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VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review
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Date: Mar 19, 2003
Section:Motherboards
Author: HH Editor
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The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review - Page 1

 

The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review
Intent on Total System Performance for the P4

By Robert Maloney
March 19th, 2003


Our first impression of the VIA P4PB Ultra, when the box showed up on the testing bench, was that it screamed (literally) that it was here to play.  From the no-nonsense black box with a guy yelling (at what we have yet to find out) to the impressive bundle within, it was clear that VIA was out to stake their own claim on the Pentium 4 Enthusiast Motherboard playing field.  Legally, it has been a mostly uphill battle for VIA, who claims that the rights to the P4's system bus architecture, were acquired when they bought out S3 Graphics.  Intel, which designs and manufactures chipsets for the majority share of P4 boards sold, would like nothing better than to keep VIA out of their backyard.  However, competition always brings out the best in just about anything, and having other capable motherboard chipsets to compete with Intel solutions, should only inspire Intel to press on in an effort to stay ahead of VIA, feature-set and performance wise.  One only needs to look at ATI vs nVidia, or the latter vs. 3dfx, to see what happens when a company rests on its laurels for too long without a real push to innovate.

The P4PB Ultra we received was based on the latest chipset from VIA for the P4, the P4X400.  Rather than step cautiously, VIA has hit the ground running, coming up with a chipset that supports some of the latest features that can be found these days,  8xAGP, ATA133, USB 2.0, and official DDR400 support.  To complement this fully featured board, VIA included an equally as impressive bundle.  So, they've developed the chipset, they built the board around it, and they have added a great bundle. The question is, will this be enough to sway over customers from the Intel chipset camp?

Let's get a look at what this board is all about.

Specifications of the VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard
A board worth screaming about


Below are the items that were included with the sample we received for review:

VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard
Media Card Breakout box
with attachment cables
Two 80-pin ROUND IDE ribbon cables
One 3.5" ROUND floppy drive cable
A bracket with 4 extra USB 2.0 ports
A bracket with S/PDIF output
Power adapter cable
I/O shield
User's Manual
Software & Drivers CD

 

Processor Support:
Supports Intel Pentium 4 or Celeron
Socket478 processors with 400/533 MHz FSB

Chipset
VIA P4X400:
VIA VT8754 NorthBridge
VIA VT8235 SouthBridge

Memory
Three 184-pin DIMM sockets (unbuffered Non-ECC)
Supports 3 DDR200/266/333 DIMMs (3GB Maximum)
Also has official support for DDR400

Expansion Slots
Six 32-bit PCI Bus Master Slots
One 1.5V AGP Slot (AGP 8x/4x)
One CNR Riser Slot

External I/O Connections
Two PS/2 ports (keyboard & mouse)
Two Serial ports
One Parallel port
Three Audio jacks (line-in, mic-in, line-out)
One Game Port
Two USB 2.0 ports
One RJ-45 LAN connector
 

Internal I/O Connections
One Floppy Disk Drive Connector
Two IDE Connectors (UltraDMA133/100/66 Support)
Four USB 2.0 headers for eight additional ports
Two CD-IN headers
One IrDA header

RAID/IDE Controllers
Promise 20276 RAID controller supporting RAID 0,1
Two ATA133 Connectors

Network Features
10/100 Ethernet MAC integrated into the
VT8235 SouthBridge + VT6103 PHY

Audio Features
C-Media CM18738 6-channel audio chip

BIOS
Award BIOS
Supports STR, ACPI, WfM 2.0, DMI 2.0
2/4Mbit Flash Memory
CPU Temperature and Voltage Monitoring

Form Factor
ATX form factor (4 layers)
Size: 30.5cm x 24.5cm


VIA Apollo P4X400 Chipset
High Performance DDR400 Chipset Platform
For The Pentium 4 Processor

