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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

AMD is releasing today a new chipset with integrated graphics, AMD 890GX, and ECS has announced three socket AM3 motherboard models based on it. We are going to take a look at A890GXM-A, which belongs to ECS’ Black Series, featuring three PCI Express x16 slots and SATA-600 ports (but not USB 3.0 ports).

Before talking specifically about this motherboard from ECS, let’s briefly see what is new on AMD 890GX.

In the table below we provide a comparison between AMD 890GX and previous chipsets with integrated graphics from AMD: AMD 785G, AMD 790GX and AMD 780G.

As you can see, the main specs of the graphics engine from AMD 890GX is pretty similar to AMD 790GX’s, except that AMD 890GX uses a DirectX 10.1 engine while AMD 790GX’s is DirectX 10.

The main difference on AMD 890GX is the use of a new south bridge chip, called SB850. This south bridge chip natively supports SATA-600 ports (a.k.a. “SATA 6 G”) and in fact this is the first chipset to arrived on the market with this feature (currently on motherboards based on other chipsets featuring SATA-600 ports an external controller chip must be used). Like the SB750 used with AMD 790GX, they support RAID level 5, a configuration not supported on SB710 and SB700.

Notice how SB850 supports only USB 2.0 ports. There are some motherboards based on this chipset that have USB 3.0 ports, but they are controlled by an external chip.

Chipset AMD 890GX AMD 785G AMD 780G AMD 790GX
GPU Clock 700 MHz 500 MHz 500 MHz 700 MHz
Graphics Processors 40 40 40 40
ROPs 4 4 4 4
Engine HD 4290 HD 4200 HD 3200 HD 3300
DirectX 10.1 10.1 10 10
PCI Express 2.0 2.0 2.0 2.0
South Bridge Chip SB850 SB710 SB700 SB750
USB 2.0 Ports 14 12 12 12
SATA-300 Ports None 6 6 6
SATA-600 Ports 6 None None None
RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 0, 1, 10 0, 1, 10 0, 1, 5, 10
ATA-133 Ports 1 (2 devices) 1 (2 devices) 1 (2 devices) 1 (2 devices)

ROPs stand for “Raster Operation Units” and are also known as “Rendering Back-End Units.” They are the final stage on rendering a 3D image.

Other chipsets with on-board video from AMD include AMD 690V, AMD 690G, AMD 740G and AMD 780V. AMD 690V, AMD 690G and AMD 740G are based on a DirectX 9 graphics engine, while AMD 780V is based on a DirectX 10 one. AMD 780V is based on Radeon HD 3100 engine, which runs at 400 MHz – clock is the main difference between HD 3100, HD 3200 and HD 3300 engines.

Like SB750, SB850 south bridge chip supports an overclocking feature called “Advanced Clock Calibration” or simply ACC. How exactly this new feature works is completely obscure, as AMD does not explain how it works in details. All we know is that SB850 provides a feedback loop to Phenom/Phenom II processors using some unused CPU pins, allowing you to unlock hidden features from the CPU – most commonly unlocking an extra CPU core on triple-core CPUs. You can read more about this feature here and here.

As you may know by now, on systems with integrated video the video memory is achieved by stealing part of the main RAM. Chipsets from AMD have a feature called SidePort, which is an optional memory chip soldered on the motherboard in order to increase video memory. This motherboard from ECS brings this feature, having 128 MB of GDDR3-1600 memory on-board to speed up video.

In Figure 1, you can see the basic block diagram from AMD 890GX chipset.

AMD 890GX chipsetFigure 1: AMD 890GX chipset.

[nextpage title=”The Motherboard”]

So far ECS released three models based on AMD 890GX: A890GXM-A, which is the model we are taking a look; A890GXM-AU, which is identical to A890GXM-A but featuing USB 3.0 ports; and IC890GXM-A.We created a table showing the main differences between these products. As you can see all are ATX-sized motherboards with basically the same features, with A890GXM-A and A890GXM-AU being more complete because they have three PCI Express x16 slots, two Gigabit Ethernet ports and more video connectors. Also A890GXM-A and A890GXM-AU use only solid capacitors, while IC890GXM-A uses solid capacitors only on its voltage regulator circuit, using regular electrolytic capacitors on the rest of the board. A minor difference is on the voltage regulator section, where IC890GXM-A uses a simpler 3+1 phase configuration, while the other two boards use a 6+1 config.

