ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard on NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra Chipset: Built to Kill

ABIT Company expands its gaming mainboards family aka Fatal1ty with a new Socket 939 solution on NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset. Let’s take a closer look at this product with all those brand new technologies to find out how good it is as an ultimate gaming platform.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
03/22/2005 | 06:16 PM

ABIT Company has been facing quite a few serious mishaps lately. In the US some users try to sue this company for leaking capacitors, in Taiwan ABIT’s top management is being accused of wheeler-dealer financing, all in all, not the best days ABIT is going through, for sure. However, luckily all these difficulties do not affect the company engineering team, which keeps working hard on designing new solutions for advanced overclocking fans and enthusiastic users.

 

Among the company R&D’s latest achievements I would like to point out a new product family aka fatal1ty, which owes its name to the nick-name of one of the world’s most famous cyber-champions – Jonathan Wendel. Jonathan won his title in numerous Quake 3, DOOM 3 and Unreal Tournament shoot-outs, where he has been an undefeated champion for a few years running. Now the Fatal1ty name is proudly carried by ABIT’s flagship mainboards where Jonathan also contributes a lot to the development.

“Ultimate hardware from Ultimate Gamer” - this is the slogan for the Fatal1ty mainboards positioned as solutions for powerful gaming systems. These mainboard have to be highly stable, reliable and should offer very high performance and extensive opportunities for successful and efficient CPU overclocking.

That is why when our lab got an ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard based on the today’s best chipset for AMD Athlon 64 processors – NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra, we couldn’t help testing it right away. So, let’s take a closer look at this exciting “Pro gaming Motherboard”.

Specification

The first point ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard scores is due to its impressive and at the same time stylish exterior. It was designed with read and black colors dominating, which makes it look so vivid and appealing.

However, the combination of the mourning color and the color of blood may arouse different associations. Hopefully gamers will get the correct message ABIT implied here. But anyway, this selection of colors will look eye-catching.

The formal mainboard specification looks very similar to what many other Socket 939 mainboards based on NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra will boast:

ABIT Fatal1ty AN8

CPU

AMD Athlon 64 FX / Athlon 64 for Socket 939

Chipset

NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra

HyperTransport bus

1 GHz

Clock generator frequency

200-410MHz (with 1MHz increment)

Overclocking friendly functions

Adjustable processor Vcore, Vmem, Vchipset and HyperTransport bus voltage
Independently adjustable PCI Express bus frequency

Memory

4 DDR DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM

PCI Express slots

1 x PCI Express x16
2 x PCI Express x1

PCI expansion slots

3

USB 2.0 ports

10 (4 – on the rear panel)

IEEE1394 ports

2 (1 – on the rear panel, implemented by TI TSB43AB22A controller)

ATA-100/133

2 ATA-133 channels

Serial ATA

4 Serial ATA-300 channels (with RAID support)

IDE RAID support

RAID 0, 1, 0+1

Integrated sound

Six-channel AC97 Realtek ALC658 codec

Integrated network

Gigabit Ethernet (Vitesse VSC8201RX Gigabit Ethernet PHY)

Additional features

Onboard POST-controller

BIOS

Phoenix-Award WorkstationBIOS v6.00PG

Form-factor

ATX, 305mm x 245mm

I would like to point out right away that ABIT is also going to supply mainboard modifications with slightly different or reduced functionality but based on the same PCB design. There will be three solutions based on the regular NVIDIA nForce4 chipset: AN8-3rd Eye, AN8, and AN8-V without FireWire support.

This way, Fatal1ty AN8 is the most advanced solution for Socket 939 processors with PCI Express support offered by ABIT these days.

Accessories

No wonder that the most advanced mainboard in the family boasts an impressive package and accessories, too. Among the extras you get together with the board are:

Closer Look

As far as the supported CPU and memory types are concerned, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 is a pretty standard solution for a Socket 939 mainboard. Fatal1ty AN8 can work with any Athlon 64 processors designed for Socket 939, and features 4 DDR DIMM slots for system memory: two slots per channel. The DIMM slots are color coded: you have to install identical memory modules in pairs in the slots of the same color in order to enable the dual-channel model of the memory controller. Like all competitor products of the kind, the reviewed mainboard from ABIT supports up to 4GB of system memory. When all four DIMM slots are occupied the memory working frequency is automatically reduced to DDR333. However, due to this particular fact the Athlon 64 memory controller guarantees stable hardware functioning with this number of memory banks.

The expansion slots also do not prepare any surprises for us. ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 features three regular PCI slots, two PCI Express x1 slots and one PCI Express x16 slot for the graphics card. Since Fatal1ty AN8 is based on NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset, it doesn’t support SLI configurations.

