A Motherboard for Enthusiasts: ABIT Fatal1ty AA8XE

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2005-02-14 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Review: Graphics card and CPU manufacturers make high-end products for the hardcore enthusiast market, why don't motherboard makers? ABIT steps in with the Fatal1ty AA8XE, geared for overclockers and tweakers.

If you follow the professional gaming scene, you probably recognize the name Fatal1ty. Jonathan Wendel, who goes by that handle, is one of the top professional gamers in the world. Specializing in shooters, he has won three CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League) championships, each in a different game, and has placed highly in or won several other major gaming competitions. Now he is teaming up with several hardware vendors to bring the Fatal1ty brand to top-notch gaming gear.

Wendel has now partnered with ABIT to produce Fatal1ty motherboards, geared for high-end gaming, overclocking, and extreme PC enthusiasts. The first such board is the AA8XE, a Pentium 4 motherboard based on Intel's 925XE chipset. This isn't just another motherboard with a pro gamer's brand stamped on it, though. Wendel worked with ASUS engineers to produce a customized product that meets his needs—and the needs of those who push their PCs to extreme limits.

Sounds ExtremeTech to us! At a retail price of about $250 (you can find it online for about $20 less—check prices) this is definitely not a cheap piece of kit. We kick the tires on ABIT's first Fatal1ty-branded motherboard to see if it's worth the price premium. Continued... A simple glance at the Fatal1ty AA8XE will tell you it's not quite like other motherboards. It's not the red PCB that makes it stand out—we've seen those before. It's the big plastic shroud covering all the power circuitry, and the large heatsink and fan on the northbridge chip. We've seen large passive heat sinks on the northbridge of high-end Pentium 4 motherboards before, but a heat sink of this magnitude along with a fan is quite uncommon.

What's the point of all this? The better to overclock you with, my dear. Pushing a CPU to its maximum overclocking potential often means turning up the voltage and increasing the front-side bus speed to extreme levels. This tends to cause the motherboard's power circuitry to heat up and become unstable, and the same goes for the northbridge. By putting a plastic shroud over the power circuits and circulating air with a couple of small fans, ABIT intends for your system to remain stable even if you overclock it further than usual.

Looking at the back end of the motherboard, you can spot a few more unusual elements. The backplane is dominated by two small fans, blowing air out of the plastic shrouded power circuits. This doesn't leave much room for ports and plugs, but this motherboard does away with all legacy ports, anyway. There are PS/2 mouse and keyboard plugs, but no serial or parallel ports in sight. Good riddance to bad rubbish, we say. If you desperately need a serial port, there is an internal motherboard header for a single COM1 port, but that's it. ABIT hasn't simply removed the connectors: The BIOS options and logic for all the other serial and parallel ports have been excised as well.

What's left on the backplane? The PS/2 mouse and keyboard plugs, four USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire jack, and two Ethernet jacks—one is 10/100 and the other is Gigabit. And there are no audio ports back there. The slot layout is quite good. Nothing really gets in the way of the graphics slot, so changing video cards is easy. A double-wide cards fits without problem, and the two one-lane PCIe slots next to the graphics slot let you install a double-wide graphics card while still allowing access to a single PCIe slot and both PCI slots. At the bottom edge of the board is a small slot for the audio riser card. Continued...

ABIT has done something a bit unusual with the audio on this Fatal1ty branded board. All audio—digital and analog—is routed to a small audio riser card on the bottom edge of the motherboard. This is necessary, in part because the large fans on the backplane don't leave a lot of room for audio jacks, but it has the side benefit of promoting cleaner audio. Moving all the jacks to the bottom edge of the board should, in theory, reduce interference and signal noise. We've seen plenty of motherboards that put extra jacks—for surround speakers or digital output—on a separate bracket, but they almost always have standard stereo output and microphone input on the backplane by all the I/O ports.

The riser card has enough jacks for 7.1 analog audio, microphone input, and optical SPDIF. In fact, the board even comes with a 3-foot optical audio cable—a nice bonus. Of course, if you really want great sound, you should use a good sound card, which is what we did during testing. We can't imagine the target market for this board living with integrated HD Audio, but it's nice that ABIT paid such attention to its implementation anyway.

The memory slot layout and power plugs are fairly standard, but some notable features distinguish that last quadrant of the motherboard behind the PCIe and PCI slots. The four SATA plugs look like SATA-II connectors, and rather than just posts, they have plastic around the outside for a more secure connection. They're not actually SATA-II ports, so you won't get extra speed from a SATA-II drive; they just have the more secure plugs.

The motherboard's front-panel I/O plugs are some of the best we've seen. They're color-coded and very clearly labeled, so experienced builders won't have to crack the manual at all to figure out exactly where the power switch or HDD LED plugs go. Hard power and reset buttons are on the board, just in case things aren't going as planned and you don't have the board hooked up to a case's buttons. And we always like it when motherboards give us an LED readout to display bootup codes and running temperature.

Internal plugs for two more USB connections and two FireWire are present for those who have such plugs on the front of their cases. The only poor design decision is the location of the front-panel audio plug, way on the back edge of the board, opposite of where it needs to be.

We've seen rounded cables with some high-end motherboards in the past, so it makes sense that this one includes them. Both the IDE and the floppy cables that come with the AA8XE board are rounded—the IDE cable is clear, the floppy black.

Oh, and it's sort of absurd, but the board even comes with clip-on RAM fans. That's right, you can blow recycled, warm case air onto your RAM, just for kicks. It's a bit goofy-looking, and we're not convinced it really helps, but it's there if you want it. Continued... The board layout is great, but a product like this is really all about performance. We set to benchmarking the board using the following configuration.