  IC890GXM-A A890GXM-A A890GXM-AU
Form Factor ATX ATX ATX
Memory 4 sockets 4 sockets 4 sockets
PCI Express x16 slots Two Three Three
PCI Express x1 slots Two Two Two
PCI slots Two One One
SATA-600 5 ports, 1 eSATA 5 ports, 1 eSATA 5 ports, 1 eSATA
USB 3.0 No No Yes
Audio Codec ALC892 ALC892 ALC892
Networking 1 Gigabit Ethernet port 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports
Video Outputs VGA, DVI-D VGA, DVI-D, HDMI, DisplayPort VGA, DVI-D, HDMI, DisplayPort

In Figure 2 you can have an overall look from ECS A890GXM-A.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 2: ECS A890GXM-A motherboard.

As mentioned, this motherboard has 128 MB video memory soldered on the motherboard. In Figure 3, you can see the 1 Gbit GDDR3-1600 chip (1 Gbit = 128 MB) in charge of this feature.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 3: 128 MB GDDR3-1600 memory chip.

[nextpage title=”Slots”]

AMD 890GX chipset has one PCI Express 2.0 x16 lane that can be split-up into two x8 lanes if necessary. Translation: motherboards based on this chipset
can have one or two x16 PCI Express slots, but they will work at x8 if two video cards are installed. The north bridge chip supports a total of six PCI Express x1 lanes, while the south bridge chip supports two more.

ECS A890GXM-A comes with three PCI Express x16 slots. The first two (red ones) work at x8 if both are used at the same time, while the third slot (orange one) always work at x4 (using four x1 lanes from the north bridge chip). All slots support CrossFire mode, as expected.

The motherboard also comes with two x1 PCI Express slots and one standard PCI Express slot.

Notice how this motherboard requires a standard peripheral power connector to be installed in order to provide extra current to the PCI Express slots.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 4: Slots.

[nextpage title=”Memory Support”]

AMD CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor, and not the chipset, that defines the memory technologies and the maximum amount of memory you can have. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.

At the moment, the integrated memory controller of socket AM3 processors supports only DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz under dual-channel architecture, however ECS says A890GXM-A supports DDR3 memories up to 1,600 MHz through overclocking. A890GXM-A has four DDR3 sockets and since, at the moment, each DDR3 memory module can have up to 4 GB, you can have up to 16 GB with this motherboard.

The first and the second sockets are yellow, while the third and the fourth are orange. In order to achieve the maximum performance, you should install two or four memory modules to enable the dual-channel architecture. When only two modules are used, install them in sockets with the same color in order to enable this feature.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 5: Memory sockets. Install two or four modules for the best performance.

[nextpage title=”On-Board Peripherals”]

AMD 890GX chipset is a dual-chip solution and we’ve already published all the main specs from this chipset on the first page of this review.

As we mentioned earlier, AMD 890GX is the first chipset to natively support SATA-600 ports and ECS A890GXM-A provides five SATA-600 ports. The sixth port was converted into an eSATA-600 port on the rear panel of the product. These ports support RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10.

The four of the five SATA-600 ports are placed on the motherboard edge rotated 90°, so video cards won’t block them. The fifth SATA port is placed in a position that expansion cards won’t block it as well.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 6: SATA-600 and ATA-133 ports.

Even though the chipset supports one parallel ATA (PATA, a.k.a. IDE) port, no port of this kind is provided. Also no floppy disk drive controller is present.

A890GXM-A features on-board power and reset buttons, but the sample we got was a pre-production sample and these buttons came without their caps (see Figure 6). Of course on the final product these buttons have their caps on.

