abit AW9D-MAX Mainboard Review

Following the good old tradition abit designed a new mainboard based on i975X Express core logic set from Intel. How well will it suit overclockers’ needs? Let’s find out!

by Doors4ever
01/18/2007 | 06:08 PM

One of the ancient Chinese curses says: shall you live in the epoch of change. It doesn’t seem to be that scary at all… if you never really lived in that epoch. People tend to strive for security, reliability and stability in everything, and abit AW9D-MAX mainboard definitely contributes to that.

 

If we disregard the new logo design and the small letter "a" in the beginning of the company name, then it will be the same good old ABIT that we have known for years.

Today we are going to see all the familiar traditions of the abit’s mainboard making starting with the package and finishing with the BIOS settings. As a result you will see a lot of words like "traditionally", "as always", "familiar", etc. in this article. At the same time, we can’t say that the company is not making any progress. There are a lot of new interesting features that will hopefully soon become traditional, too.

Let’s take a closer look at the new abit mainboard based around Intel 975X Express chipset. Please meet abit AW9D-MAX!

Package and Accessories

Package is far not the most important thing about a mainboard, however, it serves not only as information source for the end-users, but also performs a protective function. I couldn’t help pointing out that abit paid special attention to this aspect of the package design.

The box is pretty large and features a convenient handle for easy carrying. Its external decorative cover opens up like a book, so that you can take a closer look at the mainboard’s peculiarities through special transparent windows. On the reverse side of the cover there is a full-size photo of the mainboard with brief description of its features and specifications. The mainboard itself is not packed into a traditional antistatic plastic bag, but sits in a separate carton box with transparent top cover.

The accompanying accessories are also packed nicely and securely. They are not lying in a shapeless pile on top of the mainboard, as most other manufacturers usually do it. All accessories are packed in two compact carton boxes. Among them are:

As you see the set of included accessories is pretty rich, but it is for the first time that we see a cable for the optical S/PDIF out included.

PCB Design and Functionality

The noble black color of the abit AW9D-MAX PCB goes very well with the shiny metallic surfaces and reminds of a black tux with a white shirt. This is a classy product, without any vivid multi-color parts.

You can get a better idea of the location of certain elements from the scheme in the user’s guide. Here it is:

abit engineers paid special attention to the cooling solutions for different mainboard components. This seems to be one of the greatest strengths of this product and one of the most evident advantages. The chipset cooling is provided by the Silent OTES 2 system – a noiseless solution made of passive heatsinks and heatpipes. The heatpipes drive the heat to the heatsink covering half of the MOSFET transistors of the four-phase CPU voltage regulator. The other half of transistors hasn’t been forgotten, and is provided with a few smaller heatsinks to ensure proper cooling. All heatsinks on the mainboard are made of aluminum, but the small South Bridge heatsink features copper base.

By default, the chipset requires no active cooling, because the North and South Bridge heatsinks will be cooled down by the airflow generated by the processors cooler. However, very often it may be not enough, especially if the CPU is equipped with a liquid-cooling solution, if the processor cooler is relatively tall and there is no airflow generated around the socket, and during overclocking with significant increase of the chipset voltage. In this case additional cooling is necessary, but there won’t be any trouble putting one up on abit AW9D-MAX mainboard.

It is equipped with 8 fan connectors – an unprecedented number! Moreover, they are located exactly where you might need them. For example, two of them marked as OTESFAN1 and OTESFAN2 are right next to the MOSFET heatsink that receives the heat from the chipset. It will be the first one to require additional active cooling. Another connector is next to the chipset North Bridge heatsink, etc. We can control the rotation speed of all fans, which is also not a frequent feature on most mainboards. And the most interesting thing is that the rotation speed of all eight fans can be automatically adjusted depending on the temperature readings!

