Athlon motherboards group test review

the latest boards with the latest features
Photo of Athlon motherboards group test
£79 + VAT

Built around the VIA KT333 Northbridge and the VIA VT8233A Southbridge, AOpen’s AK77-333 uses the now familiar AOpen “Black Beauty” PCB and can support ATA/133 as well as DDR333.

The AK77-333 is a jumperless design with all the system adjustments being made in the BIOS. This leaves the board well laid out, with plenty of space around each component. In addition, this is a board that doesn’t have the graphics card sitting in the way of the memory locking latches, so you can swap and replace memory without removing the graphics card first – quite a rarity. The AGP slot also has a retention device to hold the graphics card in place.

There’s plenty of space around the CPU socket so you can fit all but the largest of CPU coolers. Also well thought out is the placement of the IDE and floppy connectors, neatly located on the edge of the board, allowing for tidy cable runs.

As for expansion, the AK77-333 has all the standard slots; AGP 4X, five PCI and the dreaded CNR slot along with three DIMM slots that support up to 3GB of PC2700 memory. There is also a six port USB 2.0 controller. The board also handles 5.1 audio but, unfortunately, although the headers for SPDIF connectors are present on the motherboard, no separate back bracket with the necessary ports is supplied. In all other respects, though, this is a powerful, good value motherboard.

The SL-75DRV5 is the latest in the Soltek DRV series of popular and fast motherboards. Based on the VIA KT333 chipset, it utilises the new DDR333 technology and supports ATA/133 hard drives. It’s built on Soltek’s “Purple Ray” PCB.

This board is not as feature rich as some in this group test, but not everyone wants the expense of RAID, Bluetooth and other relatively new features. Layout wise, the board is well thought out and well designed. There’s plenty of room around the CPU for larger coolers and the DIMM slots are well placed and don’t interfere with the 4X AGP slot.

For those who want extra fans there are three extra 3-pin connectors on the board. However, for some strange reason a long power cable has been used for the Northbridge fan; so long in fact that it untidily winds around capacitors to get it out of the way.

If you want to tweak the SL-75DRV5, then you’ll have to manually alter the Dip switches for the clock multipliers, AGP and DIMM voltages, since there’s nothing in the BIOS to help you.

Soltek provides several utilities with the SL-75DRV5. These include PC-Cillin 2000, Virtual Drive 6, Partition Magic 6.0 SE and Drive Image 4. There’s also an excellent motherboard manual and – full marks to Soltek for this – a separate manual for all the bundled software applications.

The SL-75DRV5 has great performance and offers good value for money. If you don’t want the added cost of IDE RAID and USB 2.0 then it’s well worth a look.

Abit’s AT7 is unlike any motherboard you may have seen in the past (with the exception of the IT7, the AT7′s Intel sibling). One look at the I/O back plate tells you all you need to know – there are no legacy ports.

Instead of the serial and parallel ports that are usually found at the rear, there are four USB1.1 and two USB2.0 ports along with two IEEE1394 FireWire ports. Joining these to complete the back panel line-up are the audio connectors for the 5.1 integrated audio chip – line-in, center/sub, surround and front speakers plus Mic-in. There’s also a LAN port.

The other thing that catches the eye is the number of IDE ports; six in all. Two are Ultra ATA 33/66/100/133 channels with support for up to four devices, and four channels are supplied for the integrated ATA/133 RAID setup which can support up to eight Ultra ATA 33/66/100/133 devices. All of which means the AT7 can support up to a staggering twelve – yes twelve – drives.

The RAID setup is controlled by a HighPoint HPT374 controller, which enables RAID 0 (striping mode for boosting performance), RAID 1 (mirroring mode for data security) and RAID 0 + 1 (striping and mirroring for the best of both worlds).

The AT7 is built around VIA’s latest KT333 / VT8233A Northbridge / Southbridge combination and provides four DIMM sockets that can take up to 3GB of either PC1600, PC2100 or the latest PC2700 DDR333 memory. It’s definitely a powerful, feature rich board.

