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Abit AW9D-MAX motherboard Abit AW9D-MAX Motherboard: Abit sends over their flagship 975X motherboard. Loaded to rim, the features don't disappoint, but will the performance be as impressive?
Date: October 6, 2006
Manufacturer:
Written By:
Price:

Abit used to be a regular around here at VL until they went quiet suddenly a while ago. After some restructuring, they are now back, and back with a vengeance. Long known for their enthusiast products, their recent products have shown that their engineers have not forgotten what it was that made their boards so popular with performance-minded users. Case in point, the Abit AW9D-MAX motherboard based on the Intel 975X chipset.

The 975X is not Intel's newest chipset, as that honour belongs to the Intel 965. The 975X has been out for some time, and offers a number of features such as dual PCI Express graphics, HD audio, dual core support, dual Gigabit LAN and depending on the board's revision, Conroe support. That last part is a bit tricky as not all 975X motherboards will support the power requirements of Conroe which the Intel 965-series motherboards are tailor made for. The 975X was originally designed for the 900-series of processors from Intel, however, recent 975X boards such as the AW9D-MAX motherboard do sport Conroe support out of the box.

The Abit AW9D-MAX motherboard

Before heading into the meat of the review, we did want to show off the packaging for the Abit AW9D-MAX. Lately, I've found the quality of packaging as well as the presentation a bit lacking with some boards. Not so with Abit's latest as some key components are displayed through a box window and every accessory is neatly packed into their own box or compartment. This serves to keep items grouped together 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 multi-language manual as well as a quick installation guide for those who feel adventurous. 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.

The included software covers the basics, which is pretty much just the drivers. A driver CD contains all the required drivers for the motherboard, and 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 PCI Express graphics interlink. Despite appearances, SLI is not supported.

Abit includes more SATA cables than we think most users will need in their lifetime. They also include a floppy and IDE cable, rounded no less, as well as a PCI bracket for additional USB connections. If analog sound isn't for you, there is a digital cable included if you have a speaker set or amplifier that supports the output.

On the topic of sound, the AW9D-MAX doesn't use the traditional onboard Realtek audio many of us are used to. It's still a Realtek solution (the ALC882M HD codec) but instead of being soldered on the motherboard, it is now on an Audio MAX 7.1 riser card. The primary reasons for Abit's use of the riser card is to free up some motherboard PCB space as well as moving the audio away from some of the "noise" other electronic components will generate. In theory, this should mean better quality audio along with the fact that the product is Dolby Master Studio certified.

The Abit AW9D-MAX has an interesting layout to say the least. The board as mentioned earlier is feature rich, but it may not look like that at first glance. The most obvious change from what many of us are used to is the complete elimination of serial and parallel connections. Those really are legacy connections and we do not think most users will miss them, but if you do have items that require those connections, you will need to look elsewhere. Not pictured are 8 LED lights on the rear of the motherboard which can be configured in the BIOS with a number of effects though if you do not have a case window, it would defeat the purpose of showing these off.

For the most part, everything is laid out quite well, but the CPU area may be a little crammed for those of you who have oversized CPU coolers that do not follow Intel's clearance specifications. We didn't have any issues with our Zalman CNPS9500.

Surrounding the CPU socket and the rear IO are a series of capacitors and MOSFETs. Some cooling is provided for some of the power transistors. The AW9D-MAX uses a 4-phase power design for voltage regulation which will go a long way towards keeping the system stable. 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.

There are a couple more heatsinks to point out which are for both the North Bridge and South Bridge. Both heatsinks are equipped with heatpipes that move the heat away from these chips and towards the larger heatsink close to the rear IO area. This overall board solution is what Abit dubs as Silent OTES 2 passive cooling system and is a noise-free cooling setup.

The four 240-pin DDR2 DIMM Slots are coloured coded and the AW9D-MAX officially supports up to 8GB 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).

There are two power connections to be aware of in this area, which are the standard 24-pin ATX connector, and 8-pin EATX12V connector. There is a 4-pin Molex connector on the opposite edge of the motherboard that is used for situations where the user has multiple video cards.

In total there are eight SATA connection on the AW9D-MAX. There are 4 SATA 3Gbps ports handled by the Intel ICH7R, 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 the two PCI Express graphics (PEG) slots sandwiching two PCIE connections. We do like the push tabs for releasing PEG cards as they are easier to reach than your traditional pull clips. The added space (two slots between the PEG slots) will allow for specialized cooling for SLI setups. Of course, you'll likely lose the use of the adjacent PCI and PCIE slots, but this will not be the case if you stick with single slot cooling. Next to the second PEG slot is one PCI slot for additional expansion as well as the Audio Max slot for the Audio MAX 7.1 riser card.

Round things out are the external inputs and outputs. From left to right we have; the eSATA port, two PS/2 ports, two Gigabit LAN, and four USB 2.0. The audio, as mentioned, are on the Audio MAX 7.1 riser card, and there are no serial or parallel connections. Abit includes a custom IO shield that accounts for this IO design.

The BIOS

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 bottom of the OC Guru page covers the uptime of the PC. For those who monitor these things, particularly in a server type of environment, this is a very useful feature.

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.

Test Setup

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

CPUs:

Going up against the Abit AW9D-MAX motherboard will be 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.

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