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| Abit NF7-S - Up Close and Personal |
| Under the Hood |
When choosing a mainboard, there are plenty of pros and cons to consider. Do I need RAID support? IEEE 1394? USB 2.0? Is there a good bundle? Although the bundled surprises that can come with a mainboard purchase, will usually not make or break our decision, it's always nice to see other hardware in the box, besides the motherboard itself. The NF7-S came with a nice bundle. The downfall to the bundle was only supplying one ATA 133 ribbon cable. I know most who are purchasing a motherboard usually have extra ribbon cables hanging around or may have made the leap to rounded cables, but it's always good to see at least two ribbon cables, since multiple hard drives have become the norm, especially with the ever increasing RAID popularity.
On a brighter note, the NF7-S has some extra treasures inside to push that ribbon cable right off the short term memory queue. Inside you'll find a very well written manual, a driver/utility CD that comes with Winbond Hardware Doctor, Acrobat Reader, and the AWARD Flash program. Nothing notable here except the hardware monitoring software, which is rather nice.
Also in the box, you'll find a USB 2.0 bracket to add two more USB ports to the back of your system. The other bracket inside, is the IEEE 1394 bracket, which has two Firewire ports to add in. Moving along we find what we've been looking for. Along with Dual DDR support, one of the hottest technologies on the market that is waiting to take off, is the Serial ATA ( SATA ) interface for hard drives. This replaces the old ATA interface, not to mention those two-lane highway cables that come with it. SATA offers higher transfer rates ( 150 MB/sec ) and a 7 pin cable which looks like fishing line, next to the older ATA cables. The only problem with this is how to get it to work with existing ATA drives. Not to worry, Abit provides its own SERILLELTM converter, which allows today's ATA drives to work with the new SATA interface. That about covers the bundle. Let's examine what's on the board itself.
Under The Scope: Layout and Features
The Abit NF7-S carries most features an end user would like to see on today's motherboards.
Pictured above we have the back panel I/O connectors and the Northbridge ( SPP ) and Southbridge ( MCP-T ) chips. The back panel is normal except for the S/PDIF out connector which is onboard. This is the first nForce2 solution I have seen that adds the S/P DIF out connector on the motherboard itself. Besides that, we find the PS/2 connectors for both the keyboard and mouse, a parallel port, two serial ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 Mb RJ-45 jack, and audio I/O. The audio offers 5 channels, MIC in, Line in, Front right + left speakers, Rear right + left speakers, and a center/subwoofer channel. The onboard sound provided by the nForce2 chipset is very good. Unless you're an audiophile, there is no need for an add in soundcard. The SPP Northbridge is cooled by a fan, which is removable if a larger, after-market fan is deemed necessary.
The layout of the board is nicely designed. The color of the PCB is plain, which is not a downfall. However, with case window mods becoming more and more common, this color will not drop any jaws. The CPU socket is placed in its usual spot atop the mainboard. The only space limiter near the CPU socket are some can-type capacitors, which may restrict the size of an aftermarket heatsink, but shouldn't pose too much of a problem. Next to the capacitors we find a two-phase power circuit. The NF7-S has two power connectors. It has the same connectors found mostly on boards designed for power hungry Pentium 4's, the ATX +12VDC power with 300W, 20A +5VDC and a 720mA +5VSB for supporting heavy loads. The power connectors are below and to the left of the CPU socket, which allows the power supply wires to find their way around the heatsink and fan. To the right of the CPU socket we find 3 DIMM slots. To take advantage of the Dual DDR configuration, there must be two identical sticks of memory in slots 1 and 3. The Floppy Disk Connector is placed to the right of the third DIMM slot. I found this placement to be rather awkward, when it came time to run the ribbon cables to their devices. Close below the DIMM slots, almost a little too close, we find the Primary and Secondary IDE connectors. The board offers 1 AGP slot and 5 PCI slots. The SATA interface is provided by the on board Silicon Image SIL3112A Controller. Abit put a big green NF7-S sticker on this controller. I found this rather odd since most would not know what's below it. To the right of the controller are two SATA connectors. The 10/100Mb LAN is provided by Realtek's 8201BL Controller and the sound is provided by an onboard 6 Channel AC 97 CODEC. Finally, the board uses longer jumpers which are much easier to maneuver than the short, flat ones. Overall, a solid design which shouldn't pose any significant problems.
Abit chose the Phoenix AWARD BIOS for their board, which seems to be the standard for nForce2 boards. Although the AWARD BIOS is more familiar to us, this particular BIOS is far from normal. Almost everything is tweakable in this BIOS which makes this board a prime candidate for overclocking. For starters, the CPU clock is adjustable in 1 MHz increments all the way up to 237! That's a lot of headroom for some serious horsepower. The only option I could not find in the BIOS was the PCI lock. This is one feature I like to see, since overclocking the front-side bus also overclocks all the other devices. However, the nForce2 seems to set the PCI bus to it's stock clock speed, asynchronously from the front side bus.
The AGP is adjustable and can be locked at 66MHz as well. To change it, all you have to do is enter a decimal between 66 and 99. There are a number of FSB DRAM ratio settings, pretty much everything from 3/3 all the way to 6/6. This is perfect for getting the most out of that high end memory. I think the greatest feature in this BIOS, is the ability to change the multiplier. This gives you the best possible combination to get the utmost performance from the memory. If the memory isn't running at its full potential, drop the multiplier and raise the FSB. All voltages are adjustable: DRAM, CPU Core, AGP, and even the chipset voltage. The CPU Core is only adjustable to 1.85v in .25v increments. Also in the BIOS is the PC Health monitor which displays the voltages and temperatures of the system, so you can keep an eye on the critical variants needed for a stable system. Overall, I must say that this is the best BIOS I have seen for an nForce2 board, to date.
Enough of the nitty-gritty, let's take a look at our setup and the benchmark results.
Setup and Benchmarking