Sapphire P67 Pure Black Hydra Motherboard Review



Product: Sapphire P67 Pure Black Hydra Motherboard
Company: Sapphire
Author: James Prior
Editor: Charles Oliver
Date: June 6th, 2011

Motherboard Design & Features

The Sapphire P67 Pure Black is a full ATX mainboard featuring, as the name suggests, Intel's P67 chipset. The mainboard sample we received is B2 version with the bug, but all retail channel products sport the fixed B3 revision, so you can buy with confidence. Sapphire's Pure series are premium products, and this should be reflected in build quality, component choice, design and feature support.

Sapphire P67 Pure Black Hydra

The P67 Pure Black's notable features are four double spaced PCI-Express Graphics (PEG) slots, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, two USB 3.0 Superspeed ports, two additional SATA-3 (6 Gbit/s) ports, two IEEE-1394 ports and Lucid Hydra. The P67 Pure Black Hydra uses AMI's UEFI with support for booting from volumes greater than 2TB in size, with appropriately configured OS install, and allows the use of mouse in the mainboard configuration. A dual-BIOS solution is implemented with mechanical switching between the two BIOS memory chips.

The P67 Pure Black is colored black and blue, with the odd red or grey highlight. All the capacitors are the 'solid' variety, widely used in premium and enthusiast products to purportedly increase lifetime of the board. While these capacitors do not suffer from leaks, bulging or spewing their electrolytic material all over the place when they fail, they can still fail but just at a far reduced rate, and longer timespan. Complementing the solid capacitors are Sapphire's Diamond Black chokes for aiding in delivery of smooth, stable power. The board has three power inputs, the traditional 24-pin main power connector, an EPS12v power input, and a 4-pin molex power input. The last is located at the bottom of the board, 90degree angled, for providing more 12v power to the PEG slots when high power graphics boards are used.

Memory and Debugging

The dual channel memory slots are color coded, and spaced to allow most heatspreader equipped memory sticks. 1GB, 2GB and 4GB DDR3 non-ECC, unbuffered memory sticks are supported, for a total capacity of 16GB. Next to the DIMM4 slot is the CMOS battery, situated in a slightly unusual vertical socket. Above the DIMM slots are touch points for measuring board voltages with a multi-meter or oscilloscope, a feature only serious overclockers will use regularly but useful for troubleshooting on the bench if you are a more electronically capable (and equipped) user. These are supplemented with more traditional debug LED indicators, both Power/Standby/DIMM use indicators and a 2-digit debug code LED 7-segment display. Onboard power and reset buttons are included, with status LED's built-in - the Power button illuminates when power is applied to the system, and the Reset button will illuminate to indicate hard drive access. A clear CMOS button is also included, in place of the traditional two or three pin jumper header. A simple speaker is mounted on the board for beep codes, and the board's POST beep signals makes the most complicated 'Everthing is OK!' sequence we've heard. After POST the 7-segment display shows CPU temperature.

Storage Options

The P67 Pure Black Hydra's storage and I/O options are extensive, thanks to four additional controllers. Marvell's 88SE9128 SATA-3 (6 Gbit/s) port controller provides an additional two internal SATA-3 ports, colored RED and marked as SATA-3A and B. As with the X58 Pure Black, the Marvell 88SE9128 is connected via a single PCI-Express 2.0 lane, capping bandwidth to 5 Gbit/s for both SATA-3 6 Gbit/s ports. This indicates the extra two SATA 3 ports are included more for marketing than being a real I/O performance option, although 5 Gbit/s is still plenty for a single high performance SATA-3 device.

Intel's Platform Controller Hub (PCH) provides four SATA-2 and two SATA-3 ports. The configuration of the SATA ports is unusual in that the rear eSATA port is connected to the ICH10R controller in the PCH, rather than the Marvell controller, as is somewhat more traditional. The Intel SATA ports can be individually configured as eSATA, for hot plugging, as needed. In our HAF-X case this means we can use the two hotswap bays for eSATA duties, as well as the front case port, to supplement the rear panel eSATA port. The SATA-2 ports are colored black, with two mounted at 90degrees and one vertically, adjacent to the internal USB 2.0 headers.

Bluetooth, Firewire, USB 3.0, and Networking

Bluetooth is integrated into the board using Atheros' AR3011 chip, with the antenna located on the rear backplane above the eSATA and high power USB ports. Texas Instrument's TSB43AB22A IEEE1394 controller takes care of Firewire duties, with a rear 1394a port and internal header for case connectivity. Renasas Electronics (NEC) two-port D7202 controller takes care of the USB 3.0 duties, and Marvell's 88E8057 Gigabit controller handles network duties. Sapphire has chosen not to enable boot from NFS or iSCSI in their BIOS, although AMI includes support for it in all Award Megatrend's EFI implementations.

