A few weeks ago we took our first look at a P55 motherboard, the Asus P7P55 Pro. However, we didn’t have the opportunity to actually play with the thing properly, much less put a new Intel Core i5 CPU in it and get it up and running. Well, a few days ago Asus once again contacted us and offered us a sneak peek at another of its boards and this time we could actually plug the thing in and get a system going.
Core i5, if you recall, is Intel’s brand new lineup of CPUs, expected to arrive in the next couple of months, that are based on the same basic architecture as Core i7 but with a few tweaks to make it less expensive. Specifically the memory controller has been cut-down to dual channel rather than triple channel and QPI has been replaced with DMI.
QPI, or QuickPath Interconnect is the new ultra high-speed link between multiple CPUs and the IOH (which in turn interfaces with PCI-Express devices and the ICH), that was introduced with Core i7. It is very effective and has an enormous potential bandwidth of 25.6GB/s per port but is overkill if you’re not running multiple CPUs or lots of high-bandwidth PCI-Express devices, like multiple graphics cards.
So Intel has removed QPI and brought back in Direct Media Interface (DMI) (as featured on Core 2) as a generic connection for all devices apart from graphics and memory. Graphics connectivity has instead been brought onto the CPU dies itself, with 16 (or 2 x 8) lanes of PCI-Express available.
(centre)”’Intel P55 Black Diagram”’(/centre)
The result is a system that appears much simpler than previous motherboard layouts. Instead of the CPU/MCH/ICH or CPU/IOH/ICH arrangement of Core 2 and Corei7, Core i5 will just have two principle chips, the CPU and Platform Controller Hub (PCH). This will reduce the cost of the chips and manufacturing costs of the motherboards that go with them.
The results of these changes are evident in the motherboard we looked at where you can clearly see there’s plenty of room around the CPU socket itself, just four memory slots are present, and the PCH chip is all the way over on the bottom left of the board. It’s a far cleaner layout and one that should have potential to work wonders on smaller motherboard form factors like MicroATX and miniITX.
As well as introducing a new overall system, these Core i5 CPUs are different enough to both Core 2 and Core i7 to require a new socket. Core i5 will now use an LGA1156 socket, which as you can guess uses 1156 pins. Unfortunately we can’t show you the new CPUs or the socket (without its plastic cover) yet but we can say this much; it’s about the same size as LGA 775 and uses the same pins-on-board, contacts-on-CPU arrangement. As such it wouldn’t seem necessary to require a new cooler design but, apparently it does, so neither existing LGA 775 nor LGA 1366 coolers will fit these new boards/CPUs.
Specifically the difference is in the distance of the mounting holes, which are slightly closer together than LGA1366 but slightly futher apart than LGA775. This means there is potential to just get a new retention clip for your cooler rather than a whole new one, if it is a modular design. Otherwise, there will be a whole host of new coolers coming out that have adjustable mounts, like the Cooler Master Hyper TX3 we used in our testing.
Further to the changes in cooler mount and pin layout, the CPU retention mechanism has also changed and we think it’s an improvement over both LGA775 and LGA1366. Instead of the locking arm and securing plate opening in different directions they now open in the same direction and the locking arm actually lifts the securing plate off and away from the CPU in one simple motion. It’s both easier to open and to install/remove CPUs.
Looking in a bit more detail at the particular board we were playing with and Asus has put together, what looks to us like a near perfect design. As mentioned earlier there is oodles of space around the CPU despite the use of a hefty 12+2 phase power system. You might find the largest coolers interfere with taller memory sticks but most should be fine.
The I/O panel is also impressive with dual Ethernet ports, both optical and coaxial digital audio, as well as analogue audio mini jacks, a reset button and no fewer than eight USB ports.
The PCI/PCI-Express slots all seem to be sensibly spread out with no obvious possible clashes between long graphics cards and other components – mainly due to all the ports along the front edge being laid down flat.
One thing we particularly like about some Asus motherboards is the Q-DIMM and Q-LED technologies that were introduced recently and it’s good to see them present on this board. Q-DIMM is quite simply the use of single-clip memory slots. That is, only one end of each slot has a clip. This means you never have to worry about a long graphics card getting in the way when trying to remove or add memory modules. Apparently some people don’t like this feature as they feel it’s insecure but we’ve not found this to be the case.
Another clip-related positive are the long PCI-Express slots. These now have large double-sided securing clips that stay pressed down (rather than the generic sprung tabs of many boards), making it much easier to remove large graphics cards.
Q-LED, meanwhile, is Asus’ name for four LEDs dotted round the board that light up if there’s a problem with your components. There’s one each for the CPU, memory, graphics and boot device, giving you a quick indication as to where your possible problems may lie.
Other ‘safety’ features include a MemOK LED and reset button. This essentially indicates if there is a problem with your memory settings and enables you to, at the press of a button, reset the memory settings back to a working state. We think this is somewhat superfluous, though, as the BIOS recovery will normally kick in and reset these if the board fails to POST. Also next to the RAM is the OV DRAM switch, which lets you override the BIOS limits for the RAM voltage, allowing you to set it to crazy levels – again, somewhat superfluous for 99.9 per cent of users.
Looking at the foot of the board and the two most obvious things are the presence of 6Gb/s SATA ports and Asus’ 2oz copper PCB. The former is nice to see but is actually of limited use at the moment as the hard drives and SSDs themselves are still the main limiting factor in terms of speed. As for the 2oz copper, this refers to Asus’ method of packing in extra layers of copper into the motherboard’s PCB (making it eight layers in total) to make it more rigid and help dissipate heat – both features we certainly welcome.
Perhaps of more interest, though, is the presence of power and reset buttons along the bottom edge and the placement of the front panel header array right in the bottom corner.
So despite the annoyance of Intel introducing yet another new platform, Core i5 looks like it has many up sides and this board from Asus just goes to highlight these. Of course, it would all be for nought without Core i5 being able to perform as well as the competition so we’re glad to be able to report that in our brief testing our system demonstrated impressive performance and overclocked considerably (over 1GHz) with ease. Unfortunately we can’t talk specifics (as this is all pre-production hardware and we promised Intel we wouldn’t) but what we can say is if you’ve been put off by the high-entry price of Core i7 and aren’t tempted by AMD’s current solutions then Core i5 should be right up your street.