by Ilya Gavrichenkov
05/23/2004 | 01:01 PM
A little while ago we reviewed a fresh dual-channel Socket A chipset from VIA Technologies, the VIA KT880. This chipset came to our test lab on a mainboard from ASUS and left a very nice impression (see our article called ASUS A7V880 Mainboard Review. First Look at VIA KT880 Chipset). The ASUS A7V880 was slower than a mainboard on NVIDIA’s nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset in our tests, but not hopelessly so. The overclocking potential of the ASUS mainboard drew our attention, too. Thanks to the KT880 chipset, this mainboard worked stably at over 200MHz FSB and also allowed locking the AGP/PCI clock rates. We met a sudden pitfall, though. The BIOS Setup of that mainboard didn’t allow setting the FSB frequency above 227MHz and we had to postpone our exploration of the overclockability of the KT880 at extra high frequencies till better times.
Anyway, the KT880 aroused our curiosity and left us waiting for other mainboards on this chipset. Note also that according to our recent tests, the Socket A platform is still a viable solution, an ideal choice for a budget computer system. Its price/performance ratio seems much more appealing than that of the Celeron platform from Intel. This is why KT880-based mainboards are demanded nowadays. This chipset, unlike the nForce2 Ultra 400, allows creating cheap mainboards with a dual-channel memory controller and this controller brings about some performance gains compared to mainboards on the KT600 or other value chipsets.
So today we’re going to review yet another Socket A mainboard on the VIA KT880 chipset. The board from Soltek may prove interesting for thrifty overclockers as Soltek is known to produce cheap products, but with extensive CPU-overclocking capabilities. We’ll also have a chance to explore the capabilities of the KT880 chipset in more detail.
Before examining and testing a Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard that we got into our test lab, I should make a few reservations regarding the KT880. In our previous review of a KT880-based mainboard we said that VIA’s chipset for the Socket A platform had more appeal due to its better formal characteristics. And that was true then. Old South Bridges from NVIDIA couldn’t boast an integrated SerialATA controller or support of eight USB ports, for example.
But recently NVIDIA announced new South Bridges to complement chipsets of the nForce2 series. These chips, called RAID MCP and Gigabit MCP, add those SerialATA RAID and eight USB ports to the nForce2, while the Gigabit MCP version also includes an additional Gigabit Ethernet controller with a hardware firewall. Thus, although the new Bridges from NVIDIA lost the audio processing unit and the IEEE1394 ports, they are not obsolete anymore. In other words, the nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset accompanied with a new South Bridge offers a wider functionality to the user than the KT880 does.
On the other hand, prices of nForce2 Ultra 400-based mainboards don’t seem ready sink down to the level of KT880-based products. It means that the KT880 remains a better choice for building a budget computer system, even though NVIDIA will probably reduce prices of the nForce2 family chipsets in the future. Well, I hope we’ll have a chance to talk about the nForce2 with the new South Bridges in one of our upcoming reviews. Right now, let’s get back to the hero of the today’s article: the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard on the VIA KT880 chipset.
Socket A AMD Athlon XP/Athlon/Duron
VIA KT880 + VIA VT8237
FSB frequencies, MHz
100-327 (with 1MHz increment)
Overclocking friendly functions
Adjustable processor clock frequency multiplier
2 DDR DIMM slots
Expansion slots (PCI/ACR/CNR)
USB 2.0 ports
8 (4 – on the rear panel)
2 ATA-100 channels
2 Serial ATA-150 channels
Integrated IDE RAID controller
Six-channel AC97 codec - VIA VT1617
10/100Mbps LAN controller VIA VT6103
ATX, 305mm x 215mm
Note that Soltek has two more mainboards in its product series that are too based on the KT880 chipset and use the same PCB as the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL has.
Thus, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL is a middle product in the series – there are cheaper and more expensive versions.
The Socket A platform belongs to the low-end market sector today, so the accessories to the mainboard are scanty. Besides the mainboard itself, the package, made in the traditional Soltek design, contains:
As you see, there are no round aerodynamic cables that have become a traditional accessory to top-end mainboard. Some other things are missing too, like a USB bracket with additional ports, and we have only one SATA cable here. Overall, Soltek seems to have been saving on every trifle – we’ll see some other traces of that economy shortly.
The specs of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard indicate that the developers were trying to create a product that would be as cheap as possible. They made use of all the chipset’s integrated capabilities and refused to add any external PCI controllers. Thus, all the characteristics of the mainboard are realized through the chipset, the KT880 and VT8237 chips.
The Soltek SL-KT880E-RL supports all members of the Athlon, Athlon XP and Duron processor families that work with a FSB clocked at 100/133/166 or 200MHz. It’s characteristic that the clock rate of the processor bus is set up by onboard jumpers – that’s normal for Soltek. Well, automatic detection of the frequency is possible, so these jumpers are in fact only necessary when you are using the processor at non-regular frequencies, i.e. at overclocking.
The board supports single- and dual-channel DDR SDRAM of 200/266/333 and 400MHz clock rates and that’s quite natural. What’s surprising, Soltek placed only two DDR DIMM slots on this mainboard. Thus, the maximum amount of memory that you can install into the SL-KT880E-RL is 2GB. This is enough, of course, but the main trouble will occur during upgrades of the system. To make use of the advantages of the dual-channel KT880 chipset, you’ll probably want to fill both memory slots with memory modules right away and this means you won’t have an opportunity of adding more memory into your system. The developing team from Soltek may have wanted to save on the product cost by soldering only two memory slots. On the other hand, when the owner of a Socket A platform goes for an upgrade, he’ll probably throw the entire platform away into the dustbin.
All the fine-tuning memory options are present in the BIOS Setup, which is based on the AMI microcode. There are also a few simple presets that help inexperienced users to do the system setup.
I must confess we had problems using the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL in the single-channel mode. We met similar instability when working with the ASUS A7V880, so the cause of the trouble may be in the chipset and calls for correction by VIA Technologies or by mainboard manufacturers, on the BIOS level. In any case, you should be aware that it now seems impossible to use KT880-based mainboard in the single-channel memory access mode.
Using the properties of the chipset, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL supports two SerialATA-150 channels besides the traditional ATA/133 ports. You can also unite your SATA drives into a RAID array of level 0 or 1. The mainboard has eight USB ports: four at the connections panel and four more are onboard headers. Again, for economical reasons, the manufacturer doesn’t include a USB bracket to output those onboard ports to the outside of the system case.
Otherwise, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL seems to be a regular mainboard, without anything extraordinary about itself. The system offers upgradeability with its five PCI slots and one AGP 8x port. Then, we have integrated audio and network, realized through physical-level controllers, offered by VIA to its clients along with the VIA VT8237 South Bridge.
As for the AC’97 audio codec employed in the mainboard – the VIA VT1617 chip – the manufacturer’s website says it is an advanced solution with support of the AC’97 2.3 specification and providing up to 96kHz sample rates. Soltek didn’t use this codec to the full, though. They only wired six channels. Moreover, the lack of appropriate drivers doesn’t allow users enjoy any benefits from version 2.3 of the AC’97 standard. In other words, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL doesn’t support any advanced technologies like Jack Sensing.
The implementation of the audio section in the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL is good, quite contrary to what we usually hear from Soltek’s mainboards. We used the RightMark Audio Analyzer for exploring the properties of the audio subsystem:
Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
Noise level, dB (A):
Dynamic range, dB (A):
Stereo crosstalk, dB:
The networking capabilities of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL are realized by means of the VT8237 South Bridge coupled with a physical-level VT6103controller. This controller provides 10/100Mb speeds, but puts a higher load on the CPU than typical PCI controllers. For example, our Athlon XP 3200+ was loaded by 30-40% when we were transferring streams of data across the network.
Once again, the main goal before the engineers of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard was to make the product as cheap as possible. We noticed various signs of this desire for cheapness throughout this review, like the reduced number of memory slots. Besides that, the PCB of the mainboard is very small and has a depth of 215mm, while a majority of modern ATX boards have a depth of 245mm. This made the engineers deviate from the traditional placement of the connectors onboard. And I wouldn’t call this layout a good one.
The Parallel and Serial ATA slots are located before the PCI slots and may be a cause of trouble if you’re installing a large expansion card. The ATX power connectors found themselves behind the processor socket. That’s also not a very proper place – the power cables hang above the CPU cooler, hindering ventilation. The installed AGP graphics card blocks the latches of the DIMM slots, but you might have expected that: mainboard makers seem to ignore this problem completely.
The processor socket itself found a good place on the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL – I think you won’t have any troubles mounting a cooler. On the other hand, there are no mounting holes in the Socket A neighborhood so you simply can’t install certain types of coolers.
The back panel of the mainboard carries two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, four High-Speed USB ports, three audio jacks (inputs and outputs combined), a network RJ-45 connector, one parallel and one serial port. The second COM port is wired on the PCB as a pin connector, but the connector itself is missing. Strangely enough, the I/O shield for the back panel of the system case has two holes for COM ports – one opening is empty when you use this shield.
The CPU power module is dual-channel and there are only four MOSFETs soldered to the PCB instead of six, as the scheme prescribes. So once again we catch Soltek saving on costs – even the available MOSFETs are relatively low-powered. We encountered no problems when testing the mainboard, but the CPU voltage regulator module may be insufficient in some extreme cases, like at extreme overclocking.
As I said already, the BIOS of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard is based on microcode from AMI. The BIOS Setup is a menu tree with many branches, offering you all necessary settings. We already talked about memory-related options, so now we’ll examine overclocking opportunities.
Here’s what you can do for overclocking:
You may note that the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL offers ordinary overclocking tools – nothing extreme here. For example, the ceiling of the Vcore is rather low. Modern memory may also require a higher voltage than 2.8v, too. Also disappointing, the mainboard makes you do your overclocking by moving the onboard jumpers. Still, this is not the main drawback of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL. To my deepest regret, Soltek stripped its product of the ability to lock the frequencies of the AGP and PCI busses during overclocking. As a consequence, these frequencies increase along with the FSB clock rate, rendering external devices and graphics cards non-operational. Although the KT880 chipset does allow clocking AGP/PCI busses asynchronously, as we made sure in our ASUS A7V880 mainboard review, Soltek didn’t realize this function in its SL-KT880E-RL.
Of course, the effective overclockability of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL turns to be lower now as our practical tests confirmed. We took an Athlon XP 3200+ processor and tried to increase the FSB clock rate to the maximum, having first reduced the CPU multiplier to 9.5x. We also kept all the voltages at their nominal values. The memory frequency was set in sync with the FSB, so we took DDR400 SDRAM for overclocking this processor. We use PC4200 Enhanced Latency SDRAM from OCZ Technology for our overclocking tests and this memory easily conquers high clock rates.
The BIOS Setup allows setting an extra-high FSB frequency, but you shouldn’t trust it much. In reality, we only reached 223MHz FSB with a Parallel ATA hard disk drive. If the system worked with a SerialATA drive, which was more fastidious about the frequencies, the maximum stable FSB clock rate was 218MHz. Thus I cannot recommend the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard as a platform for extreme overclocking.
On the other hand, the onboard jumpers allow resetting the rated frequency of the processor bus, so this mainboard can be used without any consequences for AGP/PCI devices if you’re overclocking the FSB up to 166 or 200MHz. So, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL is not completely hopeless.
A couple of words about monitoring: the mainboard can keep track of three temperatures, speeds of three fans, and all the main voltages. It’s good that the CPU temperature data are taken from the thermal diode integrated into the processor itself – it means higher accuracy. Regrettably, the mainboard can’t boast any technologies for reducing the noise from the fans, but it comes with an exclusive utility for hardware monitoring instead:
In this section we will compare the performance of the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL mainboard with that of another KT880-based product, the ASUS A7V880. Let’s check out if the off-the-shelf mainboard from Soltek can beat the sample from ASUS or even a mainboard on the rivaling nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset? So, we used the following hardware in our test systems:
We ran our tests in Windows XP SP1; the BIOSes of the mainboards were set up for the maximum performance. Besides that, the real FSB frequency was a little higher in all three mainboards and equaled 202MHz instead of 200MHz – this mild overclocking seems to have become a tradition already.
ASUS A7N8X-E Deluxe
Business Winstone 2004
Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004
3DMark03, Default, CPU score
3DMark2001 SE, Default
Quake3 (four), 1024x768
X2 - The Threat, 1024x768
Unreal Tournament 2004 (dm-rankin), 1024x768
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (paris3), 640x480
Far Cry, 1024x768
Data Compression, WinRAR 3.3, Best, KB/sec
MPEG-2 Encoding, Mainconcept MPEG Encoder, sec
MPEG-4 Encoding, Xmpeg 5.0/DiVX 5.11, fps
Windows Media Encoder 9, MPEG2 to WME, sec
CINEMA 4D, CINEBENCH 2003, Raytracing, CB
CINEMA 4D, CINEBENCH 2003, Shading, CB
CINEMA 4D, CINEBENCH 2003, Lighting SW, CB
CINEMA 4D, CINEBENCH 2003, Lighting HW, CB
The outcome of our tests is predictable. Soltek couldn’t make a faster KT880-based mainboard than ASUS. That’s why the ASUS A7V880 is nearly everywhere a little faster than the new board from Soltek. Of course, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL is also slower than the nForce2-based product and our words about the nForce2 Ultra 400 being the fastest dual-channel chipset for the Socket A platform are still true. The intelligent DASP preprocessor employed by NVIDIA in the nForce2 family chipsets is a highly efficient thing – you can’t beat that.
We have met another mainboard on the VIA KT880 and can now talk with more knowledge about the consumer qualities of this chipset. We are now perfectly sure that the KT880 is not faster than Socket A chipsets from NVIDIA. Moreover, now that we’re looking forward to mainboards on the nForce2 with new enhanced-functionality and cheaper South Bridges, the problem of the best chipset for the Socket A platform remains urgent. Of course, the KT880 has certain advantages, among which its high stability at overclocking is important, but so far, there are no real overclocker models of KT880-based mainboards in the market. For example, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL we have reviewed today cannot clock the AGP and PCI busses asynchronously and this becomes a serious obstacle to speeding the system up.
On the other hand, the Soltek SL-KT880E-RL will suit well as an inexpensive Socket A platform for a mainstream computer system. As far as we know, this mainboard is going to sell for about $70 and this price will make it a good buy for economical users as it has every necessary function a modern PC must have. Still, I wouldn’t recommend this product to overclockers and experimenters.