Aopen AX6C Motherboard Evaluation

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Overview

One of the reasons that Soyo has a very good name in the industry is because they make reliable products. This is accomplished through solid engineering and quality implementation, as well as a somewhat conservative approach. They are generally not the first to implement a new chipset or ‘hot’ technology, preferring instead to take their time and allow the other manufacturers to find any reliability or compatibility issues.

This approach has been very evident with the implementation of Soyo’s first Athlon motherboard. Rather than utilize the just released VIA KX133, they decided to use the more mature AMD 750 chipset. Though it lacks AGP 4x support, this shouldn’t be a major issue for the vast majority of users, since it really doesn’t provide any performance benefit to speak of over AGP 2x with today’s applications. It does, however, include UDMA/66 support (which also isn’t much of a performance issue)

According to many sources, the performance of the AMD 750 chipset with ‘super bypass’ enabled is every bit as good as existing P6 chipsets, and with the KX133 chipset as well. What Soyo has developed, then, is a stable, reliable and well performing motherboard.

Our test system included the following components:

  • Soyo K7AIA motherboard – provided by Soyo
  • Athlon 500MHz processor – purchased
  • 128MB SDRAM – provided by Crucial Technology
  • W.D 8.4GB UDMA/66 HDD – Purchased
  • Diamond Viper V770 Ultra (32MB) – provided by Diamond
  • Adaptec AHA-2940UW SCSI Controller – purchased
  • Toshiba TA5401B 4x SCSI CDROM – purchased

Software used for evaluation:
  • Windows 2000 – Microsoft Corporation
  • Winstone99 Business/High End Tests – ZDBOp
  • Content Creation 2000 – ZDBOp
  • Burn-in Test – Passmark
  • QuickTech Pro 2000 (Self-booting) – Ultra-X
  • RAM Stress Test (Self-booting) – Ultra-X

Diagnostic Hardware used for evaluation

  • PHD PCI – Ultra-X
  • PHD Plus (ISA) – Ultra-X

Test Results

Visual Inspection

The K7AIA has a standard ATX layout layout with 5 busmaster PCI slots, 2 ISA slots (1 shared) and 1 AGP slot, with all slots free from obstructions that might prevent full-length cards from being used. It has 3 DIMM slots, and will accept up to 768MB of SDRAM to be installed. There are headers for Wake-on-LAN, Wake-on-Modem and IrDA cables. It also has two USB headers at the front to allow up to 4 USB cables to be connected. The floppy and IDE connectors are located in front of the DIMM slots, putting them right next to the drive bays, and the ATX power plug is in front of the CPU slot, directly behind the DIMM slots.

All CPU settings are made via the BIOS menu item called ‘Soyo Combo Setup’. Though the CPU frequency is determined by the processor itself, the BIOS does have a host bus/PCI selection which allows the memory to be run at either 100MHz or 133MHz, while running the PCI bus at 33MHz. The Soyo website indicates (as of the time of this writing) that there are multiple host bus frequencies that can be selected, but this apparently is a typo, as there is no indication of this in the manual or in the BIOS itself.

Diagnostics

Verification:

We first tested the board with QuickTech Pro 2000 and RAM Stress Test diagnostics, from Ultra-X. QuickTech Pro is a system level diagnostic and burn-in tool which allows us to verify that the board has no obvious defects that would prevent a reliable evaluation (see our review of this software for more information). RAM Stress Test is a very intensive memory diagnostic that allows us to verify that any stability issues are not due to data integrity problems because of defective memory or bus timings that are too fast. With three PC133 SDRAM DIMM modules installed, we saw absolutely no data integrity problems during a 1-hour RST test session, nor did we see any errors during an 8-hour burn-in with QuickTech Pro.

The next set of tests involved our standard circuit-level diagnostics using the PHD PCI and PHD Plus diagnostic cards, also from Ultra-X. These diagnostic cards measure the signals for all circuits (IRQ and DMA controllers, PCI and memory busses, system timer, etc.) against reference timings, and if there is even a small deviation, a ‘failure’ is reported. These tests were run 100 times in succession to make sure there were no intermittent errors. The only errors reported were in the 16-bit DMA transfer tests, which failed about half of the time. This does not necessarily indicate any real problem, but it does mean that there could be a compatibility problem with any ISA card which strictly conforms to timings for the ISA specification .

