It seems that the mainboards market shouldn't be very rich in different innovations, since it fullydepends on the system chipsets available. The system logic set completely determines the mainboardfeatures and the mainboard manufacturer hardly has any opportunities to introduce something himself.The only thing, which still may depend on the desire of the manufacturer, is the connection layoutand hence the number of slots, as well as performance and stability. That's why it looked as if wecould hardly expect the mainboard market to make us an unexpected surprise without any new chipset,such as for instance i810E and i820. And, everything could really be so, if it were not for a fewbrave companies, which weren't afraid of making risky steps and launching absolutely new productswith the whole bunch of really astonishing features.
To these companies we would refer ABIT and QDL in the first place. ABIT is a bit more well-knowndue to its active advertising campaigns in the Web. Even when we all were configuring our systems withjumpers, these both companies were the first ones to offer Softmenu - a new technology of system processorparameters configuring through BIOS Setup. A lot of time has already passed since then, and now almost allthe mainboards can boast Softmenu in BIOS Setup, but ABIT and QDL don't want to stop and keep onimpressing the world with their new achievements again and again. The present review is devoted toone of such amazing new products from ABIT - BP6 mainboard, which supports not only the things weare already used to but also Ultra DMA/66 IDE-devices and two PPGA370 Intel Celeron processors.Don't be surprised at it: thanks to ABIT engineers all this is now possible with the mainboard basedon i440BX chipset. Here is the specs list for this product.
- Two socket 370 CPUs support;
- Intel Celeron 300A-533MHz processors (66MHz PPGA models);
- Intel 440BX AGPset;
- HPT366 IDE-controller supports four Ultra DMA/66 IDE-devices;
- Ultra DMA/33 IDE protocol support;
- ACPI power control interface support;
- AGP 1x/2x 3.3V devices support;
- System memory
- 3 168-pin DIMM slots with SDRAM modules support;
- Supports up to 768MB SDRAM in 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 or 256MB modules;
- ECC (Error Code Correct) support;
- System BIOS
- CPU SOFT MENU II, which allows to give up jumpers and DIP-switches to set the CPU parameters;
- Plug and Play BIOS from Award with APM, DMI and ACPI support;
- Antivirus Write-Protect function by Award BIOS;
- Year 2000 compliant;
- Input/ Output
- 2 IDE ports supporting up to 4 Ultra DMA/33 and Ultra DMA/66 devices;
- 2 IDE ports supporting up to 4 Ultra DMA/33;
- PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse;
- 1 FDD-port (up to 2.88MB);
- 1 parallel port (EPP/ECP);
- 2 serial ports;
- 2 USB connectors;
- Built-in infrared IrDA TX/RX connector;
- ATX form-factor;
- 1 AGP, 5 PCI and 2 ISA slots;
- Hardware monitoring, including fan activity control, system voltage and temperature monitoring;
- Wake on keyboard and mouse;
- Wake on LAN;
- Wake on modem.
ABIT mainboard is supplied in a standard size box, which includes the mainboard itself, the set ofcables with one additional Ultra DMA/66-cable, the detailed user's manual, a CD with the drivers fromIntel and Xstore, WinBond monitoring program and a floppy disk with HPT366 controller Ultra DMA/66drivers for Windows 5/98/NT.
Well, let's start with the PCB. ABIT BP6 mainboard looks very similar to ABIT BX6 Revision 2.0, ofcourse if we close our eyes to the different number and type of the processor interfaces. In other words,despite the fact that BP6 supports two CPUs, its size remained almost the same as the single-processorBX6 Rev.2.0. It is a very pleasing thing, actually, because it means that the dual-CPU BP6 will fitpractically in any standard ATX case. This is probably due to the size of Socket 370, which needs lessroom on the mainboard than Slot 1, and besides, the mainboard doesn't have SCSI-controllers, which areso popular for dual-processor configurations. The result is more than evident: BP6 is much smaller thanany other dual-CPU mainboard, which sometimes can't fit into a not very large case.
And the number of slots is pretty common for a modern BX-board - 1 AGP, 2 ISA and 5 PCI slots. Thisconfiguration is the most optimal one, which has already grown into a secret standard set among themainboard manufacturers. Taking into account that Ultra DMA/66 controller is integrated onto BP6, 5 PCIslots should be always enough and 2 ISA slots (one of them is shared with PCI) provide the requiredcompatibility with older devices.
As for DIMM slots, there are three of them, which support any modules up to 256MB and hence the maximumsupported memory may reach 768MB. We suspect that there was simply not enough room on the mainboard for thetraditional memory buffer considered so important for the fourth DIMM slot - which is, actually, quite up toIntel's requirements. That's why ABIT made up its mind to sacrifice the additional slot for the sake of arelatively small PCB size.
