How ‘Super’ are Super 7 Motherboards?

For hardware component resellers, the Super 7 motherboards and AMD K6-2 processors have been, by far, the majority of all sales the past two months. Without a Super 7 board or an AMD K6-2 processor to sell, many vendors are finding that their sales are severely lacking. The demand for these products has been driven by a lot of hype from the past 6 months, favorable reviews and pent up customer demand for higher performance (e.g. 100MHz bus speeds). Since the computer industry has been in a major depression for about 10 months, many of these boards have been ‘rushed’ to the marketplace as a sort of ‘triage’ to stop the bleeding. Several were released before the first true 100MHz processors were out, in an attempt to ‘capture’ the market.

Before discussing the boards themselves, I would like to comment on the AMD K6-2 processor. This has been a very exciting product that has lived up to every expectation, and has even exceeded some. The performance of the CPU on a 100MHz bus speed is exceptional, and the graphics capabilities of the 3D-Now! instruction set have really caught the eye of the hard-core gamers. The initial results from the 3D-Now! optimized games, and DirectX 6 drivers are extremely promising, assuming they are accurate. Due to extremely high demand, and relatively low availability, these processors are almost impossible to keep in stock, and RMA rates are no higher than previous K6 processors. The Super 7 boards to run this processor, on the other hand, have been a somewhat mixed bag.

Our initial experiences with the Super 7 boards was very favorable. These boards seemed to work well with many existing CPUs, and appeared to be very stable and compatible. Many of these have been sold throughout the past two months to happy customers. Unfortunately, there have been some recent problems crop up that are somewhat disconcerting, and have created some confusion in the marketplace. Some of these are due to motherboard components while others are due to low-quality memory or other items used by customers.

The three Super 7 boards that we have direct experience with are the Soyo SY-5EHM, FIC VA-503+ and the AOpen AX59Pro. Traditionally, AOpen products have had the fewest RMA problems, and Soyo has proven to be every bit as good (3% or less). FIC boards have traditionally had a somewhat high RMA rate (perhaps 5%), however their popularity helps to overcome this issue in our minds because higher volume increases the net dollar profits, which in turn allows us to increase our ‘budget’ for RMAs on these products. For the first month of sales, we experienced very few returns with any of these items, though we had heard of some vendors claiming some ‘nightmares’ with RMAs on certain boards.

Now that sufficient time has passed, I think we have begun to get a very good idea of the general market issues. It appears that there are still a few ‘glitches’ in the Super 7 arena that must be worked out. This is not to say that all users are experiencing problems, but the number of RMAs is at least double what the standard Socket 7 boards had. These problems include inability to run at 100MHz, boards not booting at all, boards ‘dying’ after a few weeks use, inability to recognize AGP cards or memory modules, boards ‘frying’ CPUs and power supplies, etc. Not all of these problems are necessarily the motherboard, but that is what most people will attribute them to. Let’s look at some of the specifics.

Low Quality Products Used with High Performance Motherbords

This one is a biggie!! There are an incredible number of people who will seek out the ‘best’ motherboard and CPU, only to purchase the cheapest SDRAM they can find, or will use their old $29 case from their 486 system. When the motherboard doesn’t boot or shows instability at 100MHz, the customer wants to call up and claim the board is defective. The usual justification is that the memory/power supply worked great on their ‘other’ motherboard. The fact is that they are comparing apples to oranges!

A motherboard that was designed to run a Pentium 200 as it’s maximum speed processor will not have the power requirements of a motherboard running a 100MHz bus with a 300MHz (or faster for the avid overclockers) CPU. The power supply that worked ‘great’ with the older board now causes lockups, reboots or simply doesn’t power up because it cannot supply all the power the new components need. In many cases, when we test the motherbord with our UL approved power supplies, we find that the motherboard boots fine.

One of the most common problems is that people are very confused about what PC100 memory is, and why it is necessary. There are a lot of vendors selling PC100 memory with 10ns chips for very cheap prices. Users buy these expecting to run at 100MHz (or faster) bus speeds, but have problems. When they call, they will claim that the board works great at 66MHz, but doesn’t operate at 100MHz and want a replacement. Suggesting that the SDRAM isn’t fast enough usually results in the retort that it works fine in someone else’s 100MHz board. Of course, they can’t tell you what the memory timings were for that board, either. Sometimes we even get calls about this from people using 60ns EDO, who insist that they have heard on the newsgroups that this works for ‘everyone else’. Many times when we get these boards back and test with true PC100 memory, the board functions just fine.

Motherboards Released Too Soon, or Just Technology Pushed Too Fast?

