ABIT's 32 Lane PCI Express Solution: AN8 32X

The ABIT AN8 32X SLI Motherboard Retail Box

     When you talk about great motherboards of the past, you can hardly name any board before the name ABIT will come up.  Some of my most exciting adventures in overclocking were done on ABIT boards.  ABIT was a name that I swore by with my Intel Pentium 4 Northwood CPUs.  Those were fun days... the Max line of boards were just awesome, and there was hardly and Intel overclocker or enthusiest that did not have one.  If I remember correctly, those were also some of the first boards that gave us advanced vdimm options without having to do any mods to the boards.  That was some good stuff!  Fast forward a number of years now, and as we look at ABIT's recent history, they have struggled, and even at one point many rumored that they were going to go under.  It was a sad day when I first heard that rumor, but I am glad to report that it was just that... a rumor!  ABIT is still going strong, and their recent merger with Universal Scientific Industrial Co. Ltd. has put them in a much stronger financial position.  Now, with a new name, Universal ABIT Co., Ltd., ABIT hopes to once again compete for the top dog of motherboard manufacturers in the enthusiest community.

We are pleased to be able to look at the first ABIT board for review that Legit has done for quite awhile.  On the bench in this review in the ABIT AN8 32X motherboard. 

The ABIT AN8 32X SLI Motherboard

Take a look at the specs:

Processor
- Supports Socket 939 Athlon64/ 64FX/ 64X2 Processor
- 2GHz system bus using Hyper Transport? Technology
- Supports AMD CPU Cool 'n' Quiet Technology

Chipset
- NVIDIA NF4 SLI X16 / NF4 SLI Chipset 

Memory
- Four 184-pin DIMM sockets
- Supports Dual channel DDR 400 ECC/non-ECC un-buffered memory
- Supports maximum memory capacity up to 8GB

NVIDIA SLI Technology
- Two PCI-Express X16 slots support NVIDIA Scalable Link Interface
- Two full-bandwidth 16-lane PCI Express

NV SATAII 3Gb/s RAID
- Supports 4 ports SATAII 3Gb/s RAID 0/1/0+1/5
- Supports SATA AHCI, providing native command queuing & native hot plug

2nd SATA RAID
- Serial ATA 3Gbps by Sil 3132 PCIE controller
- Supports SATA RAID 0/1 NCQ

Audio
- On board 7.1 CH Audio CODEC (ALC850)
- Supports auto jack sensing and optical S/PDIF In/Out

NV GbE
- NVIDIA Gigabit Ethernet with NV Firewall ActiveArmor

IEEE1394
- Supports IEEE1394a

Internal I/O Connectors
- 2 x PCI Express x16 (two full-bandwidth 16-lane PCI Express)
- 2 x PCI Express x1, 2 x PCI slots
- 1 x Floppy port supports up to 2.88MB
- 6 x SATA connectors
- 2 x Ultra DMA 133/100/66/33 connectors
- 3 x USB 2.0 headers, 1 x IEEE 1394 header
- 1 x Guru Link?

     Back Panel I/O
- 1 x PS/2 Keyboard, 1 x PS/2 Mouse
- 4 x USB ports, 1 x RJ-45 LAN port, 1 x IEEE 1394
- 1 x S/P DIF In, 1 x S/P DIF Out

The Layout

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard Review

     As you take a look at this motherboard, two things immediately stand out as different:

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard Review

     At the top right of the board, we have the 24-pin power connector.  We also see the 4-dimm slots, which are able to be used in dual-channel configuration by using either slots 1 and 2, 3 and four, or all four together.  You can use a maximum of 8gb of DDR Ram on this board, either ECC or Non-ECC.

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard Review

     Let's take a look at the south bridge area of the motherboard. First off, we can see on the far edge of the board the two IDE connectors.  I personally like the positioning of the IDE connectors in this way, as it makes for nice cable management.  We also have four SATA connectors located here.  These SATA connectors are controlled by the NV SATAII raid controller, which provides up to 3GB/Sec, multiple raid configurations, as well as native command queuing and native hot plug connections.  TO the left of the SATA connecters is our bios chip location.  Under and slightly left of the bios chip is the clear CMOS jumper, which many an enthusiast is very intimate with!  At the very bottom we see the ever helpful color-coded front panel connections, and next to them is the connector for thos that use the GURU clock or panel to monitor your system functions.  Lastly, at the top of this picture, we see the southbridge location and the slim heatsink that is on it.  This short little heatsink would make on think that there is not much heat that is generated here, but all the heatsinks as well as the heatpipe were very warm to the touch.  Something else that is worth noting is that the heatpipe actually runs under the northbridge instead of through it.  ABIT has done something a little different than their competitor ASUS here.  As you can see in the following picture, ASUS runs their heatpipe through both heatsinks before going up to the power area of the board.  I am not sure why ABIT chose to run the pipe this way, and we did not run into any problems that we were aware of, but still, we thought it was worth noting. 

