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| Gigabyte 7VAXP-A Ultra - Packing a punch |
| Under the Hood |
The Gigabyte 7VAXP-A Ultra's bundle is rather impressive. Gigabyte provides all of the cables one would need to take advantage of what this motherboard has to offer, with the notable exception of SATA power cables. In the box, there are three yellowish-green IDE ribbon cables, two SATA cables and one Floppy Disk Controller ribbon cable. Also included were three rear-slot brackets. One bracket provides two USB 2.0 ports. A second bracket has the additional sound connectors including SPDIF out, an RCA jack, a sub/center jack, and a rear r/l speaker jack. The third bracket has a single Firewire jack, which seems a bit odd considering there are three Firewire connectors onboard. Gigabyte has also provided a case badge and a CD containing, system health monitoring tools and Symantec Norton titles including Norton Antivirus, Norton Personal Firewall, Norton Privacy Control, and Norton Parental Control. One can never be too safe these days. It's nice to see a motherboard manufacturer provide the end user with nearly everything he or she needs to get started.
Pictured above is Gigabyte's EasyTune 4 which allows the user to alter system settings. This program allows for simple overclocking of your motherboard right from the comfort of the Windows environment. For all those bios tweaker newbies out there, EasyTune 4 is a dream come true. Pretty much everything is adjustable here. The FSB is adjustable in 1 MHz increments, while the voltage control allows for changes to the AGP, DRAM, and CPU voltages. Also timings to the DRAM, PCI, and AGP are adjustable here as well. There are a few changes that require a reboot, but most simple changes are handled without even rebooting. This definitely is a nice touch afforded by Gigabyte.
Under The Scope: Layout and Features
Pictured above we have the VIA KT400A Northbridge chip and the VIA VT8235 Southbridge chip. The Southbridge chip provides the end user with up to six USB 2.0 port, which is the standard configuration on most Southbridge controllers these days. As we saw earlier, Gigabyte provides a two port USB 2.0 rear-slot bracket. This leaves one of the onboard USB 2.0 connectors open which is good for any of you that have USB 2.0 ports on the front of your case.
The Gigabyte 7VAXP-A Ultra provides three DIMM slots for a maximum 3GB of memory. This is one motherboard that allows for memory module manipulation without removal of the AGP graphics card. While some may not find this to be extremely important, it is nice to be able to swap out DIMM's without having to remove additional hardware. Dual Channel DDR is not supported by the KT400A chipset, but VIA is now unveiling their new memory technology named "FastStream64", which aims to compete somewhat with Dual Channel chipsets. Basically what VIA has done is taken the same memory technology from the KT400 Northbridge and added larger internal memory buffers to store more data going from main memory to the CPU. How does this help performance you ask? Basically the same way larger buffers help on any other piece of hardware; since more data can be stored in the buffer, there is not as much fetching going on thus improving latency and overall throughput. This all sounds nice, but it will be interesting to see if this single channel solution performs on par with Dual Channel technology. With all this data screaming through the Northbridge, Gigabyte decided to keep things cool with a heat sink and fan. Upon removing the heat sink and fan from the KT400A chip, there is a sticky thermal pad to pass heat from the chip to the heat sink. Heat sink/fan combinations on the Northbridge chip have become pretty much standard in today's motherboard market. It's definitely an advantage to have some active cooling on these chips because they do tend to get hot especially on full load.
Gigabyte's patented Dual BIOS comes standard on this board. This is a great feature to have and one we'd like to see more motherboard manufacturer's adopt. How many of us have hosed a BIOS during an update? Although it's tough to admit, we've had a few of those ourselves. The beauty of this setup is that there is a backup of the BIOS right there on the motherboard for those hairy situations which, in turn, may save you a trip down RMA Lane.
For those of you who take advantage of RAID configurations, this Gigabyte motherboard offers two varieties, PATA and SATA RAID. This is something we don't see on too many motherboards, but certainly is an added benefit. The duties of handling IDE RAID are given to the Promise PDC20276 controller. The bottom two IDE connectors ( both green ) are the RAID connectors and are not compatible with ATAPI devices. These connectors support two channels each, which means up to four IDE drives are supported. Although its nice to have this feature, the placement of these connectors is less than desirable. If you do decide to use the IDE RAID slots, this immediately conflicts with ATX 20-pin power connector. This isn't a huge downfall of course, but could tend to make things a little messy inside the case.
SATA RAID is handled by Silicon Image's Sil3112A controller. There are two SATA connectors onboard which allows for two different SATA drives arranged in RAID 0 or RAID 1. Although SATA support is nice to have, you'd be hard pressed to find any mainstream drives that offer the performance increase worthy of the price premium (one exception would be these WD's Raptor 10K RPM SATA drive, which is also pricey). Until then, it would be more fitting to stay with the lower cost PATA drives until the real potential of SATA technology is exploited. In any event, this board will have you ready when the time comes to step up to the SATA plate.
