by Platon Scheblykin
04/11/2005 | 06:06 PM
Today almost every system board manufacturer pushes into the market their barebone systems. However, this is not just another way of selling their mainboards. Barebone system is a complex solution, which success depends not only on the quality of the mainboard. That is why even the manufacturers of high-quality mainboards may have not very impressive barebone solutions on their product range. Soltek Company, we are going to talk about today, is one of the mainboard makers offering very successful small form-factor barebone systems.
Qbic is the name of the product family, which has been offered by Soltek for quite a while now. There are numerous models with different features, so that every user will find something that would meet his specific needs from the functional and design points of view.
Today we are going to offer you a review of Soltek Qbic EQ3901M solution. Here it is:
The two tables below contain detailed official specifications for the Qbic barebone system and the mainboard used as a basis for this platform.
Soltek EQ3901 Small Form-Factor Barebone System
33cm x 21.5cm x 20cm
Front panel design options
2 x 5.25-inch
Front panel connectors
2 x USB
Back panel connectors
2 x Serial
Internal power supply unit
Optional parallel port
Before you check out the specifications of the mainboard, I would like to point out that all the features listed in the table below should not necessarily be implemented in the small form-factor barebone system we are looking at today. These are just the mainboard specifications.
Soltek SL-B9D-FGR Mainboard
AMD Athlon 64 (FX) Socket 939
VIA K8T800 Pro (NB: K8T800 Pro, SB:VT8237)
Dual-channel DDR400/333/266 SDRAM (2GB max)
AC’97 Audio 2.3 (8 channels), SPDIF Out
Connectors and ports
Integrated IDE RAID controller
150MB/s RAID 0/1
Phoenix Award BIOS v6.00PG
ATX, 180mm x 270mm
When we open a bright-orange box, we find the following there:
Fresh from the box: package contents without the barebone system
Well, we have come to the point where a system case with a mainboard inside is going to turn into a working mini-computer system.
Besides the components of our test system, which we will mention later in the article, we only needed a screwdriver. All necessary retention mechanisms as well as the cables were supplied together with the barebone system in the orange box decorated with the Qbic manufacturer’s logos.
However, when we tried to address our assembly questions to the provided manuals, we were very disappointed to find out that both manuals, a full one and a quick guide, describe in great detail the assembly of an Intel processor based system. This is the manuals that we found in a box with a system for AMD Athlon 64 processors. Of course, everything that deals with the CPU installation and cables location inside the case has to be omitted; the design differences between the system we had in the lab and the system on the photographs in the guide are evident even with a naked eye. As for the installation of the mainboard components, all the necessary information could be found in the mainboard user’s guide. And when it came to cables, we had to make our own decisions, because proper cables location is very important for efficient cooling of the entire system.
So, the only useful information we could find in the assembly manual dealt with the mounting of different storage devices. Thus, if you need to install a hard drive or a floppy drive, you need to unscrew two screws, remove a special basket from the case, fasten the device inside this basket and then install it back into the barebone case. And as for the CD-ROM or any other optical drive, the algorithm turns out a little bit more complicated. If you try to install it together with the above mentioned devices the way I described above, the CD-ROM drive will catch to the system PSU when you will be returning the basket back to its place. That is why, you need to place the basket with the preinstalled devices back to its place, then remove the front panel and install the optical drive through the gap in the front. You should however keep in mind that this procedure is not always so complex. Most DVD-ROM and combo-drives are usually shorter than the regular CD-ROM drives, so you will be able to install it into the basket first and then fasten the basket in its place with screws.
The installation of other system components such as the graphics card, for instance, is quite simple, so there should be no problems there.
Now we only need to install the graphics card
When we assembled the system, we were pleased to discover that there are more than enough screws, etc. We even found a tube of thermal paste and a few stickers saying “warranty void if removed”. I would also like to specifically draw your attention to very informative documentation: all instructions are very detailed and clear, and the color illustrations in the Quick Installation Guide make the assembly process easy and fun.
