Socket 939 Motherboard Roundup: ABIT, MSI, Gigabyte

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With the release of each new processor platform comes the inevitable wait for "enthusiast-class" motherboards to support them.  We've seen the same scenario play out time and again.  When Intel released its Socket 478 Pentium 4 processors, for example, it was a few months before tricked-out motherboards, with a full complement of overclocking tools, made it into the channel.  The same scenario will play out for Intel's Socket T, as it has already for AMD's Socket 939 platform. Sure, some decent motherboards hit the streets immediately, but they almost always have some kinks that need to be worked out, whether it be in the form of a BIOS update, a revision to the chipset, or even a complete revision of the board itself.  Which brings us to where we are today...

It has been about three months since AMD initially released its Socket 939 Athlon 64 processors.  To cover the launch, AMD supplied an early VIA K8T800 Pro-based motherboard from MSI. It worked well, but this prerelease motherboard lacked a few features, namely an AGP/PCI lock and multiplier adjustments, and it wasn't a great overclocker.  Then a few weeks later, we looked at another K8T800 Pro-based motherboard, the ASUS A8V Deluxe.  It turned out to be a very nice product with a slew of features, but it too has already undergone a revision to add support for an AGP/PCI lock.  And now that some time has passed, a few more full-featured Socket 939 motherboards are available that all seem to have gotten it right.  We're going to take a look at four of them today in this roundup: MSI's K8N Neo2 Platinum and K8T Neo2-FIR, Gigabyte's K8NSNXP-939, and ABIT's AV8.  Two of them are powered by VIA' K8T800 Pro chipset; the other two by NVIDIA's nForce 3 Ultra.

Specifications Of The VIA K8T800 Pro
Ready For AMD's Best
Key Features
_Supports full range of AMD Athlon 64 / Athlon 64 FX /Opteron processors
_Hyper8 Technology enables high performance _HyperTransport bus link between processor and chipset
_Asynchronous bus architecture
_Support for AGP 8X/4X
_Ultra V-Link 1066 MBps high bandwidth north/southbridge interconnect
_Support for VIA Vinyl 6-channel & Vinyl Gold 8-channel Audio
_Support for up to eight USB 2.0/USB 1.1 ports, UHCI compliant
_Serial ATA support for up to four devices
_Integrated V-RAID with RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1, and JBOD (SATA) support
_Parallel ATA133/100/66 support for up to four device
_Support for VIA Velocity Gigabit Ethernet companion controller & Integrated 10/100 Fast Ethernet
_Integrated MC'97 Modem
_Advanced power management capabilities including ACPI / On Now
_578-pin BGA northbridge
_539-pin BGA VT8237 southbridge

The VIA K8T800 Pro chipset is essentially an updated version of the very popular K8T800 with a few added features ultimately meant to increase performance and overclockability.  The K8T800 Pro supports a faster bridge link between the north and southbridge chips (1066MBps versus 533MBps), supports a faster maximum HyperTransport link between the CPU and northbrige (up to 1GHz [2.0GHz DDR]), and has the ability to run the AGP and PCI buses asynchronously.  The AGP/PCI lock makes overclocking much easier because all of the other components in the system can be run within specifications, while the bus speed is increased.  This is especially useful with AMD's latest Athlon 64 processors with the "Cool 'n Quiet" feature enabled because lower multipliers can be used in conjunction with a much higher bus speed for peak performance. Getting the AGP/PCI lock functioning properly with this chipset has taken a bit of work, however, which is why ASUS has updated its A8V and most other K8T800 Pro-based motherboards have already gone through multiple BIOS revisions.  To read more about VIA's K8T800 Pro, check out this page on the company's Web site.