Speaking more about the board size, we would like to add one more thing. Despite a very clever design ofABIT BP6, the engineers had to sacrifice the comfortable location of the component parts as well,willing to make the board size more or less close to the single-processor system. As we checked,it is possible to install full-size expansion cards only in two PCI and one ISA slots.
Nevertheless, besides the second Socket 370 an additional Ultra DMA/66 HPT366 controller by HighPointalso went onto the mainboard. It is exactly due to this microchip that BP6 based on i440BX, which isknown not to support Ultra DMA/66, can work with this protocol. As a result, besides two usual IDE-portsthe board is also provided with two additional IDE-ports for Ultra DMA/66 connected not to the standardPIIX4 controller but to HPT366. So, ABIT BP6 supports 8 IDE devices but four of them, which will beconnected to PIIX4, can work only with Ultra DMA/33 protocol. Moreover, there is one more restriction.The unfortunate error in HPT366 realization made two IDE-channels connected to this controller unableto support Ultra DMA/33 hard disk drives as well as CD ROM, DVD ROM, ZIP, and some other drives. And allthis means that ABIT BP6 allows four Ultra DMA/33 and four Ultra DMA/66 devices at the most.
As is known, Ultra DMA/66 is the latest development of IDE-HDD interface. We won't go deep into detailshere. We only say that the timing diagrams made according to new signal protocols Ultra ATA/66 show thatallowed data transfer rate is twice as high as that shown by the predecessor - Ultra DMA/33. Besides theprotocol support provided by the HDD and a special controller placed on BP6, the disk should be alsoconnected with a special 40-contact 80-strand cable included into the package.
However, it is quite difficult to say if the use of Ultra DMA/66 helps to really increase the diskoperations fastness. The thing is that now the disk mechanics restrictions don't allow the linear diskread speed to exceed 20-25MB/sec while the bandwidth provided by the so widely used Ultra DMA/33 is33MB/sec. In other words, those 66MB/sec, which can be guaranteed by Ultra DMA/66, may be achieved onlyin one case. Namely, when the same data block on the harddisk is requested several times and the readingoccurs not from the HDD but from the buffer, which today has already reached 2MB size by some HDD models.This means that the benchmarks results showing if Ultra DMA/66 is cooler than Ultra DMA/33 or not can beeasily obtained with a completely different testing method. That is why we won't present any test resultsdealing with harddisks on ABIT BP6. We prefer just to note that in the near future when HDDs become muchfaster, Ultra DMA/66 support will be the inalienable part of disk subsystem. In this respect we can saythat HPT366 controller on BP6 is none other than a very promising solution, which will prevent you fromgetting disappointed with the mainboard in a year or so.
As far as system BIOS support of HPT366 controller is concerned, BIOS regards it as an ordinaryexternal device. As a result Ultra DMA/66-controller has its own BIOS initialized after POST andautomatically determining the devices connected to it. Unfortunately, there are no options for manualHPT366 parameters configuring. However, it doesn't mean that you can't boot from Ultra DMA/66 disks.This function is carried out in the primary BIOS of ABIT BP6 similar to the way the standard BIOS Awardboots from SCSI-harddisks connected via external controller.
Since we came to speak about BIOS of our mainboard, we can't help mentioning that it has all thefunctions typical of today's conditions. Take, for instance, manual IRQs assignment for PCI slots,which allows simplifying the configuration of conflicting PCI-devices. Or SDRAM parameters settingsuch as CAS Latency and RAS Precharge.
ABIT BP6 hardware monitoring is made on Winbond 83782D microchip - the controller with the richestrange of features. Well, the things are pretty clear: the additional CPU on the board forced themanufacturer to control its voltage and temperature as well, and hence the number of the parameterscontrolled will be bigger than for an ordinary mainboard. In our case there are three temperaturesmeasured: two thermistors located in the center of Socket 370 take the temperature of both processorsand the sensor placed near the AGP slot takes the system temperature in one of the "warmest" places ofthe modern system - close to the graphics accelerator. Besides, the speed of two fans (of the three,which can be connected to ABIT BP6) is also monitored as well as nine voltages, including the voltagesof both processors.
To tell the truth, the idea of using Celeron processors in SMP (Symmetric Multiple Processor)configurations appeared quite a while ago. Right after the first Celerons without L2 cache had comeout, not to mention the present Celeron processors so widely spread everywhere, it suddenly appearedpossible to make them work in a pair though Intel prohibited this regime in the processor specs. Thematter is that the Celeron processor has a normal Pentium II core, which supports SMP, as far as we know,and the only difference is the L2 cache. Slot 1 Celerons turned out to have the BR#1 signal at the core outs,which is needed if the processor should be able to work in SMP-configuration. However, this signal simplywasn't connected to the processor pins. As soon as this fact came to light, we immediately got the solution.All you needed was just a wire, a soldering iron and a drill. With all these instruments it was possible toput BR#1 contact, which had been closed to the core power, out to the processor connector. However, theexpensive CPU could be seriously damaged with all these intrusions that's why this method didn't gainpublic acknowledgement.
