A few weeks ago, we looked at Abit's excellent AW9D-MAX and came away very impressed with the performance as well as the plethora of features, both hardware and software. The Intel 975X chipset the board was based on supported Core 2 Duo out of the box, though it took a special revision of the chipset to make this happen.
Despite the numbering scheme, the 975X is not Intel's newest chipset. The 965 chipset is several months newer and has native support for Core 2 Duo (C2D) as well as the newer ICH8. Intel's Matrix Storage Technology extends support for external SATA ports. All of the ports also support speeds of 3GB/s. Since the HD Audio support would make motherboards based on this chipset an ideal candidate for HTPC applications, Intel's Quiet System Technology will lessen the amount of noise generated provided you're not using an Extreme Edition processor.
A lot of changes were also made to the memory controller. The Memory Controller Hub has been better optimized to reduce latency and better control over the available bandwidth. Intel fast Memory Access features Just in Time Command Scheduling which monitors all pending accesses to memory and sorts out the requests to move though the memory bus more efficiently. Out of Order Execution is also supported which will allow for the resorting of these requests, hence reducing latency.
The Abit AB9-Pro motherboard
It may sound superficial, but we have always been impressed with Abit's packaging. We like the fact that they use smaller boxes to house the accessories thus keeping things neater as well as decreasing the possibility that a stray part will damage a key item in the shipping process.
Abit includes a nicely designed user manual that covers most of the basics. In addition to the coloured manual, there is a second manual for their µGuru as well as a quick installation guide for those who want to dive right into the action. There is also a sticker which can be adhered to the interior of the case that maps out the vital connection points on the motherboard. Those of you who upgrade less frequently will find this very useful.
The included software covers the basics, which is pretty much just the drivers. A driver CD contains all the required drivers for the motherboard as well as the extra software and utilities. The floppy disks are for those of you with RAID setups, and/or installing drives on the Silicon Image controller. Pictured above next to the software disks is the custom rear IO plate.
Abit includes a large number of SATA cables which should be more than enough for the majority of users. They also include a floppy and IDE cable, traditional flat ones, as well as a PCI bracket for additional USB connections. A nice feature of the 965 chipset family is you can enable or disable USB ports as needed. This will greatly increase security, particularly in situations of corporate theft. Many companies lock down floppies and CD burners, and with the popularity of USB keys now, this is a good move.
The Abit AB9-Pro will have no problems fitting into the majority of mid-sized ATX boards and in a larger case such as the Cooler Master Stacker, installation is a breeze. The one layout issue we have is the placement of the JMicron PATA slot between the PCI Express x1 slot and the first PCI slot. In smaller cases, this isn't a big deal, but if for whatever reason your optical drive must sit on top of the 5.25" expansion bays, you may have some problems with the IDE cable reaching up that high.
The CPU area is relatively free of obstructions and Abit doesn't use oversized heatsinks in the vicinity. We test fitted a Zalman CNPS9500, Scythe Ninja and Tt Big Typhoon and all three fit without any issues.
Surrounding the CPU socket and the rear IO are a series of capacitors and MOSFETs. Abit's Silent OTES cooling is provided for some of the power transistors. A heatpipe connected the larger transistor cooler to the smaller MCH cooler. We stuck with air-cooling for testing and the heatsinks did get quite warm. Our case fan and CPU fan were configured to move air right through this area, so keep this in mind if you go with water-cooling. Typically, capacitors and other components do not get the same cooling with water-cooling as they would with air, so you may need to add some additional cooling if you go the water-cooled route.
The four 240-pin DDR2 DIMM Slots are coloured coded and the AB9-Pro officially supports up to 4GB of unbuffered memory. For dual channel, you will have to used match memory pairs in each channel bank (ex: DIMM 1+3 or DIMM 2+4). Official specs allow for DDR2 533/667/800MHz memory to be installed. It won't always be necessary, but depending on the video card, you may have to remove larger video cards prior to replacing or adding memory since the memory slots are fairly close to where a video card may cross on the motherboard.
The standard 24-pin ATX connector, and 4-pin EATX12V connector are both located next to the memory slots. There is a 4-pin Molex connector near the PCI Express x16 slot for additional power for more advanced video cards.
In total there are nine SATA connection on the AB9-Pro. The six main connections are taken car of by the ICH8R and in standard IDE mode, you do not need driver disks for Windows installation. 3 internal SATA 3Gbps ports as well as one internal or external (eSATA) are handled by the Silicon Image 3132.
Moving on to the peripheral slots, we can see one PCI Express graphics (PEG) slots, and two PCIE x1 connections. Despite the chipset's support for CrossFire, there will be none of that with the AB9-Pro due to the lone PEG slot.
