Sapphire PURE CrossFire PC-A9RD580 Motherboard

Today we look at ATI Xpress 3200 and compare it against nVidia's nForce 4 SLI 16x chipset. It's Crossfire vs. SLI time!

Manufacturer: Sapphire Technology
11 minutes & 44 seconds read time


While we have been a bit behind at the labs the last couple of weeks, its still doesn't mean we aren't into our work head deep. The battle between ATI and nVidia for dominance of the 3D arena has never been stronger, and with multi card systems now becoming the norm, the competition has never looked better.

nVidia have been the first to pioneer the latest technologies with SLI and Dual PCI Express x16 based chipsets for their setups, but ATI has been close behind with Crossfire graphics cards and Xpress Crossfire supporting chipsets.

Just before CeBIT in Germany launched, ATI introduced its newest member to the Xpress chipset family, the 3200 series. This latest series adds some much needed features that were lacking in the first Xpress implementations, especially if they want to keep up with nVidia in the 3D battle.

Today we are taking a look at the first of the Xpress 3200 boards to cross our labs at TweakTown, the Sapphire PC-A9RD580 motherboard. How will it stack up compared to its rival, the nVidia nForce 4 SLI x16 chipset based motherboard from MSI?

Let's have a look and see.


Specifications of the Sapphire PC-A9RD580

Supports AMD Athlon 64 3000+ ~ 4000+ mPGA939
Supports AMD Athlon 64 3800+ ~ 4800+ mPGA939
Supports AMD Athlon 64 FX 53 ~ FX60 mPGA939

ATI Xpress 3200 Crossfire
ATI RD580 Northbridge
ATI SB450 Southbridge
A-Link @ 2GB/s

System Memory
4 DDR SDRAM 186pin DIMM Sockets
Supports DDR-266/333/400Mhz
64/128Bit Dual Channel
Supports up to 4GB Total Memory (4x 1GB)

Bus Frequency
200Mhz Internal
600/800/1600/2000 MHz External
Hyper Transport Interconnect

Expansion Slots
2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1

2 Parallel ATA port supporting 4 IDE Drives
8 Serial ATA ports
1 Gigabit Ethernet Port

Expansion Ports
1 PS2 Keyboard Port
1 PS2 Mouse Port
8 USB 2.0 Ports (4 rear accessible, 4 via expansion bracket)
5 Stereo Audio Ports

Package and Contents

Sapphire is known as the ultimate partner for ATI. In fact, Sapphire is actually one of ATI's own brands outside the USA, which allows them to sell their Radeon cards and Xpress based motherboards under a separate name. The box that has been chosen for the latest Xpress 3200 board comes in a white box with a flip top lid allowing you to get a glimpse of the actual board before you buy it.

On the back of the box, Sapphire has but all the appurtenant information and specifications of the board itself for the potential buyer to have a squiz at.

Inside the box you may be mistaken for thinking this board is a budget with what is included; however, the board shows great signs of being a big in features and performance part. The user manual details all the settings, features and options that the board includes - and in plain English. Sapphire includes three CD's with the board - 1 driver CD, 1 Games bundle and 1 software bundle complete this part of the packaging.

Also with the package are two PCI cover brackets containing 1 Firewire port and a 2 port RCA Digital Audio ports. The I/O shield is also included as the Sapphire board is not a standard ATX port configuration.

The Motherboard

Sapphire has a rather interesting approach to the RD580. Rather than a standard blue, green or even red PCB, a new cream white PCB is used - this is the first time I have actually seen a board based on this colour PCB. The size layout is a standard 30x30cm ATX layout with all the goodies you would expect to find.

Layout is very clean. The ATX power connectors are located on opposite sides of the board, the 24 pin is behind the DIMM sockets along with a white FDD port. The 8 pin EPS12v connector is in the middle of the I/O ports, keeping the cables as far away from the CPU and heatsink assembly as possible. There is only a single IDE connector (coloured blue) and located just below the FDD cable, but still well out of the way of the rest of the primary components. Located behind the IDE port are the 4 SATA-II Southbridge controlled ports. There ports support the latest SATA-3G specs and allow for RAID setup of 0, 1, 5, 0+1 and JBOD.

The layout around the CPU is very clean and tidy. There is enough room to install the largest of heatsinks as well as water cooling. One very interesting feature is the heatsink module atop the 4 phase voltage regulator system. While AMD Athlon 64 don't draw as much power as Intel systems, they don't really require anything over 3 phase to work at top performance, though it is nice to see an additional phase added for overclocking stability.

The Rear I/O is rather unique. There is a large gap left between the PS/2 tower ports and the USB/Firewire tower. This is for when ATI releases an integrated graphics version and is where the CRT and DVI ports will go. The rest is pretty standard.

Expansion slots are pretty straight forward. There are 2 PCI Express x16 slots that both work at full x16 speeds. There is a single PCI Express x1 slot and 1 PCI slot. A Second PCI-E x1 slot has been left out because of the addition of an extra PCI-E onboard device which we will cover soon.

