VIA In Shape: 6 Motherboards using the renewed KT133A Chipset
Редакция THG,  22 января 2001


The New Start: 6 Boards with VIA's KT133A Chipset

Intro

The whole market seems to be struck by a huge disillusionment, because we are still waiting both for DDR motherboards and memory to become widely available. Many people are starting to call the introduction of Double Data Rate memory a failure.

This kind of phenomenon is not new at all. Whenever a new technology is introduced, it is susceptible to failures and criticism. DDR-memory is seen as the proper companion to AMD's latest Athlon-processor with 133 (266) MHz processor bus clock ('C'-types), which was officially announced in combination with the still unavailable AMD760 DDR-chipset two months ago. However, the recent article 'The Three Musketeers' already showed that the 133 (266) MHz FSB Athlons are able to outperform their 100 (200) MHz FSB ('B'-type) counterparts even with normal PC133 SDRAM already.

Instead of prematurely reporting on those DDR-motherboards that nobody is able to buy, we chose to introduce six new motherboards with VIA's latest Athlon chipset, the Apollo KT133A. The only difference to its predecessor Apollo KT133 is the added support for the above mentioned 133 (266) MHz processor bus clock used by the new 'C'-type Athlons. This beefed up Athlon-chipset from VIA might not offer support of DDR-memory, but it resembles mature technology, and provides reliability as well as good performance.

VIA's Apollo KT133A

VIA's Apollo KT133A

The Apollo KT133A chipset is a further development of the well-known KT133. Let's use this description with some caution, as there is actually nothing really new except the validation of 133 MHz processor bus clock support.

It comes with the well-known features like AGP 4x support, a PC133 SDRAM controller and an UltraATA/100 interface, found within the South Bridge chip (VT82C686B), which has already been introduced back in October 2000.

VIA's Apollo KT133A

You can get more detailed information on this new chipset at VIA's homepage.

To 'DDR' Or Not To 'DDR'

Technically savvy and power hungry Athlon-fans might call both the Apollo KT133 and the KT133A already outdated. Of course DDR is pretty close to the mass market, but so far it hasn't exactly met the expectations. Right now, the latest DDR-chipset generation is not able to beat its predecessors by an impressive margin, which might be the fault of the DDR-chipset designers AMD, ALi or VIA, but more likely due to the processor design of Athlon/Duron and Pentium III/Celeron. Those processors aren't able to take enough advantage of the higher memory bandwidth provided by DDR memory. Intel's Pentium 4 however, a processor that lives and dies with memory bandwidth, is currently without a chipset that would support DDR-memory. Why should anyone spend money on DDR-memory, which might be technically up to date, but not superior to common stuff in terms of performance?

Right now DDR-memory is more of a catchword than the provider of a major performance boost. It might take a while until there will be processors and software that are able to take real advantage of it. We have had this situation many times before. The best example is the (forced) introduction of RDRAM with Pentium III-Coppermine. This Intel-processor was never able to get anything out of RDRAM's 'virtues' and it took until the introduction of a new processor, Intel's Pentium 4, that we could finally see sense in the existence of this memory type.

VIA's Apollo KT133 and the beefed-up KT133A could play the role of Intel's BX chipset, which still happens to be the best-performing Pentium III chipset, only that Intel never bothered to introduce a 'BX133'-type that would allow safe operation at 133 MHz FSB and the proper AGP-clock divider. Right now it seems as if a motherboard with Apollo KT133A is the best future investment. Due to the higher FSB speed of 133 MHz, most boards will be able to run future Athlon processors at up to 133 MHz x12.5 (Athlon's highest multiplier for the time being) = 1666 MHz.

It might be that the next generation of AMD-processors will require a new CPU socket (= new motherboard). In that case, you would have to throw away any current motherboard - no matter if it runs with SDRAM or DDR RAM.

The performance delta between a standard SDRAM system and a machine based on DDR will probably increase with higher CPU clocks. The faster the processor, the more sense the new high-speed RAM might actually make. Only some weeks ago, our benchmarks proved that the performance increase reached by DDR systems is rather small today - even if you are using an Athlon 1200.