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard Review

     On the bottom left of the board we see that our board is equipped with four PCI Express slots.  Two of these are for devices that connect using pcie x1.  The other two slots are pcie x16, and are for connecting your PCIe graphics cards.  The front panal audio header is located neat the edge of the board, and may be tough to get to if you have two graphic cards installed.  There are also twp PCI slots available for other add-on cards that you may have, such as a sound card or TV tuner card.  Underneath the bottom PCI slot, we have an auxiliary 12v power connector that is supposed to give increased stability for devices that are added on the PCIe slots.  We would think this would be especially needed if you are running in an SLI configuration.  Next to the extra 12v connector is the FDD connector.  This is an especially annoying location if you are someone who still uses a floppy drive.  The location will make it very difficult to reach in many cases.  This would have been much better off next to the IDE connectors if possible.  up towards the back I/O connectors is the Vitesse PHY controllor chip. 

     It is worth noting that we had no issues at all installing our video card for this review.  As mentioned, the heatsinks are of a low-rise profile and cause no issues.  You would have issues water cooling the southbridge if you chose to do so, as any chipset water-block would likely hinder the installation of the graphics cards.

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard Review

     On the top left of the board we have twp more SATA connectors.  These are powered by the 3Gbps Sil 3132 PCIE controller, and supports SATA RAID 0/1 and NCQ.  Though you canbarely see it in the picture, there is also a 4-pin 12v connector just above the SATA connectors.  Many motherboards are coming with 8-pin connectors now.  The I/O port includes the typical ps/2 connections for mouse and keyboard, your audio connections, firewire, USB and LAN.  Lan is powered by NVIDIA Gigabit Ethernet with NV Firewall ActiveArmor.  The audio is powered by the Realtek ALC850, which provides on board 7.1 CH Audio and supports auto jack sensing and optical S/PDIF In/Out.

Areas Of Interest

 ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard OTES Cooling

     Once again, notice the "Silent OTES" technology that ABIT uses.  This heatsink sits over the power area of the board, and becomes quite hot to the touch.

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard OTES Cooling

     Here we see the NB Chipset of the board.  Once again, as you can see the heatpipe actually runs under the chipset rather than through the heatsink that covers it.  I am not sure why ABIT decided to so it this way, as more cooling never hurts.  Since there is no way of increasing the chipset voltage (YET!), this should not really be a major concern.

ABIT AN8 32X Motherboard OTES Cooling

     One thing that has always been annoying to me is the locking mechanism of the AGP and now PCIe slots.  They can be almost impossible to get at when you have your board in a case.  On this board, ABIT uses a lock that is released by pushing on a lever that is on one side or the other of the card (depending on which slot isused).  This was actully much easier to me, and a nice change by ABIT.

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     ABIT also like to include an LED diagnostic so that if you have a problem, you can read a code off of the LED and find out what might be causing it.  THis is a very handy tool to have, especially if you are diagnosing a problem during booting up. 

     Speaking of lights, one last thing that might be interesting to note is ABIT's use of backlighting on this board.  Once installed in your case and fired up, thee is a nice red glow that comes from behind the board.  This will be a certain attraction to those that like to showcase their rigs with all kinds of lighting.  Take a look:

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The Motherboard Bundle

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     The board comes with the usual assortment of SATA, IDE and floppy cables, which are all necessary to get the board up and running.  It also comes with driver disks for the NV Raid ans the Sil 3132 Raid controller.  A CD in also included that contains all the drivers and utilities needed to run the board to its maximum potential.  The enclosed documentation was well done, very complete and thorough.

The ABIT AN8 32X BIOS

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Abit has always had one of my favorite bios.  I have always felt that they were well laid out and easy to navigate.  Most of the Abit boards that I have worked with have had a wide range of features and options included in the bios from which to tune your board to your exact liking, this board is no exception.  There is not alot of fanfare or new features found in the bios that differ from other ABIT bios on the AN8-32X, but let's look at a few of the more interesting aspects of the bios.

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The Advanced Bios Features page gives us the basic options of boot device order as well as to show the pretty Full Logo screen as the computer starts up.  The all-important "number lock" is on this page as well!

