For around $95, ASRock’s P45XE is the only sub-$100 motherboard we could find with "proper" support for AMD CrossFire technology. The critical difference is that while cheaper "quasi-CrossFire" motherboards endow the second slot with x4 pathways using bandwidth-restricted PCI Express (PCIe) 1.1 technology, the P45XE is able to provide either x16 mode to a single card or x8 mode to dual cards, using bandwidth-doubling PCIe 2.0 technology. The performance difference is huge, while the competition’s use of v1.1 x4 slots has dire consequences. From the CrossFire perspective, ASRock has already taken a clear leadership position before our testing even begins.
But ASRock’s CrossFire advantage doesn’t stop at the P45XE’s ability to "do it right," as the motherboard is also capable of "doing it easily." While several higher-cost products require manual selection for single or dual graphics cards via paddle cards or jumper blocks, the P45XE provides the convenience of electronic mode-switching.
Intelligent layout decisions include proper support for up to seven expansion cards, as even the uppermost PCIe x1 slot has enough clearance for cards up to 6.625" long. Competitors typically limit their products to six slots, or restrict the top slot to super-short cards with an over-sized northbridge sink.
The P45XE even locates its front-panel audio header half-way up its rear edge for easier cable routing to top-panel jacks, and that leaves us with very few things to complain about. It would be a disservice for us not to point out the few inconveniences or otherwise deceptive features. First of all, Windows XP users who would like to add AHCI drivers during installation might be a little disappointed to find the floppy header located below the lowest PCI slot. Second, while the eight-pin ATX12V/EPS12V-compliant power connector might be sensibly located from a circuit-designer’s point of view, wrapping its cable around the CPU cooler is something most builders prefer not to be forced to do. Finally, the P45XE is only slightly narrower than a full-ATX design, and since it doesn’t quite extend to a third column of standoffs, the unsupported end will flex significantly when memory is installed.
We did, of course, use the word deceptive, and that comes from the ASRock-standard of providing eSATA ports by using pass-through connectors. To enable these, builders are expected to run two cables from the orange SATA connectors at the bottom edge of the P45XE to the top rear corner. Not only does this prevent systems with windowed cases from appearing as professionally-assembled, but it also requires running those cables over or around every expansion card. Furthermore, this design reduces signal strength by putting two extra connections on every pathway.
But using the Intel ICH10 southbridge for eSATA gave ASRock an idea that has escaped most or all of its competitors: the P45XE supports the Safely Remove Hardware option for all AHCI drives. This includes internal drives, which means users of hot-swap SATA hard drives can plug and unplug drives at will without going through the hassle of disabling drive cache and using Remove Hardware from the device manager. This is the first Intel chipset motherboard that this author has seen that supports the Safely Remove Hardware icon, which until now had been limited to Nvidia chipsets. Furthermore, the feature is enabled through BIOS and doesn’t even require a special driver. Bravo!
|ASRock P45XE (Revision 1.07)|
|Northbridge||Intel P45 Express|
|Voltage Regulator||Four Phases|
|333.3MHz (FSB1333)||333.5 MHz (+0.13%)|
|Clock Generator||ICS 9LPRS918JKLF|
|Connectors and Interfaces|
|Onboard||2x PCIe 2.0 x16 (Modes: One x16 or Two x8)3x PCIe x12x PCI2x USB 2.0 (2 ports per connector)1x USB 2.0 / WiFi Card Header (2-ports)1x SerialPort header1x Floppy1x Ultra ATA (2 drives)6x Serial ATA 3.0Gb/s2x SATA to eSATA Pass-Through Connectors1x Front Panel Audio1x CD-Audio In1x S/P-DIF Out1x Fan 4 pins (CPU)1x Fan 3 pins (Chassis)|
|IO panel||2x PS2 (keyboard + mouse)2x Digital Audio Out (S/P-DIF optical + coaxial)2x External SATA Pass-Through Connectors1x RJ-45 Network6x USB 2.06x Analog Audio (7.1 Channel + Mic-In + Line-In)|
|Mass Storage Controllers|
|Intel ICH10||6x SATA 3.0Gb/s|
|VIA VT6415 PCI-E||1x Ultra ATA-133 (2-drives)|
|Realtek RTL8111C PCI-E||Gigabit LAN Controller|
|Realtek ALC888 HDA||7.1 + 2 channel Multi-Streaming Output|
Rear-panel port selection will trick many buyers into thinking the P45XE is a more expensive product, but while the previously-mentioned built-in SATA to eSATA adapter is almost deceptive, the dual-format digital audio outputs function without requiring installation tricks.
A good reason for thinking of the P45XE as a lower-cost mainstream-performance board would be its legitimate CrossFire support, but other things, such as a USB header between slots three and four that supports a WiFi card hint at an actual performance-mainstream variation.
With a rated signal-to-noise ratio of 97:1 decibels, Relatek’s ALC888 codec is more than sufficient as a low-cost onboard audio solution.
A Realtek RTL8111C Gigabit Network controller requires little system overhead, while its PCIe interface provides more than twice the needed bandwidth.
Who needs Ultra ATA any more? With SATA optical drives priced well below $20, few new systems will require the VIA VT6415 controller. ASRock likely retains it for the upgrade market.