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ABIT AN7: ABIT squeezed more life out of the nForce 2 with some refinements and the µGuru.
The nForce2 chipset made a pretty big splash in the enthusiast market for the AMD Platform. Packed with features, screaming performance and a price point that showed seriously good value for money made it a winner all round. Various versions and even a revised 'Ultra' edition appeared, and despite the fact that AMD have released the 64 bit processors to market, folks still want and need a decent 32 bit AMD platform, which for the foreseeable future will be the nForce2 chipset.
It therefore makes sense that manufacturers are still releasing motherboards based upon this chipset, each seeking to out perform or out least out 'feature' the rest. We all thought that had stopped with the impressive NF7-S v2.0 motherboard that matured into one of the best nForce2 motherboards on the market. However this isn't the case, as now have the AN7 motherboard making waves and bringing new features to the plate.
When you compare the specifications to the previous nForce2 ultra 400 board ABIT released, the NF7-S you can see only a few differences. The AN7 is missing one Firewire header and also the iRDA header, but most notable is the inclusion of the new µGuru technology.
The box for the AN7 is surprisingly plain with only the µGuru being shown off to any great extent and just a blurred image I assume meant to indicate speed. Compared to what I'm used to seeing from ABIT this very toned down. Inside however everything is packed up in individual boxes which is great; allows you to use only what you need without having to store it all in one big box.
The extra's are ok but no way near up to the levels of the MAX series boards, which for ABIT's latest nForce2 motherboard you would expect a decent package overall. The Documentation is the best I've seen with any motherboard package as ABIT include a manual for the board, a manual for the µGuru, and a quick installation guide as well. ABIT also thoughtfully include a sticker labeling all the jumpers and headers on the motherboard to put in your case.
Priced at not much more than the NF7-S and with the Athlon64 out and about, the AN7 is very much a mainstream board for the AMD 32bit platform (perhaps this is the reason for the less than stellar extra's package?). The AN7 layout is very busy and filled especially in the top half but nothing seems to be overly cramped. Note the rounded corners on the now familiar orange PCB.
The socket for the CPU is nicely placed out of the way at the very top of the board. ABIT have chosen to once again include the now removed from AMD specifications mounting holes which are still used by many high performing cooling solutions. However with the CPU being placed right at the top and on the edge like it is, cooling solutions like the Prometia MACH II could have some issues mounting the hermetic cell. Irrelevant to the majority of users but thought I would mention it considering the likely audience and market (overclockers) for this board. Whilst the socket itself is pretty much clear of obstructions, moving towards the I/O panel we can see a bank of capacitors and mosfets along with the power connectors for the board. Having the power connectors here means they will drape wiring across the HSF for the CPU, so not the best placement.
The same shuriken style circular Northbridge heatsink as used on the NF7 is present using the standard push in clamps making for a nice easy swap for the watercooling crowd. ABIT have used only a dab of thermal paste and we advise you to swap this for some properly applied paste to get the best results.
The AGP and PCI slots (1 and 5 respectively) have a generous 1 PCI slot height gap between them to allow for oversized graphics cards, which is a great idea. Considering the onboard features 5 PCI slots should be plenty so no complaints there. Positioned at the bottom near the last PCI slot you can also see the Silicon Image SATA Link chip that provides the RAID 0/1 for the SATA150 connections and below it the 2 SATA headers. The AGP slot has the holding clip at the end and is far enough away from the Ram slots so as to not pose a problem for ATI Cards but the FX5950 being a lot larger still interfered with removal of Ram.
On the opposite side at the far bottom edge is the Diagnostic LED which will display different error codes in the event of a problem. Up above is the ALC658 chip responsible for the onboard Audio. This is actually an update on the original ALC655 chip used by previous boards and provides both optical in and out onboard. The ram slots are coloured 2 violet and 1 blue to indicate the Dual Channel slots but without the manual just having 2 different colours isn't enough to indicate which slots pair up. I've still yet to see any manufacturer come up with an acceptable 'at a glance' indication scheme for this, but for reference the singular slot must be filled to enable dual channel mode with either of the remaining two. Also at the edge near the top of the board is the floppy connector. This is a good place to put it as it should put it at just above the height of a standard floppy bay and allow for the extra reach to those with cases that have the floppy bay up top.
