915P Chipset Roundup: ABIT AG8, ASUS P5GD2 Premium, and Foxconn 915A01-P
ABIT's AG8 Closeup
ABIT has a reputation for designing its boards with the enthusiast in mind, and there's little doubt that the AG8 stems from the same line of thinking. Beginning with the board's back panel, you'll find the standard PS/2 ports, one serial and one parallel port, four USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-45 interface for networking, one IEEE 1394 connector, optical input and output for audio, and five 1/8-inch mini-plug jacks.
The board's power circuitry is compact and out of the way, leaving plenty of room for the LGA-775 heatsink that Intel ships with its retail processors. Unlike the IC7-MAX3, which made processor installation and removal difficult because of its plastic ducting, the AG8 is easy to put up and take down, thanks in part to Intel's improved heatsink retention mechanism. Additional cooling is provided by a heatsink and fan combination mounted atop the 915P MCH, which complements a matching passive cooler on the ICH6-R.
The AG8's memory subsystem consists of four 184-pin memory slots color-coded to make it obvious where each module should go in a dual-channel configuration. It supports up to 4GB of DDR400 or DDR333 memory and is capable of delivering up to 6.4GB per second of bandwidth to the Pentium 4 running at 800MHz. The synchronization works well for ensuring solid performance.
Intel's ICH6-R controller hub enables four Serial ATA ports, which are all grouped together in the bottom corner of ABIT's AG8. The –R suffix also means that the ICH6 supports both RAID 0 and 1 on different partitions across two hard drives through Intel's matrixing technology. Unfortunately, while the ICH is outfitted to support high definition audio, ABIT nixed the feature, instead adding Realtek's ALC658 six-channel AC'97 codec. Realtek's RTL8110S provides Gigabit Ethernet through a 32-bit PCI connection, while Texas Instruments' TSB43AB23 PHY/Link enables Firewire connectivity with the 1394a specification (at 400Mbps).
ABIT does a great job with overall board layout. The 24-pin power cable is easy to tuck away, and the singular IDE port points away from the board for simplified cabling. Further, ABIT leaves enough space between the memory slots and the PCI Express x16 slot, ensuring ample room to perform upgrades on either device. The board's only real layout issues involve the floppy connector under the last PCI slot; the four-pin auxiliary power input, which has a tendency to fall right over the processor heatsink and fan; and the PCI Express x16 retention lever. We had two different AG8s come through the lab, and neither one of them was able to secure our ATI and NVIDIA-based PCI Express cards. It simply didn't have enough room to clear the cards' tabs to lock down.
Some of the board's nicer features include a diagnostic LED output, which really helped in the couple of instances we ran into trouble, and its four fan outputs, enabling more hardware-monitored fans than most of ABIT's competitors. ABIT also does a nice job of adding all of the headers necessary to harness the motherboard's full potential. For example, front-panel USB 2.0 headers, a pair of IEEE 1394 connectors, and front-panel audio pins are all featured.