09/02/2004 | 12:20 PM
The last time I tested a barebone in our labs (see our FIC Condor review), I was left very pleased with the device. The Condor turned to be a small, easy-to-assemble, easy-to-set-up and easy-to-use computer. And it’s only up to you what to make out of a barebone system: anything from an electronic typewriter to a powerful gaming station for running the most advanced games.
At least I could make this with the Condor, although its cooling system was working at the limit when I stuffed the box with powerful components. Well, the Condor is not quite intended for such overloads.
Today’s reviewee is an originally serious system, although of a non-serious size. It is the Qbic EQ3801A barebone system from Soltek, which supports Socket 754 processors from AMD.
There are several color schemes available, and the face panel can be mirror-like. We’ve got a sample made of lusterless aluminum.
The engineers made a good use of the restricted space (33cm length, 21.5cm width and 20cm height) to create a full-featured computer, capable of solving all the range of tasks you may want to set before it. Originally generously endowed, the system also offers upgrade and expand options. For example, the look of the front panel implies that you can install two optical drives into the two top 5.25” bays.
The central part conceals an external 3.5” bay for a second hard disk drive or a floppy drive.
Below, there are a power-on button, a HDD activity indicator and a reset button. The flip-down cover hides the following connectors (from left to right): digital S/PDIF, microphone input and line input, two USB and one FireWire.
The back panel carries two PS/2 connectors for the keyboard and mouse, two COM ports, four USB ports, a LAN connector (RJ-45), a FireWire port, and five audio connectors:
To gain access to the entrails of the Soltek Qbic, you remove the casing fastened with three thumbscrews.
The blower you see in the picture is an important part of the IcyQ cooling system, the operation of which is illustrated by the picture below:
Fresh air comes through the holes in the bottom and sides of the case and is exhausted with a low-speed blower and a fan in the PSU. The well-thought placement of the components inside the chassis positively affects the temperature of the system as well as its noise.
The Qbic EQ3801A is based around the SL-B9A-FGR mainboard:
Notwithstanding its tiny form-factor, it matches modern mainboard models of the Deluxe category. Here’s a list of its technical characteristics:
AMD K8 Socket 754
NVIDIA nForce3 250 GB
2DDR DIMM slots for DDR400/DDR333/DDR266/DDR200 SDRAM
1 AGP 8x
8-channel C-media CMI8768
ATX, 180mm x 270mm
As you see, the Soltek engineers successfully solved the problem of designing so small a mainboard – they even found a place for the legacy ports (COM and LPT)! The modern functionality – eight-channel audio, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, SerialATA RAID – is all present, too.
Talking about the construction of the Qbic, I can’t pass by the 250W power supply unit with active power factor correction, the SS-250SFD model.
It is positioned horizontally above the back part of the case and it exhausts hot air with its 80mm fan.
There’s no problem in installing the cooler enclosed with the system – it is hitched up with the socket’s six jags and fastened with a simple turn of the lever.
The heatsink is made of aluminum with a copper insertion. The rotational speed of the fan doesn’t exceed 3000rpm.
The sole of the heatsink is well-polished:
I was rather disappointed at first to see an ordinary cooler, without any advanced features like the now-fashionable heat pipes. On second thought, though, this may even be better as you can always change the cooler – the mainboard uses a standard fastening frame.
With all its intricate design, the system proved to be easy to assemble. The PSU is removed after unscrewing two screws. Then you extract the drives basket and have free access to the mainboard with all its slots and connectors.
The accessories to the Qbic include everything necessary to put a system together: FDD and IDE loops in mesh tubes, two SATA cables and a power adapter for SATA devices, thermal paste, a pack of screws, additional fastenings and buckles.
Well, you could lay the cables and wires neatly even with the preinstalled fastenings.
The AGP slot is very close to the mainboard’s edge, so you cannot install a graphics card with a double-slot cooling system, but the length of the card is not restricted.
The system I assembled in the Soltek Qbic EQ3801A can challenge any full-size system case:
This is a powerful system as it is. Moreover, to my great wonder and joy, this cubic is overclockable, unlike many other barebone systems!
The mainboard allows adjusting:
The Cool’n’Quiet technology works fine, but you can disable it in the BIOS, if you wish. It is automatically turned off the moment you decrease the CPU frequency multiplier, while the option of increasing the multiplier is locked in Socket 754 processors.