I was somewhat surprised with a slot, which is the closest to the processor socket. It looks very much like a PCI Express x1 but rotated by 180 degrees. I have never seen any slots like that on other mainboards. On the ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 board this slot is none other but a reincarnation of the good old AMR/CNR slots, which already sank into oblivion a while ago. However, the slot laid out by ABIT engineers doesn’t represent any new industry standard, but is simply designed to support AudioMax sound card shipped together with the mainboard.

We have already pointed out a few times that the sound quality on many NVIDIA nForce4 based mainboards leaves much to be desired. The manufacturers are trying to solve this problem differently. MSI, for instance, integrates Sound Blast Live! PCI chip from Creative onto its mainboards. ABIT engineers also decided to eliminate this drawback, but in another way. This is exactly the reason why they laid out the sound tract on a completely separate PCB, which should be installed into this mysterious slot.

From the technical point of view, the sound solution implemented as an external AudioMax sound card doesn’t look like anything very special. ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 uses the AC97 tract of the NVIDIA nForce4 chipset. However, its analog part including the Reaktek ALC658 AC97 codec has been moved to an add-on riser card to be installed into the slot specifically designed for it. This allows ABIT to better protect the analog part of the sound tract against distortions caused by other electronic components on the mainboard PCB.

As far as the Realtek ALC658 codec used on the AudioMax sound card is concerned, it is also a little bit different than the Realtek ALC850 solution they usually use on nForce4 based mainboards. On the one hand, ALC658 codec belongs to professional solutions and provides better signal-to-noise ratio. But on the other hand, this is a six-channel codec, while the combination of nForce4 with the Realtek ALC850 codec supports eight-channel sound systems. AudioMax sound card features five audio-jacks (it supports Universal Audio jack is supported), an optical SPDIF In and Out.

Now let’s see what advantages we get from a professional sound codec, which has in addition been moved to a separate riser card. But this is where the first surprise comes from. The thing is that ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 is supplied with two versions of a sound driver: one from NVIDIA (version 4.57) and another one from Realtek (version 3.70). We don’t know yet, which driver version is preferable that is why we will test the sound quality on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 two times with different drivers.

The results obtained in case we used an NVIDIA driver are given below:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:

+0.26, -0.30

Good

Noise level, dB (A):

-83.0

Good

Dynamic range, dB (A):

82.8

Good

THD, %:

0.0065

Very good

IMD, %:

0.028

Good

Stereo crosstalk, dB:

-81.5

Very good

IMD at 10 kHz, %:

0.023

Good

General performance: Good

The driver from Realtek showed slightly different results:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:

+0.27, -0.31

Good

Noise level, dB (A):

-79.5

Average

Dynamic range, dB (A):

79.4

Average

THD, %:

0.0088

Very good

IMD, %:

0.269

Average

Stereo crosstalk, dB:

-78.8

Very good

IMD at 10 kHz, %:

0.036

Good

General performance: Good

As we see, NVIDIA drivers ensure better sound quality. However, in any case we have every right to state that ABIT managed to reach the desired goal. The sound quality this mainboard provides is noticeably better than the sound quality on the majority of nForce4 based mainboards out there due to the use of a professional sound codec and its location on a separate riser card.

As for the drivers, I suggest that you do not disregard the Realtek driver. The thing is that the drivers from this vendor ensure significantly lower CPU utilization. You can check it out by running an audiotest from the 3DMark03 test suite. Here are the results:

 

3D Sound Test
(No sound)

3D Sound Test
(24 sounds)

Performance Drop

NVIDIA Drivers

86.2 fps

71.6 fps

16.9%

Realtek Drivers

86.2 fps

75.3 fps

12.6%

So, the question about the most optimal audio driver for ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard is still open and the answer depends on your individual needs in each particular case. What is more important to you: sound quality or system performance? When you answer this question the choice will be made.

Speaking about other mainboard features besides onboard sound, we have to stress that ABIT engineers decided not to overload their solution with the whole bunch of additional onboard controllers. Almost all the mainboard features are determined by the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset it is based on. However, since this chipset is very feature rich itself, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 turned out pretty rich in various functions.

The mainboard supports four Serial ATA II ports (with NCQ support and 3Gbit/s data transfer rate) and two Parallel ATA-133 ports. The hard disk drives connected to these ports can be united into RAID arrays of levels 0, 1 and 0+1.

