Comprehensive VIA motherboard roundup June 2000
Редакция THG,  14 июня 2000


Introduction

Intro

The days when Intel used to dominate the chipset market seem to be over. A strong wind is blowing from Taiwan, as the VIA Apollo Pro 133A has sold considerably better than Intel's aborted i820 chipset. i820/Camino's release date had to be delayed due to problems using three RIM modules. Despite all difficulties (128 MByte RDRAM start at $400), Intel wanted to introduce their i820 chipset with force, making use of the strange and buggy MTH chip. This little chip was meant to enable SDRAM support for i820. Unfortunately, an error inside of the Memory Translator Hub was found six weeks ago. That' why Intel is now exchanging all defective i820 motherboards using the MTH against RDRAM systems or a refund.

In the past VIA chipsets didn't enjoy the good reputation that Intel chipsets used to have. Most derivatives of the Apollo family lacked performance for generations, some of them were stillbirths and others suffered from bugs. Finally however, with the introduction of the Apollo Pro 133A, VIA has been offering the most competitive chipset ever - partly thanks to Intel's i820 disaster. The 440BX chipset may still be faster at the same FSB clock, but it was never designed for 133 MHz FSB. Thus it is missing the required multiplier in order to run the AGP within specs when running the FAB?(FSB?) at 133 MHz. So far, VIA is the only company offering a Pentium III chipset for 133 MHz FSB and PC133 SDRAM support, which will change in a few days however, when Intel officially releases i815/Solano.

We already know that i815 will be able to beat Apollo Pro133A's in performance. On June 11, the Review of the Final i815/Solano Chipset was posted, verifying our performance expectations. Yet, the new Solano chipset might not be available in quantities, as Intel may not want to have another competitor for their glorious Rambus chipsets. Moreover, we expect the Solano to be a lot more expensive than the VIA products.

Details about the VIA chipset

VT82C694X

Okay, the VIA chipset is definitely fast and worth the money you gotta spend for it. The name "Apollo Pro 133A" only characterizes the North Bridge VT82C694X. It supports all Intel processors (at 66, 100 or 133 MHz FSB), PC133 SDRAM and an AGP 4x interface. This chip is able to use up to 1.5 GBytes SDRAM, while Intel's Solano will only be able to address 512 MBytes. Nevertheless, you should check the specifications of your favourite motherboard in case you should require more than 768 MBytes (3x 256 MBytes).

VT82C596B

VT82C686A

VIA is offering two different South Bridge chips, the VT82C596B and the better featured VT82C686A. Both include a PCI-to-ISA bridge, an UltraDMA/66 controller, up to six PCI slots, keyboard controller, a USB hub (two ports) and PC98 power management. The big brother also includes an I/O controller, two more USB ports, more options for temperature/voltage monitoring and PC99 compliance.

VIA's 694X is able to run the FSB and the memory asynchronously = at different clocks. For example, you can run a 100 MHz CPU with memory at 133 MHz or vice versa. That gives you more flexibility than with all current Intel chipsets. By the way, Intel's 815 chipset will have a similar feature as well.

After installing your operating system, you should both install the latest VIA 4in1 driver set (4.22) in order to get full chipset support, and the AGP driver 4.03 (Windows 98). Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000 basically do not require those drivers, but the 4in1 package also installs the latest busmaster IDE driver (2.1.47), which speeds up your hard drive considerably.

The Testbed

This article merges the results of our last two VIA chipset motherboard reviews. To make it a bit more interesting, we also included two new candidates: The Asus CUV4X and Epox' EP-3VCA. Next I have lined up all links to the boards already tested, whilst the two new ones are evaluated below. FIC sent us a new revision of their KA11 and the IWill VD133 Pro has become considerably faster with their latest BIOS. Thus you will find some new comments on them as well. 12 Socket 370 Motherboards using VIA's Apollo Pro 133A

This article went online on May 25, including the following boards:

The Asus and Gigabyte boards scored best back then. Some weeks before, we took a look at Slot-1 models: 21 Slot-1 Motherboards using VIA Chipsets
The listing only includes 11 of the 21 boards, as the remaining products are equipped with the older 693A chipset.

Back in April, we recommended the boards from Asus, Soltek, Tyan and DFI. In the beginning of May we did a Slot-1 VIA Motherboard Update, as we now got the boards from Abit and Soyo as well. Both made quite a good impression.

Asus CUV4X

Asus CUV4X

Board Revision: 1.02
BIOS Version: 1004

Lots of you asked me why we were merely reviewing the CUV4X-M, but not the standard ATX motherboard CUV4X. Im sorry to say, but the reason is the same as always: We did not have it. Now we can provide you the CUV4X results as well.