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Under that Advanced Chipset Features we do find something a little unusual.  This is where you will set your HT speed multiplier (1x-5x), which is not anything out of the ordinary, but you also have the ability to control the HT speed between the northbridge and southbridge (1x-5x) as well as the speeds for the reverse - the southbridge to the northbridge (1x-5x).  On this page we also find the DRAM Configuration:

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As you can see, there are plenty of areas for tweaking.  Not as many as the DFI Expert board, but more than enough for the everyday overlocker.  The available dividers are : AUTO, 200, 266, 333, 400, 433, 466, 500.

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     The Integrated Peripherals page gives you control over the setup of your USB, onboard audio, LAN, Firewire, FDD and the Sil SATA controller.  You also can set your RAID options here, using either IDE, SATA, or a combination of both types of drives.

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     Under the ABIT EQ page you find the Fan EQ, where you set control for your fans.  This comes in very handy if you are trying to keep a quiet system!

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     Also under the ABIT EQ page is where we find the temperature, voltage and fan speed monitoring.  Take a look at the voltage and temp pages:

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     One last, and very important page is the ABIT OC GURU page...

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     Here, we find some of the more necessary settings for our overclocking adventures.  The CPU multiplier, HTT clock, PCIE clock and voltage control over the CPU and DDR are all very nice.  On thing that is conspicuously absent is the control the chipset voltage.  That is something that we will talk about in the overclocking portion of this review.  ABIT gives us the following ranges: CPU clock: 200-400; PCIE Clock: 100-145; CPU voltage: default, 1.4v-1.8v; and DDR voltage: 2.5v-3.2v.  There is also DDR Reference Voltage control, the range goes from -60mv to +60mv. 

The Test System

Benchmarks and Testing Setup:

Test Platform:

AMD Test Platform

Component

Brand/Model

Live Pricing

Processor

AMD Opteron 146

Motherboard

Abit AN8 32X

DFI NF4 Expert*

 
 

Video Card

BFG Tech 7800GT

Hard Drive

Western Digital 2x74GB Raptors

Cooling

Corsair COOL

Power Supply

OCZ 600W Powerstream

Operating System

Windows XP Professional

*LR wants to thank Tankguys Computer Parts for providing us a discount on the price of the DFI Expert Motherboard.  Check them out at http://www.tankguys.biz/

     All tests were run using a clean install of Windows XP Professional with SP2. The ABIT AN8 32X used two different bios.  The first bios is the only public release bios on the ABIT web site, bios number 10 (release bios).  For overclocking, we used a beta bios which was sent to us to resolve the issues that we at Legit found while working with the board (We will explain more in our overclocking section).   The DFI board uses the 12-07-05 BIOS. For our stock speed tests, we ran everything at default timings for the CPU.  For both boards, our stock speed testing used OCZ 3700 Platinum 1 GB kit (TCCD), at speeds of 2-2-2-5 DDR400, and 2.7vDimm.  Because our OCZ 3700 PLatinum does not like using dividers, for our overclocking, we used Corsair's 3500LL 2GB kit.  Timings for our overclocking were set to 2.5-3-3-8.  For the ABIT AN8 32X we used a 3x multiplier for HTT, NB-SB and SB-NB settings.  There is no control over the chipset or LDT voltage on the ABIT.  The DFI motherboard LDT/HTT was set to x3, the LDT voltage set to 1.3V and the chipset voltage set to 1.6V.  Both boards ran the ram at 2.8 vdimm.  The video card was left at default timings as well for all tests.  For this review, stability was determined by running our battery of tests 3 times, plus being able to complete 3 passes of memtest86 and the ability to complete a SuperPi 32mb test run.

On to the benchmarks!

The Tests: Overall System Performance - World Bench 5

PC World; WorldBench 5.0

WorldBench 5 runs on PCs using the Home, Professional, Media Center, and Tablet PC versions of Windows XP. Fifteen applications (counting the components of Office XP), make up the WorldBench 5 suite.

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     As we can see, the DFI Expert board holds a slight lead over the ABIT AN8 32X in overall performance in the World Bench 5 Suite.  Let's look at the individual results:

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The Tests: Overall System Performance - World Bench 5 Continued

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     While the DFI Expert board took the lead over the ABIT AN8 32X in all but three of these benchmarks, both boards were very close in performance, and any user would be hard pressed to actually tell any difference in daily use. 

The Tests: Overall System Performance and Memory Bandwidth

PCMark05:

PCMark05 is an application-based benchmark and a premium tool for measuring overall PC performance. It uses portions of real applications instead of including very large applications or using specifically created code. This allows PCMark05 to be a smaller installation as well as to report very accurate results.

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Everest Version 2.20:

Everst 2.20  is a professional system information, diagnostics and benchmarking program for Win32 platforms. It extracts details of all components of the PC. It also tests the actual read and write speeds of your memory giving a fairly accurate look of true memory performance.

