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Foxconn X38A

A motherboard on the Intel X38 chipset.

January 21, 2008



  • Intel X38 chipset (X38 north bridge and ICH9R south bridge)

Top motherboards do not bring much profit, they have a relatively small target audience (including IT reviewers ;). As a rule, they offer so many excessive features that nobody uses all of them. However, they have one indisputable advantage: they are very interesting to describe and compare. We can risk an assumption that they are interesting to design as well.

The Foxconn X38A is also interesting because it tries to combine contradictions: being a top motherboard and being fit for memory upgrades. Both types of products have been manufactured for a long time already. But we cannot recall when somebody tried to combine them. As a rule, top motherboards are on the bleeding edge. On the contrary, motherboards supporting two memory types are interesting only from the point of view of memory upgrades. In other respects, they are ordinary products. However, in this case engineers did not try to provide memory upgrade options, they just tried to unify their top product—most competitors of Foxconn launch two models in this case (one product for each memory type). We can understand their reasons. Now let's try to give an objective review of this product that tries to break this trend.




The first look reveals that the PCB design is very tight—there is practically no empty room on the board. A matter of course: try to accommodate three PCIEx16 slots, 2 x PCI, 2 x PCIEx1, and six memory slots (4 x DDR2 and 2 x DDR3) on a standard full-size ATX board. By the way, the latter is ideologically correct: if the number of DDR2 slots had been limited to two, the motherboard would have lost much of its attraction. What concerns memory upgraders, everything is logical: four DDR2 slots allow to increase memory volume with old modules. And when you run out of DDR2 slots, you may turn to two slots for new memory.

We do not have serious gripes with the layout of other connectors: PATA and FDD connectors are maximum close to prospective slots for such devices, connectors for brackets with additional USB/FireWire and COM ports line up in a neat row at the edge of the board together with audio connectors for the front panel and S/PDIF-Out. One can grumble about a thick bunch of cables concentrated here if you plug everything, of course. On the other hand, it wouldn't have been better, if these connectors were spread evenly across the board - you would end with a mess of entangled cables. We've finally got rid of COM and LPT ports on the rear panel. It's high time to move these dinosaurs to brackets—90% of users won't even remember about them, to say nothing about using them.

The on-board POST indicator deserves a separate paragraph. One cannot overestimate convenience of this feature for an overclocker. That is Foxconn considers overclockers as a significant part of the target audience for this product. However, we were a tad surprised by the lack of information on diagnostics codes in the documentation. To all appearances, Foxconn caters for experienced overclockers here, who can recite POST codes by heart :)

The cooling system of the chipset and CPU power module produces mixed impressions: on one hand, it's all shiny copper and imposing design; but on the other hand, only a heat sink on the field-effect transistors in the power circuit copes with passive cooling, because north/south bridge finning is decorative rather than practical: there are few thick fins. Besides, they are short on the south bridge heat sink. The motherboard is bundled with an optional fan (for the heat sink on the north bridge) for a reason. Besides, we didn't buy this copper thing and scratched the surface in some places. Our suspicions were confirmed: only heat pipes and the heat sink on the power supply module are made of copper. Heat sinks on the north and south bridges are made of aluminum and just decorated with copper coating.

Let's hope that engineers won't use false chokes, so the motherboard is equipped with an honest 6-phase voltage regulator with two field-effect transistors per phase - a very good solution even for a top product. Besides, Foxconn stresses many times (in two places on the box) that the motherboard uses only solid-state capacitors and chokes with ferrite cores.

On the whole, the board produces a nice impression, although pseudo-copper heat sinks on north and south bridges spoil it a little. We are not disappointed by aluminum as such (our reference motherboard for CPU tests—ASUS P5B—is equipped with honest aluminum heat sinks, and it's still one of the best motherboards for its chipset), only by the fact that they were thoroughly disguised as copper ones. Perhaps, Foxconn did not intend anything wrong, just tried to decorate its motherboard.

System monitoring (Fintek F71882F (FoxOne) in BIOS Setup and Windows utilities)

  • Voltages on a processor, memory, north bridge, battery, +5 V, +12 V, +3.3 V, VCC, VSB
  • RPM of 3 fans
  • Temperatures of a processor and motherboard (by integrated sensors).

FoxOne utility adds nothing to this list, and it would have hardly made any sense: a list of monitored parameters is quite rich, almost exhaustive.

