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Intel DG45FC: Loaded LGA775 Mini-ITX Board

HDMI and DVI video outputs, along with 4 SATA, eSATA, gigabit ethernet, S/PDIF and the G45 Express chipset featuring X4500 graphics make this new Intel C2D LGA775 mini-ITX board quite a loaded package at a pretty reasonable price.

September 17, 2008 by Lawrence Lee

Product Intel DG45FC
Intel LGA775 Motherboard
Manufacturer Intel
Street Price US$130~150

Intel is pushing deeper into the mini-ITX market, threatening to transform a once
expensive niche into a mainstream budget platform. Last year, they unleashed the
Celeron-based D201GLY,
the first truly affordable mini-ITX solution, which sold in retail channels for $70, an un-heard of low price for m-ITX. This year, they took it a step further
by using the low-power Atom processor in the D945GCLF. While both products are impressive for the industrial and commercial embedded markets, due to the lack of CPU
and GPU power, they offer only basic functionality which most DIY enthusiasts
simply cannot live with. To many enthusiasts, such products are interesting toys rather
than usable tools. The exception is in the role of a home server, which does not require much CPU or GPU power.

The Intel DG45FC is a more versatile mini-ITX board. Forgoing the imbedded
processor, the DG45FC has an LGA775 socket, letting users decide what
processor suits them best — it supports all Celeron, Pentium dual-core,
and Core 2 Duo processors; only quad core processors are excluded. It is
based on the new G45 Express chipset featuring X4500 graphics, so it should
also provide a much better multimedia experience than Intel’s previous mini-ITX
offerings. As with most new IGPs, Intel claims X4500 has better 3D performance
and decoding for high definition video formats.

While it’s not the first LGA775 mini-ITX mainboard, it is certainly one of the the most
functional, judging by specs. We’ve criticized Intel in the past for the lack of digital
outputs on their onboard video boards, but the DG45FC has rectified
these concerns. Intel has gone all out, abandoning the analog VGA output altogether, arming the
board with DVI and HDMI, along with S/PDIF, gigabit ethernet
and eSATA. The closest socket 775 competitor we’ve had experience with, the recently reviewed
Zotac NF610i-ITX,
has a pitiful feature-set by comparison. The Zotac board was a crude attempt
to bring more computing power to the mini-ITX platform, but it did whet our
appetite for a better implementation. The AMD 690G based Albatron KI690-AM2 was quite full-featured but it never saw much distribution and now the chipset is history. We have been anticipating the DG45FC to
be the solution.


Except for the model number there is little to differentiate the box from
that of the D945GCLF.

 


The back of the box illustrates most of its features.

 

Intel DG45FC: Specifications (from the
product web page
)
Form factor
Mini-ITX (6.70 inches by 6.70
inches [171.45 millimeters by 171.45 millimeters])
Processor At product launch, this desktop board supports:

* Support for an Intel® Core™2 Duo processor in an LGA775 socket
* Support for an Intel® Pentium® dual-core processor in an LGA775
socket
* Support for an Intel® Celeron® dual-core processor in an LGA775
socket
* Support for an Celeron® processor 400 sequence in an LGA775 socket

Memory * Two 240-pin DDR2 SDRAM Dual Inline Memory Module (DIMM) sockets
* Support for DDR2 800/667/533 MHz DIMMs
* Support for up to 4 GB of system memory
Chipset Intel® G45 Express Chipset
Audio Intel® High Definition Audio in the following configuration: * 8-channel (7.1) audio subsystem with five analog audio outputs and
one optical S/PDIF digital audio output using the IDT 92HD73E audio codec
Video Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD onboard graphics subsystem
with integrated HDMI + DVI-I display ports
LAN support Gigabit (10/100/1000 Mbits/sec) LAN subsystem using the Intel® 82567LF
Gigabit Ethernet Controller
Peripheral interfaces * One serial port via header
* Up to 10 USB 2.0 ports (6 back ports and 4 via headers)
* 5 Serial ATA 3.0 Gb/s ports, including 1 eSATA back port with RAID 0,
1, 5, 10 support
* Consumer IR receiver and emitter (via internal)
Expansion slot One PCI Express* x1 bus add-in card connectors

PACKAGE CONTENTS & LAYOUT

The DG45FC doesn’t come with many accessories — just a couple of SATA
cables and an I/O shield. What it doesn’t lack is paper — Intel loves to provide
proper documentation.