Though a number of problems have been caused by users who are not aware of all the issues, there are definitely some real problems with the Super 7 boards. We are not sure if this is because the boards were rushed to the market and not fully ‘stress tested’, or if we are all merely victims of new technology that is getting adopted way to fast and by too many people. The ‘normal’ pattern for a technical product is that a very small percentage of ‘early adopters’ will purchase a brand new product, wanting to be the first on the block. These are the people who understand technology, understand the potential problems with new technology and will usually work with manufacturers to identify problems – sometimes even figuring out the solution themselves.

Today, it seems that many more people are becoming ‘early adopters’ without realizing what the potential pitfalls are. While this generates a bigger ‘initial’ market, it also creates a much worse return problem. Not only that, but these users are generally much less tolerant of these problems and become very demanding and even very vocal in their ‘displeasure’. The unfortunate result of this is that rumors and myths abound as to what the real problems are, causing some items to get an undeserved bad reputation

The biggest motherboard issue we have encounted is one that has already been commented on and addressed by AOpen. AOpen was using a capacitor in the power-on circuit that was preventing the board from booting if the power supply was not providing enough power. This caused a lot of customers to claim that the board was defective, when the actual issue, in many cases, was a poor power supply. We have received a number of these ‘non-booting’ boards and have found no problems with them. On the other hand, it seems that the batch of capacitors used had a high incidence of problems, because about half of the boards returned actually did not boot for us either. Sometimes this problem occured after a week or two of operation.

The rumor that came out of this problem was that AOpen had ‘recalled’ their product to make a new revision (no doubt started by a vendor that was not very happy). The reality is that AOpen failed to recognize the popularity of their Super 7 board, and only made a few thousand of them. Once they sold out, they realized that they had an insufficient supply of PCBs which caused a short delay in manufacturing. In the meantime, they also decided to change the design to include the ACPI functionality, add 512k of cache and change the ‘troublesome’ capacitor. This design change caused another delay, and only recently did AOpen begin to ship again. AOpen now believes that this problem should be minimized, but believes that there will still be some users with low-quality power supplies that will continue to have problems. We can only emphasize that users read our helpdesk article on power supplies.

The FIC VA-503+ board has had some problems as well. Many have reported that the board won’t boot at 100MHz, but further investigation has shown that this is mostly due to non-PC100 memory being used. In some cases, however, the boards do have problems with the faster bus speeds, and may not even recognize memory in some memory banks. There have also been an unusually high incidence of ‘dead’ boards returned after a week of operation, though not as high as the AOpen boards. Soyo boards have also had some problems with the 100MHz speed and dying an early death, however this has been the least problematic of all three boards we carry. The newly released PA-2013 looks very good so far, but it will take a few weeks in the hands of users to really determine if this board has problems as well.

Virtually all of three of the motherbords have had some reported problems recognizing AGP cards. Usually the problem is that the PCI slot works, but the AGP slot does not. We have verified these problems, and this is usually not a user error. The incidence is not high, but there have been enough reports that there is some cause for concern. One issue that has been publicly discussed is the inability of the original MVP3 chipset revision to work with the i740 graphics chipset. This one is not surprising, considering the i740 was not available at the time the MVP3 was designed. Unfortunately, some customers have taken this as an opportunity to get a replacement board with the ‘new’ chipset revision. With new technology, there are many hurdles in the way, and this is one of them. As an ‘early adopter’ of technology, one should be aware that these problems will exist. VIA could not have guaranteed compatibility with the i740 chipset, and it is our opinion that users should not hold them responsible.

Should You Buy, or Should You Wait?

With the rapid advancement in technology, there is no way a manufacturer can guarantee complete stability and compatibility on the first release. If you need to have a stable, compatible system right off the bat, you should NEVER buy into technology that has not been field tested for at least a few months. If you do so, you should be willing to accept some responsibilty, and realize that you very well may experience down time and may have to endure some waiting period as the manufacturers and vendors try to figure out what the actual problem is.

If you just want to experience the latest and greatest in technology, and you are willing to put up with some problems (perhaps even some BIG problems), are willing to reinstall hardware and software more than once (maybe even more than twice!!), and have a lot of patience then you might be the true ‘early adopter’ that can handle these products at this time. Regardless of what any review site says, they simply cannot stress test a product enough to make a recommendation based upon reliability over the long haul. This takes many, many hours of testing which would delay their reviews so they could not be the ‘first’ to report on the product.

It is my opinion that consumers should recognize that it is *their* demand for faster development (Where is that product? Hurry up and release it!!!), expectations of immediate reviews (Why hasn’t anyone posted a review of this yet? It’s on the manufacturer’s website?) and desire for cheap prices that encourages this situation. Intel has traditionally not had these problems because they controlled the market pace (and price) with their chipsets and processors, which allowed them to spend up to a year designing and testing the products. With increased competition in both of these arenas, we expect that even Intel will begin having problems unless they are willing to be the last to market. Though that is a strategy that might work, if the alternative manufacturers can solve their problems in a timely manner, it may also cause quite a change in market share over time.

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