If we try to rate the abit AW9D-MAX mainboard from 1 to 5, it would get 6 points, or even 7 for the cooling system design and implementation. But this is not all about its great features, of course. Very often the mainboard developers would equip their products with additional onboard controllers in order to expand the product’s functionality or override some of the core logic limitations. In particular, one of the most widely spread examples is the additional RAID controller, and abit AW9D-MAX even has two of them! The first Silicon Image SiI3132 provides external eSATA support and one regular serial ATA connector, while the second one adds another two Serial ATA ports to the four already provided by the chipset. So, there are 7 internal Serial ATA ports total, which explain a pretty non-standard number of SATA cables included with the mainboard. Besides, abit AW9D-MAX mainboard is equipped with two gigabit PCI-E Realtek RTL8111B controllers and an additional IEEE1394 TSB43AB22A controller from Texas Instruments.

However, we will mention not only the highs of the abit AW9D-MAX mainboard. abit has made it clear quite some time ago already, that the “MAX” in the model name indicates the absence of the so-called legacy connectors: COM and LPT. In this case, they are not just absent on the rear panel, but do not exist on the PCB at all, although the chipset supports both these interfaces. As a result, the mainboard back panel looks very scarce. Besides the already mentioned eSATA port, there are only PS/2 connectors for the keyboard and mouse, four USB ports and two network RJ45 ports.

You don’t see any audio connectors on the back panel, however, there are hardly any mainboards out there these days that have no sound. abit mainboard is no exception and boasts fully-fledged sound implementation. abit AW9D-MAX is equipped with an 8-channel Realtek ALC882 codec that has been moved onto a daughter card aka AudioMAX that goes into a special connector in the lower left corner of the mainboard PCB.

If you look at the PCB layout around the chipset South Bridge, you will also notice a few pleasing things. As you can see, the mainboard features power on and reset buttons, POST-code indicator and color-coded front panel connectors.

Summing up the results of our visual inspection of abit AW9D-MAX I would like to point out a few more things. All connectors are very conveniently located, except for the FDD connector and the four-pin additional power supply connector that is required for dual-graphics card configurations. They are both placed at the lower edge of the PCB. The mainboard is manufactured with very high-quality Low ESR capacitors and all jumpers feature long grips that will make the work with this mainboard extremely easy and comfortable.

Well, it looks like everything has been said about the PCB design, so let’s just sum up the technical specifications and functions of the product.

Technical Specifications

Specification

Processor

Supports Intel Core 2 Quad, Core 2 Duo Extreme, Core 2 Duo,
Pentium D and Pentium 4 with 1066/800MHz bus

Chipset

Intel 975X / Intel ICH7R Express

Memory

Four 240-pin DDR2 DIMM slots
Supports maximum 8GB of RAM

Graphics

Two PCI-Express x16 slots (dual ATI CrossFire Graphics)

LAN

Two Gigabit PCI-E controllers
Supports 10/100/1000M Ethernet

Sound

abit AudioMAX HD 7.1 CH
Supports Jack Sensing and S/PDIF In/Out
Dolby Master Studio certified

Expansion Slots

2 PCI Express x16 slots
2 PCI Express x1 slot
1 PCI slot
1 AudioMAX slot

Internal connectors

1 x Floppy
1 x UDMA 100/66/33
7 x SATA 3GB/s
2 x USB 2.0
2 x IEEE1394
1 x FP-Audio header
1 x CD-IN

Back panel

1 x PS/2 keyboard, 1 x PS/2 mouse
4 x USB 2.0
2 x RJ-45 LAN
1 x eSATA

Serial ATA

ICH7R: 4 x SATA 3GB/s. Supports Intel Matrix Storage
SATA RAID 0/1/0+1/5.
ICH7R: Supports SATA AHCI, NCQ and “hot swap”.
Silicon Image 3132: 4 x SATA 3GB/s, each pair
of SATA connectors supports SATA RAID 0/1

IEEE 1394

2 IEEE1394 ports with 400Mb/sec speed

RoHS

RoHS compliant

Form Factor

ATX form factor: 305mm x 245mm

abit Engineered

abit uGuru technology
abit AudioMAX 7.1 CH
abit Silent OTES 2 technology
Power On and Reset buttons on the PCB
Blue LED highlighting at the bottom
High-quality Low ESR capacitors

BIOS

You can enter the abit AW9D-MAX mainboard BIOS Setup by pressing the Del key on system start-up. The BIOS is based on Award code and looks almost exactly like the BIOS on other ASUS mainboards, only the color scheme is different. Now the main color is block, not blue.