The CPU configuration can be done directly in the BIOS - just like with other Asus boards. In addition, most settings can be done via DIP switches. Using the soft setup will enable the option to alter the CPU core voltage. You may also set different FSB speed settings between 66 and 150 MHz, but the soft setup features some more settings. Thus you are able to get the most out of today's processors. For example, only few Celerons can be run at 100 MHz FSB, while they usually do 92 or 83 MHz.

There is a green LED on the board, indicating that the system is under power. You may have noticed that Asus is using a chipset called 694Z. Don't worry, you have not missed anything, as this North Bridge chip has exactly the same features as the 694X. But it comes with an integrated UMA graphics controller. For applications with little graphics demand (office and internet stuff), this solution is very cost effective, as it doesn't require an additional AGP card. We were not able to test the integrated graphics, since Asus didn't equip the board with a VGA connector.

To meet the ATX specs, this connector has to be directly below the first serial port. Thus the second serial has been outsourced from the connector. A little cable with a slot panel jack has to be used in order to make use of it. And there is another cable inside the package to enable the USB ports 3 and 4. In the worst case, using both slot cable solutions can take away two slots.

Asus uses the better featured South Bridge 686A, which entails the two additional USB ports and an AC97 sound system. There is one ISA and the AMR slot shared at the bottom of the board (left on the photo). Five PCI and an AGP Pro slot are also waiting to be equipped. The CUV4X supports up to 1.5 GByte ECC SDRAM via three DIMM sockets.

There are three line ins for the sound system, all connectors for the common Wake-up features and three fan headers. Asus integrated a PC speaker as well.

Once again, the board comes with excellent features and a noble pricing. This time, the CUV4X is not able to reach the very top in the benchmarks. I suppose it's due to the 694Z chipset, as even the MicroATX version (using the 694X) CUV4X-M is a bit faster. Stability was very good, yet I faced one SYSmark error during the tests (Excel). After repeating this application, I was not able to reproduce this flaw. Even three new SYSmark runs did not reveal anything new.

Due to this minor issue and the performance which is just good but not excellent, we won't recommend the new Asus board this time. Asus has risen their standards quite high, and of course we expect their products to get best results due to this. I wouldn't be surprised if the performance gap to the top can be closed with the next BIOS update.

Epox EP-3VCA

Epox EP-3VCA

Board Revision: 1.0
BIOS Version:

The Epox EP-3VCA comes with the VIA 694X North Bridge and the 686A South Bridge. First you will notice the yellow jumpers and the unusual placement of the second IDE connector. It is situated right in front of the AGP and the first two PCI slots. That's basically okay, but you could run into problems when using full size expansion cards.

The multiplier has to be set via four DIP switches, and there are jumpers for the FSB speed selection. To make this setup step as easy as possible, you have to set only one jumper according to your desired FSB speed. Your choices are 66, 75, 83, 100, 105, 110, 115, 120, 124, 133, 140 and 150 MHz. I'm missing some more settings below 100 MHz for Celeron overclocking.

The 3VCA comes with five PCI slots and one ISA. Epox decided to integrate the AMR slot as well. Common three DIMM sockets will host up to 768 MByte SDRAM. Two fan headers are present to attach system or CPU fans. To meet minimum multimedia standards, the board also comes with an AC97 sound system and two line ins. All common Wake-Up features are supported and 2+2 USB ports are ready for external hardware. You will have to get the required connector though.

I'm sorry to say that we could not run any benchmark so far, as the board caused registry errors in Windows 98. In Windows NT, the SYSmark could not finish due to errors as well. According to a distributor, the board has already shipped in quantities. As other people are obviously not having trouble with this board, I suppose that our sample has been damaged in shipping. We will get a replacement board within the next days and this page will be updated as soon as I have generated the results.

FIC KA11

FIC KA11

Board Revision: 2.3
BIOS Version: qm414

In the first board review, we received board revision 2.2. Maybe you still remember that we had some troubles in Windows NT. The latest revision 2.3 has become a bit slower, but it is an example of stability. Thus the advantages of this board are clearly dominating now: Great features, expandability and reliability for a great price.

IWill VD133 Pro

IWill VD133 Pro

Board Revision: 1.2
BIOS Version: 0428 (April 28, 2000)

IWill sent us a new BIOS version for their VD133 Pro. And guess what: Its performance became much better. According to IWill, revision 1.3 seems to be even faster. I hope to get this latest revision within the next few weeks, as I think IWill is still the only motherboard company which is shipping a VIA 694X motherboard with IDE RAID controller on board. Using two or more hard drives simultaneously will push up performance some more.

Test configuration

Of course we still used the same setup as before to keep the results comparable.

Hardware
CPU Intel Pentium IIIEB, 800 MHz
RAM 1x 128 MByte SDRAM (Micron/Crucial or Wichmann WorkX)
PC133, 7ns, CL2
Festplatte Seagate Barracuda ATA, ST320430A
20 GBytes, UltraDMA/66, 7200 U/Min.
Grafikkarte Asus V6600 AGP, nVIDIA GeForce 256, 32 MB SDRAM
Drivers & Software
HDD/Motherboard/ AGP driver VIA 4in1 driver Ver. 4.17
AGP driver 4.00
Graphics Card driver NVIDIA Detonator 5.08 (Win 98) or 3.68 (Windows NT)
DirectX version 7.0
OS Windows 98 SE 4.10.2222 A
Windows NT 4.0 SP6a
Benchmarks & Setup
Quake III Arena Retail Version
command line = +set cd_nocd 1 +set s_initsound 0
Graphics detail set to 'Normal', 640x480x16
Benchmark using 'Q3DEMO1'
Expendable Downloadable Demo Version
command line = -timedemo
640x480x16
Screen Resolution 1024x768x16, 85 Hz

Benchmarks: Windows 98 SE

SYSmark 2000 - Windows 98 SE

The differences in Windows 98 are very little (around 5%). As you could read in the evaluation of the CUV4X, it is quite surprising that this board is not able to keep up with its brothers CUV4X-M and P3V4X.

Benchmarks: Windows NT 4.0 SP6

SYSmark 2000 - Windows NT SP6

The fastest board for Windows NT does not come from Asus, but from Gigabyte. The 6VX7-4X is also available with three 1394 Firewire ports (6VX7-1394), but this version turned out to be slightly slower. Asus' CUV4X only gets average benchmark results this time - that's not what we are used from Asus. After fixing the stability issues with the KA11, the FIC board became very stable, but a bit slower.

Benchmarks: Expendable Timedemo

Expendable Timedemo

The Asus P3V4X is dominating the Expendable benchmark. The differences between the fastest and the slowest board are about 12% this time. The CUV4X is able to catch up a bit.

Benchmarks: Quake III Arena

Quake III Arena

Quake III shows the biggest differences between the candidates. The slowest boards are approximately 15% behind the fastest (Asus P3V4X).

Recommendations

Best Boards: Asus P3V4X, Soltek SL-67KV, TMC TI6VG4, Gigabyte GA-6VX7-4X, QDI Advance 10

The Asus boards are some of the best boards available once again; the CUV4X however could not quite reach the "Asus standard". All of them can be configured quite easy via the soft setup, whilst system integrators can make use of the DIP switches.

Gigabyte did very good work with their 6VX7 motherboards. The 6VX7-4X features excellent stability, outstanding performance and a better price/performance ratio than the Asus boards.

The Soltek boards are very easy to handle and got good performance results as well. Moreover, I expect them to be even cheaper. TMC also shines due to great stability and the best design amongst the boards of this review.

The price/performance winner is the QDI Advance 10, as it comes with all important features, excellent stability and attractive pricing.

Overclocking: ABit VT6X4, AOpen AX64 Pro, Asus P3V4X, Asus CUV4X-M, FIC KA11

ABit and Asus are very famous overclocking boards due to their comfortable soft setups and various options. Both feature lots of FSB speeds and several Vcore options, with the Abit board being a bit more comforatable than its competitor from Asus. In conjunction with their excellent performance and stability, you will get all overclocking possibilities.

The FIC KA11 is not among the fastest, but comes with great overclocking options as well. It's maybe the cheapest overclocking solution. AOpen also comes with nice features, but being an average performer, most speed freaks will likely get another one. Nevertheless it runs very stable and offers all interesting overclocking options.

Conclusion

Most VIA motherboards are now on the way to become as reliable as Intel-based motherboards, as they had some time to mature. Some people still warp their eyebrows after hearing the name VIA, but there's no reason for such reactions any more. Both Athlon chipsets KX133 and KT133 are still causing some trouble, but the VIA products for Intel's Pentium III and Celeron processors have become very solid today.

So if you plan to get a more affordable Via based product, you should not run into stabilities troubles any more. The differences in Windows 98, NT and Windows 2000 are neglectible today. Only users with more performance demand (high end applications or games) should take the benchmarks as buying criteria.

Socket 370 is basically the better choice today, but I would make my decision according to the prices, as you can run every Socket 370 processor in a Slot-1 motherboard. All you need is a converter board.

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