Stability and Reliability Tests

In order to test the reliability of the system we installed Windows 2000 and ran the Passmark Burn-in test for 36 hours. This is a multi-threaded burn-in program that puts a heavy load on various aspects of the system simultaneously, including the processor, graphics and I/O subsystems. There were no errors reported, nor were there any crashes or lockups. We also installed and ran Winstone 99 (both business and high-end) and Content Creation 2000 tests in Demo mode for 20 loops. The test settings were set to stop on any error, and to run without rebooting between loops. There were no errors at all, not even the normal ‘time outs’ that occasionally occur with the ZDBop tests when running multiple loops.

One thing we have come to expect from Soyo is stability. Though the lack of any kind of errors in Winstone may or may not be entirely due to the motherboard implementation, it did give the feeling that the board is very reliable and stable. There was no indication of any chipset or driver problems whatsoever (IDE and AGP drivers were installed for all tests).

Perfomance Optimizations

When using the ‘Load Setup Defaults’ option, the BIOS is set to ‘optimal’ performance. Of course, for Soyo, optimal is a little conservative with the host bus speed set to 100MHz. We did run benchmarks with the host bus at both 100MHz and 133MHz, but the differences were fairly minimal, as can be seen in the table below. As indicated previously, these tests included the Soyo K7AIA motherboard, Athlon 500MHz processor, Diamond Viper V770 Ultra video card (32MB), W.D. 8.4GB UDMA/66 HDD (no UDMA/66 cable used, however), 128MB Crucial Technology PC133 (CL3, 7.5ns) SDRAM, Windows 2000 and the AMD 750 AGP and IDE drivers for Windows 2000.

Benchmark/host bus speed 100MHz 133MHz
Winstone99 Business 31.4 31.5
Winstone99 High-end 35.8 36.3
Content Creation 2000 23.5 25.0

As can be seen, the high-end applications benefitted a bit from the faster memory bus, however the difference would be undetectable in ‘real world’ usage

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Conclusions and Recommendations

The Soyo K7AIA appears to be an extremely stable and reliable motherboard, rivaling any i440BX based board we’ve tested. There is no reason we can think of that should prevent businesses from seriously considering this board for their critical systems, perhaps even small office servers. We have not performed any server specific tests, so the stability under those conditions is unknown at this time

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Soyo has done an outstanding job in engineering and implementing the K7AIA motherboard, and this could very well be the best Slot A motherboard available right now. In fact, for anyone who has been avoiding non-Intel solutions for fear of running into problems, we would seriously recommend that this board be given a close look – it just might make you a believer.

Based upon our tests, we have the following set of recommendations:

  • We did have a small problem installing the AGP and IDE drivers for this board. First, the ‘auto detect’ function could not determine which motherboard was in use, and second, the driver installation program on our CD did not function with Windows 2000. In order to install the drivers we had to execute the setup programs directly. Fortunately, Soyo made them easy to find by placing them in the /drivers/K7AGP/Windows2000 and /drivers/K7IDE/Windows2000 directories.
  • Unless you are certain that your SDRAM will operate reliably at 133MHz, you should leave the host bus/PCI setting at 100/33.

Resources and Test Notes

Documentation and Included Items

The board ships with a ‘Quick Start Guide’ that contains pictures and explanations of all jumpers and connectors. The only BIOS setting discussed is the ‘Load Setup Default’. We expected to find a full manual on the CD, but alas, it was not there. A quick check of the Soyo website solved the problem, and we assume that it will be available on the CD when the board is actually shipping to customers

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The Soyo CD contains the drivers and utilities necessary for the chipset to be recognized in Win9x and NT, as well as to enable full AGP and IDE busmastering support. There is also a separate CD which contains Norton Anti-Virus, Ghost and Virtual Drive utilities (fully functional), and a full set of cables as well

. Other Resources

As with any product, there is a chance that you will need to get assistance with installation and/or troubleshooting. Soyo has support information on their website for all of their motherboards. You may find the following links useful:

Soyo Home Pages:

Another valuable resource is Usenet. The following three newsgroups may prove to be helpful: *alt.comp.periphs.mainboard.aopen *alt.comp.hardware.pc-homebuilt *comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware.chips

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