Tuned Engine With Some Trouble Inside?
Since the introduction of the successful Apollo KT133 chipset made for Duron and Athlon CPUs we had to wait a long time for a feature that is supported by Intel platforms since June 2000 - UltraATA/100 for hard disks. Until now the KT133, also known as VT8363, only supported UltraATA/66 using the south bridge VT82C686A. Now VIA finally started shipping the new south bridge VT82C686B. This chip is pin-compatible to the 'A'-version and can therefore fully replace the 686A without any major technical effort. Five new SocketA motherboards with 686B from AOpen, Biostar, Luckystar, MSI and Soltek arrived in our lab and we tested them extensively.
We would like to mention that none of those motherboards is able to support the new Athlon with 133 MHz (266 MHz DDR) FSB. This new feature will be implemented into a new league of motherboards with VIA's upcoming KT133A chipset. Those motherboards will still use PC133 SDRAM with single data rate. They will become available early next year.
The Difference Between 686A and 686B
There is not much to be said about the Southbridge VT82C686B. The circuit diagram is nearly identical with VT82C686A except for the added UltraATA/100 function.
The pins of the 686B-chipset are fully compatible with 686A. Theoretically, boards designed for 686A could be equipped with 686B as well. Most of the manufacturers do that and change the name of the board in order to display the new UltraATA/100 feature. AOpen, Luckystar or MSI call it "Pro" and Soltek adds an "X" to the original name. Only Biostar seems to think that it is not necessary to show the difference between the three different M7VKB boards to the customers. You can get this product with UltraATA/66 as well as UltraATA100.
The Disk Data Tranfers Rates Of 686A and 686B
We checked the maximum data transfer rate with an ATA/100-hard disk connected to the 686A and 686B. We compared each VIA-chipset with its counterpart from Intel. The following results represent the data transfer rate when reading data from the hard disk's cache memory modules, not the actual physical disks.
We already expected that, due to the overhead, the transfer protocol would not reach the theoretically possible 66 and 100 MByte/s. ATA66 reaches 55-57 MB/s, so the overhead-loss is about 13 - 15%. The results of ATA100 are slightly worse. With 15 and 17 % respectively overhead compared to the theoretical maximum, the effectiveness is very similar ATA/66.
What do these results mean in practical life? First we have to know the influence of basic hard drive performance numbers on overall system performance. These are the sustained transfer rates and access times. The sustained transfer rate is the maximum transfer rate of data coming from the actual platters (disks), which is also known as disk-to-interface speed. This should not be mixed up with the much higher maximum transfer rate of data coming from the cache chips (cache-to-interface speed), which is obviously the preferred number quoted by marketing departments of hard disk manufacturers. In real life the hard drive cache can only show its strength in certain applications.
Modern hard disks offer a sustained data transfer rate of 35 MByte/s and more. Therefore, the UltraATA/66 should have some reserves left. We expect marginal performance increases in business applications when using ATA100 with the 686B, as reported by Sysmark 2000. We do not expect any improvement with games and OpenGL benchmarks because hard rive performance doesn't have any impact on frame rates.
Do not forget to cool your AMD-CPU
What coronary heart disease is to male Westerners is thermal meltdown to Athlon and Duron processors - it's killer number one. AMD either forgot or didn't care to implement a thermal protection into their latest processors. Unlike Intel, which integrated a thermal diode as well as a CPU-shutdown mechanism in all its processors already several years ago, AMD left this idea aside. What does that mean? If the heat sink is loose or mounted improperly or the fan quits its job the thermal diode integrated in Celeron and Pentium III makes sure that the processor will be turned off when the temperature goes beyond 120°C. In this situation, Athlons and Durons play 'burn-baby-burn' instead. Motherboard makers have now started to implement thermal sensors that are placed underneath the AMD-processors. It is questionable if this can ensure enough safety however, because the Athlon/Duron might already be dead by the time that the thermal sensor has reached shutdown-temperature, due to its distance to the actual processor-die. It is better than no protection at all, however.
