ABIT Coming Back? - ABIT AN8 32X Mainboard Review

Today we have a great opportunity to take a closer look at one of the first mainboards released by the new ABIT Company, compare it against the competitor’s solutions and the solutions of the "old" ABIT. Let's find out if ABIT is back!

by Doors4ever
05/09/2006 | 05:15 PM

I believe it doesn’t make much sense again to talk about the problems ABIT Company had in the past, recall diverse stories that emerged when the company was sold and share our joy when they got back to mainboard production. Of course, I have to be honest with you: we shed no tears and didn’t jump for joy. We pulled ourselves together and controlled our emotions, but the truth is that we were really upset about the possibility of ABIT’s leaving the mainboard arena and were sincerely happy for the company when our suppositions didn’t prove true.

 

Today we have a great opportunity to take a closer look at one of the first mainboards released by the new ABIT Company, compare it against the competitor’s solutions and the solutions of the “old” ABIT.

We are going to introduce to you ABIT AN8 32X mainboard designed for AMD Socket 939 processors and based on NVIDIA nForce4 SLI x16 chipset.

Specification and Accessories

The package of the new ABIT AN8 32X mainboard is bright and appealing but doesn’t strike us with any peculiar design twists. It is remarkable however that there is some useful information on the reverse side of the box about the mainboard features that is not listed in the user’s manual. For example, it is on the reverse side of the box that I read about the copper contact surfaces for the MOSFET transistors that should ensure better heat dissipation.

 

Another thing that caught my eye was the promises of “jaw-dropping graphics” ABIT made all over the box if you build a platform with two graphics cards working in SLI x16 mode. :)

Anyway, marketing slogans aside, let’s take a closer look at the specification of our today’s hero:

ABIT AN8 32X

CPU

AMD Athlon 64 / X2 / FX for Socket 939

Chipset

Nvidia NF4 SLIX16 / NF4 SLI

HyperTransport bus

1 GHz

Clock generator frequency

200-400MHz (with 1MHz)

Overclocking-friendly functions

Independently adjustable PCI Express bus frequency.
Adjustable Vcore and Vmem.

Memory

4 DDR DIMM slots for dual-channel
DDR400 SDRAM with maximum capacity of 8GB

PCI Express slots

2 x PCI Express x16
1 x PCI Express x1

PCI slots

2

USB 2.0 ports

10 (4 – on the rear panel)

IEEE1394 ports

2 (1 – on the rear panel, by Texas Instruments controller)

ATA-100/133

2 ATA-133 channels

Serial ATA

4 Serial ATA-300 channels (with RAID 0/1/0+1/5 support)
2 Serial ATA-300 channels
(with RAID 0/1 implemented in Silicon Image controller)

IDE RAID support

RAID 0, 1, 0+1

Integrated sound

Eight-channel AC97 Realtek ALC850 codec

Integrated network

Gigabit Ethernet (Vitesse)

Additional features

Onboard POST-controller
Nvidia SLI
ABIT Silent OTES III
ABIT μGuru

BIOS

Phoenix-Award BIOS V6.00PG

Form-factor

ATX, 305x245mm

Later we will take a closer look at the peculiarities and special features of ABIT AN8 32X mainboard, and in the meanwhile let’s see what we can find inside the box.

The set of accompanying accessories is very nice. Unlike some mainboard manufacturers, ABIT retained its good tradition of packing the accessories in two neat boxes instead of piling them on top of the mainboard. The first box contains different cabled, the rear panel bracket, SLI bridge and its retention panel as well as an additional bracket with a couple of USB ports and two IEEE1394 ports:

The second box contains a quick installation guide, user’s manual, μGuru manual, schematic slots and connectors layout, a CD disk with drivers and necessary software tools. Besides that there were also four floppy disks with the RAID array drivers: two for 32-bitr operating systems – for the chipset and Silicon Image controller separately – and two for 64-bit operating systems.

Closer Look at PCB Layout

Of course, the first thing that catches your eye when you take a look at ABIT AN8 32X is the ABIT Silent OTES III noiseless cooling system using heatpipe technology.

MOSFET transistors are nicely grouped and covered with a large ribbed heatsink that bears the major thermal workload. The processor voltage regulator circuitry is a three-phase one and consists of three 1200μF capacitors from the KZE series and six 2200μF capacitors from the KZG series all by Chemi-Con. Most of other capacitors installed on this PCB are manufactured by Rubycon.

