Today we have 2 motherboards sporting AMD's Socket 939. The first, Abit's AV8 3rd Eye, uses Via's K8T800Pro chipset. The second, Epox's 9NDA3+, uses the Nvidia Nforce 3 Ultra. We're pitting these two together to see which works out the better ?whilst both Via and Nvidia have announced successors to the chipsets we're working with here, you'll still be hard pressed to actually buy them.
We're comparing the boards side by side to evaluate their features as well as looking at how well they perform and overclock.
For further information on the boards, check out:
Abit-usa.com motherboard homepage
Epox.com motherboard homepage
Abit's Socket 939 3rd Eye motherboard the AV8 features VIA's K8T800pro northbridge and VT8237 southbridge along with Abit's 3rd eye and 礕uru technology. All the connectors, including flopps and hard drive ports, are located around the edge of the board to help keep your case tidy. Abit include a LED readout for boot problem diagnosis: by cross referencing the Hex output to the manual when suffering a boot up problem, it can easily be identified.
Around the 939 socket there are quite a few large capacitors, so if your heatsink is wider than standard Athlon 64 spec you may want to check the clearance needed. The K8T800pro northbridge is passively cooled by a 40mm square blue anodised heatsink that should make quiet computing enthusiasts happy. The northbridge is designed around the old plastic capped variety, not even metal capped or the most recent flipchip production methods are needed because without the memory controller the northbridge now does very little.
Rather awkwardly, the 20-pin ATX and 4-pin 12V connectors are placed between the I/O back panel, the northbridge and CPU socket which may cause cable clutter problems or hinder air flow around the socket / northbridge, especially with very large heatsink/fan combinations.
The PCB follows the standard dark green appearance that is typical of Epox motherboards. I suppose if everyone other manufacturer changes the colour of their PCB, you eventually become unique, right? At the bottom right, we have a colour coded front panel connector that makes plugging the power-on/reset switches and hard disk LEDs in a little less of a headache. There's also an LED readout array, which allows you to troubleshoot boot up problems by referencing the code in the manual.
Above the Nforce 3 MCP is the 20-pin ATX power connector, along with the additional 4-pin 12v connector ?the latter is located to the left of the CPU socket. Epox uses high quality Japanese KZG capacitors throughout this board, and the mosfets have plenty of space between power regulation components to use the included heatsinks.
The northbridge heatsink is plenty large enough to cope, yet low profile enough to not interfere with any PCI cards. Unfortunately it is actively cooled by a small 40mm fan, but it's the opportunity cost of the MCP placement. Around the MCP are 4 native southbridge SATA ports: two above and two to the right. The two to the right are controlled by a Marvell (88SR3020) PHY SATA controller.
Compared to the latest and greatest, this board does lack nice new 8 channel audio. Unfortunately, since the Gigabit Ethernet is PCI based, it won't attain full speed. The last downer is that the board only has 2 SATA ports but the general board layout is good, and the feature set should be enough for the vast majority of users. The plumb feature, of course, is Abit's uGuru technology which we will look at when examining the BIOS, below. Onboard Firewire is controlled by the VIA VT6306 controller providing 3, 400Mbit ports ?one from the I/O back panel and the rest from onboard pins.
The board could do with more SATA ports, as just 2 seems a little lacking by current standards.
The other major feature of the board is the external uGuru clock that plugs into a specific uGuru internal USB port. The cable and PCI pass-through backplate are provided and this useful little devise provides Abit's ?rd eye?for your system allowing you to keep an eye on clock speeds, temperatures, voltages, fan speeds through the LCD display.
AC?7 audio is provided by the ALC850 chipset. Epox have gone for the best AC?7 offering with 8 channel sound and SP/DIF support. Whilst this still doesn't match the Azalia audio of newer Intel boards, it is one of the best solutions available for Athlon 64, presently.
As we mentioned, 2 of the SATA ports are controlled by a PHY controller. Being PHY, the bandwidth isn't plumbed through the PCI bus and you get the full, native 150Mbit SATA speed. Gigabit networking is also provided by the somewhat lesser known Vitesse PHY chip. Again, being PHY it is attached directly to the NForce 3 Ultra MCP providing full Gigabit bandwidth and does not suffer from the PCI bus speed limitation.
The I/O back panel has standard PS2 ports, single COM and parallel port, optical in and out, five colour co-ordinated 3.5mm audio jacks to provide the 6 channel sound, 4 USB2 ports, single 6 pin Firewire and a Gigabit Ethernet port.
Here, we have the usual PS2 ports, single parallel and COM port but instead of a second we find optical and digital RCA SP/DIF instead which, is a most welcome addition. Four USB2 ports (2x2 configuration) are topped with the single Ethernet socket for the Gigabit networking. Finally, six 3.5mm sockets are provided for the onboard 8 channel AC?7 sound.
Towards the edge of the board in parallel to the AGP slot there are a couple of large capacitors which caused problems during testing with our two slot Gainward 6800GT AGP card. The card worked, but couldn't fully be put into the slot because the fan shroud hit the top of the capacitors - definitely something you抎 want to avoid if you move your case a lot.
The SATA ports around the MCP are a bit wedged between other components. The ones beneath the AGP port proved impossible to use when our Gainward Geforce 6800GT was fitted with a dual slot cooler. Unless you have right angled SATA connectors for your cable heads, then it's unlikely you will be able to use them with a large cooler on your AGP card.