sisoft Sandra, Futuremark's 3DMark Vantage and PCMark Vantage, CINEBENCH as well as HyperPi. Each of these covers a different aspect of performance or a different angle of a certain type of performance.
Memory is a big part of current system performance. In most systems slow or flaky memory performance will impact almost every type of application you run.
To test memory we use a combination of Sisoft Sandra and HyperPi 0.99.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2009 SP3c
Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
Product Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
Buy It Here
Our first synthetic memory tests show that the ASUS and two GIGABYTE boards perform identically at stock speeds. Overclocking the P55A manages to pull ahead with a higher memory/BLCK combination.
Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99
Developer Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Product Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Download It Here
HyperPi is a front end for SuperPi that allows for multiple concurrent instances of SuperPi to be run on each core recognized by the system. It is very dependent on CPU to memory to HDD speed. The faster these components, the faster it is able to figure out the number Pi to the selected length.
For our testing we use the 32M run. This means that each of the cores on the Core i7 is trying to calculate the number Pi out to 32 million decimal places. Each "run" is a comparative to ensure accuracy and any stability or performance issues in the loop mentioned above will cause errors in calculation.
Synthetic Tests - Part II
Disk Drive Controller
The system drive controller is an important part of system performance. In most modern boards your drive controller will run off of the PCI-e bus. The PCI-e bus performance can be affected by poor trace layout as well as many other design choices that show up on different boards.
For testing we used Sisoft's Sandra.
The controllers on the three platforms use the same ICH built into the P55 chipset. Since we didn't have any SATA 6Gb/s HDDs to test with, we couldn't test the SATA-III performance.
Synthetic Tests - Part III
Overall System performance and Gaming
Here is where we dig out the FutureMark tests.
Version and / or Patch Used: 220.127.116.11
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
Buy It Here
For overall system performance we use PCMark Vantage. This is run in both x86 and x64 mode to give the best indication of performance.
In terms of overall (general usage), at stock there is no winner with all three being at the same level. However, at overclocked level GIGABYTE manages to pull well ahead.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
Buy It Here
For synthetic gaming tests we used the industry standard and overlockers bragging tool 3DMark Vantage. This is a test that strives to mimic the impact modern games have on a system. FutureMark went a long way to change from the early days of graphics driven tests to a broader approach including physics, AI, and more advanced graphics simulations.
3DMark Vantage uses the DX10 API in addition to having support for PhysX. Due to the PhysX support and our use of an NVIDIA GPU we run with PhysX enabled and disabled to give you the best indication of real system performance. For testing we use the Performance test run.
Into synthetic gaming and 3DMark shows us that the GIGABYTE's higher overclock manages to give it a healthy lead here. However, synthetic and real world are something quite different.
CINEBENCH R10 x64
Version and / or Patch Used: R10
Developer Homepage: http://www.maxon.net/
Product Homepage: www.maxon.net
Download It Here
CINEBENCH is a synthetic rendering tool developed by Maxon. Maxon is the same company that developed Cinema4D another industry leading 3D Animation application. Cinebench R10 tests your systems ability to render across a single and multiple CPU cores. It also tests your systems ability to process OpenGL information.
In terms of rendering performance we see that the three platforms at stock are once again inseparable. At overclocked speeds GIGABYTE's P55A manages to pull ahead.
Real-World Tests Part I
Real-world testing allows us to see how well a product will perform when used in the same manner as it would be in your house or office. It is an important side to performance testing as it can uncover hidden glitches in the way a product performs.
It is especially true when testing a mainboard, there are so many components of a board that have to interact that any problems between parts can cause a failure of the whole.
For real-world testing we use some common applications and functions. We test with LightWave 3D for rendering performance, AutoGK for transcoding from DVD to AVI and two games for gaming testing.
Rendering of 3D animation is a system intensive endeavor. You need a good CPU, memory and HDD speed to get good rendering times. For our testing we use LightWave 3D. This software from Newtek is an industry standard and has several pre-loaded scenes for us to use.