CPU: Pentium 4 550 (3.4GHz) (check prices)
Motherboard: ABIT Fatal1ty AA8XE (check prices)
Memory: 1GB 533MHz DDR2 RAM (check prices)
Graphics: GeForce 6800GT (check prices)
Audio: Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS (check prices)
Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 160GB (check prices)
Optical drive: ASUS DVD/RW (check prices)
Operating system: Windows XP Pro w/SP2 (check prices)
DirectX version 9.0c

We used a basic Intel stock CPU cooler because we wanted to see how far we could push the processor without going to exotic measures. In a future article, we'll water-cool the CPU and see how far we can overclock it that way. For comparison, we'll include data from a standard Intel 925XCLVK motherboard on our performance graphs. That data comes from Loyd's recent 925X motherboard roundup. Note that the CPU used there is 3.6GHz, while ours is 3.4GHz. This is intentional: We'll be running with data from our 3.4GHz CPU both overclocked and at its standard speed, and we want to see if we can pass a faster, more expensive CPU by overclocking the front-side bus.

The BIOS setup makes it clear that this board is for tweakers and overclockers. The first menu item on a BIOS setup screen is almost always the "Standard CMOS Features," things like time and date, and which drives are connected. The first menu item on the Fatal1ty AA8XE is ABIT's "µGuru Utility." This is the menu that lets you change CPU bus speed and multiplier, adjust DRAM frequency ratio, change PCI and PCIe clocks, and tweak voltages.

Of course, you don't need to dig into the BIOS to set all these options. There's a Windows µGuru Utility application included with the board that lets you monitor fan speeds and tweak all the bus speeds, multipliers, and voltages you care to. It's pretty simple to use and includes a couple of preset configurations. The "Turbo" option in this utility pushed the front-side bus of our processor from 200MHz (800MHz effective) to 220MHz (880MHz effective). But with a bit of hand tweaking, we were able to achieve stable performance at 230MHz (920MHz effective). With stock cooling, that's quite a feat. Continued...

The Fatal1ty AA8XE is based on the 925XE chipset, something we've certainly covered here before. It supports the 1066MHz front-side bus of Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPUs, but we opted for a late-model 3.4GHz Prescott-based Pentium 4, because it would be a better overclocker. With a little voltage tweaking and hand-tuning, we managed to achieve stable operation with the front-side bus turned up to 230MHz, and with the maximum CPU multiplier locked at 17X, this gave us a final overclocked CPU speed of 3.91GHz, all using a standard Intel brand cooler.

The PCMark numbers show that the board performs quite well at normal speeds. Our numbers are, as expected, slightly below that of the faster 3.6GHz CPU. Overclocking really let us achieve a good performance boost in this synthetic test, eventually surpassing the 3.6GHz model by a good margin.

The CPU tests from 3DMark 05 run the first and third game tests using the CPU to perform all vertex operations. There's a big disparity in Game Test 1 in our data: We can only assume something was amiss with the Intel board, as our 3.4GHz CPU shouldn't outpace the 3.6GHz model. The difference could have to do with a slight change in video driver revision, but since these tests don't hit the video card very hard, that's unlikely. More to the point, our overclock gave us a 5% to 10% performance boost.

SPECviewperf 8.01 runs through a set of workstation-class visualization and 3D content creation tasks. Performance depends a lot on your video card and its drivers, but CPU speed holds some influence as well. Intel's motherboard is a bit faster here; we've seen this before. When a motherboard uses an Award BIOS (as the ABIT model does), it seems to perform a little slower in tests like these where lots of small batches are sent over the PCIe bus. The important thing to note is that the Fatal1ty AA8XE doesn't perform poorly, and picks up about 5% overall performance with our overclock.

The real raison d'être for this motherboard is gaming. It carries a professional gamer's brand, after all. At stock speeds, it performs about as well as expected. The motherboard runs great, but can't make up for the speed difference between our 3.4 and 3.6GHz CPUs. Overclocking turns the tables. At these lower resolutions where our games are more CPU-limited than graphics-limited, we were able to pick up over 7% in Unreal Tournament 2005 and just a hair less than 7% in Doom 3. This is enough to catch up to or even surpass the faster 3.6GHz CPU. Mission accomplished. Continued...

With a retail price of about $250, this is definitely not a motherboard for everyday computers. In everything from the board's layout to its marketing to its BIOS screen, ABIT is clearly targeting this component at high-end enthusiasts interested in taking expensive hardware and pushing it to the limit. And in our view, it succeeds admirably.

The Fatal1ity AA8XE is one of the best 925XE based boards we've tested. Its layout works well, and it has some nice extra features, including the audio jacks on a riser card to help reduce noise. The extra cooling on the northbridge and power circuitry deliver what overclockers need. We pumped up the front-side bus speed by 15% with a stock Intel cooler, and the system was rock solid through several days of tests. With more exotic cooling, there's no telling how high you can go: Your CPU is likely to give out before the motherboard runs into problems.

See our motherboards section for more news and reviews.

It goes without saying that this isn't a motherboard for everyone. Its price is more than many users want to pay for a CPU alone, but 925XE-based motherboards are expensive everywhere, so the price premium for this gamer-centric model really isn't overwhelming. If you've got a need for serial or parallel ports, this is not a platform for you. On the other hand, if your priority is taking an LGA775 CPU and pushing it to its limits, you'll have trouble finding a better board.

Product Fatal1ty AA8XE
Company: ABIT Computer Corp.
Price: $249 (MSRP)
Pros: No legacy serial/parallel ports; great power and northbridge cooling; lots of overclocking options.
Cons: Costs a bit more than the already-pricey standard 925XE boards.
Summary: If you're an enthusiast building a high-end LGA775 system and you want to overclock it, you may not find a better board than this one.
Rating:
 
 
 
 
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.

 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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