AMD Athlon Socket A Motherboards group test review

mainboards for the ultra-fast Athlon processor
Photo of AMD Athlon Socket A Motherboards group test

AOpen has made great inroads into the European marketplace in the last few years and is now supplying everything from CD-writers to computer cases. The AK73 Pro is the company’s latest motherboard and is aimed at the high-end user. Compared with entry-level boards, it adds more advanced features, like an UltraDMA/ATA-100 interface and the ability to support processor over-clocking.

Based, as are all the boards in this test, around the AMD Athlon processor, the AK73 Pro uses VIA’s KT133 north bridge chipset and the VT686B south bridge, enabling it to use AMD’s 200MHz FSB, but not the faster 266MHz variant.

The motherboard layout is standard, with the cable connections at the front, making it easy to connect hard drives and floppy drives. AOpen has done away with any old 16-bit connections on the bus, so you have five PCI slots and a 4x AGP slot for your graphics card. The most distinctive feature on the board is the gold plated heat sink on the support chipset. This is claimed to improve heat dissipation, but we think it just looks good.

The board also includes a high level of system monitoring to prevent overheating and protect the processor. The BIOS has a built in firewall feature and dual BIOS switching. If you get in trouble or damage the chip, it’s possible to switch over to the other, which is a cunning idea given how easy it is for a flash upgrade to go wrong and render a board unusable.

Surprisingly, the AOpen board comes with a copy of Norton AntiVirus in addition to the necessary driver tools. All in all, this is a good package at a reasonable price.

For the full specification of this board, see the Features table.

Gigabyte produces two versions of this board. The micro-ATX version has only three PCI slots but makes up for it with an on-board AC97 sound controller that’s fully SoundBlaster compatible, plus an AMR (Audio/Modem Riser) card slot and a separate 4x AGP slot. This version, though, has those features plus the full complement of five PCI slots and even an ISA slot.

The board’s system bus is adjustable in eight increments, so if you fancy pushing the system you can do so in small-ish steps. You don’t need to worry about setting the core voltage for the CPU, either, as this is automatically detected. The three DIMM sockets can take a maximum of 1.5GB of either PC100 or PC-133 DRAM, and the VIA KT133 chipset handles all the I/O, with dual UltraDMA/ATA-66 IDE ports.

All the boards in this roundup produced a similar performance and represent the fastest combination of processor/motherboard that we’ve ever seen, and the GA-7ZX was no exception, although some of its features – such as the 66MHz UltraDMA/ATA interface – are not quite up to the level of the other boards. Despite this performance, the GA-7ZX is by no means the most expensive board on offer here.

If you’re looking to build a system that’s intended for continuous use, the three fan connectors should keep everything cool. Also included is a Windows Utility manager to monitor the system and a VIA 4-in-1 service pack with the necessary drivers. In all, this is a well-built board that matches Gigabyte’s reputation.

For the full specification of this board, see the Features table.

Abit has an enviable reputation, especially amongst the over-clocking community, and the KT7A RAID board has all the features to support this status. This Socket A motherboard can use the Athlon and Duron processors, with up to 1.5GB of memory. Abit has attempted to future-proof this board by using a 3-phase power system; basically a set of six transistors that enable a regulated supply to the CPU of up to 46 Amps. A little over-kill, we feel, but over-engineering never hurt anyone.

In common with other boards tested here, this one incorporates the VIA KT133 chipset that supports 133MHz on the system and memory buses. But the main feature that sets this board apart is the inclusion of the Highpoint HTP370 Chipset. This adds an extra two IDE channels to the motherboard, each supporting the UltraDMA/ATA-100 spec. Not only does this give you a choice of eight IDE devices, but it also enables a RAID-style disk array to be established.

This feature will ‘stripe’ two drives for simultaneous read and write access over a compound volume, giving a considerable performance increase. Alternatively, the drives can be ‘mirrored’ for increased data security (a copy of all data is written to the second drive, and if one drive fails the second carries on running without any data loss).