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Sisoft; Sandra 2005 SR3a:

Sisoft Sandra 2005 is designed to test the theoretical power of a complete system and individual components. The numbers taken though are, again, purely theoretical and may not represent real world performance. Higher numbers represent better performance in memory bandwidth. The chart was based off of the unbuffered bandwidth scores.

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ScienceMark 2.0 Final:

Science Mark 2.0 is an attempt to put the truth behind benchmarking. In an attempt to model real world demands and performance, ScienceMark 2.0 is a suite of high-performance benchmarks that realistically stress system performance without architectural bias. All of our testing was completed on the 32 Bit Final benchmark version that is dated March 21st 2005.

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Super PI Mod v1.4:

Super PI is a program a lot of enthusiasts use to benchmark overall system performance, as the program is capable of calculating pi up to 33.55 million digits on a timer. Many overclockers and enthusiasts are in a battle to get the lowest Super Pi times possible.  We use the 2MB test this time, as it demands quite a bit more stability than a 1MB test.  Of course, most believe using the 32MB test is a must to prove stability.

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Once again, we see that there is very little difference in performance between these boards.  One oddity was the score we got for the ABIT board in the SuperPi test.  We ran this test a number of times more than the norm just to make sure that we were getting correct numbers.  I can only assume that because of the ram tweaking available in the DFI bios, that there was something that was giving both DFI boards a great boost.  As a note, we do no special tweaking for the benchmarks of our boards.  Other than setting the dividers and primary timings to 2-2-2-5 at DDR400, everything else is left at auto or default.

 

The Tests: 3D and Gaming Performance

 

3DMark05

3DMark05 is best suited for the latest generation of DirectX 9.0 graphics cards. It is the first benchmark to require a DirectX9.0 compliant hardware with support for Pixel Shaders 2.0 or higher! By combining high quality 3D tests, CPU tests, feature tests, image quality tools, and much more, 3DMark05 is a premium benchmark for evaluating the latest generation of gaming hardware.

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3DMark06

3DMark06 is the latest version in the popular 3DMark series, including advanced SM2.0 and HDR/SM3.0 Shader graphics tests and now including single, multiple core and multiple processor CPU tests as part of the 3DMark score! We are showing off the CPU Test results as it better shows off system memory usage than the GPU tests.

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Note: We did not have any results for 3dMark06 for the DFI SLI-D board.

AquaMark3

AquaMark3 is a powerful tool to determine reliable information about the gaming performance of a computer system. Again, resolution is set 1024x768.

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Unreal Tournament 2004:

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Doom 3

Doom 3 is a great choice for system benchmarking because of its built in time demo.  For this test, we used Time Demo 1 with resolution set to 1024x768 with detail set to high.

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Far Cry

Far Cry is another super popular FPS title that seriously taxes your systems graphics. HardwareOC developed this specialized benchmarking utility that automatically runs the test twice and averages out the score. V 1.41 was used here, with a resolution of 1024x768 and detail levels set to high.

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F.E.A.R

First Encounter Assault Recon or F.E.A.R. Anyone who has played this game knows that it brings any computer to it's knees. Fantastic visuals, this is one of the most advanced graphic engines we have seen. If you haven't played this game you should really check it out. Both graphics and machine settings were on "Maximum" in the F.E.A.R. performance menu. Soft Shadows were turned OFF.  Settings were at 4xAA and 16xAF.

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Note: We did not have any results for 3dMark06 for the DFI SLI-D board.

Our 3d and gaming tests bring about the same conclusion: all the boards that are represented here are very close in performance when it comes to default settings.  So the question then becomes: What separates the boards so that you know which one to buy?  The answer basically comes down to a few things.  First off, many people are brand loyal and will buy a product from a company that they have had good success with.  Second, as long as the price is similar,  the bundle that comes with the board could be the deciding factor.  Thirdly, and this is where enthusiasts will be looking at: How well does this thing overclock?  Well, we know that price point of this board and the bundle that it comes with, so the next thing we need check on is the overclocking, so let's get to it!

The Tests: Overclocking

    *In our overclocking, we considered the board to be stable if we were able to run our battery of tests and if we were able to run the SuperPi 32MB test completely through. 