BIOS Setup also offers options to finetune CPU and system fans: you can specify four temperature thresholds for each fan to change speed to a specified value (temperature is specified in degrees, rotational speed—in work cycle percentage or rpm). Besides, you can specify the minimum speed for each fan.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Socket 775, the list of supported processors includes Core 2 Duo/Quad/Extreme, Pentium 4/D/EE/E2xxx, Celeron 4xx with 800-1333 MHz FSB (533 MHz is not supported, 1600 MHz is not officially supported either)
  • 4 x DDR2-667/800 SDRAM DIMM (8 GB maximum); dual-channel mode is supported, when at least two slots of different channels are filled; compatibility test results are published on the web site
  • 2 x DDR3-800/1066/1333 SDRAM DIMM (maximum 4 GB); dual-channel mode is supported when both slots are filled; compatibility test results are published on the web site
  • 2 x PCIEx16, support for PCI Express 2.0 and ATI CrossFire
  • PCIEx16 (the real operating mode is x4)
  • 2 x PCIEx1 (it's disabled when an expansion card is installed into the third PCIEx16 slot)
  • 2 x PCI
  • Power connectors: ATX 2.2 (24 pins) and EPS12V (8 pins), which can be used as ATX12V (by plugging a 4-pin connector)
  • 1 x FDD
  • 1 x IDE (Parallel ATA) based on the external controller for two ATA133 devices
  • 6 x SATA-II based on the chipset, hard drives can form RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5
  • Two connectors for brackets with four USB ports
  • Connector for a bracket with an additional FireWire port
  • Connector for a COM port on a bracket
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connector for a bracket with S/PDIF-Out
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • IrDA connector
  • Connector for a PC Speaker
  • Connector for a chassis intrusion sensor
  • Four fan headers, two of them are 4-pin headers (system and CPU fans), three of them support fan speed monitoring, CPU and system headers allow automatic fan speed control.

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





Click the image for a rear view.
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard
  • Optical (Toslink) and coaxial S/PDIF Outs
  • FDC (Foxconn Digital Connector), we don't know anything about this connector yet
  • 1 x FireWire and 2 x eSATA-II
  • 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet) and 2 x USB
  • 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet) and 2 x USB
  • 6 x Analog Audio (Center/Sub, Side-Out, Rear-Out, Line-In, Front-Out, Mic-In).

Speaking of FDC, we should mention that this motherboard officially opens a new series of products from Foxconn - Digital Life. Positioning of products from this series is not clear so far (general words about the digital century, digital quality, etc, nothing concrete). Besides, this series includes only two products so far. Nevertheless, Foxconn Digital Connector will certainly become an attribute of this series. This connector will be used to plug some (not yet announced) devices for communication and entertainment (it's up to you to translate it from the marketing language). One thing is clear - Foxconn plans on manufacturing such devices. Only then we'll be able to appreciate advantages and drawbacks of the Digital Life family.

Bundle




  • Package: a nice brightly-colored box, which is slightly bigger than standard packages for ATX motherboards
  • Documentation: Installation poster with explanations of basic steps on how to install the motherboard into a PC case and plug all necessary devices (in many languages), as well as a thick User's Guide in English
  • Cables: 1 x FDD, 1 x PATA, 6 x SATA (plus six SATA power adapters)
  • Rear panel bracket with 2 x USB and 1 x mini-FireWire
  • Optional fan for the heat sink on North bridge
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with drivers and proprietary utilities, including FoxOne, FoxLogo, and FoxDMI. FoxLiveUpdate (to search for the latest drivers and BIOS versions over Internet) does not work with this motherboard yet.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on the chipset support for High Definition Audio and Realtek ALC888S codec, 7.1 channel audio, separate HDA stereo output for the front panel and two S/PDIF-Out jacks
  • Two network controllers based on Realtek RTL8111B (PCIEx1 interface) and Realtek RTL8110SC (PCI interface), 10/100/1000 Mbps (the second network adapter is connected to PCI instead of PCI Express, because of the insufficient number of free PCI-E lanes in the south bridge)
  • IDE/SATA-II RAID based on JMicron JMB363 (PCIEx1 interface) supporting 1 x PATA (for two ATA133 devices) and 2 x SATA300 (eSATA ports on the rear panel), which could theoretically form SATA RAID
  • FireWire, based on Texas Instrument TSB43AB22A, supporting two 400 Mbps ports.

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.0 test application and the ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB
+0.01, -0.03
Excellent
Noise level, dB (A)
-93.0
Very good
Dynamic range, dB (A)
93.1
Very good
THD, %
0.0027
Excellent
Harmonic distortion + noise, dB(A)
-82.4
Good
Intermodulation distortion + noise, %
0.0085
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB
-93.7
Excellent
IMD at 10 kHz, %
0.0074
Excellent

General performance: Excellent. Analog audio quality is brilliant.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • FoxOne chip monitors many system parameters. Supported by the cognominal Windows utility, it provides rich features for system monitoring and overclocking
  • On-board POST LEDs and buttons to turn the computer on/off and clear CMOS
  • Foxconn Digital Connector (FDC) for proprietary Foxconn devices (not yet announced)
  • A combination of memory slots for DDR2 and DDR3 is not actually a proprietary feature of Foxconn, but it should still be mentioned here.

