Pros: loaded with hardware peripherals, stable, overclock software utility, reasonable price, excellent performance overall
Cons: none that stands out
When it comes to computer motherboards, I particularly like ASUS for its capabilities and reliability. I have been continually impressed with my ASUS P4P800-Deluxe. High quality ASUS motherboards come with a high price tag. ASUS keeps improving its Deluxe series, rendering its price higher and higher. The new P4C800E Deluxe series sells for almost $200. My local computer store has it for $249. Looking for a new motherboard to build another desktop PC, I have to make some comparable choices between quality and price. So I decided to explore a different brand, namely, ABIT. But I did not venture into the unknown. I have heard and seen ABIT motherboards in action before. And, I already have a rough idea on what type of motherboard to get. It has to be at least an Intel-based i865PE chipset, Hyper-Thread Tech. ready, reasonable RAM capacity with dual channel, including expandability and capabilities. At under $100, the ABIT AI7 u-GURU (micro-guru) has a lot of features and capabilities lurking underneath its structure.
The ABIT AI7 u-GURU is rich with features and specifications, designed with the ability to upgrade and support of a multitude of applications in mind. A quick browse through the list below already reveals its great, featured capabilities.
Chipset: Intel 865PE MHC North Bridge and 82801ER ICH5-R South Bridge with Dual-Channel DDR400 RAM and Advanced Configuration and Power Management Interface (ACPI)
CPU: Full support of Intel Pentium 4 (478-pin socket) 400MHz, 533MHz and 800MHz system bus, and Hyper-Threading Technology, Celeron and Prescott processors
RAM: Up to 4GB, 4x184-pin DIMM sockets supporting single/dual channel DDR400/333/266MHz
AGP: 8x/4x Accelerator Graphics Port (0.8V/1.5V)
IDE: 2 Ultra DMA ATA/100/66/33 mode supporting up to 4 devices
S-ATA RAID: Onboard 2-channel series ATA 150MB/s data transfer rate with RAID 0/1 supported by the South Bridge
Onboard Audio: 6-channel AC 97 CODEC Realtek ALC658, S/PDIF In/Out with automatic jack sensing
Onboard LAN: Realtek 10/100/1000 LAN
Rear Ports: 4xUSB2.0, RJ-45 LAN, IEEE-1394, 2xPS/2 (mouse/keyboard), COM and Parallel, Audio (mic-in, Line-in, front, center, aux)
Slots: 5xPCI slots, 32-bit compliant
Ports: 4xUSB2.0 (2 front, 2 additional rear with D-bracket cables), 2xIEEE-1394 via D-bracket, audio front port, GAME, CD-in, AUX-in, FDD floppy port (2 drives) supports up to 2.88MB
ABIT Technology: onboard ABIT engineered u-GURU (micro-guru) chip
Format factor: ATX (305x245mm)
With a wealth of bundle software, hardware and documentation to suit virtually the need of every user, the ABIT AI7 u-GURU is no ordinary motherboard. I am particularly impressed with the packaging and its contentsall were separately well packed.
- ABIT AI7 u-GURU mainboard
- 4 hardcopy manuals (2 quick installation guides, AI7 users manual, u-GURU guide)
- ABIT AI7 diagram/reference sheet
- 2xIDE 40-pin cables (HDD or Optical Devices)
- 1xFDD ribbon cable (floppy drives)
- 1xCD-ROM system installer disc (with u-GURU software)
- 1x3.5-inch floppy disk S-ATA software driver (Windows 2000/XP/2003)
- 1xS-ATA cable
- 1x4-to-15 pin power y-converter (Molex-to-SATA power adapter)
- 2xUSB, 2xIEEE-1394 expansion cables with D-bracket
- I/O rear panel shield
I found the user's (multi-language) manual and u-GURU quick guide particularly helpful.
The layout of the AI7 u-GURU is equally impressive. Most of the vital components are well spaced with ample room for cable connections and wiring. All the power sockets are located along the edge of the board. There are a total of five (5) 3-pin FAN connectors: CPU fan, chipset fan (NBFAN1), system fan (SYSFAN1) and 2 auxiliary fans (AUXFAN1,2). The motherboard will monitor and control the RPM (speed) of every fan connected to these ports. The chipset fan, which is the North Bridge fan, comes pre-installed. It sits directly atop the North Bridge heatsink. This fan will certainly help control the temperature of the North Bridge quite effectively; it also operates at a very low noise.
I particularly like the front panel switches and indicators-headers port location, placed at the lower-right corner of the board, far away from other ports, and clearly marked for easy identification and connection. The IDE ports for HDD or optical devices are at the usual location, readily identifiable, spaced a little further apart making it easy to connect.