The chipset running the show is ATI's latest Xpress chipset. Codenamed RD580, it is now known as the Xpress 3200. This latest chipset incorporates the RD580 Northbridge and either a ULI or ATI SB450 Southbridge.

The RD580 Northbridge builds directly on the original RD400 series Southbridge supporting Crossfire graphics system; however, there have been some new changes. Rather than splitting a single PCI Express x16 lane down to two PCI Express x8 lanes, the RD580 now supports Dual x16 lanes just like nForce 4 x16 chipsets. The major difference is that nVidia needs a second chipset to add x16 support, as the second PCI Express x16 lane on an nForce 4 chipset is located in the Southbridge. ATI has put both x16 lanes in the Northbridge chipset, requiring no additional chips to gain its dual x16 support.

The Southbridge used on the Sapphire board is the ATI SB450. This is the latest addition to the Southbridge family from ATI. This chip supports 4 additional PCI Express lanes, 6 PCI masters, HD Audio, 10/100 Ethernet, 8 USB, 4 port SATA-II RAID controller and all the other LPC goodies that come from the Southbridge's these days. There is no integrated Gigabit LAN like nVidia does, ATI relies on PCI Express based Gigabit LAN solutions, to the left of the first PCI Express x16 slot is a single Marvel PCI Express x1 based Gigabit LAN controller.

Both chipsets run cooler than the nVidia counterparts, only requiring passive cooling to keep them within specified operating temperatures.

Firewire is one of the most popular standards for digital video transfer as well as high speed external mass storage enclosures. Sapphire has added in a VIA 2 port IEEE1394a controller chip - the VT6307 is a refinement of the 6306 chip that supports 1 less Firewire port. The first of the 2 Firewire ports are located on the first USB tower at the back of the I/O plane, the second is added in via expansion bracket.

Now we come to the reason for the missing PCI Express x1 slot between the x16 slots. Since the Southbridge only has 4 PCI Express x1 slots with one being used by the LAN controller, one being used for the PCI Express x1 slot, we have two PCI Express x1 Silicon Image 3132 controller chips to give four extra SATA-II ports. The first chip sits beside the 4 pin Molex connector on the left and the second chip sits near what looks like a missing second BIOS chip on the right.

Also at the bottom of the board are two push button switches that allow you to power the board on as well as reset without having to connect the front panel - which is great for our testing, as we don't install test boards into cases!

BIOS and Overclocking

Overclocking Features

It simply wouldn't be a worthwhile review if we didn't go into the overclocking and tweaking options that the board offers, and Sapphire have given quite a few options spread over the BIOS.

There are two menus' you will want to look at when you are thinking of overclocking the board. First is the advanced chipset features menu. Sapphire has placed the controls for the Hypertransport links between the CPU and Northbridge here along with a few other options you may find useful. Not only are the Hypertransport link controls here but also the PCI Express controls. There are quite a few options you can tweak to your hearts content including the PCI-E 100MHz lock, which is necessary to overclock any PCI Express system.

Since AMD Athlon 64's don't have a traditional FSB link between the Northbridge and the CPU, you need to adjust the Hypertransport link multiplier when overclocking.

To find the rest of the overclocking options you simply scroll down to the Overclocking Features menu, very simple and affective, no fancy names, just straight to the point. From this menu you have access to voltages, multipliers, bus speeds as well as control of the DRAM speed and timings.

First in the setup is the CPU FID option. AMD Athlon 64 CPU's allow you to lower your multiplier from its default (depending on the speed of your CPU) down to a minimum of 4x. AMD obviously saw the overclockers in this as you can overclock the system bus while keeping the CPU at a saner clock speed.

CPU VID is next in line. You can adjust the CPU voltage from its default by changing the option from Startup to User Defined. When user defined is set the CPU voltage offset option is available. You can then adjust the voltage from 0.00v to a max of +0.25v in 0.025v increments.

Next we have the CPU/HTT link clock. This is actually the FSB of the CPU to Hypertransport controller on the CPU and it defaults at 200MHz. This is what you change in order to get your overclock. The range is from 200MHz up to 400MHz in 1MHz increments.

Crossfire 3200 and HT Link Voltages is next. These are the voltages supplied to the Northbridge and the CPU to Northbridge. You can set it from 1.22v up to 1.5v.

DRAM voltage comes on the list last. You can set the range from 2.5v to a max of 3.0v in 0.1v increments.

With all these settings we reached a modest overclock, though we were hoping for more, we could only manage a FSB of 279MHz with the HT Link at 3x, DRAM at 2.8v, CPU at 1.6v and HTT and Crossfire voltages at 1.3v. We are hoping that a further BIOS will allow some better stability above 280MHz.

