Soltek is on a strong track after Shuttle in the field of barebone-kit production: each more or less decent chipset is used for a regular Qbic model, so that no customer goes away offended. Moreover, the company has recently decided to diversify appearance of its models as well, because the three standard options of the effective design (mat, mirror, or dull-metal front panel) still cannot satisfy tastes of all customers. Now almost all models are offered in classic designs, Mania series (toy plastic finishing) and Spring Collection series (refreshed classics, tender colors). More series are to be expected in future. Thus, Soltek Qbic is presently one of the most attractive barebone-kits on the market.
Absolutely nothing new should be expected from the appearance of the model named EQ3901A. We have already reviewed the EQ3401A barebone-kit and you can see with your own eyes that these models do not differ in appearance: the same aluminium case (counterpart of those used in Shuttle XPC), the same aluminium front panel faceplate. However, invariability of the appearance is none of the worst features of Soltek barebone-kits: dull-reflecting surface of the front panel looks advantageous and, unlike "-M" models with mirror plastic, it's completely "fingerprint-proof". Brand feature of Soltek Qbic is two 5-inch external bays; by the present moment the company has completely given up models with one bay: this does not enlarge the dimensions too much (WxDxH – 215x330x200 mm versus 200x300x185 mm in Shuttle XPC), while this functionality is practically unique on the market.
External bays and connectors in modern Soltek barebone-kits are hidden under covers, 5-inch bay covers are spring-loaded so that they open when the CD/DVD-drive tray ejects and automatically close after a disk is loaded. The trays with a very non-standard faceplate in some drives may block the cover and prevent it from opening – in this case you should either remove the faceplate from the tray or give up this drive model. To make up for it, the plastic extension of eject button on the front panel of the barebone-kit is equipped with a simple alignment mechanism in case the location of the corresponding button on the installed drive is shifted relative to the standard position.
Covers on the 3-inch external bay and on the group of connectors on the front panel are opened manually, silvery power and reset buttons, as well as a HDD activity indicator are located between them. A set of interface connectors is typical for modern Qbic models: one S/PDIF Out port, two standard audio connectors (Mic-In port and Line-Out port), two USB (2.0) ports and one FireWire port. All these connectors (except for S/PDIF-Out) are duplicated on the rear panel of the kit, which is very convenient, as it allows a user to choose between connection convenience and appearance of the system.
The rear panel looks as most modern barebone-kits, but the typical narrow row of cooling vents on the left gives away the fact that the EQ3901 uses another proprietary Soltek technology – Icy-Q. We shall discuss it in detail later. As this model is based on a discrete chipset, there is no VGA-Out and the set of standard interface connectors looks like this: mouse and keyboard PS/2 ports, 2 x COM-port (parallel port can be installed on a bracket, which has to be bought separately), FireWire port, 4 x USB (2.0), LAN port (Gigabit Ethernet) and 5 x Audio connectors to output 8-channel audio. The motherboard of the kit allows 2 additional USB ports (the corresponding rear panel bracket is not included into the bundle) and two expansion cards.
Interior arrangement and functionality
As usual, the lid from the EQ3901A case can be easily removed, you just have to unscrew three wing nuts on the rear panel. Another two screws hold the drive cage, four latches hold the front panel. Thus, Soltek offers convenient access to system innards and provides easy assembly and upgrade procedures for this minicomputer.
But again, this unusual hard disk installation into the bottom section of the cage was already implemented in the EQ3401: it is installed transverse to the PC case instead of lengthwise (as floppy drives). That makes it easy to connect cables to the hard disk and saves much space in the bottom part of the PC case. Besides, the EQ3901 solves the problem of the first "cubes" with the similar construction of a drive cage: lengthy straight connector of a SATA-cable did not allow normal installation of a hard disk (either the cable stuck out of the PC case or the hard disk couldn't be fixed with four screws). In this case the bundle includes two SATA-cables with 90° bent connectors, which take up almost no "horizontal" space.