Below the ram slots we find the IDE headers, and as they did for the IC7 Max3, they are turned 90 degrees to face towards the front of the case rather than the side. Being on the edge like this is going to make cable tidying very easy indeed. Behind the IDE headers are the battery and the CMOS reset jumper. As has become standard for ABIT the jumper itself features a tail to make it easy to grab. Just below the battery is the headers for your IDE LED, Speaker, power switch, etc; this is personally not a placement I find ideal as being right on the bottom edge can make for a fiddly time as your fingers are pressed against the case bottom. Also in this area is the MCP-T.
Above the battery is the BIOS chip and to the left we find the µGuru chip, covered in a holographic sticker. We'll get more into this chip a bit later but suffice to say it is a system management chip that can control/monitor things such as fan speeds, voltages, and even FSB frequencies.
Few bad areas but mainly a good overall layout. The only really bad point is the power connector placements but I guess with a board like this that is full of onboard features something has got to give. One thing is certain; ABIT still aim the layout and features to be of best and most efficient use to the enthusiast but those with extreme cooling solutions and large mounting systems for the cooling might find the placement of the ZIF socket too high.
The BIOS is where ABIT are usually King and the AN7 doesn't disappoint. Every option you could want is available here including a few extra's aimed to save time or aid the enthusiasts overclocking attempts. I don't want to go into every little detail because as per usual ABIT have packed in a hell of a lot here so let's take a look at the essentials and a few extra's.
ABIT's selection for the BIOS is the Phoenix Award BIOS which has served them very well in the past although I'm not personally too keen on the startup method/POST for this one. Upon starting up and on subsequent reboots you are presented with a bold and colourful screen, and if you wish to see the POST information you will need to hit TAB. DEL will get you into the BIOS setup screens and I don't believe their is a way to use the POST screen only. Softmenu is where the major items can be setup, such as the CPU parameters, AGP Frequencies, voltages etc. Speaking of voltages, not only can you adjust the voltages to some very unsafe levels allowing for a varied control and overclocking potential, but you can also control an extra voltage option in here for the Northbridge too!
You can also see in these screens the “Press F8 to Overclock on the Fly”, which basically allows you to set the parameters and use them instantly. This probably has limited actual use in everyday overclocking situations but could be useful to work out the absolute limit of your hardware without being restricted by such things as Windows stability … FSB Settings for the CPU are selectable and increase in 1MHz increments (although every 10-15 or so they skip one). I would have liked to have been able to type in a setting, just for that extra bit of laziness.
The PC Health Screen's house what you would expect along with a new item that is related to the µGuru, and this is the FanEQ Control. Think of this as basically an onboard Rheobus that coupled with the software for Windows can be temperature controlled or manually set, allowing you speed control of your fan's when connected to the motherboard headers. This does have one annoying bug at the moment in that if no fans are connected, even if the CPU Fan Fail Warning is disabled you will still be presented the two-tone warning siren upon first bootup.
The Advanced Chipset Features screen has a few gems as well. The CPU Thermal Throttling can be set to varying percentages, and to couple the FSB Spread Spectrum you can also adjust the AGP Spread Spectrum as well. It's in here that you also set the Memory Timings, which have a few presets that are reminiscent of ABIT's GAT technology for the P4 lineup. Naturally you can also do things manually with quite an extensive range on the 4 settings (CAS for instance goes all the way up to 11). But the best bit about this BIOS can be found right from the main screen, and its the ability to save BIOS setting profiles. Up to 5 can be set up and saved, then loaded with just a couple of buttons pushes. Great stuff when your pushing your hardware to the limit and you over do it, needing a CMOS reset to get you going again. No need to set everything up again, just select your last saved profile and away you go! Absolutely fantastic feature for the BIOS to have, and something we are seeing from more manufacturers of late in one form or another. ABIT have kept this feature simple which is a good thing to see.
