Foxconn ELA: Unusual Mainboard on Intel P45 Express Chipset

Unusual layout and three PCI Express x16 slots – is that all a contemporary mainboard can surprise you with these days? Read our new review of a non-standard mainboard from Foxconn.

by Doors4ever
12/08/2008 | 02:07 PM

If you have recently read a mainboard review, then it was most likely a solution based on Intel P45 Express chipset. Of course, this remarkable statistics has been slightly messed up by the recent wave of articles on Intel Nehalem microarchitecture, which naturally included some information on the corresponding mainboards. By the way, we have posted one of the best materials on the topic that consists of two parts. The theoretical part discusses the peculiarities of the new microarchitecture and the practical part talks about benchmark results showing different application aspects of the new CPU as well as the entire LGA 1366 platform. So, if you haven’t yet checked out these articles for some reason, do it now and to hell with statistics :)

 

Anyway, Intel P45 Express based mainboards has been in the center of attention for a reason. It is the newest core logic set for the popular Intel processors on Core microarchitecture. Its specifications allow designing exclusive mainboards for computer enthusiasts as well as regular mainstream platforms for the mass market. Therefore, Intel P45 Express chipset is of great interest not only to manufacturers, but also to users and, of course, to reviewers. Therefore, there are a lot of similar articles about similar products out there… However, we wouldn’t take advantages of our readers’ dedication without good reason for it. We are not going to offer you yet another common Intel P45 Express based mainboard review. Our today’s hero is Foxconn ELA mainboard that has quite a few very interesting peculiarities about it. First of all, it is manufactured by Foxconn, one of the largest mainboard makers in the world and it would be unwise to ignore such widely spread solution. However, this is not the main reason.

If we rephrase one well-known saying: if you’ve seen one mainboard, you’ve seen them all. We will most likely see the processor socket at the top with the voltage regulator components around it and memory DIMM slots usually to the right of it but sometimes above. A little below and closer to the center of the PCB there is the chipset North Bridge and even lower – the expansion card slots… Unlike its all traditionally designed counterparts, Foxconn ELA boasts very original layout that is why we are particularly interested in it and would like to devote our today’s article to it. Of course, we hope that this mainboard turned out so unusual not because the engineers who designed it were bored, but because they were trying to make sure that it delivered better performance, better stability, more advanced processor overclocking functionality… Therefore, we are going to focus primarily on features for enthusiasts, namely, on overclocking. Besides, the board is equipped with three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots. It means that it is targeted for the upper market segment and the users who want to put together a high-performance system and are not ready to compromise.

But, let’s not get too far ahead at this point. As usual, we are going to start our new product review with what the happy owner sees first: the package and accessories bundle.

Package and Accessories

Foxconn ELA mainboard comes in a slightly bigger box that most regular mainboards:

The mainboard belongs to the Digital Life series that is why the box design features traditional theme (multimedia and gaming) and colors (yellow and orange) for this series. The box has a flip-open front cover that lists the peculiarities of Foxconn ELA mainboard. The Foxconn ELA features are also provided on the back of the box. Besides, there is a large photo of the board there, too:

Inside the box there is a smaller box with the following accessories:

Besides the drivers necessary for the board to work, the disk contains the following applications and utilities: Adobe Reader 7.0.7, DirectX9, FoxDMI, FoxLogo, FoxOne, LiveUpdate and pretty old version of Norton Internet Security 2006.

Foxconn ELA mainboard is not just lying in the box. For additional protection it is packed into another box made of thick cardboard.

PCB Design and Functionality

Some features of Foxconn ELA required Foxconn engineers to use their creative thinking and non-traditional approach to mainboard building:

Of course, three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots for graphics cards are something Foxconn engineers are especially proud of. As we know, the technical specifications of Intel P45 Express chipset allow only two slots by default. If only one connector is in use, it works at its full speed of x16; but if there are two graphics cards, the slots witch to x8 mode.

We know situations when manufacturers lay out the third graphics card slot, but it is usually running at what’s left. Since the chipset North Bridge has no extra PCI Express 2.0 lanes, the third slot uses the potential of the chipset South Bridge. So the third graphics card slot automatically loses support of the second generation PCI Express and can use 4 lanes maximum, i.e. it can work at PCI Express x4 speed at best. Foxconn developers couldn’t agree to that. To make sure that all three slots support PCI Express 2.0 they installed an additional IDT controller.

A single graphics card installed in Foxconn ELA still works at full PCI Express 2.0 x16 speed. When we install two or three graphics cards, the slots switch to PCI Express 2.0 x8 mode.

