Pentium M for the Desktop: AOpen i855GMEm-LFS & DFI 855GME-MGF

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DYNAMIC CLOCKING AND SOFTWARE CONTROL

Dynamic speed and voltage adjustments based on work load is fully implemented in Pentium M notebooks.Called SpeedStep, it works very well, and would be beneficial for desktop users interested in running their system as cool and quietly as possible, much like AMD A64's Cool 'n' Quiet.

Apparently, AOpen and DFI aren't so sold on the SpeedStep as neither company provided a fully functional version of this software. Buried on AOPen's Utilities Download page for the 855GME is a utility called the Series Tool. This undocumented software contains AOpen's version of a SpeedStep utility. It also includes some rudimentary, Windows-based fan control and overclocking software, and a system monitor for temps and voltages. The software works, but it is pretty unstable and not really "ready for prime time". DFI has no SpeedStep type of utility that I can find.

We played around with a few experimental third-party, Windows based clockspeed utilities. RightMark CPU Clock Utility (RMClock) essentially replicates the Intel SpeedStep software. It functions on both motherboards, but like many other software-based clockspeed utilities, it's not very stable. It gives a tantalizing taste of the power management possibilities on the Pentium M platform. Here's hoping the motherboard makers will release desktop software that works as well as the notebook versions.

Eenie meenie minie mo

Both of these motherboards would be a fine choice for a quiet Pentium M system. Is one better than the other? In terms of performance and stability, they're both excellent. The AOpen board is a bit more versatile, due to its standard P4 heatsink mounting bracket. The DFI is a bit handicapped with its oddball heatsink, but it has better BIOS options for the overclocker.

If I were forced to choose one board, it would be the AOpen by a narrow margin, with the AOpen's P4 heatsink bracket being the tie-breaker. If the DFI board came with a P4 style heatsink mount, the nod would probably go to it, based on its slightly better BIOS settings.

CONCLUSIONS

So Pentium M finally comes to the desktop.

  • Is it viable for day-to-day use?
  • Is it an improvement over existing technologies?
  • Is it the "be-all, end-all" for silent computing?

Having lived with these Pentium M boards and the 2.0GHz Pentium M Dothan chip for the past eight weeks, I'm very impressed and will continue to use it as my day-to-day system. The Pentium M CPU seems subjectively just as fast as my 2.4GHz and 3.0GHz Pentium 4 systems, truly is silent from more than 8" away and only uses 40-50W during normal use. Each board has been 100% stable and very easy to work with. Both boards sport the normal complement of I/O, including SATA, onboard LAN, USB 2.0 and Firewire. Each board is micro-ATX form factor, so they can easily be integrated into HTPC, SFF and other small "Digital Home" computing setups.

Both boards could benefit tremendously from fully functional, stable SpeedStep software. In notebooks, SpeedStep extends battery life and helps the system run cooler; both traits are certainly desirable in the silent desktop. SpeedStep can operate seamlessly in the background, with the CPU running at very low power during most normal computing activities, yet it instantly ramps up when CPU usage calls for it. Even at full speed, ithe P-M 2.0 only puts out 21W, but stepped down to 600MHz, it runs at a paltry 7W.

Is the Pentium M ground breaking? No, not really.

Yes, it's a powerful, low power consumption CPU, but with a little tweaking, the AMD A64 platform can cover similar ground, and costs less money. Some of us at SPCR have been begging, pleading and cajoling Intel to release a Pentium M desktop board for over a year now, and Intel still has not produced one. A year ago these P-M boards would have been compelling, but now the A64 with Cool 'n' Quiet is a serious lower cost alternative. Still, these AOpen and DFI boards have shown themselves to be 100% bulletproof. Perhaps for those who value the "legendary stability" of the Intel platform, the Pentium M may be the silent platform of choice. Others may vote with their wallets.

The Pentium M systems are the the quietest system I've built, yet they're powerful enough for me to use as my main system. My test bench puts the system 2-3 feet away at ear level, and with this platform I don't hear any noise. The CPU isn't 100% responsible for this as I'm using a passively cooled video card and an ultra-silent Samsung notebook HDD, but the sum really is greater than the parts. Building a quiet system starts with choosing the right parts, and I don't think you can go wrong with the Pentium M and either of these motherboards as the foundation.

As it stands today, if money is no object to assemble the quietest PC possible, a Pentium M based system is my first recommendation.

AOpen i855GMe-LFS
PROS

* Socket 478 heatsink retention bracket
* Onboard USB 2.0 and Firewire headers
* Dual GigE NICs
* Color-coded front I/O header
* BIOS adjustable thermal fan controls
* Stable, stable, stable
CONS

* No rear Firewire I/O port
* Unstable "SpeedStep" software
* Expensive

DFI 855GME-MGF
PROS

* Full featured BIOS
* Firewire port on rear I/O panel + two headers on the board
* Very stable
* 533MHz FSB support
CONS

* Non-standard heatsink mounting
* Not much clearance around CPU socket
* No onboard USB 2.0 headers
* No "SpeedStep" software
* Pricey

* * *

Much thanks to AOpen and DFI for the opportunity to review their respective motherboards.
Many thanks also to our buddies at Newegg for the loan of the Pentium M 755 processor that was used in this review!
And on the software side, thanks to Futuremark and Sisoftware for the opportunity to use their benchmarking applications.

And finally, thanks to Mom and Dad, I couldn't have done it without you.

* * *

Discuss this this article in the SPCR Forums.



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