This motherboard carries all 14 USB 2.0 ports supported by the chipset, six soldered on the rear panel and eight through four headers located on the motherboard.

This product doesn’t have USB 3.0 ports and also doesn’t come with FireWire (IEEE1394) ports.

Audio is generated by the chipset using a Realtek ALC892 codec. Unfortunately this component isn’t listed on Realtek’s website and the motherboard manual doesn’t talk about the technical features of this chip, so we can’t comment on the quality of the on-board audio from this motherboard. The board has an SPDIF optical connector soldered on the rear panel. A coaxial SPDIF output can be added by installing the appropriate adapter on the motherboard “SPDIFO” header (this adapter doesn’t come with the product).

The analog audio connectors are independent if you have a 5.1 analog speaker system, but if you have a 7.1 analog speaker system you will have to “kill” either the “mic in” or the “line in” jack to install it. This may not be a problem for most users, since if you want a 7.1 audio system you will probably connect the motherboard to a home theater receiver or a digital speaker set using either the SPDIF or the HDMI connector.

ECS A890GXM-A has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, each one controlled by a Realtek RTL8111DL chip, which is connected to the system using a PCI Express x1 lane and thus not presenting any potential performance issues. These ports support “teaming,” i.e., being used in parallel to double bandwidth to 2 Gbps – if you have networking equipment that also supports this feature, of course.

In Figure 7, you can see the motherboard rear panel with VGA output, DVI-D output, DisplayPort output, HDMI output, clear CMOS button, six USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA-600 port, two Gigabit Ethernet ports and shared analog 7.1 audio outputs.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 7: Motherboard rear panel.

As you can see, this motherboard comes with four different kinds of video connectors, but only two of them can be used at the same time.

No keyboard or mouse PS/2 connector is available, thus you have to use a USB keyboard and a USB mouse with this motherboard.

[nextpage title=”Voltage Regulator”]

ECS A890GXM-A comes with a seven-phase voltage regulator circuit. From the seven available phases, six are used to generate the CPU main voltage (Vcore) while the other one is used to generate the voltage required by the integrated memory controller. Thus this motherboard has a “6+1” configuration. A series of seven LEDs allow you to monitor which phases are being used.

This motherboard comes with a passive heatsink installed on top of the transistors from the voltage regulator circuit, connected to the passive heatsink that is installed on top of the north bridge chip using a U-shaped heatpipe. It is nice to see ECS improving the quality of their products. In Figure 8, you can see the voltage regulator circuit with this cooling solution installed and, in Figure 9, with it removed.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 8: Voltage regulator circuit.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 9: Voltage regulator circuit.

As mentioned earlier, all capacitors used on this motherboard are solid and the voltage regulator circuit uses ferri
te chokes, which are better than iron chokes. Please read our Everything You Need to Know About the Motherboard Voltage Regulator tutorial for more information.

[nextpage title=”Overclocking Options”]

ECS A890GXM-A provides a bunch of overclocking options. Below we list only the main ones available on 02/25/2010 BIOS.

  • CPU/HT Reference Clock: From 200 MHz to 500 Hz in 1 MHz steps.
  • SidePort Clock Speed: From 200 MHz to 667 MHz in 66 MHz steps.
  • GFX Clock: From 150 MHz to 2000 MHz in 1 MHz steps.
  • HT Frequency: From 200 MHz to 2000 MHz in 200 MHz steps.
  • CPU Voltage: From 0.800 V to 1.550 V in 0.025 V steps.
  • CPU Offset Voltage: From +50 mV to +500 mV in 50 mV steps (on top of the current CPU voltage).
  • DIMM Voltage: From +10 mV to +150 mV in +10 mV steps (on top of the current memory voltage).
  • NB/HT Voltage: From +10 mV to +150 mV in +10 mV steps (on top of the current memory voltage).
  • SB Voltage: From +10 mV to +150 mV in +10 mV steps (on top of the current memory voltage).
  • SidePort Voltage: From 1.50 V to 1.75 V in 0.10 V steps.

Memory timings can also be tweaked.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 10: Overclocking menu.