The additional RAID controller from Silicon Image with two Serial ATA ports is also located in this part of the mainboard PCB. And it is quite unusual that the POST-indicator is there, too.

The chipset North Bridge is cooled passively by a small ribbed heatsink, which is cooled down by the airflow from the CPU fan located very close to it. The South Bridge is covered with a small flat heatsink, however its thermal conditions are guarded by the heatpipe taking the heat over to the MOSFET heatsink.

There are 4 Serial ATA connectors in the area around the South Bridge and they are implemented through the chipset. The two IDE connectors are facing sideways instead of the traditional up-top position. Also, there is the Texas Instruments controller with the corresponding pin-connector for the additional IEEE1394 ports that could be installed with the help of a special rear panel bracket and three USB pin-connectors. I would like to specifically stress that the color marking used for the front panel connectors is very convenient.

The rear panel features sound ports, network RJ45 connector, four USB ports, IEEE1394 port and PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse. As for the LPT and COM ports, they are not just absent on the mainboard rear panel: they are simply not laid out at all.

I was very pleased to discover optical digital connectors on the mainboard rear panel. Even though one of them was not quite nicely soldered, it didn’t affect its working capacity.

BIOS Peculiarities

We all know very well that μGuru offers very extensive list of features. However, this time the OC Guru section of the mainboard BIOS looks unusually modest.

You can reduce the clock frequency multiplier down to 4x with 0.5 increment, adjust the clock generator frequency between 200MHz and 400MHz with 1MHz increment and control the PCI-E bus frequency (in the interval between 100MHz and 145MHz with 1MHz increment). As for the processor Vcore, it can only be increased above the nominal value up to 1.75V with 0.025V increment. The memory voltage can be adjusted between 2.5V and 2.7V with 0.05V increment. After 2.7V the increment increases to 0.1V and you can continue raising the memory voltage until it hits 3.2V. One more parameter that can be adjusted is DDR Reference Voltage and it can vary from -60mV to +60mV changing with 10mV increments.

It is very pleasing that ABIT EQ section remained the same. You can still monitor all the major mainboard characteristics from there. The page allows you to play with three temperatures that can be adjusted if necessary:

There is the whole bunch of voltages available in this system including the ability to monitor different 12V lines:

You can also control rotation speeds of the platform fans:

ABIT AN8 32X mainboard is equipped with 5 fan connectors. And we can not only monitor their rotation speed but also adjust the sped for each of them if necessary:

You can select one of the three temperatures that will serve as a reference point for the fan speed monitoring. For the CPU fan it is certainly the CPU temperature, for all other fans you can select either system temperature (SYS Temperature) or the temperature reported by the sensor located next to the MPSFET (PWM Temperature).

We can also set the desired highest and lowest temperatures that will affect the fan rotation speed and select the voltage sent to the fan. Of course, the maximum voltage you can set for your fans is 12V, but we wish that we could actually drop the minimum voltage below 8V.

μGuru was not the only interesting BIOS section. Another worthy page is called Advanced Chipset Features that allows you to manage the frequency and width of the HyperTransport busses between the processor and the chipset North Bridge and between the North and South chipset bridges. The same page provides access to the memory settings:

Frankly speaking, we were not surprised to see rich settings like that. In fact, we have already got used to ABIT’s extensive memory configuration options :) Anyway, we were very pleased with the variety of choices, but it was really nice that we didn’t have to actually set each and every parameter at once. You can simply select the settings you really need to adjust and leave all the other ones at default or SPD values.

Overclocking and Operation Issues

AMD Athlon X2 3800+ processor that we used for our today’s test session works at 2GHz nominal clock speed (200x10). It can overclock up to 2.7GHz (270x10) without raising the nominal Vcore of 1.35V. However if you increase the CPU Vcore to 1.45V this CPU will pass all tests at 2.8GHz (280x10) clock speed. Therefore, we reflashed the latest BIOS version 1.1, because this version offered more headroom for raising the clock generator frequency 9the previous version did not allow setting the clock generator frequency beyond 277MHz, and we need at least 280MHz for successful 100% overclocking results).

ABIT AN8 32X mainboard booted successfully and passed all the tests at 270MHz clock speed. However, when we set the clock generator frequency to the sacred 280MHz, the board refused to even boot. Some vague suspicion pushed me to set the frequency to 279MHz and try again. And to my surprise the board booted successfully and went through all the tests including stability tests with impeccable results.

