AMD’s Athlon is starting to lose its position as the cheap yet fast alternative to Pentium 4, but it’s still a very effective processor as long as you combine it with a decent chipset and some fast memory. Until very recently that meant the Nvidia Nforce2 with dual channel DDR, however VIA has recently introduced the KT600 chipset as the successor to KT400A so there’s certainly plenty of choice available to the buying public.
As Nvidia has also updated Nforce2 by releasing the Ultra 400 chipset to support the latest Athlon with a 400MHz FSB, you may be surprised to hear that Gigabyte has just launched a brand new motherboard that uses the Nforce2. You might expect it to be a budget model that takes care of customers who want a decent motherboard, but don’t want to pay a fortune for performance, but you’d be wrong.
The GA-7NNXP has a significant new feature, however, as well as some tricks that have been borrowed from other models. The vast majority of Nforce2 motherboards only have three memory slots, but the GA-7NNXP has four slots arranged in two pairs, much like a Canterwood or Springdale Pentium 4 design. As PC2700 and PC3200 memory is effectively only available in 256MB and 512MB modules this means the theoretical memory limit of 3GB is still irrelevant, but the practical limit for this motherboard is raised from the 1.5GB of previous models to 2GB.
There is considerably more to the GA-7NNXP than an extra memory slot. It uses the dual power module that we’ve seen in other high-end Gigabyte boards to feed extra power to the CPU and ensure stability, even if you choose to over-clock. The Southbridge is the fully featured Nforce2 MCP-T (for turbo), and the board is positively covered in ports and connectors.
For starters there’s AGP Pro with support for AGP 8x plus five PCI slots. The two native IDE controllers are ATA-100, but Gigabyte has also used a GigaRAID IT8212F chip to add two ATA-133 controllers, and there are two ATA-150 Serial ATA connectors controlled by a Silicon Image 3112A chip.
On the back plate there are two PS/2, two serial, one parallel and four USB 2.0 ports. In addition there are three mini jacks for the Realtek ALC650 six-channel audio, plus dual LAN (Intel Gigabit, Realtek 10/100Mbps).
Naturally you also get plenty of extra ports on brackets. One has a four-pin Firewire and a six-pin Firewire, and a second carries two more USB 2.0 ports to give a total of six USB sockets. A third bracket is an adapter for Serial ATA hard drives which is very handy as we’ve yet to see a power supply that has a Serial ATA connector.
Despite that long list of features, Gigabyte has found room for its dual bios chip feature, and the motherboard is very neatly laid out with plenty of room around the power connectors. The only extra we could possibly want is a gameport bracket to connect to the header pins that Gigabyte has included at the foot of the board, but for those of us who use USB games controllers and have no interest in Midi, this is no real loss.
As the price of this motherboard is fairly steep, the big questions are how well it performs and how much memory it truly supports. Unfortunately this is where the bad news starts. We ran Sysmark using 1GB of PC3200 memory and an XP2600+ Barton processor on a 333MHz FSB. Performance was perfectly acceptable, but was nothing out of the ordinary.
Then we loaded up four modules of Corsair XMS3200 which is sold as TwinX matched pairs for dual channel use. The motherboard would only detect 1GB of memory, rather than 2GB. When we reduced the memory to three modules the Gigabyte would start up with the correct 1.5GB, so it seemed highly likely that the limitation was the number of banks of memory that the motherboard can support.
In the spirit of enquiry we then tried out four modules of 512MB PC2700 Crucial memory just in case the problem was compatibility with PC3200. We got exactly the same results, so while the GA-7NNXP clearly has four memory slots it acts as though it has three slots if you try to use this feature to install the maximum amount of memory. This may be corrected in future revisions of the board, but for now it’s a drawback if you really need the extra RAM.
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