You cannot change the voltage on the HyperTransport bus, but you can adjust its frequency up to 1000MHz. Memory timings can also be adjusted – they are not many as in modern mainboards, but all the main timings are present and you cannot get confused:
The SmartDoc Anti-Burn Shield section allows controlling all the basic system health parameters: temperature, voltages, fan speeds. You can also specify the threshold after which the fan speeds will start to grow up. The possible threshold range is 45-65°C for the CPU and 30-50°C for the system, stepping 5°C.
Alas, I couldn’t set up the Motherboard Monitor program to control the system from Windows, so I used Soltek’s exclusive Hardware Monitor:
When the system was idle, the fan speeds didn’t exceed 1500rpm, and the temperature was around 40°C. The computer was practically noiseless. Under a higher load, the fan speeds increased to the maximum of 2900rpm. The noise was audible then. The temperature reached its highest peak of 72°C when I had been frying the CPU up with the Prime95 utility. During game tests, the CPU temperature never exceeded 70°C, but was above 60°C.
The first unpleasant surprise was found soon after the start of the tests: the mainboard didn’t respond to any adjustments of the memory timings. According to the CPU-Z utility, the timings were always set to 2-4-4-8, irrespective of the memory frequency or the user-defined values. My checking with SiSoftware Sandra 2004 SP2 version 9133 confirmed that the memory speed was always the same, whatever memory timings you select in the BIOS.
The timings are most important for the memory controller integrated into the CPU die, but that’s not the only piece of bad news. CPU overclocking proved to be impossible with this mainboard. The system booted up normally at 250MHz base frequency and x9 multiplier, but it was not stable in this mode as well as at 240MHz. I didn’t try to reduce the clock generator frequency further since the resulting CPU frequency bonus would have been too small.
With its standard x10 multiplier the processor I used in the tests is known to be stable at 220MHz base frequency even with the nominal voltage, but now it could only start up and I had to drop the frequency to 210MHz to boot up Windows. Overclocking to 2200MHz is not very much and finding a miserable speed bonus from extra 100MHz makes no sense.
Soltek’s website offers an experimental version of the BIOS that allows increasing the clock generator frequency to 300MHz, but I had no success with it either and returned to the BIOS version 1.5. This overclocking failure is very strange since the system turned to be operable at 250MHz. Reducing the multiplier to x8, I made it pass all the tests, including the burning with Prime95. I used this to compare the system’s performance in this “overclocked” mode and at its regular frequencies.
Systems with K8 family processors have no front-side bus proper and cannot be said to work with memory synchronously or asynchronously. In both cases, the CPU worked at its rated frequency of 2000MHz (200*10 and 250*8). In both cases, the memory actually worked as DDR400 SDRAM at 200MHz and the memory devisor was the same (10), since in the second case I identified the memory as DDR333, but the CPU and the memory were simultaneously overclocked.
The only difference between the two system modes was the frequency of the HyperTransport bus: 1GHz at “overclocking” against 800MHz in the regular mode. I had thought that the speeds should be the same in both cases, but this was not so.
For the sake of comparison, I offer the results of the EPoX EP-8HDA3+ mainboard based on the VIA K8T800 chipset. I ran each test at least thrice to avoid any benchmarking errors.
The EPoX EP-8HDA3+ system’s being always a little ahead is no wonder since it worked with the minimal possible timings (2-2-2-5). A more curious problem is why the CPU clocked as 250*8=2GHz is always a little slower than itself clocked as 200*10=2GHz. I would be satisfied with the results being equal, or the 250*8 combination being a little ahead, but the opposite is inexplicable! The difference is very small, of course, and fits in the measurement error range, but it is persistent and just cannot be a mere chance!
I found the answer when marked the CPU frequency. At “overclocking”, it was almost equal to 2000MHz:
When working in its regular mode, the mainboard increases the frequency slightly to achieve a small speed gain:
So, the mystery is solved, and it’s time to do some summarizing. Soltek has rolled out a truly excellent product. Without much effort, I transformed the Qbic EQ3801A barebone into a small-size, but powerful and full-function, quiet and exquisite-looking computer. You can underline any word in previous sentence, since each of these parameters matters. The only gripe I could express about the Qbic EQ3801A concerns overclocking. The manufacturer promised us overclocking opportunities, but, regrettably, it is impossible to make any use of them.