Let me explain where my premonitions came from. The thing is that I have recently tested an ECS KN2 SLI Extreme mainboard on nForce4 SLI x16 chipset. This is a non-standard very originally designed mainboard. The peculiar thing about it is that the North Bridge of the chipset has been moved to a separate expansion card. So, this mainboard suffered from a pretty frustrating BIOS issue when it would run perfectly well at 279MHz clock generator speed, but refused to show any signs of life when we set the frequency just 1MHz higher – to 280MHz. don’t you think that this identical behavior is somewhat suspicious especially since we are talking about two mainboards from different manufacturers? Here I have to stress right away that the problem is not with the chipset, because the ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe based on the same Nvidia nForce4 SLI x16 chipset could work stably and reliably at even higher clock generator frequency of 300MHz (for details see our article called Dressed to Kill: ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe Mainboard Review).

It is no secret that Elitegroup manufactures mainboards for ABIT on its production facilities. There is nothing bad about it, outsourcing has become really widely spread during the past few years, a lot of companies do it these days. However, if ABIT mainboards will inherit the issues of the Elitegroup products, it will hardly have a happy ending. ECS KN2 SLI Extreme mainboard deserves our respect, because 279MHz is a pretty good result and a kind of a record for Elitegroup solutions. However, not for ABIT! It is simply ridiculous: the BIOS version 1.0 didn’t allow going beyond 277MHz, but the new “corrected” BIOS version 1.1 moved the bar 2MHz up.

It is a pure BIOS issue, because I managed to make the system work at the notorious 280MHz with the software tools, and it did work stably. To monitor the temperature I installed ABIT’s brand name μGuru utility. It is truly a very interesting tool that offers very convenient interface for easy temperatures, voltages and fan rotation speeds control. Take a look at the screenshot below:

However, this utility offers a much broader spectrum of options than just parameters monitoring. It also allows performing complex system overclocking, for instance. Besides the default system settings, the OC Guru option enables three profiles: Turbo, Normal and Quiet. Each profile has preset overclocking parameters (216, 210 and 204MHz respectively) and appropriate rotation speeds for the system fans. Besides the three preset profiles you can also create up to three custom profiles of your own:

There are quite a few programs that allow overclocking from the Windows, but the beauty of μGuru tool is its complex approach to overclocking. Namely, you can not just raise the CPU frequency but also make sure that its Vcore goes up simultaneously as well as the Vmem and rotation speeds of certain system fans. AutoDrive option allows to enabled the preliminarily configured profile that will launch upon activation of certain applications and tasks, which is also very convenient.

And you do not need to launch the full screen interface for this utility every time you need to do something. There is a smaller interface panel available (you can also adjust the level of transparency for your windows).

Or you can even shrink the window into a narrow panel like this:

Unfortunately, this great utility has a few noticeable drawbacks: no software tools are impeccable these days. During our test session the system would very often display the BSOD or reboot. And this would mostly happen during the simplest actions such as “Apply the last loaded profile”.

So, this utility cannot replace Cool’n’Quiet technology and in fact it really needs to, because the Cool’n’Quiet technology can only work on ABIT AN8 32X with the default CPU settings. On all other mainboards clock generator frequencies and processor Vcore other than the nominal do not stall Cool’n’Quiet technology and it only stops working only when you change the multiplier. In case of ABIT AN8 32X, even if you simply set the parameters configuration from Automatic to Manual (without really changing the settings themselves), the Cool’n’Quiet technology will stop working right away. You cannot even change the Default profile settings in the μGuru utility, because this profile is connected with the BIOS settings and Cool’n’Quiet will stop working right on the next system boot-up.

The preliminary CPU overclocking tests were performed with the reduced memory frequency in order to eliminate the possible limitations imposed by the memory. However, we found out later that ABIT AN8 32X mainboard cannot retain stability at higher frequencies with the Command Rate timing – that has huge influence on the performance - set to 1T. I didn’t really worry about the fact that our memory couldn’t work at 280MHz during “synchronous” CPU overclocking up to 280MHz: it was still very close to what the Corsair CMX512-4400C25 memory modules could do. However, even at 270MHz our memory could pass the tests with the 1T/2T timing set to 1T.

