by Grigoriy Gubankov
09/10/2003 | 11:06 PM
VIA Technologies has been doing worse and worse in the Socket A chipset market throughout the last year. First of all, NVIDIA introduced a really powerful competitor aka nForce2. Besides, VIA has been always postponing the implementation of various innovations. And if the company did try to do anything new, it was not always working from the start. You may recall the story of DDR400 support. We should have seen it in KT400 already, but even KT400A didn’t have it working properly. The latter chipset is probably the biggest blunder VIA has made for years. Although it was pin-compatible with KT400, it also brought very few changes, so many mainboard makers openly refused to use it. Meanwhile, VIA’s major rival for today, NVIDIA, has been successful in promoting its victorious nForce2 chipset: some sources say that this product managed to conquer up to 50% of the entire Socket A chipset market.
However, VIA is not to be considered a total loser. A while ago, the company launched the new chipset – VIA KT600. This product is called for to reverse the company’s fortunes and, particularly, erase this “maker of chipset remakes” blemish off the company’s name. What are the trumps VIA has up the sleeve to regain its supreme position in the market? KT600 supports AMD processors with the 200MHz bus and also features the new South Bridge (VT8237) that, in its turn, features quite good SerialATA 150 support.
As we have already told you in our Modern Socket A Chipsets Roundup, the performance of the new chipset from VIA is not higher than that of nForce2 Ultra 400. However, performance is not the only factor determining the chipset’s success. Other factors include the price of the solution, the cost of implementation in mainboards, characteristics that don’t directly relate to performance and so on. That’s why KT600 can hope for a bright future, although not in the high-end market sector. Enthusiastic users are more likely to prefer nForce2 as showing noticeably higher speed.
Today we are going to review an ASUS A7V600 mainboard to see whether the major mainboard maker could bake up a worthy KT600-based Socket A product.
Socket A AMD Athlon XP/Duron
DDR DIMM slots
Expansion slots (PCI/ACR/CNR)
USB 2.0 ports
Serial ATA 150
As you see from the table, the mainboard has no additional RAID or FireWire controllers. But Serial ATA RAID is supported by the South Bridge, and ASUS has implemented it, probably, not hoping for VIA KT600 to be popular among enthusiastic users. The PCB has some places left blank. Particularly, there’s space to solder up an IDE RAID Promise PDC20376 controller that supports one Parallel ATA and two Serial ATA channels.
Overall, the PCB of A7V600 resembles the one of A7V8X, with some differences due to the VT8237 South Bridge being non-pin-compatible with VT8235 used in A7V8X. So, it looks like ASUS had also planned to release a highly functional version of A7V600 with FireWire support (there is space on the PCB for this connector, too) and so on, but later gave up the idea. KT600 is not for the fans of everything high-end.
The accessories included with the mainboard don’t impress, either. They are the usual small things and articles coming with any other mainboard. There is even no standard USB bracket for the rear panel of the system case. It means you can use only four ports (six – if your system case has corresponding connectors) out of the eight supported by the South Bridge (VT8237) and present on the PCB.
The accessories don’t also include a bracket with the second COM port, which can hardly be considered an advantage. The mainboard connector panel couldn’t accommodate it: ASUS preferred to place an S/PDIF connector there, thinking most people use it more frequently than the COM. This may be true in many, but not all situations.
The two Serial ATA cables boast a nice peculiarity: the plastic cap that covers the connector is fastened to the wires with a plastic tape so you will hardly ever lose it. A pleasing trifle.
One more nice trifle is the bag with spare jumper caps, although they don’t have “tails” like those coming with the DFI or ABIT mainboards.And here’s the registry of all the other accessories: one 80-pin UltraATA cable, a 40-pin IDE cable, FDD cable, bracket for the back panel, game port bracket, user’s manual and a software CD-disk. The manual also promised stickers for the keyboard to use with the exclusive Instant Music feature, but with a meaningful remark – “Retail Boxes Only”. It seems like we have got the wrong box – no stickers, although Instant Music is there.
Now that we have started talking about Instant Music, let us dwell upon this feature first. So, what is Instant Music? It’s simple – you can listen to audio CDs without booting up the system and even without going through the POST procedure. The CPU is in use, though, and that’s why I doubt that you can use Instant Music if you overclock your CPU too much. Actually, Instant Music is a nice feature, although I wish something could be displayed on the monitor during the CD-disk playback: the music track number or hints about the controls, for instance. Of course, there are those stickers for your keyboard, but I didn’t have them. Moreover, I’m too much in love with my home keyboard to glue anything to it. Otherwise, Instant Music is all right.
