|Introduction and Product Specifications|
As we move into the third quarter of 2005, dual-core processors are gaining ground in the mainstream market. Both Intel and AMD now offer competing dual-core processors in the form of AMD's Athlon X2, and Intel's Pentium D and Pentium Extreme Edition. As we've touched on in recent articles, AMD's strength lies in their backward compatibility with existing platform hardware, while their price can be a bit steep for some higher-clocked models. On the flip-side, some of Intel's Pentium D processors come in at an attractive price point, well within reach of users on a more reserved budget, but may have other hardware upgrade implications. Intel's Pentium Extreme Edition weighs in as the priciest of all dual-core desktop processors, averaging over $1000 each, making it a tough sell for most.
Being the most attainable price wise, the Pentium D is an attractive option for some consumers, as are the wide variety of 945 chipset based motherboards that have recently hit the market. While the 845 chipset is marketed to the average user and corporate workstation crowd, as of late, we've seen several quality options come along from Gigabyte, Foxconn and now ABIT, all of which bring some high-end enthusiast class features to the table.
The latest 945 based product to reach our test bench comes in the form of the ABIT AL8. Along with support for the Pentium D and all Pentium and Celeron single core offerings, the AL8 aims to deliver best-of-class performance with a host of advanced features...
In typical ABIT fashion, the retail packaging accompanying the AL8 is well organized, and full of accessories. With regards to software and documentation, the AL8 comes well equipped, with a detailed User's Manual, oversized Quick Installation manual, and a another User's Manual that covers the AL8's complementary software. A quick reference case sticker is also provided to help quickly reference the board's jumpers and case connections, without having to locate the User's Manual. Lastly, ABIT includes the necessary RAID drivers on two floppy disks as well as an Installation CD that includes drivers for the AL8's chipset, Gigabit Ethernet and integrated audio as well as several proprietary software titles that we'll touch on shortly.
When we look at the other components included in the retail packaging, we find that ABIT bundled a good collection of items to help end-users make full use of the AL8's features. Along with a standard Floppy and IDE ribbon cable, ABIT provided four SATA cables and a SATA power splitter. Additionally, an I/O shield was included as well as a case bracket that connects to the board's USB and FireWire headers to add two more USB ports and two FireWire ports.
|The AL8's Software Complement|
As we mentioned earlier, the AL8 sports a healthy collection of proprietary software to help make the most of it's feature set. The three main titles are ABIT BlackBox, ABIT FlashMenu and the ABIT uGuru utility which is comprised of ABIT EQ, OC Guru and Fan EQ.
The first title we'll talk about is ABIT BlackBox. This software is meant to profile the system and allow the user to enter diagnostic information for submission to ABIT should a problem arise. The concept is equated to an airliner's black box which records all critical information at the time of trouble. While the concept is good, the software seems like somewhat of an afterthought. When we ran the software's auto-detect feature, none of the fields were filled in automatically. Apparently, ABIT hasn't updated ABIT BlackBox to recognize the board it was bundled with.
ABIT FlashMenu is more straight forward and functioned as expected. The utility is a Windows based BIOS update tool that polls the ABIT website for the latest BIOS and can update the system automatically. The utility offers a one-step update for those who want the process to go quickly, with little interaction, while a step-by-step option is available for those who want more control over the process. ABIT FlashMenu also gives the option to back up the current BIOS and update from a file that has been manually downloaded from ABIT's website. In our tests, ABIT FlashMenu worked flawlessly, downloading the latest available BIOS and flashing the board without error.
ABIT uGuru is the most comprehensive of the three titles included with the AL8, offering a plethora of options for controlling a wide range of the board's features. The first component of ABIT uGuru is ABIT EQ. ABIT EQ is a system monitoring utility that reports clock speeds, fan speeds, voltages, and more. ABIT EQ offers extensive configuration options allowing the user to enable which functions are monitored, set thresholds, and even set the system to shutdown if any setting exceeds its specified values.