Can you tell that I like this BIOS? I said it once and I will say it again. When it comes to options and features, ABIT make the best BIOS.
µGuru is a new microprocessor designed by the ABIT Engineers for use only on ABIT motherboards. µGuru combines the ABIT Engineered features ABIT EQ, ABIT FanEQ, ABIT OC Guru, ABIT FlashMenu, ABIT AudioEQ and ABIT BlackBox into a user-friendly interface providing users the perfect environment with which to maximize performance and stability.
ABITEQ – The ABITEQ is ABIT's hardware monitoring program. The displayed info can be customized to a certain degree but for all intents and purposes the overall design is static. Even when small and with a screen resolution of 1600x1200 the program is offensively large. It will however display all the info you would need at a quick glance such as temperatures, fan speeds and voltages.
OC Guru – This program will allow you to perform on the fly overclocking from the comfort of windows. The design of the program is completely different from the ABITEQ, being very minimalist in looks and use. One strange thing I did find was that the program has 2 tabs. One is called Turbo which allows saving and editing of overclocks as well as displaying system info along with CPU FSB adjustment. The other tab, the F1 Mode is the same except that you can also adjust the Voltages for the CPU, Northbridge and Ram. The F1 Mode, being the same as Turbo mode but with a few extra tweaks makes the Turbo mode a waste of time. Being able to save profiles of overclocks is a very handy feature, but in my opinion ABIT's next version should drop the Turbo mode altogether and add support for hotkey switching between profiles as this will make it immensely more appealing and useful to the average enthusiast.
Flashmenu – Flashmenu has been around for a while and as the name suggests allows you to Flash your BIOS with just a few click from Windows. Once again it has a totally different feel and look to the other programs, being a garish blue. It is however functional (for the most part, see below), and is for those who don't use floppy disks anymore a good option. Unlike other flash programs from other manufactures Flashmenu can be set up to your own preferences for clearing CMOS etc, and you can even save your current BIOS.
AudioEQ – This is something that was only installed after I downloaded the latest updates, and either I missed the warning or their wasn't one, but AudioEQ is NOT for the AN7, which has Soundstorm support. AudioEQ is for use with the other µGuru motherboards and is a similar program to the Soundstorm control panel, allowing control of your audio presets, albeit no way near as feature filled as the Soundstorm. Again it looks different from the rest of the µGuru software.
FanEQ – The FanEQ is the second of the µGuru software suite that is new and will allow you to set temperature controlled thresholds for speeds of your CPU and NB fans which is a great feature to have. Four settings are available for each with the 4th being a user defined setting. It's also possible to disable the FanEQ settings from here as well as decide which reference temperature sensor to make adjustments to speed from. Think of it as an inbuilt temperature controlled Rheobus. Again the overall look of this program is different from the others.
BlackBox – Again another program that is separate from the others in this suite in looks and use, the BlackBox will allow you to record your system stats and errors to be emailed direct to ABIT for support.
Now all this µGuru stuff and its programs sounds fantastic in theory but all is not roses. All of the programs have a distinct and separate feel/appearance to them which for a software suite that's centered around the singular µGuru chip, you would think there would be some uniform presence. I also have had my share of issues caused mainly by µGuru.
First time I powered up the board I was greeted with a repeating high-low warning siren. Ok, so I have a problem, which was displayed for me on the 2 digit display. Problem was the error code given wasn't listed. In the BIOS I could find nothing wrong at all, and bear in mind at this point I am at the factory defaults. Temperatures, voltages, cable connections, everything was perfect. Yet still the siren. Now my hunch was that because I am using watercooling and an aftermarket Rheobus for fan control that the motherboard was complaining of a dead CPU fan, this despite the fact the CPU Fan Fail Warning was disabled.