Yet another interesting, but slightly underdeveloped function of this mainboard is Q-Fan technology. It reduces the CPU fan rotation speed in order to reduce the noise it produces. It does reduce the fan speed, but seems to be unable to increase it back after the CPU grows too hot. For example, I had my processor 70oC hot, but the fan was still rotating at the reduced rpm level.
Thus, if you set the fan rotation speed to 10/15 of the nominal rpm level (the range is from 10/15 to 15/15, which is the full rotation speed), and thus reduce the cooling ability of your fan, you won’t learn that it is insufficient for your system until the computer re-boots or the overheat protection system turns on. You may agree that a similar technology from AOpen aka SilentTek, which we have already discussed in our Six VIA KT400A Mainboards Roundup looks more perfect. For example, it allows setting the dependence of the fan rotation speed on the CPU temperature. Overall, AOpen’s technology is more functional than Q-Fan from ASUS.
ASUS A7V600 has something to be called unique: a special-purpose Wi-Fi slot. As you may guess, this slot serves to accommodate WLAN kits from ASUS, recently announced under the name of Wi-Fi@HOME. The kit consists of a card, an antenna and software that makes this device work as a gateway (in Windows XP only) and ensures shared Internet access. The 802.11b standard is supported, providing an up to 11Mbit/s bandwidth and covering 30-meter distance in an apartment. Other kits are on schedule, with support of 802.11g and other wireless standards and Wi-Fi Slot-compatible, so you won’t have to upgrade the mainboard to use a newer standard.
Wi-Fi@HOME devices protect the data sent through the WLAN with the help of encryption according to the WEP protocol (Wire Equivalent Privacy): 64-bit or 128-bit-long keys. This standard is considered appropriate for data transferred in home WLANs. It is not recommended to trust WEP the transfer of confidential data – better use a wired network or the good old diskette and CD-disc.
If you don’t have the opportunity or wish to deploy a wireless network, you are offered wired options. As most modern mainboards, ASUS A7V600 is equipped with a Gigabit Ethernet controller. The controller from Marvell supports Virtual Cable Tester technology, which is described in detail at Marvell’s website. I will explain just the main idea of it to you here: according to Marvell, Virtual Cable Tester can diagnose many problems with the Ethernet cable like ruptures or bridges with about one-meter precision. Virtual Cable Tester can also shoot such troubles as pair swaps, pair polarity and some others.
The design of the mainboard’s PCB is traditional for a product based on VIA’s chipset. There are certain deviations from the norm, though, that can hardly be called appropriate.
First, the ATX power connector sits on the front part of the PCB. We have already seen this solution in DFI LAN PARTY NFII Ultra. I guessed that the engineers just couldn’t put the relatively large connector in its proper place because it was occupied by some components of the CPU power supply circuit. I can’t actually explain why this is done on ASUS A7V600 with its definitely less impressive power supply circuit. By the way, there are some empty spots on A7V600 PCB right where the power supply circuit is laid out. I counted four landing places for power transistors, three - for capacitors and over ten - for smaller items like resistors. It looks as if ASUS had decided to become greedy and save on “unnecessary” details.
The onboard connector of the second COM port is fitted in between two PCI slots. It may cause difficulties when plugging-in add-on cards or the COM cable itself. The game port is right before the PCI slots, although it is a small inconvenience. Finally, there is the common problem of the installed graphics card blocking the DIMM slot clips. Moreover, you will have this problem even using a shorter card like RADEON 9700 PRO. Even in this case all three DIMM slots are blocked, while on other mainboards it is usually only the first one that suffers.
Otherwise, the PCB design is quite good, and our further faultfinding was fruitless. As for words of approval, we would like to point out that ASUS engineers managed to make the mainboard user-friendlier: the contacts for Power, Reset and other buttons are color-coded, while a special LED informs you about standby power.
The mainboard’s BIOS uses the microcode from Award. The interface of the BIOS Setup differs from what we are accustomed to see and resembles the interface of the Albatron KM18G Pro mainboard (see our Albatron KM18G PRO (NVIDIA nForce2 IGP) Mainboard Review). Anyway, you will learn quickly to use it.
The BIOS Setup has no main window, so the user will get right into the Standard section. It is not so interesting to us, so we go over to the Advanced section. This page includes nearly all user-defined settings, save for the boot-up sequence (it is in the Boot section), hard disk drive settings (in the Main section) and power settings (Power).
The Advanced page you see in the snapshot contains several submenus, but we will now talk about the options we have in the main menu. So, the CPU frequency comes first. There are a few presets as well as the Manual option for you to choose the CPU clock-rate yourself. If this is the case, you are free to vary the system bus frequency from 100 to 250MHz with 1MHz increment and select a multiplier from a range of 5x – 22.5x. It is good that you can see the PCI frequency corresponding to the selected system bus frequency. It is not good that you are not allowed to enter the values from the keyboard, but have to scroll through a long list of possible values.
The memory frequency is the next available setting. According to the latest fashion among the mainboard makers, you don’t use divisors, but select a frequency from the list that includes “266”, “333”, “400” and “Auto” options. The latter will probably clock the memory synchronously with the system bus, but it is hard to check this out: the mainboard doesn’t show the memory frequency during the POST.
Now, to the voltages. Vmem varies from 2.55V to 2.85V with 0.1V increment. You can also let the mainboard choose the parameter value (“Auto”). The mainboard doesn’t track this parameter, so I cannot tell exactly which voltage is sent to the memory in this case. Vagp can change from 1.5V to 1.8V with 0.1V increment or, again, can be left for the mainboard to be set it up. As for Vcore, things are more complicated with it. The range of the CPU voltage is not fixed, but depends on the processor’s nominal voltage. So, the maximum voltage you can use is 0.2V above the nominal for your processor, while the minimum equals this nominal. It is evidently done to prevent inexperienced users from frying up their processors, but overclockers will hardly appreciate this.
The next system parameter, System Performance, has two positions: “Optimal” and “Turbo”. When in the Turbo mode, the mainboard must be reducing the chipset’s timings to boost performance. However, I found that this mode brings no perceptible advantages in speed.
The next item, USB Legacy Support, allows you to boot-up from USB flash drives. I cannot claim it for sure, but Award’s BIOS didn’t have this option before and didn’t allow booting-up from a flash drive.
Now, we go to the Chip Configuration subsection.
We have memory subsystem timings and AGP settings here. The settings are flexible enough and their purpose is clear, except the four settings below. Anyway, you can just let them be. The only strange parameter here is Graphics Aperture Size, or rather its value – 32MB – which cannot be altered. This was the case with the both BIOS versions I used – 1001 and 1005, which was the newest when I was working on this review.The I/O Device Configuration section is analogous to the Integrated Peripherals section in “ordinary” BIOS Setup programs and is responsible for enabling/disabling additional controllers and settings up LPT, COM and MIDI ports. An interesting option here is Floppy Disk Access Control that blocks the floppy disks and prohibits writing anything to them in order to protect your system against virus, which can be transported with the diskettes.
One more subsection of the mainboard’s BIOS Setup I’d like to dwell upon is Hardware Monitor, which somehow found its place in the Power section. An unpleasant thing about it is that the system hangs up for a while (during data refresh) and takes no notice of you punching the keyboard. But then it suddenly wakes back to life to recall all your keystrokes and execute them right away. An annoying thing. And as we are talking about monitoring, the ASUS PC Probe utility coming with the mainboard cannot correctly read up the values from the temperature sensors. At least, the data it provides differ from what we see in the BIOS. This problem is solved by installing the newer version of the utility, but it not honest of ASUS to provide utilities that don’t work correctly from the beginning.
So, this winds up the description of the BIOS Setup. We are now going over to practical tests.
Overclocking tests of this mainboards were carried out according to the methods we used in our Six VIA KT400A Mainboards Roundup. First, we check whether ASUS A7V600 can feed an Athlon XP working at 2250MHz (166x13.5). I realize that this frequency is just a little above the nominal for Athlon XP 3200+ (2200MHz), but together with higher Vcore (1.85V), this provides a stress on the CPU power circuit. And that’s exactly what we want to see – the quality and stability of the power circuit. The stability is checked by running 3DMark2001 SE three times, by launching four demos from Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo one by one and by going through all the tests from SPECviewperf 7.1. I guess this is more than enough to call a system stable.
Again, this mainboard allows setting Vcore depending on the CPU’s nominal voltage. That’s why I pushed aside an Athlon XP 1700+ I usually use for the maximum voltage test (its voltage could only be increased to 1.7V) and used an Athlon XP 3200+ instead. But these are minor details as long as the mainboard passed the test.
During the second test I checked the mainboard’s ability to increase the memory frequency in the synchronous mode (memory works at the same frequency with the FSB). The CPU multiplier is reduced, while the memory timings are increased to 3-4-4-8. Two OCZ PC3700 EL DDR modules of 256MB capacity each were used with an increased voltage (2.85V), so the memory will surely not stop overclocking.
Moreover, I dropped the AGP speed to 4x for the graphics card not to limit overclocking, either. The point of this is that our RADEON 9700 PRO card is operational at an up to 70MHz AGP in the 8x mode, and 75MHz in the 4x mode. With the AGP divisor set to 3, we have 15MHz more of the system bus frequency and even more – of the CPU clock-rate, while the difference in system performance with AGP 8x and 4x is negligible in modern applications. With the mainboard set up in this manner, we are increasing the FSB frequency to the stability peak. The stability was checked just like in the previous test.
The result of this test was rather depressing. The system was only stable until 207MHz FSB. Keeping in mind that 200MHz is the nominal for KT600-based mainboards, this can only be regarded as an overclocking failure. I suppose the poor results may caused by the absence of additional 12V power, which is usually used on all mainboards targeted for overclocking fans. We hope this is not in the nature of the VIA KT600 based mainboards, otherwise, its name may become a curse word in the overclockers’ mouths.
This is our testbed configuration:
The testbed worked in Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0a installed.
Now, a few words about the memory timings. Firstly, for the system to work at all (to boot Windows up) at 200MHz memory frequency, I had to disable the SDRAM 1T Command Rate in the BIOS. So, Command Rate was set to 2. After a lot of experiments, I found the system to be fully stable with 2-3-3-6-2T memory timings, so I used them during the tests.
I am inclined to think that these problems are connected with the chipset rather than the mainboard. As an indirect evidence, I can point to VIA’s launching a PC3200 modules certification program not so long ago. Mainboard manufacturers that offer KT600-based products also test memory modules for compatibility. Particularly, ASUS’ website lists modules tested for compatibility with A7V600. Regrettably, the Corsair and OCZ modules we have at hand are not on the list.
So, here are the test results shown by the ASUS A7V600 mainboard:
VIA KT600 Reference board
DFI LAN PARTY (nForce2)
Business Winstone 2002, Score
Content Creation Winstone 2003, Score
3DMark2001 SE, Score
3DMark03, CPU Score
PCMark2002, CPU Score
PCMark2002, Memory Score
SiSoft Sandra Int RAM Buffered Bandwidth
UT2003, dm-antalus, 1024x768x32
Serious Sam SE, The Grand Cathedral, 1024x768x32
* The results of this test should not be compared directly as the testbed featuring the VIA KT600 reference board had a different hard disk drive.
Yeah, ASUS A7V600 doesn’t offer any spectacular performance. Far from it. This mainboard was slower than both nForce2-based product (which is natural) and the KT600 reference board. Although the failure is not catastrophic, it doesn’t add any good feelings about the mainboard. We should also admit that with the BIOS version 1001 the performance was much lower, in particular, we failed to reach 15,000 score in 3DMark2001 SE. Having reflashed the new BIOS version 1005, I managed to improve the performance quite noticeably. Therefore, I have some hope that ASUS may push it higher in future BIOS versions. As it is now, the performance of ASUS A7V600 is even below the average.
So, you have just taken a look at the ASUS A7V600 mainboard, the first KT600-based mass product to enter our test lab. Frankly speaking, I can’t call this solution good. The mainboard is slower than the reference board from VIA and is practically devoid of any overclocking potential (at bus frequencies above 200MHz). Good innovations like Q-Fan and Instant Music are not free from minor drawbacks, too. I don’t list the memory-related problems here, as I consider them to belong to the chipset rather than the mainboard. They need further detailed examination. And they are going to receive it in our upcoming reviews.
On the other hand, if you just want an average mainboard for less money, this one may do. Its functionality can satisfy an undemanding user (I don’t think that the lack of FireWire support is a critical thing). The price of the product – about $85 – may help it find a way to the customer’s heart, especially among ASUS aficionados.