The second part of this story took place when they launched Celeron for Socket 370. This timeeverything was much easier. BR#1 was available at the PPGA outs and all they had to do was just tomodify Socket 370 - Slot 1 converter, so that the signal could reach the mainboard. So, the dual CPUsolutions initially designed for Slot 1 were often used with two Socket 370 Celeron processors, sincethe converter suffered very simple modifications, which didn't threat to cause any serious losses incase of failure. But the technology kept on making constant progress and soon mainboard manufacturersstarted making converters, which didn't need to be modified in any way. This was how Celeron solutionfor SMP appeared in mass production.
And the logical ending to the story is of course the last Computex Show, where ABIT and QDL introducedDual CPU Socket 370 mainboards. Well, now we have every reason to state that Socket 370 successfullymanaged to penetrate from the Low-End sector right into server solutions.
However, the corresponding section in the user's manual to ABIT BP6 begins with the words that SMP-regimewas introduced in this mainboard for tests and not for real work. But this measure was a need caused byIntel's policy concerning Celeron processors in SMP configuration and not by some technical peculiaritiesof the board. The microprocessor giant disregarded this situation for quite a while and didn't take anysteps to stop the development of Dual CPU configuration based on Socket 370 Celeron. But a few weeks agothey announced that Celeron's contact responsible for SMP would be removed. After that everybody wassupposed to get scared and to shake with fear when installing a Celeron into an SMP because all theboxes for this processor were decorated with a threatening message: "For uniprocessor systems only".However, this didn't help and Celerons kept working in SMP-regime. No wonder, because otherwise Intel willhave to suffer really great losses if they decide to redesign the core. However the shift to 0.18 micronprocess is very likely to deprive Celeron of its cool feature. So, we all understand that the note aboutthe inability of BP6 to work in dual processor systems was just ABIT's cover, a safety measure againstIntel's possible sanctions.
But those of you, who wish to use ABIT BP6 still have hope for the better. As you probably remember,Intel is planning to launch a new Pentium III for Socket 370, which will support Dual processorconfiguration and breathe a new life into ABIT BP6.
But let's return to our mainboard and to its extremely interesting work in Dual processor regime.We tested ABIT BP6 in Windows NT 4.0 SP5 - no remarks here, everything was perfect. Both Celeron processorswere found and used by the operation system. The mainboard proved stable in Windows 2000 RC1 as well,but unfortunately the lack of Ultra DMA/66-controller drivers for this particular operation systemtold and we had to forget about this protocol. However, all these things are none other but unworthytrifles compared to the fact that BP6 appeared capable of working not only with two similar processorsbut also with a pair working at different frequencies. And which is most curious about it, it's thedependence of the system performance on the position of the CPUs: which of them is the first. If thefaster processor is installed as the first one then the overall system performance is higher then incase the slower Celeron is the first. We checked ABIT BP6 working with a pair of Celeron processorswith the frequencies set to 300 and 466MHz. The chart below shows the results in Dual ProcessorInspection Test. You can easily see the dependence of the performance on the location of the processors:
Besides, you should also bear in mind that if the operation system run, such as Windows 98 forinstance, doesn't support SMP, then only the first processor will work, and the second one will remainuninvolved.
Moreover, it is important to know that the Dual processor system on Celeron has a smaller L2 cachethan the same system on Pentium II/III or even Xeon, which can significantly influence its performancein a number of applications. The performance in this case will drop compared to a fully fledged dualprocessor server. However, it should be enough for certain tasks, especially taking into account theprice or the price-to-performance ratio. For example, ABIT BP6 costs about $150, two Intel Celeron466 processors - $240 ($120 each), and altogether it makes $390. If you try to count the cost of asimilar Pentium II system (we don't even suggest considering the price of a Pentium III based one),you'll get at least $180 for a dual processor mainboard and two Intel Pentium II processors for $400,which equals $580. Looks much more expensive than the previous configuration, don't you agree?
ABIT traditionally intended its products mainly for overclockers. It was exactly for them that ABITintroduced SOFT MENU technology, which has now grown into SOFT MENU II. It allows configuring the CPUvia BIOS Setup, changing the CPU voltage and PCI and AGP buses dividers. And of course BP6 is not anexception. But as we have already said it has two processors that's why its SOFT MENU II is very special.
First of all, ABIT BP6 allows changing the CPU voltage for each processor separately and independently.In other words, if you are using two processors from different supplies and with different overclockability,the possibility to increase the voltage for one of them will let you achieve highest working speeds. TheCPU voltage can be changed within the range from 1.3 to 2.3V with 0.05V step. Such a wide rangeespecially the values below the standard 2V may turn out pretty useful later on, when the Celeronprocessors are manufactured with 0.18 micron technology and are very likely to require lower corevoltage.