The VIA Apollo P4X400 chipset is based on the company's idea of "Total System Performance", where all bottlenecks are supposed to be addressed and alleviated, in one way or another, to allow balanced operation.  This is achieved by bringing together all of the latest innovations, fusing the bandwidth of DDR400 memory with Pentium 4 processors, and supporting 8xAGP, ATA133, USB 2.0, as well as VIA's "8x V-Link" chip interconnect.  On previous chipsets, only a few of these areas may have been addressed.  The idea that a system is only as good as it's weakest link applies here.  VIA has, with the advent of the P4X400, created a chipset with no apparent weaknesses using these key technologies:

  • DDR200/266/333/400 Support: With support for DDR400 modules, the VIA P4X400 can reach a peak bandwidth of 3.2GB/s.

  • 400/533MHz Processor Bus Settings

  • AGP 8x:

  • ATA133 IDE Interface

  • USB 2.0

  • 8X V-Link: The 8x V-Link Chip interconnect between the North and South Bridges offers 533MB/s of memory bandwidth


 

Let's take a peek at the board

 

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The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review - Page 2

 

The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review
Intent on Total System Performance for the P4

By Robert Maloney
March 19th, 2003


Quality and Setup of the VIA P4PB Ultra
You could say this board has connections...

The VIA P4PB is both fully featured and a good looker.  Set off against a blue PCB, the red jumpers and secondary IDE ports and yellow USB 2.0 headers really stand out.  This makes it easier to find that jumper that you need to disable, but usually can't find quickly enough.  Even though there are many features on board, everything appears to be laid out cleanly without too much crowding of any one area.  The ATX connections are placed to either side of the CPU, far enough away to prevent hindering the airflow in and around the processor.  Also, the majority of the capacitors reside either alongside the CPU bracket or between the socket and I/O connections, allowing for easier access to the jumpers and headers.

                 

There are three 184-pin DDR memory slots, which in theory can support up to 3GB of DDR400, 1GB more than its Intel counterparts.  We did not have the opportunity to test the board with all three banks filled, and have a strong feeling that stability would be hard to attain in such a setup with DDR400 memory.  A standard gripe about the placement of the PCI slots was the close proximity to the AGP card, but this is usually the case with a board that has this many slots.  Speaking of which, there are 8 slots in total:  a 1.5V AGP 8x slot, 6 32-bit PCI slots, as well as one CNR slot.  The AGP slot uses a standard plastic retention clip to keep the card locked in place, a feature found on most modern boards.

Other device connections are provided by two ATA133 ports placed along the edge near the middle of the board as well as the floppy drive connector.  The aforementioned red secondary and RAID capable IDE ports, are placed at the far end of the board, perpendicular to airflow from a front-mounted case fan.  These ports are controlled by the nearby Promise 20276 ATA133 RAID controller, a common chipset for ATA133 RAID support.  As this is considered more of a "lite" controller, it only supports RAID 0 or 1, but not both.

Normally, the VT8235 SouthBridge would provide support for up to six USB 2.0 ports, but the addition of VIA's VT6202 Host Controller added an extra four USB 2.0 ports bringing the total to a whopping 10 ports!  Included in the bundle was a bracket that had four ports, while the other four would be well suited to be used with cases with front mounted USB ports.  Also integrated into the SouthBridge was the Ethernet MAC, which along with the VIA VT6103 Physical Layer Device provided 10/100Mbps LAN support.  Rounding out the features was the on-board audio support which came from C-Media's CMI8738 6-channel audio controller.  There are CD-in, AUX-in, Modem-in, and S/PDIF headers on the board, as well as another bracket that had optical and coaxial audio jacks for a complete audio solution.