      We started out with high hopes in our overclocking adventures with this board.  Using the AMD Opteron 146 processor that we did our benchmark testing with, we knew that we could potentially reach some very good numbers, as this processor (and many other Opterons like it) is able to do 3.0GHZ with ease.  With a default mutiplier of 10x, this means we can do an HTT of 300, as long as the board allows it.  So, we set off to see if we could reach any new heights with our CPU.  We immediately started out at 300x10, leaving the vcore at 1.4v.  As expected, the board would not boot.  It took 1.48v on both the DFI Expert and SLI-D to get to 3.0GHZ, so we set the vcore to 1.5v and rebooted.  Once again... we got nothing.  The board did not even try to boot.  We spent many hours trying to diagnose the problem, trying different memory timings and dividers, trying different CPU multipliers and vcore settings.  Nothing seemed to work at all.  At this point, we actually thought that maybe what was holding us back was the lack of chipset voltage adjustment, as we were only able to get the board to do 279HTT.  Nothing more at all.  In fact, the board did not even try to boot at 280 or above.  After several conversations with ABIT explaining the situation, we were sent a beta bios to test with the board, and the 279 limitation was gone!  Bravo ABIT for listening and producing a new bios to correct issues in a timely manner!  At this point, we are not sure if it was an Opteron issue or an issue with any CPU, but whatever it was, it is fixed!

     So, what did the new bios do for us?  It allowed us to get into some real overclocking!  With the new bios in place, we were able to easily run at an HTT of 300 with our Opteron at its default multiplier of 10x.  Lowering the multiplier to 9x, we continued on and were able to reach an astounding HTT of 325.  We lowered the multiplier again, but no matter how low we went, it seems as if 325 was our limit.  Can the board do more?  Possibly.  If ABIT would put into a new bios the ability to raise the chipset voltage, we might be able to squeeze just a little more out of this board.  So, our final and best at overclocking this board as it stands right now is represented in the following picture:

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Conclusion

The ABIT AN8 32X SLI Motherboard

Well, what can we say about this latest offering from ABIT?  Initial impressions can often be misleading.  When I first started using the board, I was highly disappointed.  I got random reboots for no apparent reason, and worked several hours to find that the DDR slots 1 and 2 were buggy.  Once we switched the ram to 3 and 4, all was fine.  Problem one solved!  Well, solved for the purpose of benchmarking at least, as slots 1 and 2 were still unusable.  So, I was able to run all the tests and then move on to the overclocking portion of the review.  Once again, great disappointment set in when I reached a wall at HTT 280.  And once again, much time was spent to find out that the wall did exist.  ABIT was contacted about the issue, and a couple days later we had another bios in hand that not only fixed the 280 wall, and allowed our Opteron processor to reach its full potential, but the bios also seemed to fix the issues we were having with the buggy memory slots (though I still think that slots 3 and 4 are more stable).  So, our initial impressions had to be thrown out, and we were able to get a fresh look at the board, and were we glad!

This board is a fantastic offer from ABIT.  Though we had the issues that we did, ABIT came through and fixed them, and once again, I would like to congratulate ABIT for staying in contact with us, listening to our concerns, and then giving us a viable solution to the problem. 

This board was able to compete with what is considered the best overclocking board out there, in the DFI Expert.  At stock settings, there is little to no difference between the boards.  So, what about overclocking?  I was able to match the best that the Opteron 146 has been able to do on the Expert board in total speed of the processor.  The ABIT at an HTT of 325 was not quite as high as we were able to reach on the DFI, which did 350+ HTT with total stability.  I think the thing that makes the difference in total HTT speed is that the ABIT has no control over the chipset voltage while the DFI does (and we did have to raise the chipset voltage to get he HTT over 350 on the DFI).  ABIT may be reluctant to produce a bios that has that chipset voltage control due to the fanless heatpipe design.  But any enthusiast that will run this board will mod the board for extra cooling that would take care of any heat issues that might be produced by raising the chipset voltage.  We will certainly be in contact with ABIT again about this, and will post an update to this review if they do indeed come through with a new bios that includes this option. 

For me personally, it is good to see ABIT producing a board that competes with the the top performing boards.  As mentioned, the competeing is not in the stock settings, but in price, the included bundle, and in the arena of overclocking.  I am hoping that ABIT will continue to push forward, and with their new financial backing, be a leader in innovation and in giving the enthusiast what he wants.  You will not be a disappointed customer if you decide to open a box from your favorite retailer that includes a shiny new ABIT AN832X!

The Legit Bottom Line

At around $190, this board by ABIT is designed to compete with the likes of the DFI Expert and the ASUS AN832-SLI Deluexe.  All three are at the same price point.  If you are going to run it at default settings, then you might as well flip a coin between any NF4 board, as most NF4 boards we have tested offer very similiar performance at stock.  If you are an overclocker, the ABIT is no slouch, and comes very close to the top overclocking performance of the DFI.  ABIT would likely have a little better success getting those looking to buy a DFI board to jump ship and look at this board if they would price it just a little lower.