I've been waiting for what seems like an age to get my hands on a quad-core Phenom processor to plug into an AM2+ motherboard and now, finally, the time has arrived.
Phenom uses Socket AM2+ which is backwards compatible with AM2 so you can plug an Athlon 64 X2 into a Phenom motherboard if you want to go the incremental upgrade route. You won't get the benefit of the new HyperTransport 3.0 bus or support for DDR2-1066 memory, though.
Phenom is supported by AMD's new 700 series of chipsets with 790FX at the top of the tree with 42 lanes of PCI Express that can be divided in a number of different configurations depending on what expansion cards are being used. Lower down the pecking order is the 770 chipset that, although similar, has fewer PCI Express lanes. Both chipsets continue to use the elderly SB600 Southbridge, which supports 10 USB ports, four SATA devices, and HD Audio. However we are told that SB700 is ‘coming soon' and will bring with it extra USB and SATA ports, as you would expect, plus a new feature called Hyper Flash which brings similar technology to Turbo Memory to the desktop.
This Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe WiFi AP Edition uses the top-of-the-line AMD 790FX chipset so it should serve us well as a benchmark for the Phenom motherboards that we shall doubtless see over the coming months.
The first thing that strikes you about the board are the four PCI Express 2.0 graphics slots which can be configured as 2x16 if you're running two graphics cards in regular CrossFire. If you have three graphics cards the slots can be configured as 1x16 and 2x8 and for four graphics cards it's eight PCIe lanes for each slot. ‘What is this talk of three and four graphics cards?' you may reasonably wonder. That's CrossFireX that is, but we can't tell you how well it works (or indeed whether it works) until the drivers are released in January.
The other feature of the Asus that stands out is the comprehensive cooling system that links the power regulation hardware to the Northbridge and the Southbridge. During testing the Northbridge cooler ran at about 50 degrees Celsius which is perfectly reasonable but it felt as though most of the heat was coming from the SB600 Southbridge. When you consider that the memory controller is inside the CPU core it's clear that the Northbridge doesn't do much besides handle PCIe traffic for the graphics and, as we were testing with a single HD 3850 graphics card, this part of the chipset was idling along. By contrast the Southbridge was working harder as Windows Vista thrashes the hard drive at all times as part of its wretched pre-fetch technology.