Foxconn BlackOps: Extraordinary Mainboard on Intel X48 Express Chipset

In January 2008 at the CES show Foxconn demonstrated for the first time a new Quantum Force mainboard on Intel X48 Express also known as Foxconn BlackOps. Today we are going to take a closer look at this unique product in our new review!

by Doors4ever
10/01/2008 | 06:06 PM

Hon Hai Precision Industry Company that owns Foxconn trademark was founded back in 1974. Today, the name of Foxconn Technology Group is familiar to everyone who is at least a little bit into computers. In the end of August 2007 the company introduced Quantum Force mainboard series for computer enthusiasts. The first model there was Foxconn Mars, which we have already discussed in our article called “Foxconn Mars Mainboard on Intel P35 Express Chipset”. In January 2008 at the CES show they demonstrated for the first time a new Quantum Force mainboard on Intel X48 Express. It also got a name: Foxconn BlackOps. The board officially launched in the end of April 2008 and today we decided to finally :) offer you a detailed coverage of its features and functionality.

Package and Accessories

 

The front of the Foxconn BlackOps box is decorated with the corresponding special force unit. The board model name is written in very original font, all the logos are there and the manufacturer’s name is very visible and eye-catching.

The back of the box lists some of its features:

We usually provide box shots in all our reviews so that the user who liked the board could easily identify it on the store shelf among a bunch of other solutions. However, there is one more reason why Foxconn package will definitely catch your eye. This box is a little taller, much longer and twice thicker as any of the traditional mainboard boxes. So, it can blend in among the boxes with large liquid-cooling systems, small system cases or consumer products, but not among other mainboards, that’s certain.

The external box is a decorative cover-box made of thin cardboard. The contents of the package is secured in an internal box of thick cardboard that holds a box with the mainboard and two small boxes with accessories. The mainboard is bundled with FDD and IDE cables, two kinds of Serial ATA cables – with straight and L-shaped connectors, rear panel I/O Shield and an additional bracket with two USB and one IEEE1394 ports. Among “pleasing extras” we could definitely point out plastic ties and a Quantum Flow-GPU Blower. In fact, it is a regular 120-mm fan with a set of retention blackest and screws. It should supposedly help better cool the graphics cards in the system.

The mainboard is positioned for overclockers, so it is also bundled with two variable resistors for voltmods.

Enthusiasts often use mainboards in an open platform without any system case. In this case you can put together a special stand using a clear plastic sheet and a set of metal pins:

The sheet has holes in it that coincide with the retention holes of standard ATX mainboards. This way you can arrange the board on your desk very conveniently:

Intel X48 Express chipset used as a basis for Foxconn BlackOps mainboard supports two graphics cards in CrossFire mode. It is bundled wit a CD disk with documentation and ATI software, brief user’s guide and a pair of original adapters.

There is also a set of user’s documentation for the board itself: an installation poster, a manual, a floppy with RAID drivers and a CD disk with software and mainboard drivers.

As a bonus, there is a system case sticker, several transfer pictures and military type metal tags with Quantum Force logo.

We have been listing bundled accessories for quite a while already, however, this is not all that you get with the board. There are also cooling system components, however, we are going to discuss them in the next part of our article.

PCB Design and Functionality

Foxconn have been working on their BlackOps mainboard for a long time and did a very thorough job. Therefore, no wonder its layout looks very well thought-through and convenient.

Let’s start with the chipset cooling system. It all starts at the South Bridge that is topped with a common heatsink. There is a heatpipe leading from the South Bridge heatsink to the base o the North Bridge heatsink. The second heatpipes starts there and ends at the heatsink covering the transistors in the processor voltage regulator circuitry.

The most interesting part is the chipset North Bridge cooling system. It can work in four different modes that is why they called it “4 in 1 Quantum Cooler”.

The mainboard is shipped with a copper water block on the chipset North Bridge.

The water block lid can be easily unscrewed. There is also a set of additional retention screws, a rubber ring-pad and larger connecting pipes:

If you don’t overclock your system, this heatsink can run in passive mode, i.e. without any additional cooling.