The mainboard also features 10 USB 2.0 ports. Four of them are laid out on the back panel of the board, and the remaining six are represented as three onboard pin-connectors. ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard ships with a bracket with two additional USB 2.0 ports for this one of these connectors, which brings another pair of Hi-Speed USB 2.0 ports to the rear panel of your system case.

Due to the Gigabit network controller built into NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 also supports 1Gbit/s network interface. We have already mentioned this network solution a few times in our previous reviews. All its advantages including hardware Secure Networking Engine and NVIDIA Firewall 2.0 work impeccably on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard.

The only functional feature on this mainboard, which has been implemented via an external PCI controller, is IEEE1394 ports. TI TSB43AB22A microchip provides two IEEE1394a ports with 400Mbit/s bandwidth. One of these ports is laid out on the rear panel of the board. As for the second port, a funny thing happened to it. There is a pin-connector for the second IEEE1394 port on the mainboard PCB, however, the bracket supplied together with ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 board has two IEEE1394 ports on it. This way, you will be able to connect actually only one of these ports, while the cable leading to the second IEEE1394 port on the bracket will be just hanging idly inside the PC case.

Among the absolutely unique features of ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 I would like to mention the integrated diagnostic POST controller, which is an extremely useful tool for localizing hardware problems, if there are any.

PCB Design

There is a lot we could actually tell you about the PCB design of the ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard. No doubt that someone with very good taste made his contribution to designing this product. Therefore, with this mainboard installed into your system case you will not be just a happy owner, but will also enjoy it from aesthetical point of view.

As we have already mentioned above, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 is designed in black and red color gamma. However, once you start it you will notice one more very important detail: the mainboard is lit up from behind with bright red LEDs. It is really hard to describe the impression this baby made on us, when the rays of bright red light appeared from under the board, so we will simply provide a photo:

As you can see, the power supply converter on the front side of the PCB is also lit with the red LEDs. By the way, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 has two more LEDs right next to the POST-codes display. These LEDs however are not a decoration: they signal if there is power on 5VSB and VCC lines.

The second eye-catching peculiarity of the reviewed mainboard is the “maniacal” striving for heat dissipation from all possible and impossible hot spots. ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 is equipped with a few different cooling devices, which feature the total of five 40-mm fans! Among them are: the chipset cooler, Dual OTES system for processor voltage regulator cooling and OTES RAMFlow system for memory modules cooling.

Of course, we would like to start with the chipset cooler, because we have already seen in our previous test sessions how important proper cooling of the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset is. ABIT engineers spared a nice copper heatsink and a fan with the maximum rotation speed of 5,800rpm for this purpose.

However, despite this fact, we still wouldn’t call ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 chipset cooler a high-quality one. There are two problems with this cooler. First, the heatsink cooling surface is relatively small. Even though it is made of solid copper, it is shaped as just a plate with the upward pointing edges. The second problem is about the fan, which is also not of the best quality it could be. On the second day of tests it already started rattling. All in all, there is only one positive thing about the chipset cooler on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8: it uses thermal paste and not some doubtful pads for the thermal interface.

The second cooling device aka Dual OTES serves to cool down the processor voltage regulator circuitry. The power converter on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 is designed according to four-channel scheme. The MOSFETs of this converter are covered with two aluminum ribbed heatsinks with some weird rubber-like material serving as thermal interface. Then the entire circuitry is covered with a plastic casing leading to the mainboard back panel. At the output there are two 40-mm fans blowing warm air outside the case. Their minimal rotation speed is 4,800rpm.

Note that ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard doesn’t really need a powerful Dual OTES cooling system. MOSFETs used for the processor voltage regulator do not heat up that much. The use of this advanced solution seems to be aimed to making the board look more high-tech. at the same time, I wouldn’t call Dual OTES a useless feature as well. At least there appear two extra fans to cool down the CPU, which is important.

By the way, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard was also developed keeping in mind the Bulletproof technology. It means that ABIT engineers learned their lesson from the past and use only high-end reliable components when assembling this mainboard modification. For instance, the processor voltage regulator uses high-quality capacitors from the Japanese SANYO and Rubycon companies.

However, let’s return back to the fans. The third device also featuring two 40-mm fans is the OTES RAMFlow for memory modules cooling, which is shipped together with the ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard. This device is installed on top of the DIMM slot clips after the memory modules have already been installed and blows the air streams onto the memory modules with the help of two fans. These fans rotate at the maximum speed o 4,100rpm. Unfortunately, the quality of these fans also leaves much to be desired: they are built on sleeve bearings and are very unlikely to have significant life time. However, you shouldn’t use OTES RAMFlow at all, if you don’t want to.