This is all great, but besides three PCI express x16 slots, the board also has two PCI Express x1 slots and two PCI slots. Seven slots take quite a bit of space on the PCB, so it turns out simply impossible to place the chipset North Bridge and processor socket in their traditional spots. So, Foxconn engineers took an unconventional approach: they moved the chipset North Bridge not below the CPU socket, but to the right of it. However, mainboard is a very complex device, its components are all connected and you can’t shuffle them around just like that: the length of signal lines and their route matter a lot for work at hundreds of megahertz frequencies. Therefore, the developers not just moved the North Bridge: they also had to turn the CPU socket. As a result, the “chipset North Bridge + processor socket” knot remained unchanged; it was simply rotated by 90 degrees counterclockwise:

As a result, all changes could be successfully implemented. DDR2 memory slots remained where they were supposed to be and turned out even closer to the chipset than in standard layout. It should have its positive effect on system stability. 8- and 24-pin power connectors are very conveniently located. The 8-phase digital processor voltage regulator circuitry is very compact and easily fit slightly above the socket.

Of course, there certainly exists a cooler that will not fit because of the chipset North Bridge heatsink or the additional heatsink over the processor voltage regulator elements connected to it with a heatpipe. However, we didn’t have any problems with the Zalman CNPS9700 LED cooler we used: there was enough free room around the processor socket.

Let’s now check out the lower part of the Foxconn ELA PCB.

We have already discussed numerous expansion slots and the additional IDT controller between them. If you install three contemporary graphics cards of large size, they will cover almost half of the mainboard PCB. Therefore, all connectors on the right-hand side of the PCB are positioned horizontally for your convenience:

The heatsink on the chipset South Bridge cannot be very big for the same exact reason. However, they could have made it a few millimeters taller instead of topping it with an embossed Digital Life logo sticker. Intel ICH10R chip warms up quite noticeably under load.

As for the advantages, we should definitely mention that all connectors are color-coded, there is a two-digit POST code indicator, Power On, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons. The buttons are quite far from one another and are marked with illustrative logos that are highlighted when the system is on. So, you are very unlikely to hit the wrong one by accident. We could also consider the integrated PC-speaker an advantage, if there were a possibility to disable it in the BIOS or with a jumper. Right now you will have to put up with loud annoying beeping every time you turn on the system. As for the drawbacks, I have to mention the location of the FDD connector, although it is not a serious issue these days.

The connector panel also looks far from traditional. There is a PS/2 port for the mouse, however there are two USB ports instead of a second identical PS/2 port for the keyboard. The mainboard has 6 UZSB ports altogether. You can add two more ports by using the enclosed bracket, which also has an IEEE1394 port. All three FireWire ports are implemented using VIA VT6306 controller.

The optical and coaxial S/PDIF and six audio-jacks are implemented via an 8-channel Realtek ALC888SDD codec. Gigabit network is provided by Realtek RTL8111C controller. The additional JMicron JMB363 controller delivers two eSATA and one Parallel ATA ports supporting two devices.

The mainboard manual doesn’t have the traditional schematics of the PCB layout with all the major components location, but you may like the layout photo much better, in fact. All the components on this photo have been enumerated and clarified for your convenience.

We haven’t yet mentioned the FSBSEL1 Connector jumper set located a little above the first graphics card slot. These jumpers allow changing the initial system bus frequency. The board has five fan connectors, two of which can accommodate 4-pin ones. The mainboard was built with solid state capacitors with polymer electrolyte.

In conclusion to our Foxconn ELA exterior design and layout discussion, let’s check out its detailed specifications summed up in the table below:

BIOS Setup

When we first got our hands on Foxconn ELA mainboard, it had very faulty BIOS version P02 in it. However, company representatives assured us that no mainboards with this BIOS revision got into the market. They provided us with the P3 version dating back to 09.23.2008, which did prove way better than the previous one. Let’s take a closer look at it:

The mainboard uses AMI BIOS code. The first page contains the same information that you would normally find in “Standard CMOS Features” and “System Information” sections. Here I could only draw your attention to slightly broader functionality in the part where you set the circumstances for the board to refuse booting: when the keyboard, mouse or floppy drive does not work.

“Advanced BIOS Features” section is quite common, too.

However, we have to check out “Removable Drives” menu. Here we will see that a USB flash drive connected to the board will be recognized as a removable medium.

If we set the “USB Flash Disk” as the first boot-up device, we will be able to boot the system from any USB flash drive connected to it without any prep work done to it in advance. All you need is to have boot-up files for any operating system. It is really convenient that you don’t have to access any special menus, like on most other mainboards, and then select the desired startup device there.

The next few sections do not contain anything new.

The only thing that surprised us was an extremely rare these days “Floppy Drive Swap” parameter in the “SuperIO Configuration” menu of the “Integrated Peripherals” section.

This parameter allows the floppy drive connected as A: to be detected by the system as B: and the other way around. Frankly speaking even last century when the transition from 5.25” to 3.5” media took place this parameter was very rarely used. Today, when 3.5” floppies have almost disappeared already, this parameter is perceived not even as an antiquarian rarity, but as an archeological artifact. The hand-made stirrup for the mammoth bundled with the board could have had pretty much the same use :)

Finally we got to “Gladiator BIOS” section that contains all overclocking related settings that allow increasing the system performance.

Bus frequencies can be adjusted in the central sub-section of the page called “Ratio and Clock Settings”. We can increase the system bus frequency up to 800MHz with 1MHz increment; the PCI Express bus frequency can be adjusted with the same increment in 100-200MHz interface; PCI Clock parameter automatically sets the PCI bus frequency, which can also be locked manually at 33.6, 37.3 or 42 MHz. The memory frequency is set using one of the available dividers:

It is very convenient that once the changes have been made, you won’t need to calculate the anticipated processor and memory frequencies on your own. They will be displayed by the informational “Target CPU Core Speed” and “System Memory Speed” parameters.

“DRAM Timing Selectable” parameter provides access to memory timings settings. The list is pretty modest by contemporary standards, but is more than sufficient for an unsophisticated user. Too bad you can’t adjust the “Performance Level” parameter, as it has a pretty significant effect on the general system performance.

 

 

CPU and processor technologies related parameters are singled out in “CPU Configuration” sub-menu.

“CPU Clock Free” parameter allows changing the processor clock frequency multiplier and setting fractional multipliers for 45nm processors.

There is a separate page for voltage settings:

These are the supported intervals and increments:

You select the desired voltage setting from the drop-down menu and all values are displayed as is, so it is very easy and convenient to work with the “Voltage Options” section. However, I still have to point a few things out.

First of all, the memory voltage is adjusted not quite commonly. “1.8V VRAM Voltage Control” parameter that is responsible for this setting allows changing the memory voltage only from 1.665 to 2.34 V, which is quite a big interval. There are two additional parameters called “1.28X Memory Voltage table” and “1.13X Memory Voltage table” that increase the voltage setting by 1.28 or 1.13 times respectively.

This way the supported voltage interval gets even bigger and the increment – smaller. Just compare the standard “1.8V VRAM Voltage Control” values on the left against the same values but times 1.28 due to enabled “1.28X Memory Voltage table” parameter:

 

The second thing I would like to say deals with “CPU Over Voltage” parameter. As you can see, the mainboard set the voltage at 1.1V, while our test Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor has 1.25V nominal voltage. It is one of the BIOS errors that appeared when they switched from P02 to P03 BIOS version. However, it was very hard to actually use the functionality of “Voltage Options” sub-section in P02 BIOS: look at the screenshot and try figure out what voltage settings did Foxconn ELA mainboard have:


BIOS version P02

There is only one thing I could say with certainty: the memory voltage is at nominal 1.8V and all other values need to be calculated. The problem is that each parameter has its own startup setting and each has its own adjustment increment. To find out the current voltage you need to multiply the set coefficient by the increment and add the result to the startup value. Not too simple, isn’t it? However, if you do it all, you will see that at startup voltage of 1.2V, 8 coefficient and 6.25 mV increment the CPU was receiving its nominal 1.25V. By the way, the adjustment increment for the processor Vcore doubled in the new BIOS version: it equals 0.0125 V instead of former 0.00625 V, which is a drawback, though not a dramatic one. The only thing I do not understand is what “CPU Over Voltage” parameter would be set to in BIOS Version P02, if their nominal Vcore were below 1.2V? However, this is a purely rhetorical question: the horrible version P02 is long gone and hopefully we will never see anything like that in mass production mainboards.

The last thing I would like to mention deals with the “1.1V MCH Voltage Control” parameter responsible for the chipset North Bridge voltage setting. Experienced and attentive overclockers may have already noticed that the maximum value here may only be set at 1.375V. It is not too much, I would even say it is way too low and compared with the intervals supported by other voltage related parameters. In other words, it is crystal clear that we won’t be able to reach very high frequencies for the system bus or memory during overclocking on Foxconn ELA mainboard.

The last section we should check out here is “PC Health Status”. Frankly speaking, it is not very inspiring.

We can control the rotation speed of only two fans out of five that can be connected to the board and adjust the rotation speed of only one of them - the processor cooler fan - and only if it uses a four-pin power connector. The board allows adjusting six voltages, but monitors only two of them – processor Vcore and FSB VTT Voltage. Very modest functionality, however, overall we can say that the BIOS of Foxconn ELA mainboard offers acceptable functionality. Now let’s check out what they are worth in practical experiments.

Performance and Overclocking

We tested Foxconn ELA mainboard in an open testbed with the following hardware and software components:

Foxconn ELA mainboard first boot at nominal speeds went on well, without any problems. The mainboard reports sufficient information on boot-up including the BIOS version and release date, processor model name, its current frequency, memory timings…

The mainboard loaded the OS successfully having set for 800MHz memory frequency nominal timings; the Performance Level was set at 7 for one channel and at 8 for another. However, it turned out that we can’t find out the current processor core voltage not in the PC Health Status section of the mainboard BIOS, not in the Foxconn’s brand name FoxOne program, not in any of the third-party utilities. The Vcore was formally changing depending on what was set in the BIOS, but then remained the same independent of the power-saving technologies or the absence of the processor workload. Maybe the absence of processor Vcore voltage monitoring is the problem of our particular mainboard sample. Well, let’s try measuring it “by touch”.

We have already mentioned in the beginning of our article that the board is equipped with FSBSEL1 Connector set of jumpers that allows changing the startup bus frequency…

Besides Intel default frequencies of 266, 333 or 400MHz, you can also set 450MHz right away. By lucky coincidence, it is exactly the bus frequency at which our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor can work even without increasing its Vcore. We set the jumper accordingly, start the system normally. However, the FSB frequency remained at the nominal 333MHz. As you remember, Foxconn ELA mainboard with BIOS version P03 sets very low processor core voltage, therefore we need to increase it to the nominal value first. We did, and then we raised it even more, but the board kept booting in its default mode. We set the FSB frequency to 400MHz using the jumpers, but nothing changed: FSBSEL1 Connector turned out simply non-operational. It was frustrating, but not fatal; let’s try overclocking our system using good old BIOS technique. This is when we immediately find out that the board is not cut for overclocking.

Many manufacturers make certain routine BISO procedures automatic. Take, for instance, “Spread Spectrum” parameter. It allows “spreading” the electromagnetic distortions spectrum emitted by the mainboard working at high frequencies thus lowering the harmful EMI for surrounding components, so it is enabled by default. However, this parameter has very serious negative effect on the mainboard’s overclocking potential, so it would normally be disabled during overclocking. Knowing this, many mainboards from other manufacturers would set “Spread Spectrum” to “Disabled” on their own once you start increasing the FSB frequency. If you only increase the FSB frequency a little bit, the negative effect from “Spread Spectrum” parameter will not affect overclocking, so it can be turned back on.

Foxconn ELA mainboard will have you disable “Spread Spectrum” parameter manually. However, it will automatically disable all processor power-saving technologies by setting “Disabled” for “C1E Function” and “EIST Function” as soon as you increase the system bus frequency by at least 1MHz. You can turn them back on, but the board will disable them again after your restart the system.

The most interesting thing here is that Foxconn ELA mainboard ignored any FSB settings changes in the BISO, just like it did with jumper settings. The FSB frequency always was at the nominal 333MHz. There are mainboards that are great for overclocking, there are some that overclock worse than the others, but there are no boards that cannot overclock CPUs at all while all corresponding settings are there. So, after a while we managed to locate the source of the problem: it turned out “Auto Detect PCI Clock” parameter, which is pretty harmless and even useful on other mainboards. It allows disabling the idle PCI slots: if during system boot-up it detects an expansion card installed into the slot, this slot receives power, and if the slot is empty, it needs no power and none goes its way. We didn’t think it could cause any problems and set it to “Enabled” right from the start, and then it turned out that we shouldn’t have done it. Only when we disabled “Auto Detect PCI Clock” FSB frequency started changing – looks like it was yet another BISO bug. Just in case, we decided to check the FSBSEL1 Connector jumpers once again, but in this case it was not the fault of “Auto Detect PCI Clock” parameter: setting the FSB frequency with these jumpers didn’t work again.

To find out the maximum FSB frequency at which the mainboard can work stably, we usually increase the chipset voltage, but lower the memory frequency and processor clock multiplier to their minimums. In this case it turned out that Foxconn ELA mainboard has problems with arithmetic. The “Target CPU Core Speed” informational parameter still promised us the same processor frequency as if the multiplier had never been lowered at all. Moreover, the same higher processor frequency is displayed on first system start, and only after a successful reboot, the mainboard seems to be suddenly recollecting and starts showing the correct value.

I specifically stressed that only after a successful boot-up. Shortly after we started our overclocking experiments, we discovered that Foxconn ELA mainboard doesn’t really know what “Watchdog Timer” is. This technology has many names, individual for each mainboard maker, but the idea is the same for all: watching out for startup POST process. If the booting stalls at some point, usually if an optimistic overclocker set too high frequencies or didn’t increase the voltages enough, Watchdog Timer detects the problem and reboots the system in safe mode. The user gets a chance to access BIOS Setup and correct the wrong parameter settings.

Unlike many other contemporary mainboards, Foxconn ELA has only two possible ways to act. First – the mainboard doesn’t start at all. In this case there is not much you can do and you have to resort to Clear CMOS button and then reset the BIOS parameters all over again, because the board doesn’t allow saving any settings profiles. Second – the board boots and passes POST successfully. However, don’t start celebrating just yet: it doesn’t matter if the board can load the OS and pass stability tests. The most important thing is that it survives the next system reboot. Unfortunately, you may have already guessed that the board would hang during most reboots and wouldn’t start again. And in this case, see above: everything ended with desperate beeping of the PC speaker, Clear CMOS button and another BIOS settings configuration session.

The experiments aimed at finding the maximum FSB frequency by lowering the processor clock multiplier also ended with no success – the board was very unstable. Overclocking with the nominal multiplier was not any better – the board behaved absolutely unpredictably. Even at not very high for our processor FSB frequency of 400MHz the board could only boot once, refused to reboot second time and unable to start third time. As a result, when the annoying beeping of the PC speaker drove me nuts and I couldn’t handle resetting the BIOS settings and adjusting them over and over again, I decided to give up all overclocking attempts. Yes, overclocking is an important and remarkable part of today’s computer reality, many computer enthusiasts purchase expensive mainboard specifically for overclocking , but not everyone out there is an overclocking junky and some people do not even want to read about it.

We know a lot of mainboards that overclock processors nice and easy. Well, Foxconn ELA is not one of them, but it is not a big deal. Let’s give up trying to make it work at higher speeds and focus on optimizing its performance in the nominal mode. Take, for instance, DDR2 Corsair Dominator TWIN2X2048-9136C5D memory modules that we used in our tests. Many mainboards can read the info from the extended SPD registers of these memory modules – these mainboards would set higher frequency and voltages for these modules on their own. Foxconn ELA mainboard can’t do it on its own, but it has all the necessary functionality and we are going to take advantage of it right now.

So, we increased the voltage on the memory modules and the chipset, just in case. We set 1:3.2 divider for the memory, which corresponds to 1067MHz frequency at the nominal FSB of 333MHz. The system started fin e and loaded the OS. Performance Level setting turned out even lower that at 800MHz memory frequency: 6 for one channel and 7 for another. It was way better that with 1:1 memory divider, because in this case the Performance level was usually set at 9. However, all utilities for some reason reported 888MHz memory frequency instead of 1067MHz as was set in the BIOS. 888MHz memory frequency corresponds to 1:2.665 divider, so what will happen if we set it like this? What memory frequency will the board boot with? However, we couldn’t satisfy our curiosity, because the board refused to boot, which meant that we had to go back to clearing the CMOS and resetting all BIOS parameters again. And we have been trying so hard to avoid this notorious procedure! It’s a pity that Foxconn ELA mainboard wouldn’t let us do even that little…

Conclusion

As you may have already understood, our impression of Foxconn ELA mainboard is not very positive. The attitude to this board could be calm, neutral, interested or even excited only if you look at it from a distance. Once you get your hands on this solution and try working with it, then numerous problems and issues cause nothing but frustration. The mainboard is inhumanly severe, almost any settings change leads to CMOS clearing. The only possibility here is to leave everything at defaults, however, you shouldn’t expect the board to automatically pick the most optimal settings either. At this point, we really couldn’t figure out what they needed to come up with unique design, additional jumper sets and BIOS settings, if none of this actually works?

When the consumer buys something, he or she enters a sort of an agreement with the vendor: the consumer pays the money and gets a product with certain features in return. A lot of good things are being told about Foxconn ELA mainboard, but in its current condition it can barely become part of a fair deal like that. At this point it is simply a preview of what Foxconn can offer us. And hopefully they will, because the mainboard we had in our lab couldn’t reveal even its standard functionality to the full extent, not to mention the unique features everyone has been talking about.

Formally, Foxconn have a way of explaining all this. We got a sample from Foxconn themselves, and did not test a mass production product pulled from retail. So it could be that some of the problems we encountered are typical only of our particular sample and not for all Foxconn ELA mainboards. We hope that mass production boards are free from the drawbacks we pointed out in this article and that the users get excellent high-performance solutions with extended functionality.