If you overclock your system and increase the CPU Vcore, it will not be enough any more, so you can install a 50-mm fan on top of the heatsink. The air-cooling mode looks the least stylish of all four, because the heatsink is rectangular and you can only use two screws to fasten a square fan on it.

Moreover, a thick 25-mm fan wouldn’t let us install Zalman CNPS9700 LED processor cooler that we normally use for our tests. Theoretically, you can push the fan a little farther away and fasten it using only one screw, but it is easier to replace it with a standard 50-mm fan that is 10mm tall.

Finally, extreme users may install a small plastic container on top of the heatsink that allows using dry ice or liquid nitrogen for chipset North Bridge cooling.

The cooling system is pretty heavy, because tubes filled with liquid may cause additional pressure that is why all three heatsinks are attached very reliably with screws and the heatsink on processor voltage regulator transistors I also equipped with a special plate for even heat distribution.

Foxconn BlackOps mainboard uses eight-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry with improved functionality compared with traditional voltage regulators. There is an 8-pin ATX12V power connector nearby, which is quite logical. Overall, if you look at the upper pat of the PCB, you will be pleased to find that the components placement is practically classical:

Thanks to years of experience in mainboard design and manufacturing, Foxconn managed to keep the 24-pin power connector, FDD and IDE connectors in their traditional spots. The only issue we see here is that a long graphics card installed into the first PCI Express x16 slot will hinder installation or replacement of the memory modules.

The lower part of the PCB looks as good as the upper part. Although there are three PCI Express x16 slots, the developers still managed to fit in three PCI slots. By the way, only the two upper PCI Express x16 slots are of 2.0 standard and work at full speed. The very last slot works as PCI Express x4 at best.

Intel ICH9R South Bridge provides 6 Serial ATA ports with RAID support. There are USB 2.0 connectors, COM port and IEEE1394 connector along the lower side of the PCB. The latter is implemented via Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A controller.

Let’s take a closer look at the lower right corner of Foxconn BlackOps PCB. We see two BIOS chips and a jumper that allows switching between them. First position forced boot-up from the first chip, while second position – from the second. By default the jumper is set in third position: the system boots from the first chip, but you can switch to the second on from the BIOS. The last position stands for boot-up from the second chip with a possibility to switch to the first one in the BIOS.

POST-indicator helps monitor the booting process. There is a Clear CMOS jumper next to it, however, you may as well use the button. The only inconvenience is that Clear CMOS and Reset buttons are very close to one another. Also, there was not enough room on that part of the PCB, so “Clear CMOS” is written right beneath the Reset button, which may cause additional confusion. You can easily mistake one for the other. The Power On button, however, is a little farther away, so there is no way you mix it up with anything else.

The mainboard rear panel carries PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse and two eSATA ports (they are implemented via JMicron JMB363 controller that is also responsible for IDE connectors). There I one more IEEE1394 port, two Gigabit network RJ45 ports implemented via Broadcom PCI and PCI-E controllers, 6 USB 2.0 ports, an optical and a coaxial S/PDIF.

Do not be surprised that there are no audio-jacks and other sound connectors: they are all very conveniently moved to a separate daughter SONAR audio-card based on an eight-channel Realtek ALC885 codec.

The photo from the user’s manual will help get a better idea of the major components location, although it may be not as easy to read as a layout scheme. Namely, you can see that we haven’t yet mentioned that the board allows connecting 6 fans and has an additional jumper set a little above the first PCI Express x16 slot. It allows setting the FSB frequency at a fixed value of 266, 333, 400 or 450MHz. However, the jumper is set to Auto by default and you can set the desired FSB frequency in the BIOS Setup.

We would like to wind up this part of our Foxconn BlackOps design discussion with a complete list of its technical specifications. As you can see once again, the mainboard is designed brilliantly and hardly has any drawbacks at all:

BIOS Setup

The main window of Foxconn BlackOps mainboard BIOS looks quite common. However, they claim that a well-known overclocker Peter “Shamino” Tan was a consultant during the development, so all the “delicacies” are hidden inside.