If I remember correctly this is an issue that was present on the NF7-S at launch as well, which a new BIOS fixed. After continued fiddling and resetting the only way to stop the noise was to disconnect the speaker which would obviously prevent me from hearing any other warning tones. Let's just say installing Windows XP (which went without a hitch by the way) was noisy and irritating. It wasn't until I installed and opened the ABITEQ that it finally shut up. Now the ABITEQ is installed as part of the µGuru software along with other items, but I found that upon updating to the latest versions via the web that this time around a new program was available for installation; the ABIT AudioEQ program I dutifully installed this only to be told that the 'EQ Initial Failed' yet the Soundstorm control panel has no issues. It turns out that the AudioEQ is for Non-Soundstorm systems like the P4 and AMD64 setups.
At this point I checked for a new BIOS, just incase the little teething problems had perhaps been fixed. Sure enough a new BIOS existed although no mention of the issues I had, but let's install it anyway using the Flashmenu program which has been added to the µGuru software suite. Now bear in mind I had literally just updated all my software. Flashmenu is branded with the µGuru symbol. So why is my Flashmenu too old to do a live update from Windows? I don't use a floppy drive, have not done so for sometime, and I'll be damned if I was happy at the prospect of having to install one just for 2 minutes. Luckily the Flashmenu worked fine if I downloaded the BIOS manually and pointed it to the correct file. I was then greeted with the two-tone siren once more upon reboot which my wife found most amusing at 2am. Once again starting up the ABITEQ program killed the siren and left me with just the occasional beeping now and then. At this point I shut the system down and gave up for the night.
By morning I was fresh and ready for another try. I also found that my CPU temperature had risen by a few degrees and as MBM didn't work (read below) it wasn't until I started up the ABIT OC Guru I found out my default CPU Vcore was now 1.85v. Also of annoyance is that I use MBM or Speedfan to display temperatures. In fact, I use MBM in combination with Samurize to display temperatures right on my desktop. Ordinarily MBM would be updated to address new motherboards but apparently this won't happen for while. You have to understand just how deep this µGuru chip goes; it's a gateway to pretty much everything to do with the chipset. Since ABIT are not likely to give out the µGuru API info to third parties any time soon, the likes of MBM won't work (unless someone hacks it) since it's the µGuru chip that dishes out the info.
The µGuru has all the signs of being a very useful combination of software and hardware but it appears at this moment in time to have been rushed. I might be coloured by that damn siren but when you consider that each of the separate programs for the µGuru have the appearance of being designed by separate people and the fact you are restricted to using only the ABIT software for the most part, it's pretty disappointing overall. It has a lot of potential to be a great suite of programs but honestly, ABIT should take all of them back to the drawing board and integrate them into one µGuru program that can do everything. Basically a great idea that is currently flawed in its implementation.
My initial foray into overclocking the AN7 didn't go too well but with a bit of tweaking we finally got off the starting line at 170FSB, up from the 166FSB. I then progressed in my usual 5's up to 175, 180, 185 and so on to 200 FSB but at 201 I had my first lockup booting into windows. Backing off to 200 provided a perfectly stable environment at 2.2gig or 3200+ settings.
Into the BIOS to lower the multiplier from its default 11 down to 10.5 x 200 for 2.1GHz, ready to raise the FSB once more. Whilst there I disabled the FSB and AGP Spread Spectrum settings to insure a good overclock. Then it was back into Windows and the OCGuru. 210 was our next hurdle; It was pretty much stable and everything was running fine but for some reason I decided to double check one last time, and sure enough PiFast refused to run more than halfway through the test. 3dMark01 also locked up during the Lobby scene. Back into the BIOS and lowered the multiplier once more for 10x210 and a 2.1GHz speed. Final results were 10x219FSB. Extra voltage, lower multipliers, watercooling, none of it availed me to break the 220FSB stable.
