03/27/2008 | 05:51 PM
If you haven’t been following the mainboard market development, it may be pretty hard to estimate what the situation with mainboard production and sales looks like these days. On the one hand, there is the whole bunch of companies that have wrapped up their production. Does it mean that the competition here has become less aggressive? I don’t think so, especially if we look at the eternal battle between the two giants: ASUS and Gigabyte. The companies release the whole series of mainboards trying to get into all market segments, attract as many users as possible. Foxconn could easily join the race, because they have significant production resources and long-term experience in mainboard design and development, however, their expansion tempo is still pretty slow. We first introduced Foxconn mainboards to you in the end of 2004 in our article called Meet Foxconn Mainboards: Foxconn 925A01-8EKRS2 and Foxconn 915A01-8EKRS2 Mainboards Review. After that we reviewed Foxconn WinFast NF4UK8AA-8EKRS and Foxconn 925XE7AA, and then after a significant break there was a popular Foxconn Mars mainboard. After that – dead silence again…
However, looks like the giant is waking up and we are about to meet another interesting solution. In early January at Las Vegas CES 2008 show Foxconn showcased their BlackOps mainboard from the Quantum Force overclocker series. The mainboard is based on a not yet announced Intel X48 chipset. The most exciting thing about this mainboard is the 4in1 Quantum Cooler designed for the chipset North and South Bridges and an eight-phase digital processor voltage regulator circuitry. The accessories that come bundled with the board allow using this cooling system in passive mode, in active mode with an additional fan installed, or as part of a liquid-cooling system or even for dry ice and liquid nitrogen cooling!
Besides, the overclocking friendly Gladiator BIOS that we have already introduced to you in our Foxconn Mars mainboard review, the only mainboard from the Quantum Force series we tested so far, acquired new functionality and new organization and is now called Quantum BIOS.
We are very excited about this impressive solution and look forward to testing it hopefully soon enough. However, innovations like that are rarely emerging out of nowhere. They usually get checked out on less ambitious products first.
So today we are going to talk about Foxconn X38A mainboard based on Intel X38 Express chipset in order to find out what Foxconn is going to please us with while we are waiting for the outstanding Foxconn BlackOps solution to come out.
Foxconn X38A mainboard is shipped in a very thick cardboard box. The front of it is decorated with the logos of supported technologies and indicates that the board belongs to the Digital Life series:
The back of the box bears a more detailed description of the mainboard features:
Foxconn X38A box turned out so thick because it has a decorative exterior slip-on box on the outside that opens like a book. Through special cut-out windows in the external and internal packaging you can see different mainboard components. Therefore, the mainboard itself sits in a sturdy transparent plastic casing. All the bundled accessories are packed into an individual two-section box and include the following items:
This is pretty nice bundle, but you can hardly surprise us with things like that these days :) It is not the quantity of accessories, but attention to little things that can help the manufacturer win the users’ hearts. Even if they included 16 SATA cables instead of six, we would still point it out impassively and move on. However, Foxconn X38A mainboard has a unique thing to boast: they included a replacement plastic plug for the S/PDIF Output port. It is a small thing indeed, but these plugs often get lost during transportation not to mention constant use of the port. BY paying a little bit more attention to the users’ needs the company scored another good point in favor of its X38A mainboard. Good thinking!
All Foxconn mainboards have their advantages and drawbacks, you may like or dislike them, however, their PCB layout is always practically ideal. We have to give due credit to Foxconn engineers who work on mainboard layout designs: they do their real best to stay as close to classical layout as possible without compromising anything.
Intel X38 Express chipset is pretty complex to lay out from the very beginning. Its functionality implies that there should be minimum two PCI Express x16 slots, but most manufacturers do not stop there and add the third one in most cases. Foxconn X38A mainboard is also no exception. The task gets even more complex because of two memory types support, additional network, SATA and FireWire controllers. But look at the board: even the FDD connector is exactly where it should be and not pushed down to the very edge of the PCB like on many other contemporary mainboards. We are hardly paying any attention to drawbacks like that these days, but Foxconn definitely scores another fat point for a smart and logical PCB design.
Let’s take a closer look at the functionality of the Foxconn X38A mainboard. we are already very well familiar with the Cool Pipe chipset cooling system using heatpipes technology from our previous review called Foxconn Mars Mainboard on Intel P35 Express Chipset.
The cooling system starts with a small heatsink on top of the chipset South Bridge. The heatpipe then goes to a massive heatsink on the chipset North Bridge.
The second heatpipe originates from the base of this heatsink and both of them end at the heatsink topping the MOSFET transistors.
The cooling efficiency of this solution is good enough. Unusually rounded shape of the North Bridge chipset heatsink makes it a little trick to install standard square fans on top of it, so the manufacturer made sure that they included a fan with appropriate retention into the accessories bundle.