The first section has pretty traditional functionality, so we won’t dwell on it. We would only like to point out the last option in Advanced BIOS Features section that we haven’t seen before:

By default Debug Code Control parameter is set to LPC, i.e. we will be monitoring the POST procedure using integrated POST-codes indicator on the mainboard PCB. If you have a favorite PCI card with POST-code indicator on it, you can change the setting to PCI and work with an external indicator.

After that let’s pass a few other sections with standard functions and stop at PC Health Status:

Look how beautiful it is! Foxconn BlackOps mainboard is one of the few contemporary solutions that allow adjusting the rotation speed of all fans that can be connected to it right from the BIOS! We don’ need any programs or utilities, not to mention any additional resistors or controllers to be involved. BY default, the rotation speed is adjusted automatically in Smart Fan mode, but you can also set it manually at any rate from 0 to 99%. There is one small thing to keep in mind, though: the processor fan has to have a four-pin connector, otherwise the rotation speed adjustment will not work.

Besides system and processor temperatures, the board reports the temperature of the chipset North Bridge. Besides 3.3V, 5V and 12V, the board also monitors processor Vcore, Vmem and North Bridge voltage. Overall, PC Health Status section scores the highest for its rich functionality. We only wish they allowed using processor fans with three-pin connectors, too.

The functionality of the Quantum BIOS section with all the overclocking-related settings also makes the nicest impression:

At first most of the settings are inactive, because overclocking is not permitted. You may change Over Clock Phase Select from default O.C. Disabled to Instant Overclocking. In this case the board will try finding the most optimal frequency and voltage settings for successful system overclocking. The increment is 5%, and the maximum overclocking is 75%.

However, you can only get full access to all the parameters if you set Manual O.C. Note that in this case the system disables Spread Spectrum (suppressing harmful EMI) and enables Over Clock Recovery (system recovery after a failed boot-up resulting from over-overclocking). Many manufacturers forget about it and you have to enable and disable these options manually.

FSB frequency can vary in the interval from 100 to 999MHz with 1MHz increment. It is obviously too big of an interval, because contemporary systems cannot work at such high FSB speeds. However, the mainboard has such great potential, that this exaggeration doesn’t strike as something out of this world at all. By the way, you will see in CPU Feature sub-section that during overclocking C1E technology gets disabled and Enhanced Intel SpeedStep (EIST) gets disabled if you change the processor clock multiplier.

In the same CPU Feature sub-section there is a rare Cold Bug Boot Fix parameter that prevents the processor from working at extremely low temperatures.

Memory Timing Config sub-section offers the richest configuration options for memory modules. Each parameter can be adjusted individually. You can change Performance Level and Command Per Clock parameters, too.

All Voltage Control section is impressively convenient to work with. All voltages are split into groups related to the CPU, chipset and memory. Processor Vcore can be increased with the parameter called CPU Voltage Multiplier or set using CPU Voltage Setting parameter. The corresponding informational fields will immediately report the expected final value, tell you the current setting and remind of the default.

The supported voltage interval for CPU Voltage Setting parameter starts at 0.825V and goes up to 1.6V with 0.0125V increment. However, CPU Voltage Multiplier makes it over 1.5 times bigger, since the maximum multiplier is x1.525. So, you can set the processor Vcore at up to 2.44V. The dangerously high voltage settings will be highlighted red.

All other voltages can be adjusted with variable increments, but the supported range are very high:

The last sub-section of Quantum BIOS section is called OC Gear. It allows saving all the settings in one of the 8 available profiles. You can even erase the contents of any of the profiles, which is a very rare feature.

Unfortunately, only the color will indicate if the profile is empty or not, there is no way to assign any names or description to he profiles.

Board Information section will tell you the name of the board, BIOS version, network card addresses, CPU model name and current memory frequency.

Just like the PCB, the BIOS of Foxconn BlackOps mainboard makes the best impression. We did point out a few insignificant issues, but in fact, all we see are indisputable advantages.

Software

If you installed the CD disk bundled with Foxconn BlackOps mainboard into the drive and you have Autorun feature working, you will get a very attractive window on your screen:

Quite logically, the first item on the list is driver installation with an explanation for each driver. The screenshot below shows Intel chipset drivers description:

The last item on the list is pretty interesting: it will allow installing Norton Internet Security 2006. However, we would like to start with the brand name AEGIS Panel utility:

We have already discussed this utility during our Foxconn Mars tests, however, it was in the early development stage at that time. It has limited functionality, namely there were no overclocking related options at all. Now it is time to check out AEGIS Panel in action.