One of the latest boards to come from Gigabyte is the feature rich 7VRXP, based around the VIA KT333 chipset. The board comes with Dual BIOS, USB2.0, RAID and integrated LAN. The Dual BIOS set up is a useful feature; if the original one gets attacked by a virus or damaged by careless flashing (we’ve all done it), your system will still boot up as the board automatically switches to the second BIOS chip. This could potentially save you a lot of time and hassle.

A colourful beastie is the 7VRXP, since the PCB is blue, the IDE connectors are green and white, the RAID connectors are green and even the USB headers are colour coded; orange for USB2.0, black for USB1.1. As well as looking pretty (how sad?), this also makes life easier when connecting peripherals and components.

The 7VRXP supports four channels of ATA/133 via the normal connectors and usefully the RAID, which is also ATA/133, is controlled by a Promise PDC2076 chip. This can be switched from RAID to normal IDE at the flip of a Dip switch.

A nicely laid out board, the 7VRXP has some neat design touches – all the IDE and floppy connectors, including the RAID, are placed along one edge of the board, allowing for tidy cable runs. Joining these are the ATX power connector, one USB1.1 header and the headers for Smart Card, Compact Flash/Smart Media readers, although no actual readers are included in the package.

The Gigabyte 7VRXP is a stable board that performs well and has a useful fail-safe BIOS, with the added attraction of being able to switch the RAID controller to normal IDE mode.

Although it may be a new name to some, ECS has been around for quite some time, mainly in the OEM and system assembler markets. This version 3 of their popular Socket A based K7VTA3 motherboard comes with the VIA KT333 chipset and DDR333 support. Compared to some of the other boards in this review, the K7VTA3 isn’t really designed to be an overclockers board, which makes it quite easy and straightforward to setup.

The board itself is tidily laid out with plenty of space around each component. Even the CPU socket has enough space around it to fit a larger aftermarket cooler, and the DIMM slots are far enough away from the AGP slot as not to interfere with the memory locking latches. A nice design touch is that small metal tabs have been installed on each side of the CPU socket, protecting the motherboard from scratches caused by the slip of a screwdriver when mounting the cooler.

There are also two fan connectors on the board, both of which are controlled by the hardware monitoring system. On the downside, the ATX power connector is positioned behind the audio and game ports so the power cables have to be contorted around the CPU.

The installation CD, besides having all the drivers needed for the board, has a useful collection of utilities on it; a program for flashing the BIOS, Adobe Acrobat Reader, online user’s manual, PC-Cillin, CDghost, MediaRing Talk, Genesys, and Language Genius. This is a simple, workmanlike board with a price to match.

As is the norm with Asus boards, the A7V333 is littered with jumpers and the usual Dip-switches. With these and the BIOS, the board can be finely tuned to get the best possible performance.

As for features, it’s difficult to know what else you could get on the board. The line-up includes RAID 0-1, six-channel sound, USB 2.0, ATA/133 and IEEE-1394 FireWire, not to mention the headers for Memory Stick, SD Card and Smart Card support.

Probably the most important feature of this board is what Asus calls COP; CPU Overheating Protection. This shuts down the processor should it begin to overheat, so no more fried Athlons, thank you.

Both the normal IDE channels and the RAID channels are capable of running at ATA/133; the RAID is controlled by the much used Promise 20276 chip.

Asus always includes a good software bundle with its boards. With the A7V333, along with the board drivers you get Asus PC Probe, Asus Liveupdate, Cyberlink Power Player, PC-Cillin 2000 antivirus, ITE GSM editor and the Winbond voice editor. Asus includes an excellent 118-page manual that has all the usual setup details, plus details on how to set up the RAID. A quick reference card is also included for common settings.

If there’s anything wrong with the A7V333, it’s the fact that there are almost too many features and options, so it takes a careful read through the manual if you’re going to get the best out of it.

The KT3 Ultra-ARU is about as feature laden as you could want a motherboard to be; the only thing missing is integrated LAN. The KT3 supports DDR333/PC2700 memory and ATA133 drives. Also featured are a Promise PDC20276 ATA133 RAID controller, a diagnostic panel, 6-channel Realtek AL650 integrated audio, a Bluetooth controller, Live BIOS, Fuzzy Logic III and PC Alert III technology.