The second component of ABIT uGuru is OC Guru, ABIT's Windows based overclocking utility. OC Guru, like ABIT EQ, brings a lot of flexibility to the mix, providing options to adjust FSB, VCORE, DDR Voltages and more. OC Guru also comes with several preset modes for those who want a quick overclocking experience. The Normal Mode runs the board at the manufacturer's stock settings, in this case running the FSB at 204MHz as ABIT clocks the AL8 slightly more aggressively by default. Turbo Mode clocks the board more aggressively, while Quiet Mode reduces system speeds to help keep the product running quiet by sacrificing some performance in the process. Three User Modes are also included so the user has the option to set specific profiles based on the task at hand.
Fan EQ is a robust utility offering extensive control over the system's fans. The utility also comes with several modes such as Cool, Quiet, Normal and User Defined to help fit a wide range of options. The fans can be programmed with a High and Low cutoff, while the reference temperature can be adjusted from CPU, System, Average Temp and Highest Temp.
Wrapping up the ABIT uGuru's features is AutoDrive, a feature that allows overclocking profiles to be run based on the application that is loaded. So if you want to play Half-Life 2 with the CPU overclocked, AutoDrive can be configured to do this automatically. This can also be useful if the user wants to minimize noise and power consumption by setting the system to run in Quiet Mode, then assigning more aggressive modes to specific applications in AutoDrive.
Overall, ABIT uGuru is one of the more comprehensive tweaking utilities we've come across in a long time, delivering an excellent degree of control over how the system board is configured to operate.
|A Closer Look at the Abit AL8 945P|
The AL8 comes equipped with a ton of integrated peripherals, some not commonly found on most 945P motherboards. The AL8 supports all current LGA775 dual-core Pentium D and Pentium 4 processors with 1066, 800 and 566MHz FSB speeds. The board also sports ABIT's OC strips, which are copper strips situated on the underside of the board to help draw heat away from the underside of CPU socket. The Northbridge is equipped with a custom Abit cooler, which is essentially active cooling with a vertically mounted fan that draws air across the chipset, exhausting in the direction of the CPU before exiting the case through the PSU and/or case fan. The ICH7R Southbridge is backed with a stylish passive cooling heatsink that is more for show than functionality, as the ICH7R doesn't typically get very warm at all. In the end, these features clearly show the AL8 is designed to be overclocked, which is something we'll test for sure in the pages ahead.
With four DDR2 DIMM slots, the AL8 can support up to 4GB of dual-channel DDR2 clocked at 667 and 533MHz. The AL8 offers a fair amount of expansion flexibility as well with two PCI slots, three PCI Express 1x slots and a PCI Express 16x slot for graphics support. Storage is handled by both the ICH7R and Silicon Image PCIE SATAII 3G RAID. The ICH7R brings support for RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10 along with native command queuing and hot-swap capability with a total of four SATAII ports. The Silicon Image controller drives two additional SATAII ports situated oddly near the CPU and Northbridge, capable of RAID 0 and 1, adding to the board's overall RAID capabilities.
The AL8 brings Intel HD 7.1 integrated audio to the table, with excellent input and output options. The rear console has Line-In, Line-Out and Mic ports as well as Forward, Rear and Center Channel outputs. Additionally, the AL8 provides a SPIDF-01 port for optical output while a second SPIDF-11 port provides optical input. There was also standard PS/2, serial and parallel ports for legacy support, while four USB and one IEEE1394 ports are also provided. The AL8 also comes equipped with integrated Gigabit Ethernet driven by a Broadcom LAN controller.
To help with troubleshooting, ABIT provided a post code LED display which helps diagnose the nature of abnormal behavior. By cross referencing the code with a master list in the back of the User's Manual, the LED display can be a real asset when problems arise. The goal is to never need the LED, but when that day comes when you turn on your system and get a black screen, the LED feature can be an invaluable tool in helping determine what the problem is.
Rounding out the AL8's features in ABITs GURU processor that works in conjunction with the ABIT uGuru utility as well as a dedicated BIOS menu to offer advanced control and monitoring capabilities. What is even more impressive is ABIT's latest feature, the uGuru Clock, which is an optional component that allows you to monitor board health and overclock the system externally. This facilitates the ability to apply overclocking settings while running a game, without needing to exit to Windows to make the changes. The uGuru clock is optional, and comes standard with the AL8-3rd Eye II model.
|The AL8's BIOS & Overclocking|
Driving the AL8 experience is a customized Phoenix Award BIOS that closely integrates with ABIT's GURU processor. When we first enter the BIOS utility, the majority of performance options could be found in the GURU Utility menu. Within Guru Utility is both OC Guru and ABIT EQ. A lot of the options found here match up to what we already reported on with the Windows utilities. The FSB offered a broad adjustment ranging from 133MHz to 400MHz. The PCIe Clock was adjustable from 100MHz to 150MHz while the CPU Strap could be set for 1066, 800 and 533 depending on the CPU installed. CPU core voltage ranged from 1.35v to 1.70v in increments of .025v. PCI voltage was adjustable, ranging from 1.5v through 2v in .05v increments while DDR Voltage could adjusted from 1.75 to 2.3v in .05v steps.
ABIT EQ matches up well with ABIT EQ Windows-Based Utility, allowing for exceptional control over fan speeds, shut-down temperatures and operating thresholds. In fact, we almost found it to be too much. On the voltage side, however, voltage monitoring was extensive, which is an important feature for general performance, overclocking and troubleshooting.
Outside of the Guru Utility Menu, the Advanced Chipset Features page was the next most important screen. Here the memory timings could be adjusted to your liking. The CAS latency ranged from 3, 4, 5 and 6 while the DRAM RAS# options ranged from 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Between this screen and the GURU Utility, ABIT offers a wide range of performance control options. Next, we'll put these setting to the test in our overclocking segment.
Since the AL8 is clearly built with overclocking in mind, we found the end result to be somewhat disappointing. We could not get our AL8 to exceed 221MHz FSB, no matter what. Anything higher resulted in a system freeze using the OC Guru and a black screen during POST when adjusting the FSB in the BIOS. We updated to the latest BIOS, lowered memory speed, applied conservative timings, and put a Pentium 530J in place of the Pentium D and all resulted in the same exact outcome. We've seen others report very good overclocking with the AL8. Considering all of the performance features and overclocking tools, we are confident this issue resides with our particular board.
In the end, an increase from 200MHz FSB to 221MHz is a respectable gain that will yield visible performance deltas. With a boost equating to 12.5%, the Pentium D 820 stepped up from 2.8GHz to 3.10GHz. Nonetheless, we sure would like to have gone higher.
|HH Test System & Synthetic Testing with SANDRA|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered their system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the rest of the necessary drivers and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were disabled, and we set up a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprises the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, Cache, and Memory).
SANDRA's four components reflected a common picture. With the AL8 equipped with our Pentium D 820, there were no real surprises. This particular setup stacked up well compared to SANDRA's internal database of reference systems, but we'll reserve judgement until we run a few more tests. We should also note that ABIT clocks the AL8 at 204MHz, running a little more agressive than stock 200MHz FSB, but that shouldn't lead to breakout performance advantages in the pages ahead.
|More Synthetics with Futuremark PCMark05|
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. Each test moving forward will be compared with two recent 945P motherboards we reviewed, the Gigabyte GA-8I945P-G and the Foxconn 945P7AA-8EKRS2.
Out of the three, the AL8 motherboard posted the best all-around results in the CPU module, taking close to a 90 point lead over the Gigabyte GA-8I945P-G. When we take into account the 204MHz FSB, these boards are really one par with one another.
With PCMark05's Memory Module, the ABIT AL8 maintained its lead, but the margins narrowed to 35 points over the next fastest board, the Gigabyte GA-8I945P-G.
|CC Winstone & WB 5.0: Photoshop 7 & Office XP|
To get this next batch of results, we used Veritest's Content Creation Winstone 2004 suite. Before running these benchmarks, we patched the program to its latest version (v1.01), shut-down any unnecessary background processes, and defragged the hard drive.
The Veritest Content Creation Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark routine. For more information about this test, see this page:
Content Creation Winstone 2004 was a tight race for all, with the AL8 holding a mere .4 point lead over the reference boards, who were both tied at 26.6.
PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a Business and Professional application benchmark poised to replace the aging and no-longer supported Winstone tests. WorldBench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance. Below we have the results from WB 5's Photoshop 7 and Office XP modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance.
In World Bench 5's Photoshop component, the AL8 continued to hold a minor edge over the competitor boards, taking the top spot by 5 seconds.
Interestingly, with the World Bench 5 Office XP test, the scales were completely reversed. This time the AL8 came in the slowest, while the Foxconn held the best score with a 6 second advantage. In the end, these differences are very minor.
|World Bench 5.0 - WME 9 & LAME MP3|
We continued our testing with World Bench 5, this time focusing on video encoding with their Windows Media Encoder 9 test. Once again, lower times indicate better performance.
The video encoding test seemed to run very well on the Abit AL8. This gave the AL8 an edge over the next fastest board, the Foxconn 945P7AA-8EKRS2, by 6 seconds.
In our custom Lame MP3 encoding test, we convert a large digital audio file to the MP3 format. This is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. In this test, we chose a large 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format. Processing times are recorded below. Shorter times equate to better performance.
Once again, the AL8 took the top position, but all three were within 3 seconds of each other.
Next up, we ran the Kribibench rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer. A 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU, and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: an "Exploded Sponge" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and then its enormous "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polygons.
With both the Sponge Explode Model and the intensive Ultra Model, all three motherboard's performances were on the same level. The AL8 appears to enjoy a solid lead when you look at the graphs, but we are really talking about tenths of a frame per second.
|Cinebench 2003 & 3DMark05 - CPU Test|
The Cinebench 2003 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in seconds).
We ran two sets of numbers here, one in single-thread mode, and another in the benchmark's multi-thread mode.
Once again, all three motherboards were on the same page, with the AL8 having a very slight edge over the other two motherboards. This is the first test where we can truly see the benefits of multi-threaded processing. Note how the scores were virtually halved when we compare single-threaded processing to the multithreaded processing test.
It may not be an actual game, but 3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance among similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance. This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the host processor. The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.
3DMark05's CPU module was a strong point for the AL8. Here we see the board top the Gigabyte and Foxconn models by roughly 3%.
|Benchmarks with UT 2004 & Doom 3|
Wrapping up our benchmarking quest, we lined up two popular gaming titles for the task. Using our custom UT2004 and Doom3 timedemos, we ratcheted down the graphics qualities to the bare minimum, reducing the dependency of the video card on the test, relying more so on the CPU and Memory subsystems.
UT2004 showed each of the three boards posting triple digit scores, with the variance being approximately 2 FPS from the fastest model, being the ABIT AL8, and the slowest, being the Foxconn 945P7AA-8EKRS2.
With Doom 3, we saw more of the same behavior, with the variation closer to 3 FPS between the three models, with the ABIT AL8 leading the pack once again.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: When we assess the overall performance of the ABIT AL8 among several of its peers, we find a competitive motherboard that fares well against other products of a similar mold. In most cases, the ABIT AL8 offered the best performance out of the three models tested, but its lead was fractional at most. It seems that most quality motherboards based on the 945P chipset are going to offer comparable performance across a variety of benchmarks. This leaves features and price to be the deciding factors, rather than benchmark performance results.
When we reflect back on our experience with the AL8, our overall impressions are quite good. For one, we have a 945P motherboard that brings dual-core support to the mainstream, while offering a solid retail package and complementary software bundle. ABIT did a fine job with its uGuru utility software package, which works in conjunction with the integrated processor of the same name. Whether you accessed uGuru from the BIOS or through ABIT's custom Windows-based applications, uGuru proved to be an excellent tool with an extensive feature set.
In the performance arena, yes, overclocking was not the greatest, but we are relatively certain that this is not the norm for the AL8. From a stock performance standpoint, the board competed well with similarly equipped models. The AL8 also had a quality feature set, with an excellent collection of integrated components and quality details such as ABIT's OTES cooled Northbridge and OC Strips applied to the underside of the board for heat dissipation around the CPU. Throw in the optional uGuru Clock and the ABIT AL8 definitely separates itself from the pack.
Overall, we found the AL8 to be the most attractive 945P based motherboard to come our way thus far. ABIT did a fine job of dotting their I's and crossing their T's with the AL8, showing a particular attention to detail, over and above what we've seen up until now. With a updated BIOS that addresses the low overclocking results, the AL8 would rank very high on our heat meter scale.
We Give The ABIT AL8 a Hot Hardware Heat Meter of 8.5...