It installs easily and we get the main screen with “rusty” design that reminds us of the Fallout game.

We see right away that nothing changed for the better in terms of usability. The same large window with gigantic digits suitable for visually impaired people, the same empty panels you get by following the arrows and clicking the red Panel L or Panel R stripes.

By the way, if you decide to close the program, don’t go for the traditional upper right corner of the window with red or blue stripes. It is just a decoration, and all the buttons you need are actually in a completely opposite direction: lower left corner. It is definitely unique, but very inconvenient.

Once you’ve tried all the buttons and stripes, you finally find the one you actually need. To get access to the program functionality, you need to click on a barely noticeable green Control Panel stripe in the lower right corner:

The lower panel will report fan rotation speeds, the right one – current voltages, the left – temperatures. However, even though the mainboard can control three temperatures, the utility reports only one.

If for some reason you decide to click on one of the fan icons in the lower pane, you will be rewarded with the opportunity to adjust the rotation speed of this particular fan. Overall, it repeats the BIOS functionality.

For example, you can set the rotation speed at a fixed value.

However, there have also appeared a few new features. You don’t have to rely on mysterious algorithms changing the fan rotation speed depending on the temperature reading: you can set all the values yourself.

There are additional buttons-stripes along the side of the lower panel. The first one – OC – allows changing some frequencies and voltages, i.e. overclock the system. However, memory frequency adjustment is missing.

The second button – HWM INFO – opens the panels with monitoring data that we have already seen by clicking the Control Panel button in the main window. I would say it is a little strange to get HWM INFO by clicking Control Panel, isn’t it?

ALARM button will open a set of windows where you can set safe temperature, voltage and fan rotation speed intervals. Once the parameter goes beyond the safe interval, you will get a warning signal.

CONFIG button will let you set the temperature measuring units, sound signal source, values refresh rate, etc.

In conclusion to our AEGIS Panel experience we can say that its looks very well reflects its contents: bulky, inconvenient, unintuitive, all in all – “rusty”. Moreover, it is not bug-free.

However, we installed this utility from a CD disk bundled with the board. We assumed it was quite possible that there was better utility version on the company web-site. Unfortunately, Foxconn web-site also is not very easy to navigate that is why we couldn’t find the newer utility version right away.

So, we decided to install another brand name utility called FOX LiveUpdate that should help find any available updates.

Once installed, the selfish FOX LiveUpdate utility rushes online to find updates for itself and then a window pops up with a not very convincing suggestion to update:

Ok, we agree and wait for new FOX LiveUpdate version to download.

By the way, FOX LiveUpdate not only took liberties with us and went right for the Net without even asking, it created a new folder on drive C where it downloaded all the new updates. Will it clean everything up afterwards? We’ll see…

The download is complete and FOX LiveUpdate asks if we would like to update immediately:

We agree to install, but FOX LiveUpdate warns us that the previous version will be removed. We agree once again, the old version of the utility is successfully removed and an Installation Wizard window pops up saying that everything is complete. Wait a second! And who will now install a new version? We launch the installation file once again, but FOX LiveUpdate immediately informs us that everything has already been installed…

Good that we noticed that ne folder, where FOX LiveUpdate downloaded all the updates. Installation file is a regular self-extracting archive. We extract the files manually, launch Setup.exe and finally get the latest operational version of FOX LiveUpdate utility.

In fact, despite modest looks, FOX LiveUpdate boasts very good theoretical functionality. At least, it is way better than a similar tool from MSI that works only in online mode. And here we can check the current BIOS version, save the old one or update with an existing local version. Or we could go online and find an even newer BIOS update, latest drivers or utilities or all of the above at the same time.

We don’t need the drivers, we updated the BIOS from a flash drive without the unpredictable FOX LiveUpdate utility. That is why we will be looking only for the new programs. Although the info-window of FOX LiveUpdate claims that we run AEGIS Panel version 1.0.2.18, while the main AEGIS Panel window reads version 1.0.2.17, but that’s a trifle, really.