There are two USB 2.0 onboard connectors ( yellow ) which allow for an additional four USB 2.0 ports. The USB support is handled by VIA's Southbridge chip as mentioned earlier. To the left of the USB 2.0 connectors are three IEEE 1394 Firewire connectors ( grey ). The Firewire support is provided by VIA's VT6306 controller allowing for a total of three Firewire devices to be connected. Again, Gigabyte only provided a bracket with one Firewire port, but many cases today have additional Firewire ports which can take advantage of all three connectors onboard. For those that don't have those case features, it would have been nice to see Gigabyte provide a rear bracket with three Firewire ports as to support the entire board's potential.
The sound on this board is of the 6-channel variety and is handled by Realtek's ALC650 chip. This is one of the most popular onboard sound solutions found on motherboards today but is not quite up to par with leading edge solutions on the market as of late. Of greater importance here is the fact that VIA did not use its own sound solution ( VT1616 ). Since this board has come to market in direct competition to NVIDIA's nForce2 chipset, it seems logical to think VIA would give its board any advantage possible even if its something as small as sound. Not so in this case. Regardless of that fact, this is still a very capable sound solution provided by Gigabyte and will suit most end-users just fine.
The socket A is colored green on this motherboard and dubbed the "Green Thunder Socket A" by Gigabyte. Not that this will make your processor run faster, but it is a catchy name. This motherboard supports 333MHz FSB processors, including those of the Barton flavor, but does not support the latest 400MHz FSB Athlon processors. Those processors will need VIA's KT600 chipset, which is scheduled to be released this summer. Expansion slots are plentiful with one AGP 8X slot and 5 PCI slots. Also pictured above are the SPDIF in and SPDIF out connectors. Adjacent to the fourth PCI slot is the Realtek RTL8100BL LAN controller which provides 10/100Mb LAN support. Finally we have the back I/O panel which has two PS/2 connections, an RJ-45 LAN jack, a game port and speaker ports. There are also two USB 2.0 ports located below the LAN jack. This is a straightforward design as we've seen on many of Gigabyte's motherboards.
Gigabyte has chosen the AWARD BIOS for this particular motherboard. The AWARD BIOS is a very popular one and is found on many major motherboards today. This particular BIOS has the standard screens with a couple worth noting. There is one screen labeled Top Performance which is either enabled or disabled. This apparently sets the motherboard to operate at its best performance, although it was hard to notice anything in terms of sheer speed improvements when enabling this setting. Another interesting screen here is the PC Health Status screen, which monitors all of the motherboard's vital signs. There is an option for monitoring whether or not the case has been opened. There are also settings to alarm the user in the event a fan is not up to speed. Lastly, a setting to enable the CPU Shutdown temperature is here to prevent any injury to the processor from thermal over-stress.
The more interesting screens are seen here. The Frequency/Voltage Control screen is where we'll find the overclockers hanging out. On another note, we were a bit disappointed when seeing what other options are available in this BIOS. For all those with an "unlocked" processor, the multiplier is set via a dip switch on the motherboard, not in the BIOS. This may not be a big pitfall, but one that is a tad more cumbersome. The FSB is adjustable here by entering a number between 166 and 250 which is interesting because this board will not allow an underclock. Also on this screen is the DRAM Clock setting which gives four options: By SPD, DDR266, DDR333, and DDR400. The DDR400 selection is nice since running the memory at 400MHz can be achieved without having to get the FSB all the way up to 200MHz. Voltage settings are also managed on this screen. The CPU, AGP, and DIMM voltages can be adjusted. There are four CPU voltage settings: Auto, +5%, +7.5%, and +10%. This is slim pickin's here, but covers a decent range of voltages. AGP voltage settings allow for Auto, +0.1V, +0.2V, and +0.3V which is a nice array to choose from. DIMM voltage settings are exactly the same as the AGP's and once again is what one would like to see when honing in on a solid graphics card overclock that needs a little extra persuasion. Finally, memory timings can be adjusted inside the BIOS, which will help tremendously when overclocking this motherboard. One note worth mentioning here is that the "Advanced Chipset Feature" screen (where you dial additional memory timings) is only available when CTRL+F1 is pressed once inside the BIOS. This is definitely not intuitive, but is mentioned in the manual that ships with this motherboard. OK, we've seen what's under the hood, let's take a look at our setup and some of the benchmarks we achieved with this motherboard.
Setup and Benchmarking