|Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6 USB-3 SATA-6G Motherboard|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Motherboards|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Thursday, 24 December 2009|
Page 7 of 19
First Look: GA-P55A-UD6
Motherboard manufacturers have a tendency to reuse a design until it cannot be used anymore. Enthusiasts familiar with a short history in mainboard components will attest to this, knowing that what they've seen in the past several platforms will return again for the next. The 'traditional' layout of motherboard components hasn't changed much over the years, and most new products look identical to those introduced many generations past. This might seem like I'm painting motherboard manufacturers into a corner and blaming them for overly conservative thinking, but fortunately I'm beginning my point for this article: if it looks the same every time, what you're paying more for must be for the things you can't see.
It's not as if Gigabyte can really break the mold every time a new chipset comes to market: most components are relegated to the location they've been assigned and cannot be repositioned because of form factor or design standards. The I/O panel must always be located in the same place, or else the motherboard won't fit conventional computer cases, and likewise the same goes for PCI/PCI-Express expansion ports. As a result, the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6 Intel P55-Express motherboard that Benchmark Reviews is testing for this article takes a striking resemblance to the Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD4P X58 motherboard we're comparing it to. Coinsidentally, it's also nearly identical to the Gigabyte GA-P55-UD6 we've also tested.
In this article, I am going to write for two different audiences: casual computer users with limited knowledge of the latest motherboards, and seasoned enthusiasts who do. So beginning with the experts, I can reveal that the GA-P55A-UD6 looks nearly identical to nearly every X58-series motherboard offered by Gigabyte, and shares a common PCB component layout and similar BIOS options. Aside from a few new features, the P55A-UD6 is virtually a clone of the "non-A" P55-UD6 version. Both P55 and X58 motherboards offer Gigabyte's Ultra-Durable 3 construction, which features two ounces of copper in the printed circuit board. Both chipsets use the same Realtek ALC889A high-definition audio, and offer similar PCI and SATA expansion. Even the chipset cooling components share a familiar design to previous generations. So what's new?
Like I said: it's what you can't see that's changed. Nestled onto the mainboard PCB is a new Marvell 88SE9128 SATA 6Gb/s controller and an NEC D720200F1 host controller (part number µPD720200) delivers SuperSpeed USB-3.0 functionality. This is the only significant difference between the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6 and P55-UD6 motherboards. The difference between P55 and X58-Express chipsets are a little more elusive.
The three most important differences between P55 and X58 motherboards are actually very conspicuous unless you're looking for them. To begin with, the Nehalem Core i7's LGA1366 socket has been replaced with the Lynnfield's Core i5 LGA1156. Next is the transition to dual-channel 1333MHz DDR3 system memory, which departs from 1066MHz triple-channel DDR3 to reduce production and consumer costs. The last major difference is not so obvious, as Intel reduces PCI-Express 2.0 expansion slots to only one 16x lane in reference Intel P55-Express chipsets, while giving the other two 8x each. The Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6 changes this, as there is only one 16x lane (when SATA6G/USB3 controllers are disabled) and one 8x lane (more on this later). Nevertheless, CrossFireX and SLI graphics-teaming support still exist despite the reduced bandwidth to the second adapter.
Gigabyte saves the heavy metal for their 'EXTREME' series motherboards, which make their appearance even when the chipset isn't an X-series. The Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6 LGA1156 Core i5 motherboard however only receives a lonely single aluminum heat-pipe rod. The P55A-UD6 does pick-up a special TPM chip with 2048-bit encryption, which is unique to certain Gigabyte models.
In addition to Gigabyte's effort to promote "333" functionality, they are also working to emphasize their Ultra Durable 3 feature (which really should have been one of those 3's, and not 3x USB power output). Gigabyte Ultra Durable 3 introduces the industry's first consumer desktop motherboard design with 2 ounces of copper used on the Power and Ground layers of the printed circuit board (PCB) which lowers the PCB impedance by 50% as a result. Impedance is a measure of how much the circuit impedes the flow of current. The less the flow of current is impeded, the less amount of energy is wasted. For Gigabyte Ultra Durable 3 enhanced motherboards, this means total PCB electrical waste is reduced by 50%, which also means less heat is generated. Two ounces of copper also provides improved signal quality, better system stability, and allows greater margins for overclocking. For those with older-generation motherboard, the Ultra Durable feature is designed to extend the overall product life, and help overclockers achieve more stable results.
Similar to when Intel moved from socket PGA478 to LGA775 and then again to LGA1366, the previous generation of cooling products are no longer compatible with the new LGA1156 socket. The X58's LGA1366 socket increased the distance between CPU cooler mounting holes to 80mm, which is significantly more footprint area than the 72mm used by the LGA775 socket, and now Intel has decided that 75mm is the magic number for their new LGA1156 socket. I'll pause here to ask the question that won't leave me alone: why? There wouldn't have been any problem with P55 motherboards supporting the old 72mm (LGA775) spacing, or wasting a little more area surrounding the socket and continue support for (LGA1366) 80mm spacing. Unfortunately, all that money Intel tried to save consumers by trimming away features here and there only gets repurposed towards a brand new aftermarket cooler. Availability is a whole other story at this point.
Several CPU cooler manufacturers designed adapters to fit their LGA775 coolers onto the LGA1366 socket, which isn't a very safe practice because of the enlarged processor surface area, but converting LGA775 coolers to LGA1156 should work nicely. For systems not receiving an overclock, this may not be such a problem, but if you're going to re-use your Core 2 cooler on a Lynnfield LGA1156 Core i5/i7 processor, it had better be listed near the top of our Best CPU Cooler Performance list. I'll explain why in my final thoughts section, which should be helpful information for enthusiasts.
The backside of the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6 PCB illustrates exactly how of a 'base model' feel the P55-Express chipset really has. Notice that the LGA1156 socket doesn't even receive square/corner mounting points to ensure equal and level pressure. All P55 motherboards use this same Foxconn backplate, so don't expect any design variety here.
The P55A-UD6 lacks the "Crazy Cool" heatspreader cooling plates we've seen in past generations of Gigabyte motherboards, which some enthusiasts may not miss so much. One particular area where the GA-P55A-UD6 motherboard stands out against Gigabyte's X58-series iterations is the massively increased number of power phase transistors. From the back side of the motherboard you find a total of sixteen medium-size Axxon Tech A2724 ICs and twelve A2726 units, which comprise the 24 phase power VRM that Gigabyte touts with their P55 motherboards. Additionally, six small Intersil Corp ISL6611ACRZ IC parts supply the power phase doubling on the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD6. Put into perspective, the X58 motherboard series offered only nine ICs for the entire VRM component.
The massive number of power VRM phases are intended to allow overclockers a more stable platform for their tweaking projects. But didn't Intel design the P55 series for "mainstream" consumers? The leap from a 12+2+2 power phase design with VRD 11.1 support in Gigabyte's X58 series to the current 24-phase power VRM in the P55 series may actually allow Gigabyte to yield better overclocks out of the GA-P55A-UD6.
After a short 'first glance' at the basic layout for the P55A-UD6 LGA1156 Core i5 motherboard, it appears that Gigabyte has designed this to be a no-nonsense mainboard solution for mainstream builders and enthusiasts. We will dig deeper in the following sections to find out if this Lynnfield P55-Express motherboard offers the features overclockers and hardware tweakers will want out of their top-shelf product, or if X58 is really worth the extra money.