The main page is pretty clear, I guess, nothing to discuss. The only thing I would like to mention is that by pressing the F6 key you can save the current settings, and then you can load the saved settings easily by hitting F7. The user can save up to 5 different settings sets for different usage modes.

uGuru Utility section contains a lot of options that would be particularly interesting for us. When you click on the title you first get onto the OC Guru page where you can adjust the processor clock speed, memory frequency and voltages.

The first two lines are informational, they display the model name and current working frequency of your CPU. The next line – CPU Operating Speed allows to select default settings or manual configuration. If we give up automatic configuration we acquire access to External Clock parameter, which would change the FSB speed. For Core 2 Duo E6300 processor the available frequency interval ranges from 133MHz to 600MHz with 1MHz increment. And it is very convenient that you can simply enter the desired value using the numeric keyboard.

Note that the nominal FSB frequency is 4MHz higher not only on the photo from the BIOS screen but also in the user’s guide: it is another peculiarity of all abit mainboards. Of course, any memory and any CPU should be able to handle this small overclocking, and although you will hardly be able to notice any practical performance improvement, the side-by-side comparison of several mainboards running at their default settings will allow abit solution to be a little faster. Pretty simple and not quite fair, but at the same time very efficient way of getting ahead of the competitors.

Multiplier Factor parameter allows changing the processor clock frequency multiplier. In our case it could be reduced to 6x. And there is a special line called Estimated New CPU Clock that will display the resulting processor frequency once the clock multiplier and the FSB speed have been adjusted.

It is great that the identical information line is also available for the system memory: Estimated New DRAM Clock, because the memory frequency on abit AW9D-MAX can be changed using two adjustable parameters. N/B Strap CPU As selects the processor type depending on the nominal bus frequency: 133 (533), 200 (800) or 266 (1066) MHz. The available set of dividers between the FSB and memory changes depending on this setting. The second parameter - DRAM Spec. (CPU:DRAM) – allows selecting the proper ratio. The minimal divider is 1:1, all other dividers are increasing.

abit AW9D-MAX mainboard has unusually few parameters for voltage management. However, all the settings required for successful CPU overclocking are there, can be adjusted within pretty wide intervals with very small increments:

The last parameter on that page, Power Cycle Statistics, opens a submenu where we can monitor the system operation time, the number of system resets and reboots. This is a purely informational section, so let’s not dwell here for long.

ABIT EQ is something like the PC Health Status section, which we have seen by many other mainboards. However, in this case it is designed and implemented in a much more advanced way. However, before we talk more about it let me draw your attention to one parameter that may not strike you as essential at first glance and that you may not have seen before. It is LED Effect Control.

abit AW9D-MAX mainboard is equipped with a few LEDs: there is a red one next to the 24-pin power supply connector, a green one near the DIMM slots, the POST-indicator is also lighting green, and there are four blue LEDs around the heatsink at the back panel. Some of the diodes perform certain service functions such as signaling if the mainboard receives power, others are purely decorative and blink when the system is running.

I believe we all have different vision of what is beautiful when it comes to computer systems. Some of you may like blinking lights, some may get pretty irritated by them. abit engineers suggested an ingeniously simple solution implemented in the LED Effect Control parameter. It offers six different schemes for the LEDs at the reverse side of the mainboard PCB as well as the option to completely turn them off or leave permanently on without any blinking. Bravo!

As for the ABIT EQ subsections, there are a few. For example the Temperature Monitoring page allows controlling not only the CPU and system temperatures like on most other mainboards but also the temperatures from four additional sensors located in the key knots of the PCB. You can set the range for each parameter so that you receive a warning signal or the system shuts down once the maximum is reached.