You will have to remove the front panel to install floppy drives, which is a very easy thing to do, as I have already mentioned it. You may also need to align the eject buttons on the PC case and on the drive. Maximum possible EQ3901 "configuration" is 4 drives; they are easy to connect, interface cables can be neatly laid under the drive cage. Besides, there is no need in laying any other interface cables in the PC case (interface connectors for the front panel are cleverly located on the front edge of the motherboard), and power cables are neatly laid along the case racks with the help of holes in the racks and clips from the bundle. As a result, nothing blocks access to functional elements and vent holes – it's a strong point of Soltek barebone-kits.
Qbic EQ3901 is based on the Soltek B9D-FGR motherboard on VIA K8T800Pro+VT8237 (maximum HT bus frequency is increased to 1000 MHz compared to the K8T800). Almost in any article that features Athlon 64 we mention that the chipset choice has practically no effect on the performance of final solutions, and the inexpensive VIA product is quite justified from this point of view. Unfortunately K8T800/Pro lacks integrated video, so that you'll have to buy a video card even if you don't need 3D features at all. However, at the time the EQ3901 was announced, the market of integrated solutions offered (only theoretically, as there were almost no such products in practice) only VIA and SiS chipsets, and the speed of integrated video in 3D wasn't even nameworthy. However, when this article was written, ATI Xpress 200 series chipsets were already available, and we hope to see a Soltek Qbic model based on such a chipset in the nearest future.
Now let's return to the B9D-FGR motherboard and list its features provided by the chipset: support for AMD Athlon 64/FX and Sempron (Socket 939), up to 2 GB of DDR200/266/333/400 RAM (the motherboard has only 2 DIMM slots) capable of operating in dual-channel mode, AGP 8x bus for external video accelerators, two SATA ports supporting RAID 0 and 1, two UATA133 channels for 4 devices, 8 USB 2.0 ports (6 of them are standard ports) and 8-channel audio (Realtek ALC850 AC'97-codec). Besides, this motherboard contains a VIA VT6307 controller, which provides two FireWire ports, and Realtek RTL8110S network adapter (10/100/1000 Mbit/sec Gigabit Ethernet). There is one AGP and one PCI slot (a standard solution for Shuttle and Soltek barebone-kits) designed for full-sized expansion cards (AGP is closer to the board edge, which excludes video accelerators with bulky cooling systems). The board contains an IrDA connector to plug standard devices, it has a CD-In, there are also three fan headers, two of them are controlled by Smart Fan technology.
General performance: Good (details).
Motherboards in modern barebone-kits always provide overclocking functions and Soltek B9D-FGR is not an exception. BIOS Setup allows to increase FSB frequency to 250 MHz at 1 MHz steps, to raise AGP and memory voltage to 2.9 and 1.8 V correspondingly at 0.1 V steps, to modify CPU voltage from 0.8 to 1.7 V at 0.025 V steps, as well as to control timing settings and fix PCI/AGP bus frequencies. 300 W power supply unit and a good 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor prove that Soltek EQ3901 is ready to squeeze everything possible from its componentry. Jumpers on the motherboard allow to reset CMOS (this jumper is in a very convenient location, you just have to remove the lid of the PC case to use it) and to enable wake on PS/2 devices (this feature is enabled for USB-devices).
Cooling system and temperature conditions
Icy-Q – an air-duct with a large inlet 90-mm fan, which blows the heated air directly from the CPU cooler out of the PC case (through the vent holes on the rear panel). When we came across this technology for the first time in EQ3401, a quiet and high-performance exhaust fan Icy-Q had a very good effect on the thermal efficiency of the system, while its noise characteristics were also up to the mark.
It goes without saying that the 300 W power supply unit also requires active cooling, its large fan is located on the bottom (the power supply unit is mounted horizontally under the "roof" of the PC case). Is the 300 W model that necessary, when even 250 W models are not yet common among competitors – it's a difficult question, but the increased power capacity of the power supply unit will definitely do no harm. It's nice that the chipset bridges on the motherboard are covered with pin-fin heatsinks only, while the bundled ATA and FDD cables are ribboned, bundled together, and shielded – these seeming trifles certainly affect the thermal and acoustic conditions. Besides, there is also a row of vent holes in the fore part of the bottom of the PC case. Cold air sucked through these holes provides additional cooling for the drive cage and the motherboard.
