ASRock has been shedding its entry-level clothing over the last couple of years. Originally they were not much more than an extension of ASUS and intended to offer a value based platform. However, the engineers at ASRock were not content with staying there. They have decided to work to change their place in the market and also to provide more than entry-level products.
As we have shown you with their X58 and P55 boards, ASRock has some excellent engineers behind the scenes developing boards that are able to give great performance and overclocking. With the launch of the 32nm Clarkdale Core i5 661, ASRock has come forward with their own H55 based motherboard.
Can ASRock continue their success with this new CPU and platform? After all, Clarkdale puts a GPU directly on the CPU packaging and can complicate the tracing layout of an already complex device like a motherboard. Luckily, we have had an ASRock H55M Pro in house for our initial testing of the Core i5 661 CPU and can give you a good answer. Read on to find out.
The Box and What's InsidePackage and Contents
ASRock has chosen to package the H55M Pro in a clean and simple white box. It does contain the usual imagery and logos (in case you did not know what it did), but for the most part it is not as gaudy as many products out. They have also let go of the reflective material that they have used on other products.
The back of the box is a little more cluttered, but is actually more informative than the 'bragging' type typical of many products (although there is some bragging there as well).
Inside the box is a very sparse fare and includes only an I/O shield, two SATA cables, the manual and a drivers CD-ROM.
The MotherboardThe Board
The H55M Pro is meant to be a small motherboard and with the move to a two chip solution it can be both small and relatively uncluttered. This is not to say that it is not a little cramped, but that manufacturers like ASRock can take advantage of the extra board real estate freed up by the disappearance of the Northbridge.
The H55M Pro is a micro-ATX form factor that manages to include quite a few full sized features. Although there is no support for SLI, you can still slap in a pair of AMD GPUs for CrossFire support (dual x8). But let's not get ahead of ourselves here and start our normal walk around the board at the top right.
In the upper right corner we see pretty much what you would expect from an ATX board. You have the now very familiar 24-pin ATX power connector and four RAM slots for up to 16GB or DDR3 1333 goodness. Right below the ATX Power socket we find five SATA II ports. These are all non-RAID enabled ports as the H55 chipset does not include a RAID enabled SATA II controller right from Intel.
Moving to our left, we find a very open area around the 1156 Socket used by the Clarkdale CPUs. Even the power regulation is well spaced for good air flow. We also see the 8-pin 12V Aux power connector and a pair of fan headers (one four pin for the CPU and a three pin general purpose header).
Looking at the lower half of the board, we now get to see some of the advantages to the two-chip H55 solution. We have a total of two x16 mechanical (x8 electrical) PCIe ports. ASRock has of course thrown in the typical useless x1 port between the two x16 ports. You also have a single legacy PCI port if you need it.
Below the slots and the heatsink for the chipset are a grouping of headers. There are headers for a printer port (parallel), com port (Serial), Trusted Platform Module, 1394a and three USB 2.0 headers.
For I/O you have some interesting options. As the Clarkdale contains its very own GPU, the H55, H57, and Q57 motherboards are being built with the all of the proper video ports (although many do not have DisplayPort). These are connected to the CPU socket using Intel Flexible Display links. But other than these exceptions, you have most of the same ports you would find on any other mini-ATX motherboard.
BIOS and OverclockingBIOS
The BIOS we used for our testing was P1.10 which follows the typical BIOS layout that ASRock has followed (and also very similar to their parent, ASUS).
For most enthusiasts the place that you will spend the most time in is the OC Tweaker menu. Here you will find all of the settings to get the most out of your Clarkdale CPU.
Another place you will want to visit is the Advanced page. On this page you will find the settings for audio and video functions. Of particular importance is the Primary Graphics Adapter. As there is no auto setting, you will need to change this to PCI or PCIe if you choose to use an add-in card.
Overclocking the Clarkdale and the H55 chipset is going to be a little different than a normal board. As the Clarkdale has a GPU on the packaging, it can affect the stability of your overclock. Even if you do not touch the GPU, you will still have to bump up the voltage to the GPU a little to ensure that it does not give you any headaches.
With this in mind, we were able to get a very decent 4.3GHz out of the Core i5 661 with air cooling using the GMA HD for graphics, whilst adding in an AMD Radeon HD 5870 allowed us to hit 4.5GHz.
You can see the validation for the i5 661 with the GMA HD here while the i5 661 with the HD 5870 is here.
There is more headroom in the Core i5 661; it will take time to figure out where you can pull this from, but I am confident that 4.5GHz is not the limit on this CPU.
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 CommentsTest System
Processor: Intel Core i5 661
Mainboard ASRock H55 Deluxe (Supplied by ASRock)
Memory: 4GB Kingston KHX12800D3T1K3/6GX (Supplied by Kingston)
Hard Disk: Kingston SSD Now M (Intel X25-M 80GB SSD) (Supplied by Kingston)
Graphics Card: Zotac GTX 285 AMP! Edition 1GB (flashed to stock BIOS) (Supplied by Zotac)
Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 212 (with an extra fan) (Supplied by Cooler Master)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Drivers: Intel INF 22.214.171.1245, ForceWare 195.62
For our testing we did want to focus on the power of the board when combined with the Core i5 661 we had on hand. However, we also wanted to see how well the ASRock H55M Pro would perform when combined with a more powerful GPU.