Version and / or Patch Used: 9.6
Developer Homepage: http://www.newtek.com
Product Homepage: http://www.newtek.com/lightwave/
Buy It Here
In the real world we see that overclocking does help quite a bit on rendering as the more calculations you can do per second, the quicker the task gets done, especially in pure number crunching tests.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.55
Developer Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Product Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Download It Here
AutoGK stands for Auto Gordian Knot; it is a suite of transcoding tools that are compiled into and easy to install and use utility. It allows you to transcode non-protected DVDs and other media to Xvid or DivX format. For our testing purposes we use a non-DRM restricted movie that is roughly 2 hours in length. This is transcoded to a single Xvid AVI at 100% quality.
Again with AutoGK, the GIGABYTE P55A achieves another win.
Real-World Tests Part II
Here we have our real gaming tests. Each of the games we choose use multiple cores and GPUs. They are able to stress the system through use of good AI. Both have decent positional audio that adds impact to the sound subsystem of the board. We ran each game through the level or parts listed and recorded frames per second using FRAPS. This brings the whole game into play.
Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0
Timedemo or Level Used: From Ship Entry until third Spirit Journey
Developer Homepage: http://www.505games.co.uk
Product Homepage: http://cryostasis-game.com
Buy It Here
Cryostasis : Sleep of Reason is an interesting game. It is heavy on PhysX so to play it properly you will really want an NVIDIA GPU. However, with that aside, it can be immersive. Imagine Myst with guns and monsters.
One of the cool concepts is the spirit journeys. These allow you to enter the past of lost souls. You have to change their past to change your future. Each one makes for a nice diversion and requires you to think about what you are doing and how it will affect the outcome of the game. The settings we used are shown below.
Far Cry 2
Version and / or Patch Used: V1.00
Timedemo or Level Used: Clearing the Safe house through to the Rescue
Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com
Product Homepage: http://farcry.us.ubi.com
Buy It Here
Far Cry 2 is a large sandbox style game. There are no levels here, so as you move about the island you are on you do not have to wait for the "loading" sign to go away. It is mission driven so each mission is what you would normally think of as the next "level".
In the game you take the role of a mercenary who has been sent to kill the Jackal. Unfortunately your malaria kicks in and you end up being found by him. Long story short, you become the errand boy for a local militia leader and run all over the island doing his bidding. The settings we used for testing are shown below.
Into real world gaming tests and we clearly see that the increased clock speeds GIGABYTE has managed to get out of the P55A gives it a smoother playback feel.
Power Usage and Heat Tests
We are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into an AC wall socket).
The P55A and P55 boards from GIGABYTE use the same amount of power. There is no real increase in power between the two boards, or any reduction in the newer board.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboards, this being the Northbridge, Southbridge (if it contains one) as well as the Mosfets around the CPU. The results are recorded at idle and load during the power consumption tests.
Heat generation is almost identical between the two GIGABYTE boards also, since they use the same Mosfets and heatsink design to cool the board and components.
GIGABYTE continues to push toward faster and more feature rich boards to impress us. The P55A series is a clear improvement. Overclocking was improved and the inclusion of SATA-III and USB3 will come in handy for users who start to purchase products that support this standard. However, GIGABYTE's implementation of this technology leaves something to be desired, especially because you will lose eight lanes from your primary graphics slot and the secondary one will not be usable. This leaves you wanting if you want Crossfire/SLI and SATA-III and/or USB 3.0; it's just not possible on this board.
Editor Note and Update: We were contacted by GIGABYTE after the release of this review with a few concerns. ASUS sent an email out to the Australian channel without our permission quoting some of the parts of this review. We want to clarify one thing right now.
IT IS POSSIBLE to run Crossfire/SLI and SATA-III and/or USB 3.0 at the same time. If you have a second card installed into the second PCI-E x16 slot and the "Turbo Mode" BIOS mode is set to auto, the SATA-III and USB 3.0 will run through the PCI-E Gen1 slot (P55 Express) rather than using the video card lanes, this is by default (auto). If you remove the second video card and the BIOS option is still set to auto, SATA-III and USB 3.0 will use the video card lanes and run at full speed.
Sorry for any confusion, but now we are clear.
With that said, there are few USB3/SATA-III devices out there; they are new and only now are just making their way onto the market. The board's feature-set fills more of a niche market and if you want to use these technologies you are going to have to surrender a few features.
Overall, the board's performance was spectacular. It managed to outperform its P55 brother in all tests when overclocking was taken into account and with plenty of power for overclocking, this board is clearly one of the top boards out there in the P55 ranks.