You can control close to a dozen of voltages. For example, the +12V voltage would be measured along the processor power line as well as along the 24-pin power supply connector line feeding the entire mainboard.

I have already said that abit AW9D-MAX mainboard allows monitoring the rotation speed of all 8 fans that can be connected to it:

And the speed of each fan can be adjusted depending on the temperature settings for the selected sensors.

Excellent options! They didn’t really surprise those users who have worked with abit mainboards featuring abit uGuru technology in the past, but at the same time they are truly amazing, as none other mainboard maker out there offers anything like that.

Other BIOS parameters are pretty standard. I would only like to say a few words about the memory timings adjustment that are available in the Advanced Chipset Features section.

Like many other mainboards on i975X chipset, abit AW9D-MAX allows changing only the main timings.

Overclocking

In order to check the overclocking potential of the abit AW9D-MAX mainboard we used Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 CPU. On the Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard this processor ran stably at 500MHz FSB. It was cooled with Tuniq Tower 120 cooler and the chipset North Bridge and memory were additionally cooled down by a couple of 80mm fans. Unfortunately, we didn’t hit any sky-high results. The system ran stably only at 415MHz FSB, i.e. we didn’t even hit the 3.0GHz bar.

We didn’t even have to increase the processor Vcore to ensure that the system would run stably at this speed: the CPU worked just fine at the nominal 1.325V. And Vchipset was increased to 1.8V.

The result is actually pretty low, but there isn’t much we can do about it. For comparison we decided to take the same Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard that overclocked the CPU to 500MHz FSB, i.e. to 3.5GHz clock speed. The goal of this comparison was evident: take the abit mainboard on one of the top chipsets and the simplest Gigabyte mainboard on P965 chipset, overclock both boards to the maximum frequencies without losing operational stability, and… Looks like no triumph for Gigabyte this time.

If you have read our article called Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 Mainboard: Budget Leader for Core 2 Duo Overclocking, then you should remember that it didn’t demonstrate its highest overclocking result with the latest BIOS version F6. It was showing its best with the early BIOS version F2, which, however, is not free from some frustrating bugs. This time we decided to check out all BIOS versions in-between F6 and F2 as well. Maybe we would fine one that would be able to overclock processors as successfully as F2, but will have all the bugs eliminated.

Starting with the version F6 we reflashed the BIOS versions F5, F4 and F3 onto our Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard, but none of them allowed our CPU to hit 500MHz FSB. And you can imagine our astonishment when we reflashed the good old version F2 and it also failed us! The maximum FSB frequency we could get on our Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard with BIOS version F2 without losing operational stability was 460MHz.

The explanation emerged very quickly. In our previous test session we used Corsair TWIN2X1024-8000UL memory kit of two 512MB modules. This time we had a 2 x 1024MB Corsair TWIN2X2048-6400C4 kit. Could the amount of DRAM matter so much? We checked this supposition by replacing two 1GB DIMMs with smaller ones. And voila: we could easily hit 500MHz FSB again.

As is known more memory as well as the use of more DIMMs for the same memory capacity increase the chipset workload, which can slow down the system and even reduce the overclocking potential of the platform. However, you shouldn’t blame only the chipset in this case. The ASUS P5B Deluxe mainboard based on the same Intel P965 chipset proved less efficient during overclocking than Gigabyte GA-965P-S3. We could overclock the same Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 processor only to 493MHz FSB on the ASUS board, while on the board from Gigabyte we hit the 500MHz bar. However, when we replaced the Corsair TWIN2X1024-8000UL memory modules with Corsair TWIN2X2048-6400C4 and thus doubled the size of the system memory, the results remained the same.

