Pros: Great performance with GAT; SATA ports/DDR 400 Dual Channel Support at great price!
Cons: AGP/memory slot problem; AUX/CD connector placement
I recently searched high and low for a reasonably priced motherboard that would suit my needs. I wanted a board that was either the Intel 865PE or 875PE chipsets, as these both support the 800Mhz FSB processors which have come out recently. They also support DDR400 or DDR333 in Dual Channel mode, which is extremely fast memory. Finally, I wanted to be able to overclock my processor and see exactly how far I could take it.
I searched several engines on the internet to determine which board I wanted. I narrowed my search down to Abit and ASUS after consulting several overclocking enthusiast websites, as these appeared to have the most flexibility. The Abit board that I bought comes with the Softmenu option, which is in the BIOS. This is a proprietary ABIT menu which allows you to adjust settings in the motherboard. I will talk more on that later.
In the process of researching the motherboard of choice, I initially decided that I wanted an 875PE chipset board. This was because I read that only the 875PE chipsets had Intel PAT, or performance acceleration technology. This speeds up the transfer rate between the northbridge and the processor, and also tweaks the memory settings. However, after researching a little more, I found out that Abit had somehow unlocked the PAT in the 865 chipset, only calling it GAT to avoid a lawsuit. Game Acceleration Technology is very similar in performance to PAT. In fact, the 865PE chipset with GAT turned on will outperform the 875PE chipsets in several benchmarks! I will talk more about the GAT later...
I now knew that I wanted the IS7 motherboard, which is Abit's 865PE chipset. I had several choices to choose from. Rather than taking up megabytes of space here, you can swing on over to the Abit comparison website and see the differences in each board youself. The website is http://www.abit-usa.com/products/mb/comparison.php.
For the purpose of this review, it is only important for you to know that I bought the IS7-E, as I do not need the 1394 Firewire, RAID support for the SATA ports, or onboard graphics.
I searched the net high and low for the best price using epinions.com, pricewatch.com, pricegrabber.com, and amazon.com. In all cases the most reputable store with the best price was newegg.com, where I bought it for $90.98 total price.
Out of the box
I received my motherboard in the mail two days later thanks to Newegg.com's FedEx Super Saver deals, and I opened up my computer and the box. See the specifications of the board below:
Supported CPU: Socket 478 Intel Pentium 4 Processors(Hyper-Threading)
Chipset: Intel 865PE ICH5
RAM: 4x DIMM support Single/Dual Channel DDR400 Max 4GB
IDE: 2x UltraDMA 33/66/100 up to 4 Devices
Slots: 1x AGP PRO 8X, 5x PCI
Ports: 2xPS2,1xLPT,1xCOM,1xLAN,SPDIF In/Out,8xUSB2.0(Rear 4),Audio Ports
Onboard Audio: 6-Channel AC97 Codec
Onboard LAN: 10/100Mbps Fast Ethernet
Onboard SATA: 2x Serial ATA 150
Form Factor: ATX
I was amazed, as I had bought motherboards before and simply been in the dark. You generally get almost nothing with the board in the way of support or documentation, and what is generally included as documentation is poorly written English that is extremely hard to follow. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the documentation that accompanied this motherboard was extremely user friendly and well written. it was easy to follow the installation and setup, and overall took less than 1 hour.
I took out my hard drives, disconnected the ATA cables and power supply from the old board and then pulled my video card. I then unscrewed the 9 hold down screws that held my old motherboard in place and removed the board. I then disconnected the HSF (Heat Sink Fan) from the board and pulled it, and then removed my P4 2.66GHz processor. This board supports 478 pin ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) processors which includes celerons through the most up to date 800 MHz FSB. Mine is 533 MHz FSB, so I was in business!
I removed the old motherboard, set it aside, and installed the new motherboard. Nine screws later, and I was in business. Putting everything back the way it came out while adding a little thermal paste to the processor and HSF and I was ready to turn it on.
The board has two minor annoyances in my mind, and they are the placement of the AGP slot in relation to the memory slots and the placement of the CD/AUX plug connections. The AGP slot is too close to the memory slots so that if you want to change memory at any time, you first have to remove the AGP video card. This shouldn't happen too often, but it is still an annoyance. The CD/AUX inputs are between two PCI slots, so that if you were to fill all of the slots you may run into problems. I do not have that problem, but I could see it being a problem in the future.
Other than these two minor annoyances, it is a regular old ATX form factor board, except for one notable change. The ATA cable connectors are perpendicular to the board, facing the front of the case! This seemed awkward at first, but after installing my optical drives and hard drives, I realized that this actually reduced clutter in the box and was a good change!