Box contents.

Mini-ITX motherboard layout is tough to criticize. With so little room to work with, fitting all the standard ports
is an achievement in itself.


Layout.

As this isn’t an imbedded Atom product, plenty of room is left around the CPU
socket. There is little clearance between the other ports,
slots, capacitors and other electrical components. Most notably the two fan
headers are directly adjacent to the first DIMM slot; a third party heatsink
could make these difficult to access, so it’s not a bad idea to plug any fans
in before installing the CPU cooler.


Viewed from the side.

The board has two memory slots, which is plenty for most users. There are also
four SATA ports — enough for a small file server, and a single PCI Express
1x expansion slot. While the southbridge is bare, the northbridge is cooled
by a large aluminum heatsink with multiple rows of fin, and held on via spring
clip. The cooler is 38mm high measured from the surface of the PCB.


Back panel connectors.

The back panel provides ports for eSATA, gigibit ethernet, S/PDIF, HDMI and
DVI — pretty impressive for a mini-ITX mainboard. This is also the first
Intel all-in-one motherboard we’ve seen without a D-Sub VGA output — it’s
about bloody time.

BIOS

BIOS options on mini-ITX boards are typically restricted. The
presence of an IGP and the limited cooling associated with the form factor
makes manufacturers nervous about allowing users the ability to customize
frequencies and voltages. Intel in particular is notorious for locking down
their BIOS allowing only basic options to be changed.

Notable Available BIOS Adjustments
Setting
Options
CPU FSB N/A
CPU Voltage N/A
Memory Frequency 667/800 Mhz (may depend on processor)
Memory Timings Basic
Memory Voltage N/A
Video Memory Size 128MB, 256MB

As usual, a quick browse through the BIOS takes no more than
30 seconds to confirm there isn’t much to see or do. Aside from basic memory
settings, there is little that interests the average enthusiast.


“Fan Control.”

The board’s fan control system can be configured using two different
settings, Processor Zone Response and Damping. Processor Zone Response can
be set to Aggressive, Normal, or Slow and Damping can be set to High or Normal.
We’ll investigate what these settings mean. Also, please forgive
the cropping of the screenshot above — it was taken while connected via
HDMI and the image does not appear optimized while in the BIOS. We typically
use a KVM for most of our testing, but it did not agree with the DG45FC when
using a DVI to VGA adapter.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Setup:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Our main test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel), and to
test the integrated graphics’ proficiency at playing back high definition videos.
Standard HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs can be encoded in three different codecs by
design: MPEG-2, H.264/AVC and VC-1. MPEG-2 has been around for a number of years
and is not demanding on modern system resources. H.264 and VC-1 encoded videos
on the other hand, due to the amount of complexity in their compression schemes,
are extremely stressful and will not play smoothly (or at all) on slower PCs,
especially with antiquated video subsystems.

We use a variety of H.264/VC-1 clips encoded for playback on the PC. The clips
are played with PowerDVD 7 and a CPU usage graph is created by the Windows Task
Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean and peak CPU usage. High
CPU usage is indicative of poor video decoding ability on the part of the integrated
graphics subsystem. If the video (and/or audio) skips or freezes, we conclude
the board’s IGP (in conjunction with the processor) is adequate to decompress
the clip properly.

SpeedStep was enabled the following features/services were disabled during
testing to prevent spikes in CPU/HDD usage that are typical of fresh Vista installations:

  • Windows Sidebar
  • Indexing
  • Superfetch
  • Aero interface

Video Test Suite


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~7.5mbps
WMV3:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, “HD WMV”).

 


720p | 60fps | ~12mbps
WVC1: Microsoft Flight Simulator X trailer
is encoded in VC-1. It is encoded using the Windows Media Video 9
Advanced Profile (aka WVC1) codec — a much more demanding implementation
of VC-1.