As for the acoustic characteristics of the cooling devices used on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8, it is no surprise at all that all the five small fans working at their maximum speed generate pretty unpleasant noise. However, ABIT engineers did their best to calm down this noisy chorus. For this purpose they introduced a special FanEQ technology, which serves to manage the fans rotation speeds depending on the temperature of the corresponding “hot spots” on the board. This technology made ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 the only NVIDIA nForce4 based mainboard for Athlon 64 (out of seven boards we have already tested in our lab), which allows to slow down interactively any of the fans in the system, and not just the CPU fan.

I have to stress that this feature of ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 is truly useful also because this board supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, which allows dropping down the working frequency and Vcore (and hence the heat dissipation) of the system CPU when it isn’t loaded heavily.

Let me explain in a little bit more detail how this FanEQ technology works. For any fan this technology allows selecting the managing temperature diode, minimum and maximum temperatures on this diode, as well as minimum and maximum voltage sent to the fan. When the temperature on the selected diode is below the minimum, the minimal voltage is fed onto the fan. As soon as the diode temperature runs beyond the maximum, the corresponding fan starts rotating at its maximum speed due to the maximum voltage sent to it. In between the maximal and minimal temperatures the fan voltage is managed according to a standard linear law. For the fan speed management you can select either the built-in processor thermal diode or any of the thermal diodes installed around the CPU voltage regulator circuitry to the right of the memory modules.

This way, when the system workload is not really great, FanEQ technology makes ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard not any noisier than any other similar mainboard even though there are much more fans in a system based on it. The FanEQ parameters can be set in the BIOS as well as from the system OS with the help of special software.

Since ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 uses Dual OTES cooling solution, the connectors on the mainboard rear panel had to be laid out in a very different way, since now most of the space there is taken by the fans. That is why ABIT engineers had to give up serial and parallel ports, which are simply absent on this board. Moreover, you will not find even the pin-connectors for them on the PCB. You should keep this fact in mind when shopping around, because there are still quite many devices in the market using COM and LPT ports.

As a result, since all the sound connectors have been moved to a riser board, the mainboard rear panel carries only two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, four High-Speed USB ports, one FireWire port and a network RJ45 connector with diagnostic LEDs.

As for the actual PCB design, it is not absolutely flawless I should say. The power supply connectors are located very conveniently: the 24-pin connector is right in front of the DIMM slots, and a 4-pin connector – on the left corner of the board. The placement of the Serial ATA and USB pin-connectors is pretty questionable though. We believe they are located too close to the PCI Express x16 slot. Therefore when you install a long graphics card like NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra, for instance, you will have trouble connecting cables to these pin-connectors. We were also pretty disappointed to see the FDD connector on the very left side of the PCB right behind the last PCI slot. If you connect it to the floppy drive the cable will be hanging all across the system case.

Just like on the majority of NVIDIA nForce4 based mainboards, PCI slots on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 are located to the left from the PCI Express x16 slot. As a result, when the system is assembled you get only two PCI slots at your disposal. This is also something you shouldn’t forget especially since the mainboard has no serial and parallel ports at all.

As for the processor Socket 939, it has a lot of free room around it. So, if your CPU cooler is really large, you may only face some installation problems if you are using the OTES RAMFlow cooling device. Anyway, if you do not use this device at all, then any massive processor cooler will fit onto the board just perfectly.

BIOS and Overclocking

ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard was tested with the latest BIOS available at the time of the test session: version 1.2.

The BIOS of ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard is based on standard Award-Phoenix WorkstationBIOS v6.00PG microcode, however, it would be incorrect to claim that it is similar to the BIOS of competitor products. The differences from the other mainboards’ BIOS versions are clearly noticeably with the naked eye thanks to a special uGuru Utility. This unique section contains all overclocking friendly options on the special OC Guru page, and all monitoring options including FanEQ technology settings on the ABIT EQ page.

Also you can find some important options for overclocking in the Advanced Chipset Features page, from where you can manage the working frequency and the width of the HyperTransport bus, as well as change the memory settings.

Let’s take a closer look at the overclocking tools offered by ABIT Fatal1ty AN8. Among them are:

This way, there is the whole bunch of various overclocking –friendly settings on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8. Although I wish the ranges supported by these settings were a bit wider. It is first of all about the memory voltage, which top limit of 2.8V can be insufficient for some serious overclocking experiments.

Also note that at OC Guru page there are two DDR Ref. Voltage and CPU Ref. Voltage settings, which should actually allow increasing or reducing the corresponding voltages additionally. However, to our great surprise these adjustments never affected anything.