Among the evident drawbacks we should definitely point out once again the mismatch of the barebone system model and the manuals we received with it. Besides, I wish they supplied aerodynamic round cables for the FDD and PATA devices, because the cables that we received were none other but regular flat cables cut and folded so that they could fit into a black net tube. They are not flexible enough and look not very reliable.
As a rule, all Qbic models look very nice, and the barebone we had in the labs was no exception. Despite the multi-color package, the EQ3901M is designed in a very strict, I would even say ascetic, manner, which still made it look fine. The case with straight side lines and corners, mirror front panel with rounded corners will fit nicely into the office workspace as well as into a cozy living-room interior. The only issue is this mirror panel, which looks beautiful but is highly unpractical, because it easily gets stained, scratched, catches dust and retains noticeable fingerprints. Here it would be good to keep in mind that there is also an EQ3901 modification of this system equipped with a matt aluminum front panel.
Qbic EQ3901M: front view
The front side of the Qbic system looks very uniform: you will not anything that wouldn’t belong here in terms of the design. All the drives and ports are hidden behind the covers and lids that can be opened any time. The two top panels hide the optical devices, then comes the floppy drive cover, and the last one is the cover for Audio In and Out (stereo) ports, SPDIF Out, two USB 2.0 ports and an IEEE1394 port.
Front panel connectors and ports
On the mirror surface of the front panel you can clearly distinguish the section cover borders, hard disk drive activity LED and four buttons. The first one is Power On/Off with a built-in status LED, the second is a standard Reset button, the remaining two buttons are eject buttons for the optical drives. There is only one problem about these last two buttons. If you install a device without a moving-out tray in one of the top 5.25-inch bays, then you will have real difficulty using it, as it is hard to open the top covers with your fingers.
Barebone back panel
The back panel of the barebone system case features the following connectors and ports from the mainboard:
The power supply cable connector is located at the top of the system’s back panel. There are two slots behind blank bracket covers intended to accommodate an AGP and a PCI expansion card. And the last thing to top this picture is the ventilation grids of the power supply unit and cooling system.
The dark-gray housing of the EQ3901M case you can find not only the mainboard, which we will talk about later in this review, but also a small power supply unit. Even though it is of relatively small size, it is quite powerful and can generate up to 300W of power for the system. There are ventilation holes all over the back and side panels of the PSU. At the very bottom you can also find a small fan sucking air into the PSU. But will 300W be enough to power our system? Let’s try to make a few simple calculations. For our example we will take an average barebone configuration:
90W (CPU) + 2x20W (2x256MB RAM) + 30W (mainboard) + 50W (AGP) + 10W (PCI) +15W (HDD) + 5W (FDD) + 20W (CD/DVD) + 2x4W (2 fans) = 268W
We took average values of the devices power consumption, sometimes we even took higher values than the average, but we still fit into the 300W limit. So, I assume that Qbic EQ3901M will have no problems with insufficient power supply.
Power Supply Unit
Now that we have assembled the entire system, let’s check the quality of the system cooling and the level of noise the operational system would generate normally.
To make it run quieter and to improve the cooling Soltek applied three technologies. The first one is Soltek’s brand name technology called IcyQ. The idea behind it is that the air streams are directed inside the case in a more optimal way due to proper location of the cooling elements. How does this entire thing work? Cool outside air gets in through the vent holes at the bottom and sides of the case, and it cools down the memory modules and the hard disk drive on the way to the CPU cooler.
When it passes the CPU, the fan of the PSU sucks the air inside the power supply unit and then blows it outside the case through the PSU back panel. The remaining hot air is removed from the case by a special fan located next to the CPU through a wind tunnel.
System fan with the air tunnel
This way, there is very even air flow created, which is intended to reduce the temperature of the system elements significantly. Well, let’s find out if this is true or not.
The configuration of the system we assembled for our thermal experiments was similar to what we will use for performance tests later on. Here are the components we used:
To “warm up” the system CPU we ran S’n’M utility, which loads it up to 100%. To “warm up” the entire system we also ran 3DMark05 benchmark set. All temperatures were monitored with the help of Soltek Hardware Monitor utility and SpeedFan tool bundled with the barebone system. Before we discuss the actual results of our thermal tests, I suggest taking a closer look at the above mentioned monitoring software.