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 11: Overclocking menu (Cont’d).

ECS A890GXM-A motherboardFigure 12: Memory timing options.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

ECS A890GXM-A motherboard main features are:

  • Socket: AM3.
  • Chipset: AMD 890GX.
  • Super I/O: ITE IT8721F
  • Parallel ATA: None.
  • Serial ATA: Five SATA-600 ports controlled by the chipset (RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10).
  • External SATA: One eSATA-600 port controlled by the chipset.
  • USB: 14 USB 2.0 ports, six soldered on the motherboard and eight available through four headers on the motherboard.
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394): None.
  • On-board video: Yes, Radeon HD 4290 engine running at 700 MHz (40 processing cores), with 128 MB GDDR3-1600 memory (Samsung K4Q1G1646E-HC12).
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with a Realtek ALC892 codec (8-channel, no more technical information was provided). On-board optical SPDIF output.
  • On-board LAN: Two Gigabit Ethernet ports controlled by two RTL8111DL chips, connected to the system through two PCI Express x1 lanes.
  • Buzzer: No.
  • Power supply required: EPS12V
  • Slots: Three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots (the first two working at x8 when two video cards are installed and the third one always working at x4), two PCI Express x1 slots and one standard PCI slot.
  • Memory: Four DDR3-DIMM sockets (up to 16 GB up to DDR3-1600 through overclocking).
  • Fan connectors: One four-pin connector for the CPU cooler and two three-pin connectors for auxiliary fans.
  • Extra Features: External clear CMOS button, LEDs to monitor the phases from the voltage regulator circuit.
  • Number of CDs/DVDs provided: One.
  • Programs included: Motherboard drivers and utilities.
  • More Information: https://www.ecsusa.com
  • Average price in the US: This motherboard wasn’t available on the market on the day we published this First Look article.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

This is a “First Look” article, but you can check the performance of AMD 890GX chipset on our ASUS M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 review. Traditionally motherboards based on the same chipset achieve the same performance.

From this review we learned that AMD 890GX is way better than AMD 785G, providing a performance gain between 33% and 37% in games. However, on-board video is still a bad way to play games: a very low-end Radeon HD 3450 with 64-bit memory interface and 256 MB was between 44% and 64% faster than AMD 890GX. Therefore if you are looking for a system to play games, even occasionally, you are still better off buying an add-on video card, even the cheapest one (this Radeon HD 3450 costs USD 35).

But that doesn’t mean that AMD 890GX should be ignored. Motherboard manufacturers will be providing motherboards based on this chipset with very good features, and you may want to pick a motherboard based on this chipset even if you want to install an add-on video card.

Since it natively supports SATA-600 ports, motherboards based on this chipset will probably be cheaper than motherboards that require an extra chip to do the same thing, helping to bring SATA-600 to the mainstream arena. And even if you don’t plan to use a SATA-600 hard drive or SSD, you will have a system ready for this new technology for a future upgrade, which is always desirable.

Now talking specifically about ECS A890GXM-A, its main feature besides the SATA-600 ports is the presence of three PCI Express x16 slots (the third one always working at x4 speed), which is an interesting way to compete on the high-end arena. This motherboard doesn’t have USB 3.0 ports, but ECS will be releasing an identical model that has this feature (A890GXM-AU).

Another good feature is the presence of four different types of video connectors (although only two can be used at the same time), allowing you to connect this motherboard to any kind of video monitor.

It is also nice to see ECS improving the overall quality of their products. A890GXM-A features a 6+1-phase voltage regulator (with activity LED’s), only solid capacitors, ferrite chokes, a passive heatsink featuring a heatpipe and some overclocking options.

This motherboard should please all sorts of users, like the user building an HTPC and the user that wants a system with the latest technologies and doesn’t mind having a low-end gaming performance or wants to try the on-board graphics from AMD 890GX before deciding if he or she will need an add-on video card, and also the user that wants to install three video cards to improve gaming performance or to have tons of video monitors connected to his or her PC.

The success of this motherboard will depend on its price when it arrives on the market.