Importance of Large System Memory: Some Thoughts

It is no secret that it is nice to have 2GB of system RAM, although it is not a must. However, the situation will change dramatically when Windows Vista comes to market in the end of this month. If you look at the minimal system requirements for a computer running Windows Vista, you will see that it needs a minimum of 512MB. Not that much at all, isn’t it? And Microsoft Corporation doesn’t trick us here, they just don’t tell us the entire truth. Vista will boot on a system like that, although you will not be able to work comfortably.

Windows Vista OS only – that is without the installation and loading of any additional applications – requires 300-400MB of RAM. So, if you are planning to sit in front of the computer and enjoy the view of the new interface then 512MB will certainly be enough. But every application you launch – an antivirus tool, a browser, a text processor – will require tend or even hundreds of megabytes of memory for its own needs. As a result, you will spend most of your time waiting for the programs you run to get saved into a swap-file on your hard disk drive and then loaded back into the system memory. Windows ReadyBoost technology that implies the use of USB-flash to speed up everything doesn’t provide any tangible effect. So, you need at least 1GB of memory if you want to work comfortably in Windows Vista.

However, “work” in this context really implied nothing else but the common computer usage model. If you are going to play games or if the programs you are using eat a lot of system memory, then you might need even more than that. Even last year’s games often require more than 1GB of free RAM, and we don’t know yet what tomorrow brings us, although we are sure that applications will become even more resource-hungry. Contemporary chipsets support up to 16GB of system memory, in most cases it is excessive but Windows Vista will require at least 2GB for comfortable work.

Overclocking with New BIOS Versions

Well, we have run some performance benchmarks, the article is almost over and as you may see, both mainboards didn’t really do that well. abit AW9D-MAX suffered because of the low processor overclocking result, and Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 lost most of its overclocking potential with 2GB of system memory installed. Besides, we also had to increase the memory timing settings to 5-5-5-15, which added to the list of drawbacks of Gigabyte GA-965P-S3. However in the end of last year both mainboard manufacturers released new BIOS versions for their products, therefore we decided to retest both mainboards before making the final conclusions about them. And our efforts were not vain!

Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard with BIOS version F7 has rehabilitated almost completely allowing us to speed up Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 processor to 490MHz FSB, i.e. to 3.43GHz. The memory in this case was running at 980MHz with 4-4-4-12 timing settings, which a very good result as well.

We failed to hit 495MHz FSB frequency. After that the system froze when we tried to reset the BIOS settings and wouldn’t start again until the retention of the Tuniq Tower 120 cooler was almost completely loose. The good thing about this cooler is that it offers highly efficient heat dissipation and at the same time provides tight contact with the CPU surface. Maybe Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard features some hidden defect that opens or closes an additional contact somewhere. So, we had to give up Tuniq Tower 120 cooler and replace it with the Corsair Nautilus 500 liquid-cooling system. As a result, the CPU running at 3.43GHz heated up to 63?C during the Intel Thermal Analysis Tool test (TAT) run at 22-23?C room temperature.

At the time I was writing this article I assumed that the issue with Tuniq Tower 120 cooler was just a peculiarity of our particular board sample that is why I never really mentioned it before. And in our today’s review I had to mention it in order to explain why I replaced the Tuniq cooler with Corsair Nautilus 500. However, it might be much more complicated than a single-board issue. A few days before the review was scheduled to go up on the site, we received an email from one of our readers who had a Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard with Thermaltake Big Typhoon cooler and was complaining about the potential difference between the processor and the cooler retention bolts. If the plate retention pressing the cooler to the PCB was removed, the board was working just fine, otherwise he could even see sparking! This was a totally different mainboard sample and a different cooler model, but the high pressure issue was absolutely the same. Something seemed to be awfully wrong about Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboards…

I suppose that the issue emerges only if the cooler uses a backplate. The thing is that there are a lot of contacts on the reverse side of the Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 PCB right underneath the LGA775 socket. Other mainboards do not have that many contacts there, or have none at all. As a result, the metal backplate of the Thermaltake Big Typhoon cooler presses through the protective padding and closes some contacts that leads to potentials difference. In case of Tuniq Tower 120 cooler, no contacts are closed from the reverse side, but it is pressed too tightly against the CPU, so the contacts get pushed out thus ruining the connection.

