The layout of the bottom half of the Sapphire is dominated by the three PCI Express 2.0 graphics slots. The 790FX chipset feeds 16 lanes of PCI Express to the primary slot and 16 lanes to the secondary slot in CrossFire or eight lanes to the second and third slots if you are using CrossFire X. The jury must remain out on CrossFire X as the drivers haven’t yet been released but it seems unlikely many people will run triple graphics cards. It is far more likely they will use CrossFire with two graphics cards and plug a sound card or RAID card into the third PCI Express slot.
Other than that the layout is unremarkable, and that is meant in a good way. The floppy and SATA connectors are laid down for easy connection and neat cabling, the eight-pin ATX 12V is at the top of the board and the IDE connector is next to the main power block. The only sour taste is left by the pair of micro buttons which feel rather cheap and nasty.
Ordinarily a review starts with a check for BIOS updates but on this occasion we broke with tradition. The review sample appeared to be running a BIOS dated November 2007 and there have been four updates since then so an update was the logical step. However, we were advised that there are only two samples of this motherboard in the UK and the other one had been killed by a journalist who carried out an update incorrectly. Of course, there are two ways you can look at this issue; either the flashing procedure is a bit dodgy or the other (unnamed) journo is a Muppet. Whichever was the case, though, we didn’t like the sound of those poor odds so we left well alone and, considering we found performance and stability to be decent, this didn’t seem like an unfair move.
In the BIOS we could change the voltages, memory latency timings and clock speeds but the clock multiplier was unavailable which was a touch annoying as our Phenom 9600 is a Black Edition that can be overclocked. One approach is to pump up the 200MHz clock which isn’t a front side bus but which acts as though it could be. Increasing the speed to 220MHz raised the CPU speed from 2.3GHz to 2.53GHz but it took an increase in core voltage to get the speeds to 230MHz and past the 2.6GHz mark. The system was unstable and blue screened after a few seconds.
The preferred method for overclocking a Phenom is to use the AMD OverDrive utility which allows you to adjust settings within Windows. Although it was easier to make changes this way we had exactly the same lack of success as we did working within the BIOS. A quick search around the net shows that some people have overclocked their Phenom 9600 to 2.8GHz with air cooling but our sample has never gone that fast.
Sapphire and DFI have together come up with an intriguing 790FX Phenom motherboard that looks as though it could be the basis for a decent gaming PC. Unfortunately the limited overclockability of the Phenom 9600 means whatever overclocking merits this motherboard may have, the results are difficult to see right now. Let’s hope the next load of Phenoms offer a bit more headroom to take advantage of boards like this.