               

The external connections included the standard PS/2, parallel, and serial ports.  There also were three standard audio jacks, a game port, 2 USB 2.0 ports and the RJ-45 LAN connection.  Add in the other two brackets, and you can see that a whole range of devices can easily be connected to the system.  Going one step further, VIA has also included a card reader breakout box, a boon to those of us with digital cameras.  It fits into a standard 3 1/2" bay and can read memory sticks, smart cards, and secure digital cards.  It would be nice to see companies move away from these three types and perhaps provide readers for some other types such as Compact Flash, which are a bit more common in cameras.  Another handy little addition, seen in the last photo, was a power adapter which converts the line from an older power supply unit, into the two connections needed for P4 boards.  This actually came into use during this review when the PSU we were using failed, and we didn't have a P4-capable unit ready to go.  We quickly dismantled an older P3 rig we had nearby, put the power adapter on, and were back up and running in no time.

THE BIOS AND SETUP:

The AWARD BIOS used for VIA P4PB Ultra was a little bland, in that it covered all of the bases without anything truly new thrown into the mix.  We found the usual options for the CAS latencies and Command Rate as well as setting the AGP Mode and Aperature Size.  Memory timings can be switched between 133, 166, and 200MHz and the CPU can be set anywhere between 133 and 200MHz.  For use in overclocking the AGP volatges can be raised from 1.5V to 1.8V in 0.1 increments and the DRAM between 2.5V and 2.8V.  Oddly, the CPU voltage choices were much more limited, only allowing us to add up to an additional 0.1V, and possibly limiting us from overclocking further.  The good news is, this oversight can easily be corrected with a BIOS revision, so keep an eye out for that.

         

         

We set up the system using all of the optimal defaults but did run into a few issues.  The system would not restart after making any changes in the BIOS.  We had to disconnect power to the board before we could get it to boot again correctly.  Although there were presets for the RAM (Fast, Turbo, etc.), we chose to manually edit the CAS ratings, putting in 2-2-5-2 with a Command Rate of 1T, and did not suffer from any stability issues using DDR333 timings.  Raising the memory to DDR400 speeds would invariably cause Windows to crash, until we set the CAS Latency back to 2.5, possibly hindering performance by doing so.  Since we were using good quality Corsair PC3200 RAM, we are fairly certain this was not the issue.

Overclocking the VIA P4PB Ultra
A little tweak here, a little voltage there, and Voila!

When we got around to overclocking the VIA P4PB Ultra, we decided that it would be best to use DDR333 settings for the RAM.  Even though the ratings on the Corsair XMS stick of DDR we used should handle speeds over 400MHz, as you will see, the overall performance was better when set to 166/333.  After having some good success overclocking Intel's i845PE boards in the past, we were somewhat at a loss as to how VIA's board would fare, especially with the limited options in raising the CPU Voltages.  As we raised the speeds in the BIOS we found that we could get into Windows easily enough until we hit 148MHz, at which point the system itself would not get past the POST until we lowered the Command Rate to 2T.  We continued on and finally reached as high as 157MHz for the FSB with the CPU VCore raised the full 0.1V that the BIOS allowed us. Unfortunately, the system was never fully stable and crashed from time to time while running the benchmarks.  We started lowering the FSB in 1MHz increments all the way back to 150MHz before we had a testable system.  While this did raise the effective CPU speed to 2.55GHz, an increase of about 13%, it wasn't quite as high as we could attain with this CPU and other i845PE boards.
 

System Comparisons and Sandra Scores

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The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review - Page 3

 

The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review
Intent on Total System Performance for the P4

By Robert Maloney
March 19th, 2003



 

Benchmarks and Comparisons
Back to the Futuremark

Futuremark's 3DMark 2001:

To get another look at a synthetic score, we chose Futuremark's 3DMark 2001 SE.  It generates an overall score, after rendering scenes and measuring performance using the MaxFX game engine, found in Remedy's popular game Max Payne.  We ran two series of tests on each configuration, once at 800x600 with 32-bit color and again at 1024x768x32, both times with all other program settings left at their defaults. 



 

There's a lot to talk about here, so let's get to it.  At stock speed and using DDR333 settings, the VIA P4PB falls right in between the two Intel-based boards we used as reference.  It's better than the MSI board, yet not as good as the Gigabyte board, which was one of the best 845PE boards we have tested.  When we went to using DDR400, instead of the "overall performance increase" we mentioned earlier, the numbers actually took a nosedive, dropping 600 points or so, a 4% decrease in performance.  This score turned out to be the lowest out of any we obtained.  Going back to DDR333, and then overclocking the system to 150MHz for the front side bus, we pushed the 3DMark score up and over the 15,000 barrier.
 

At the higher resolution setting of 1024X768, the gaps were narrower, with the Gigabyte board just nudging past the VIA board, who in turn beat out the MSI board once again.  Unfortunately for the VIA P4PB, going up to DDR400 cost it some points again, and wound up with the lowest score on the chart.  Back to overclocking, the score jumped from 12,605 up to 13,341, a change of almost 6%.

Futuremark's PCMark2002:

Another test from Futuremark that we use here at HotHardware is PCMark 2002. This test performs a series of CPU tasks such as image compression, text searches, and audio conversion to give us three scores: CPU, Memory, and Hard Disk Drive (HDD).   It is a relatively quick process for comparing the performance of two or more systems.  We ran PCMark 2002 at 133MHz FSB with both memory timings, and then ran another set after getting a stable overclock at 150MHz.  Since there wasn't much to be garnered from the Hard drive module, we have only included the CPU and Memory tests.
 

The VIA P4PB Ultra put up another good showing in the CPU module, only taken by the Gigabyte 8PE667 by a mere 9 points, which is completely negligible.  Even this score suffers, although very slightly, when the memory speed is raised to 400MHz.  On a good note, the DDR400 score was still better than the MSI 845PE, which placed last overall.  Overclocking the system gave us the all-important performance boost that geeks like us love.

In the Memory module, the VIA board got beat pretty handily regardless of whether it was using DDR333 or DDR400.  The drop-off from switching between the two was 329 points, which was down between 5 and 6 percent from the original score.  This may be another case where running memory asynchronous to the CPU just doesn't add up to better performance.


Some gaming scores

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The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review - Page 4

 

The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review
Intent on Total System Performance for the P4

By Robert Maloney
March 19th, 2003


 

Gaming Benchmarks
Have you heard of a little test we like to call Quake3?

ID's Quake 3 Arena:

When it comes to benchmarking, no other test is as well used and well known as the TIMEDEMO routine in Quake 3 Arena.  Although the scores have become more and more inflated, we still use this benchmark since it produces reliable results, and can give good comparisons between like systems and components.  We ran two sets of scores, one a "low quality" setup where the game was set to use a resolution of 640x480 using 16-bit color and then again at so-called "high quality", which was 1024x768x32, a common setup for many current gamers.

While these numbers are indeed inflated with frame rates in the 300's, we can still notice a breakdown in the overall experience.  The VIA P4PB and the MSI 845PE boards are evenly matched, both trailing the apparent king, the Gigabyte 8PE667.  Raising the memory speed on the VIA board, lowers the frame rate by just over 15 frames per second.  While this would truly be almost unnoticeable at these speeds, it still makes a point as to the lost performance when using DDR400.  Overclocking boosted the frame-rates by a clean 30fps.

The "High Quality" benchmarks followed suit, with the two lower scores having a difference of only 0.2 frames while trailing the leader by more than 10.  The DDR400 score dropped off the DDR333 score by 12 frames, equating to a 4 percent decrease.  Overclocked, the VIA board pumped out an additional 20 frames per second, although this amounted to only 11 frames more than the Gigabyte board did, which was at stock speed for the FSB.
 

Novalogic's Comanche 4 Demo:

A popular DirectX benchmarking program is NovaLogic's Comanche 4.  Since this benchmark is more CPU dependant than other games, the scores seem lower than what one usually expects from this benchmark  However, we can get a good feel for the overall system performance by comparing the results.

The scores at stock speeds using DDR333 memory, were all within one frame of each other, and ended up Gigabyte, VIA, and MSI, in that order.  Obviously, 1 frame isn't much to dwell on, and all three boards would definitely be worthwhile for gaming.  The now familiar drop-off when using DDR400, cost the VIA P4PB Ultra system 2 frames per second, compared to when using DDR333.  Finally, overclocking to 150MHz FSB, picked up an additional 5 frames per second, an increase of 11%.

Final benchmark routines and the Conclusion

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The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review - Page 5

 

The VIA P4PB Ultra Motherboard Review
Intent on Total System Performance for the P4

By Robert Maloney
March 19th, 2003


ZDBench Winstones
Playing with the stones

Content Creation Winstone 2002:

When it comes to multimedia application benchmarking, we think Content Creation Winstone 2002 is well suited for the job.  This program uses a series of popular multimedia based application to assess a system's abilities and issues a score. 

Below is a list of applications that Content Creation Winstone uses to come up with its rating.

  • Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1

  • Adobe Premiere 6.0

  • Macromedia Director 8.5

  • Macromedia Dreamweaver UltraDev 4

  • Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 7.01.00.3055

  • Netscape Navigator 6/6.01

  • Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 5.0c (build 184)

These two tests were the most perplexing for us.  In fact, we ran and then re-ran these tests a few times, to check that the numbers were indeed correct, and they were.  For whatever reason, the VIA P4PB dropped the ball in the Winstones, placing dead last in the DDR333 tests and even lower when using DDR400.  Overclocking the system raised the score appreciably, increasing it by over 2 points.  Since these tests are somewhat hard disk sensitive, as well as memory intensive, this shortcoming would point to VIA's Southbridge performance, memory latency/bandwidth, or both.


Business Winstone 2002:

Business Winstone is a benchmark that measures a PC's overall performance when running applications that are commonly found in the everyday workstation environment. 

Some of the programs it runs to determine a Business Winstone 2002 rating are:

  • Lotus Notes® R5

  • Microsoft® FrontPage® 2002 SP-1

  • Microsoft® PowerPoint® 2002 SP-1

  • Microsoft® Excel 2002 SP-1

  • Microsoft® Access 2002 SP-1

  • Microsoft® Word 2002 SP-1

  • Microsoft® Project 2000

  • WinZip® 8.0

  • Norton AntiVirusTM from Symantec

  • Netscape® 6.2.1

The trend continued with Business Winstone 2002.  The VIA P4PB just didn't keep up with the Intel based boards, regardless of the speed of the memory used.  What was especially troublesome, was that even after we raised the FSB to 150MHz, the score we got from the VIA board did not even beat the Gigabyte board, and only slipped by the MSI board by 0.1.  It really just seems that the memory timings are not as tight as they could have been for VIA's new P4 chispet. 


Our final impressions about the VIA P4PB Ultra were that its bark seemed to be worse than the bite.  That's not to say that the board didn't necessarily perform well, on the contrary it typically placed smack dab in the middle of the two comparison Intel boards.  The only exception was during the testing with the Winstones where it really fell off of the pace.  It's just that we weren't overly excited by the performance either, especially so when using DDR400.  With the memory set at 400MHz DDR, there should be an increase in bandwidth (as was shown in our Sandra testing), but this resulted in worse performance due to the inherent latencies.  Overclocking was also limited, possibly by the lack of CPU Vcore settings, and we reached only half the speed increase of what we were able to with i845PE boards using the same exact components.  We were buoyed by the impressive bundle, which catered to enthusiasts and modders alike, but these additions came with a larger price tag, currently listing at $135, on various price search engines.  With increased competition from Intel and SIS, this board just didn't shine as much as it could have, although our feelings are that VIA is definitely on the right track.  We give the VIA P4PB Ultra a 7.5 on the HotHardware Heat Meter.


 

 

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