The memory controller settings available in the BIOS Setup of ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 are also surprisingly rich. You can configure the memory frequency, adjust Tcl, Trcd, Tras and Trp basic timings, and change the 1T/2T Memory Timings mode. Besides that you can also adjust the whole bunch of secondary parameters responsible for the memory subsystem functioning. In fact, the options in the BIOS Setup offered for the memory controller configuring is almost fully identical to the list of settings provided by A64 Tweaker utility, which already means a lot.

So, now that we introduced to you all options for efficient CPU overclocking available on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard, let’s carry out a practical test. Our experiments will help us find out the top clock generator frequency when the mainboard remains stable. For our overclocking tests we used an Athlon 64 3800+ processor working at the nominal 2.4GHz with the clock frequency multiplier reduced to 7x. In order to eliminate the possible limitations imposed by the memory subsystem, we reduced its working frequencies down to the guaranteed supported level.

With the HyperTransport multiplier set to 5x, we managed to easily raise the clock generator frequency up to 249MHz. This is not a record for nForce4, although it is a very good result anyway.

When the HyperTransport multiplier was reduced to 4x, we managed to raise the clock generator frequency to 276MHz. I should admit that this is a pretty moderate result compared to what other mainboards can do with the multiplier on the bus between the CPU and the chipset set to this value.

However, when the HyperTransport multiplier was set to 3x, the mainboard suddenly revealed huge potential and allowed us to raise the clock generator frequency to 337MHz. And this is the best results X-bit’s lab has seen so far.

The table below shows all the frequencies we managed to obtain on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard:

ABIT Fatal1ty AN8

HyperTransport frequency multiplier

5x

4x

3x

Max. clock generator frequency

249 MHz

276 MHz

337 MHz

HyperTransport frequency

1245 MHz

1104 MHz

1011 MHz

Also here is the comparative diagram showing the maximum clock generator frequencies achieved on the mainboards we have already tested in our lab:

As you see, our today’s hero appeared at the very top of the diagram. Here I would only like to add that overclocking with ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard is an extremely easy procedure. Moreover, if the mainboard doesn’t start after you modified some settings in the BIOS Setup, everything will automatically return to the default values and the system will reboot. For example, we didn’t have to use the Clear CMOS jumper even once throughout the entire overclocking session.

Besides the extended optional for fan speed management depending on the temperature of different “hot spots” on the mainboard, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 also offers very rich hardware monitoring functions. You can control three temperatures, eleven voltages and rotation speeds of six fans. Moreover, BIOS Setup allows setting the critical values for each of these parameters. When the critical value is reached, the mainboard alarm will go off or the system will simply shut down.

ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 features one more funky feature: it can collect mainboard working stats, such as the number of working hours, number of on/off and reboot cycles.

Software

ABIT started paying special attention to the software they bundle with their products long time ago. ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 just like other flagship products from this manufacturer are supplied with a set of ABIT uGuru utilities. On the hardware level the uGuru utilities set is supported by a uGuru onboard chip, which is none other but a Winbond W83L950D.

The utilities set includes the following programs:

Besides ABIT’s own utilities, Fatal1ty AN8 also supports the following NVIDIA’s own software: nTune, nvMixer, nvRAID and Network Access Manager run without any problems on ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard. However, nTune utility offers the user very limited functionality. It definitely doesn’t know anything about ABIT uGuru. That is why nTune utility is not even included onto the CD disk accompanying the board.

Testbed and Methods

In conclusion we would like to offer you a detailed performance testing of the ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard. We decided to compare its speed with the performance results shown by other Socket 939 solutions supporting PCI Express bus.

As a result, our testbeds were configured as follows:

All tests were run in Windows XP SP2 operating system.

Performance

As we see, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard demonstrates about the same level of performance as the mainboards based on NVIDIA nForce4 chipsets we have already reviewed earlier. In other words, its speed is up to the mark for an nForce4 Ultra based solution.

Conclusion

All in all, ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard makde a very good impression. This is the first Socket 939 product supporting PCI Express bus without any serious bugs, which boasts excellent design and efficient CPU overclocking options. Here i would also like to add that ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 inherited all the advantages of the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra. It offers very good sound quality, allows intellectual management of the fans rotation speeds and simply looks stylish.

This way ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard can be considered a good choice for a gaming or overclocking Socket 939 system. We found that the price of the board was unfortunately a little too high, from our points of view. It is now selling for around $190-$200. However, you do have to pay for the quality, that’s for sure.

Highs:

Lows:

Having summed up our test results we here at X-bit labs decided to award ABIT Fatal1ty AN8 mainboard with the prestigious Editor’s Choice Title as the today’s Best PCI Express Socket 939 Platform for Enthusiasts: