Socket754 Platform: 13 Mainboards Roundup

We have tested 13 mainboards for Socket754 platform based on NVIDIA nForce3 150 and VIA K8T800 chipsets. In our roundup you will find everything you want to know about their features, performance, stability and overclocking potential. Discover your best Socket754 solution today!

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
11/10/2003 | 09:13 PM

Seems like only yesterday we welcomed the new processor from AMD, Athlon 64, but today there are already a number of mainboards for the new CPU. It’s natural. While AMD was busy preparing and postponing the launch of the Athlon 64, all but the lazy were designing mainboards for the new platform. As a result, we’ve got quite a weird situation: Athlon 64-supporting mainboards are in abundance, whereas the processor itself is shipping in limited and evidently insufficient quantities.

Anyway, it is still possible to buy an Athlon 64 3200+ today, so the choice of a mainboard is an urgent matter. So, we offer you our comparative roundup of Socket754 mainboards to help you get your bearings in the situation. For a thorough representation, we have thrown into one heap all most popular Athlon 64 mainboards. Here is the list of products to be tested today:

As you can see, products on both VIA K8T800 and NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipsets are among our testing participants. This seems to be proper, since the chipset for the Athlon 64 CPU plays a much humbler role than before. One of the most important system components, the memory controller, has moved from the chipset into the processor itself. It means that the chipset influences the overall system performance less significantly now. The functionality of a mainboard still largely depends on the chipset, but can be easily enhanced by integrating additional onboard controllers.

So, we think products on both the nForce3 150 and VIA K8T800 fit into the same weight category and should be treated as such.

Chipsets

Right now, there are five different chipsets for Athlon 64 family processors: AMD-8000, ALi 1687, NVIDIA nForce3 150, SiS755 and VIA K8T800. However, when it comes to real life, we can see only two chipsets being really used in mainboards: the one from NVIDIA and VIA Technologies. AMD’s chipset is too expensive and also requires a six-layer PCB design. Thus, it is only used for server solutions. The chipsets from ALi and SiS haven’t yet started shipping. So, we actually have only two Athlon 64 chipsets now.

The following table lists their main characteristics:

 

NVIDIA nForce3 150

VIA K8T800

Processor bus

HyperTransport
(8bit/600MHz upstream and 16bit/600MHz – downstream)

HyperTransport
(16bit/800MHz upstream and 16bit/800MHz – downstream)

Processor interface

Socket 754

AGP

AGP 8x

AGP 8x

South bridge

-

VIA VT8237

Bus connecting to the South Bridge

-

V-Link 8x (533MB/s)

Serial ATA-150

-

2 ports supporting RAID 0 and 1

ATA-133

3 channels

2 channels

USB 2.0

6 ports

8 ports

IEEE1394

-

-

AC97

+

+

Ethernet

10/100Mbit MAC

10/100Mbit MAC

PCI Masters

5

6

As we’ve already said, the Athlon 64 architecture puts the memory controller into the central processor. It means the chipset has nothing to do with the supported memory types. Any Socket754 mainboard, whatever chipset it is based on, potentially supports single-channel DDR200/266/333/400 SDRAM. The maximum amount of memory is six banks with DDR333 or slower and four banks with DDR400. To cap this all, the CPU-integrated memory controller supports ECC.

Let’s now examine the chipsets in more detail. The VIA K8T800 does offer wider opportunities as far as peripheral devices connection concerns than the NVIDIA nForce3 150. Particularly, the South Bridge of VIA’s chipset supports the Serial ATA interface. The nForce3 has one big advantage, though. This is a single chip chipset, thus allowing simpler and cheaper mainboard designs. Moreover, the next version, nForce3 250, is going to emerge early next year. It is going to be a full-fledged product supporting Serial ATA and eight USB 2.0 ports as well as a Gigabyte Ethernet controller. The current version, nForce3 150, often comes complemented by an external onboard Serial ATA controller.

Again, since the memory controller is built into the Athlon 64 CPU, mainboards based on different chipsets won’t differ greatly in performance. The crucial criteria for any mainboard are now its functionality and the IDE controllers implementation. As for the AGP 8x bus, it is doubtfully a bottleneck in today’s systems: the quality of its implementation doesn’t affect the performance that much in a majority of tasks.

Among the peculiarities of the Socket754 chipsets, I’d like to single out the HyperTransport bus that connects the chipset to the processor. This bus can work at different speeds. The maximum throughput is achieved by clocking the HyperTransport at 800MHz. Note that the NVIDIA nForce3 150 uses the HyperTransport bus in a slower mode than the VIA K8T800 does. In theory, this may slow down the performance, although slightly. HyperTransport in nForce3 150-based systems works at 600MHz frequency (unlike the maximum 800MHz), which appears quite enough to satiate the needs of the peripherals and the graphics subsystem, which has its own dedicated graphics memory and rarely calls for the system memory through the CPU. However slight, the difference between the frequencies does show up in some tasks. You will see it in the tests later today.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the products the manufacturers offered for our tests.

Albatron K8X800 ProII (VIA K8T800)

The Socket754 mainboard from Albatron tries hard to differ from the others. The engineers let their creativity free when soldering extra controllers onto the PCB. The result is a really interesting product, seemingly targeted at advanced users. Here is the photo of the Albatron K8X800 ProII, made on the company’s traditional blue textolite:

It seems like the engineers mostly focused on the audio qualities of the product. The Albatron K8X800 ProII has a PCI audio controller rather than an ordinary AC’97 codec. The controller is exceptional even in its own class. It is the eight-channel VIA Envy24HT with support of the 192kHz/24bit mode, usually available in top-end audio solutions only. The number of the audio mini-jacks at the rear panel is six, as necessary for a 7.1 speaker system. There is also a bracket for the back panel of the case with a digital and coaxial SPDIF in- and outputs as well as a pair of extra mini-jacks. You can see the results of our tests of the VIA Envy24HT controller in our article called Contemporary Integrated Sound Solutions. Part II. In my opinion, this audio controller stands next to add-on cards like those from Creative in terms of sound quality.

The Albatron K8X800 ProII mainboard also offers you the exclusive BIOS Mirror technology. Well, only the name is actually exclusive. The technology itself is quite ordinary. The PCB carries two chips of flash memory that store two versions of the BIOS. You can switch between the two with a DIP switch. If one version somehow becomes corrupted, you can start up your computer with the second one. The need for such a technology seems less urgent today, and there are better value offerings in the market right now. For example, ASUS suggests you restore the content of the flash chip with the help of the CD enclosed with the mainboard.

The rest of the capabilities of the Albatron K8X800 ProII are close to the specifications of a certain “average” Socket 754 mainboard. There is only one more extra controller. It is a VIA VT6307 chip supporting two IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports. The ports themselves didn’t fit into the rear panel of the board (those six audio connectors took every free seat for themselves), but you can “output” them by means of a bracket for the system case. The mainboard also features a 3Com 3C940 network controller (1Gbit/s Ethernet).

The functionality of the mainboard is of course complemented by the South Bridge (VT8237): support of two ATA-133 and two Serial ATA-150 channels (the latter can be united into a RAID array) as well as eight USB 2.0 ports. The rear connectors panel has only two USB ports; four more are on a bracket enclosed with the product. So, you can immediately use six USB 2.0 ports when you install the mainboard. The remaining two ports are implemented as onboard connectors; you can attach the USB ports from the front panel of the system case to them (if you happen to have a case like that). Note the curious fact: the rear panel of the Albatron K8X800 ProII has only one COM port. The spot implied for the other is covered with a blank flange. Nevertheless, there is an onboard connector for this port as well as a bracket for the system case to use it.

Talking about peculiarities of the Albatron K8X800 ProII, we should definitely go over to its PCB design. Yes, there are worse designs (like that of the AOpen AK86-L), but this mainboard doesn’t have it right, either. The DIMM slots are too close to the AGP 8x port. This is of course because of the implementation of six PCI slots, but this fact doesn’t make up for the problem. You may encounter troubles both when you try to install more memory into your system with the graphics card already installed and when you try to plug in the graphics card itself, while the DIMM latches are open.

The second drawback is the place of the FDD connector. You can try to find it in the snapshot. It’s no easy task, really, since it is nestled behind the last PCI slot, at the left edge of the PCB. I won’t be surprised if some FDD cables turn to be too short for such a connector. Moreover, the cable will go straight through the entire case, preventing proper airflow and blocking the access to the PCI and AGP add-on cards.

This is the end of my faultfinding. The rest of the components do sit in their proper places. The IDE connectors and the ATX power supply connector are neatly tucked in front of the DIMM slots. The additional ATX power connector somehow got lost behind the Socket754, but the numerous connectors for the extra ports are all aligned at the left margin where they have a small chance of becoming a problem.

The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the Albatron K8X800 ProII follows a two-phase design. This doesn’t tell on the performance – the processor receives voltage close to the nominal. The mainboard supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, although never mentions it anywhere. Albatron doesn’t offer any other fashionable technology for reducing the noise of the CPU cooler. The CPU temperature is monitored by the CPU-integrated thermal diode, which provides both: high measurement precision and fast reaction.

The Albatron engineers have got a nice BIOS to offer us. It differs somewhat from the regular Phoenix/Award BIOS and contains wide and flexible settings for the memory subsystem and the CPU overclocking. As for the memory, the BIOS Setup of the Albatron K8X800 ProII allows you to change the parameters of the memory controller, integrated into the Athlon 64. They are CL, tRC, tRFC, tRCD, tWR, tWRT, tRAS, tRP, DDR Clock Delay. You also choose the memory frequency from the standard set: DDR200/266/333/400. In fact, the only thing missing in the memory setup is an option to turn on the ECC check.

It’s all even better with the CPU setup options. This is one of the few Socket754 mainboards to be able to change the multiplier for the Athlon 64, in the first hand. It’s not a big deal today, as the only model of this processor, Athlon 64 3200+, can only have a multiplier from 4x to 10x (that is, the nominal multiplier is the highest). In future, however, when there are junior Athlon 64 models, this feature of the Albatron K8X800 ProII may make this mainboard a wanted product among overclockers.

Besides changing the multiplier, the Albatron K8X800 ProII allows adjusting the FSB frequency, with the cap being 300MHz (with 1MHz stepping). Well, to tell the truth this Everest-high cap doesn’t make much practical sense. The mainboard cannot change the ratio of the FSB and AGP/PCI frequencies, just like any other K8T800-based product. So, your FSB overclocking is going to stop quickly because you reach the maximum your PCI and AGP devices can do.

The BIOS Setup is very informative. When you change the FSB clock-rate, the new frequencies of the AGP/PCI busses and the memory are also shown immediately. This helps inexperienced overclockers to find their way around.

The Albatron K8X800 ProII receives our respects for its voltages settings, too. The VCore can be changed from 0.8V to 1.9V (with 0.025V increment up to 1.55V and 0.05V increment thereafter). Such a wide range is a rare thing for Socket754 mainboards. The Vmem can be set to 2.6V, 2.7V, 2.8V or 2.9V, and the Vagp – to 1.5V, 1.6V, 1.7V or 1.8V. This is not all, though. The mainboard can independently adjust the voltages sent to the chipset Bridges (from 2.5V to 2.8V with 0.1V stepping) as well as to the HyperTransport bus (it can be 1.2V or 1.3V). With all those settings available, it is certainly great to have a technology for automatic reset of the CPU parameters in the BIOS Setup in case of over-overclocking, when the mainboard refuses to start up.

If it were not for the VIA K8T800 chipset, which doesn’t allow setting up the AGP/PCI frequencies asynchronously with the FSB, the Albatron K8X800 ProII might have been called a great overclocking platform. As it is, all those fine-tuning options available in it may simply not work in reality. However, the arrival of junior models from the Athlon 64 family may change the situation. The ability to change the CPU multiplier may become a powerful trump of the Albatron K8X800 ProII. Overall, this mainboard is a well-made product with an up-to-date set of functions. I also think audiophiles might like it a lot.

AOpen AK86-L (VIA K8T800)

Mainboards from AOpen haven’t been on many of our reviews so far. However, those products that did make it into our test lab, always left a good impression. This company uses a lot of advanced technologies to make its products look more attractive against the competitors’ background. So, let’s have a look at the Socket754 mainboard from AOpen, AK86-L.

It surprises from the start. I haven’t yet seen a PCB with the chipset placed this way. It is hard to say whether it brings any advantages. Actually, there is no need to put the North Bridge close to the memory slots in mainboards intended for the Athlon 64, as the memory controller sits in the CPU itself. The design of a Socket754 mainboard usually has the DIMM slots in the neighborhood of the processor socket.

With all its peculiarities, the PCB design of the AOpen AK86-L can hardly be called a success. The user is most likely to have difficulties connecting and installing the system components. The biggest problem appears to be the connection of ATA-133 and Serial ATA-150 hard disk drives. These connectors are all placed in the middle of the front part of the PCB and if you install a long graphics card (like a GeForce FX 5900 Ultra), it will be impossible to do anything with the connectors. The opposite is true, too. The cables attached to the connectors make it impossible to install the graphics card at all. The ATX power connectors are behind the CPU socket: the wires tailing from the PSU will hang over the CPU cooler, preventing proper airflow and risking to get chewed up between the fan blades. The FDD connector is far at the left edge of the PCB – its cable won’t go the best way throughout the case. Well, it’s rather hard to find any properly placed connector on the AOpen AK86-L. Even the two onboard connectors for the additional USB ports have crept under the AGP slot: if your graphics card has a big cooler, you won’t be able to use those connectors at all. Summing up, we cannot say anything good about the design of the AOpen AK86-L, unfortunately.

The package of the AOpen AK86-L is no horn of plenty. They didn’t even put in any brackets for the back panel so that one could use the onboard USB connectors. Maybe people at AOpen saw that the connectors were placed quite badly, and they shouldn’t encourage users to use them? Anyway, the rear panel of the AOpen AK86-L board contains only four USB 2.0 ports, which might not be enough, considering how many USB peripherals are available in the today’s market.

The functionality of the mainboard is mostly determined by the South Bridge, VIA VT8237. As for extra onboard controllers, we have only a network chip. The South Bridge doesn’t support Gigabit Ethernet, so AOpen used a Gigabit PCI network controller, Realtek RTL8110S. The implementation of the sound on the physical level is given into the hand of the new six-channel codec from Realtek, ALC655. This codec supports the AC’97 specification version 2.3 and accordingly supports technologies for easier connection of analog audio peripherals (like Jack Sensing). In fact, the Realtek ALC655 is a functional analog of the AD1985, which is used by ASUS in its P4C800 series mainboards, for example. Again, although the AOpen AK86-L has onboard connectors for the SPDIF output, there is no bracket for the back panel with this connector laid out.

The rest of the mainboard’s capabilities are those of the South Bridge, as I have just said. So, the AOpen AK86-L has two ATA-133 and two Serial ATA-150 ports. Serial ATA drives can form a RAID 0 or 1 array. The implementation of the USB 2.0 interface is pretty curious though. The VT8237 South Bridge supports eight USB 2.0 ports: four of them are placed onto the mainboard rear panel. Four more are scattered around the PCB, although there is no bracket to output them to. The second COM port is missing in the rear panel. It is onboard, though. You can attach a special cable to it, if you have one.

The CPU voltage regulator circuit is a three-phase one, with high-quality Low ESR capacitors, 3300 uF each. The Vcore is initially set a bit high, about 0.3V above the nominal. Although this mainboard doesn’t support Cool’n’Quiet, AOpen implemented its own technology for reducing the noise from the fans, aka SilentTek. Just like any other technology of the kind, SilentTek can reduce the rotational speeds of the CPU and system fans depending on the temperature. There are several variants of configuring SilentTek; the AOpen AK86-L can control the speeds of the coolers quite flexibly, even stop them altogether. This makes sense, as the Athlon 64 3200+ dissipates only about 2.2W when idle. Experiments suggest that this processor feels all right with simple passive cooling under minimal workloads. The utility AOpen offers for controlling SilentTek is simple and user-friendly; it can also serve as a tool for hardware monitoring. By the way, the mainboard measures the CPU temperature with high precision, using the CPU-integrated thermal diode. So, SilentTek is a highly interesting technology and a big plus for the AOpen AK86-L. Yet, I think SilentTek would be even better if it were accompanied with Cool’n’Quiet. Regrettably, the AOpen engineers didn’t share my opinion.

The AOpen AK86-L can take in three memory modules of DDR SDRAM. The BIOS Setup cannot enable the ECC check, and offers only the standard frequencies of DDR200/266/333/400, but you can have a good time playing with timings. You can tweak CL, tRC, tRFC, rRCD, tWR, tWRT, tRAS, tRP and DDR Clock Delay.

The AOpen AK86-L doesn’t offer much for an overclocker. Yes, this mainboard can change the FSB frequency in a range of 200-255MHz with 1MHz increment, but cannot change the CPU multiplier. The control over the CPU voltage is limited, too. Besides the standard value of 1.5V, the BIOS Setup lists only 1.525V and 1.55V that look like a laugh into the face of a hardcore overclocker. Vmem can be raised above the nominal to 2.7V with 0.05V increment; Vagp is set to 1.5V, 1.53V, 1.56V or 1.6V.

The frequencies of the PCI and AGP busses grow along with the FSB clock-rate; this is the feature of the VIA K8T800 chipset. Keep this in mind, since the BIOS Setup of this mainboard tells you that the AGP and PCI frequencies never go up at overclocking. In fact, it is the problems with PCI devices and the AGP graphics card that may become the barrier to overclocking the system. For the AOpen AK86-L, the main problem at overclocking may become the insufficient Vcore, which cannot be increased with regular means.

Among the advantages of the AOpen AK86-L, I would like to mention the proprietary Watch Dog ABS technology that resets BIOS Setup settings into default values when the mainboard cannot start up for 5 seconds. There is also a protection system against installation of antique 3.3V graphics cards that may damage new mainboards.

Summing up the things I have said above, and considering the AOpen AK86-L has no stability issues whatever, I would recommend this mainboard if you are OK with the “install and forget” principle. If you want to experiment, change the components often or overclock the CPU, you’d be better off buying another mainboard.

ASUS K8V Deluxe (VIA K8T800)

Times are changing. I understood this the moment we received the new Socket754 mainboard from ASUS. The company now ships its products in big boxes, stuffed with a lot of accessories. The appearance of the mainboard differs from what we’ve become used to expect from ASUS. The ASUS K8V Deluxe has a black PCB with colorful (yellow and blue) slots. So, the much-respected Taiwanese company didn’t resist the temptation of following the fashion and produce a mainboard that looks like a Christmas tree.

The reason for the package to be so big is simple. The ASUS K8V Deluxe comes with an ASUS WiFi-b add-on card. As you remember, ASUS has been equipping its mainboards with a special-purpose WiFi slot for a while already. It is usually found in the left part of the PCB, behind the last PCI slot. The slot accommodates its namesake add-on cards. The ASUS WiFi-b card you receive with the mainboard means you can deploy a wireless network working in the IEEE 802.11b protocol. We already described and tested a WiFi-b card in our ASUS P4P800S Mainboard Review. I only wish to remind you that the add-on card comes supported with a good software suite that can transform your computer into a wireless access point.

ASUS also took thorough care about the rest of the mainboard features, too. The only thing you may find missing is a second network controller. Any other modern interface and protocol is supported. Of course, the ASUS K8V Deluxe uses the VIA K8T800 chipset features to the full extent. The mainboard supports eight USB ports. Four of them are found on the rear board panel, and the other four can be used once you install a special bracket for the system case supplied together with the mainboard.

Support of two ATA/133 and two Serial ATA-150 channels comes courtesy of the South Bridge. By the way, the software bundle includes a Serial ATA driver from VIA and programs that help you build a RAID 0 or 1 array from your SerialATA HDDs. ASUS found this insufficient, though. They equipped the ASUS K8V Deluxe with an extra SerialATA RAID controller - Promise PDC20378 that offers two more SerialATA channels and one ATA/133 (the drives attached to the SerialATA channels can be united into a RAID 0 or 1). Thus, the ASUS K8V Deluxe can juggle with six ATA/133 and four SerialATA-150 hard disk drives!

The onboard IEEE 1394 controller, VIA VT6307, supports two FireWire ports. One of the ports is at the connections panel of the mainboard, while the other can be used with a bracket. Another onboard controller, 3Com 3C940, is responsible for wired networking. The six-channel AC’97 AD1980 codec, with SPDIF support, brings sound to the mainboard. The corresponding coaxial SPDIF connector is available in the mainboard rear panel. The optical one is implemented as an onboard connector.

The wiring layout is quite good, compared to some other mainboards participating in our today’s roundup. The second COM port is missing. There are five PCI slots onboard and the AGP 8x slot is shifted away from the memory slots so that they do not interfere. The power supply connectors are all placed conveniently. The main one is situated before the DIMM slots, and the additional 12V one – at the right part of the PCB, behind the CPU socket. The FDD connector is turned parallel to the mainboard’s main axis and sits in front of the AGP slot. As a result, the attached cable may become a problem if you use a long graphics card like a GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. The same gripe goes for the additional IDE and SerialATA connectors.

The three-channel CPU voltage regulator is quite powerful. The default Vcore somehow is not raised above the nominal, as they usually do it in ASUS mainboards. The disadvantage of the ASUS K8V Deluxe is the hardware monitoring system using an external thermal resistor installed in the center of the Socket754 instead of the thermal diode integrated into the CPU.

The mainboard features the proprietary technology reducing the CPU cooler speed, which is called Q-Fan. The user can reduce the rotation speed by some value in the BIOS Setup. The ASUS K8V Deluxe also supports the technology, which allows reducing the CPU heat dissipation, called Cool’n’Quiet. Not all mainboards included into this roundup can boast this useful feature.

The mainboard allows installing three 184-pin DIMMs. The memory timings can be flexibly tweaked. The mainboard supports ECC checking. The BIOS Setup page is simply overloaded with various settings. Moreover, you can clock the memory at the non-standard DDR300 frequency, besides the ordinary DDR200/266/333/400.

Processor settings are much poorer. The ASUS K8V Deluxe allows you to raise the FSB frequency from 200MHz to 260MHz with 1MHz increment. The CPU voltage settings are downright insufficient. In fact, the mainboard only offers you two values – the standard 1.5V or 1.65V. The CPU multiplier cannot be adjusted, although the Athlon 64 has an unlocked multiplier.

The lack of the latter option greatly limits the overclockability of the ASUS K8V Deluxe. Again, the VIA K8T800 chipset cannot clock the AGP/PCI busses asynchronously. By default, their frequency is calculated by dividing the FSB clock-rate by 3. So, when increasing the FSB frequency, we also raise the AGP/PCI clock-rate. It means that when you try to overclock the system by overclocking the FSB (and there is no other way for the ASUS K8V Deluxe), the system may become unstable because of a too-high AGP/PCI clock-rate rather than any CPU limitations. In theory, the VIA K8T800 allows other divisors for the AGP/PCI busses, like 3.5 or 4, but you cannot use them in the ASUS K8V Deluxe. Originally, ASUS wanted to include a block of DIP switches for that, but the switches didn’t make it to the final version of the product.

So, the ASUS K8V Deluxe doesn’t suit for overclocking. As for its regular work mode, the mainboard gives no cause for criticism. AMD noted this, too, having included the ASUS K8V Deluxe into its short list of mainboards recommended for use with the Athlon 64 3200+ processor.

Last things to mention are the couple of technologies that can make your life easier. They are the voice diagnostic system on the Winbond 83791SD chip and CrashFree BIOS 2 technology that helps to restore a corrupted BIOS from the CD enclosed with the mainboard.

BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro (NVIDIA nForce3 150)

BIOSTAR is one of the few manufacturers that rolled out Socket754 mainboards on chipsets from both VIA and NVIDIA. Notwithstanding the different chipsets, the two mainboards from BIOSTAR are similar in characteristics and come with almost the same accessories sets.

The BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro seems to be a sort of a compromise between price and functionality. The mainboard supports all basic interfaces and protocols, but the engineers tried to save on everything they could. At the same time, the BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro has something original about itself. Its variation comes with an integrated Wi-Fi controller - Realtek RTL8180 that supports the 802.11b standard. In this case, the mainboard’s package will include a riser-card with the analog part of the wireless solution and an antenna. The mainboard we got for our tests had nothing to do with wireless networking, the slot for the exclusive riser card was substituted with an ordinary CNR slot. By the way, this is a peculiarity of the mainboard, too, since only BIOSTAR equips its Socket754 mainboards with a CNR slot.

As for the mainboard’s functionality, it has an AGP 8x, five PCI and two DDR DIMM slots. Note that the BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro comes with only two memory slots, while many other Socket754 products have three of them. Well, the integrated memory controller of the Athlon 64 processor supports exactly two double-sided DDR400 modules. Three slots can be used only if you install single-sided modules or when clock the memory at a lower frequency.

The BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro supports two Parallel ATA channels through the chipset (the third ATA/133 channel, available in the nForce3 150, is not implemented on this mainboard) and six USB 2.0 ports. The rear mainboard panel carries four USB connectors, the other two are onboard. The accessories don’t include any brackets for the system case: they saved on that, too.

BIOSTAR put off the implementation of the network controller available in the chipset as it cannot boast any high bandwidth. Instead, they integrated a Gigabit LAN controller, Realtek RTL8110S. Although they did use the audio implementation offered by the nForce3 150 chipset. There is a six-channel AC’97 2.3 codec, Realtek ALC655, supporting Jack Sensing technology. However, I assume they could have done a better job on the sound implementation, as this codec has a bunch of features that haven’t been used. The connections panel of the mainboard carries only three audio jacks, while the SPDIF output is available as an onboard connector.

SerialATA and FireWire interfaces are implemented with VIA chips. The VIA VT6307 chip is responsible for two FireWire ports (one is onboard; the other is laid out at the rear panel). The Serial ATA RAID controller VIA VT6420 supports the two Serial ATA channels available in the BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro. It is a functional analog of the RAID controller integrated into the VT8237 South Bridge. The PCB has place left for an ATA-133 RAID controller, but it was not soldered up on the mainboard we received for our tests.

The PCB design is not absolutely impeccable. The ATX power supply connectors are placed behind the Socket754, which is not very handy. The SerialATA connectors are directly in front of the fourth PCI slot. It’s also not very good that we have only two fan connectors and that the installed AGP card blocks the DIMM slots latches.

The CPU voltage regulator circuit is a three-channel one. Cool’n’Quiet technology is supported. The CPU temperature is measured by the integrated thermal diode. Although I have to admit that the hardware monitoring system of the BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro is not free from a few unpleasant problems. I couldn’t set up the Motherboard Monitor utility, while the exclusive monitoring utility from BIOSTAR wouldn’t work properly, too, showing some voltages and temperatures incorrectly. I hope those bugs will be eliminated in future versions of the mainboard BIOS. The voltage sent to the CPU is a little below the nominal value, that is why we encountered some stability issues when working with a system built on this mainboard. After I increased the CPU voltage in the BIOS, the mainboard started working much better.

The BIOS itself is based on the Award microcode. The BIOS Setup offers flexible control over memory timings and memory frequencies of the integrated memory controller. At that, the ECC check is unavailable, unfortunately.

BIOSTAR evidently never intended this mainboard for overclockers. Although there are some CPU overclocking options in the BIOS, I can’t call them comprehensive. The mainboard cannot adjust the CPU multiplier. The FSB frequency is only changeable in a range of 200-250MHz with 1MHz increment. The AGP/PCI frequency is set up in a range of 66-100MHz. The range of available voltages is rather narrow, too. The Vcore can be increased by 1.7%, 2.4% or 5.1% above the nominal. It means you can send 1.58V to the CPU at the most. This is not enough for extreme overclocking. The DIMM voltage can be set to 2.75V, 2.85V or 2.9V above the nominal. Other voltages cannot be changed.

The BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro left a not very positive impression, I should say. Its functionality is up to the mark, and it sells at a low price. At the same time, we encountered problems when testing it, and the accessories set is not that attractive. So, I would call it an average product, although it is listed among the recommended mainboards at the AMD website.

BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro (VIA K8T800)

When we received a BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro mainboard for our tests, I first thought it would be just another low-end Socket754 product. At least, the small size of the package promised nothing interesting inside. First impression is often misleading, though. After the BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro was extracted to the light of day, it became clear that this product had much richer features than an ordinary budget solution.

Yes, this was absolutely true. BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro uses the potential of the VIA K8T800 chipset. Among these features are: the support of four IDE channels, two of which are ATA/133 and two are SerialATA (also supporting RAID 0 and 1 arrays) and the support of eight USB 2.0 ports – four are at the mainboard rear panel and four more are implemented as PCB connectors.

Besides the features provided by the VT8237 South Bridge, there are a few more interesting things implemented via the onboard controllers. Here I definitely have to mention six-channel AC’97 audio provided by a pretty ordinary CMI9739A codec. The SPDIF output is available as an onboard connector on BIOSTAR K8VHA.

Besides that there are a few other features, implemented with the help of additional fully autonomous PCI controllers. Here we would like to mention Gigabit Ethernet, which is provided by a Realtek RTL8110S chip, while the VIA VT6307 controller supports IEEE 1394. As a result, the connectors panel of the mainboard carries three audio jacks, four USB and two PS/2 ports, two serial and one parallel port, a network RJ45 connector and a FireWire port. Since the VT6307 supports two FireWire ports, there is an onboard connector on the PCB where you could attach the other one. By the way, there are many different connectors on the BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro, but there is not a single bracket for the system case rear panel, unfortunately. So, without buying these brackets, you have to be satisfied with the connectors available on the mainboard rear panel.

The mainboard we got for our tests had empty spaces left for additional chips that were not soldered up. So, theoretically, the BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro may also come with a Wi-Fi WLAN controller and a rarely seen IDE RAID controller supporting two ATA/133 channels.

Now let’s have a look at the PCB design. The PCB is equipped with an AGP 8x slot, five PCI slots, one CNR slot (a rare thing!) and two DDR DIMM slots. The fact that this mainboard supports only two memory slots is not crucial. The memory controller of the Athlon 64 supports only four memory banks when DDR400 SDRAM is used. It means that you cannot install more than two double-sided DDR400 memory modules into a Socket754 mainboard.

With a lot of slots, extra chips and landing places for potential controllers, the PCB of the BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro has a strange design, resembling the one of the AOpen AK86-L. The first thing to catch my eye was the K8T800 North Bridge located behind the CPU socket. We haven’t seen such a solution until the arrival of the Athlon 64 – the North Bridge used to be responsible for the memory and had to be installed next to the memory slots. Now that the memory controller is integrated into the processor itself, the North Bridge can be placed anywhere around the Socket754.

The PCB design of the K8VHA Pro is not only unusual but also has a few noticeable drawbacks. For example, the installed graphics card may block the clips of the memory slots. This is the result of the PCI slots being shifted off the left edge of the PCB for the CNR not to be shared with the last PCI. The IDE connectors are also placed in front of the PCI slots, which is not very convenient. The ATX power supply connectors found themselves at the far end of the PCB – one of the most improper places, since the attached power cables will hang over the CPU cooler. Another upsetting thing is that the BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro has only two fan connectors, which may be insufficient for a modern system.

The three-channel CPU voltage regulator sends the nominal voltage to the processor. The CPU temperature is measured by the integrated thermal diode. The BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, but for some reason never mentions it.

This mainboard cannot be recommended for overclockers. Although the BIOS Setup offers the full range of settings for configuring the memory subsystem, save for ECC enabling, the CPU overclocking options are scarce. There is in fact only one thing you can do – increase the FSB frequency from 200MHz to 250MHz with 1MHz increment. The BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro doesn’t allow changing the voltages of the CPU or memory, so there is little benefit from FSB overclocking. CPU overclocking on the BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro will give poorer results than on other mainboards that allow increasing the CPU voltage.

So, it’s all clear with this mainboard. The BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro is a stable and high-performance platform, but doesn’t suit for overclocking at all. However, there is nothing else we could complain about except these scarce CPU overclocking capabilities and a few design drawbacks. Moreover, it is recommended by AMD for use with its Athlon 64 3200+ processors.

Chaintech ZNF3-150 (NVIDIA nForce3 150)

Chaintech’s current marketing policy implies a clear separation between different mainboard series targeted at different market sectors. For the enthusiast, or the most demanding user, Chaintech has its Zenith series. The first Socket754 mainboard from this maker was released under this particular brand, too. You can tell the Chaintech ZNF3-150 is an advanced product by its extremely big package and stylish looks.

The black PCB, orange slots, gold external connectors all contribute to a good initial impression. The accessories coming with the mainboard include a heap of various cables and, the most important, an additional device called CBOX3. This CBOX3 is in fact a panel to be installed into the 5?-bay of the PC chassis. It carries one IEEE 1394 and two USB 2.0 ports, a headphones jack and microphone input, a card-reader and the POST-codes indicator aka DigiDoc. By the way, if you use the company’s software, the DigiDoc indicator may serve to display the CPU temperature. So, the CBOX3 enhances the functionality of your old system case and makes it easier to use the Chaintech ZNF3-150 mainboard itself.

The characteristics of the mainboard carry on the banner of the Zenith series. It’s hard to think of anything the user of a Chaintech ZNF3-150 may find missing. First, let’s enumerate the capabilities provided by the chipset, NVIDIA nForce3 150. Thanks to the chipset, the mainboard supports six USB 2.0 ports and three (not two, as usual) ATA/133 channels. Two USB 2.0 ports can be found at the mainboard rear panel, two more are “output” through the CBOX3, and the remaining two are added to the system by means of a special riser card, included with the mainboard. It is Chaintech Multimedia Card (CMC) 7.1, we will discuss it a little later.

Frankly speaking, the nForce3 150 is a less advanced chipset compared to the VIA K8T800. Thus, the manufacturer had to integrate a number of extra controller chips into the ZNF3-150 to enrich its functionality. First of all, they didn’t use the network controller integrated into the chipset. Really, Fast Ethernet is no surprising feature anymore. So, the status of an advanced mainboard calls for more, something like the Gigabit Ethernet controller - Broadcom BCM5788KFB. The engineers from Chaintech gave up the AC’97 features of the nForce3 150, too. Instead, they used a PCI audio controller, VIA Envy24HT, with its eight-channel sound and audiophile 192kHz/24bit mode. NVIDIA’s chipset doesn’t support Serial ATA? Chaintech engineers saw to that, too. They integrated a SerialATA controller, Silicon Image Sil3114, that supports four SerialATA channels. The hard drives can be arranged into RAID 0, 1 or 0+1 arrays. Besides that, the Chaintech ZNF3-150 carries a VIA VT6306 chip to support three IEEE 1394 ports. This is all capped by the availability of one AGP 8x, five PCI, three DDR DIMM and one CMR (Chaintech Multimedia Riser) slot. The latter slot accommodates the above-mentioned CMC 7.1 card.

This card comes as an accessory and carries several external connectors for attaching peripherals. The back panel of the Chaintech ZNF3-150 could only allow two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, two serial and one parallel port, two USB 2.0 ports, RJ45 connector for Gigabit Ethernet and three audio jacks. The CMC 7.1 complements them with two IEEE 1394, three audio jacks and an optical SPDIF output. Considering the ports in the CBOX3, all available onboard connectors can be attached to external connectors with their appropriate cables.

Although the Chaintech ZNF3-150 has a lot of extra stuff onboard, the PCB design is good enough. There are only a few common problems like the installed AGP graphics card blocking the DIMM slot clips, and the IDE3 and FDD connectors located in front of the PCI slots. The rest of the connectors are placed on the left part of the PCB and never become a problem when you assemble or upgrade the system.