Regardless of how impressive the layout may seem, I still find a few things that appear to be located in the "wrong" place. The SYSFAN1 port is placed at the corner-left bottom of the board, right below the last PCI slot, very far from the power supply box for its cable to reach, especially with the PCI cards installed. I had to get an extension cable. The second thing is that the FDD ribbon cable port is also located at the bottom of the board (next to the SYSFAN1), making it difficult to connect the floppy drive. Fortunately, the enclosed cable is long enough. The CPU pin socket is rotated at 45-degree angle with respect to the heatsink bracket. The heatsink of my Pentium 4 processor sits right at the edge of the CPU chip. At first, I was a little worried about the conductivity, because it sits too far on the edge. But as it turned out, the temperature was well managed and maintained. Finally, the AGP slot is a bit close to the first PCI slot. I suspect if a graphics card like ATI Radeon "All-in-Wonder" (or other powerful video card with huge heatsink and fan) is used, the first PCI slot may have to be left unused in order to make room. I don't like that because I want to use all my available PCI slots. So far, I have occupied four of them: RAID, modem, Ethernet and video capture card.
Based on the popular Phoenix AwardBIOS, the AI7 u-GURU system BIOS is very robust, loaded with options for manually or automatically manipulating and tweaking the motherboard's performance. I am particularly intrigued by its SoftMenu setup program. Here, the motherboard offers a wide range of FSB control, ranging from 100-412MHz. The V-core can be adjusted from 1.525V to 1.9V with an increment of 0.25V. The AGP driven voltage can be adjusted from 1.5V to 1.65V increasable by 0.05V. The DRAM voltage has a range from 2.5V to 3.2V with a small increment of 0.10V.
There is a CPU/DRAM ratio option available in 1:1, 5:4, 3:2 and SPD (Serial Presence Detect). I initially left it at 1:1 setting, knowing that at normal clocking speed both the CPU and DRAM will run in complete sync. I later set the ratio to SPD, in overclock mode, to allow the value to be determined in accordance with the CPU information and DRAM system.
In the Advanced Chipset setup window, several more options can be adjusted individually, particularly memory related settings that involve DRAM timing, AGP memory and aperture size, etc. There is also a Game Accelerator option with refresh cycle time adjustment to increase performance. Its available options are Auto, Turbo and StreetRacer. I set this at Auto mode.
If all is too complicated, the system can overclock on-the-fly with a quick F8 function key. I personally have not done this, since there is no way to see the actual setting determined by the program. The nice thing is that every profile setting can be saved (up to 5 different programs). And if this auto overclock does not work, the BIOS can be returned to its default state, safe mode or a different profile (programmed by the user) stored in the memory.
With all the ability to overclock, there is also a safe mode to guard against system failure due to extreme overclocking, particularly heat. The PC Health Status setup screen contains a wealth of options on settings to help keep the system in a "healthy" condition. This involves the CPU temperature, voltage and fan speed. The system can set an alarm if the CPU temperature rises near the threshold value (entered by the user) and will commence a power shut down (if enabled) when it hits the threshold. The temperature monitored are: CPU, system and power module. All the five fan connections are monitored and controlled.
Being a play-it-safe user, this is the section I pay close attention to first. I set my desired threshold temperature for the CPU and enable the auto shut down if the temperature reaches my default value regardless of whether the fan is still operational or not.
The AI7 u-GURU is equipped with a POST (Power On Self Test) code display chip to store information about the detected main components and peripherals and their status. Every execution performed (even during normal usage under Windows operating system) is also written here. If there is any problem, it can be pin-pointed to the source by the code. Unfortunately, the POST code display chip only works under Microsoft Windows operating system. When booting under Linux or FreeBSD UNIX operating systems, the POST code display chip stops its detection at "Boot attempt" mode (FF). Hence, the compatibility is limited only to Windows, at least presently.
No doubt the ABIT AI7 u-GURU is designed to impress an overclock user, based on its BIOS capabilities. However, its main highlight is the ABIT u-GURU software that allows a user to conveniently adjust the system parameter without having to reboot the system to modify the setting in the BIOS or rely on a third-party overclock software.
Under Windows operating system, the u-GURU utility is placed on the taskbar for easy access with a right-click on the mouse's button. Six options are available: ABIT EQ, OC Guru, FlashMenu, AudioEQ, FanEQ and BlackBox. Among these options, I regularly pay a visit to ABIT EQ. It is a self-diagnostic system. Here I can monitor all the vital components and their current status. Its main strength is to protect all critical elements in my system. The OC guru, of course, is the Over-Clocking utility. Overclocking is no longer a time consuming delicate and careful decision, because it can be done with just a mouse click (by adjusting the overclocking bar using the u-GURU). The FlashMenu is the auto ABIT BIOS live update utility. The good news is that if you don't like the new BIOS update, you can always go back to the default setting. The FanEQ and BlackBox are the temperature/fan control system and hardware peripheral detection system, respectively. The ABIT audio system can be activated via AudioEQ to play your favorite audio files.
The BlackBox utility is supposed to auto detect all the hardware components. It does not work; instead, information must be entered manually. I simply neglect this option as I don't see any real usefulness in it. However, the information contained can be submitted to ABIT for analysis in case of system error, and ABIT will assist with the problem.