The board’s BIOS includes a soft-menu option to give you control over clock factors and bus speeds, and it’s possible to incrementally increase the FSB (200MHz and 266MHz speeds are supported) by steps and push the clock speed to higher levels.

This is a well-featured board – it even has a legacy 16-bit ISA slot – and the performance increase offered by the disk striping feature is quite considerable. Definitely a front-runner in the upgrade stakes.

For the full specification of this board, see the Features table.

As is often the case when comparing motherboards, the results tend to boil down to horses for courses. You’re not going to be disappointed with any of the boards we’ve tested here, but if you’re looking to put together a server, you may need to consider boards with fast UltraDMA/ATA or RAID functions, as present in the Abit board. Speed freaks, meanwhile, will probably go for the Microstar MSI board that can use up to 4GB of the latest DDR memory and has the very latest chipset.

We’ve used an Abit KT7 board in house for the last few months and this has proven to be rock solid. However with a similar build quality and that popular VIA KT133 chipset, any of the others should be equally impressive. Note that if you’re looking to use video conferencing or Internet phone functions, then a board with in-built sound features or an AMR slot will free up expansion slot space and save money.

If we had to choose one board then it would probably be the Abit KT7A RAID. It’s a quality board that performs well and the onboard RAID control enables you to set up four extra UltraDMA/ATA devices and use a RAID array of hard drives. Although we’d also be tempted by the Microstar MSI board just for the sheer performance of its memory controller.

But for all these boards, the same conclusion applies – the performance of the 1GHz+ AMD chips is staggering, and even puts the latest Intel Pentium 4 to shame. It really is a very competitive combination of board and processor. 1.2GHz processors can be had for a shade over the £200 mark at the time of writing, so by the time you’ve selected a motherboard and heat sink you could have state-of-the-art performance for around £350, although a new hard drive and faster RAM are sure to follow.

If you’re not too sure about the processor speed that a particular motherboard can handle, it’s worth taking a look at the AMD site. AMD keeps a complete listing of motherboards from different manufacturers that have passed the company’s approval rating to run at 1.2GHz.

A quick note: In the past, we’ve experienced problems with several of the earliest boards falling over above 1.0GHz. It’s worth mentioning that most Socket A boards do need a larger power supply and if you’re upgrading your system it may be worth considering a new PSU at the same time. AMD recommends a 300-watt unit for 1GHz processors and also recommends fitting one of the new style, deep, multi-finned Socket A heatsinks with fan. These are quite tricky to fit, though, and as they include a heat transfer membrane, you only get one shot at it. So be careful…

The MS-6341 K7 Master board from Microstar MSI is another ATX form factor board and very similar in layout to the Gigabyte board, but this one has an AMD 761 chipset that supports Direct Sound AC97 Audio. Connections for this are situated on the rear panel along with the normal serial and parallel I/O ports.

This board has four RAM slots and can handle up to a whopping 4GB of DDR-DIMM (dual data rate memory) using eight effective memory banks. These run at 266MHz and must herald the end of Intel’s attempts to force us down the RIMM (RAMBUS) memory path.

The onboard IDE controller can use UltraDMA/ATA drives working at up to UltraDMA/ATA-100 speeds, so you’ll be able to use some of the fastest IDE drives that are available. We found that overall performance from this board was way ahead of anything we’ve seen using the Pentium III or IV processor.

With UltraDMA/ATA-100 support and up to four USB sockets this board gives real value for money. AMD appears to be heading for 1GHz as an entry level for its processor range and the combination of that sort of power with this type of board must be starting to rattle the competition. Other features present here include a Communications riser slot and the usual audio and game port connections on the rear panel.

The fact that this board uses DDR memory and the AMD 761 chipset places it firmly at the forefront of Socket A motherboard technology, and it’s likely to be at the heart of many fast Athlon-based PCs.

For the full specification of this board, see the Features table.