Soltek Hardware Monitor is Soltek’s brand name utility controlling all vitally important system parameters. It reports the CPU temperature, the air temperature inside the case, system voltages and fan rotation speeds. For better visual experience they used multi-color indicators: green – OK, one or two red ones – overloaded. Another visualization means is the font color: when the parameters get beyond safety maximums the font color turns red.
Soltek Hardware Monitor
In fact, I have to admit that Soltek Hardware Monitor has pretty scarce functionality for the programs of its type. Moreover, when we launched such utilities, as SpeedFan and CPU-Z, Soltek’s Hardware Monitor wouldn’t boot up correctly anymore: the voltages and temperatures it reported were a way above the nominal values, which indicates its pretty low reliability. That is why we also resorted to third-party software during our thermal experiments.
And now let’s check out the results we obtained. At first we the system CPU was running at the nominal clock rate, and after that we overclocked it:
We do not list the fan speeds here, because they can be set manually in CMOS Setup for any temperature (we will tell you more about it later). We only have to note that by the time certain temperature threshold is reached, the fans speed up to the maximum allowed in the BIOS. Throughout this test session the rotation speeds changed from 1298rpm to 1896rpm on the system fan and from 1298rpm to 3125rpm on the CPU fan.
If you take a closer look at the table above, you will notice that the cooling system doesn’t have that much of a resource, even though they implemented special technology. Even after a slight overclocking, the CPU temperature approaches critical values. But the most important thing is that you will be able to boil water on the capacitors used in the CPU voltage regulator circuit when the system is running in the overclocked mode. :)
The second technology that we mentioned in the beginning of the section is typical of all Athlon 64 processors and is called Cool’n’Quiet. This technology is intended to reduce the processor power consumption thus reducing the level of generated noise if the system supports the third technology aka Smart Fan. The latter technology manages dynamically the rotation speed of the system fans depending on the temperature of the system components. Cool’n’Quiet support is implemented through a special driver, which controls the CPU working frequency. When the CPU is not fully loaded (such as in office applications, for instance), the driver Reduces its working frequency, until there are no more idling resources. When the processor workload increases, its working frequency grows up to the needed value. The CPU frequency is adjusted by reducing/increasing the processor clock multiplier. The CPU definitely consumes less power when running at lower working frequency, and hence it generates less heat. As a result, Smart Fan slows down the cooling fans thus making the system run quieter. The model we tested in our lab worked exactly this way. According to our subjective “audible” experience, the system was running at least twice as quietly in idle mode compared to the full-power mode.
You can optimize system cooling settings in the CMOS Setup page called SmartDoc Anti-Burn Shield. Here you can monitor all the temperatures and manage the system fans functioning. Here is a list of settings you can play with to improve the thermal stability of the system:
This is where all temperatures are controlled
To tell the truth, you can hardly expect a barebone mainboard to demonstrate any outstanding features. It is extremely hard to fit a lot of additional controllers onto a small piece of textolite that is why you cannot count on high functionality of the board used as a platform for the small form-factor system. Almost the only source of features for a mainboard like that is the chipset. In our case it is VIA K8T800 PRO, which has already been used in solutions by many manufacturers. This is not a fresh new chipset (it was launched in June 2004), but it suits well for the barebone solutions. The “PRO” part of the chipset name indicates that compared with its K8T800 predecessor, the PRO version boasts higher HyperTransport bus frequency, which has been increased from 800MHz to 1GHz, and fixed AGP bus frequency. The absence of PCI Express bus support, which is very popular nowadays, is easily compensated by the reliability and low cost of AGP solutions. Especially, since PCI Express graphics cards will be really hard to fit into a barebone system, because they are usually equipped with larger cooling solutions and consume more power than their AGP predecessors. That is why VIA K8T800 PRO is a pretty smart choice in this case.