Does 133 MHz Processor Bus Clock Require DDR-Memory?

We recently published a comparison between the first two DDR chipsets, the ALi MaGiK-1, the AMD760 and the VIA Apollo KT133/KT133A (SDRAM). You will get better performance with the Apollo KT133A-chipset and a 133 MHz FSB CPU, than with VIA's Apollo KT133 at 100 MHz processor bus clock, but the gain is not quite enough to close the gap to 133 MHz FSB systems with DDR-memory. However, the only expense is a motherboard with the Apollo KT133A chipset. You can keep the PC133 SDRAM and don't have to invest in new DDR-memory. The Athlon/Duron processor can be kept as well, because you only need to lower the clock-multiplier with the well-known L1-bridge technique to reach the same or a slightly higher processor clock as before.

Right now DDR-DIMMs are still very hard to get and more expensive than standard PC133 SDRAM. Surprisingly enough DDR memory chips are hardly more difficult to produce than Single Data Rate chips. At the end of the manufacturing process, the bonding decides whether the chip becomes a SDR or a DDR model. Due to unavailability of motherboards, the demand for DDR memory modules is currently rather small. As soon as the memory makers will change their production in favor of DDR chips, we can expect falling prices.

As soon as motherboards with DDR-memory support become widely available, the most power-hungry Athlon-users might want to choose AMD760-platforms and DDR-SDRAM, because it offers the highest performance for Athlon processors to date. People who can live without the little performance gain achieved by DDR-platforms will be just as satisfied with Athlons at 133 (266) MHz FSB clock and PC133 SDRAM, as now offered by platforms based on VIA's Apollo KT133A chipset. Once DDR-memory has reached the same price point as PC133 SDRAM the story changes and DDR-platforms will become the smartest choice.

Vast Varieties

Both Intel and AMD are steadily enhancing their product and processor portfolios. Only a few years ago, we could choose between four or five Pentium models. Today, the Celeron is available at clock speeds between 500 and 800 MHz. Intel's Pentium III is shipped at between 600 and 1000 MHz, making a total of 21 processors. Let's not forget the new Pentium 4 (three models) and 15 mobile processors (Pentium III and Celeron). Xeon is also still very lively, and Intel offers 11 different models of this server processor. Altogether, that's a bunch of almost 50 microprocessors, which many people are unable to tell apart.

AMD's price list is also growing in order to face Intel in all segments of the processor market. Back in 1999 when the first Athlon was introduced, there were only a few models. Today, there are nine Athlons left (several models below 850 MHz have already been phased out) with three of them being the new 133 MHz types. In addition, AMD is selling three Duron models and some mobile versions of it.

Thanks to a very aggressive price policy of the Texan chip forge, their processors are extremely competitive. Not only are the best of them faster than Intel processors, but also clearly cheaper. A Duron 800 is priced at approximately $ 75 right now, while the slower Celeron 800 is about double this price!

The same things are going on in the high-end segment, giving Intel a rather hard time. For a Pentium III 933 you have got to spend about $ 280. That's also the price for an Athlon 900 plus 128 MB PC133 SDRAM! AMD's top-model, the Athlon 1200 MHz, can be obtained for this amount of money as well. To get similar performance, you could also purchase a Pentium 4, but then you need to spend a hefty $ 500 and face the high expenses for RDRAM and the motherboard with i850 chipset. Still the Athlon 1200 is able to beat this faster clocked Intel CPU in the majority of benchmarks.

If you want to get an AMD processor today, you can even buy the slowest one (Duron 750). It will be enough for all kind of standard applications and will cost no more than $ 70 - that is just terrific. The Athlon models 800 & 900 MHz offer the best price/performance ratio right now, as they are also priced very attractive ($ 110 and 130). If you can live without a GHz-processor in the 21st century, you should take the 800 or 900 MHz model, as it will save you money, which is better invested in memory.

ABit KT7A-RAID

ABit KT7A-RAID

Board Revision: 1.0

ABit's latest motherboards with the KT133A chipset is very well equipped: Six PCI slots, three DIMM sockets, ATA/100 RAID controller and the default ATA/100 controller. There is one ISA slot available, just in case you want to use an older expansion card. Unfortunately, the KT7A does not feature a sound system, which would have made the hardware features list even better.

