FIC KA-11 Motherboard Evaluation

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Visual Inspection

Layout:

The KA-11 is a full ATX board with a fairly standard layout. The IDE and floppy connectors are located near the drive bays, with the ATX power plug located under the drive bays of smaller cases. This should normally not be a problem, except that it necessitates stretching the power cables across the case, potentially affecting airflow. CPU multipliers are set via a set of dip switches, while the voltage is set with jumpers. These are also located right near the drive bays, which could be a bit inconvenient for those wanting to adjust the settings after the board is installed. The location of the Clear CMOS jumper at the back edge of the board under the 3rd PCI card might be an issue, however the BIOS recovery features help to overcome this issue.

The board has 5 PCI, 2 ISA (1 shared) and 1 AGP slot. All PCI slots are free from obstructions, however the last ISA slot is partially blocked by the front panel connectors, which may prevent a full length card from being installed. 4 DIMM slots allows up to a full 1GB of installed SDRAM or VCSDRAM. There are also headers for Keyboard Wake-up, Wake on Lan and CD audio.

The KA11 also includes an integrated Creative CT5880 sound chip, eliminating the need for an audio card, and saving one expansion slot. Because of this, there is a CD sound cable header and additional audio input/output jacks that may require a ‘customized’ I/O shield, which FIC does not supply. Of course, for those wanting very high-quality sound, this would not be ideal, and there appears to be no way to disable the on-board audio.

Setup Options:

For those who happen to have unlocked processors, there are a set of dip switches on the board that set the CPU multiplier – however the number of users needing this is pretty small. There are also a set of voltage jumpers, which could be inconvenient for those who like to really play around with overclocking, but should not be a major problem for those who expect to setup their system once and leave it alone. For some reason, not all of the multiplier settings have been documented, but the following table provides all of them:

Mult.SW1SW2SW3SW4
2.0xOnOnOnOn
2.5xOnOnOnOff
3.0xOnOnOffOn
3.5xOnOnOffOff
4.0xOnOffOnOn
4.5xOnOffOnOff
5.0xOnOffOffOn
5.5xOnOffOffOff
6.0xOffOnOnOn
6.5xOffOnOnOff
7.0xOffOnOffOn
7.5xOffOnOffOff
8.0xOffOffOnOn
UnkOffOffOffOn
UnkOffOffOnOff
2.0xOffOffOffOff

All FSB settings are made via the BIOS, in the ‘Chipset Features’ selection, under the ‘CPU Host/PCI Clock’ setting. . When the settings are changed from default, both the FSB and PCI speeds are displayed for all options. There is one small issue in regards to overclocking the FSB – the board does not allow the user to override the default FSB range for the processor. This means that a 66MHz processor is limited to an FSB range of 66MHz thru 83MHz, a 100MHz processor is limited to 100MHz thru 124MHz and a 133MHz processor is limited to 133MHz thru 155MHz. On the other hand, using an FC-PGA or FPGA processor with a Slocket (such as the IWill Slocket II) may provide this option.

FIC has also implemented two interesting features, called ‘Easy Key’ and ‘Audio Alert’. The Easy Key option allows the user to set up the BIOS for optimal or fail-safe performance with a simple key combination (Ctrl+P and Ctrl+F, respectively), or to enter the clock settings menu directly by hitting Ctrl+C. The Audio Alert feature provides an enhancement to the simple ‘beep’ error codes that the Award BIOS usually emits when there are problems at boot time, with voice notifications if the CPU, memory or video are not detected. In order to use the Audio Alert feature, a set of speakers needs to be connected, otherwise a weak buzzing sound is heard through the PC speaker that sounds like the motherboard is giving up the ghost!

There is one other setup option that needs to be mentioned: the BIOS guardian. By default, this option is enabled which prevents the BIOS from being flashed. The intent is to prevent viruses from writing to the BIOS, but you will need to remember to disable it before trying to flash the BIOS, or you will get an error message.

Diagnostics

Verification:

Our initial verification tests include a ‘burn in’ for several hours using two diagnostic utilities from Ultra-X: see QuickTech Pro and RAM Stress Test. QuickTech Pro is a system level diagnostic and burn-in tool that allows us to verify that the board has no obvious defects that would prevent a reliable evaluation. RST 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 4 DIMM modules installed, we saw no errors during a 4-hour RST run, and no problems reported by QTPro after 100 runs.

After the system level tests, we tested with two circuit level diagnostic tools from Ultra-X: The PHD PCI and PHD Plus cards. 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 over 100 times in succession to make sure there were no intermittent errors.

The KA-11 passed all tests without errors except for the 16-bit DMA transfer tests, which experienced intermittent failures. This particular test applies only to the ISA slots, and indicates that the ISA timings are not ‘perfect’, so some ISA cards might experience some problems. In reality, we have tested few boards that have passed the DMA transfer tests without any errors, so it is not necessarily an indication that there will be compatibility problems.

Stability Tests

In order to test the stability of the motherboard, we ran the Passmark Burn-in program for over 24 hours under both Windows NT and Windows98. We also ran Winstone99 and Content Creation 2000 under Windows NT in Demo mode for 10 consecutive iterations without rebooting. Discussions with Ziff-Davis discouraged us from running more loops than this, because the applications used by these benchmark suites tend to use up memory and cause crashes if the system is not rebooted after several iterations. Under Windows98, we simply specified that the system was to be rebooted after every complete run and let it go for 24+ hours.

The Passmark Burn-in test creates up to 8 child processes, each performing a specific task such as 3D graphics, FPU instructions, integer instructions, etc. In fact, the tests are actually the same ones used in their benchmark program, with a few additional ones thrown in (such as reading/writing to floppy and CD, and printing). Since all of these processes are running simultaneously, all of the system resources (CPU, memory, graphics and I/O) are all being heavily used. We have found that running this test for 24+ hours provides a very good indication of overall system stability.

The Winstone and Content Creation benchmarks are even more stressful on the system than the Passmark test, but as stated above, these tests require that the system be rebooted frequently – thereby diminishing the usefulness as a stability test. However, because these tests will push most parts of the system to their limits, repeated runs can expose an unstable motherboard that might seem fine under less stressful tests.

The results of all of these tests (which takes several days of continuous testing) showed that this motherboard was extremely stable, without a single lockup or crash. Note that our tests did not include such things as AGP 4x functionality or compatibility tests. The sheer number of possible components (and combinations thereof) makes it impossible to perform any truly useful compatibility tests. For this reason, we believe that the manufacturer has the responsibility for maintaining a compatibility list, which we will link to at the end of our evaluation – if such a list exists.


Pages: « Prev   1 2 3 4   Next »

Be the first to discuss this article!