EQ3901 bundle includes a CPU cooler, which we used in our tests. Its construction creates a favourable impression: its copper core and fins protruding in four directions (getting thinner at their edges); convenient retention mechanism. Manufacturer of this cooler is unknown, but the fan is made by ADDA (AD0812UB-A76GL – 80x80x25 mm, up to 3700 rpm, up to 46.7 CFM, up to 38.5 dBA), rather quiet even in maximum mode. However, this cooler is perhaps our greatest disappointment in this Soltek barebone-kit. The fact is that the standard Qbic package does not provide a place for a cooler, as it is done in many other barebone-kits on the market. As a result, it comes shipped right inside the PC case, probably mounted on the socket. But in our case something rattled in the received package when we moved it. When we opened the package our misgivings were confirmed: the cooler was rolling inside. (It's high time to weigh a modern cooler in hand and rant out a speech about the times when the trees were large and pentiums together with coolers were small and lightweight.) The motherboard seemed to take no damage except for the surface of expansion slots (on the photo this damage is almost unnoticeable) but we cannot fail to inform potential buyers about this issue.
It should be noted that all the three fans in the system control their rotational speed depending on the temperature. Temperature modes for the CPU fan and Icy-Q can be specified separately in BIOS (Smart Fan technology). As a result the system is very quiet, because the impeller diameter in Icy-Q cooler is compensated by the low rotational frequency (from 1850 to 2000 rpm). And the CPU cooler had to rotate really fast only in the hardest conditions, when top Athlon 64 FX-53 and ATI Radeon 9800 Pro were loaded "to the brim".
As it's the first time we test a barebone-kit with Athlon 64 FX-53 (or close to it), we shall not provide characteristic figures of the thermal mode (temperature of all system components at rest and at full load) – there is nothing to compare them to. But users of such systems are first of all interested in the quietest possible operation of their own computers without overheating instead of in the comparison with the barebone-kit of their neighbours. To emulate this situation we enabled the "quiet" Smart Fan mode, when fans accelerate only at maximum admissible temperatures of the board and processor. As a result, Soltek EQ3901 seems one of the quietest models by subjectively evaluated noise level (among the reviewed models) – it's the lowest limit for "cubes", the only model looking better is ASUS DiGiMatrix.
Bundle and brief specification of the barebone-kit
Package content has never been the most advantageous side of Soltek Qbic: it cannot be considered rich by modern standards. The bundle of additional accessories is scarce as well, but the attention to minor details is pleasing. In particular, the bundle includes strips of insulation mylar to stick to places of possible undesirable contact between the expansion cards and the PC case or disk drives. (By the way, large dimensions of a PCI-card may result not only in touching the drive cage but also in making it impossible to install a drive into the bottom 5-inch bay.) And of course we can't help mentioning the rucksack, which accommodates so well the assembled system.
In conclusion we provide a brief specification of the barebone-kit, which comes shipped in a nice cardboard box with a handle.
Perhaps our constant readers have a crystal clear idea what they can see in the section devoted to performance tests of two systems with Socket 939. Indeed, performance of different chipsets (not even different motherboards) for 64-bit AMD processors practically matches, the differences may appear only when it's impossible to set minimum timings for one of the systems. There were no such problems in this case, Soltek B9D-FGR and a random motherboard taken for comparison (MSI K8T Neo2-FIR) managed to startup with minimum timings (for the selected memory modules). We publish some of the test results, but they just confirm the above said.
As Soltek EQ3901A lacks internal video, it's impossible to answer the burning question whether the integrated video is enough to play games – in this case you may choose what video card you need. We feel quite confident in recommending that you should use 3Digest for this purpose.
Soltek EQ3901A is noway a revolutionary new kit, it's a typical sequel to the successful Qbic series, but with some minor shortcomings of its predecessors fixed. But the capacity to reach high performance with its standard top Athlon 64 FX or a cheaper Athlon 64 in overclocked mode guarantees noticeable interest to this model. Add the time-proven and new functionality of the Soltek Qbic series (unique in many respects), and you'll get an undoubtedly attractive product, which will disappoint its potential owners only by its relatively high price (about 300 USD at the moment the article was written).
In conclusion we'll publish a short list of the most typical pros and cons of the barebone-kit under review.
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