The design of the CPU voltage regulator circuit deserves our attention for sure. First, it is a four-phase circuit. Second, it features a RadEX cooling system of an original design. It seems like the Chaintech engineers took their inspiration from ABIT that installed the OTES system on their MAX3 series mainboards. Although the CPU voltage regulator doesn’t require active cooling in modern mainboards, Chaintech placed an aluminum heatsink on all MOSFETs capping it with a miniature fan, only 20mm in diameter. For better heat dissipation, the sole of this cooler contains a copper heat pipe that helps transfer the heat from hot spots of the heatsink to cooler ones. Again, it’s not necessary to use a special cooling for the CPU voltage regulator. On the other hand, the RadEX does help to reduce the temperature inside the case.

As for the functional characteristics of the CPU voltage regulator, I can only say that it provides a slightly-too-high voltage. The mainboard doesn’t support Cool’n’Quiet technology, but uses the thermal diode integrated into the processor to read the CPU temperature.

The BIOS of Chaintech ZNF3-150 is based on the Award microcode and is not free from certain odd things. For example, you cannot disable the integrated controllers (network, audio and SerialATA RAID). You cannot do it with the onboard jumpers, either. ECC enabling is not allowed. These are probably the only comments about the BIOS. The mainboard gives you flexible control over the memory subsystem with all its timings and frequencies.

The overclocking options are typical for an nForce3 150-based mainboard. The BIOS Setup doesn’t allow adjusting the CPU multiplier, but does allow clocking the AGP/PCI busses independently from the FSB. The FSB frequency can vary from 200MHz to 400MHz with 1MHz increment, while the AGP bus can work at any frequency within the 66MHz-100MHz range with the same increment. It means that nForce3 150-based mainboards suit more for overclocking than products on the VIA K8T800. The independent clocks for the bus frequencies give you the opportunity of raising the FSB frequency without bothering about AGP and PCI devices.

Chaintech ZNF3-150 can change the basic voltages, too. The Vcore is adjusted from 1.45V to 1.55V with 0.025V increment and from 1.55V to 1.7V with 0.05V increment. Although the maximum Vcore may be insufficient for extreme overclocking (it is only 0.2V above the nominal), it is still better than what most other Socket754 mainboards can offer. You can also raise the Vmem above the nominal setting it to 2.7V, 2.8V  or 2.9V. The AGP voltage can be set at any value between 1.5V-2.2V with 0.1V increment. You can also tweak the chipset voltage pretty much, setting it to Default, 1.7V, 1.8V or 1.9V. Thus, Chaintech ZNF3-150 provides enough controls for an overclocker. What’s important, the mainboard can reset the CPU parameters automatically once it gets over-overclocked.

My resume about this product is all-laudatory. Its advantages – wide functionality and excellent accessories – speak for themselves. Overall, the Chaintech ZNF3-150 is a good option for any demanding user.

Gigabyte GA-K8N (NVIDIA nForce3 150)

Many manufacturers target their nForce3 150-based mainboards for enthusiastic users. Gigabyte first followed the suit issuing its GA-K8NNXP, but now tries to get to the low end with its cheaper GA-K8N. The Gigabyte GA-K8N is a budget version of the GA-K8NNXP and an alternative to the GA-K8VT800 on the VIA K8T800 chipset. To make the product less expensive, the engineers had to re-design the PCB, that’s why we decided we should take a separate look at this mainboard.

The absence of any integrated controllers implies that Gigabyte GA-K8N is targeted for the mass market. This does make the product less expensive. On the other hand, the nForce3 150 chipset is not perfect as far as its functionality goes. As a result of all this, the Gigabyte GA-K8N has no SerialATA ports onboard. A mainboard without SerialATA looks strange today, but someone may find this acceptable.

There’s only one onboard controller in the Gigabyte GA-K8N. It is a 10/100Mbit Ethernet chip - Realtek RTL8100C. Gigabyte didn’t use the network controller implemented in the chipset, since the Realtek chip can be easily replaced with a pin-compatible Gigabit Ethernet solution when they will design an advanced version of this mainboard.

Besides, there are some spots on the PCB that have been laid out for additional controllers. They are used in a more expensive mainboard modification GA-K8N Pro. This version features an ATA/133 RAID controller (ITE GigaRAID), a FireWire controller (TI43AB23), DualBIOS technology and a second network controller, provided by the chipset.

But let’s return to our Gigabyte GA-K8N mainboard. Besides Fast Ethernet support all other features are implemented in the chipset. The mainboard has two ATA/133 ports (the third port supported by the chipset is not implemented), two USB 2.0 ports at the mainboard back panel and two onboard connectors for four more USB 2.0 ports. The mainboard comes with a bracket with two additional USB connectors on it. The integrated AC’97 solution is based on the six-channel Realtek ALC658 codec. It means that Gigabyte GA-K8N supports the new popular technologies such as Jack Sensing and Universal Audio Jack, which make it easier for the user to work with the audio subsystem and peripherals. Only three audio jacks are spotted at the back panel; the SPDIF output is implemented as an onboard connector in the rear part of the PCB, behind the PCI slots.

The PCB design of this board is quite typical. The PCB carries three 184-pin DDR DIMM slots, five PCI and one AGP 8x slot. The single-chip nForce3 150 chipset is located in front of the AGP and PCI slots. A passive heatsink is mounted on top of it, which may cause problems with expansion cards installation. The IDE, FDD and ATX power supply connectors are all in their proper places to give you no cause for cursing when installing anything. I guess the most significant drawback in the design is the onboard USB connectors placed in front of the PCI slots closer to the front edge. The connectors may interfere with full-size PCI cards, and their cables should go to the back panel of the system case through the entire length of the chassis. The Gigabyte GA-K8N has only two fan connectors, which may be not enough for a modern system with an Athlon 64 CPU inside. The last thing to mention: the Gigabyte GA-K8N has no Clear CMOS jumper. Instead, you have to use tweezers or something like that to close two contact pads when you need to clear the settings.

The CPU voltage regulator is a three-phase circuit. The voltage sent to the processor is close to the nominal. The CPU temperature is measured by the integrated thermal diode. The mainboard supports the exclusive Smart Fan technology, varying the CPU fan rotation speed depending on its temperature. At the same time, the mainboard doesn’t work with Cool’n’Quiet technology. It’s a pity, actually.

The Award-based BIOS of the Gigabyte GA-K8N follows the company’s style. There is the Xpress recovery utility intended for backing up and restoring the boot partition of the HDD. All settings concerning the memory subsystem, HyperTransport and AGP bus are hidden in the secret section of the BIOS Setup, accessed by pressing the Ctrl + F1 keys.

The scope of the memory controller settings is quite impressive and much more detailed than that of the more advanced GA-K8NNXP mainboard. The only thing missing is the option for enabling the ECC check.

The overclocking options are quite standard. You cannot change the CPU multiplier, only the FSB frequency (from 200MHz to 250MHz with 1MHz increment). Although the upper limit doesn’t look too high, it’s more than enough for today. However, if AMD releases Socket754 Athlon 64 models with frequencies below 2GHz, you may get disappointed with your Gigabyte GA-K8N. The mainboard allows you to adjust the voltages, too. The Vcore can be set from 0.8V to 1.7V with 0.025V stepping until 1.55V and with 0.05V stepping above 1.55V. The voltage on the memory and HyperTransport buses can be raised by 0.1V, 0.2V or 0.3V above the nominal. The AGP and PCI busses are clocked independently of the FSB, from 66MHz to 100MHz.

In case of over-overclocking, the Gigabyte GA-K8N can automatically reset all CPU-related BIOS Setup parameters. This is nice, considering the lack of the Clear CMOS jumper.

Finishing up with this mainboard, I would like to say that the Gigabyte GA-K8N is a low-cost normal mainboard for Socket754 processors. The GA-K8VT800, from the same manufacturer, but on the VIA V8T800 chipset, looks more advantageous, though, due to its SerialATA support. So, the Gigabyte GA-K8N may be only recommended for money-pressed NVIDIA fans. Note also that AMD mentions the Gigabyte GA-K8N in its list of mainboards recommended for the Athlon 64 3200+ processor.

Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP (NVIDIA nForce3 150)

Although the NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset boasts fewer capabilities than the VIA V8T800, some mainboard makers preferred to us it for their high-end solutions. Maybe the reason for that is the fact that NVIDIA’s chipset has “server” background, having been first offered for Opteron-based systems. The Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is an example of an nForce3 150-based mainboard for enthusiastic users. Having added quite a bit of extra controllers, Gigabyte got a solution boiling with various interfaces and technologies. So, let’s get acquainted with it now.

Yes, the number of onboard chips is immense. Even though nForce3 150 is a single-chip chipset! However, the chipset characteristics make it really hard to get along without adding any extras. The nForce3 150 doesn’t even support SerialATA, so the manufacturers have to integrate an additional SerialATA controller. By the way, the curious thing about Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is the fact that it boasts laid out, but not soldered up SerialATA connectors marked as SATA1_SB and SATA0_SB. Judging by the names, they are even connected to the chipset. It probably means that Gigabyte is going to release a mainboard on the upcoming nForce3 250 (which is supposed to support SerialATA), similar in design to the GA-K8NNXP and based on the same PCB.

Back to the mainboard. The PCB is equipped with two ATA/133 ports of the three supported by the chipset. Gigabyte didn’t stop at that, having added an ATA/133 RAID controller, aka ITE GigaRAID IT8212F. This chip supports two ATA/133 ports. Thus, you can attach as many as eight Parallel ATA devices to this mainboard. The SerialATA interface is supported through the Silicon Image Sil3515 chip providing two Serial ATA-150 ports and RAID 0 and 1 arrays support. So, you can attach only two SerialATA devices to the Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP, which might be not enough in some cases for a truly high-end system.

By the way, you can attach your Serial ATA drives to this mainboard from outside, thanks to their “hot swap” ability. The Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP comes with a GC-SATA bracket for the system case. It carries Serial ATA ports and power connectors. Both onboard Serial ATA connectors can be attached to that GC-SATA bracket. In this case, you can use your Serial ATA drives as external storage media, connected on the fly, without getting inside the chassis.

The nForce3 150 chipset supports six USB 2.0 ports, as I have already mentioned. Two of them are located on the back mainboard panel. Four more are onboard and should be attached to the appropriate brackets at the back of the system case. The PCB also carries an IEEE 1394 controller, TI TSB82AA2. Although this controller supports three FireWire ports, there is a bracket enclosed with the mainboard that carries only two ports: 10- and 6-pin ones. The third FireWire port is also implemented as an onboard connector only. Note also that we deal with a FireWire-800 controller that supports the latest version of the interface with a bandwidth of up to 800Mbit/s.

The Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is one of the few mainboards included into this review to feature two network ports. Thus, this system can serve as a router for connection to a LAN or the Internet. Both RJ45 connectors are found at the mainboard back panel. One of them is Fast Ethernet (implemented in the chipset), the other – Gigabit Ethernet (the onboard Realtek RTL8110S controller, one of the most popular solutions nowadays for integration onto mainboards).

The integrated audio of the Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is up to the mark, too. Although the mainboard uses an AC’97 codec rather than a PCI audio controller, the codec is the most advanced one of all available today: it is Realtek ALC658. This is an AC’97 ver.2.3-compliant chip with all the resulting consequences: six-channel sound, SPDIF, Jack Sensing and Universal Audio Jack. Three audio jacks sit at the back panel, while the other three plus the SPDIF output in coaxial and optical modifications can be found on a bracket coming with the mainboard.

Besides all those chips, Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP also features five PCI, one AGP 8x and three DDR DIMM slots. So, I think you understand now what a mind-twisting puzzle it was for the company engineers to place all that stuff right on the PCB. They solved it well enough, though. The only PCB layout drawback is too tightly packed chips and connectors in front of the PCI slots, which may cause problems during add-on cards installation. The chipset also sits in front of the AGP and first PCI slots, covered with an active (!) cooler. I wonder how necessary this cooler is, because other mainboards do pretty well without it.

The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP uses a daughter card called K8 DPS (Dual Power System) installed into the special-purpose slot to the right of the Socket754. With this card, you get a six-channel CPU voltage regulation circuit, capable of yielding a fantastic current of 150amp (the Athlon 64 3200+ only needs about 58amp). A cooler with blue highlighting is mounted onto the daughter card, giving it a stylish appearance. Note that the voltage sent to the CPU with the K8 DPS is stable and close to the nominal, which made us very happy.

The CPU temperature is measured via the integrated thermal diode that guarantees high precision of readings. There is also a special technology for reducing the noise level called Smart Fan. It slows down the rotation speeds of the CPU and chipset fans when the system temperature is low. Smart Fan is activated in the BIOS and doesn’t require any special software. Unfortunately, the nForce3 150 doesn’t allow using Cool’n’Quiet technology, which would fit in nicely.

The BIOS is based on the Award microcode with some interesting innovations. First, there is the exclusive DualBIOS technology. The BIOS is stored in two flash-memory chips, the main one and the backup. If the main version becomes corrupted, you can restore it from the backup chip. Second, there is that Xpress Recovery utility that can backup and restore the boot partition of the hard disk drive in a hidden HDD area.

The BIOS Setup is arranged according to Gigabyte’s traditions: you have to press Ctrl + F1 keys in order to access memory fine-tuning options. However, even with those advanced settings, we don’t have enough control over the memory subsystem. Some important fine-tuning options are missing, although all basic ones are present: CAS Latency, RAS# to CAS# Delay, RAS# Precharge and Active to Precharge Delay. Like most mainboards reviewed today, this one doesn’t support ECC enabling.

The BIOS Setup also offers an intriguing option called Top Performance that can be Enabled or Disabled. However, when we tried playing with it, we discovered that it simply increases the FSB clock-rate by 5%, that is, we have trivial overclocking here.

CPU configuring and overclocking options are pretty typical. The supported FSB frequency range starts at 200MHz and goes up to 300MHz with 1MHz increment. The Vcore is changeable from 0.8V to 1.55V with 0.025V increment and from 1.55V to 1.7V with 0.05V increment. Thus, the maximum voltage the Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP can send to the CPU is only 0.2V above the nominal. Some hardcore overclockers may find this disappointing. The AGP/PCI frequency is set up independently, from 66MHz to 100MHz. This feature (thanks to the nForce3 150) helps you overclock the processor bus without bothering about your PCI and AGP devices. At the same time, it is impossible to change the CPU clock frequency multiplier, although it is not locked in the currently available Athlon 64 3200+.

The memory voltage can also be adjusted (raised by 0.1V, 0.2V or 0.3V above the nominal) as well as the HyperTransport bus voltage (the same 0.1V, 0.2V, 0.3V above the nominal).

The BIOS can automatically reset the parameters of the CPU and memory if the system cannot go through the POST. This is good, since the GA-K8NNXP, like other mainboards from Gigabyte, doesn’t have a Clear CMOS jumper.

Summing it up, I would say that the Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is remarkable product with rich features list, which has every chance to find its way into high-end systems. Still, you should keep it in mind that it has only two SerialATA ports, but also two LAN controllers. In conclusion I have to mention that this mainboard is also listed among the recommended ones on the official AMD website. 

Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 (VIA K8T800)

Gigabyte Technology prepared well enough for the arrival of AMD Athlon 64. This is our first roundup of Socket754 mainboards and we already have three products from that company. This is the reason of Gigabyte’s success. The company has several lines of products greatly differing in price – from budget to high-end solutions. The Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is based on the VIA K8T800 chipset and belongs to the inexpensive series.

As you can see from the photo above, they made a universal PCB for their Socket754 mainboards on the VIA K8T800. The Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP is the simplest representative of the family – there are empty spaces in the PCB for onboard chips. For example, it is possible to add FireWire and ATA/133 RAID controller as well as a second flash-memory chip for DualBIOS technology. But this would give us another product, the GA-K8VT800 Pro. Since both versions have the same PCB and very similar BIOSes, everything we will now say about the Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP can be applied to the advanced GA-K8VT800 Pro as well.

Actually, the GA-K8VT800 has nothing superfluous about itself. There is only one extra controller, 10/100 Ethernet Realtek RTL8100C. Gigabyte didn’t use the network capabilities of the South Bridge for obvious reasons. The Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 Pro, on the same PCB, carries a Gigabit Ethernet Realtek RL8110S controller. By using the Realtek RTL8100C chip (pin-compatible with the RL8110S) on the GA-K8VT800, the manufacturer didn’t have to bother about designing another wiring layout for the physical-level controller, necessary to implement the networking capabilities of the VT8237 South Bridge.

Gigabyte also refused the recommended AC’97 codec from VIA. Instead, they used a more advanced codec from Realtek, ALC658 (six channels, SPDIF in- and output, AC’97 specification version 2.3). Therefore, the audio subsystem of the Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 supports Jack Sensing and Universal Audio Jack technologies. Those technologies serve for automatic detection of connected audio peripherals and for assigning the operational mode for the audio connectors. The SPDIF in- and output are laid out onboard, but there is no bracket to lead them outside of the case.

Although Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 is a typical budget solution, the company decided to refrain from saving on trifles and enclosed a special USB bracket with two ports for the case rear panel. Four other USB ports are located on the board back panel and four more are implemented as onboard connectors, which makes a total of eight USB 2.0 ports. Note also that Gigabyte didn’t follow the latest trend regarding the implementation of only one COM port. There are two COM connectors at the mainboard back panel.

The PCB design of this mainboard looks OK at first glance. Five PCI slots, one AGP 8x, three DDR DIMM slots and four channels for ATA devices (two Parallel ATA and two SerialATA-150) are all getting along together nicely. The Parallel ATA and FDD connectors as well as the main ATX power supply connector are in front of the DIMM slots where they actually should be. The AGP slot is at a distance from the memory slots, never interfering with them. Well, it looked as if we were going to applaud to Gigabyte’s engineers for a great PCB layout. However, this intention weakened when we started assembling the system with GA-K8VT800. To begin with, the additional 12V power connector is placed at the back edge of the PCB between the Socket754 and the North Bridge, which is not very good, but not too bad anyway. Second and much worse is the location of the SerialATA-150 connectors immediately in front of the AGP slot. This may cause difficulties if you use a long graphics card like a GeForce FX 5900/5950. Third, the Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 has only two fan power supply connectors. And fourth, there is no Clear CMOS jumper, so you have to close two contact pads with tweezers, instead.

The CPU voltage regulator is three-phase circuit. The voltage received by the CPU is close to the nominal. The mainboard supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, although it is not mentioned anywhere in the user’s manual or in the BIOS. The CPU temperature is measured by the integrated thermal diode.

The traditional BIOS from Gigabyte allows you to access the memory controller settings when you press Ctrl + F1 keys. Also Gigabyte included a very interesting Xpress Recovery utility, which will do the backup and restore the boot sector of your HDD. So far, it is version 1.0 and has a number of limitations. I hope Gigabyte will go on working on this utility, since it is a useful tool, especially for inexperienced users.

The BIOS Setup offers good options for configuring the memory controller of the Athlon 64. Besides adjusting the timings and choosing from the standard frequencies (DDR200/366/300/400), you can set up the memory subsystem to work at the non-standard DDR300 frequency. The only thing I wish were there is ECC, which is unfortunately not available.

Now, let’s mention the overclocking options available in the Gigabyte GA-K8VT800. The FSB clock-rate can be adjusted in the range from 200MHz to 255MHz, which makes this mainboard OK for overclocking experiments. The mainboard doesn’t allow changing the CPU multiplier and offers quite a ridiculous CPU voltages range: from 0.8V to 1.55V with 0.025V increment. That is, the Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 allows setting processor Vcore as low as you like, but cannot increase it more than 0.05V above the nominal. The memory and AGP voltages can be raised by 0.1V or 0.2V above the nominal, other voltages cannot be played with at all. This mainboard, just like the other K8T800-based ones participating in this roundup today, cannot change the divider for the AGP/PCI frequency, although the chipset can do it (at least, theoretically).

In case of over-overclocking, the Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 allows you to return the default values to CPU-related BIOS parameters by pressing and holding the INS key during start-up. This is good, considering the lack of the Clear CMOS jumper.

As a result, I can conclude that Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 is an interesting inexpensive Socket754 mainboard, which is definitely worth paying attention to. It doesn’t suit for overclocking, though. That is why I cannot recommend it for an enthusiastic user.

Leadtek K8N Pro (NVIDIA nForce3 150)

Well, I have to admit that Leadtek K8N Pro mainboard appeared to cause us most problems of all the testing participants. The thing is that the sample, which we received from Leadtek for our roundup, didn’t want to boot reporting “BIOS Checksum Error” even before POST. The problem actually implied that the BIOS stored in the Flash memory contained some bugs and the board simply couldn’t unpack the code stored in the ROM. Therefore, before testing the Leadtek K8N Pro board I removed the Flash memory chip from the socket (luckily it was not soldered to the PCB) and reflashed the BIOS on a different mainboard. After I installed the ROM back into Leadtek K8N Pro mainboard the problem was gone and the board started working properly.

In fact, Leadtek company is more well-known for its graphics cards. However, they started the mainboard business not so long ago. Here I would like to say that the mainboards from Leadtek from the very beginning boasted very attractive specifications and high quality components mounting. Leadtek K8N Pro is also not an exception. Moreover, the features of this mainboard make it stand out a lot compared with the other products we are reviewing today.

As you can see from the picture, Leadtek K8N Pro boasts a not very traditional PCB design. Although, this can be explained by the features the mainboard actually supports. So, let’s discuss them now. The major peculiarity of this mainboard is the way the manufacturer used the IDE ports laid out on the PCB. NVIDIA nForce3 150 supports three ATA/133 ports, however, Leadtek K8N Pro features only two traditional ATA/133 ports. The third port is actually also there, but it Leadtek equipped it with eNOVA X-Wall LX-64 chip, which performs real time data encryption according to DES algorithm with 64bit key. As a result, all the info stored on the HDD connected to the third ATA/133 port of this mainboard appeared encrypted. eNOVA X-Wall controller requires a hardware key for initialization purposes (one key is supplied together with the mainboard). Otherwise, it is impossible to access the encrypted data. This way, Leadtek K8N Pro appeared the first mainboard with integrated data security features.

SerialATA protocol is not supported by the NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset, that is why the mainboard features an external onboard SerialATA-150 controller – Silicon Image Sil3114. This controller supports four SerialATA-150 ports and allows creating RAID 0, 1 or 0+1 arrays. This way Leadtek K8N Pro supports up to four ATA/133 devices, four SerialATA hard disk drives and one ATA/133 HDD with data security encoding feature. Not bad at all, I should say.

USB 2.0 support is implemented in the chipset of Leadtek K8N Pro. So, the mainboard supports up to 6 USB 2.0 ports. Four of them are laid out on the mainboard rear panel while another two are implemented via the PCB connectors. By the way, Leadtek doesn’t supply any rear panel brackets with the USB 2.0 ports with the mainboard. They probably imply that most contemporary PC cases already have a pair of USB 2.0 ports on the case front panel. Moreover, Leadtek K8N Pro also features three IEEE1394 ports. They are implemented via the Agere FW323 controller. The package includes a bracket for the case rear panel with two IEEE1394 ports on it. The third port should probably be connected to the PC case, if this is possible.

The mainboard also boasts very smart networking capabilities. Leadtek K8N Pro is positioned as a solution for High-End systems that is why it features two LAN ports. The first one provides up to 10/100Mbit/s bandwidth and is implemented via the network controller embedded into the chipset. The second port with 10/100/1000Mbit/s bandwidth is implemented via the popular Realtek RTL8110S controller.

Leadtek K8N Pro also features an onboard Realtek AC’97 ALC658 codec responsible for the sound implementation. This is one of the most advanced solutions today, I should say. It meets the AC97 2.3 specification and supports Jack Sensing and Universal Audio Jack technologies (read our Contemporary Integrated Sound Solutions. Part II for more details). Note that Leadtek paid a lot of attention to the sound quality provided by its product. The mainboard’s rear panel is equipped with five jacks and a coaxial SPDIF Out. Although the manufacturer has to sacrifice the second COM-port to make sure that all those jacks fit on the mainboard rear panel.

Leadtek K8N Pro is equipped with an AGP 8x slot, 5 PCI slots and 3 DIMM slots. The PCB design, however, doesn’t strike as very successful. First of all, the PCI slots have been moved away from the AGP slot. This is quite a logical solution taking into account that most contemporary graphics cards boast pretty large cooling systems, so that you are anyway unable to use the nearest PCI slot. However, as a result of this design trick the graphics card installed into the AGP slot of Leadtek K8N Pro will always lock the DIMM slots clips. And this is only the beginning, actually. It looks as if the only connectors located in a more or less convenient way are the ATI power supply connectors and the second ATA/133 port. The first and third ATA/133 connectors are located in front of the PCI slot at a maximum distance from where the HDDs usually are. The FDD connector has been moved behind the last PCI slot, so that not every FDD cable will be long enough to reach there. The fifth and sixth USB 2.0 connectors have been laid out in the center of the PCB, for some reason.

Thank god that the FireWire connectors and SerialATA ports have been moved to the very left edge of the PCB, where they are very unlikely to be in the way. Besides, I would also like to mention that Leadtek K8N Pro is equipped with only two free fan connectors, which is definitely too few for today’s needs. All in all, when you will assemble a system with this mainboard, you will inevitably get a bad cabling mess inside the case, which will do no good for the air circulation, of course.

The CPU voltage regulator located right behind the Socket754 is designed according to a widely spread three-channel scheme. The processor Vcore is not increased, the temperature monitoring system used the thermal diode integrated into the processor. Here we should definitely give credit to Leadtek engineers: Leadtek K8N Pro supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, which allows to reduce the heat dissipation and CPU power consumption really significantly.

BIOS Setup of this mainboard is based on Award code. Note that it is organized in a bit unusual way, which differs from what we usually see. In a few cases it even strikes as somewhat illogical, however, no options are missing in the BIOS Setup. For memory settings configuration BIOS Setup of Leadtek K8N Pro offers the opportunity to fine-tune major memory timings and adjust the memory bus working frequency. Leadtek decided not to include the whole bunch of strange options for memory controller adjustment, and provides only the basic set of parameters: CAS Latency, RAS# to CAS# Delay, RAS# Precharge and Active to Precharge Delay. Moreover, the BIOS Setup also doesn’t allow to enable/disable ECC support.

As for overclocking friendly features, Leadtek K8N Pro looks much more attractive than the other testing participants. First of all, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the BIOS Setup of this board allows changing the CPU clock frequency multiplier. Today this feature is not that valuable any more, to tell the truth, because AMD Athlon 64 3200+ allows setting the multiplier only up to 10x, i.e. you cannot actually overclock this processor by increasing the clock frequency multiplier. However, in the future, when new Socket754 CPU models arrive, this feature of Leadtek K8N Pro may turn out very useful.

The bus frequency of Leadtek K8N Pro can be adjusted from 200MHz to 300MHz with 1MHz increment. The AGP/PCI frequency, which is changing independent of the processor bus frequency on any NVIDIA nForce3 150 based mainboards, can be adjusted within 66MHz-120NHz interval. The Voltages adjustment page is very convenient and easy to use. When you adjust processor Vcore, Vdimm or any other voltage, you immediately see the new parameter value. This certainly allows to reduce the risk of accidental mistakes, when these potentially dangerous parameters are adjusted. The processor Vcore can be set to 2.5V, 2.6V, 2.7V or 2.8V. Moreover, K8N Pro also allows changing the Vagp (the available options are: Default, 1.6V, 1.7V, 1.8V) and the chipset voltage (the available parameter values are: Default, 1.7V, 1.8V, 1.9V). If the mainboard wouldn’t boot up in case of over-overclocking, the CPU and memory settings would automatically be reset to default values.

As a result, I have to admit that if it hadn’t been for the bad PCB layout, the overall impression made by Leadtek K8N Pro could have been highly positive, despite the problems we had with the BIOS at first. However, I have to stress that the mainboard is highly inconvenient to use although its boasts a few unique features, which are a big advantage, for sure. Although, if you are ready to put up with assembly problems and not very rich set of accompanying accessories, Leadtek K8N Pro may appear a pretty good choice for your system. Especially, since it is included into the list of mainboards recommended by AMD for use with their Athlon 64 3200+ CPUs.

MSI K8T Neo (VIA K8T800)

MSI company can be really proud of their marketing department. I believe that you will not find a single user who hasn’t heard about the wonderful CoreCell chip and dynamic overclocking technology from MSI. However, the i865PE based mainboard from MSI was a real success. Now let’s see if the new solution for Socket754 will be able to be as successful, especially since it also features all the latest MSI technologies including dynamic overclocking.

MSI mainboard is very similar to ASUS K8V except WiFi support. I believe that the mainboard manufacturers should pay more attention to WiFi networks, which have been developing very actively lately. I think that it would  a good idea to equip all boards with integrated controllers for wireless networks. However, let’s not veer away from MSI K8T Neo now.

The mainboard features five PCI slots, an AGP 8x slot and three DIMM slots. Due to the VIA VT8237 South Bridge the board supports two ATA/133 channels, two SerialATA-150 channels where you can create RAID 0 and RAUD 1 arrays, and eight USB 2.0 ports. Four USB 2.0 ports are laid out to the rear mainboard panel and the other four ports are implemented via the PCB connectors. MSI supplies a rear case bracket with an additional pair of USB 2.0 ports together with the mainboard that is why there will be only two USB 2.0 ports left unconnected in the end. However, since most contemporary PC cases are equipped with two USB ports on the front panel, it doesn’t make much sense for MSI to provide the second case bracket.

The sound on MSI K8T Neo is implemented via the Realtek AC97 ALC655 codec – an up-to-date 6-chanel solution supporting AC97 2.3 specification and Jack Sensing technology. Note that MSI did implement all features of this codec on its board, that is why the mainboard rear panel is equipped with five jacks, and optical and coaxial SPDIF Output port. Both of them (one of them is standard and the other one is a mini port) are already laid out on the mainboard rear panel. Note that this panel is actually a way overloaded with all sorts of connectors that is why MSI engineers had to give up the second COM port. And they had to remove it completely. There is even no connector in the board, which is supposed to be used for the second COM. However, we have to admit that serial ports are little by little dying out now.

Moreover, MSI also equipped its K8T Neo mainboard with an additional SerialATA RAID controller – Promise PDC20378 supporting two SerialATA channels and RAID 1 and 0 arrays. Also it provides one additional ATA/133 channel. I wouldn’t judge how necessary this controller actually is for MSI’s new product, but once you have it you can connect up to six Parallel ATA devices and four SerialATA devices to the board.

I should also point out that MSI is using their brand name CoreCell chip supporting D-LED technology. D-LED has been implemented on MSI K8T Neo in a pretty traditional way. The bracket with two USB 2.0 ports, which is supplied together with the mainboard, is also equipped with four dual-color light emitting diodes, which reflect the status of the POST process and notify you about any problems that might occur during this procedure. As for CoreCell, MSI claims that this chip is responsible for processor Vcore management and cooler fan rotation speed control depending on the CPU and system temperatures and on the level of CPU utilization. Moreover, the dynamic overclocking feature implemented on MSI K8T Neo also uses the features of CoreCell chip. Note that to take real advantage of all of this chip features you should use CoreCenter utility, that is why I wouldn’t consider CoreCell to be a fully hardware solution. Besides, the working algorithms of the hardware-software CoreCell complex are also not always clear. The mainboard documentation claims that the major goal of this technology is to ensure that the CPU and system temperatures do not grow too high up. Therefore if we take the same documentation descriptions for granted, we will have to assume that CoreCell starts reducing active voltages when the temperatures grow up. I would argue about the efficiency of this method, because in my opinion it might have a negative effect on the overall product stability.

The PCB design of MSI K8T Neo doesn’t arouse any hard criticisms. You will have no problem assembling a system with MSI K8T Neo mainboard thanks to the fact that all major slots and connectors locations are the most optimal. The only thing I might want to complain about is the location of the additional power supply connector for 12V power supply, which has been placed right behind the chipset, and the location of the processor Socket754, which has been put a way too close to the right edge of the mainboard, which might cause certain problems with cooler installation in some cases.

The processor voltage regulator is based on a two-channel circuitry that is why MSI has to use special aluminum heatsinks for the MOSFETs. The CPU voltage is close to the nominal value and the CPU temperature is controlled by the integrated thermal diode. Despite the manufacturer’s claims I didn’t manage to fins any trace of Cool’n’Quiet support on MSI K8T Neo mainboard, at least not in the BIOS version 1.0 and 1.1B2.

The BIOS of MSI K8T Neo mainboard is based on AMI microcode, which makes it very much different from the BIOS’s of other mainboards participating in our roundup. Actually, the BIOS Setup of MSI K8T Neo cannot boast a lot of settings. For example, even though the board allows using not only standard DDR200/DDR266/DDR333/DDR400 memory frequencies, but also DDR300 frequency, the BIOS Setup doesn’t offer any opportunity to enable the ECC support, and the adjustable memory timings include the minimal ranges for CAS Latency, RAS# to CAS# Delay, RAS# Precharge and Active to Precharge Delay.

At the same time, the set of overclocking friendly features is pretty impressive. FSB frequency can be adjusted from 190Mhz to 280MHz. However, as we have already mentioned several times in this roundup you will not be able to take an y advantage of such a high top FSB frequency without the possibility to adjust the frequency divider for AGP/PCI buses (MSI K8T Neo doesn’t actually have this bus at all). Note also that MSI K8T Neo is probably the only mainboard, which allows reducing the FSB frequency below the nominal value. Although I do not really know if we need this opportunity at all.

As for voltages, you can change the CPU, memory and AGP voltages in the BIOS Setup. The processor Vcore can be increased by 3.3%, 5%, 6.6%, 8%, 10%, 11% and 15% above the nominal value (the BIOS of MSI K8T Neo mainboard supports this way of setting the processor voltage: in percents). The memory voltage can be set to Auto, 2.55V, 2.6V, 2.65V, 2.7V, 2.75V, 2.8V and 2.85V. The last voltage, Vagp, can be set to any value from 1.5V to 1.85V with 0.05V increment.

Next to the overclocking friendly options there is a menu page where you can enable D.O.T. (Dynamic Overclocking Technology). This is exactly that particular quiet dynamic overclocking feature, which has received such a great response. The idea of this technology is very simple. In normal working conditions the CPU functions at its nominal frequency. However, as soon as its utilization reaches 100%, the mainboard automatically raises the FSB frequency by the value set in the BIOS Setup. This value can be adjusted via the BIOS Setup and can vary from 1% to 10% of the nominal parameter value.

Well, MSI K8T Neo looks like a cool board, boasting a rich features set and a number of exciting technologies. However, it is high time to added that notorious fly to this ointment. We have already mentioned in one of our previous reviews, that the first BIOS versions from MSI usually suffer the whole bunch of problems. This time was also no exception. The BIOS versions we checked with this board, namely BIOS v.1.0 and 1.1B do not make the board stable enough to work with the higher FSB frequencies, so that the entire overclocking potential of this solution as well as the dynamic overclocking functions cannot be used at all. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend getting MSI K8T Neo board now, but would better wait for the new, debugged BIOS versions to come out first.

Shuttle AN50R (NVIDIA nForce3 150)

Shuttle company has been mostly mentioned recently in reference with their Small Form-Factor PCs, where they actually managed to become very successful. However, Shuttle started all this business with the mainboards and is not going to give up this business and this market segment at all. By the time AMD Athlon 64 3200+ was launched the company prepared their own Socket754 mainboard based on NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset. This is exactly the board we are going to discuss today in our roundup.

I would like to stress that as soon as we took Shuttle AN50R out of the box, its excellent PCB design immediately caught my eye. Even though this mainboard boasts about the same features as other products discussed today, the company engineers paid due attention to the easy use of this device. That is why all connectors and expansion slots are located in the most optimal way. “Broad” connectors for ATA/133 devices, FDD and ATX power cable are placed right in front of the DIMM slots. Most other connectors have been moved to the very left edge of the mainboard, behind the last PCI slot. This way there is a lot of free space in front of the AGP and PCI slots, and most cables will not hinder proper air circulation inside the case. The AGP graphics card will never block the DIMM slots clips, no matter how big it is. All in all, Shuttle AN50R is an excellent example of nearly perfect PCB design. The only thing we still have to comment on is the location of the additional 12V power supply ATX connector, which has been placed behind Socket754, close to AGP 8x slot, though this is not a very grave drawback, I should say. In fact, it is not at all surprising that Shuttle AN50R won my heart with its great PCB layout. Most mainboards from Shuttle can certainly boast the same advantage, and the tremendous experience of the company engineers, who have to design miniature mainboards for Shuttle’s Small Form-Factor PCs, is of great help for desktop ATX mainboards design, too.

As for the features of Shuttle AN50R, it is hardly that much different from most other nForce3 150 based mainboards here. There are two ATA/133 ports out of the three supported ones laid out on the mainboard, and all six USB 2.0 ports, four of which have been implemented on the mainboard rear panel and the remaining two are represented by the corresponding PCB connector. IEEE1394 ports support is implemented via the additional VIA VT6306 controller, which allows up to 3 FireWire ports. One of these ports is also available on the mainboard rear panel and sits in the place of the second Serial ports. Two more FireWire connectors are laid out on the mainboard PCB. Shuttle AN50R is supplied with two additional brackets for the case rear panel with two USB 2.0 ad two IEEE1394 ports. These brackets can certainly be connected to the corresponding mainboard ports.

The sound on Shuttle AN50R mainboard is implemented via the Realtek AC97 ALC650 codec. As we see, Shuttle decided not to us any of the brand new codecs supporting AC97 2.3 specification, but preferred to stick to the solution that has already stood the tests of time. Despite that, Shuttle AN50R can work perfectly well with six-channel acoustic systems and is even equipped with an optical SPDIF output port located on the board rear panel.

Shuttle AN40R features two integrated network controllers. First of all, they used the controller embedded into the chipset, namely the 10/100Mbit network controller. Ad secondly, the mainboard is also equipped with a Gigabit Ethernet controller – Intel RC82540EM.

Since the NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset doesn’t support SerialATA, Shuttle engineers integrated an additional Silicon Image Sil3112 controller, which provides two SerialATA-150 ports and supports RAID 0 and 1 arrays.

The mainboard is equipped with 5 PCI slots, 3 DIMM slots and an AGP 8x slot. The mainboard rear panel carries PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse, one Serial and one Parallel port, three audio-jacks and an optical SPDIF Out. Besides, there is one IEEE1394 port, four USB 2.0 ports and two RJ45 network cable connectors. I would also like to point out that the PCB of Shuttle AN50R is equipped not only with the regular light emitting diodes indicating if the mainboard and DIMM slots are powered or not, but also with and IDE LED indicator and two micro-buttons: Power On and Reset. All these small things make it easier to debug and configure system settings.

The processor voltage regulator of Shuttle AN50R is designed according to a three-channel circuit. The processor voltage is close to the nominal. The CPU temperature monitoring algorithm is based on the data provided by the thermal diode integrated into the processor die. At the same time, I have to say that Shuttle doesn’t provide its mainboard with any brand name utilities for hardware monitoring. The widely spread Motherboard Monitor tool efused to work correctly with Shuttle AN50R, which you should definitely keep in mind. Also note that the mainboard doesn’t support Cool’n’Quiet technology.

The BIOS of Shuttle AN50R is based on Award microcode. The BIOS Setup offers a very limited number of settings. I believe that Shuttle targets its AN50R not for advanced users. Thus, Setup doesn’t offer any options for memory timings fine-tuning. The only parameter of the memory controller integrated into AMD Athlon 64 processors that you can adjust via the mainboard BIOS Setup is the memory bus frequency.

Also I got the impression that Shuttle didn’t want to position this solution as overclocking friendly as well. Although the mainboard BIOS Setup does offer a few options for overclocking experiments, they are too scarce. First of all, the mainboard wouldn’t let you adjust the CPU clock frequency multiplier. The processor bus frequency can be changed from 200MHz to 250MHz with 1MHz increment. The AGP/PCI bus frequency can be set to any value from 66MHz to 100MHz.

As for the voltage adjustment options, the BIOS Setup doesn’t offer anything exciting here, too. You can set the processor Vcore manually from 0.8V to 1.7V with 0.025V increment up to 1.55V and with 0.05V increment beyond that value. The Vdimm can be adjusted within 2.6V-2.9v interval with 0.1V increment. Besides that, Shuttle AN50R doesn’t allow changing any other voltages. Moreover, the mainboard doesn’t have any emergency settings reset in case of over-overclocking, that is why if your system wouldn’t boot-up after another overclocking experiment you will have to use the Clear CMOS jumper.

As a result, I have to admit that although Shuttle AN50R is a very well-made and designed product, it is absolutely unsuitable for advanced users. Though OEMs and system integrators may certainly love it.

Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL (VIA K8T800)

Soltek Company has been lately working on inexpensive mainboards with pretty up-to-date features sets. Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL is exactly like that. This mainboard is designed without any additional controller chips (besides the integrated sound chip and physical network chip). As a result, we see a simple, low-cost but at the same time very well-done and modern solution.

The PCB design of Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL surprised me a little bit. It is the first time I come across memory slots located parallel to the PCI and AGP slots on a Socket754 mainboard. However, there is nothing bad about it, I should say. On the contrary, having placed the DIMMs in such an unusual way Soltek engineers managed to make the entire PCB layout very convenient and optimal. The ATA/133 connectors for hard disk drives and FDD are located in front of the processor Socket, where they will not be in the way. The ATX power supply connector is located in the same spot. All connectors intended for additional USB ports have been shifted to the left edge of the PCB. No doubt, this is all very well thought of. The only thing I would probably like to point out is the additional 12V ATX power supply connector, which appears in the middle of the PCB next to the chipset.

Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL offers the users a pretty standard set of features. This mainboard meets all VIA requirements about the best way to use its new VIA K8T800 chipset. Besides the North and the South Bridges and a Flash chip, there are no other additional chips onboard: only those recommended by VIA for use on K8T800 based platforms. The only slight deviation from the VIA specs is the presence of only two memory slots instead of the standard three. Although you might think that it limits the expansion capabilities of Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL solution, there is no need to worry. Moreover, the memory controller integrated into the AMD Athlon 64 CPU can support maximum two double-side DDR400 SDRAM modules. If you install three of them, the memory speed will drop down to DDR333. That is why  two DIMM slots is absolutely OK in this case.

The mainboard supports all contemporary protocols and interfaces implemented via the controllers integrated into the chipset. Therefore, the mainboard features two ATA/133 ports, two SerialATA-150 ports (with RAID support for the connected HDDs) and eight USB 2.0 ports. Two of them are available on the mainboard rear panel, where you will also see two COM ports, and not just one like on many other mainboards we have already discussed today. The remaining six USB 2.0 ports can be connected additionally. By the way, Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL is not supplied with any of those nice rear panel brackets, that is why if you need more USB 2.0 ports for your system (and 2 USB 2.0 ports is definitely insufficient for today’s needs), you will have to think about getting a bracket or a case with the USB ports on the front panel. The LAN features of Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL are implemented via the VT8237 South Bridge integrated controller, which is also accompanied with a physical VIA VT6103 controller. This way, the board supports only 10/100Mbit Ethernet.

Soltek tackled the sound implementation in about the same way. Soltek engineers used a standard VIA Vinyl Six-TRAC Audio (VT1616) codec and added six-channel AC’97 sound to it. Although this codec supports SPDIF Output, SL-K8AV2-RL doesn’t have it among the connectors on the mainboard rear panel.

The processor voltage regulator is designed according to a three-channel circuitry and uses pretty powerful (compared to what we saw on other mainboards) MOSFET and inductances. The processor Vcore on the board is not any higher than the nominal. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL supports Cool’n’Quiet technology, although they didn’t mention this fact anywhere. Even in the BIOS Setup there is not a single work about this technology or about the disabling option. Nevertheless, as soon as I installed the AMD driver and enabled the power saving option in the Windows settings page, Cool’n’Quiet started working perfectly well.

The hardware monitoring algorithms implemented on this mainboard do not boast any outstanding peculiarities. However, Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL uses the thermal diode built into the CPU that is why you can be certain about high temperature measuring accuracy.

In fact SL-K8AV2-RL lost not only the third DIMM slot, but also a number of settings for advanced memory configuring, which disappeared from the BIOS Setup. For example the mainboard doesn’t allow enabling ECC. The worst thing is that you cannot manually adjust the timings, which are anyway automatically set depending on what the module SPD says. In fact, the only memory related parameter in the BIOS Setup of SL-K8AV2-RL is the memory frequency. The choice is pretty standard though: DDR200/DDR266/DDR333/DDR400.

I would like to say a few words about the overclocking friendly features of the Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL mainboard, of course. No, unfortunately, you will not be able to change the CPU clock frequency multiplier. However, this is the only VIA K8T800 based mainboard in our today’s roundup, which can theoretically allow adjusting the frequency dividers for AGP, HyperTransport and PCI buses. The mainboard is equipped with a special jumper set, which allow changing the corresponding dividers so that these buses frequency could be automatically set to the nominal value once the system bus frequency is set to 200MHz, 233MHz, 266MHz and 270MHz.

All this means that Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL can be theoretically better at overclocking than the other solutions on VIA K8T800 considered today. Especially since this chipset doesn’t know to lock the AGP, HyperTransport and PCI bus frequencies. But this is still only in theory. In reality the situation appeared not that exciting at all. Unfortunately, the mainboard refused to start with the jumper set at any other position than “the settings for 200MHz system bus”. In other words, Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL appeared to have all the same problems as the other VIA K8T800 based mainboards do: overclocking is very often limited not by the CPU, but by the top working frequencies of the AGP/PCI buses.

Since the above described jumper didn’t work, we had to resort to the option available in the BIOS Setup, which allows changing the bus frequency from 200MHz to 233MHz with 1MHz increment. Moreover, you cannot actually set this parameter to 233MHz, so in reality the maximum you can make Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL work at is 232MHz. The available voltage settings are impressively rich. The processor Vcore can be set to 0.8V-1.7V with 0.025V increment (I have to admit that even though 1.7V is not much higher than the nominal 1.5V of AMD Athlon 64 processor, many mainboards do not offer even this option). The memory voltage can be set from 2.6V to 2.9V with 0.1V increment. And the AGP voltage can be set to 1.5V, 1.6V, 1.7V or 1.8V. Besides that, the BIOS Setup of Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL allows increasing the V-Link bus voltage from 2.5V to 2.8V with 0.1V increment.

The mainboard proved very stable during overclocking and in regular working conditions. In case of over-overclocking you can always reset the BIOS Setup settings to default values by pressing the INS key.

This way, Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL is a very good Socket754 mainboard targeted for a Low-End market. This product doesn’t have a rich accessories set (you will get an almost empty box) and minimal additional features. However, it doesn’t at all mean that the product is not good enough to consider for your system. We do not have any complaints about Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL design and quality, and strongly believe that it perfectly fits into that market niche where the manufacturer actually targets it.

Testing Participants Features Comparative Chart

Summing up I would like to offer you a pretty big table very illustratively comparing the specifications of all our 13 testing participants:

 


Click to enlarge

Testbed and Methods

The major goal of our tests was to find out all the performance advantages of the reviewed products. Note that since the memory controller in Athlon 64 based systems is situated in the CPU, and hence its speed hardly depends on the mainboard, most our today’s testing participants would run very close to one another in most tasks. At the same time, however, there are other subsystems, which might affect the overall performance of our platforms. For example, the disk subsystem, or the graphics subsystem. Since these subsystems are implemented differently on various mainboards, the systems might also show different results in some benchmarks. Let’s check this out.

For our tests we used the following system:

The tests were run in Windows XP Professional SP1 operating system with the installed DirectX9.0b package. During the tests we used NVIDIA nForce3 Unified Driver 2.65 and VIA Hyperion 4in1 Driver v.4.49.

Also note that we had to give up the idea of using a hard disk drive subsystem with SerialATA HDDs, because some of the testing participants didn’t support SerialATA protocol.

During our tests we used the available BIOS versions at the time of the test session. The table below lists them all for your reference:

Mainboard

BIOS version

Albatron K8X800 ProII

1.03

Aopen AK86-L

1.01B

ASUS K8V

1003 BETA 012

BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro

NHA0912

BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro

VHA0910

Chaintech ZNF3-150

10/13/2003

Gigabyte GA-K8N

F4

Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP

M12

Gigabyte GA-K8VT800

F1

Leadtek K8N Pro

031016

MSI K8T Neo

1.1B

Shuttle AN50R

AN50S00O

Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL

1.0

Performance

Before we pass over to the actual benchmarks results in real applications, I think it would be interesting to measure the actual CPU clock frequency on every board. The matter is that some manufacturers tweak the clock the frequency generator, so that the CPU works at higher clock rates than the nominal when used with their mainboard. As a result these mainboards show higher results in benchmarks, although they owe this improvement only to the pure CPU overclocking.

 

CPU frequency, MHz

Deviation from the nominal value

Albatron K8X800 ProII

1995.1

-0.245%

AOpen AK86-L

2009.3

+0.465%

ASUS K8V Deluxe

2002.6

+0.13%

BIOSTAR K8NHA Pro

1994.7

-0.265%

BIOSTAR K8VHA Pro

1999.6

-0.02%

Chaintech ZNF3-150

2020.1

+1.005%

Gigabyte GA-K8N

1995.1

-0.245%

Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP

2020.1

+1.005%

Gigabyte GA-K8VT800

2010.2

+0.51%

Leadtek K8N Pro

1999.9

-0.005%

MSI K8T Neo

2000.1

+0.005%

Shuttle AN50R

1994.5

-0.275%

Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL

2013.7

+0.685%

Here I would like to point out for your information that during the tests we had to disable Dynamic Overclocking function of the MSI K8T Neo mainboard, set the Top Performance option in the BIOS Setup of Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP mainboard to Disabled, and the Performance Mode of ASUS K8V – to Standard. In case the settings in the BIOS are other than that, the actual processor clock frequency appears more than 3% above the nominal, which we cannot consider a fair testing then.

As for the actual CPU frequencies on the tested mainboards, we have to draw your attention to the fact that the CPU worked at a noticeably higher (over 1% higher) frequency in Chaintech ZNF3-150 and Gigabyte GA-K8NNXP mainboards. We shouldn’t disregard this when we analyze the results and draw conclusions.

First of all we decided to see how fast these mainboards are in gaming benchmarks:

In popular 3DMark test set as well as in Quake3 Arena and Unreal Tournament 2003 the leadership indisputably belongs to Chaintech ZNF3-150, which is actually not surprising at all, since the processor works at a higher frequency on this mainboard. The performance of both BIOSTAR and Gigabyte mainboards also appeared pretty good. However, we have to stress one more time that the performance of all the testing participants is pretty close, so that the performance difference between the fastest and the slowest mainboard is maximum 2-3% only.

Now let’s find out how well the mainboards will cope with more up-to-date games, such as X2: The Threat and Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. The peculiar thing about these games is that they transfer pretty big data packs along the AGP bus, and this is where we can actually see the advantages of the HyperTransport bus used in VIA K8T800 based mainboards.

As we have expected, faster HyperTransport bus used to connect the chipset and the CPU on VIA K8T800 based mainboards determines the performance results. You can easily notice that all NVIDIA nForce3 150 based mainboards are slower this time. Among the products based on VIA K8T800 the first prize was won by Gigabyte GA-K8VT800 and Soltek SL-K8AV2-RL.

Now let’s check the mainboards performance in office and content creation applications, which we will measure in the popular Winstone test package.

Here the situation changes and the best performance results now belong to NVIDIA nForce3 150 based products. The mainboards on NVIDIA chipset owe this great success to a faster IDE controller and a much better optimized driver, than the VIA’s one. At the same time, I have to draw once again your attention to the fact that these tests were all performed with an ATA/133 hard disk drive. SerialATA-150 RAID controller integrated into the VIA K8T800 chipset is much more efficient and if we had a SerialATA hard disk drive installed in our testbed, the results of VIA K8T800 based boards would undoubtedly be much higher. However, nForce3 150 doesn’t support SerialATA at all therefore, we had to use an ATA/133 HDD to make it a fair competition. As for the performance of individual products, the best results in Busineess Winstone 2002 and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2003 were demonstrated by Chaintech and Gigabyte mainboards on nForce3 150.

In streaming data encoding tasks the chipsets do not affect the results that much, and the mainboards performs almost equally fast. However, the leaders, which have already won the laurels in the previous tests, do not disappoint us here.

We tested the mainboards in professional OpenGL applications and rendering tasks with the help of CINEMA 4D package, which showed very curious results. During rendering tests the major workload falls on the processor computing capacity and the memory subsystem, that is why most mainboards performed equally fast. However, as soon as we started calculating the lights and shadows with OpenGL driver, the victory would go from VIA based mainboards to NVIDIA based ones and then back. So, we cannot name a leader in professional OpenGL applications.

Overclocking

We decided to devote a separate part of our roundup to testing the mainboards overclocking potential. It turned out that the mainboards differ a lot here. These differences can be explained by the mainboards BIOS individual peculiarities as well as by the features of the chipsets they are built on. However, first of all I would like to dwell on the techniques used for proper AMD Athlon 64 3200+ overclocking, as this is the only Socket754 CPU available in the market today.

Athlon 64 processor frequency, like that of other processors from AMD is set as a [clock multiplier] x [processor bus frequency]. The nominal processor bus frequency of Athlon 64 3200+ is 200MHz, and the clock frequency multiplier is 10x. However, you should keep in mind that the processor bus frequency is  formal parameter for Athlon 64 systems. In fact, it is just a signal frequency which is used as a basis for CPU and other system components clocking. The Athlon 64 processor and the chipset are connected with one another via a special bi-directional HyperTransport bus, which is 8bit or 16bit wide in each direction and works at 600MHz or 800MHz (3x or 4x CPU bus frequency, to be more exact) depending on the chipset. As for the memory working frequency, it depends on the processor frequency, because as you know the corresponding memory controller is built into the Athlon 64 CPU. The actual working frequency of the AMD Athlon 64 3200+ processor is 2GHz, so the memory is clocked as 1/5, 1/6, 2/15 or 1/10 of the CPU frequency depending on the BIOS Setup settings, namely DDR400, DDR333, DDR266 or DDR200. as for the AGP/PCI bus frequencies, their clocking depends on the chipset. NVIDIA nForce3 150 clocks AGP/PCI asynchronously and independent of the processor bus frequency. VIA K8T800 sends to AGP 1/3 of the processor bus frequency. Moreover, VIA K8T800 theoretically allows setting other dividers for AGP and PCI buses, although for some reason most mainboards do not support this feature.

This way, the higher is the processor bus frequency in the BIOS Setup, the higher rise the processor clock frequency, the memory frequency, HyperTransport frequency and even AGP/PCI frequency if we are talking about VIA K8T800. That is why in order to avoid any possible problems during overclocking, when the speed will be limited not by the CPU, but by AGP/PCI devices or the chipset, it makes much more sense to overclock Athlon 64 by increasing its clock frequency multiplier. However, unfortunately, you will not be able to do it with the today’s Athlon 64 3200+ processors. Although their multiplier is unlocked, it can be set to 10x maximum, which means that there is no room to increase it any further: the nominal clock multiplier of the today’s Athlon 64 3200+ processors is the maximum multiplier possible at all. So, the only way to overclock these processors remains the bus frequency. In this case it is very helpful that you can apply special lowering coefficients to the frequencies of other buses, which depend on the processor bus frequency. As for the memory and HyperTransport frequencies, there are no problems here. AGP/PCI frequency on nForce3 150 based mainboards is set independently, and on VIA K8T800 based mainboards the growth of the processor bus may cause some issues with the AGP/PCI devices.

So, let’s take a closer look at the overclocking friendly features of our today’s testing participants:


Click to enlarge

As we see, the overclocking potential of the boards tested are very much different. First of all, I would like to stress that only two mainboards of the whole bunch allowed adjusting the CPU multiplier. They are Leadtek K8N Pro and Albatron K8X800 ProII. In fact, this feature is considered to be not that important today, for the reasons mentioned above. However, as soon as new Socket754 processor models come out the availability of such a function may appear very important for successful overclocking. You should keep that in mind if you are planning your system to last for at least a year or more. At the same time it is quite possible that more mainboards acquire this feature in the future especially after the new BIOS versions will come out. Moreover, most mainboards allow only a slight processor Vcore increase. The most popular maximum today is 1.7V, which is only 0.2V above the nominal Vcore value. If you need to set your processor core voltage higher than 1.7V, then your mainboard should be MSI K8T Neo or Albatron K8X800 ProII.

You can get more information about the overclocking potential and features of the testing participants from the tables above. So far, we are going to dwell on a bit more practical aspect. We tried to overclock our test AMD Athlon 64 3200+ CPU on each mainboard from the bunch. During this overclocking experiment we used the regular boxed cooler. We increased the processor Vcore to 1.65V (or lower than that if the mainboard didn’t allow this voltage setting) and raised the bus frequency until the mainboard couldn’t run stably any more. We tested the stability by running 3DMark2001 SE and 3DMark03 test packages. If we couldn’t go through with these settings, we reduced the HyperTransport frequency multiplier and tried to go on. The AGP/PCI frequency was locked at 66MHz for all mainboards on NVIDIA nForce3 150. The picture below shows how far we managed to speed up the CPU this way for each given mainboard:

As we see, the clock frequency slightly above 2.3GHz is the maximum for our CPU. This way we can conclude that the following mainboards fulfilled the set task successfully: Albatron K8X800 ProII, Leadtek K8N Pro, ASUS K8V Deluxe, Gigabyte GA-K8N and Chaintech ZNF3-150. Although we had to reduce the HyperTransport frequency multiplier below the nominal value for Leadtek K8N Pro and Gigabyte GA-K8N.

Other mainboard didn’t prove suitable for overclocking needs for various reasons. Some of them lacked the opportunity to increase CPU Vcore, the others, such as MSI K8T Neo, for instance, simply failed to pass the overclocking tests.

Conclusion

Well, the outcome of our investigation appeared not so simple. First of all, we can’t answer the question: which chipset for Socket754 platform is the most optimal solution today. even if we take into account that mainboard manufacturers will integrate more onboard controllers to make up for insufficient functionality of the NVIDIA nForce3 150, the products based on it will still suffer from one very serious drawback: slower HyperTransport bus, which serves to connect the chipset to the CPU. As a result this leads to performance drops in the applications, which use the AGP bus a lot. At the same time, VIA K8T800 is free from this drawback, but suffers from another ones, such as low IDE controller performance and synchronous clocking of the processor and AGP/PCI buses, which can theoretically impose certain limitations over the overclocking potential of these boards.

At the same time, I have to mention that the integration of the memory controller into the CPU as well as very long and thorough development of the Athlon 64 processor the mainboards built for it proved highly stable and performed very close to one another. This way, you can base your choice of an Athlon 64 platform on such things as rich features set and CPU overclocking opportunities.

Summing up the results of our roundup I would like to single out a few products, which I would recommend paying attention to in the first place, if you are looking into a stable and reliable Athlon 64 system. They are: