The previous winter in Europe has turned out quite mild. Nevertheless, every gardener knows how important it is to check the condition of trees after the cold season. Spring is a time for the biggest clean-up in the garden. It is a time to clean out old leaves, withered last year's plants, worn-out props and covers, and other garbage left over from fall and winter.
So we too shall have a look at how the winter has affected our "nurslings" - motherboard manufacturers. We need not worry about the condition of the big five: ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, ECS and Foxconn. The motherboard market is growing in terms of absolute volume. Since Gigabyte has remained an independent company, there is no reason to fear monopolization and unfair competition in the near future. And what of the other companies, figuratively speaking, the small bushes and shrubbery? Have they "thinned out", turned to producing Mini-ITX and other built-in industrial grade boards? It seems so, except for a couple of companies, more specifically: abit, Biostar, EPoX and Jetway. Perhaps, a few years ago hardly anyone could have predicted that the list of companies producing full-size PC motherboards would be limited to these. Nevertheless, there are some relatively new names - EVGA and BFG. In addition, Albatron, DFI and some other companies keep ATX models in their series of products. However, the former companies are now basically selling reference boards under their brand and often charge too much for them. The products of the latter companies are hard to find (to be sure, they have to be ordered in advance). That is why it wouldn't be stretching the truth to disregard them altogether. Motherboards under Intel and Sapphire brands are produced, for obvious reasons, using only "select" chipsets that are geared towards system integrators and don't make a difference in retail.
The remaining four are not uniform either. The respectable EPoX brand will not be left without orders for a while. The same is true for Jetway, which is oriented towards low-end products. It can produce on demand a batch or two of boards for anyone interested. That allows it to occupy a small and low-income, but stable position on the market. In contrast, abit's position is still unstable. It is hard to tell whether the company will grow or "wither" by the next season (there is no other choice, it seems). On the other hand, Biostar is not about to give up its ground as a global supplier of motherboards. It is steadily increasing production, and there are reasons for reserved optimism in this case. Considering that in order to buy an expensive motherboard based on an elite chipset consumer is more likely to turn to the aforementioned grandees, models based on low-end discrete chipsets seem to be most interesting. For example, Biostar TForce550. Models based on high-end integrated chipsets also deserve attention, because they are becoming more appealing as a basis for the average household PCs. This article specifically concerns such a model.
Board's layout is almost perfect, which has already become a good tradition for Mini-ATX models. Of the peripheral interfaces only the FireWire is missing. On the other hand, one can increase the number of USB ports to the maximum number supported by the chipset - 10. After the board is installed into the chassis all sockets and jumpers are still easily accessible. 24-pin power supply connector is located near the edge. Only the northbridge heatsink, which resides near the processor socket, may in theory obstruct the installation of a non-standard CPU cooler. But! While this review was still being prepared Biostar has released an updated (5.2) revision of the board. It is the one that is actually going to be manufactured. The height of the northbridge heatsink for the new version has been reduced so that there is no way it can conflict with any processor cooler whatsoever.
AMD 690G chipset as we have already mentioned is one of the most efficient of the modern models with integrated graphics. Even under maximum 3D load it heats up insignificantly (TDP is 9 W). That is why the smaller heatsink still copes with its job. However, due to the location of the chipset close to the CPU, it is preferable to use Energy Efficient processor models in order to get a system with maximum reliability and minimal noise level. Such processors are widely available. Otherwise, you should use a massive cooler, which is not always economically justified. In other words, don't try to artificially reduce rotation rate of the standard CPU cooler fan. High CPU temperature leads to increased chipset temperature, which eventually may adversely affect the term of stable operation (although it is just a theoretical remark).
The thee-channel CPU supply impulse voltage stabilizer uses 3 field transistors per channel, 8 Panasonic capacitors (with polymer electrolyte) of 820 microfarad each and 3 United Chemi-Con - of KZG series, which is a respectable choice. Chipset and memory voltage stabilizer uses 8 1000 microfarad OST capacitors (of RLX series). This characteristic also provides sufficient reliability margin in case you decide to increase memory supply voltage to the maximum value allowed by the board's BIOS. There are no laid-out but unsoldered elements on the board. Board's size is 245x245 mm (Mini-ATX). It is mounted to the chassis using 8 screws. The corner with SATA slots remains unsecured, which, nevertheless, does not cause inconvenience during assembly or when connecting storage devices.
System Monitoring (ITE IT8716F-S, from BIOS Setup Data):
A very laudable property - system monitoring data is displayed on the screen during POST. Unfortunately, Smart Fan mode is not available in BIOS version 3.09. However, in the board's description (and in earlier BIOS versions) it was present, so it is reasonable to expect it back in the next BIOS versions. Until then in order to reduce the noise one may use corresponding fan's rotation rate control options of the brand T-Utility in Windows.