While the onboard sound quality is without a doubt excellent, with ABIT's Realtek ALC658 Codec producing high quality 5.1-channel (6-channel) surround sound system for impressive sound stage and depth with the right set of PC speakers, there is one problem. Sound interference seems to occur whenever I activate the u-GURU utility during an audio or video application. These applications cannot be performed at the same time. And since I often run the ABIT EQ to monitor the system, it is quite annoying with the sound interference which is mostly statics.
The not good news is that the u-GURU is a Windows-based software. Under a Linux or FreeBSD UNIX operating system, overclock can only be done via the old way, i.e., by manipulating the BIOS utility.
Initially, I run the system under Windows XP (Professional). With WinXP, I can test the system's performance and its responses by means of a benchmark. The PCMark2002 Pro, my favorite benchmark program, is a very simple program easy to run and it can produce reliable and repeatable results, which I often use to compare between my PCs. In a test performance, it looks for three things: the management of CPU, the physical memory and the capability of the hard drive. Keep in mind though that the result is subjective and dependent on the hardware components, and therefore cannot be generalized outside the circle of the specified components.
It is worth to mention that the system the ABIT AI7 u-GURU houses consists of the following components:
CPU: Pentium 4 2.8GHz Hyper-Threading Tech 800MHz FSB, L2 512K cache
RAM: 1024MB, 2xKingston 512MB DDR400 RAM cards
HDD: Seagate 120GB 7200RPM 8MB Cache and 2xWestern Digital 40GB 7200RPM 2MB cache in RAID 1 (mirroring)
AGP: ATI Radeon 9200SE 128MB 8x/4x
The PCMark2002 Pro gave the following impressive score under normal clocking operation (without the RAID 1 configuration):
CPU: 7040 / MEM: 8084 / HDD: 1262
Compared to my ASUS P4P800-Deluxe motherboard (2.8GHz, 1024MB RAM, 160GB & 120GB 7200RPM 8MB-cache hard drive, ASUS "ATI Radeon GPU chip" 128MB graphics card):
CPU: 7104 / MEM: 8042 / HDD: 1280
Based on this data, under the same condition the ASUS is not much better than the ABIT.
Regarding the overall performance, the motherboard is very stable under normal clocked operation at FSB 200MHz. Curious about its overclock ability, I slowly increase the FSB. I first did this in the BIOS program. I left the CPU/DRAM ratio in auto (SPD). The multiplier of the CPU was at 14. I was able to increase the frequency up to 240MHz without any boot error and the system maintained its excellent stability. This is an effective 3.36GHz of clocking speed and the performance is seen to increase quite dramatically. The PCMark2002 Pro test yields a CPU score of 7427, MEM of 8860 and HDD of 1286. I am particularly interested in the CPU and MEM scores; and they are considerably improved, even though only by 16%.
My software application real-world test was done using Adobe Photoshop 7.0 to see how the system respond to vigorous photo-editing manipulation through multitasking, memory management and processing. The results between the normal clocked (2.8GHz) and overclocked (3.36GHz) operation were notably different; the overclocked operation responded much faster than the regular one. This implies that the ABIT AI7 u-GURU is quite capable of handling system management under its overclocked condition.
It is possible to increase the clocking speed beyond my tested 240MHz. Due to its self-diagnostic system, the motherboard always maintains its functional status. That is, if the system hangs as a result of extreme overclocking, it allows a boot to the default state. By using the u-GURU OC utility, I found the motherboard less responsive with an occasional hang at FSB 260MHz under WinXP (with Hyper-Threading Tech. enabled). I had to perform a cold boot and reconfigure the CPU frequency. I reset the frequency to 250MHz with a CPU/DRAM ratio of 5:4. The system was very stable and responsive. Therefore the threshold value that the ABIT AI7 u-GURU can responsively and effectively handle with my P4 2.8GHz processor is somewhere between 250MHz and 260MHz.
Limitation on System Upgrade
Once we have decided on a particular motherboard, we are confined to its upgrade flexibility bounded by its designed capability. An i865PE chipset is not a recent technology, but it will not become obsolete any time soon either. The 478-pin socket CPU is an excellent choice offered by this motherboard and is still very popular today, and well into the future. The 184-pin DDR400 PC3200 RAM module, even though may have seen its days, is the top speed supported by this board (and many others currently on the market). The good news is that up to 4GB (that is, 4x1024MB RAM sticks) can be used on this motherboard, and that's mighty plentiful for a physical RAM. In other words, this motherboard has the potential to grow even within its own confine.
With its ability to support a higher frequency-operating CPU, the ABIT AI7 u-GURU is an exceptional motherboard that can put a smiling face on anyone who demands performance on a budget motherboard. I can speculate that an upgrade to a more powerful CPU, such as Pentium 4 3.2GHz or 3.6GHz or Prescott, with a nice combination of physical RAM (in dual-channel of course), the ABIT AI7 u-GURU should make a nice play toy for power users or overclockers who don't want to spend a lot of money on a motherboard.
As a regular user, I am very satisfied with its performance: very stable and highly capable. For the past two months it has been nothing short of being a pleasant server and multimedia workstation. Its u-GURU software alone is a selling point for me. It is hopeful that Linux will soon be able to "reverse-engineer" the u-GURU chip to work on the system.