Just after the PCIE x1 slots and before the two PCI slots is the JMicron JMB363 PATA connection we mentioned earlier. If you're the type to change motherboards without reinstalling Windows, the controller will not be recognized by default. We haven't graduated to SATA optical drives yet, so this was a bit problematic since Intel has dropped all PATA support from their 965 chipset. Therefore, the only way I was able to load drivers was to put them onto a USB key from another PC and install them here. That said, we always reinstall prior to testing, and the controller was seen by Windows setup and allows the installation CD to boot the system.
Round things out are the external inputs and outputs. From left to right we have; two PS/2 ports, two S/PDIF ports, one eSATA port, six audio connections, two Gigabit LAN, and four USB 2.0.
Abit was the first of the big boys to introduce a performance minded BIOS. Like most enthusiast boards, there are a large number of options for those who like to get their hands dirty in the BIOS. We'll skip directly to those areas since we figure most of you know how to fiddle with items like system time and boot order.
In the Advanced Chipset page, you can make adjustments to the memory timings. Leaving the DRAM Timing as Auto, the system will pickup whatever is configured in the ram's SPD. On Manual, you have full control over the CAS Latency, RAS# to CAS Delay, RAS# Precharge and the Precharge Delay. There is a range available for each option, where lower numbers may result in better performance, though with a potential impact on stability.
The meat of the BIOS is located in the µGuru Utility page. There are two primary setup menus in this page, but let's tackle the OC Guru page first. On this page, you have access to all the clock speed settings for the CPU and memory. By default, the CPU Operating Speed is set to the CPU's true speed, but this can be changed to User Define for more options. That said, the board did give our Pentium D 840 Extreme Edition a free 4MHz boost in the External Clock setting.
The External Clock is the Front Side Bus most of us are used to referring to. The board's lower limit is 133MHz and the upper limit is 600MHz. The Multiplier Factor is the CPU's multiplier and with our CPU, the lower limit is 14 and the ceiling is 60. In both cases for the FSB and multiplier, the upper limits will be nothing more than a pipe dream for consumers.
The N/B Strap CPU As controls the hardware reset strap to the MCH.
The DRAM Spec controls the memory frequency, which can be either by SPD or done manually.
There are also all the main voltage options available here as well which are useful when fine tuning a particular overclock. For the CPU, the voltage maxes out at 1.7375v, 2.65v for memory and 2.0v for the MCH.
The Abit EQ page is for the most part, the PC Health page we've seen on other motherboards, but a PC Health page on steroids.
There are multiple fan and temperature adjustments that can be made here and these options cover the full gamut in our opinion.
Operating System: Windows XP Professional (5.1, Build 2600) Service Pack 2
Processor: Genuine Intel(R) CPU 3.20GHz (4 CPUs)
Memory: 2046MB RAM
DirectX Version: DirectX 9.0c (4.09.0000.0904)
Card name: NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GT/GTO
Driver Version: 6.14.0010.9147
Comparison Motherboards: ASUS P5WD2 955X. Abit AW9D-MAX
Going up against the Abit AB9-Pro will be the 975X equipped Abit AW9D-MAX motherboard and the ASUS P5WD2 Premium 955X based motherboard. Both setups will share similar peripheral components, with the only difference being the motherboards.
Test Software is as follows:
- Our standard synthetic suite gets an upgrade. We like to use Sandra (System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) to collect some numbers as a base. The numbers collected are consistent and are easily comparable between systems during tests.
- A good indicator of CPU/Motherboard performance is version 4.2, by Xavier Gourdon. We used a computation of 10000000 digits of Pi, Chudnovsky method, 1024 K FFT, and no disk memory. Note that lower scores are better, and times are in seconds.
- CDex v170b2 was used to convert a 440.5MB Wav file to a 320kbs MP3. Times are in minutes:seconds, and lower is better.
- We used an Animatrix file, titled , and a WAV created from VirtualDub. The movie was then converted it into a DVD compliant MPEG-2 file with a bitrate of 5000. Times are in minutes:seconds, and lower is better.
DVD Shrink - We ripped the War of the Worlds bonus feature off the disk at 100% and compressed the file from the hard drive to 70%. Times are in minutes:seconds, and lower is better.
- Photoshop is perhaps the defacto standard when it comes to photo editing tools. Given that it is so popular, we incorporated DriverHeaven's latest test into our review process. Lower scores are better, and times are in seconds.
- We run the full suite of tests offered by 3DMark06 at 640x480 and collect the total 3DMark score and CPU score.
Doom 3, Far Cry, Unreal Tournament 2004 @ 640x480, HQ Settings - While higher resolutions tax the video card, lower resolutions rely on CPU and subsystem speed. Higher scores are better.
All benchmarks will be run a total of three times with the average scores being displayed. Any system tweaks and ram timings were configured to the best possible for each platform.