Ports, Connectors and Sockets on Board Surface
Board's Rear Panel (Left to Right, by Blocks)
click to view the board in 3/4 perspective from the rear panel side
Overall rating: Good. Beyond any doubt, there are positive changes in comparison to the previously tested Biostar TForce550. It is important, because the probability of a user relying on integrated audio controller for a model with integrated graphics is much higher than in case of a board based on discrete chipset. We could complain about the narrow dynamic range, however, it is not as critical to audio perception as distortions (which have been taken care of in this case). Subjectively the quality of this audio support can be rated as a B+ (by integrated audio standards, of course).
Brand Technologies and Features
For testing we have used BIOS 03/09/07 version provided by the manufacturer. The aforementioned BIOS capabilities are available in the specified version of the BIOS. Non-standard settings were not tested for operability.
Overclocking capabilities offered by the board are simply unheard of for models with integrated chipsets. Three automatic overclocking modes with names hinting at automobile engine designations (V6, V8 and V12) are offered as well. They are described as corresponding to "Extra, Extreme and Extraordinary" degrees of overclocking. In case of our processor the resulting clock rates were 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5 GHz accordingly. Unfortunately, automatic mode only increases FSB frequency without caring to decrease the HT multiplier, let alone to increase the voltages. As a consequence, automatic overclocking may produce worse stability of operation in comparison to a system manually overclocked to even higher values.
The ability to save BIOS settings profiles and a built-in updating utility are also untypical of the boards of this level. These features definitely deserve a positive mark.
In order to evaluate the overclocking capabilities of the board and its BIOS, we overclock our testbed CPU to the highest frequency possible that also allows for stable operation. Applying this test procedure, we are able to effectively use all of the test board's supported abilities, including increasing processor core voltage, and if necessary, correcting multipliers and adjusting system and peripheral bus frequencies. However, if lowering Hyper-Transport frequency, for example, doesn't improve overclocking performance, the default multiplier is used instead. RAM is set (by using multiplier correction) to the standard frequency for the modules being used, unless the manufacturer specifies methods for improving memory overclocking, in which case their effectiveness is also explored. In order to evaluate the overclocked system's stability, we load Windows XP and run performance tests built into WinRAR (Tools menu - Benchmark and hardware test) for 10 minutes. It is important to realize that overclocking performance varies by motherboard and is, to some extent, an individual characteristic of each specific unit. For this reason, it is impossible for us, and any other review, to determine the overclocking potential of any board with megahertz precision. The practical goal of our test is to find out if the CPU's high overclocking potential is hindered by the board and to evaluate the board's behavior in non-standard BIOS modes. This test also assesses the board's ability to automatically revert to correct frequencies in the case of system hang-ups, excessive overclocking, etc.
This is not a record-breaking but a decent result, nonetheless. We must note the flawless operation of the SRS, which is Biostar's support of automatic parameter restoration after a hang-up due to excessive overclocking. Default settings are used only for booting up. After that the user is directed to a BIOS menu, where the previous parameter values are shown in order to be corrected.
For comparison we have chosen MSI K9AGM2-FIH, a motherboard based on the equivalent chipset. In addition, besides testing Biostar's board using Catalyst 7.2 drivers (which were used to test MSI's board) we have also used the current version (7.4). That way we checked the effect of optimizing the drivers, which is likely to happen, because the chipset has just recently been released. The table shows Biostar results for the 7.4 version only, because results for the 7.2 have turned out almost identical to MSI's. Therefore, in terms of integrated graphics performance we can consider the two boards to be identical.
The ability to manually set the clock rate and memory timings in BIOS, as one could have expected, has had a positive impact on computational test results. However, as far as games are concerned, the updated driver has resulted only in 5-10% improvement, which nevertheless is still nice.
It is clear that the Biostar's motherboard based on AMD 690G chipset that we have examined is not going to be lying around unsold on the store shelves. We hope that it isn't going to be because the scarce supply of Biostar's boards will fall short of the potential demand. It is a rare chance to see a board with integrated chipset come with such a gorgeous BIOS in terms of overclocking settings. Not to mention such an interesting set of brand features, which includes, by the way, 4 video-out ports on the rear panel. Of course, you cannot use all of them to output a different picture onto each of 4 displays. HDMI and DVI are "coupled" so a monitor can be connected to only one at a time. Another monitor can be connected to a VGA port, while the S-Video can translate the same signal onto a TV. High-quality components are used in power supply circuits. The memory slots are marked in correspondence to first and second channel, which is a small, but nice feature. All that makes the overall positive impression complete.
The motherboard was provided for tests by the manufacturer
Dmitriy Laptev (firstname.lastname@example.org)
November 7, 2007
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