Performance is on a very good level; in some benchmarks, the board even scores the #1 ranking. Overclockers will likely be very happy about ABit's well-known Soft Menu, which offers a great number of options to influence the system performance. Just be careful. You can easily make your system horribly unstable by tuning around without knowing what you are doing.

The North Bridge chip has been equipped with an active cooler - that's particularly important for experiments at higher FSB clocks. You may also attach up to four fans to the motherboard.

The package contains a good manual, driver CD, several cables and a USB adapter, which allows you to use the USB-ports 3 and 4.

Memory tests Result
Crucial/Micron 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Corsair 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Wichmann Workx 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Viking 128MB PC133 CL3 ok
Mushkin 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Memory Solution 128MB PC133 CL3 ok

Asus A7V133

Asus A7V133

Board Revision: 1.01
BIOS Version: 1001C

The new A7V133 seems to be equipped very well, although there were hardly any changed since the initial A7V. It still comes with the ATA100 controller from Promise, which also allows you RAID level 0, although the 686B-southbridge supports ATA100 as well. Thus you can connect up to 8 ATA100 hard drives to this motherboard.

All CPU adjustments including multiplier, system speed (up to 166 MHz) and Vcore can either be done in the BIOS, or by using several dipswitches. The latter is basically interesting for system integrators who want to prevent users from changing important processor settings.

Asus ships an adapter for the two additional USB ports (a total of four). Just like the ABit KT7A, the VT8464 (the north bridge of the Apollo KT133A chipset) is cooled by a HSF. You can find an AMR slot on the motherboard, which shares it's space with the fifth PCI slot. Thus you don't have to give up a PCI slot just due to the presence of the usually useless AMR interface, but you still have to pay for it.

The A7V133 comes with an AGP Pro connector, which has some more pins to ensure a proper power supply of high-end graphics cards. Three DIMM sockets will hold up to 1.5 GB of SDRAM memory. I just missed any note about ECC, which lets me suppose that this memory type is not supported.

We have big expectations towards a top brand like Asus. This board's performance was not high enough to declare the A7V133 the winner of this review. The results of the different motherboard candidates turned out to be too close together this time.

Memory tests Result
Crucial/Micron 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Corsair 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Wichmann Workx 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Viking 128MB PC133 CL3 ok
Mushkin 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Memory Solution 128MB PC133 CL3 ok

Azza KT3ABX

Azza KT3ABX

Board Revision: 1.2
BIOS Version: 24.11.2000

Azza's KT3ABX is still a prototype motherboard. However, we did not face any difficulties during the tests. Performance and stability were good. The compact motherboard features five PCI slots, one ISA, AMR slot, AGP 4x, two UltraATA/100 IDE ports, two fan headers and four USB ports. Unfortunately, you have to try to get an adapter yourself if you want to use the ports 3 and 4.

Azza includes a bonus software pack, which consists of Mandrake Linux and Star Office, an attractive alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating system and Office Suite. Its only real weakness is the fact that it is not widely used.

Jumper JP8 defines if you are running 100 MHz or 133 MHz FSB. There are some prints on the board describing dipswitch settings of Dipswitches we could not find. Instead of that, you may set everything in the BIOS.

Memory tests Result
Crucial/Micron 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Corsair 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Wichmann Workx 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Viking 128MB PC133 CL3 ok
Mushkin 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Memory Solution 128MB PC133 CL3 ok

DFI AK74-AC

DFI AK74-AC

Board Revision: B2
BIOS Version: 18.11.2000

This motherboard will not be available on the market, as DFI decided to design a completely new product. It was still included into this test for comparison reasons.

The package contains flat cables, manual and a CD, and the hardware equipment looks as follows: Five PCI slots, one ISA, three DIMM sockets and two ATA/100 ports. Again we found an AMR slot on this motherboard. The three line-in connectors of the AC97 sound system surround it.