FOX LiveUpdate couldn’t find a newer AEGIS Panel version, but it found FOX ONE instead.

We already know about this utility from our review of a budget Foxconn P35AX-S solution. FOX ONE utility turned out not quite ideal, but it made a very good overall impression. At least, we liked it much more than AEGIS Panel. So, we agree to download it and wait for a long time for 15MB to download to our system at about 15KB/s. Once done, we proceed to install, but get an error message: it turned out that FOX ONE utility doesn’t support Foxconn BlaskOps mainboard. Looks like FOX LiveUpdate once again misled us.

Unfortunately, we have to conclude that both Foxconn’s brand name utilities are not quite satisfactory as of today. Well, software turned out not that good, hopefully, the board will make up for it.

Overclocking

Our testbed was configured as follows:

I have to remind you that none of the new mainboards that we have recently tested in our labs could provide stable working environment for our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 test CPU at 500MHz FSB. However, Foxconn BlackOps made such a great impression with its PDB design and BIOS functionality, it had a reputation of a super-overclocker solution (we haven’t yet checked out its brand name software and utilities at that time), that is why we started our experiments with this particular frequency. And we were absolutely right to do so!

We lower the processor clock frequency multiplier to the minimal x6, increase the voltages just a little and the board boots and loads the OS without any problems. Moreover, Intel Burn Test utility showed that the system was perfectly stable. The CPU was working at its default frequency of 3.0GHz. However, we couldn’t move any further than that. We increased the voltages one by one, changed the bus to memory frequency ratio, disabled processor power-saving technologies, but the board wouldn’t load Windows even once, and in most cases wouldn’t boot at all.

We suspected that it was the chipset cooling system. 4 in 1 Quantum Cooler sounds very cool. In reality, however, the chipset North Bridge heatsink is just a simple water block, and it should be used this way. Everything else is pure marketing.

Look here. Of course, the plastic container for liquid nitrogen or dry ice cannot be used for a long time. It is fit for setting some quick records, but that’s about it. Passive mode? Yes, possible. The heatsink is so massive that it remains cold to the touch for a while. However, massiveness doesn’t mean large heat dissipating surface area. The heatsink warms up slowly, but once it gets warm, it is very hard to cool down. So, looks like the only acceptable operational mode for an overclocked system is with liquid chipset cooling.

The pipes from Corsair Nautilus 500 liquid-cooling system fit perfectly to Foxconn BlackOps’ water block. I have always thought that a water block in the chipset cooling system is a great solution for the users and is indisputably advantageous for the board. Now that I came across this solution in practical experiments, I had to change my opinion. With a discrete water block, you can remove it and install onto another board, rinse or replace the liquid solution. When the water block is integrated into a system, service it may turn into a real problem. You won’t shake the board to make sure that all liquid is out. Rinsing it will also be complicated. You will have to take everything apart, and the bigger is the system, the harder it is going to be. Moreover, heatpipes are very fragile: the pipe material is very thin and they can bend easily.

The first tests with liquid-cooling of the chipset North Bridge showed that it may have been the right call. We could easily hit 510MHz FSB, but not any higher. However, while we were looking for the most optimal parameter combination we noticed that the board worked at older P02 BIOS version, instead of the new P05 that we have reflashed before the test session. By the way, I didn’t find any information on Foxconn web-site about the changes accompanying the BIOS reflashing with a newer version.

I have to admit that I couldn’t figure out how the system switched the operational BIOS chip. Theoretically, it is enough to change in OC Gear section Software Item Selecting parameter from BIOS ROM 1 to BIOS ROM 2 or the other way around, but it didn’t work all the time. As a result, I was sure that both chips had BIOS version P05 in them, and then it turned out that one of them still had version P02. Luckily, hardware switching of the BIOS chips with the jumpers works perfectly fine, so I figured it out very soon. With the old BIOS version the board can load OS at 510MHz FSB, while with the new version you will have to stop at 500MHz FSB and replacing he chipset cooling system with a liquid solution doesn’t have any effect on that.