Expansion Slots

The PEG slots support CrossfireX via native support in the P67 chipset, and heterogeneous multi-GPU support via Lucid's HydraLogix chip, located between the first two PEG slots. The first three PEG slots, colored blue, are PCI-Express 2.0 and have 16, 8 and 8 lane configurations respectively. The lane assignments are not dynamic and cannot be changed to give two full x16 slots with one slot disabled, for example. The bottom PEG slot, colored grey, is PCI-Express 1.1 and has 4 lanes connected. Lucid's HydraLogix mode allows specific combinations of graphics cards to be used together. This covers basic SLI-like compatibility, hence the board is not NVIDIA SLI certified. HydraLogix increases the cross compatibility for multi-GPU configurations like GTX 580 + GTX 570, and HD 6950 + HD 5870 as well as HD 6950 + GTX 570. In between PEG slots two and three, and three and four, are PCI v2.3 33MHz 32-bit slots. On paper this looks like a 4-GPU capable board, in reality three is as far as you'll want to go - and that's for more reasons than just bandwidth. Really, the best way think of the bottom grey PEG slot is a general purpose expansion slot that will accommodate any card you can think of, with 1GB/s bandwidth available.

Audio Connectivity

Audio is provided by Realtek ALC892, which supports Blu-ray protected audio path with appropriate software and receiving hardware. 192KHz/24bit 8 channel output is available via coaxial and optical outputs on the rear panel as well as standard audio jacks. Internally, front panel audio and S/PDIF I/O headers are located in a terrible position, at the rear edge of the mainboard in front of PEG slot 3. Unless you have extremely long audio header cables, you won't be able to use this header very easily, and not at all if you want to use multiple GPU's. There are Realtek chips with better SNR but not with Blu-ray certification, hence it's choice on this board. Ideally Creative's X-FI MB2 software would be licensed and included to give the full range of audio support, but the Realtek option still provides near everything a gamer or casual HTPC user could need. The software provides lots of customization options for EQ and effects, as well as connector retasking and multiple streaming -you can output 7.1 channel playback on the rear outputs plus 2 channels of independent stereo output on the front panel header.

Three components have heatsinks on the board, the VRM modules alongside the CPU socket, the PCH, and the HydraLogix chip. All are anodized aluminum, shaped into fins and with space for branding. The VRM cooler is affixed with a bolt-through bracket and backplate, while the PCH cooler suffices with four push-pins, as is the Lucid chip's cooler.

APTIO Setup Utility (BIOS)

The APTIO Setup Utility formerly-known-as-BIOS options are extensive and more comprehensive than most users will likely ever need. The overclocking options are robust and well appointed, with controls for all the voltages and frequencies you'll need to adjust for a successful overclock. Sapphire have opted for LoadLine Calibation (LLC)) controls rather than vDroop control, with options for 12%/25%/50%/62% and 75% settings or disabled. The memory timings options were initially basic, without offering control over command rate (CR - 1T or 2T) but a firmware update added this option recently. There is no obvious way to use XMP settings from the APTIO Setup Utility formerly-known-as-BIOS. Memory speeds up to 2133MHz can be selected with voltage up to 2.5V, so you can easily kill your DDR3 if you want to. CPU PLL and VTT voltages are adjustable, as is CPU PWM frequency. The built in hardware monitor works well and displays surprisingly accurate voltages, as compared to the direct readings from the pads provided on the board. Three of the six fan headers are configurable for smart operation or override, to set your own thermal cooling policy. The three controllable fan headers are for CPU, Power fan and Chassis fan, with the additional SYS fans (2) and AUX fan headers featuring a sense pin for speed reading by software.

Accessories

Included in the box are six long svelte SATA cables and a driver DVD. The disc contains drivers, a comprehensive PDF manual, Sapphire's TRIXX MB software for overclocking, and a branded wallpaper in case you forget what you bought. The disc's menu also includes links for getting Sapphire's latest software updates, where they offer new BIOS versions (flashable from the desktop), new drivers versions and documentation updates. Registering the board with Sapphire gets you access to the Sapphire Select Gold club, where you get extra benefits over the free Silver membership level. These benefits include discounts on games, software and applications. For example, earlier this year SSC members could download DriverCleaner.NET for free.