All the other parameters are changed simultaneously for both processors. Among those is themultiplication up to 8x, which hardly influences anything, because Celeron's multiplier is lockedas well as those by other Intel processors. However, as it comes to FSB frequency, we feel likedevoting it a bit more time.
All the mainboards designed for Celeron processors always had one pretty unpleasant drawback interms of overclocking: there were only two additional frequencies (75 and 83MHz) in the range between66 and 100MHz. The frequencies available within this range were always very important for the today'sCPUs of this type, because they could hardly be overclocked to the bus frequency exceeding 100MHz. Thelaunching of ABIT BP6 finally changed the things to the better. The frequency generator ICS 9248AF-9Dincreased the frequencies set mainly by means of the values below 100MHz: 66, 72, 75, 78, 80, 82, 83,84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 103, 104, 106, 108, 110, 124, 133MHz.All in all - 31 values. We consider it to be a significant advantage of ABIT BP6 as of the board designedfor Celeron processors.
Besides the frequencies and multipliers, you can also change the PCI and AGP dividers through SOFTMENU II. Starting from FSB 92MHz PCI gets the divider equal to 1/3, and starting from 124MHz - 1/4.Quite disappointing appeared the situation at the FSB frequencies under 92MHz, when the availabledivider was only 1/2. That's why it is rather possible that we will simply fail to overclock theprocessor to such FSB frequencies only because of the not working PCI-devices behaving badly sincethe nominal PCI frequency equal to 33MHz is severely exceeded. As for AGP, the divider can be setto 1 or 2/3. Unfortunately, i440BX chipset doesn't allow using smaller ratios that's why at the FSBfrequency over 100MHz the system may also fail because of the graphics card reacting to the exceedednominal AGP frequency equal to 66MHz. So, don't be upset with the lack of frequencies over 133MHz,anyway you will be unable to find all the component parts for such extreme overclocking.
To tell the truth we expected the Dual processor system to perform twice as well as the single-processorone. In fact, the things stand absolutely differently. The operation system support is not the onlyrequirement for the second processor in SMP-system. The applications should also make use of bothCPUs. In simpler words, the application should be able to divide its work into several threads ordirections and the operation system should distribute them among the processors. The followingoperation systems supporting SMP are most widely spread now: Windows NT, OS/2, BeOS, Linux, etc.As for applications, things are not as simple as they might seem - these are mostly professionalgraphics editors and modeling systems, such as Adobe PhotoShop and 3D Studio MAX.
Besides ABIT BP6 mainboard our testing system was configured as follows:
- Two Intel Celeron 466 processors
- ASUS V3800 Deluxe graphics card based on nVidia Riva TNT2 Ultra chip
- Sound card based on Ensoniq ES1370
- IBM DJNA 372200 HDD
- 128MB SEC PC-100 SDRAM
We compared the performance shown by this system to that shown by the Dual processor system basedon two Intel Pentium III 450 processors installed onto Iwill DBD100. And the rest of the componentparts were absolutely the same. All the tests were run in Windows NT 4.0 with the installed ServicePack5.
You can easily notice that only Dual-Processor Inspection Test, which includes all the specialapplications using SMP, shows real performance gain. And in usual business or high-end tasks, thegain due to the second processor was minimum.
And to conclude with the performance of ABIT BP6 we simply can't leave out the first gamingapplication supporting SMP - Quake3 Arena Test.
Besides, the fact that we see no performance gain at the resolutions over 640x480 though we add thesecond processor is pretty understandable. There is a sort of "restricting factor" - the graphicsaccelerator, which simply can't keep pace with the CPUs because of all the data, which it has to process.It fails even with only one single CPU working! That is why we really doubt if the use of Dual processorsystems for gaming purposes is justified.
Summing up we may conclude that a Dual processor system even if it is a cheap one based on Intel Celeronis worth using only in special applications supporting SMP and not confused with the small L2 cache. Inall other cases a single CPU system with a more powerful processor will be much more useful.
If you know how to take advantage of the Dual processor system and at the same time don't feel likespending too much money, then ABIT BP6 mainboard is exactly what you need. However, if all you needis just to increase the performance, then forget about SMP-configuration and decide on a more powerfuluniprocessor system. As for ABIT BP6 mainboard, it is great evidence of the engineering progress andsupports not only original Dual Celeron configurations but a lot of other features typical of thefuture mainboards.
- Extraordinary feature - supports two Socket 370 processors
- Supports Ultra DMA/66
- Separate power supply for both CPUs possible
- Rich FSB frequencies range
- Problems with Ultra DMA/33-devices
- Restricted use of SMP-configuration
- The end of SMP support by Intel Celeron processors