As such, we have included stock performance of the Core i5 661 with a GTX 285, but did not test it while overclocked. Instead we ran our overclocking tests with only the Clarkdale Core i5 661 and used the GMA HD GPU sandwiched on the CPU.
We may return and see how well the Core i5 661 handles discrete GPUs, but will not be including that in this article.
Synthetic Tests - Part IWith 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 Everest Ultimate, 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
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One of the improvements that we have seen with the Nehalem architecture has been a healthy increase in memory bandwidth available to the system as a whole. But, while the triple-channel 1366 Core i7 CPUs have bandwidth to spare, the Lynnfield and new Clarkdale CPUs have a somewhat smaller store. The Clarkdale Core i5 661 comes in with good, but not great memory bandwidth on the ASRock H55M Pro.
Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99
Developer Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Product Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
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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 four physical and four logical cores for the i7 and the four physical cores of the i5 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.
In HyperPi we see some of the limitations of the H55 and the Core i5 661. As HyperPi needs quite a bit of memory bandwidth and good memory to HDD speed, it does not do so well on the entry level H55 chipset.
Synthetic Tests - Part IIDisk 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 use Sisoft's Sandra.
The H55 chipset is not meant as a high performance chipset; as such it lacks some of the sustained speed you will find on other chipsets. This does not mean that it is slow, just that you will find other chipsets that can handle data transfers better. Still, when you drop in an SSD like the Intel X-25 you can make up for quite a bit of that as we seek peak speeds that are quite nice and balance out the average speed as well.
Synthetic Tests - Part IIIOverall System performance and Gaming
Here is where we dig out the FutureMark tests.
Version and / or Patch Used: 126.96.36.199
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.
The H55M Pro from ASRock shows that it is quite adept at general purpose computing. We saw good performance in both x86 and x64 modes. It is true that much of this performance is due to the X-25 SSD used, but some is brought by improvements in the Clarkdale CPU.
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.
As we showed in our coverage of the Core i5 661 earlier on, the GPU under the hood is not the best for gaming. It just does not have the horsepower; it can probably manage some simple games that do not require heavy rendering, but not more than that.
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.
Surprisingly the entry level H55M Pro combined with the Core i5 661 does well in CPU based rendering. It is not quite up to a native Quad Core in terms of performance, but we see good enough performance that it could be used as a low-cost/entry-level platform for this type of work.
Real-World Tests Part IReal-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/
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Again, as with our synthetic render testing we see decent performance from the H55 and Core i5 661 combination. This does drive home the fact that this new dual core when combined with the new H5x chipsets will have quite a bit of hidden potential.
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 an 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.
Transcoding performance is going to be the Achilles Heel of the H55 and Core i5 6xx and 6x1 CPUs. For some reason it seems to stumble when performing this task. Even when overclocked and combined with high end performance, it has trouble. Of course, this may change with improvements in BIOS and tweaks from ASRock and other manufacturers.
Real-World Tests Part IIHere we have our real gaming tests. Each of the games we chose 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 frame 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, 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.
As we saw with our 3DMark testing, the GMA HD is not a high-performance GPU. It has a great deal of trouble handling heavy rendering. Even with anti-aliasing and other eye candy disabled it cannot handle high resolutions and still struggles at 1024x768.
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 to 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. Settings we used for testing are shown below.
As with Cryostasis, Far Cry 2 puts a hurting on the GMA HD inside the Core i5 661 and the H55 chipset on the ASRock H55M Pro is not able to make up for this lack of power.
Power Usage and Heat TestsPower Consumption
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).
One of the advantages of the two-chip solution from Intel is a reduction in power consumption. The Core i5 661 is a 32nm CPU with a 45nm GPU with a TDP of only 87Watts. This reduced power draw helps the Clarkdale/H55 combo to sip power even under full load. The ASRock H55M Pro does quite well even when overclocked. However, adding in extra cards will increase this draw as you would expect.
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.
Here we see something interesting, but not unexpected. The heat produced from the H55 chipset on the H55M Pro is light even when overclocked. However, when you drop in an external GPU the heat increases. Due to the layout of the board, the heatsink gets saturated by the heat of a GPU like the GTX 285.
Final ThoughtsFinal Thoughts
ASRock has impressed us in the past with their commitment to providing power at a reasonable price. The H55M Pro is not an exception to this impression. Although it is obviously an entry level offering, it still manages to give good performance and overclocking potential. There are some items I would like to have seen, though, and I hope they will show up in future BIOS revisions.
ASRock would be wise to include some form of GPU overclocking as well as including an option to auto select the GPU type at POST. The latter missing feature has the potential to cause many problems for those that want to use an add-in graphics card with this board. There is also the issue of a missing PATA port. Again, as this is meant as an entry level board, I would have thought one would be present.
Our overall impression is still very good even with these missing items. If the retail price on these stay in the $100 range, it will be an excellent option for a value system or a mid to high-end HTPC. I know that last comment will confuse some, but as a HTPC is a very specific platform that does not require the same level of components that a general purpose or gaming system needs, I think that the H55M Pro combined with the $200 Core i5 661 will make for a very capable HTPC system.
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