The system from Soltek is designed for Socket 939 AMD Athlon 64 (FX) processors. The CPU voltage regulator is a three-phase one, which is a pretty commonly used design by many mainboard guys out there. The mainboard supports one or two DDR400/333/266/200 SDRAM modules with the maximum capacity of 2GB. The memory modules can work in single- and dual-channel mode. The dual-channel mode is only available when you install memory modules of the same type into the mainboard DIMM slots. There is a small LED indicator next to the DIMM slots. It signals if the memory modules are powered, thus preventing you from accidentally removing them.
The IEEE1394 support is provided by the VT6307 controller from VIA. There are two IEEE1394 ports on the mainboard: one is available on the mainboard rear panel and another one is laid out as a connector next to the front panel.
SL-B9D-FGR mainboard is equipped with two Realtek controllers. RLT8110S provides Gigabit Ethernet support:
Gigabit Ethernet controller
The second one is ACL850 codec. It implements 8-channel sound and SPDIF. Since we came to speak about the sound features of the board, let’s take a look at the sound system test results, which we obtained in the RightMark Audio Analyzer utility:
Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
Noise level, dB (A):
Dynamic range, dB (A):
Stereo crosstalk, dB:
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
General performance: Good
Well, I have to state that this is a pretty good result for an integrated sound solution.
There are 8 USB 2.0 ports, because the chipset doesn’t support more. 4 ports are laid out at the mainboard back panel and 4 more are available as onboard connectors. LPT, Serial and IR ports, as well as the FDD connector, are supported by W83687THF controller from Winbond. The same chip is also responsible for system hardware monitoring.
Standard I/O ports controller
The storage subsystem supports two ATA133 and two SATA 150MB/s channels. The chipset South Bridge contains a set of integrated controllers aka DriveStation, which is responsible for the support of these channels. SATA disk drives can be united into RAID 0 or RAID 1 array also supported by the same DriveStation.
Besides all the features listed above, one of the mainboard connectors supports IrDA signals.
If a desktop mainboard is not free from some design flaws, this drawback can sometimes be compensated by its additional functionality. However, if the layout of a barebone mainboard is not designed in the most optimal way, it can be crucial for the verdict about this board. In a small form-factor case inconveniently located connectors, cables running through the whole system and components staying outside the cooling airflow may turn into a serious problem. Moreover, all this may cause some problems during the system assembly that is why we considered it very important to pay special attention to the PCB layout of our Soltek SL-B9D-FRG mainboard used inside the Qbic EQ3901M system.
When you cast a glance at our mainboard you will be able to tell right away that Soltek engineers did a great job. All electronic components are located at a certain distance from one another, so that there won’t be too overheated spots on the mainboard. All jumpers are placed close to the PCB edges, so you will not have to dig your way through all the cables inside the case, once you need to adjust the jumper settings in the assembled system. I could say even more good things about this board, but let me start from the very beginning.
First come different ports and connectors. All of them are split into two groups: one is located at the front edge of the mainboard (the edge closer to the barebone front panel), and another one is at the back edge of the mainboard. Most connectors in the back are those that lead to the mainboard back panel (we have already listed them when we were talking about the barebone features). Also there you will find CDIN1 and LPT1 connectors for the audio port of the optical drive and parallel port connector respectively. The connectors in the front include connectors for PATA and SATA devices, FDD, 2 connectors for USB ports (two ports per connector) and an IEEE1394 connector. Also there is a connector for additional audio jacks and a connector for system LEDs and switches. Of course, we shouldn’t forget the power supply connectors in the front left corner of the mainboard. Besides, there is a connector for an additional system fan next to the FDD connector, although there is no fan in the system.
The memory slots are placed along the right side of the mainboard. The main system fan is the one responsible for removing hot air from them. The AGP and PCI slots are located at the left side of the mainboard PCB. The processor socket is located between the DIMM and PCI slots. In the assembled system there is a PSU fan right above the CPU socket that is why the CPU is cooled down pretty efficiently, and the warm air doesn’t stay there long.
All add-on controller chips and AC’97 codec are laid out in the area between the processor socket and the mainboard back panel. Next to the processor socket you can see a BIOS chip and CMOS memory battery. Both chipset bridges are placed between the CPU and the front edge of the mainboard, and they are both equipped with a passive heatsink.
Among the unused features I should mention the IR port, one of the USB connectors, and Fan 3.