It is pretty sad, but 500MHz FSB is not the ultimate goal. It is just a pretty “round” number, not a minimally sufficient (most processors reach the maximum of their potential long before that) and not the maximally necessary (it may not be enough for some processors anyway). So, as you remember, at 500MHz FSB our CPU was working with a lower clock frequency multiplier at its nominal speed of 3.0GHz. So let’s try to overclock it. Our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor already overclocked to 4.1GHz on a number of different mainboards. So we set the multiplier to 8.5x, the bus speed - to 483MHz, increased the voltages, but the system remained unstable.

Inability of a super-overclocker board to overclock a dual-core processor is a real unpleasant surprise. But maybe the board will show its best with quad-core processors? Unfortunately, not. We started our experiments with Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 at a pretty average 450MHz FSB frequency, but the board wouldn’t start until we dropped this frequency to 410MHz. however, even in this case it just started, but then the system rebooted on its own without even loading the Windows.

It was a very frustrating result, but we remembered that Foxconn BlackOps can overclock processors on its own in Instant Overclocking mode. In this case you can get maximum 75% overclocking and our Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 overclocked to 450MHz FSB makes only 35%. We failed to boot at this frequency. However, we managed to load the OS at 25% overclocking, which is 416MHz FSB.

What mysterious settings does Foxconn BlackOps use in automatic overclocking mode? It turned out, nothing special, not that much different from what I set manually before. The processor Vcore and North Bridge voltages increase just a little, VTT voltage remains nominal… Why couldn’t we load the operating system at 410MHz before? Very strange… However, these settings were too low to push the CPU overclocking to 30%, up to 433MHz FSB. Let’s try and increase them a little bit more. Miracle! The board loads Windows at 435MHz FSB! Nevertheless, relatively common for a few other boards 450MHz FSB frequency remained unattainable for Foxconn BlackOps.

Conclusion

Foxconn BlackOps mainboard looks very attractive. Moreover, it boasts excellent, thoroughly thought-through BIOS functionality and has very few drawbacks. But for some reason it can’t overclock processors well enough. Why is it so that we can take a mainstream overclocker mainboard from Gigabyte, for instance, and successfully overclock processors on it, while a super-overclocker high-end board can’t show the same result? Are these boards way too complicated? Do they have too many settings that need to be taken into account and specifically selected? Then why do we need boards like that at all?

I believe that a super-overclocker mainboard should overclock CPUs as quickly and easily as regular overclocker boards do. What should be different then? Most mainstream overclocker boards are functional enough for most users, but that’s about it. They overclocked your system and that’s all they can do. However, all those additional features a super-overclocker board has, will help achieve record-breaking speeds. Once you do your research and experiment enough, you may be able to slightly raise the frequency, lower the timings a few points and finally get the performance level unattainable for mainstream boards. It doesn’t matter that the difference is not that dramatic and can be only noticed in test applications and not in real ones – dedicated enthusiasts don’t care. On the other hand, if all those additional settings just make things more difficult, then why would one need them?

Mainstream DFI LANPARTY DK X48-T2RS mainboard that we have recently reviewed received our positive feedback. Some of our readers believe it wasn’t deserved, since the board didn’t set any records in terms of maximum CPU overclocking or highest FSB speed. It could be my mistake. Being the author of this review, I may not have explained my point of view correctly. The thing is that I really enjoyed working with DFI LANPARTY DK X48-T2RS mainboard and didn’t experience any problems. No, it couldn’t hit 500MHz FSB, but overclocked a dual-core processor to its maximum at 483MHz frequency. No, we couldn’t go past 450MHz FSB with a quad-core processor, but the system worked stably at this frequency. Reliability and problem-free operation – these are the best features of DFI LANPARTY DK X48-T2RS mainboard, IMHO. So, it completely deserved the positive feedback from us.

As for Foxconn BlackOps mainboard we reviewed today, we all know very well the results of a massive marketing campaign and unprecedented overclocking records set on it. If every Foxconn BlackOps mainboard were bundled with a small Shamino who could help with overclocking, we would have given it our highest score, too. As of now it doesn’t score very high.