Benchmarks - Test System Setup and Sandra

Test Systems

ATI Test System

Processor: AMD Athlon 64 x2 4200+
Motherboard: Sapphire PURE CrossFire PC-A9RD580
Memory: 2x 512MB DDR-533 Corsair
Hard Disk: 2x Seagate 7200.9 (Supplied by Seagate)
Graphics Card: 2x ATI Radeon X1600XT (Supplied by MSI Australia)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP SP2

nVidia Test System

Processor: AMD Athlon 64 x2 4200+
Motherboard: MSI K8N Diamond Plus
Memory: 2x 512MB DDR-533 Corsair
Hard Disk: 2x Seagate 7200.9 (Supplied by Seagate)
Graphics Card: 2x GeForce 6800GT (Supplied by MSI Australia)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP SP2

SiSoft Sandra

Version and / or Patch Used: 2005
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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SiSoft Sandra (System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is a synthetic Windows benchmark that features different tests used to evaluate different PC subsystems.

Here we can see that both the nVidia and ATI platforms perform almost identical in terms of memory performance. This is due to the fact the memory controller is on the CPU and not the chipset itself.

Benchmarks - PCMark


Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1.0
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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PCMark is a multipurpose benchmark, suited for benchmarking all kinds of PCs, from laptops to workstations, as well as across multiple Windows operating systems. This easy-to-use benchmark makes professional strength benchmarking software available even to novice users. PCMark consists of a series of tests that represent common tasks in home and office programs. PCMark also covers many additional areas outside the scope of other benchmarks.

Here we can see that the Sapphire board with Crossfire enabled just about equals the nVidia system in the graphics but falls behind on HDD and overall score.

Benchmarks - 3DMark03


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 360
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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By combining full DX8 and partial DX9 support with completely new tests and graphics over the previous version, 3DMark03 continues the legacy of being the industry standard 3D benchmark.

Please Note: Due to recent events with the 3DMark03 series, we are adding results purely for those who are still in favour of 3DMark03. These results should not be taken too seriously and are only added for interest sakes.

3DMark03 puts the Sapphire setup behind the nVidia SLI32 system.

Benchmarks - 3DMark05


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 120
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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3DMark05 is now the second latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and higher.

For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here.

As we go higher in graphics, we start to see the Crossfire system slightly fall off compared to the SLI32 system.

Benchmarks - 3DMark06


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 102
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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3DMark06 is the very latest version of the "Gamers Benchmark" from FutureMark. The newest version of 3DMark expands on the tests in 3DMark05 by adding graphical effects using Shader Model 3.0 and HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) which will push even the best DX9 graphics cards to the extremes.

3DMark06 also focuses on not just the GPU but the CPU using the AGEIA PhysX software physics library to effectively test single and Dual Core processors.

Again the ATI based Sapphire motherboard struggles against the nVidia chipset.

Benchmarks - Doom 3

Doom 3

Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
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Doom 3 is the latest game to hit our test lab and is one of the most intensive games to dates. With our own custom time demo we are able to give a realistic rating on what kind of FPS you will be achieving.

For more information on benchmarking Doom 3 we recommend you check out our extensive article regarding it here.

Doom 3 shows the two setups almost equal at 1024x768, when pushing 1600x1200, nVidia manages to win out.

Benchmarks - Quake 4

Quake 4

Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
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Quake 4 is one of the latest new games to be added to our benchmark suite. It is based off the popular Doom 3 engine and as a result uses many of the features seen in Doom. However, Quake 4 graphics are more intensive than Doom 3 and should put more strain on different parts of the system.

Quake 4 is much harder on graphics than Doom 3 is and shows a bit of a weakness in the Crossfire platform.

Benchmarks - F.E.A.R.


Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is an intense combat experience with rich atmosphere and a deeply intense paranormal storyline presented entirely in first person. Be the hero in your own spine-tingling epic of action, tension, and terror...and discover the true meaning of F.E.A.R.

Finally in our last test we see that the Sapphire system still trails slightly behind.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that ATI is now following in the nVidia footsteps with the use of twin x16 lanes, and clearly has a architectural advantage of having both graphic lanes on the Northbridge. This is a better method rather than having one on the North and one on the Southbridge like nVidia does, which can cause slight latency issues with the interconnect, after all, noting is completely latency free, even Hyper Transport.

Sapphire's implementation of the Xpress 3200 chipset in our opinion is quite impressive. The colour scheme of the PCB, layout of the slots and connectors and even the onboard cooling features are all to be admired. The boards overclocking features are quite impressive and with further tweaking of the ATI drivers for the chipset and graphics systems as well as some tweaking to the BIOS, there is room for improvement in the score department.

For our first look, we are quite surprised at the performance ATI has managed to bring to the table and the Sapphire PURE CrossFire PC-A9RD580 is well worth considering if Crossfire is your thing.

- Pros
Twin x16 PCI-E slots and both slots located on Northbridge
New Southbridge and features
Good overclocking
Good pricing
Supports all Crossfire cards
Driver support already implemented from previous gen chipset

- Cons
Southbridge SATA and IDE needs tweaking
Not as fast as the nVidia SLI32 chipset

Rating - 8.5 out of 10 and Tweak Town's "MUST HAVE" Best Value Award

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