Just as with Azza's motherboard you have to set the FSB clock with a jumper (JP10). There is no way to alter the multiplier on this motherboard. Still you may alter the CPU core voltage in the BIOS. Several clock speeds up to 166 MHz can be chosen.

DFI is the only company, which integrated a BIOS item to activate or disable ECC support.

Memory tests Result
Crucial/Micron 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Corsair 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Wichmann Workx 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Viking 128MB PC133 CL3 ok
Mushkin 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Memory Solution 128MB PC133 CL3 ok

Epox 8KTA3

Epox 8KTA3

Board Revision: 0.3
BIOS Version: 10.01.2001

It looks as if freaks and overclockers are becoming more important for Epox, since the 8KTA3 features everything for successful overclocking. In addition you may set everything directly in the BIOS just with the Asus A7V133 or the ABit KT7A.

Epox 8KTA3

We liked the new box Epox is using. A little cord allows the motherboard to be carried around like a shopping bag. There's also good news also from inside this new marketing gag: A good manual, USB adapter, driver CD and flat cables are included.

This motherboard is also available with an ATA/100 RAID controller, which allows attaching eight instead of the standard four ATA/100 IDE devices. Epox decided to go for six PCI slots plus one ISA. There is none of the obsolete AMR or CNR slots on this motherboard. Luckily, because hardly any retail customer will ever be able to make use of it.

Two digits on the motherboard show you the system status during boot-up. If the system hangs, you will be able to determine the reason by checking the table in the manual, describing all those POSTcodes. This board features four DIMM sockets, giving you a lot of space for upgrades. However, the KT133A is only able to address up to 1.5 GB (3x 512 MB). Placing four sockets on the board cannot revoke this limit.

If you take a look at the photo, you can see a little white hook at the end of the AGP connector. This hook fixes the graphics card to prevent it from sliding out of the slot during transportation.

The board comes with three fan headers and also an AC97 sound system.

Memory tests Result
Crucial/Micron 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Corsair 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Wichmann Workx 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Viking 128MB PC133 CL3 ok
Mushkin 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Memory Solution 128MB PC133 CL3 ok

Soltek SL75KAV-X

Soltek SL75KAV-X

Board Revision: k.A.
BIOS Version: Q4 (13.11.2000)

Soltek's motherboard comes with an excellent CPU protection function: If the CPU-fan header remains unattached, the system will automatically shut down after approximately two seconds.

The box contains a manual, a driver disc and two flat cables. There is also an adapter supplied for the second COM port. As the motherboard design allows the usage of a chipset with integrated graphics, the place for the second COM connector has been left empty (like it is on the test motherboard).

The hardware equipment looks complete: You will get five PCI slots, one ISA, one AGP Pro (AGP 4x), three DIMM sockets and two IDE ports for up to four UltraATA/100 devices. Soltek also provides an AC97 sound system as well as three fan headers for proper system cooling.

Two DIP blocks configure the processor. The first block for choosing the multiplier, the second for the FSB clock (100, 103, 105, 110, 133 MHz). Don't forget that the L1-bridges on top of the AMD-processors need to be closed before you can make multiplier adjustments.

Memory tests Result
Crucial/Micron 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Corsair 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Wichmann Workx 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Viking 128MB PC133 CL3 (8 Chips) ok
Mushkin 128MB PC133 CL2 ok
Memory Solution 128MB PC133 CL3 ok

Test Setup

Hardware
CPU AMD Athlon 1.0GHz (C Type)
133 MHz FSB (DDR)
RAM 1x 128 MByte SDRAM (Crucial)
PC133, 7ns, CL2
Hard Drive Seagate Barracuda ATA, ST320430A
20 GB, UltraATA/66, 7200 rpm
Graphics Card nVIDIA GeForce2 GTS, 32 MB DDR SDRAM
Drivers & Software
HDD/Motherboard/ AGP-Drivers VIA All-in-One 4.25a (Win 98 and 2000)
Graphics Drivers NVIDIA Reference Drivers 6.49 (Win 98) and 6.47 (Win 2000)
DirectX Version 8.0a
Operating Systems Windows 98 SE, Version 4.10.2222 A
Windows 2000, Version 5.00.2195, SP1
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'
Mercedes Benz Truck Racing Demo Demo Version
640x480x16
ViewPerf Version 6.1.2
1280x1024x16
Screen Refresh Rate and Resolution 85 Hz for all Tests, V-Sync = off; 1024x768