 


1920×1080 | 24fps | ~19mbps
WVC1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec. It
is the most demanding clip in our test suite.

TEST RESULTS

Our test system is fairly basic, featuring a notebook hard drive and Blu-ray
drive. The CPU is a Core 2 Duo E6400, an older processor with modest power requirements
(65W). It is cooled by an Arctic Cooling Alpine 7 Pro CPU cooler connected to
a variable DC fan controller (so the fan’s power draw does not come into play).

Test Results: Intel DG45FC
Test State
CPU Usage
System Power (AC)
Mean
Peak
Off
N/A
2W
Sleep (S3)
N/A
7W
Idle
1%
2%
49W
Rush Hour
34%
53%
58W
Coral Reef
27%
33%
63W
Flight Sim.
40%
56%
68W
Drag Race
44%
60%
66W
Prime95
100%
97W
Prime95 + ATITool
100%
98W

The X4500 graphics chip did not have any difficulty with our video test suite,
passing with flying colors. Power consumption was slightly lower than we typically
we see with LGA775 boards, except the 7W recorded in Sleep mode which was unusually
high. Normally we see a 1W difference on most systems between Off and Sleep.

Comparables
Test State
Asus P5E-VM HDMI
Zotac NF610i-ITX
Intel DG45FC
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Off
N/A
3W
N/A
2W
N/A
2W
Sleep
N/A
4W
N/A
48W*
N/A
7W
Idle
1%
56W
1%
50W
1%
49W
Rush Hour
36%
~65W
33%
~61W
34%
~58W
Coral Reef
29%
~64W
28%
~58W
27%
~63W
Flight Sim.
47%
~71W
46%
~70W
40%
~68W
Drag Race
54%
~69W
55%
~65W
44%
~66W
Prime95
100%
96W
100%
102W
100%
97W
Prime95 + ATITool
100%
97W
100%
103W
100%
98W
*Lacks S3 suspend-to-RAM feature.

Compared to other LGA775 motherboards, the DG45FC looks pretty good. It is
very close in overall power efficiency to the nVidia-based Zotac NF610i-ITX,
and noticeably more efficient than the Asus
P5E-VM HDMI
, based on the G45 chipset’s predecessor, G35. High definition
playback was marginally better in terms of CPU usage. The system only drew one
extra watt when the GPU was stressed with ATITool, so the X4500 IGP’s power
requirements are about the same as X3500.

System Power Consumption: Comparisons with E7200
Processor
Test State
Asus
P5E-VM HDMI
Zotac NF610i-ITX
Intel DG45FC
Gigabyte MA74GM (X2 4850e)
Idle
47W
35W
35W
31W
Rush Hour
52W
43W
42W
58W
Coral Reef
52W
42W
43W
58W
Flight Sim.
55W
48W
46W
63W
Drag Race
56W
48W
47W
66W
Prime95
73W
65W
64W
92W
Prime95 + ATITool
75W
67W
65W
97W

With the DG45FC registering the lowest idle power consumption we’ve seen for
an Intel board (without an embeded processor), we installed a newer, more efficient
Core 2 Duo E7200 processor manufactured using 45nm process (code name “Wolfdale”) to see if we could lower the power consumption. The E7200 runs at
2.53Ghz with a 1066 Mhz front side bus and has 3MB of L2 cache. The stock settings were used as the board is incapable of underclocking or undervolting.
Surprisingly, despite the fact the E7200 and E6400 have the same 65W TDP rating,
using the E7200 caused the power draw to drop by 14W at idle, 16-22W during
video playback and 33W on full load. The Zotac NF610i-ITX performed similarly,
but the P5E-VM HDMI was much more power hungry than our E6400-equipped test
platform.

The most efficient AMD mATX mainboard we’ve tested, the Gigabyte
GA-MA74GM-S2
(paired with a 45W AMD processor) has a small though
4W advantage at idle. However with any kind of load, the two Intel
mini-ITX boards were more efficient by 15W to 32W when paired with
the E7200 processor. The E7200 however, is a much more expensive processor,
retailing for $120 compared to the X2 4850e’s $70. A good alternative may be
the recently released $85 Pentium Dual-Core E5200. It is also a Wolfdale processor
but is clocked slightly slower at 2.5Ghz and is hampered further with less L2
cache and a slower front side bus; it’s likely to perform similarly.

