January 24, 2002

Review: Soyo Dragon Plus motherboard

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

A while back, I reviewed the Soyo Dragon, an AMD Athlon motherboard based on the popular KT266 DDR Athlon chipset. Soyo has followed up with a new board, the Dragon Plus, and I will highlight the changes, performance and added features of this new board.
It's all been done before
The first thing you might notice from my original review and comparing photos of the Dragon and the Dragon Plus is that the boards look similar. They use the same color PCB and PCI slots, and the connectors are in the same place.

Picture of the Dragon Plus

Yet, under the Dragon Plus' chipset fan you will find the most crucial difference. There you will discover that, rather than the KT266 Northbridge chipset of the Dragon, the Dragon Plus sports the KT266A instead. What difference does a single letter make, you ask? All the difference. With this change in chipset, the Dragon Plus gets a big gain in performance, putting it in league with RDRAM-based Pentium IV motherboards. The chipset increases the memory bandwidth available to the CPU, helping performance in memory intensive applications, such as games.

The other addition Soyo is pushing on this board is a smartcard reader, which doubles as a front USB port. This device reads smartcards, such as "smart" credit cards, not to be confused with Smart Media cards used for devices such as MP3 players and digital cameras. Unfortunately, I do not have any smartcards, nor do I know anyone who uses them, so I was unable to test this addition. Still, the unit also includes front USB ports, which I have found invaluable because I regularly detach and reattach my digital camera, and I no longer have to reach around the back of my PC to do it.

For my benchmarks, I have included the results of a Pentium IV 1.9GHz with RDRAM compared to an Athlon 1800+ with DDR on the Dragon Plus. While the Pentium 4 has a pure clock speed advantage, it will become obvious where the best performance is.

System Specifications
Athlon XP 1800+ (1.53GHz)
Soyo Dragon Plus! Motherboard
256 Megabytes CAS2.5 Crucial PC2100 DDR SDRAM

Western Digital 7200 RPM 10.2 Gig Hard Drive
3Com 3C905TX-C 10/100 NIC (PCI)
400 Watt ATX 2.03 Power Supply
Gigabyte GF3000 GeForce 3 64MB AGP
Slackware 8.0 with Kernel 2.4.14 and XFree 4.1.0
Pentium IV Configuration:
Pentium IV 1.9GHz (Socket 478)
TH7II-RAID Motherboard
256 Megabytes Kingston RDRAM

Kernel compiles
In order to test both the board's stability and speed, I ran three sets of Linux kernel compiles on this board. One is a normal, "uniprocessor" make, or make -j1, which is the default. This uses one process, and does not always maximize system usage. I then did make -j2, which spawns a second process. The last test I run is with make -j3, spawning two extra processes. I do this for several reasons -- to find the "sweet spot" for the board/CPU, as well as to stress the system as much as possible when trying to rate its stability. Also, the kernel is extremely useful as a measure of integer performance. In order to compile the kernel, I untarred kernel 2.4.6, ran "make config" and used the default values.

Kernel 2.4.6 Compile Times (Minutes:Seconds)
Lower numbers are better
Board -j1 -j2 -j3
Soyo Dragon Plus 2:57 2:49 2:46
Abit TH7II-RAID 3:33 3:20 3:23

As a platform, we see that for tasks such as compiling, the Soyo Dragon Plus and other KT266A DDR-based solutions like it have a clear lead over a Pentium IV even with DDR. These numbers may not seem like a lot -- 20 seconds isn't a long time, but that is a 22% increase in time taken to complete a compile. Spread this over a compile that may last hours, and the big picture becomes clear: For compiling, Pentium IVs clearly have a disadvantage.

Quake III Timedemos
Quake 3 Timedemos are perhaps the best way to measure 3D Gaming performance under Linux. Timedemos used the four.dm_66 demo included with the latest version of Quake 3 Arena. To run a timedemo, hit the "~" key, type timedemo 1, followed by demo four.dm_66. Once this completes, hit "~" again to see your results. High-quality results were done by turning texture and color depth to 32-bit, filtering to trilinear and texture detail to its highest setting. The tests are run at screen resolutions of 640 by 480, 800 by 600, 1024 by 768, 1280 by 1024 and 1600 by 1200.

Quake 3 Arena Timedemos (Frames Per Second)
Higher numbers are better
Board 640x480 800x600 1024x768 1200x1024 1600x1200
Default Quality
Soyo Dragon Plus 217.5 214.2 184.1 125.3 90.2
Abit TH7II-RAID 220.3 218.6 186.0 125.3 90.2
Highest Quality
Soyo Dragon Plus 216.6 197.2 146.2 97.2 71.2
Abit TH7II-RAID 219.5 199.7 145.4 97.3 71.2

Here we have less of an obvious answer; the scores are now nearly the same between the two platforms. Thanks to the GeForce3 at the higher resolutions and the CPUs and chipsets in the lower resolutions, it seems we have what could be called a tie, effectively -- a couple frames per second difference is enough to be a fluke in most cases -- results differ each time they are run, within a frame or two. What this means is that these two are effectively equal.

As a motherboard, the Dragon Plus is everything the Dragon was, plus a bit more, with the increased performance, the smartcard reader and the Front USB ports. It is, in my opinion, at the top of the KT266A-based boards, and Athlon boards in general, both in terms of performance and features. If the question is between a DDR Athlon platform and an RDRAM Pentium IV platform, the answer at the moment is certainly the Athlon. A recent bug has cropped up between Athlons and the Linux AGP driver, but workarounds are available. The Soyo Dragon Plus is an all-around great board, and is available from NewEgg for $146 plus shipping.


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