Biostar and Luckystar place a spherical thermistor under the CPU.
Soltek uses a heat sensitive foil resistor.
AOpen AK73 Pro
BIOS-Version: 8th November 2000
When we unpacked this board we were positively surprised. The AK73 Pro has a special mounting clip for the AGP card. This way the graphics card cannot slip out unintentionally. An AGP-Pro slot is optional. It is one of the first boards for Athlon and Duron-CPUs that's equipped with the new Southbridge 686B. Both IDE channels therefore support ATA/100 hard disks. Furthermore, this board uses ACPI (Suspend to Ram) and S4 (Suspend to Disk) - a great advantage for quick booting.
Just as on the AK33, AOpen uses several LEDs for easy boot-up errors diagnosis. In case of an error during installation (with the case opened) the 8 LEDs provide you information about the current boot status. This process is supported by verbal help from "Dr. Voice". In order to enjoy this feature you need to enter the BIOS setup and choose English language first though. Otherwise you might have trouble understanding the Chinese Dr. Voice coming out of the small speaker.
You can change the multiplier for the CPU via Dipswitches on the board or in the BIOS. Overclockers have to use an AMD-processor with closed
Maximum RAM on this board is 1.5 GByte and you can put PC100, PC133, SDRAM or VCM into the three memory slots. You can use this all-round board for every purpose thanks to 5 PCI slots, Sound (with AD1885 codec) onboard, Wake-on-LAN and Wake-on-Modem. 4 USB ports complete the equipment of the AK73. Unfortunately, the cable for the 2 additional USB ports is missing.
BIOS-Version: 31st October 2000
If you are looking for a BIOS update at the well structured Biostar-Europe website you will find out that version VKB1006R is the latest one available. The technical information about this board is a bit obscure. According to the website there are two models of the M7VKB available. One comes with 686A-ATA/66 Southbridge and the other with an additional HPT370 controller for ATA/100. It was the third and undocumented version of the M7VKB with 686B-Southbridge that reached us. This policy will lead to some confusion. If there is one product name with three different models, Biostar should stress this fact a bit more.
The system bus clock can only be changed in the BIOS because the spaces for the Dipswitches as well as for the Wake-on-modem connector were not equipped. FSB can be changed from 100 to 140 MHz in steps larger than 1 MHz. CPU voltage varies in a small range between 1.775 to 1.85 V. The chipset is made for 1.5 GByte but this board only can take 768 MByte, which will be enough in most cases.
A letter-sized Quick Guide leaflet is sufficient in order get this board started. For further information you have to take a look into the manual or on the additional CD. We think it's worth mentioning that the slot cable for USB port 3 and 4 is shipping with the board. Most other manufacturers don't supply this cable, although they praise their products for their support of 4 USB-slots. The Creative CT5880 sound chip offers enough quality to enjoy your music. In order to install your expansion cards there are 5 PCI slots available.
Luckystar KT133 Pro
BIOS-Version: 25 November 2000
The KT133 Pro offers some uncertain possibilities to overclock the CPU. You can choose an FSB clock between 90 and 160 MHz. Settings less than 100 MHz are useless as well as over 115 MHz because no user would underclock his processor, while Athlon or Duron processors clocked above 110 MHz won't run reliably. It would make more sense if it were possible to tune this board in steps of 1 MHz from 100 to 115 MHz. The multiplier of the CPU can be adjusted via Dipswitches or directly in the BIOS, but the only factors range from 5 to 8.5. Therefore, it is impossible to overclock a Duron 600 (multiplier 6x) to 1 GHz (multiplier 10x). The adjustable DRAM voltage settings, which can be changed with jumpers from 3.3 to 3.6 V, could be an advantage. In case of an error you do not need your postcode card any more. That means only if you can understand the Japanese or English words coming out of the onboard speaker. Indeed, you have to listen very carefully in order to understand the croaking of the Voice Diagnostic Function. On the Luckystar website you can find the latest BIOS A2.