On the left you can see a photo of the reverse side of abit AW9D-MAX mainboard beneath the LGA775 socket – almost no contacts there. On the right – the same spot on Gigabyte GA-965P-S3:

abit AW9D-MAX mainboard also showed better results with the new BIOS version 1.3, although not too greatly. This BIOS version features support for Conroe L and Core 2 Quad revision B3 processors, improved compatibility with some memory modules, option to adjust DRAM tRFC timing. As a result, when we increased the chipset voltage to 1.9V and processor Vcore to 1.4V, the CPU worked stably at 429MHz bus speed.

Since the resulting frequency is not very high, we stayed with Corsair Nautilus 500 liquid-cooling system during our performance test session, although Tuniq Tower 120 could still be used without any problems, too. abit AW9D-MAX has no issue like Gigabyte GA-965P-S3. The overclocked processor didn’t heat more than 54?C even with a pair of Prime95 utilities running. However, we had to give up TAT, as it reported an error right at start when running on abit AW9D-MAX mainboard.

Testbed and Methods

For our tests we assembled the following platform:

The system built around abit AW9D-MAX mainboard was overclocked to 429MHz FSB, i.e. the Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 CPU worked at 3.0GHz and the memory at 858MHz with 4-4-4-12 timings settings. In case of Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard the CPU was overclocked to 3.43GHz and the memory ran at 980MHz with 4-4-4-12 settings.

Each benchmark was performed at least three times, the outstanding results were given up and the remaining results were then averaged.

Performance

The benchmarks from synthetic Futuremark suite were run with default settings:

As you can see, the results can be split in two groups: the first one (3DMark05 and 06) shows almost no difference between the systems, because the performance is limited by the graphics card, while the second one (3DMark06 CPU Test and PCMark06) shows better results on Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mainboard, because it allowed more efficient CPU overclocking. The results in other applications differ almost the same way.

F.E.A.R. game with maximum physics and graphics settings runs fine even at 3.0GHz CPU speed, and further overclocking doesn’t improve the results in any way. However, no performance gain in the Faces of War 2 is quite surprising, because as we have already discussed in our DFI LanParty UT NF590 SLI-M2R/G Mainboard Review the CPU speed seems to have some influence on the results.

However, these two games are the only ones where results do not depend on the processor overclocking. In all other cases the difference is sometimes very noticeable. Any applications using CPU’s computational power, such as rendering in CINEMA 4D represented by Cinebench test or 1GB vob-fiel conversion into a 700MB avi-file in Auto Gordian Knot utility using XviD codec will certainly take advantage of better overclocking results.

As for the calculations in the Fritz chess program, the numbers you see will hardly mean anything unless you are familiar with the test. Therefore, Frits developers offer a great illustrative representation of the obtained results compared against some mainstream reference system with Intel Pentium III processor at 1GHz speed. Core 2 Duo overclocked to 3GHz is 9 times faster than Pentium III 1GHz, and if you overclock it to 3.43GHz – it will be 10 times faster.

Conclusion

All in all abit AW9D-MAX mainboard leaves a very good impression: it offers great features and functionality, rich set of accessories, convenient and informative BIOS settings. abit mainboards haven’t lost anything from their former glory. Only the overclocking potential is slightly spoiling the rosy picture. Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 processor can hardly be overclocked to its maximum, but with abit AW9D-MAX mainboard you will face some challenges even when overclocking the E6400 CPU with higher multiplier. Should we hope the issue will be cured in the new BIOS versions? Maybe, but you still should remember that the i975X based mainboards usually boast lower overclocking potential than P965 based ones.

If CPU overclocking to the maximum is not one of your top priorities, if you are not using any LPT or COM devices, if you own a system case with transparent side panel and enjoy sophisticated LED lighting, then abit AW9D-MAX mainboard will be a great choice for you.