FIC, otherwise known as First International Computers, manufactures its AZ11E board to run with either Duron or Athlon processors. It’s specified as suitable for use with the fastest 1.2GHz AMD chip using the 200MHz or 266MHz FSB.

The overall build quality is high; the board has onboard audio and UltraDMA/ATA-100 connections, plus an extra USB header for a couple of additional ports. All sound and game port connections are on the back panel as you’d expect, and it has five PCI slots and a 4x AGP slot for graphics cards. In common with most of the other boards reviewed here, the AZ11E doesn’t have a 16-bit ISA slot, so your legacy hardware will have to be discarded.

VIA’s popular KT133 chipset is in use here again, giving the board support for a maximum memory count of 1.5GB via three DIMM sockets. Twin dual-channel IDE controllers provide support for UltraDMA/ATA-100 drives, and there’s integrated four channel audio thanks to another VIA component, the 686A south bridge chip.

This is not a particularly exciting board, since it lacks any outstanding features, but it’s a good entry-level board for those looking to build a basic (yet still very fast) system.

For the full specification of this board, see the Features table.

AsusTek has produced many great motherboards in the last few years and the company’s BX series was one of the most respected. It used software switching to adjust the processor speeds and its jumper-less design was excellent for processor upgrades. The latest A7V brings the series right up to date and supports AMD’s latest Athlon and Duron processors.

This is AsusTek’s first board to support a 266MHz front side bus, and it has the capacity to handle up to 1.5GB of PC-133 memory. One of the key features is the ability to smoothly alter the CPU frequency, increasing it in 1MHz steps, which is a joy for the over-clocking community. AsusTek has also included support for UltraDMA/ATA-100 data transfer and a 4x AGP slot. In common with most new boards, the company has done away with 16-bit slots, so you get five PCI slots and the obligatory AGP slot.

Using the VIA KT133 architecture with the VT82 C686A south bridge and VT8363 north bridge controllers, the board has support for all the latest features and includes an audio/modem riser extension board and the option of up to four USB ports. The board also incorporates ‘PC Health Monitoring’, which switches off your system if the processor starts to overheat. Considering how often even modern fans can fail, this is a valuable feature.

On that note, you can connect several fans to this board, and if you’re planning to install one of the fastest processors then a couple of extra fans should keep the temperature under control. This is definitely an interesting board for anyone who likes to push their processors a little bit further than the manufacturers intended.

For the full specification of this board, see the Features table.

At the time, a Pentium III motherboard running at 350MHz may have seemed all you’d ever need, just like 640KB of memory was once ‘more than enough’. But things have moved on. It’s time to upgrade.

Buying a new motherboard and processor will not only give you the opportunity to improve your overall system speed, but it will also bring your hardware bang up to date. The latest boards support faster hard drive connections, have capacity for new RAM running at higher speeds and include features like 4x AGP to support the new generation of graphics cards. The latest chipsets can give you onboard sound and better connectivity and the BIOS should also bring you up to date with support for new devices.

If you’ve been having trouble installing new hardware, especially with a new operating system, then the latest boards are usually more accommodating, with the ability to share interrupts and other resources. You may even have the situation where your old board is so full of cards that you have to switch off some devices, like a second serial port or USB support, in order to allocate sufficient resources to use them all. A new motherboard can help solve that problem, too, via built-in components and resource-sharing.

The other gain is performance. We’ve chosen a selection of boards that support the latest Athlon chips from AMD. They offer good value for money and now use the new Socket A connection. In our tests, we found the 1.2GHz Athlon processor outperformed all Pentium 3 processors from Intel and was even faster than the latest Pentium 4 running at 1.5GHz. Most of these boards are designed to work at higher speeds than the recent 1.2GHz chips, so you should have some degree of future-proofing built in.

In each of the following reviews, we’ve pointed out some of the more interesting features of each board. You’ll find more detailed product specification in the Features table.

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Company: AsusTek

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