While these results are profound, we won’t be changing our Intel motherboard
test bed to include the E7200 as getting the absolute lowest system power consumption
isn’t our main testing goal. A slower processor is ideal for judging an IGP’s
video playback efficiency — if the E7200 ran at around 2GHz, we would not
hesitate to change our methods. So while we won’t be changing our test bed,
this little experiment gives us something to keep in mind: AMD is not the undisputed
king of CPU power efficiency any longer. If other G45 and/or Geforce 7 series
mATX boards generate similar results, Intel could very well be the new energy
efficiency champion.

FAN CONTROL

When it comes to customizable control, SpeedFan is our application of choice.
If properly supported, it can be configured to raise/lower multiple fan speeds
to designated limits when any specified temperature threshold is breached.


SpeedFan main screen.

The current version of SpeedFan did not seem to support this board at all.
Most of the readings were blank and no amount of tweaking allowed us to initiate
manual fan control. Furthermore, Intel does not provide any officially supported
monitoring programs.

To test BIOS’ automatic fan control system we hooked up a Scythe 92mm PWM fan
(2500 RPM) to the CPU fan header (it cannot control 3-pin fans) and a Scythe
80mm fan (1500 RPM) to the chassis fan header. We then undervolted the CPU fan
to 4V and stressed the CPU with Prime95, keeping an eye on the core temperature
and monitoring the fan speeds using an anenometer. Due to the inherent difficulty
of the test due to the lack of monitoring software, we had to repeat each run
twice to get usable results.

First off we set the Processor Zone Damping to Normal and varied Zone Response
between Aggressive, Normal, and Slow. The results were almost identical for
all three settings — the only thing differentiating them was what temperature
triggered the fan ramp up, and even that was different by only a single degree.
The Aggressive, Normal, and Slow settings started to increase the CPU fan speed
at 67°C, 68°C, and 69°C respectively, and this these temperatures
could only be achieved by turning the CPU fan off. The CPU fan reached its full
speed when the temperature increased by a total of 8°C. What was more interesting
was the behavior of the Chassis fan — it pulsed annoyingly between 1350
and 1500 RPM until the maximum temperature was reached and then stayed at 1500
RPM until the CPU began to cool down again.

When the Processor Zone Damping was set to High, the fan response accelerated,
but only slightly. Honestly, there was very little differentiating the various
settings. In a blind-test, you would not be able to guess what the settings
were configured to, unless you were some kind of idiot savant. In our opinion,
the system waits too long to ramp up the CPU fan, and does it too quickly when
it finally does kick in. The Chassis fan speed behavior is puzzling and distracting
and in fact we would not recommend plugging a fan into the Chassis fan header
at all.

COOLING

To test the cooling on the board, we lowered the CPU cooling fan’s voltage
to 7V to reduce the amount of top-down airflow the nearby components received.
We then stressed the system with Prime95 and ATITool and whipped our our handy
IR thermometer to check the results. After about 20 minutes of load, the hottest
point on the northbridge heatsink registered 71°C, while the southbridge
heatsink read 72°C. Neither reading is that high compared to other boards
we’ve tested. Most of the board’s MOSFETs remained quite cool throughout testing
as they were close to the CPU socket and probably received enough top-down cooling.

3D PERFORMANCE

To get a rough estimate of how well the DG45FC onboard video plays games, we
ran 3DMark05/06. As a synthetic benchmark, it has limited value, but it should
give you a rough idea of how well it performs.

