Articles: Mainboards

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PCB Design and Functionality

All Foxconn mainboards have their advantages and drawbacks, you may like or dislike them, however, their PCB layout is always practically ideal. We have to give due credit to Foxconn engineers who work on mainboard layout designs: they do their real best to stay as close to classical layout as possible without compromising anything.

Intel X38 Express chipset is pretty complex to lay out from the very beginning.  Its functionality implies that there should be minimum two PCI Express x16 slots, but most manufacturers do not stop there and add the third one in most cases. Foxconn X38A mainboard is also no exception. The task gets even more complex because of two memory types support, additional network, SATA and FireWire controllers. But look at the board: even the FDD connector is exactly where it should be and not pushed down to the very edge of the PCB like on many other contemporary mainboards. We are hardly paying any attention to drawbacks like that these days, but Foxconn definitely scores another fat point for a smart and logical PCB design.

Let’s take a closer look at the functionality of the Foxconn X38A mainboard. we are already very well familiar with the Cool Pipe chipset cooling system using heatpipes technology from our previous review called Foxconn Mars Mainboard on Intel P35 Express Chipset.

The cooling system starts with a small heatsink on top of the chipset South Bridge. The heatpipe then goes to a massive heatsink on the chipset North Bridge.

The second heatpipe originates from the base of this heatsink and both of them end at the heatsink topping the MOSFET transistors.

The cooling efficiency of this solution is good enough. Unusually rounded shape of the North Bridge chipset heatsink makes it a little trick to install standard square fans on top of it, so the manufacturer made sure that they included a fan with appropriate retention into the accessories bundle.

The 24-pin power connector and 8-pin ATX12V connector are conveniently located at the top pf the PCB. The six-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry uses solid-state capacitors and even more efficient ferric oxide core chokes instead of the traditional ferrite ones. However, the entire Foxconn X38A mainboard uses these capacitors.

The bottom part of the Foxconn X38A PCB doesn’t look overloaded with components despite a great number of them. There is a very convenient spot picked for each one:

Two blue PCI Express x16 slots belong to the second PCI-E generation and work at their full speed. The additional third PCI Express x16 slot is of black color, complies with PCI-E 1.0 specification and can work at the maximum speed of x4. Moreover, there are two PCI Express x1 slots and two regular PCI slots on this board. The additional JMicron JMB363 controller provides support for Parallel ATA and two external eSATA. The sound is implemented via Realtek ALC888 controller, and the networking capabilities are provided by Realtek RTL8111B and RTL8110SC controllers. There is also a POST code indicator; Power On, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons. All connectors are color coded for user’s convenience.

Now let me mention all the connectors and ports available on the mainboard rear panel (from left to right on the photo above). There are PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse, an optical and coaxial S/PDIF output ports and a proprietary FDC connector (Foxconn Digital Connector), which application is not completely clear yet. They promise that “it will provide the link to future Foxconn Digital Life products, designed for enhanced digital entertainment and communication”. Then there come a FireWire (IEEE1394) port and two eSATA connectors. As we have already said an additional bracket with two USB and one more IEEE1394 port is included with the mainboard’s accessories. Then we see two sets of two USB and one RJ45 network connector and a block of six audio-jacks. The COM port is laid out on the mainboard PCB as a pin connector, but is not available on the mainboard rear panel.

The impression from the Foxconn X38A PCB design is highly favorable: it seems to be made of advantages only. Although, we still managed to find a few things that could have been improved. For example, there are only four fan connectors, two of which are four-pin ones. It may be not enough for all the fans one might want to connect to this board. Besides, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons are placed very close to one another, while the Power On button has been moved away from them. I believe it would make more sense to move the Clear CMOS button away for security reasons. Moreover, the PC-speaker beeps annoyingly loud, however you cannot disable it neither with jumpers nor in the BIOS Setup.

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