by Ilya Gavrichenkov
02/16/2005 | 04:46 PM
NVIDIA’s nForce4 Ultra chipset keeps on winning the hearts of PC enthusiasts. Its popularity is growing up as there appear more mainboard models; products on this chipset are coming out now from over a dozen manufacturers among which there are some really interesting individuals. Today we will take a closer look at a product from one very interesting mainboard manufacturer like that. I am talking about the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS model from Foxconn.
The name of this mainboard can already provoke some mild amusement in you. We don’t mean the brevity and expressiveness of the name, which you will most probably learn very quickly, but rather the “WinFast” brand that is usually seen on products from Leadtek, a graphics card manufacturer. So, whence comes this borrowing? Seems like we’ve got a pretty scandal here, haven’t we?
Here I would like to point out that Leadtek has never produced any mainboards on its own: all products of the kind have always been made for them by Foxconn, as you may have already guessed. That is why I have every right to state that contemporary Foxconn mainboards are direct relatives of the solutions from Leadtek, which have proven quite successful products in their days, I should say. So, the continuous use of the WinFast brand name is a pretty logical step. As far as the legal aspects of this matter are concerned, Foxconn has every right to use this brand name. Foxconn believed that WinFast mainboard brand is still well remembered by the users, that is why they licensed the use of this brand name from Leadtek. So, there is no sensation about the name, actually.
Now that we’ve cleared up the relations between Foxconn and Leadtek and their trademarks, we can get closer to the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS mainboard our test lab has recently received.
The appearance of the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS mainboard is very simple; it’s a regular mainboard on the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset, designed without a hint of eccentricity.
As you see, this PCB of this mainboard has its natural, tan color which you don’t often meet nowadays. Foxconn didn’t lacquer it with some other color to add visual appeal to the product. Well, the color of a mainboard is by far not the main of its parameters. So, let’s better read the specification:
Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS
AMD Athlon 64 FX / Athlon 64 for Socket 939
NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra
Clock generator frequency, MHz
200-400 (with 1MHz increment)
Overclocking friendly functions
Adjustable Vcore, Vmem, Vchipset and HyperTransport bus voltage.
4 DDR DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM
PCI Express slots
1 x PCI Express x16
PCI expansion slots
USB 2.0 ports
8 (4 on the back panel)
2 (1 on the back panel, implemented via the Agere FW3226-100 controller)
2 ATA-133 channels
4 Serial ATA-300 channels (with RAID support)
IDE RAID support
RAID 0, 1, 0+1
8-channel AC97 codec: Realtek ALC850
Gigabit Ethernet (Vitesse VSC8201RX Gigabit Ethernet PHY)
Foxconn can ship modifications of this mainboard, which will not have some of the above listed features. We know about a version without the additional FireWire controller; it is called NF4UK8AA-8KRS.
The accessories to the Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS include:
Although there are no extras here, Foxconn made sure that the accompanying cables set is sufficient. Of course, since this company is also a cable manufacturer. With its functionality and accessories the Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS is going to make a relatively inexpensive product priced at about $130-140. It can become a bestseller provided its quality is up to the mark. Let’s not anticipate, though, but take a closer look at the mainboard and its features.
As you know, the NVIDIA nForce4 chipset doesn’t incorporate a memory controller, since this controller is integrated into the central processor on Athlon 64 platforms. Instead, the developer stuffed the chipset with other controllers making it possible to create a full-featured mainboard with a minimum of additional chips. On the other hand, the manufacturers of top-end mainboards equip their nForce4 Ultra-based products with additional onboard controllers anyway, but the Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS isn’t like that and its characteristics are mostly determined by the chipset.
The WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS supports all AMD64 processors for Socket 939. The mainboard has no problems working with Athlon 64 and 64 FX models based on 130nm and 90nm cores. The HyperTransport bus is clocked at 1GHz frequency here. The mainboard features four DIMM slots that support DDR400 SDRAM memory modules working in either single-channel or dual-channel mode. Paired DIMM slots for the dual-channel mode are marked with the same color. It means you must install the modules into two neighboring slots to enjoy the advantages of the dual-channel memory access – we see this layout on a majority of Socket 939 mainboards. The WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS has one PCI Express x16 slot for the graphics card. It doesn’t support the SLI mode and doesn’t allow using two PCI Express graphics cards in any configuration.
