AMD 990FX Preview - Waiting for Bulldozer


Waiting for Bulldozer & the ASUS Sabertooth 990FX

Waiting for Bulldozer

AMD scored some early design wins when its first Fusion product, Brazos, debuted in January. While the performance and more importantly, the competitive power draw of Brazos give us hope that the more powerful Llano will be a good alternative to Intel's Sandy Bridge processors, these Fusion APUs are not the processors that AMD enthusiasts have been waiting for.

What they have been eagerly awaiting, (evident from the endless speculation that takes up most of 35 pages on our forums), is none other than the next-gen CPU architecture from AMD, codenamed Bulldozer. To be built by GlobalFoundries using its 32nm SOI process technology, Bulldozer carries AMD's hope of getting back on level terms with Intel on the processor front. Although the mobile arena has become more important these days, the desktop and server markets still remain very significant and it's where AMD has been finding it extremely difficult to compete, especially in the mid-range and higher end segments.

Intel has shown with its 22nm 3D, Tri-Gate transistors that it's not resting on its laurels, so there is a lot riding on AMD's next move. Bulldozer and its followups have to achieve a certain level of competitiveness with Intel's current Sandy Bridge. With up to eight-core CPU variants in the upcoming Bulldozer lineup - the FX-Series (or Zambezi) will be released first - we certainly hope so.

In the meantime, AMD is laying the ground for the FX-Series, with its latest AMD 9-series chipsets slated to be launched next week at Computex Taipei. We have received some AMD 990FX motherboards, the top chipset SKU in the series, which also includes the AMD 990X, 980G and 970, mirroring the chipset variants in the 8-series.

The enthusiast-oriented AMD 990FX remains a two-chip solution, with a Northbridge 990FX and a Southbridge (SB950). All come with a new Socket AM3b that will support the new FX-Series processors, though this socket is also backwards compatible with existing AM3 processors, hence the AM3+ nomenclature. We'll share more details on the what the new socket enhances over the current AM3 socket closer to the availability of the new processors.

On paper, the 9-series chipsets appear almost identical to the 8-series. There's still no native USB 3.0 support, but AMD does have a full complement of six SATA 6Gbps ports from the Southbridge, unlike the two on Intel's. And for the enthusiasts, there's also good news in the form of official NVIDIA SLI support on the 9-series. You'll also find support for a higher DDR3 memory frequency on the Bulldozer platform, with DDR3-1866MHz now officially mandated. It is also likely that the new boards also support a faster HyperTransport bus for the new FX-series processors.

Overall, there aren't any significant changes for these chipsets, though we don't yet know if there have been improvements in performance (especially for the storage aspect), but let's take a look at how the board manufacturers have implemented the AMD 990FX:

 

ASUS Sabertooth 990FX

We have seen other Sabertooth boards from ASUS that belong to its TUF (or The Ultimate Force according to the usual bombastic marketing blurb) series and the 990FX here is no different. This means the use of military-class components in the form of its chokes, capacitors and MOSFETs and of course, the distinctive and rough to the touch ceramic based heatsinks. According to ASUS, the textured, ceramic based heatsink is better at dissipating heat as its irregular surface leads to a greater overall surface area.

In any case, the Sabertooth 990FX is not as extreme as ASUS' P67 version, which has a layer of plastic or 'thermal armor' over the PCB in an attempt to direct casing airflow in the best possible way. This is in short, a typical TUF board, down to its rugged appearance.

 ASUS' Sabertooth belongs to its line of 'thermal armored' TUF boards and it has the same color scheme as the others, with a 'dirty' green and brown look. Of course you could also view them as colors more associated with the military, which is where the TUF series draws its inspiration from.

The first thing we noticed is the lack of a Clear CMOS button at the rear panel. No doubt, there are many USB ports, up to 10 USB 2.0 along with the two blue USB 3.0 ports. But we would have preferred a Clear CMOS switch here as well.

Once you look past the TUF features, it's evident that this is not ASUS' ultimate SKU for the AMD 990FX chipset. For one, we don't find onboard power or reset buttons and the lack of a rear Clear CMOS button certainly bothers us. That's not to say that this board is lacking in features, for besides the chipset's default six SATA 6Gbps ports, there are two Marvell controllers to add more SATA goodness - two SATA 3Gbps ports onboard and two eSATA 3Gbps ports at the rear.

While the specifications for this board claim Quad-GPU SLI and CrossFireX support, do note that the feasible way is to have a pair of graphics cards with dual-GPUs, like a Radeon HD 6990. This is because the positioning of the four PCIe 2.0 x16 slots are such that it's impossible to fit four dual-slot graphics cards (which make up the majority of the cards that are worth running a multi-GPU config). Additionally, one of these slots only has x4 bandwidth, making it unsuitable for high-end multi-GPU setups. In short, running a dual-card setup is the most reasonable option for most people as well as what's best on this board.

AMD's SB950 provide the same number of SATA 6Gbps ports as its predecessor, the SB850. ASUS has added two more SATA 3Gbps ports via a JMicron controller.

One of the few changes that we noticed with AMD's latest chipset is that it now officially supports up to DDR3 1866, though 32GB of RAM remains the maximum and it's still a dual-channel memory architecture by virtue of the CPU limitation.

ASUS' MemOK! feature has been around for a while. Some users may find it useful for those occasions when they get their memory settings wrong or a lemon of a memory module.

All the heatsinks, including this on the Southbridge, have ceramic origins and the surfaces feel rough.

Another sign that the Sabertooth is not ASUS' top board in this category is the lack of onboard power and reset buttons. Instead, you'll find the usual front panel connectors and an old-school jumper to reset the BIOS.

There are four PCIe 2.0 x16 slots here, but we recommend only filling three of them in a x16/x8/x8 auto-configuration. The fourth slot (in black and sandwiched in between) has a limited PCIe bandwidth of x4, making it less than suitable for multi-GPU setups.

The new AM3b slot that supports the new AM3+ processors. We were quite surprised to see that ASUS has taken out two sides of the heatsink mounting bracket surrounding the socket, but we suppose this was due to the lack of space. It certainly doesn't look like there is that much allowance for larger third-party coolers.

Some of the onboard controllers on this Sabertooth include a VIA controller for two FireWire ports, a pair of JMicron controllers for eSATA and SATA 3Gbps ports and not forgetting two USB 3.0 controllers from ASMedia. If you ask us, we're not sure why FireWire is still being supported on new boards given the popularity of USB devices.

You can just about make out the rough, textured nature of the ceramic heatsink here. As ASUS claims, that's more surface area to dissipate heat.

You'll also get a UEFI BIOS to go along with the usual barrage of proprietary features and technologies that ASUS and its other motherboard brethren like to tout. Given what we have seen of ASUS' UEFI BIOS implementation, it should be equally user-friendly as the ones we tried on its P67 and Z68 boards. Together with the decent layout, this ASUS Sabertooth 990FX looks like it will maintain ASUS' high standards, though we're also expecting a slight premium for its military-grade components, as usual.