We have all see the changes over the last year. In both the Intel and nVidia line, PCIe/PCI is phasing out AGP/PCI. With that change, the expected next step would be the mATX motherboards to follow suite.
Interesting enough, the first motherboard I get to test out in the mATX arena is an nForce4 AMD based motherboard.
Last year I had done a review on an Intel based solution from a little known manufacturer (in the motherboard space anyway) called . It appears they have re-branded themselves as WinFast. Although Foxconn (therefore WinFast) has been in the tech industry for years, they only have recently started producing the entire motherboard.
On tap for today's review is the latest mATX motherboard from WinFast based on the nForce4 AMD chipset. This is the WinFast NF4K8MC, let's look at the specifications before moving on.
||AMD Socket 939 FX/64
- Dual channel, unbuffered, 2.5V DDR266/333/400
- (2) 184-pin DIMM sockets, max 2GB
||1 x PCI Express x16, 1 x PCI Express x1
||Integrated Ethernet (10/100)
||Integrated, 5.1 channel AC97 (Realtek)
Unpacking the WinFast NF4K8MC you see the manual, various cables, Driver CD/Floppy and the cardboard cover that protects the mATX motherboard. Pulling out the motherboard we see there is the single x16 connector for the graphics card, one x1 PCIe slot on the right and two PCI slots to the left of it. The first thing I noticed was there are only 2 RAM slots on this motherboard, second, unfortunately there is an active cooling solution in place for the chipset.
Cables included in the package are your garden variety USB 2.0 riser cables, Molex to SATA power converter, a floppy cable, two standard ATA-133 and two SATA cables. You would think they would give you 4 SATA cables so you could build the RAID, as this is capable of doing up to 4 SATA drives but maybe that's just me. As to "Give Me's" in the software department, don't hold your breath, with exception to "Norton Internet Security" and Adobe Reader 6.0 (free from the web anyway), the only thing on the Utility CD is Drivers and you guessed it, Utilities.
Looking over the motherboard itself, the 939 pin ZIF socket tends to stand out on a mATX motherboard. You notice the 2 lonely RAM slots, plenty of SATA connectors and one more thing I missed on initial overview of the motherboard. Yes Dorothy, that is a 24 pin ATX Power Supply connector. Although I have heard rumors of a 450W+ 20 pin PSU being able to power a 24 pin (m)ATX motherboard, I have yet been able to prove this out. My 500W generic was not up to the task.
Flipping the motherboard over we see a metal plate situated underneath the ZIF socket. Although Asus uses a much grander and graphically pleasing design, Asus at least announces that its intention is to maintain cooler temperatures for the surrounding components. No such mention here, making me assume it is for reinforcement of some sort.
Looking at the rear of the board we see the now standard slew of connectors, with one exception, there is an RS-232 port here, something we don't see that often. You see the standard fare PS2, Parallel, USB/NIC riser, USB/IEEE-1394 riser and the audio connections riser. There is also an S/PDIF connector on the motherboard, although WinFast has chosen not to supply you with the riser cable for this.
In terms of storage, WinFast has given you flexibility as well as versatility in the NF4K8MC. With support for two PATA connections (4 devices) and four SATA connections, you will be hard pressed to run out of drive connections. RAID is supplied by the "NVIDIA RAID" solution. This supplies the end user with RAID 0 / 1 / 0+1 and Spanning (JBOD). JBOD basically allows you to mix drives of differing sizes into one large logical drive.
The NF4K8MC uses the REALTEK ALC655, an AC' 97 2.3 Specification compliant audio chip. There is simple support for L/R audio with Mic in, and using the included Audio utility, you can emulate 6 channel surround sound. There is also an S/PDIF connection on the motherboard to off-load such tasks to an external Amplifier that will more than likely perform better. Unfortunately, unlike the Intel chipset counterpart, the jack connections on the rear I/O are hardwired, and not software selectable.
Physically installing the motherboard goes without fanfare. This should go without saying, as it is a mATX form factor, and my HSPC Tech Station is a breeze to install even a BTX motherboard into. Installing the 939 processor and filling up the RAM slots I come to x16 PCIe slot to install the HIS X850XT Graphics card. I was astonished that there is no retention mechanism included on the x16 slot. This is especially true in that I have seen several gamers use a mATX motherboard solution as their LAN Party machine, meaning travel. The HIS X850XT slipped out over 4 times during this review process, and I didn't move it once. All 4 times of re-seating it properly were only noticed because of the error beeps on boot up, and failure to POST. This is NOT a good thing, and probably does not conform to the PCIe standard for an x16 slot.
The headers on the WinFast NF4K8MC were labeled poorly, to the point that I had to reference the manual to figure out what plugged where. A trend I thought we were moving away from, as manual's are nice, but they also get lost. The SATA connectors are all placed near the rear edge of the board and nicely in a row keeping those cables away from the rest of the components while assisting you in keeping cable design clean. Note also that the IDE connectors are kept to the rear edge, neither of which is mounted actually on the edge, which I would not expect in a mATX solution, as footprint is very limited.
Next I installed Windows XP, the install went smoothly and as expected, XP did not recognize the NIC, Video, Audio or chipset. I popped in the WinFast utility CD and proceeded to install the drivers. Here is where WinFast shines, as I am able to install all of the drivers with one click, and one reboot later, everything but Video is ready to go. I have yet to see the major players in this space do this. It's usually install this piece, reboot, install the next, reboot wash rinse repeat.
WinFast uses their Super Utilities to monitor and update the motherboard. I am showing here the basic information anyone would want to know about their motherboards current situation, as it relates to heat, fans and VCore etc. I played a few games to make sure that the monitoring programs did not interfere with the operation of the system, from what I could tell, they did not.
I checked to see current BIOS status from their Super Update utility to find that there was a newer version available, lucky me, I get to test and show how an upgrade is accomplished within windows. Several manufacturers are now doing this, and it is definitely a nice touch away from the DOS boot disk and flash utility of old.