Well designed and laid out, the board has plenty of room around the CPU socket should you wish to fit a larger cooler, so overclockers will love this board. The Northbridge chipset is also fan cooled, although the power connector is to the left of the CPU fan so it needs some care in routing the power cables.

The two standard IDE channels and the floppy channel are up about mid-height of the motherboard but the positioning of the RAID channels may cause a few headaches to people with tall PC cases, as they are placed towards the bottom of the board.

The MSI KT3 Ultra ARU is another of those RAID-equipped boards where the RAID controller can be switched to support normal IDE operations, so you don’t have to set up raid arrays if you don’t want to. Also integrated into the board are four USB2.0 and four USB1.1 ports giving plenty of scope for external drives and memory solutions.

The MSI KT3 Ultra ARU performs well and offers a lot for your money, being the first board to offer both Bluetooth and USB2.0 support in addition to its many other features.

Once upon a time, you bought a new motherboard purely as a home for your shiny new processor, and although that may still be true for most people, today’s motherboard designs have so many features that it’s possible to keep your old processor and completely upgrade your system just by swapping the motherboard for one with more features.

For example, more and more motherboard manufacturers are bringing out motherboards with integrated RAID, 5.1 audio, and USB2.0 and in the case of MSI, even integrated Bluetooth support.

At the moment, the AMD Athlon XP+ is losing out in the performance race to Intel’s “Northwood” Pentium 4, and to combat this, chipset manufacturers have quickly developed chipsets that support the latest and fastest speed of DDR memory – PC2700 or DDR333. Having said that, the full benefit of PC2700 for AMD chips won’t be recognised until the FSB of the processor moves up to 166MHz from its present 133MHz.

The latest chipset for AMD’s Socket A processors – Athlon, Athlon XP and Duron – is from VIA Technologies, the KT333. This isn’t a completely new design, but rather an update of VIA’s very successful KT266A chip. What’s been added is a new memory controller which adds DDR333 support to the existing DDR200 and DDR266 memory options. ATA/133 support has also been added thanks to the updated VT8233C Southbridge.

Here we take a look at seven of the latest Socket A boards that incorporate VIA’s new chipset, to see just how much can be crammed onto one PCB. All the boards can handle every Socket A processor in the AMD range, so all that matters is the surrounding spec.

Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

As we’ve already noted, all the boards tested here will handle anything of a Socket A nature that you’d care to throw at them – Duron, Athlon, Athlon XP, etc.

More than ever before, then, motherboard selection comes down to what features you actually need or may need in the near future. A point worth noting is that although most of the boards we looked at are feature-laden, many manufacturers do also offer a basic version of their board, so it is worth looking on their Web sites if you’re after a more simple, less expensive option

Another point to take into consideration is that neither ATA/133 nor DDR333 are the ultimate performance boosters that some of the manufactures like to claim. Only one hard drive manufacturer, Maxtor, produces ATA/133 hard drives and their advantage in normal everyday use over ATA/100 is hardly noticeable. The only time the increase in bandwidth comes into effect is when such drives are set up in a RAID array. Similarly, DDR333 isn’t that much faster than the previous DDR2100 memory, although if you’re a real hardcore speed freak then every little bit helps.

As for the boards themselves, Abit’s AT7 shows one direction that motherboard design may go towards in the near future, namely legacy-free. It is a brilliantly designed board, but expensive, full of features that most people won’t ever need and only really worth investing in if you have lots of USB devices and use your PC for large file applications, such as video editing. If so, the 4-disk RAID array would be of major benefit.

It is hard to recommend a single, general purpose board out of all we’ve reviewed here, because such a decision is largely dependant on what you want out of your PC, but for all round ease of configuration and stability we’d opt for either the feature-laden MSI KT3 Ultra or the more basic Soltek SL75-DRV5. Rest assured, though, that there were no lemons in this group test; every board we tested performed well and did what it was supposed to do.

Company: Gigabyte


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