Apart from the new 686B-southbridge the KT133 Pro is equipped with an AGP-Pro-slot. The 'pro'-area of this slot is sealed in order to protect your VGA card from an electric overdose. Furthermore, four cooler headers guarantee good cooling.
You can equip this board with 1.5 GByte RAM and it comes with 5 PCI and even 1 ISA slot. This board belongs to the middle class together with other boards. Unfortunately no cable for two extra USB ports will be delivered with the KT133 Pro.
MSI K7T Pro2-A
The K7T Pro2-A allows the adjustment of the system bus in 1MHz steps. However, the options for this in the BIOS are not very user-friendly. Furthermore, you can change the multiplier between 5.5X and 12.5X. There is one tiny shortcoming. Due to space restrictions you have to close the DIMM sockets 1 and 2 to install your VGA card. Installing more memory can become a though challenge too. The voltage of the DIMMs can be adjusted between 3.3 to 3.6 V. The new 686B-Southbridge integrated on the K7T Pro2-A makes an additional UltraATA/100 controller unnecessary.
Finding boot-up errors is an easy task thanks to four diagnostic LEDs. A detailed list of the different signals during booting or in case of an error can be found in the well-structured manual. Six PCI slots give you a lot of upgrade space, which is one reason more why the K7T Pro2-A belongs to the preferred motherboards.
Finally there is one thing left to say: There is already a BIOS update on the MSI website. Version 2.01 (12/2000) contains write protection for Windows 95, new algorithms for DRAM SPD timing and it solves problems with energy saving under MS-DOS. The L2 cache size will now be recognized correctly as well.
BIOS-Version: 25. November 2000
Another board with UltraATA/100 is Soltek's SL-75KV2-X. Multiplier as well as FSB clock can be adjusted with the help of Dipswitches. Therefore it is made for overclocking: If you take a look into the BIOS-setup you will find out that you can add 28 MHz to the default FSB-clock of 100 MHz in 1 MHz steps. Therefore, this board offers a lot of opportunities for tuning.
The SL-75KV2-X has an AGP-Pro slot and again the Japanese and English speaking Voice Diagnosis. Unfortunately there is no list of the spoken words in the manual. So it is hard to find out what the small onboard speaker says when it is talking to you.
You can upgrade your memory up to 768 MB and the DIMM voltage (3.6 V maximum) as well as the CPU Vcore (1.85 V) is adjustable in the BIOS. There is a temperature sensor built in the socket in order to monitor the activity of the CPU. The data will be checked by the BIOS.
The ICE1232 sound codec is only sufficient for simple applications. For multimedia you should use real sound card. The 75KV2-X is equipped with 1 ISA, 5 PCI and 4 USB ports. A cable for the second COM port is included; the additional USB cable is missing however. This board does not contain any AMR or CNR slots.
Test Methodology and Configuration
In this test we use the same hardware as in our first
|CPU||AMD Athlon 1.0GHz|
|RAM||1x 128 MByte SDRAM (Crucial)
PC133, 7ns, CL2
|Hard disk||Seagate Barracuda ATA, ST320430A
20 GBytes, 7200 U/Min
|Graphics card||Asus V7700 AGP, nVIDIA GeForce2 GTS, 32 MB DDR SDRAM|
|Drivers & Software|
|HDD/Motherboard/ AGP drivers||VIA All-in-One 4.23|
|Graphics card||NVIDIA Reference drivers 5.23|
|Operating System||Windows 98 SE, Version 4.10.2222 A|
|Benchmarks and Settings|
|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
|Sysmark 2000||Patch 4B
|Refresh rate||85Hz in all tests, V-Sync = off|
Quake 3 Demo 1
The performance of the KT133 north bridge VT8363 is what matters, while the 686B doesn't have any impact on this benchmark. None of the new boards can perform better than average.
First we thought we had made a mistake. So we took the ASUS A7V and the Aopen AK33 out of our lab shelves. Nevertheless, we exactly reproduced the old test results. The reason for these bad results was neither a wrong driver nor a wrong test methodology. We do not have an explanation for this strange behaviour. Maybe the new 686B south bridge slows down the VT8363 north bridge a little.