Specifications Of The NVIDIA nForce 3 Ultra
Jam-Packed With Goodies
_NVIDIA IEEE 802.3 Media Access Control (MAC)
_Supports 10/100/1000Base-T _Ethernet/Fast Ethernet/Gigabit Ethernet
_Supports HomePNA 2.0 PHYs
_Advanced Communication Riser (ACR) and Communications and Networking Riser (CNR) interface support
_High-performance networking features
_TCP segmentation offloads
_Jumbo frames
_Checksum offloads
_NVIDIA StreamThru technology
_Isochronous controller paired with _HyperTransport results in fastest networking performance

_NVIDIA Firewall technology
_Industry's only native firewall solution
_Unmatched performance and protection
_Advanced management features
_Remote access, configuration, monitoring
_Command line interface (CLI)
_WMI scripts

_RAID 0 disk striping support for highest system and application performance
_RAID 1 disk mirroring support for fault tolerance
_RAID 0 +1 disk striping and mirroring support for highest performance with fault tolerance
_Support for both SATA and ATA-133 disk controller standards
_Dual independent SATA controllers
_Supports up to four SATA disk drives simultaneously
_Integrated SATA PHY with support for two drives
_Digital SATA interface for external PHY with support for two drives
_Fast Ultra ATA-133 disk driver controllers
_Each interface supports two devices, for support for up to six devices
_Supports UltraDMA modes 6-0 (UltraDMA 33/66/100/133)
_Industry-standard PCI bus master IDE register set
_Separate independent IDE connections for 5V-tolerant primary and secondary interfaces

_Power management
_Full support for AMD PowerNow! technology
_ACPI 2.0 compliant
_Support for ACPI C3 state
_Low power 0.15-micron process
_Maximizing real estate efficiency enabling small form factor designs
_Single chip solution
_Lower latency for higher performance
_AGP interface
_Supports AGP3.0 - 0.8 V signaling for 8× and 4× with Fast Writes data transfers
_Supports AGP2.0 - 1.5 V signaling for 4×, 2×, and 1× modes with 4× and 2× Fast Writes data transfers
_Supports graphics address remapping table (GART) features
_The AGP3.0 8× 533 MT/s (million transfers per second) interface provides the user with the ability to upgrade the external graphics card, thus avoiding obsolescence. An external AGP add-in card achieves higher performance than it would on existing platforms.
_AGP interface is backward compatible with the AGP2.0 specification.
_USB 2.0
_Single USB 2.0 Enhanced Host Controller Interface (EHCI) / Dual USB 1.1 Open Host Controller Interface (OHCI)
_Support for up to eight ports
_Supports transfer rates at high speed (480Mbps), full speed (12Mbps), and low speed (1.2Mbps)
_Dynamically configures slower devices for best utilization of bandwidth
_Allows USB concurrency
_PCI interface
_Integrates a fast PCI-to-PCI bridge running at 33MHz. It includes an arbiter that supports six external master PCI slots. Features of the PCI interface include:
_PCI 2.3-compliant, 5 V tolerant
_Supports six external PCI slots at 33 MHz
_Supports six bus master arbitration
_PCI master and slave interfaces
_Supports both master-initiated and slave-initiated terminations
_Bidirectional write posting support for concurrency
_Flexible routing of all four PCI interrupts
_Supports read ahead: memory read line (MRL) and memory read multiple (MRM)

_HyperTransport technology
_High throughput (8.0GBps)
_Low voltage

_AC '97 2.1 compliant interface
_7.1 surround sound audio
_Supports 2, 4, 6, or 8-channel audio
_Dual AC-Link – supports up to two codecs
_16-bit or 20-bit stereo output and 16-bit input streams
_Supports input, output, and general purpose input/output (GPIO) _channels for host-based modems
_Separate independent functions for audio and modem
_Supports ACR and CNR interface
_S/PDIF output (stereo or AC-3 output)

Although the nForce 3's list of specifications above seems much more complete than VIA's (thank NVIDIA's Web site for this, or VIA's, depending on how you look at it!), the K8T800 Pro and nForce 3 are actually quite evenly matched in terms of features.  The nForce 3 Ultra chispet, which powers the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum, is the latest revision of the nForce 3.  It supports a 1.0GHz (2.0GHz DDR) HyperTransport link, NVIDIA RAID, NVIDIA Firewall technology, and a native Gigabit Ethernet, which provided better bandwidth than PCI-based solutions.  The nForce 3 also sports NVIDIA's isynchronous StreamThru data transport system, among a host of other features.  For a much more complete list of other features, along with explanations of each, see here.

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