Test rig 1: Barton 2500+ (Supplied by ), Corsair TWINX512 PC3200, MSI K7N2 Delta ILSR, MSI GeForce FX5950 Ultra, 80gb WD HDD, W&CC Watercooling Kit, Windows XP SP1
Test rig 2: Barton 2500+ (Supplied by ), Corsair TWINX512 PC3200, ABIT AN7, MSI GeForce FX5950 Ultra, 80gb WD HDD, W&CC Watercooling Kit, Windows XP SP1
Test software will be:
SiSoft Sandra 2004
Although a synthetic benchmark, it's a popular one, freely available if you wish to make comparison benchmarks. We will be testing the CPU, MMX, and memory speeds.
CPU Arithmetic Benchmark
The AN7 outperforms our comparison the K7N2 easily enough here, although in real world terms the difference is negligible. Upping the FSB to 200 provides the obvious and nice increase you would get with a 3200+ processor.
Both boards perform virtually identical here which considering they are same chipset is not too surprising.
This graph shows the same thing we saw with the NF7-S in comparison with the K7N2, that MSI out performs ABIT in the memory department. The effect this will have in real world terms is minimal as the Multimedia test above has shown. Once overclocked the AN7 puts in some nice numbers.
A good indicator of CPU/Motherboard performance is PiFast 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.
The K7N2's superior memory performance over the AN7 edges it out in front in this test, although once again the difference is minimal.
VirtualDub Audio Extraction
We ripped the audio of at 44,100Hz, no compression using VirtualDub 1.5.8 (Build 18068). Times are in seconds, and lower is better.
The numbers are as expected here, as this kind of test is dependent on many factors, from your hard drive to CPU speed as well as memory. Using the same hardware across the board the AN7 shows itself to be more than capable of keeping up with the rest.
We will encode a 150mb AVI file to MPEG2 (a somewhat realistic chore as DVD's are MPEG-2). For the AVI to MPEG-2 I used a bitrate of 5000k/Sec, as this is the midrange for a DVD, which is typically between 1000k/Sec to 10,000k/Sec. I used a frame size of 720x480 (DVD Std) and 16:9 NTSC. Note that lower scores are better.
Once again the extra memory performance from the allows the K7N2 to gain the upper hand by a few seconds, quite a few in fact.
UT2K3 is a real system killer and can bring many systems to its knees. We used the [H]ardocp UT2003 Benchmarking utility version 2.1, which are excellent tools in testing various resolutions and detail levels. We selected the CPU test, which uses the dm-inferno map. We also used our own in house CPU tests for Call of Duty and Quake III Arena, which use the game's low detail and low resolution defaults.
For gaming the AN7 can keep up with the rest of the crowd without issue, putting out the numbers we expect it to as well as a healthy boost from the overclocking.
The first thing we'll check is the audio. We downloaded and installed to test its CPU utilization.
It must be a Realtek thing, as this is far from the norm with an nForce2 solution that usually averages around the <2% average, but this time around the average was in the 4%-6% mark. I don't think this is the end of the world really, as today's CPU's should be a fast enough speed to more than compensate for this loss but let's take a look at how this effects UT 2003 performance.
UT 2003 Inferno Sound Tests
For our UT2003 tests, we ran dm-Inferno benchmarks at 640x480, minimum detail with sound on and off. This was repeated at 1024x768. The reasoning is at low detail and resolution, the work will fall on the CPU and motherboard subsystem. Higher resolution is more representative of actual game play for most users.
With a low resolution the emphasis is on the CPU and subsystem to do the work hence we see a rather large difference between the two. When we up the resolution to somewhere the graphics card can help out more, the difference between the two shrinks quite a bit.
In terms of quality ... this is a Soundstorm board, does anymore really need to be said?
Hard Drive Performance
We used HD Tach to gauge read performance with our Western Digital SE 80GB HDD. Unfortunately, I don't have an identical drive to perform RAID testing anymore, but we'll try to follow this up when I can acquire a second drive.
Both are about the same here which is as it should be. For the record I was using the latest 3.13 NON sw drivers for the IDE ports on both boards.