This is nearly like testing with Quake 3. The OpenGL workstation test AWadvs-04 taken from SPECviewperf 6.1.2 gives us a bad impression of the candidates. Only Aopen's AK73 Pro can maintain its position.
The new VT82C686B helps all boards score well in business and video applications. 3D games and OpenGL application do not benefit from the new south bridge, as you can see in our tests.
In terms of performance the AOpen AK73 Pro was pretty impressive. It beat our previous performance leader, the ASUS A7V, in the majority of benchmarks.
The AK73 allows the adjustment of the Athlon-multiplier (after shortening the L1-bridges of the CPU), which makes it attractive for overclockers. However, the adjustment of the system bus clock in 1MHz steps is missing.
Better solutions for our overclocking fans are the Soltek SL-75KV2 and the MSI K7T Pro2-A. These motherboards are the only ones in this review that let you adjust the system bus clock in steps of 1 MHz.
Unfortunately, the performance results of those two are not so good compared to the other candidates. These interrelations can change very quickly though. We have learned that a simple BIOS update can give impressive performance boosts.
|Model||AK73 Pro||M7VKB (686B)||KT133 Pro||K7T Pro2-A||SL-75KV2-X|
|North bridge||VIA Apollo KT133 (VT8363)||VIA Apollo KT133 (VT8363)||VIA Apollo KT133 (VT8363)||VIA Apollo KT133 (VT8363)||VIA Apollo KT133 (VT8363)|
|South bridge||VIA VT82C686B||VIA VT82C686B||VIA VT82C686B||VIA VT82C686B||VIA VT82C686B|
|Max. Memory (MB)||1536 MByte||768 MByte||1536 MByte||1536 MByte||768 MByte|
|# DIMM slots||3||3||3||3||3|
|# ISA slots||0||1||1||0||1|
|# PCI slots||5||5||5||6||5|
|# AGP 4X||1||1||0||1||0|
|# AGP 4X (Pro)||0||0||1||0||1|
|# AMR / CNR||1/-||1/-||1/-||-/1||-/-|
|# parallel ports||1||1||1||1||1|
|# serial ports||2||2||2||2||1+1|
|# external USB ports||2||2||2||2||2|
|# IDE channels (UltraATA/100)||2||2||2||2||2|
|# fan connectors||3||2||4||2||3|
|Additional onboard interfaces|
|AC97 Sound||AD 1885||Creative CT5880||W83971D||VT 1611 A||ICE1232|
|external audio connectors
|internal audio connectors
|Wake on LAN (WOL)||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Wake on Modem (WOM)||yes||no||yes||no||no|
|Sensor for chassis intrusion||no||no||no||no||no|
|Thermal sensor inside CPU socket||no||yes||yes||no||yes|
|System Bus adjustable through||BIOS and DIP||BIOS and DIP||BIOS and DIP||BIOS||BIOS and DIP|
|Frequency range for system bus||100 to 120MHz||100 to 140MHz||90 to 160MHz||100 to 128MHz||100 to 152MHz|
|1MHz steps for system bus possible||no||no||no||yes||yes|
|CPU core voltage adjustable through||BIOS||BIOS||BIOS||BIOS||BIOS|
|Range for CPU core voltage (Vcore)||1.100 to 1.850V||1.775 to 1.850V||1.500 to 1.850V||1.550 to 1.850V||1.500 to 1.850V|
|0.05V steps for Vcore possible||yes, even 0.025||yes, even 0.025||yes||yes, even 0.025||yes, even 0.025|
|BIOS and Revisions|
|BIOS Version tested||08.11.2000||31.10.2000||25.11.2000||03.11.2000||25.11.2000|
|Board Revision tested||812||1.1||0.1||1.0E||n/a|
|Clock Controller||Winbond W230||Winbond W230||ICS UAM34C-ES||ICS UP050446||Phaselink PLL205-01XC|