The next issue we discovered matters not only for ABIT AN8 32X, but also for all other mainboards using passive heatpipe cooling solutions for the chipset. Of course, we are very pleased with manufacturer’s sincere intentions to eliminate the annoying noises generated by small high-speed chipset fans. However, when I was stress-testing the AMD Athlon X2 3800+ CPU overclocked to 2.8GHz with the S&M utility, μGuru issued a danger alert. The CPU temperature under the Tuniq Tower 120 cooler was absolutely normal, however the PWM Temperature sensor indicated that the voltage regulator components have heated up to 86-87oC while the normal temperature for them should not exceed 80oC.

Tuniq Tower 120 cooler is a highly efficient solution (you can read more about it in our review called Tuniq Tower 120 Cooler Review: All Super Coolers are Great, but Some Are Greater Than the Others), however its tower-shaped construction implies that the air is ousted towards the case fan or the PSU fan to be immediately removed from the system. In this case the heatsink covering the MOSFET transistors simply does not receive enough airflow. However once we replaced the Tuniq cooler with a Scythe Samurai Z, the situation got a totally unexpected turn. Instead of going down, the temperature of power elements reached 102oC and we had to interrupt the test. Looks like even the CPU coolers generating strong airflow in the nearby area are sometimes unsuitable for proper cooling of the power elements.

MOSFET transistors always heat up and are designed to withstand high temperatures. However, they can still get in trouble if they get overheated and work long enough in extreme conditions, like any other electronic components. Unfortunately, this is not the only concern we have. As we have already mentioned during the discussion of the PCB layout, the MOSFET heatsink and the chipset South Bridge heatsink are connected with a heatpipe. The excessive heat from the South Bridge should supposedly move along the heatpipe to a larger heatsink and get dissipated there. But the problem is that heatpipes work not in the desired directions, but according to common physics laws: depending on the temperature gradient. If the South Bridge heats up more transistors, the heat will move down the heatpipe away from it, but if it is not the hottest element, then the voltage regulator will add up to the South Bridge temperature!

To be fair I have to admit that these high temperatures were only noticed during dual-core AMD Athlpn X2 3800+ overclocking. When we tested a single-core AMD Athlon 3800+ the voltage regulator temperature didn’t exceed the acceptable value of 60oC. But did the South Bridge get any cooler in this case? I believe its temperature was also around the same 60oC.

I have always been very enthusiastic about the idea of passive cooling systems with heatpipes designed for mainboards. However, the current implementation of these systems cannot be called balanced or efficient. In certain situations these systems can do more harm than good to the platform by heating up the components instead of cooling them down. I believe the solution suggested by ASUS for their P5N32-SLI Deluxe and A8N32-SLI Deluxe mainboards is a very smart move in this case: they gave the users an opportunity to install additional fans on top of the passive heatsinks if necessary.

We didn’t conduct any performance tests for ABIT AN8 32X mainboard, because it will demonstrate the same performance level as any other Nvidia nForce4 SLI x16 based mainboard if tested in the same conditions. But if we try to achieve the highest overclocking results, then ABIT AN8 32X will inevitably lose because of the limited clock generator frequency and some memory restrictions mentioned above.

Conclusion

Now that we have taken a really close look at the ABIT AN8 32X mainboard I am ready to voice out my verdict. Yes, ABIT AN8 32X doesn’t have any extraordinary features to boast, but I strongly approve of the approach they have taken in the current situation. Now that the company needs to regain their reputation, restore users trust and interest in the brand, experiments and other risky actions may not end up well. It would make much more sense to launch a traditional maybe even conservative product, but which will boast impeccable quality and will be free from any upsetting issues. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have to look hard for those issues in ABIT AN8 32X mainboard: some of them were right there in front of us.

As you may have already understood from the review the list of things that need to be taken care of is quite long, although some users may not really regard the absent LPT or COM port or inconvenient FDD connector location as a serious drawback. Some users will be quite satisfied with the overclocking up to 279MHz, and some users may never really use Cool’n’Quiet technology or check the BIOS settings… So, if you are one of those undemanding users then you will really love ABIT AN8 32X mainboard. In this case, you will most likely be happy with any other mainboard as well. However, if you do not want to face all the above listed issues, then you should probably wait until the new BIOS version is available: some of the problems may be eliminated in the new BIOS updates.

Summing up, I believe I can try to answer the question I asked in the title of this review. Has ABIT really come back yet? Looks like they are still on their way, so we may just wait a little bit more. This criticism is not intended to harm people, but to help the company we have always loved for their great revolutionary solutions rich in settings and flexible options, for their special attention to the needs of extreme overclockers and gamers. We have waited for quite a while now, and I am sure we can wait more.