May 7, 2002

Review: Soyo Fire Dragon and Dragon Ultra motherboards

- By Jeff Field -

The Dragon brand of motherboards from Soyo has become synonymous with a large feature set. The company's newer Pentium 4 Dragon boards, on the surface, seem to live up to that name, but looks can be deceiving. How do these boards hold up, and which one should you buy?
Soyo released two Dragon Pentium 4 boards recently. Customers might be confused about which board to buy, because they are similar. I hope to alleviate that confusion and help you decide which board to purchase, if either.

The boards and expansion
The two boards in question are the P4I Fire Dragon and the P4S Dragon Ultra. The Dragon in the name of both boards is (almost) an acronym that explains their features -- DDR SDRAM, RAID, Audio, AGP Pro Slot, Overclocking and Networking. The "Fire" in the Fire Dragon's name comes from the on-board IEEE1394 ("Firewire") controller/ports, while the "Ultra" in the Dragon Ultra represents the USB 2.0 available with the board.

Each board uses a different chipset. The P4I (Fire Dragon) uses an Intel i845 chipset, while the P4S (Dragon Ultra) uses the SiS 645. Both support similar features, so the most interesting differences are in other features -- particularly in expansion methods.

The Fire Dragon comes with two DDR SDRAM DIMM slots, six 32-bit PCI slots, one 4X AGP Pro slot, four USB ports (two rear, and two on the included Sigma-box, which occupies a 5.25" drive bay), two IEEE1394 Firewire ports (one rear, one on the Sigma box), two nine-pin serial ports and one 25-pin parallel port.

Also located on the ATX I/O panel are the analog audio connectors and the RJ45 connector for the on-board 10/100 Ethernet. Four IDE connectors are present, two of which connect to the HPT IDE/RAID controller on-board, and the two PCI bus-mastering IDE ports, which function through the i845 chipset. All of the on-board ports support up to ATA-133 transfer rates. Also included is a daughterboard for digital audio.

The Dragon Ultra comes with three DDR SDRAM DIMM slots, six 32-bit PCI slots, one 4X AGP Pro slot, six USB 1.1 ports (two rear, four front), two nine-pin serial ports, one 25-pin parallel port, analog audio outputs, and an RJ45 network connector. There are, once again, four IDE hard drive connectors, two of which are bus-mastering and controlled by the chipset and two of which are attached to an HPT IDE/RAID controller. The USB 2.0 controller touted on the box is not actually present, but you receive a postcard inside the box to mail out to receive the card, which is very strange.

Board layout and design
At first glance the layouts to these two boards seem very similar, but there are some subtle and important differences between the two. First, the positioning of the hard drive connectors on the Fire Dragon differs from that of the Dragon Ultra in that the hard drive connectors are perpendicular to the PCI and AGP slots, with more space between them and the DIMM slots than on the Ultra. This makes it easier to fit a longer-length AGP card in the AGP slot, an important feature as newer cards get longer. On the Dragon Ultra, the positioning of the IDE ports and DIMM sockets may prove to be a problem when dealing with larger video boards.

The next concern is the power connectors. The Fire Dragon uses all three of the connections present in Pentium 4-compliant power supplies. The main ATX power connector is on the bottom of the board, as opposed to the top with the Dragon Ultra. I prefer the design of the Fire Dragon, because having it on the bottom of the board means I do not have to stretch the larger ATX cable over top of the CPU fan, potentially blocking airflow.

As for the aesthetics of the design, the Fire Dragon sports a patriotic design with a red PCB, blue PCI slots and white IDE connectors, while the Dragon Ultra uses the trademark color scheme of the Dragon line -- purple PCI slots, yellow and blue IDE connectors and a black PCB.

On-board features and Linux compatibility
Included on-board with both of these motherboards are networking, IDE/RAID, and six-channel PCI/digital audio. The question is, how well do these work, and do they work with Linux?

In both instances, the networking was configured and installed under Debian Linux by compiling and loading the correct drivers. Once this happened, the networking was fully functional. The audio is supported by both the kernel audio drivers (CMIPCI driver) and ALSA (cmpci driver). Included with the boards is a daughterboard that allows for digital audio output. All features of the audio on both boards worked perfectly.

The IDE/RAID can function as either a pair of normal IDE controllers, or a RAID controller with Raid 0,1 and 5. The HPT controllers on both boards are the same and were supported by the kernel. I found no problems.

Also surprisingly simple for me was configuring the Firewire on the P4I Fire Dragon. Though no FireWire devices were tested, the controller itself was picked up by the kernel FireWire modules automatically, and seemed to be functional.

Installation and ease of use
In both cases, the boards come with my favorite feature of the Dragon line -- large, detailed print manuals with well-written instructions on installing and operating the board. I love this feature because it is very helpful, when telling someone which motherboard they should buy, to know you are recommending a board with quality documentation. The manuals for both boards cover the topics you would hope, guiding the user through most of the steps of the board installation perfectly.

The boards themselves are well labeled, and a person with moderate PC assembly experience would probably have no problem installing these boards.

Performance

System Configuration
CPU Pentium IV 2.4Ghz
RAM 256MB Crucial PC2100
Hard Drive WD102BA 7200 RPM
Video Leadtek GeForce 3
Network 3Com 3C905c 10/100 NIC
CD-ROM Memorex 48X CD-ROM

The following performance results are in seconds. "Kernel" is kernel compile times of a "default" Linux 2.4.17 configuration done via "make clean; time make -j3 bzImage".

LAME and OggEnc are MP3 encoding benchmarks that measure the speed at which a CPU encodes PCM audio into an MP3. For LAME, version 3.92 was used with the command line "lame --alt-preset standard test.wav test.mp3" and OggEnc version 9 was used with the default setting (VBR quality 3) and the same test file via the command "oggenc test.wav." The test file was Smashing Pumpkins' "Tales of a Scorched Earth." This test gives an idea of the overall CPU performance of a system.

The last test, POVBench, is a 3D rendering test using the popular POV-ray program. The command line is "povray -i skyvase.pov +v1 -d +ft -x +a0.300 +r3 -q9 -w640 -h480 -mv2.0 +b1000." POVBench focuses on the floating-point power of a system's processor. More information on POVBench, as well as a database of results, is available at this site.

System Performance
Time in Seconds, Lower Scores are Better.
OEM Board CPU Kernel LAME OggEnc POVBench
Soyo P4S P4 2.4 159 55 28.4 20
Soyo P4I P4 2.4 165 54 27.9 20

Here we see performance is very close in these tests. The P4I (Fire Dragon) was consistently slightly slower -- about 6 seconds -- than the P4S at the kernel compile test, otherwise the results are similar.

Quake 3
Quake 3 benchmarking measures the 3D performance of a system, however, 3D performance is determined mostly by the video board in newer systems, because they are the bottleneck and not the processors. Quake3 timedemos are done with Quake 1.30 and the four.dm_66 demo. Quake3 was launched from the console via the "xinit -e quake3" command in order to be sure Quake3 was the only program using the X server. The NVidia 1.0-2880 drivers were used.

Quake 3 Timedemo Performance
Frames Per Second, Higher Numbes are Better
OEM Board CPU 640D 800D 1024D 1280D 1600D 640H 800H 1024H 1280H 1600H
Soyo P4S P4 2.4 260 238 171.4 105.5 108.9 246 209 141.9 88.4 87.2
Soyo P4I P4 2.4 259 232 172.9 106.1 109.2 248 208 142 88.7 86.6

Here we see exactly what I expected -- similar results, because the CPU did not change and the benchmark is mostly CPU limited.

Conclusion
While either of these boards will serve the needs of 90% or more of the readers we have, the P4I Fire Dragon comes out on top for several reasons. Performance is similar in both, but where the P4I wins is with features and the chipset. While stability was not an issue during all of my testing, my personal experience says when possible, use an Intel chipset. Chipsets from VIA and other manufacturers tend to have glitches and problems, and if Intel is an option, they really do make excellent, well-supported chipsets.

Also, the P4I Fire Dragon supports FireWire out of the box, and the FireWire on the board is Linux supported. The only place where the P4S trails the P4I is in price, where the slightly older P4S Dragon Ultra is about $50 to $60 cheaper than the P4I Fire Dragon. Both boards may be found on Pricewatch.

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