We used to test the networking speed, and Windows Task Manager for CPU usage. We copied a variety of install files, totaling 698MB, varying in sizes of 300kb to as much as 60MB per file from the AN7 machine, to our ASUS A7V266 1900+ box, which uses a D Link 10/100 PCI card. We also performed the same test with an ISO image, totaling 530MB. Both systems were connected via a CAT-5 crossover cable, which should prevent any bottlenecks that would arise with our standard 10/100 switching hub.
Download speeds averaged about 9MB/sec, and upload speeds about 9.3MB/sec which is virtually identical to the numbers gained from the MSI board. The CPU usage's was very low, averaging about 7%.
Well quite a bit to talk about here and although the board did well in our tests, it wasn't without some issues.
The µGuru technology shows a lot of promise, and not just from the OC Guru, but from all the programs, however in their current state they are far from perfect, presenting a rushed and cobbled appearance which ABIT seriously need to work on. The one program that needs attention quickly is the ABITEQ program which is offensively large in it's appearance. So much potential lies here for a kick ass hardware and software monitoring and control system, fingers crossed ABIT will sort this out in due time.
Overclocking performance was OK with the highest FSB reached being 220. Many nForce2 boards, including the NF7-S, will clock higher than this but despite the fact I switched to watercooling of both the CPU and the Northbridge it wouldn't overclock higher. It did however highlight an issue that the NF7-S board had of ignoring the CPU Fan Fail Warning setting being disabled. It's possible that a higher overclock can be achieved as the highest stable FSB I've had on the CPU is 219FSB, so it stands to reason this could be the CPU's limit.
Feature wise the AN7 is as packed as any nForce2 board we have seen, although the overall package isn't as good as it should be for ABIT's latest AMD 32bit motherboard, with even the NF7-S motherboard showing a better overall package.
I know what you're all thinking. But when you look at the numbers from the real world tests it really isn't that bad in the performance department. Yes, this board has issues but it is something that can be sorted out by ABIT with some updates, and from my talking with ABIT it's something they are looking into. Am I going to keep this board in my system? Again yes. I enjoy the ease of overclocking, be it from the BIOS or even the comfort of windows. One might argue that with Nvidia's system utility you can have this feature with most nForce2 motherboards, but my own experiences with it have been less than stellar. The ABIT OC Guru works. I really like being able to save profiles in the BIOS, although now that I'm aware of the limits of the hardware the usefulness of this has decreased.
Like any nForce2 motherboard on the market, there is very little point in upgrading your current nForce2 motherboard to the latest and greatest for the performance increase; it won't be worth it clock for clock, so this leaves the feature's and extra's provided to make the deciding factor. The AN7 has all the signs of being one of the best motherboards on the market, as at , the pricing is good, but in it's current state it doesn't quite deliver. It really is a shame, and I hope ABIT can sort out these little issues. When they do, believe me I will be singing this boards praises and recommending it to everyone in the search for an nForce2 board, but right now I can't honestly do that. The NF7-S v2.0 has a better overall package and the little teething problems (a few of which the AN7 shares) have been fixed long ago, making it a more attractive board than the newer AN7. If ABIT were to fix the small issues, enhance the overall package to at least the same level as the NF7-S, and redesign the µGuru software into one user friendly GUI, then the AN7 would be a lot more appealing. The AN7 is far from being a bad board, but with a market that is already filled with plenty of decent nForce2 motherboards then you have to have something overall special to stand out from the crowd. AN7 Max3 anyone?
Pros: µGuru technology, FanEQ provides an onboard Rheobus, BIOS Profiles, nForce2 performance, packed with features, Nice locations/orientation for IDE and floppy headers, Plenty of voltage and memory timing options, L.E.D Diagnostics onboard, good layout
Cons: µGuru software needs an overhaul, µGuru prevents use of MBM or Speedfan, CPU Fan Fail Warning on regardless of setting, better overall package from the more mature platform of the NF7-S v2.0, rushed to market feel
Bottom Line: Give it a few months of BIOS and Software updates and this board should be at the top of everyone's lists, but right now the AN7 has some work to be done when compared with even their own NF7-S 2.0.
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