The 24-pin power connector and 8-pin ATX12V connector are conveniently located at the top pf the PCB. The six-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry uses solid-state capacitors and even more efficient ferric oxide core chokes instead of the traditional ferrite ones. However, the entire Foxconn X38A mainboard uses these capacitors.
The bottom part of the Foxconn X38A PCB doesn’t look overloaded with components despite a great number of them. There is a very convenient spot picked for each one:
Two blue PCI Express x16 slots belong to the second PCI-E generation and work at their full speed. The additional third PCI Express x16 slot is of black color, complies with PCI-E 1.0 specification and can work at the maximum speed of x4. Moreover, there are two PCI Express x1 slots and two regular PCI slots on this board. The additional JMicron JMB363 controller provides support for Parallel ATA and two external eSATA. The sound is implemented via Realtek ALC888 controller, and the networking capabilities are provided by Realtek RTL8111B and RTL8110SC controllers. There is also a POST code indicator; Power On, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons. All connectors are color coded for user’s convenience.
Now let me mention all the connectors and ports available on the mainboard rear panel (from left to right on the photo above). There are PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse, an optical and coaxial S/PDIF output ports and a proprietary FDC connector (Foxconn Digital Connector), which application is not completely clear yet. They promise that “it will provide the link to future Foxconn Digital Life products, designed for enhanced digital entertainment and communication”. Then there come a FireWire (IEEE1394) port and two eSATA connectors. As we have already said an additional bracket with two USB and one more IEEE1394 port is included with the mainboard’s accessories. Then we see two sets of two USB and one RJ45 network connector and a block of six audio-jacks. The COM port is laid out on the mainboard PCB as a pin connector, but is not available on the mainboard rear panel.
The impression from the Foxconn X38A PCB design is highly favorable: it seems to be made of advantages only. Although, we still managed to find a few things that could have been improved. For example, there are only four fan connectors, two of which are four-pin ones. It may be not enough for all the fans one might want to connect to this board. Besides, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons are placed very close to one another, while the Power On button has been moved away from them. I believe it would make more sense to move the Clear CMOS button away for security reasons. Moreover, the PC-speaker beeps annoyingly loud, however you cannot disable it neither with jumpers nor in the BIOS Setup.
To sum up everything we know about Foxconn X38A mainboard we would like to offer you a detailed specification table also available on the manufacturer’s web-site:
Foxconn X38A mainboard uses BIOS based on AMI microcode, which looks very unusually:
It is not only a number of unknown options that it contains that make it look unusual. Even the most traditional BIOS parameters have new names now, are grouped differently and are distributed between different sections. For example, here is a list of subsections from the Advanced BIOS Features page:
As you can see, AHCI Configuration settings have been singled out into an individual section, just like MPS Configuration with only one single MPS Revision parameter on the entire page. And the strange OBD Configuration name actually stands for pretty common integrated controller settings.
There are also a few absolutely unfamiliar functions, for example, we have never heard anything about energy lakes in the BIOS before (Energy Lake Features):
That is why we have to admit that it is pretty hard to navigate around Foxconn X38A mainboard BIOS and you may need to go through a number of sections before you find what you actually need. However, we have no complaints about the most important section for overclocking fans that is called Fox Central Control Unit. It contains all settings and options that deal with adjustment of frequencies, voltages and timings:
FSB frequency can be changed from the processors default of 333MHz up to 800MHz with 1MHz increment. However, we couldn’t figure out what the Super Clock Free parameter actually stands for. If you enable it, you turn off and lose access to Intel EIST power-saving technology that reduces the clock frequency multiplier and processor Vcore under minimal workload. Instead you get the opportunity to manually adjust processor clock frequency multiplier setting.
However you can easily achieve exactly the same effect by simply disabling the EIST.
Memory frequency is set with the help of FSB dividers. However, you will not have to calculate the resulting FSB frequency, because it is automatically displayed in the Memory Target Frequency information field.
PCI Express bus frequency can be adjusted using PCIE Frequency Setting parameter. It can be increased from 100MHz to 200MHz with 1MHz increment. As for the PCI bus frequency, it can be set to 33.6, 37.3 or 42MHz.
The processor settings are all placed on a separate page:
The memory timings can be adjusted in a separate window. Unfortunately, they are either all set by the mainboard automatically, or you have to set each an every of them manually. There is no Auto mode for every individual parameter.
Foxconn X38A mainboard BIOS allows only increasing the voltage settings: you cannot lower them beneath the nominal values.
The processor core voltage can be raised up to +0.3875V with 0.0125V increment. All other voltages can be adjusted with a variable increment up to the following maximums: +1.491V for the memory, +0.38V for the chipset North Bridge, +0.424V for the chipset South Bridge, +-.56V for the FSB. You can select the desired value from the drop-down menu in the BIOS. All dangerously high settings are highlighted yellow, just in case.
All in all, Fox Central Control Unit section offers pretty good choice of options. Now the last thing we need to check out is the Hardware Health Configure page:
The section allows monitoring two temperatures, rotation speeds of three fans out of four that can be connected to the board. You can also monitor processor Vcore, Vmem, chipset North Bridge voltage and major voltages from the system PSU.
I cannot believe that anyone would ever need to disable monitoring functions, but if you do, there is H/W Health Function option for that matter:
You can formally lock the rotation speed of two fans at a certain value or let the mainboard adjust their rotation speed automatically depending on the temperatures. However, in this case it doesn’t really work: this option is not functional for fans with three-pin connectors.
Theoretically, Foxconn X38A mainboard has all necessary options for frequency and voltage adjustment and successful CPU overclocking. However, unfortunately, our practical experiments proved it was absolutely unsuitable for this task.
Since the BIOS of Foxconn X38A is pretty complex and confusing, we couldn’t at first figure out why Intel SpeedStep tech parameter responsible for enabling or disabling the EIST technology was moved from CPU Configuration section where it usually is located into the main menu of Fox Central Control Unit. It turned out that there is a good reason for that: during the very first overclocking attempt when we changed the FSB frequency by only 1MHz, EIST technology gets disabled.
As you probably remember, I used to complain that ASUS mainboards disabled EIST when I changed the processor Vcore. Foxconn X38A did even more: any overclocking attempt automatically deprives you of the possibility to reduce the processor clock frequency multiplier and voltage in case the workload drops. Very sad.
Despite this unpleasant discovery, we still proceeded to our overclocking experiments with Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 processor that can work at 490MHz FSB frequency. However, the board wouldn’t even start at this speed. AT 480MHz the board would start, but failed to boot Windows, and at 470MHz we managed to complete the boot-up one time, but the board inevitable hang on system restart. Replacing the memory with a different type didn’t affect the stability (or instability, to be more exact) in any way.
Replacing the processor with Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 didn’t improve the situation in any way. As you can see from the screenshot of a hardware Health Configure page from the previous part of this review, the board set its Vcore to 1.128-1.136V, which is much lower than the nominal setting of 1.225V. In fact, we have also seen MSI P35 Platinum Combo and MSI X48 Platinum do the same thing: they also lowered the processor Vcore when the system booted with a new processor for the first time, however after restarting the system the core voltage would raise back to the nominal. It seems to be the peculiarity of MSI mainboards, however, in case of Foxconn X38A the voltage remained lowered and didn’t change even from Windows when power-saving technologies kicked in. Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor has sufficient safety margin, it worked stably enough in nominal mode with the low Vcore like that. However, we didn’t manage to overclock it.
When Foxconn X38A mainboard fails to boot during overclocking, it restarts automatically and offers to correct some parameters. It would sometimes loop on boot-ups, too. You can fix the problem by clearing CMOS, but then you will have to reset all parameters again, because the board doesn’t allow saving user profiles. Besides, the mainboard changes automatic timings adjustment to manual during overclocking.
In fact, we have been postponing this article for over a month waiting for the new BIOS update that could fix the problem. We first tested the mainboard with the latest BIOS version P05 dating back to last November, but finally an update appeared: new BIOS version dated end of February 2008 was posted on the company web-site. Unfortunately, the only new thing was a bat-file that allowed setting the keys for BIOS updating with Afudos utility. The actual BIOS version and its functionality remained exactly the same, which we double-checked in our second round of tests.
Mainboards manufactured by the same maker are usually very similar. Just look at their BIOS and you will se typical features of the particular manufacturer. However, Foxconn X38A stands out here. As frustrating as it is, but the board is unable to overclock processors. As you have already understood, our attempts to predict what mainboards we can expect from Foxconn in the near future turned out vain. Foxconn X38A mainboard is not even close to Foxconn Mars, and hopefully will not be close to the upcoming Foxconn BlackOps.
As for its indisputable advantages, we should certainly point out excellent PCB layout, good accessories bundle, broad functionality of the Intel X38 Express chipset it is based on and diverse additional onboard controllers adding even more to this functionality. As for the drawbacks, the BIOS settings are a little confusing and the rotation speed adjustment for fans with three-pin connectors doesn’t work. The overclocking-friendly options the BIOS offers are very good, but prove useless, so the cooling efficiency of the Cool Pipe chipset cooling system will never be an issue, especially since it works just fine in nominal mode.
In fact, the absence of BIOS updates is a good sign. It means that there are no serious bugs that need to be corrected, Foxconn X38A works perfectly fine and is stable in nominal mode, but as for overclocking, this is not the board to go for.