I booted my computer and it automatically POSTed and started Windows XP. I then had to insert the driver disc and load all of the drivers associated with the new board. This includes the ATA drivers, SATA drivers, USB drivers, and AC '97 onboard sound. Once I had this completed, I checked for newer versions of the BIOS to flash, and found I had version 13. I upgraded to version 17 using the Windows program accompanying the board. This does not require flashing from DOS and makes it extremely easy to upgrade the BIOS, for which I was happy.
As soon as I had the drivers loaded, I cycled the computer down and started it back up. During the POST screen, I hit delete (which brings up the BIOS) and started to overclock, which is why I bought this board in the first place.
Softmenu and Overclocking
The proprietary Softmenu allows you to set the FSB frequency, the memory multiplier, the AGP/PCI multiplier and the power supply to the components. Leave the AGP/PCI multiplier fixed and raise the voltage if needed. There are several documents out there that will help you walk though the overclocking process. A small sample of what I went through is below.
To overclock a Pentium 4 chip, you actually modify the FSB. Since my P4 2.66 is a 533MHz FSB and this is quad pumped, my computer registers at 533/4 = 133 FSB. The internal multiplier for the processor is therefore 2667/133 =20. You will see where this comes into play later.
DDR memory is double the rate of the FSB, so my memory for thsi speed is 133 * 2 = 266, or PC2100. I had PC2700 memory which can run at 333MHz, so I was actually underrating my memory without overclocking.
If I could get my FSB up to 166, I would run my memory at the rated 333MHz, and my processor would be 166 * 20 = 3.32Ghz. This is quite a stretch for a 2.66Ghz, but it is doable. I took it up in 2 Mhz FSB increments and finally made it to 3.32GHz. The system is stable at this frequency, which lends to the board's stability! I now have the performance of a 3.32GHz chip with a 2.66Ghz purchase and an additional $90 motherboard. Well worth the price and performance!
The most notable issue in performance is how well the processor and board run together. Obviously from the above numbers I am extremely pleased with my purchase.
I also have noticed that the computer takes much less time to load windows when it is booted up. Once windows is up, the loading of the active programs, etc. takes much less time as well.
The specification above states that the board comes with 10/100MBps ethernet, but mine actually came with the Gigabit ethernet that was supposedly reserved for the 875P chipsets. I don't notice the difference, as I use this to run my cable internet which has a burst speed of 1.5MBps. If I ever hook up to a network with high bandwidth I may notice the difference, but it is nice to know it is there.
The Northbridge comes with a heat sink fan to keep things cool. This has assisted performance gains and increased stability over previous versions. It is a very nice looking fan in electric blue as well. The BIOS monitors this fan, the CPU fan and up to two system fans that you can add as well.
GAT; great performance gains!
GAT is an acceleration technology that speeds up the performance of the computer. THere are four settings, Auto, Turbo, Street Racer, and F1.
The default setting of the Game Accelerator is auto. This setting will supposedly automatically detect the hardware configuration for users.
"Turbo" will improve the gaming performance and it is independent with DDR memory modules. This supposedly increases the bandwidth between the Northbridge and the processor, with no memory tweaks.
"Street Racer" brings users higher gaming performance than what "Turbo" does; as DDR memory modules are stressed by aggressive timing settings in this mode. If you have generic memory modules, you may not be able to run this!
"F1" features most aggressive memory timings. If the memory modules could survive, "F1" will bring the system highest gaming performance. If you do not have top of the line memory, do not even go here.
I enabled GAT and set it to Turbo and Street Racer in succession. Both gave me better performance in benchmarks, although Street Racer could not run with the high overclock on the processor. I could not even get F1 mode to work without the overclock, as my memory is not premium grade.
*NOTE* Prior to starting an overclocking adventure, find out where the CMOS jumper is! If you OC too far and can not get your motherboard to POST windows, you will have to clear the jumper. If you set it to F1 mode and your memory cannot handle it, you will have to clear this jumper. You will know as your screen will remain blank and a loud, long beep will emit from your computer. This does not mean you fried your processor, merely that you need to reset your bios settings to default. That is what shorting pins 1 and 2 does!
I hope you have enjoyed my review of this motherboard. It has a pretty good layout with a lot of potential in performance. It should allow you to upgrade as newer processors become cheaper, as it already supports the 400MHz Celerons, the 533MHz P4's, and the newest 800MHz P4's.
This board gives you SATA, USB 2.0, AGP 4x and 8X support, and DDR400 dual channel memory support. I believe that this is the most flexible, best performance in motherboards at a great price.
I hope you enjoyed my review, and I would appreciate any feedback in the forms of comments or ratings. Thanks!
I upgraded my memory from the PC2700 generic mentioned in the review to PC4000PRO XMS Dual Channel matched pair Corsair. Please see the review for this at the link below if you are interested in further computer overclocking experiences.
Please feel free to leave me a comment or drop me an email!