Intel DG45ID mATX Motherboard

Sep 07 2009
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Intel DG45ID mATX Motherboard

Intel has always been known for developing some of the most stable motherboards to accompany their processors. With the DG45ID introduction they offered a solution for HTPC enthusiasts who desired a full featured board with stability as a focus yet the special needs an HTPC motherboard needs--including small form factor, HDMI and DVI video and 7.1 LPCM audio over HDMI as well. When initially released the board was hurt by driver issues which have since been resolved, so we thought we would take an in-depth look at a board which still today looks like it could be a solid solution for your HTPC systems--and just around $100.

 

 

Introduction

 

I have to admit that Intel did not immediately come to mind when I started planning a new IGP based HTPC; with several solutions on the market at the time it would have been really easy to grab something from Nvidia and ATI.  While there are very valid reasons for choosing something based on either of those platforms, it would have been a mistake to ignore Intel's contender in this space. As mentioned in the article preview, the DG45ID is not exactly a new motherboard having been released late last year. However, initial reviews were a bit harsh on the board as it sufferred from some growing pains with its driver in certain scenarios. Time has passed however, and Intel has gradually improved driver revisions to the point that we felt the board deserved another look as possibly being your next HTPC motherboard. 

Looking at the WinSAT score for the DG45ID for Vista and 7, it's immediately clear that it is not going to be a gaming powerhouse. To be fair to this review, WinSAT is a rather irrelevant scoreboard but is something Microsoft has established that people are familiar with in regards to how "fast" their systems are. Of course, this is an HTPC-specific review so our main focus will be on performance and quality within a home theater environment rather than just gaming benchmarks.

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 Windows Vista WinSAT Score

 
 Windows  WinSAT Score

WinSAT is a great way to get a baseline for a PC's performance as a general purpose device; what's not clear from the numbers however, is how well the DG45ID and the GMA4500HD graphics processor will perform in your next HTPC.

 

A Look at the Hardware

 

The first thing I noticed about this board when reviewing the specs and layout is that it is doesn't have IDE, Floppy (FDD), or PS2 connectors (i.e. legacy free) on the board.  Whether this is a good thing can be debated, but it's certainly something that should be noted.  Legacy support adds cost and complexity to a board, removing support for these devices makes the layout simpler and should increase stability.  Of course if you're planning to incorporate an older component like an IDE hard drive, or PS2 keyboard into the build this probably isn't the board for you.

Before going further, let's take a look at the board details:

  • MicroATX (9.6" x 9.6" or 243.84mm x 243.84mm)
  • Four DDR2 DIMM sockets, 800/668 MHz RAM up to 8 GB
  • Gigabit Ethernet (82567LF)
  • 5 SATA and 1 ESATA (I/O panel) 3.0Gb/s AHCI & RAID 0/1/5/10 supported
  • 6 USB on the back panel, and 6 USB headers
  • 2 Firewire (1 I/O panel & 1 header)
  • CIR
  • 1 x16 PCIe, 2 x1 PCIe, 1 PCI
  • HDMI w/ 8 channel LPCM, and optical SPDIF (I/O panel) via IDT 92HD73E
  • DVI-I, and VGA support (w/ included, but undocumented and special DVI->VGA adapter)
  • Socket 775 (Quad and Dual core CPU support)
  • Intel Graphics XMA4500 Chipset

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Configured System:

  • CPU: E5200
  • RAM: ADATA 2GB 1.8v DDR2 PC6400 (800 MHz)
  • PSU: Antec Earthwatts 380
  • HD: Hitachi 250GB SATA


Except for a very minor niggle with the location of the 4 pin power connector, I found the board's layout to be very well thought out.  Intel left plenty of room around the main areas of interaction (CPU, RAM, SATA) so it's easy to mount the HSF, add RAM, drives, and manage the front panel connections.  Unlike some boards with headers between the expansion slots, USB and firewire headers are located along the edge of the board making cable management much easier and enabling better airflow between the PCI[e] slots. The northbridge which includes the graphics engine is located in the middle of the board and fitted with a large passive heatsink.  

The board's SATA connectors can be configured as IDE or AHCI.  Generally AHCI is the better option, as it supports NCQ and hot swapping drives to save a reboot when using the ESATA connector.  Unfortunately this is an all-or-nothing setting on the DG45ID, so if your optical drive doesn't play nice on AHCI you'll have loose the feature, get another one or go the USB key route for the OS install.

Hardware Continued

 

Intel BIOS's tend to be pretty simple, and the DG45ID is no exception.  Only the basics are covered in most areas; the one exception to that is the memory timings section, but you should resist any temptation to mess with those.  Several months ago when I picked this board up, it wasn't as well known exactly how quirky it was with RAM.  I had some older performance DDR2 800 from before SPD really worked correctly (or maybe it was just wrong ;)), so it wasn't unexpected (i.e. happened with every other board I'd used it in before) when Windows wouldn't load completely with default settings.  Easy enough, go into the BIOS and flip off "Auto" and select the correct numbers; well I must have gotten something wrong because after rebooting it wouldn't POST.

On every other board I have ever worked with you just need to find the clear CMOS button (or jumper) and short it to make all the user error go away; unfortunately there is no easy way to do that on this board.  The manual suggests taking out the battery, waiting 24 hours, then sprinkling the blood of a 24 1/2 day old chicken on the SATA controllers.  I didn't have a chicken handy so after the 24 hours passed and it still didn't work, figured it was easier to fill out the RMA form and mail it in.  It's worth noting that unlike every other motherboard vendor that I've gotten the chance to experience a RMA with (learn from breaking is my motto) it wasn't actually that bad.  I had the board back in five days (instead of the usually 1-2 months), and was much more careful about what I touched in the BIOS after that ;)

Instead of risking a repeat, I ended up picking up some "value" DDR2 800 while the board was away and it worked perfectly using the "Auto" setting.  For what it's worth, the general consensus in the AVS thread on this board echoes my experience; go with the value RAM and skip the higher end chips.

We can't talk about the hardware and not mention the included CIR headers; great innovation and complete failure in execution.  When I selected this board, the prospect of integrated, internal header for an IR remote (there's a blaster too) on the motherboard was a nice bonus versus some of the other IGPs.  The problem is that as an end user you can't actually buy it anywhere; there was one vendor but shortly after I picked up the board the CIR module went from "back ordered" to MIA on the site.  USB based remotes aren't a bad solution, but something integrated into the case makes for a much cleaner HT experience.

I've found the DG45ID to be the most stable board I've ever used on Vista and 7.  This is the first board I've been unable to coax out a BSOD (don't worry, I'll keep trying), everything just works.  Ironically the only driver stability issue that I've experienced was during the workup for this review, where the board failed to wake from standby correctly and required a reset to get going again.  I was able to reproduce the issue on Vista and 7, and eventually tracked it down to the 14.4 Proset (NIC) drivers, fortunately uninstalling the driver fixed the issue right away so the impact was limited.

Good standby support is an essential part of a quality HTPC experience so it's important to note that the DG45ID does not display a indicator that it is in standby; the system appears off.  For me, this is a big plus; I refuse to buy ASUS boards for my HTPC because the power LED blinks in S3.  Also, when resuming from standby the average time to desktop is around 5 seconds in Windows 7 (Vista is slightly slower) making it the fastest system I've tested.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's get to the interesting part - how does it handle your content.

Picture and Video Quality

 

Before looking at the specifics lets take a moment to look at a screenshot of a colorspace test pattern.

levelsvga-thumb.JPG   levelshdmi-thumb.jpg
 DG45ID connected via VGA  DG45ID connected via HDMI

See the difference?  If you don't, it's because there isn't one - and that's perfect.  What's notable here is that the DG45ID is the only video card that presents the 16-235 range correctly out of the box on every video connector.  The benefit being that black is black and white is white, instead of dark grey and antique white no matter what it's plugged into, and you don't need to spend hours pouring over online forum threads trying to figure out how to hack up the registry to make it look right.  Thank you Intel!

Where the video driver is good, the included TV Wizard should be avoided.  I think the application is intended to make it easier to connect up to a TV or AVR, but consistently fails to choose the correct resolution for both.  Selecting the correct size and refresh rate isn't a difficult task for the HTPC community so most of us would probably skip this by default; the tragedy is that those who struggle with the task will probably use this and end up running with sub-optimal values. 

When the DG45ID first came out there were some reports of HDCP issues when connected to a repeater (AVR).  I've never experienced the issue personally, but to ensure completeness when examining Blu-ray (BD) playback Cyberlink's Power DVD 7.3 (LG BD/HD DVD version) and 9 (retail) as well as ArcSoft's Total Media Theater (TMT) 2 (HD PVR bundled) and 3 (retail) applications were all tested connected through an AVR to a TV over HDMI.  With the exception of TMT2, which to be fair as a bundled application doesn't actually support BD playback (but will play BDMV), all the players performed exceptionally with the board.  While there were some subtle differences between them, most disappeared when viewed at a normal distance from the screen (> 5").  All of the players were able to utilize hardware acceleration with CPU utilization on H.264 content running between 2-8%, and VC-1 a slightly higher 5%-10% on the E5200.

Picture quality was tested against an ATI 4650 (Catalyst 9.4) by watching a ten minute sequence from a BD disc, switching inputs on the AVR to watch the same sequence on the other card using the same software player, then repeating with another sequence from another disc.  The quality was noticeably better on the G45, especially in darker scenes where some of the finer detail was lost on the ATI card.  

Intel was the first IGP with multi-channel LPCM support with their G965 chipset, so it's not surprising that the DG45ID also has the feature.   Bitstreaming HD audio is unfortunately not supported, but as there is little actual difference between it and properly decoded LPCM the only noticeable benefit would be reduced CPU utilization, and therefore less heat to dissipate during playback.  So when it comes to BD, it's easy to say that the DG45ID is the best HTPC solution I have ever seen.

We're not just interested in BD playback though, so it's important to take a look at how individual decoders perform on the system with the different types of content found on a well stocked HTPC.  



Picture Quality Continued

In the past it was possible to rely on the filters included in application like PDVD and TMT for video playback, but the most recent revisions have changed that.  So in addition to looking at leveraging filters from older versions (PDVD 7.3 and TMT2) of those applications, we'll also examine what is available as open source (OSS) or free software.

I used a combination of GraphStudio and SageTV to test each filter as a video decoder.  For those unfamiliar with it, GraphStudio is a simple GUI for building playback graphs (what applications like SageTV, Media Center, etc. use to play a video), it's a great way to test out basic functionality but is limited to only the basic features a filter provides; so while interesting, it's possible to get slightly different results in a more full featured application.  For the most part, if something works in GraphStudio with no configuration, it can be made to work just as well in another application.  Using SageTV as the final test bed was a no brainer for me, because that's what I use for everything except BD playback.

For the most part it's hard to go wrong with the MPEG2 decoder from PDVD, Microsoft (Vista & 7), MPC-HC or AVIVO.  If you are using Windows Media Center, the included decoder will (and should) be used. I found that the AVIVO one works slightly better in SageTV with recorded TV content mostly because it has the best closed caption support compared to the other options.

Looking at DVD playback the MS decoder provides the best experience for Windows Media Center users.  Inside of SageTV I've found that the PDVD decoder has slightly better picture quality against the MS decoder; but really only noticeable when comparing side by side.  The AVIVO and MPC-HC filters can support DVD only by adding the MPC-HC DeCSS filter into the mix.  With the MS decoder providing such a solid experience I didn't feel the need to include these filters in the test, as it is a more complex configuration with little tangible payoff.

The Microsoft (Windows 7 only), PDVD and TMT h.264 decoders all produce good results with progressive content.  The MS decoder is slightly less efficient decoding 1080p, using 6-10% CPU compared to the ArcSoft (2-5%) and Cyberlink (2-7%) decoders.  I found picture quality to be about the same with Cyberlink and ArcSoft, where the MS decoder was a little soft, but still very acceptable.  The ArcSoft decoder seems to handle SD interlaced content a little better than the others, but all three have serious stuttering issues with 1080i 29.97fps captured by the Hauppauge HD PVR tuner.  When hardware decoding (DXVA2) is disabled the problem disappears, and I was not able to reproduce this issue with 1080i MPEG2 (ATSC) content.  It's impossible for me to say definitively if the problem is with the graphics driver or decoders, but as it is consistently broken independent of container and filter I suspect that the underlying issue is with the video driver.  MissingRemote has notified Intel of these results and they are investigating closer; hopefully the problem is minor and can be be addressed quickly.  I've only been able to reproduce the issue with 1080i HD PVR content so at least the impact is very limited.  If you have an HD PVR there are a couple workarounds available; assuming your CPU can handle software decoding (which the E5200 can) one option is to disable DXVA2 in the decoder, also because many HD PVR users lock the output format at the STB (Set top box) to increase stability, choosing a progressive format (i.e. 720p) is also an option.

For H.264 content in MKV and M2TS containers, the MPC-HC Video Decoder is also a workable option.  It should be noted that only very recent builds (AntiPack and the official SVN build) support hardware acceleration on the DG45ID board.  The implementation is DXVA2 specific so only Vista and 7 will get the benefit.  It is not perfect however, with some glitches during playback, but is functional and getting better.

Both TMT and PDVD include VC-1 decoders that support HWA on the DG45ID.  While both decoders work very well when used in their intended applications, only the ArcSoft decoder works properly outside.  To further complicate the issue each will only connect to the corresponding splitter; and neither works with OSS/FS splitters like the MPC-HC or Haali (MKV) which both present VC-1 using the WVC1 type expected by the OOTB Windows Media Video decoder (VC-1 is WMV HD).  The good thing in all this is that even the E5200 has plenty of go to handle VC-1 so it's not a blocking issue; but software decoding is much less energy efficent which translates directly into more heat that will need to be dissipated.  In simple terms this means that any VC-1 content is best left (or muxed) in a M2TS or TS container and split with the ArcSoft MPEG demuxer included in TMT2.

Intel recently announced their MediaSDK, which provides a much easier path to interacting with the DG45ID's custom DXVA2 hardware, and signaled clearly their intent to work closely with the OSS community.  So hopefully it won't be too much longer until we can enjoy full HWA solutions for h.264 and VC-1 on the G45 (and future Intel graphics solutions) for all containers.

Unfortunately I can't include myself in the group of those with the need for 24p support (Panasonic, if you're listening I'd be more than happy to redo this part of the review with one of those sleek V10s; 54" preferred Laughing), but I'd like to touch briefly on the issue.  To test this I compared the output of the DG45ID against an ATI 4650 both set to output 24Hz.  In this mode the results were mostly the same, but neither was as good as when the video card did the pull-down.  Either my TV's pull-down method isn't as good as the PC, or there was something flawed in the methodology.

Below are some screen caps from the ReClock renderer, which reports refresh rate, during the test.

 ati24p-thumb.JPG  24p-thumb.JPG
ATI 4650 @24Hz
 G45 @24Hz

In addition to the video tests we wanted to cover some of the features of the audio card as well. One interesting thing that I discovered when messing around with ReClock, is that while the IDT audio chip supports 24 bit audio, it does not seem to be implemented.  

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To determine if it was a multi-channel issue I re-tested with a 24 bit stereo sample, and it displayed the same behavior.  It is possible that this is an issue with ReClock, but I suspect the most likely culprit is the audio driver.  While I point this out for completeness, it's important to note that both PDVD and TMT output audio using 16 bit samples, and more importantly I doubt anyone that has consumer level audio equipment would even hear the difference between 16 and 24 bit samples (I certainly can't).  So just a minor nitpick with very limited effect in the real world.

 

Conclusion



No modern review would be complete without some power usage numbers.

State Watts
Soft Off (S5) 5
Hibernate (S4) 5
Standby (S3) 6-10
Idle 46
Full Load 70-72
VC-1 Software Decoding (60-70% CPU) 65-68
VC-1 Hardware Decoding (6-8% CPU) 48-52
H.264 Hardware Decoding (2-5% CPU) 48-53

Looking at the numbers, we can see quite clearly that the DG45ID when paired with a 65 watt CPU has an impressively low power draw.  While it would have a hard time competing with an Atom-based PC, it provides an excellent base for those that require more processing power in their HTPC.  In real terms, it means that a very quiet HTPC with plenty of power is very attainable.  The test system relies only on the stock HSF (heatsink) from Intel, and one additional low RPM 60mm case fan; producing a system that is inaudible from any reasonable distance.  There is some hard drive noise when the system is under load, but that could be mitigated with an SSD or laptop drive.  Both of which should also reduce power usage, so I'd be very interested to see how they would impact the power draw; on the other side it would be nice to see how one of the low power quad core processors would impact the numbers as well.

As you've probably figured out by now I'm a fan; while I expected the DG45ID to be solid, I was not expecting to like it as much as I do.  It has an excellent combination of stability, low power, and easy cooling topped off with excellent audio features and the best video quality I've seen from a PC.

Pro:

  • Best Blu-ray (and HD DVD) playback I've seen 
  • 8 Channel LPCM audio over HDMI
  • Excellent picture quality
  • Amazing Stability
  • Easy to keep cool and quiet
  • Affordable at only $100 these days
  • mATX small form factor allows fit in lots of smaller enclosures

Con:

  • No hardware accelerated free/OSS/MKV VC-1 decoder
  • Standby issues with latest Proset drivers
  • TV Wizard inaccurately stating optimal resolutions
  • 16 bit audio support although it appears 24 bit capable
  • 1080i Hauppauge HD PVR stuttering issues with HWA decoding enabled
  • CiR on-board is great, but lack of any compatible end-user hardware
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