3D Performance: Futuremark Comparison
Motherboard
(GPU)
3DMark05
3DMark06
Zotac NF610i-ITX
(Geforce 7050 IGP)
900
328
Gigabyte MA74GM-S2
(Radeon X2100 IGP)
1124
305
Asus P5E-VM HDMI (GMA X3500 IGP)
1263
676
Intel DG45FC
(GMA X4500 IGP)
1259
955
Asus M3N78 Pro
(Geforce 8300 IGP)
1669
902
Gigabyte MA78GM-2SH
(Radeon HD3200 IGP)
2293
1116
Gigabyte MA78GM-2SH
(Radeon HD3450 256MB)
3405
1716
All results with 2GB of system RAM and 256MB of VRAM
assigned (if applicable). Intel systems in blue, AM2 (X2 4850e) systems
in green.

In 3DMark05, it registered almost the exact score as the X3500-equiped Asus
P5E-VM HDMI, but its 3DMark06 result was substantially higher, even better than
nVidia’s Geforce 8300 IGP for AM2. While many speculated X4500 would exhibit
a dramatic performance increase over X3500 such as the leap AMD/ATI made between
from its Radeon X1250 IGP to HD3200, this simply wasn’t the case, at least not with the
3DMark benchmark. While it is the best Intel has to offer, X4500, like most
integrated GPUs, is best suited for 2D use. As the DG45FC only has a single
PCI-E 1x expansion slot, there are very few upgrade options.

HDMI OUTPUT

Connecting the board to our 19″ BenQ monitor via HDMI resulted in several
problems at the native resolution of 1440×900. The image was slightly zoomed
in, the text was somewhat distorted, and a warning dialog box appeared recommending
we use 1280×720.


HDMI signal.

Switching to 1280×720 only resolved the text issue — the other problems
persisted, even the warning box. As the image wasn’t completely on the screen,
only a small corner of the “Start” button was visible. Increasing
the height of the Windows Taskbar made it more usable, but it was still an annoying
problem. The audio functionality worked perfectly and straight out of the box
without having to change any settings and we received clear stereo sound via
the monitor’s headphone output. Take these results with a grain of salt, it
may behave differently when connected to a different monitor.


Warning message. Some letters appear distorted.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall we are impressed with the G45 chipset. While the X4500 IGP represents
only an incremental increase in both 2D and 3D performance over the G45, power consumption
was much improved. We would love to see Intel make G45 their
defacto chipset rather than the woefully outdated
and inefficient G945 chipset used in the desktop versions of Atom boards. The G45 chipset
would have made Atom-based solutions truly killer. The potential power savings would
improve battery life in mobile devices and the vastly superior graphics subsystem
would help make up for the Atom’s lack of processing power when playing multimedia.

However a motherboard is not just a chipset — the manufacturer is key in
how the finished product ultimately ends up. While the DG45FC is more of a consumer/enthusiast
product, it is still mainly a business-oriented Intel workhorse. The
BIOS is completely locked down, and the fan control system is primitive. We should also
note that the board does not support quad-core or older high TDP dual core CPUs
— this may be a power regulation issue as there might not be enough room
on the PCB to fit all the electrical components required to handle a high power
processor.

Despite these quibbles, for a mini-ITX mainboard, the Intel DG45FC probably has no current equal. It has a vast feature-set
including 4 SATA ports, gigabit ethernet, and eSATA, and a wealth of digital
outputs. Its $130~150 price-tag is quite reasonable — mini-ITX gear generally
goes for a large premium, but the DG45FC is only marginally more expensive than
equivalent mATX motherboards. Paired with a Wolfdale processor and an efficient
power supply, the DG45FC is an excellent choice for a powerful yet energy-efficient
mini PC.

PROS

* Core 2 Duo compatibility
* Very low power consumption
* Excellent HD playback
* Multitude of digital outputs
* Priced well

CONS

* Does not support quad core
* Poor fan control
* Restricted Intel BIOS
* Limited 3D performance

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Intel
DG35EC: G35 mainstream mATX board

Intel
D945GCLF m-ITX: Atom For The Desktop

Zotac
NF610i-ITX: Compact, low cost, Core 2 solution

Gigabyte
GA-MA74GM-S2: AMD 690G, Take 2

Asus
P5E3 Premium: A Mean, Green Motherboard?

Asus
M3A78 Pro: An ATX 780G Motherboard

* * *

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