In our opinion, the Foxconn X38A motherboard deserves our Original Design award: it's the first motherboard on a given chipset with slots for DDR2 and DDR3 memory we've ever reviewed. Besides, it offers an excellent overclocking potential, it's equipped with a POST display, and it qualifies for a top product. At least, this was indeed a unique product at the time this article was published. It competed for attention from two groups of users: those who love to be on the bleeding edge and experienced overclockers.

Settings

With jumpers and buttons Clear CMOS jumper  
In BIOS based on AMI BIOS 2.61 Allows to disable specific CPU functions + SpeedStep, C1E, Hardware Prefetcher, Adjacent Cache Line Prefetch, VT, Execute-Disable Bit, PECI, Core Multiprocessing
Memory timings + TCL, TRCD, TRP, TRAS, TWR, TRFC, TWTR, TRRD, TRTP
Memory frequency selection + relative to FSB frequency: Auto, 1:2, 1:2.4, 1:2.5, 1:3, 1:3.3, 1:4
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCI-E: 100—200 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI: Auto, 33.3, 37.3, 42.0 MHz
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 266—800 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier +  
CPU core voltage control + from +0.0125 V to +0.3875 V at different steps (31 values)
Memory voltage control + from +0.046 V to +1.491 V at different steps (28 values)
Chipset voltage control + North bridge: from +0.032 V to +0.380 V;
South bridge: from +0.037 V to +0.424 V at different steps (12 values)
FSB voltage control + from +0.08 V to +0.56 V (7 values)

We used BIOS 723F1P03 dated 06.11.2007, the latest available BIOS version at the time of our tests. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested. The motherboard allows to call up a menu with the F11 button to select a boot device during the POST procedure, a convenient way for a once-only boot-up, for example from a CD drive, without making changes in BIOS Setup.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz)
  • Memory:
    • 2 x 1 GB Corsair CM2X1024-9136C5D (tested in DDR2-800 mode at 4-4-4 timings)
    • 2 x 1 GB Corsair CM3X1024-1333C9DHX (tested in DDR3-1066 mode at 9-9-9 timings)
  • Graphics card: ATI Radeon X1900 XTX 512 MB
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Power supply unit: GlacialTech GP-PS450AP
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We'll compare the Foxconn X38A with three fastest motherboards on Intel 965P and Intel P35.

Test Foxconn X38A (DDR3-1066) MSI P35 Neo Combo (DDR3-1066) Foxconn X38A (DDR2-800) MSI P35 Neo Combo (DDR2-800) MSI P35 Platinum (DDR2-800) Gigabyte 965P-DQ6 (DDR2-800)
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 4:13 4:11 4:12 4:17 4:14 4:10
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 3:37 3:38 3:37 3:37 3:37 3:37
Doom 3 (Low@640x480), fps 219 218 218 215 215 218
Doom 3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 121 121 122 121 121 123
FarCry (Low@640x480), fps 359 354 361 352 353 359
FarCry (Highest@1600x1200), fps 151 151 152 152 152 152

As you can see, the Foxconn product performs practically on a par with the fastest Gigabyte motherboard (i965P) and outperforms MSI products on P35 (these models are also very fast). We cannot say for sure yet which factor played the decisive role here: either Foxconn engineers or performance of the new chipset from Intel—but results are reassuring anyway.

Bottom line

Foxconn launched a very interesting product and put to good use an idea forgotten by other grands: you'd better make the most of available chips instead of adding new components to a motherboard. As a result, we've got a top product (in functions and rigging), although it cannot boast of top componentry. No BIOS backup chips, external VRM, Wi-Fi, and other R&D fantasies. On the other hand, it's really hard to pinpoint faults, because everything really necessary for a modern powerful computer is available.

In fact, the Foxconn X38A somehow resembles the old motherboards from EPoX: very few bells and whistles plus a well thought-out design and a feature-rich BIOS. Besides, we shouldn't forget about FDC and possible consequences (we cannot evaluate them now actually). Two DDR3 slots in addition to four DDR2 ones look very attractive. And finally, this is just a motherboard on a top chipset from Intel for $250 (at the time of this article), which is one of the most attractive offers among products on this chipset.


This model on manufacturer's website

Motherboard kindly provided by the manufacturer.
Memory modules kindly provided by Corsair.


Stanislav Garmatiuk (nawhi@ixbt.com)
January 21, 2008

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