At the start of this year, VIA unveiled their latest Pentium 4 chipsets for the LGA775 platform. The PT series consisted of 3 primary chipsets; the PT880 Pro, the PT894, and the PT894 Pro. The three chipsets supported the Pentium 4 LGA775, and sport support for Dual Channel DDR 1 and 2 (667MHz), 1066MHz Quad Pumped Bus, PCI Express, SATA-II, RAID-5 and a graphics technology called DualGFX.
Fast forward to nearly 10 months later, and truth be told, we here at VL had a difficult time securing a retail sample of the chipset. We've gotten a look at the PT894 reference board, which we still use for comparison purposes, but nothing that anyone can buy off the shelf. It was not from a lack of trying either, as nobody seemed ready to send over a board for us to hammer and abuse.
With the help of VIA's PR firm, we managed to secure a board from Gigabyte called the GA-8VT880P Combo. As the name suggests, both DDR1 and DDR2 as well as AGP and PCI Express graphics are supported on the board. Based on the PT880 Pro, the chipset is intended as something of a "transitional" solution, which we will explain in more detail as we move on into the review.
The Gigabyte GA-8VT880P Combo
Outside of the motherboard, Gigabyte does not include a whole lot of frills. We found one SATA cable, one IDE cable, a rear IO shield, driver CD and manual. Given that the PT880 Pro is intended as a budget solution, we can't really say we were surprised with the package.
Overall, the layout of the Gigabyte GA-8VT880P Combo is decent. There's really good space around the CPU socket, and the capacitors did not cause any problems for our cooling solutions, even with the larger Thermaltake Big Typhoon.
The PT880 Pro chipset is passively cooled, which makes for a quieter work environment. Keep in mind this could potentially limit overclocking, but the heatsink is nonproprietary, so you can remove it and replace it if so desired. For those of you not up to speed on the PT880 Pro's features, let's look at the main selling points.
The Gigabyte GA-8VT880P Combo features a co-layout of DDR1 and DDR2. DDR2 is supported by slots 1/3, and DDR slots are 2/4. The idea behind offering this kind of support is if you have two DDR sticks from a preexisting station, you'll be able move them over here until the time is right to migrate to DDR2. If you have four sticks, you'll be SOL as you'll need to pawn off a couple of them. Unfortunently, those of you dreaming of pairing up two DDR and two DDR2 will need to snap out of it as the chipset will not support two memory types at the same time. Furthermore, buying high-end memory kits is a bit of a waste as the board tops off at DDR400 and DDR2-533. We'll come back to this later.
The next selling point is pictured above; both PCIe and AGP are supported, and both run at full speed... sort of. The AGP8x slot is a native connection (no bridge) and performs as well as a traditional AGP slot. The PCI Express slot is not exactly the x16 that most of us are accustomed to, but rather x4. According to VIA, the x4 connection should not impact performance with today's video cards under most mainstream circumstances. At worse, you may lose 20% of the performance, but that is the tradeoff for having both interfaces handy. Unlike the ram situation, you can use both at the same time.
This is VIA's DualGFX technology. Back in January, we were pretty excited about this feature, but as we all know SLI and CrossFire has grabbed a lot of the attention (CrossFire grabbed most of the bad press) since then. Still, those of you with AGP cards, and planning on a PCI Express card shortly have the option of running both to power multiple (up to 4) monitors. Unlike NVIDIA and ATI, outside of the different interfaces, VIA allows different GPUs to work in tandem for DualGFX.
For storage, there are the two IDE connections below the ram slots, as well as two SATA connections near the South Bridge. The SATA connections support standalone disks, as well as RAID-0, 1, and JBOD. Unfortunently, as with our PT894 reference board, the Gigabyte board does not feature VIA's VT8251 South Bridge. In its place is the VT8237 South Bridge, while adequate, is getting to be awfully outdated in this day and age.
For the audio side of things, we've never been overly impressed with Realtek chipset present on the board, but the ALC850 does support 8-channel audio, and does a fair job under most circumstances.
Rounding things out are the input and output connections. Moving from left to right, we have; two PS/2 ports, one parallel, two serial and FireWire ports. Next up are two USB 2.0, one Gigabit Ethernet and the audio connections. The audio connections are pretty cool as Gigabyte features a technology called Universal Audio Jack (UAJ). Never quite figured out what plug goes into where? Just plug in the speaker and the board automatically detects which is used and configures the speakers for you.
Gigabyte's BIOS is based of the Pheonix/Award BIOS most other companies used. Most of the options are pretty basic, allowing the user to enable or disable onboard peripherals and to configure the drive options and boot order.
The MB Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T.) lays the foundation for many of the chipset and CPU options. The Clock Ratio will be useless for anyone without an unlocked Pentium 4, which for the most part, only tech sites webmasters have. In our case, we had changeable options of 14 through 18.
By enabling the Host Clock control, you have the ability to manually adjust the CPU Clock (aka FSB). User options range from 200 to 600 in 1MHz increments. While it's great to be able to key in the number of your choosing, rather than scrolling through them, anything more than 250MHz will be a pipe dream.
The C.I.A. function will allow the board to automatically adjust the board to allow for the CPU to run at its maximum potential.
Depending on the FSB overclock, the system will automatically adjust the AGP/PCI frequency. Depending on the peripherals, this may not be ideal, therefore Gigabyte allows the user to manually fix the frequency to improve system stability.
The DRAM Clock will allow users to manually set (or leave at automatic) the memory frequency. This is great if you have a 533MHz DDR2 kit, and you only have a 400FSB CPU, but for tweakers, you're going to be pretty disappointed as 533MHz is the maximum DDR2 clock. Furthermore, DDR is maxed out at 400MHz, and even leaving things at "Auto" limits the speed at the maximum supported by the board.
This is one reason why premium memory is probably best to be used in another board as any overclocking potential in the kit will be wasted. We also had a heck of a time getting our Corsair XMS2 8000UL to work on the GA-8VT880P Combo. The system would POST, but continually crash, even with the ram running at 533MHz. We boosted the voltage to retain stability, but this was pretty annoying as the ram works fine on other boards without any voltage tweaking.
We also had major issues getting the system to run in Dual Channel mode. We do not have much experience with Gigabyte boards, but normally we're used to plugging in matching sticks into the appropriate slots and letting it go. With the GA-8VT880P Combo, we needed to set the BIOS to Optimized defaults and change the settings we normally do to tweak the product as an added step. This forced Dual Channel mode and the system ran fine.
One great item we do like was the board would default to safe settings in the event of a bad configuration or aggressive overclocking. Often, the board would just reset on its own, but a few times we needed to power off for a few seconds and restart.