Cars

A Review of The ASUS P5E Computer Motherboard
and Antec Sonata III Case

Copyright 2008 by Stephen Vermeulen
Last updated: 2008 Nov 09
Backing up Computers





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See also:

The ASUS P5E Motherboard

In Nov 2007 I got one of the new ASUS P5E motherboards (reviewed here), to build a replacement for my old dual Athlon MP1800 system. Here is an article about a similar (though slightly older chipset) motherboard from Gigabyte used to build a quad processor system. Key features of the P5E motherboard:
  • 775 socket with support for the new 45nm processors
  • supports the quad core chips, the Q6600 (which I am using) is a nice unit as it is mid range in price, but with top of the line performance and quite low power consumption
  • uses DDR2 ram at 800, 1066 or even faster
  • has 6 SATA ports (though no on-motherboard eSATA port which some of the other boards have)
  • includes the Intel Matrix RAID system, which can do RAID0, RAID1, RAID10 and RAID5
  • 12 USB ports, with 6 on the back plate and two FireWire (with one on the back)
  • includes a bracket with one FireWire and two more USB ports on it.
  • gigabit LAN
  • includes a 1x PCI-E card for the high definition audio 8 channel sound system
  • has 3 PCI-E 1x, 2 PCI-E 16x and two classic PCI sockets, all can be used at once
  • ASUS includes a 4-pin Molex to SATA power adapter in case your power supply does not have enough SATA power connectors. I used this for my DVD burner.
  • The chip set cooling is all passive with lots of heat sinks and heat pipes on the board. You can see it in some of the following pictures.
Here is a general view of the motherboard looking towards the back of the case. The large case fan is a 120mm unit, this is the one I installed so that it could run off one of the 3 pin fan headers on the motherboard as the one that Antec includes only has a hard-drive style Molex connector and does not have a speed sensor. From the left to right along the back the expansion slots hold:
  1. a pair of extra USB connectors and a firewire connector connected to the motherboard headers near the SATA connectors.
  2. the PCI-E graphics gard
  3. a Hauppauge PVR-150 TV card (in a PCI slot)
  4. the sound card (in a PCI-E 1x slot)

The expansion cards

In this picture you can see the expansion cards more clearly, along with the passive chip set cooling system and the CPU fan.

Passive cooling and CPU fan

Another look at the expansion cards and the cables for the additional USB and firewire bracket on the back panel.

Expansion cards and extra USB/firewire bracket cables

If you are using this with Windows XP (and maybe even with Vista) you cannot use the RAID system and LAN until you install drivers, which can make installing XP a bit more bothersome. I used NLite to prepare a slipstreamed version of Windows XP that contained the RAID and LAN drivers. This worked quite well, worth looking into if you are going to have to redo the installation a number of times to get everything set up exactly the way you want.

As far as the board's physical layout goes, it is quite well thought out, the only things I would change are:

  1. The SATA connector block uses right angle connectors, so you push the cables in the from the side rather than down from the top. This is more difficult to work with, especially in a medium or small sized case as you might only have about an inch of clearance between the front edge of the motherboard and the back edge of the internal 3.5 inch drive bay. In my case inserting the cables was not too bad, but removing the cables was quite difficult. Of course this was made more difficult because I was hooking up four hard drives, but still I think that a conventional top-down connector block would be a lot better. It would also make more sense to locate two of the SATA connectors near the top of the motherboard (so they are closer to the usual DVD drive location) and leave the other 4 down near the bottom where they are now.
  2. The main 24 pin power connector should be moved to the top edge of the mother board (from the font edge) so that it is further away from the backs of the floppy and hard drives.
  3. The floppy connector should be moved up the front edge of the motherboard so the cable does not interfere with cooling of the DIMMs.
  4. ASUS includes a lot of cables with this, but the floppy cable is sub-par, it is not keyed at the end that connects to the floppy drive and its a flat ribbon cable, rather than a round cable, so it blocks more air flow than it needs to.
  5. One of the USB connectors is sort of in the middle of the motherboard, it should be moved to the front edge (perhaps near the floppy header). This connector is not properly labeled in the manual, but it is labeled USB1112 (i.e. USB ports 11 and 12) on the motherboard.
  6. The high definition audio card has a connector for a cable to the computer's front panel jacks. This connector is not described in the documentation.
In the following picture you can see the SATA connectors, and appreciate that unless you have a rather deep (front to back) case there is not a lot of room to work with these cables:

View of the SATA connectors

In the following picture you can see the floppy cable (black) and the 24 pin power cable (covered in thick multi-coloured mesh) and how they connect to the back edge of the motherboard. It would make more sense for these to be connected near the top edge (i.e. to the left) of the motherboard.

The floppy and PSU connectors

In the next picture you can see the "stray USB" connector (labeled USB1112) that's sort of positioned in the middle of the expansion card area. It would make more sense to move this to the front or top edge of the motherboard to get it nearer to the drive bays, which is where you're most likely to be placing a USB device that it is needed for. The loose USB cable will be plugged in here and runs to the front of the case to the flash card reader I added.

The stray USB connector

Supreme FX II Soundcard

This motherboard includes a PCI-E 8 channel high definition audio (HDA) sound card called the Supreme FX II. The following picture shows the sound card along with the HDA/AC97 front panel audio connector for the front panel jacks (the AC97 connector is hanging loose).

The Supreme FX Soundcard

The drivers for this card refused to install, the installer kept saying "The HDA Audio bus driver is required and not found.". A search on the web revealed that this was a common issue with the following articles giving some help:

  1. Microsoft KB835221
  2. Microsoft KB888111 - this is a major part of the solution
  3. This article pointed me at the KB888111 issue.
  4. And this article suggested that the drivers would have to be manually installed.
In the end the recipe that worked for me was:
  1. Install the KB888111 fix (which ASUS did include on their drivers CDROM, but I'm guessing that their installer was failing to install for some reason).
  2. reboot (as this is what the KB888111 says is needed).
  3. tried to install the software but it still gave me the same error message, so searched some more.
  4. Now go into the hardware devices manager, and look for the yellow icons (as suggested in the Geeks to Go article), there was one on a PCI card, so I brought up the properties sheet on it and had it search for new drivers. I found drivers on the driver CD and installed them.
  5. reboot.
  6. Now the sound works, but there is no device-specific control panel, so I re-ran the ASUS installer.
  7. This said the software was installed already and offered to remove it first, I let it do this and then re-ran the installer.
  8. Now it installed correctly and the full control panel was available.

Antec Sonata III Case

I decided on this Sonata III case from Antec (reviewed here) for a few reasons:
  1. I've used a few Antec cases in the past and they are typically quite well designed, not filled with sharp edges and pretty easy to work on.
  2. It comes with a 500W power supply that has all the connectors you typically need (and then some) which has received some good reviews. In fact, a lot of 500W power supplies sell alone for about the same price as this case and supply. The one thing this supply is missing is a fan connector to allow the motherboard to monitor the power supply's fan. It would also be an improvement if they dropped two of the old Molex connectors and replaced them with two more SATA power connectors.
  3. It has a 120mm case fan (which are usually quite quiet). This fan has a switch to allow you to select one of three speeds, the lowest two speeds are quite quiet. However this fan does not have a rotation speed sensor and uses a 4 pin molex connector, so I replaced mine with one that has a 3-pin motherboard connector and a rotation sensor - this allows the ASUS Q-Fan BIOS function to control the fan speed based on motherboard chipset temperature. Normally the case fans are running a 900-1200 rpm and the CPU fan is at 2600 rpm, the whole rig is nice and quiet. The CPU temperature is 35C and the system temperature is 37C (even with the four hard drives).
  4. It has an internal rack for four 3.5 inch hard drives (with simple removable tray based mounting) which was ideal as I wanted to put a RAID 5 storage array made of four hard drives into it. This internal rack also had provisions for mounting an optional 120mm fan to draw cool air across the drives. Antec provides four long screws (about 1.25 inches long) and four pre-threaded holes that make mounting this fan quite easy.
  5. It has the usual head phone and microphone jacks and two USB ports on the front panel, but it also has an eSATA style connector on the front panel.
The following picture shows the mother board inside the case, the 120mm fan in the middle is the extra fan I added to cool the drive array.

Motherboard in case

In the following photo you can see the drive array more clearly. In one of the reviews I read, they ran all the drive cables down the other end of the drives (having turned the drives around). I prefer my way of mounting the drives as it is easier to disconnect/reconnect cables when changing a drive - though the cables are not concealed.

View of the drive array

Video Card

As I'm not a game addict I didn't go high end on the graphics card. My minimum purchase requirement was that the card provided two DVI ports and used the PCI-E bus. The low end of the pool of cards that provide two DVI ports are the ATI 1650, 1950 and 2600 boards and some of the Geforce 7000 series and the 8000 series cards. In the end I went with a eVGA Geforce 8600GT card, which is a bit faster than the ATI 2600 units for the same price. The 8800 based cards are what is needed to get a good increase in performance, but they are about three or more times as much. This included two DVI to VGA adapters.

Two other positives about this card are that it is relatively low power (it does not even need an extra cable from the power supply), some reviews measured it at between 20W and 45W depending on the task, and because of this its cooling needs are moderate leading to a quieter system.

Hard Drives

I've run a RAID-5 based system for a number of years now (in fact its survived two hard drive failures over the years). One of the reasons for selecting the P5E was that it has a RAID-5 capable SATA controller built in. I added in four 500GB Seagate drives and configured them as two RAID arrays, a RAID-10 section for the operating system, applications and temporary files space, and a RAID-5 system for long term data files (which are primarily read-only).

In my testing the performance of this system was better than what I previously had, but not as great as I was expecting. Write performance on very large file copies on the new RAID-5 is about 16MB/s, while the old system was about 11MB/s. The CPU usage of the new system is much lower (about 1-2%) while the old system was about 15% during a file copy, so that's a substantial improvement. Write performance on the RAID-10 partition is about 44MB/s. These numbers include both the reading of the source and the writing.

The Intel Matrix RAID system allows you to set up two RAID volumes on your disks, so you can have one RAID-10 for the operating system and a larger RAID-5 for data files. Their documentation does not make it clear that this is limited to only two volumes, so if you wanted to add a third, such as a RAID-0 for temporary files you're out of luck.

Once you have the system installed and working under Windows then you can use the RAID console to view the status of the drive array and remove or change the volume that is not currently in use by the system as a boot/OS disk.

Floppy Drive

Since I knew that the RAID driver (at least) would have to be loaded into XP during the initial installation (using the infamous F6 key) and I had not tried a slipstreamed installation before, I got a combined floppy and USB card reader, this is a YD-8V08 from Scythe (reviewed here). It connects to the usual floppy power plug and motherboard floppy 34 pin header, as well it has a second cable that you run to one of the motherboard's USB headers. During installation of Windows you should not have the USB connected as this will cause Windows to allocate the C:, D:, E: and F: drive letters to the card reader, meaning your usual C: drive will end up being the very unusual G:.

Power Consumption

I measured the power consumption of this system at the wall socket (using a UPM EM100 Energy Meter which I got from Canadian Tire), here are some typical numbers:
  1. in hibernate (state saved to disk) it is drawing about 4W (there are some LEDs on inside the case so the power supply must still be providing some power for things like wake on LAN...
  2. in standby (state is maintained in memory still) it is drawing about 8W.
  3. when running as a typical office desktop (word processor, email, browsing...), about 130W
  4. when doing video conversion from one format to another (lots of disk I/O and some CPU usage) about 150W (for comparison, the dual-Athlon MP1800+ machine that it is replacing takes about 210W when idle).
  5. the peak power drawn during in booting (probably as the four hard drives are firing up) is about 230W (but only for less than 10 seconds).

RAM Problems

After about 10 months in service I tested the RAM (using MemTest x86) and found that the RAM was having trouble (test #4 was reporting errors). This was Crucial Ballistix 1066 RAM and I had set the memory speed to 1066 in the BIOS. I had tested the RAM when it was first installed and at the time it was functioning fine. I got a replacement pair of Ballistix memory sticks from my dealer and they showed a similar problem. I bought a second pair of OCZ 800MHz RAM sticks and they worked fine at the 800MHz speed (they were on sale and I needed them for another computer anyway). I got a second set of replacement sticks from my dealer (these were Patriot 1066 rated sticks) but they would only run at 800 without error. After experimenting with the RAM voltage control in the BIOS (these sticks need a higher voltage for the full 1066 speed) I decided to update my BIOS. I had found a few news articles where people reported developing RAM problems after installing a new BIOS and then the problems going away when a newer BIOS was released, this seemed to be happening with the version 5 and 6 BIOS. Of course ASUS makes no mention of this in their BIOS release notes. As I was running the 4.01 BIOS (from Nov. 2007) I decided to update to the (in early Sept. 2008) newest which was 9.03. Upon doing this the Patriot 1066 memory not only ran without errors, but it no longer needed to have the elevated DRAM voltage set. So I rather suspect that ASUS had fixed up their DRAM control setting code at some point, but has not mentioned this in the BIOS release notes.

RAID Problems

During the time I was tracking down the RAM problems (above) I had a number of blue screen of death type events (BSOD), at the time I was putting these down to the RAM troubles or just faulty software. For the most part they seemed to occur after the computer had been running a long video transcoding session with StaxRip. After the RAM problems were sorted out I still got these occasionally (about twice a week) and looked into one of the errors which suggested the problem might be caused by the RAID drivers. I was running the drivers that came with the original installation disk (Nov'07) so looked at Intel's site and found that a lot of work had been done on them since then. After updating to the 8.5.0.1032 driver version the problems have not shown up again (in about 2 months). So if you are running the older RAID drivers you might want to update.



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