Summing up I can conclude that the mainboard is designed in a very optimal way, and to tell the truth it would be hard to think of a better solution in this case.
The BIOS of our barebone system is based on AwardBIOS v6.00PG micro-code, which has already become a standard for many mainboard manufacturers.
All overclocking-friendly settings are collected in the two pages of the CMOS Setup main menu. The frequencies and voltages are adjusted in the Frequency/Voltage Control, and the memory timings can be reset in DRAM Configuration section of the Advanced Chipset Features page. Here is what you can adjust:
FSB frequency adjustment
Memory timings adjustment
You can set the memory frequency divider. The following frequency settings are available: 100MHz, 133MHz, 166MHz and 200MHz. But even if you set any of these values, it doesn’t mean that the memory will be working at this frequency all the time. When you select any of the above listed frequencies, you basically select the standard proportion coefficient for each of the frequencies. The actual memory working frequency will equal FSB frequency multiplied by this coefficient. For example, if you set this parameter to 200MHz, the coefficient for this working mode will equal 1x. Now the memory frequency will equal the FSB frequency, no matter what FSB frequency you select.
Do not forget that we are talking about the BIOS of a barebone system mainboard, so this list of available settings is rich enough. A system like that can barely be overclocked to some significant heights because of the specific cooling limitations. That is why most overclocking friendly settings would hardly be demanded anyway. The available settings we have just discussed are more than enough to adjust the system for optimal functioning.
Here are the results obtained during our overclocking experiments:
Since we failed to adjust the CPU clock frequency multiplier, the entire overclocking strategy was based on FSB frequency adjustments. As for the memory timings, we didn’t even touch them, as they were already configured in the optimal way in the Auto mode. If we tried to adjust them manually, the system either wouldn’t boot up or would perform much slower. When the FSB frequency was increased beyond the indicated value, the system didn’t run stably anymore. Since we came to speak about stability issues, it is important to point out that in case you set the FSB frequency too high and the system wouldn’t start up at all, all you need to do is to shut down the power to reset the settings to their default values on the next boot-up. Unfortunately, this will not work for incorrect timing settings and you will have to Clear CMOS to remedy the situation.
Once again, here is the system we assembled in Soltek Qbic EQ3901M barebone:
Now let’s check out the results we obtained during our test session:
Sisoft Sandra 2005, RAM Buffered Bandwidth
WinRAR , KB/sec
SuperPI 4M, sec
Quake 3 Arena (four)
Doom 3, Medium quality, 1024x768
FarCry (Regulator), 1024x768
Half-Life 2(xdog), 1024x768
Unreal Tournament 2004 Demo, 1024x768
CMOS Setup of our today’s hero contains an option called Load Optimize Defaults, which we selected to obtain the results listed in the first column. The results in the second column were obtained during overclocking, which we have already discussed above.
If you take a closer look at the results in the table above, you will see that there is no value for the SuperPi test in the second column: the overclocked system didn’t go through this test. All other benchmarks were passed just fine.
Bonus goodies from Soltek :)
Together with the Soltek Qbic EQ3901M we also got our hands on the company’s brand name carry backpack, which you can use to transport the system. You know that small form-factor systems like this belong to the mobile device category. This way, the manufacturer cares about the users making sure that they will enjoy working with the system as well as have no difficulty transporting it. We assume that this accessory is going to be optional, so we suggest looking for this particular package.
The backpack boasts modern design and bright color gamma. We had a black and orange “modification” of the backpack of quite acceptable quality. The backpack is decorated with Soltek and Qbic logos. It has two major sections: one for the system itself and another one for small parts like power cables, CD discs, pens, etc. You can carry the system not only as a backpack but also by a comfortable rubber handle. The system sits in the backpack very tightly and is also fastened with a special sticky band.
Summing everything up, I can admit that this backpack is a truly nice addition to the system :)
If you refrain from overclocking experiments, you will have one more nice Qbic system. Quality design, reliable operation, stylish exterior: this is what we can say about Soltek Qbic EQ3901M. If you are looking for a small media center, this is something you might want to consider. This is exactly what this system is very well suited for.