The mainboard offers two PCI Express x1 and four PCI slots for your add-on cards. Foxconn preferred to implement more PCI slots (nForce4 Ultra-based mainboards usually come with three PCI connectors), sacrificing the number of PCI Express x1 slots. This solution looks right to us because PCI Express expansion cards aren’t widespread yet, while PCI equipment is everywhere in use, on the contrary.
The NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset ensures that WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS supports Serial ATA and USB interfaces, for networking and audio. It carries four Serial ATA II ports (with Native Command Queuing and a data-transfer rate of up to 3GB/s) and two Parallel ATA-133 ports. Hard disk drives attached to these ports can be united into RAID arrays of level 0, 1 or 0+1 in any configuration. NVIDIA’s exclusive nvRAID utility for monitoring and configuring RAID arrays works correctly on the reviewed mainboard.
The nForce4 Ultra chipset supports ten USB 2.0 ports, and they are usually all implemented on mainboards. The WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS, however, has only eight ports of the kind: four at its back panel and four more as two onboard pin-connectors. You receive one back-panel bracket with two USB 2.0 connectors, while the remaining two onboard ports are supposed to be connected to the front panel of the system case. Modern system cases do usually come with USB connectors on their front.
The sound of the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS is the same you meet on a majority of mainboards based on the nForce4 Ultra. Giving up the integrated audio engine in its new chipset, NVIDIA focused on AC’97 sound realized with the help of Realtek’s ALC850 codec. This very codec is mounted on the reviewed mainboard from Foxconn. The functionality of the sound engine is implemented through three factors. First of all, there’s a coaxial SPDIF output at the rear panel of the mainboard, and an optical output can be attached using the onboard pin-connector. Secondly, the ALC850 codec supports Universal Audio Jack technology (the function of an audio connector varies depending on the device attached). Lastly, NVIDIA ships a special driver with the mvMixer utility for configuring the applied audio solution.
Here are the results of the tests of the audio implementation of the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS mainboard:
Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
Noise level, dB (A):
Dynamic range, dB (A):
Stereo crosstalk, dB:
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
General performance: Average
Earlier we complained about the rather mediocre quality of the sound of nForce4 Ultra-based mainboards, and here’s yet another proof of our point. However, we still have to state that the integrated sound of the Foxconn NF4UK8AA-8EKRS is quite good compared with what w saw on some competitor’s solutions based on the same chipset.
Using the nForce4 integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS supports this 1Gbps network interface. We have already reported several times about the features of the networking solution that employs the controller integrated into the nForce4 Ultra. All the advantages of this solution, including the hardware Secure Networking Engine and NVIDIA Firewall 2.0, work without problems on the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS.
The only function available on the reviewed mainboard, which is not implemented in the chipset but is realized through an external chip, is the FireWire interface. The onboard Agere FW3226-100 controller is responsible for the two IEEE1394a ports with a bandwidth of 400Mbps. One port is found on the back panel of the mainboard among other connectors, and the other is an onboard pin-connector (note that there is no FireWire bracket for the back panel of the system case among the accessories that come together with the mainboard).
At first sight the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS seems to copy NVIDIA’s reference PCB design. You can still find some differences upon closer examination, but anyway the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS bears strong resemblance to those sample boards NVIDIA was sending out to its partners back in October, 2004.
That’s not an advantage, however, as the reference boards had a rather nasty layout, and the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS inherited all of their design flaws. Particularly, one of the Parallel ATA ports and all the Serial ATA ports are placed right before the PCI Express x16 slot. The 4-pin 12V additional ATX connector is situated behind the CPU socket. The onboard USB 2.0 headers are in between the PCI slots, and the FDD connector is near the left edge of the mainboard. As a result, when the cables are all attached to their respective slots and connectors, you are likely to get an entangled net of wires inside the system case – that’s not good for ventilation, and for the ease of maintenance, either.
On the other hand, there are some really strong positive things about the design of the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS. For example, the main ATX power connector (it belongs to the new 24-pin variety) was put in front of the DIMM slots.
The biggest plus of this mainboard is the availability of four PCI slots. Even if one of the slots is blocked by the graphics card cooler, the three remaining slots will be just enough in most cases.
The WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS has a surprisingly high number of onboard jumpers – seven in total. Besides the ordinary Clear CMOS jumper and the jumper that protects the BIOS boot block from damage, there are jumpers for configuring the PCI Express bus. You won’t have to use them too often, though. As for the location of the Clear CMOS jumper, it is easily accessible provided there are no PCI expansion cards in the system. Otherwise, you may have troubles getting to it.
In the top left corner of the PCB there is a Molex connector. It has power when the mainboard is working, so you can use it to power up the case illumination and other things of the kind.
Foxconn put a small cooler with an aluminum base onto the chipset, like the ones you find on inexpensive graphics cards. Although this cooler does keep the chipset cool, its fan is rotating at 6,500rpm and is rather annoyingly noisy. The fan speed is constant, but is being monitored so that its failure wouldn’t harm the chipset.
The back panel of the mainboard carried PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, one serial and one parallel port, four High-Speed USB ports, a network RJ-45 connector with diagnostics LEDs, one 6-pin IEEE1394a port, five audio jacks, and a coaxial SPDIF output.
The three-channel CPU voltage regulator of the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS might have been a four-channel one: there actually is an appropriate wiring on the PCB, which is not used, however. The MOSFETs are small and perceptibly hot at work. We measured their temperature during our tests and found it to be up to 65-70°C, but Foxconn hadn’t provided any cooling solution for them. As for the electrolytic capacitors, Foxconn employed high-quality passive components from Rubycon.
Finally we want to assure you that it is possible to mount massive coolers on the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS. Even the new gigantic coolers from Zalman fit easily as all the large components and slots have been moved away from the CPU socket.
The BIOS of the Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS, like the BIOSes of all other nForce4 Ultra-based mainboards we have reviewed, is based on the Award-Phoenix microcode. Foxconn engineers have modified the code to add some unique technologies to the mainboard’s BIOS Setup.
The first unique feature of this mainboard is SuperBoot technology. The idea behind this technology is that the mainboard doesn’t have to detect the system components at the start-up, but can use the data from an earlier detection which are stored in nonvolatile memory. The start-up times are thus greatly diminished as the mainboard immediately loads the OS, skipping over the identification of the CPU, memory, USB devices, hard disk drives and other equipment.
The second feature is the SuperRecovery utility integrated into the BIOS. It can save the BIOS Setup settings, the partition table or a backup copy of the data stored on the HDD into an area on your hard disk drive which is hidden from the OS. These data can be anytime used to restore the original.
Otherwise, the BIOS Setup of WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS offers some typical settings necessary for configuring the system, setting up the parameters of the integrated devices, PCI Express bus and memory subsystem.
We are more interested in overclocking-related options, though. They are dispersed across different pages of the BIOS Setup, so you may have to spend some time searching for what you need. Here’s a full list of the functions overclockers may be interested in:
Although the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS has advanced options for controlling the voltages, and this can be of much help at overclocking, some important overclocking functions are missing. The top frequency of the clock generator (250MHz) is ridiculously low for a mainboard on the nForce4 chipset that can clock the PCI and PCI Express buses asynchronously. Besides, this mainboard cannot change the CPU multiplier at all. So, until future BIOS updates increase the maximum frequency of the clock generator, we can’t call the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS an overclocking-friendly product.
On the other hand, Foxconn engineers didn’t forget to add options for configuring the memory timings. Besides selecting the frequency of the memory, you can manually select Tcl, Trcd, Tras and Trp timings and choose the 1T/2T Memory Timings mode.
We decided to check out the stability of this mainboard in non-standard modes even though it has deficient overclocking options in the BIOS Setup. The mainboard doesn’t allow reducing the CPU multiplier from the BIOS Setup, so we performed our tests from the OS, using the ClockGen utility that can change the CPU multiplier as well as the clock-generator frequency within 200-400MHz range. For our overclocking not to be limited by the memory, we dropped its frequency to such values as it was guaranteed to support. We also took an AMD Athlon 64 3800+ processor, setting its multiplier to 8x with the ClockGen utility.
It transpired that the scanty overclocking options of the BIOS Setup are a good reflection of what you would have even when overclocking this board from the OS. The WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS looks not that attractive at all during overclocking when we compare the results to those obtained on other mainboards on the nForce4 Ultra chipset.
With the frequency multiplier of the HyperTransport bus set to the maximum supported value of 5x, the mainboard was only stable at clock-generator frequencies up to 214MHz. At higher frequencies the OS would crash. Having got such a disappointing result (other mainboards under these conditions allow reaching 230-240MHz on the clock generator) during overclocking from Windows XP with the help of ClockGen, we decided to overcome this threshold by changing the BIOS Setup parameters. Unfortunately, we had no luck with that: the system wouldn’t boot up if this 214MHz frequency barrier was exceeded.
If the HyperTransport multiplier is reduced to 4x, the maximum stable frequency of the clock generator rises up a little, to 236MHz. Again we see that the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS overclocks worse than other mainboards in this case.
Although it was clear we couldn’t hope to see any overclocking miracles from the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS, we still reduced the HyperTransport multiplier to 3x and reached 249MHz frequency. That was all we could get.
Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS
HyperTransport frequency multiplier
Maximum clock generator frequency
These are poor results, I should say: WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS doesn’t suit overclockers, at least until Foxconn releases a BIOS update with a higher maximum clock-generator frequency, with options for controlling the CPU multiplier and with resolved problems concerning overclocking in general. Until then you can’t achieve high clock rates with this mainboard, even when overclocking it from the OS.
Winding up this section of the review we want to dwell on the hardware monitoring tools available on the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS. This mainboard allows controlling the temperatures of the CPU and system; the rotational speeds of the three fans that you can connect to the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS; and nine basic voltages. The mainboard supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, but cannot adjust the fan speeds depending on the CPU temperature.
The software bundle for devices configuring and monitoring on the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS consists of NVIDIA’s programs developed for the nForce4 Ultra chipset and of Foxconn’s own utilities. In our earlier reviews we’ve already discussed in details NVIDIA’s part of the bundle which includes nTune, nvMixer, nvRAID and Network Access Manager software tools.
Now let’s take a look at what Foxconn has to offer:
This program allows changing the picture the mainboard outputs during the POST procedure.
This utility can re-flash the mainboard’s BIOS from Windows. The program can take the new BIOS code from a file or from the manufacturer’s website.
This is a hardware monitoring utility. It allows keeping track of the system parameters like temperatures, fan speeds and voltages. It can also warn the user when a parameter goes beyond its regular range. This utility can also control the FSB frequency from inside the operating system.
Among the third-party utilities you receive with Foxconn mainboards there is a good personal Norton Internet Security 2005 firewall.
Finishing our review of the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS mainboard we would like to offer you the results of our performance tests. We will compare the speed of this mainboard with that of the earlier tested mainboards on NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra and SLI chipsets, and to the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum which is based on NVIDIA’s previous chipset, the nForce3 Ultra. For the tests to be correct we had to use two analogous graphics cards on the RADEON X800 XT GPU with AGP 8x and PCI Express x16 interfaces. Otherwise the test systems were identical.
So, we used the following hardware in our performance tests:
We performed our tests in Windows XP SP2.
As you see, the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS is roughly as fast as the earlier-tested mainboards on chipsets of the NVIDIA nForce4 family. In other words, it’s sufficiently fast for its class.
So we have taken a real close look at another mainboard based on the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset from a highly promising manufacturer, Foxconn. As it turns ou, the new Socket 939 mainboard from this company continues the WinFast series of mainboards which used to be selling under the Leadtek brand. This fact, however, didn’t save the Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS from the fiasco in our overclocking tests. The inaccurate CPU overclocking functions and the unstable operation at high frequencies of the clock generator somewhat spoil the impression from the product.
On the other hand, the WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS can be a good choice if you are not into overclocking, provided its retail price is sufficiently low. Then, we also hope that Foxconn engineers will be able to solve the overclocking problems in new versions of the mainboard’s BIOS.