SYSmark 2000 - Windows 98 SE

SYSmark 2000 - Windows 98 SE

The boards from ABit, Asus and Soltek score the highest SYSmark numbers. Only slightly behind are the three others from Azza, DFI and Epox. I guess the KT7A from ABit is able to dominate this benchmark due to the fact that you can do a lot of fine-tuning in the BIOS. Even if you do not take advantage of those options, the 'auto' option ensures good performance as well.

Mercedes Benz Truck Racing

Mercedes Benz Truck Racing

It's highly recommendable for motherboard tests to use the lowest resolution (640x480). By doing this you can make sure that the only bottleneck is the motherboard and not the graphics card (fill rate).

This time, Soltek is able to gain the top spot. The motherboards from Epox and DFI are a bit slower than the rest, but are still fast. Those differences diminish almost completely at higher resolutions, as soon as the fill rate of the 3D card has more influence on the frame rate scores.

Quake III Arena

Quake III Arena

We found more differences in Quake III Arena. The spread was almost 10 fps or about 6%. Again, this scaling becomes quite uninteresting if you want to play at high resolutions (1024x768 or more), even if you should be using a fast graphics card. ABit shows the direction in this benchmark.

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Advanced Visualizer

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Advanced Visualizer

It looks like the Asus board is best suited for the Visualizer, as it scores the best result. ABit's KT7A is definitely not able to repeat the excellent result in Quake III. DFI and Soltek are a bit behind this time.

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Design Review

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Design Review

Design Review does not reveal any major performance differences between our six candidates. Again the fastest board is the Asus A7V133.

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Data Explorer

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Data Explorer

Here you can see a clear split between 'upper class' and 'lower class' if you wish. The products from Asus, Azza and Epox are dominating; ABit is not able to keep its pace this time. Some people say that even a 2nd place is a loser's place. That might be a too rigorous judgment, since none of those boards performs badly. Still the AK74AC and Soltek's SL75KAV-X are a tad behind.

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: Lightscape

SPECviewperf 6.1.2:  Lightscape

Again we have a similar scene as with the Data Explorer. Asus, Epox and Azza are moving slightly ahead. Soltek and DFI are playing rearguard, while the ABit board fills the gap between those two parties.

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: MedMCAD

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: MedMCAD

MedMCAD seems to be a bit tough for the boards from DFI and Soltek The rest scores clearly better, with the A7V133 coming out on top. Abit's board is able to look a bit better than in the previous SPECviewperf benchmarks.

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: ProCDRS

SPECviewperf 6.1.2: ProCDRS

The last of our benchmark charts does not provide any new information: DFI and Soltek are not able to catch the bus, but the top positions changed. Epox is now able to get the best result. Also Azza scores quite good.

Conclusion

This motherboard test was a surprisingly pleasant experience, as none of the test candidates showed any of those annoying instabilities that are haunting the reviewer and make reviewing motherboards a sometimes almost endless endeavor.

You may have noticed the memory test boxes on every motherboard evaluation box. We ran a large variety of PC133 SDRAM memory modules on those boards to check for possible compatibility issues. Surprisingly as well as pleasantly enough, none of the test boards had any problem with any of the memory modules.

The three fastest motherboards in this comparison are the Asus A7V133, ABit's KT7A and the Epox 8KTA3. The highest continuity was seen with the Asus A7V133. All other boards keep changing the positions throughout the various benchmarks.

However, the benchmark results alone are not good enough to declare any of these motherboards a winner, particularly if you take into account that the differences in the scores are rather small.

The most important finding was the enjoyable fact that each of the tested boards ran 100% stable even at the fastest possible memory timing settings. VIA's upcoming DDR chipsets may not look too impressive right now, but the Apollo KT133A is a matured, fast and solid product that offers good performance.

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