||FIC AU11 Chameleon Review
February 12, 2003 Brandon Bell
Summary: Co-developed with Epox, FIC's AU11 Chameleon is built for hardcore tweakers, yet can be found for under $100 online. The AU11 Chameleon supports bus speeds up to 211MHz, sports NVIDIA's MCP-T chip, and more CPU voltages than any other motherboard on the market. We just missed hitting 200MHz with our board, and were amazed by its performance. See how it fares against the ASUS A7N8X in our review!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 13 )|
nForce2’s New Lease On Life
AMD’s Athlon 64 delay has had some pretty significant ramifications on the entire AMD processor family, as well as motherboard and chipset manufacturers that support these devices. Initially Athlon 64 was scheduled to launch only a month or two from today. Now consumers will have to wait seven more months for Athlon 64, putting the CPU’s release nearly a year behind schedule. This means that the Athlon XP family will continue to be the flagship of AMD’s desktop line for the entire first half of 2003, a plan that is sure to disappoint many AMD enthusiasts.
In any case, the news must have come as quite a delight to NVIDIA, whose nForce2 chipset is beginning to really gain ground in the chipset market. With Athlon XP holding the front lines for AMD a few months longer, NVIDIA has more time to sell its nForce2 SPP and, more recently, IGP chips.
If you recall the nForce2 launch, NVIDIA assured everyone that it had learned from its misfortunes with the original nForce chipset. It’s not that nForce was an inferior product; the problem NVIDIA ran into was availability. Motherboards based on the chipset didn’t arrive until November 2001, approximately two months later than NVIDIA was shooting for.
To complicate matters, the only motherboard that was initially available was from ASUS, motherboards from MSI, ABIT, and NVIDIA’s other partners didn’t arrive until later that year. By the time nForce motherboards were readily available at competitive prices, VIA’s KT333 chipset was already well established. nForce’s fate was sealed.
nForce2 looked like it was doomed to repeat many of nForce’s mistakes, but this new breath of life from AMD gives the chipset more time to flourish. Unless VIA does something soon with its KT400A chipset, NVIDIA could grab a significant share of the Athlon chipset market, as we’ve found that it easily outperforms KT400, is extremely price competitive, supports more features, and, in the eyes of many enthusiasts, is more reliable.
FIC’s Unique Product Portfolio
Don’t believe us? The fact that we’re reviewing an nForce2 motherboard from FIC should be enough to convince you. FIC has been one of VIA’s oldest partners (being sued along with VIA for patent infringement before the suit was eventually settled), the company even shared family ties to VIA at one point!
In addition, FIC has a separate line of the AMD products that utilizes ATI’s RADEON IGP graphics. They were actually ATI’s exclusive launch partner for the RADEON IGP. Now they’re adding nForce1 and nForce2 products to their lineup, making them the only motherboard manufacturer that we’re aware of with chipsets built by both ATI and NVIDIA.
Anyway, lets see what FIC brings to the table with the AU11 Chameleon.
SIDEBAR: FIC AU11 Chameleon Product Webpage
| Board Features||Page:: ( 2 / 13 )|
If you’re a real expert on nForce2 motherboards, you’re probably scratching your head right now -- “Why does the AU11 Chameleon look just like the EPoX EP-8RDA+?” you’re thinking. That’s because FIC and EPoX worked together on the design of their respective nForce2 products. The AU11 Chameleon that you’re looking at today is nearly the exact same motherboard EPoX sells as the EP-8RDA+. The greatest design difference is the diagnostic LED display, the EPoX board has it, but for some reason FIC chose to omit it.
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This makes a lot of sense to co-design nForce2 with EPoX. Development costs are shared and as long as the engineers get along, development time is reduced. In fact, EPoX’s EP-8RDA+ was one of the first nForce2 motherboards to hit the market. In our opinion, it’s great to see a company with strong OEM roots like FIC partnering with an enthusiast motherboard manufacturer like EPoX. While we’ve only looked at a handful of EPoX products, we’ve always thought highly of them. They’re considered to be right up there with ABIT among many enthusiasts. FIC’s products have traditionally been a little on the conservative side, but as you’ll see over the next few pages they’ve opened up quite a bit with the AU11 Chameleon.
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First off, the motherboard supports NVIDIA’s six-channel audio via the MCP-T chip (which acts as a DSP). Realtek’s ALC-650E AC’97 CODEC handles the sound output. This is the same CODEC we’ve seen on quite a few nForce2 motherboards, including the excellent ASUS A7N8X Deluxe. FIC goes one step short of officially supporting NVIDIA’s SoundStorm audio, as the board doesn’t ship with the SoundStorm ACR riser card for digital/analog 5.1-channel output nor is a S/PDIF output provided on the back plane of the motherboard (and for that matter, there isn’t an external header).
Firewire and Networking
NVIDIA’s MCP-T also brings FireWire and 10/100 Ethernet, for these duties FIC has gone with the Realtek RTL8801B while the Realtek RTL8801BL acts as the physical layer for networking duties. FIC did not include a second PHY to take advantage of the integrated 3Com MAC so DualNet networking support is out
SIDEBAR: FIC is also working on a variant of the AU11 Chameleon based on the IGP North Bridge.
| Board Layout||Page:: ( 3 / 13 )|
The layout of the AU11 Chameleon is fairly simple, although there are some areas that we have gripes with.
First and foremost is the location of the 20-pin ATX power connector. On the AU11 Chameleon, the power connector is located just below the 3-Phase power circuitry, between the nForce2 –128 SPP Northbridge and the back plane of the motherboard. This is not an ideal location for the power connector, as the power cord must run across the CPU interface, dangerously close to the CPU fan and constricting airflow on the upper half of the motherboard. Fortunately, mounting holes for more extreme cooling units are present (although they don’t appear to be grounded), and there is plenty of room near the Socket A interface for the largest of heatsinks. This is one aspect of the AU11 Chameleon that power users will enjoy.
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Another quirk with the AU11 Chameleon is the location of the IDE/floppy connectors. Unfortunately, FIC/Epox have decided to place the floppy connector on the very bottom of the motherboard, so those of you with full tower cases will have to stretch your floppy cable all the way to the bottom of the motherboard to set it up. In some cases, you may have to relocate your floppy drive entirely to get it hooked up! Secondly, the IDE connectors are oriented below the AGP slot. Like the floppy connector, this could lead to all kinds of installation headaches, especially if you have a long video card such as the GeForce4 Ti 4400/Ti 4600.
For powering CPU and case fans, three fan headers are present on the board -- two near the Socket interface, just above the DIMM sockets, while the third is located on the bottom of the motherboard. While we like the three fan headers, FIC should have placed the second fan header near the AGP slot, or at least to the left of the CPU interface. Many cases ship with one, or even two fans in the back of the case, one to suck the hot air out of the case and a second fan to blow cool air in, across the upper half of the motherboard. With the AU11 Chameleon, the fan header may be too far from this fan to be used. Of course, this variable will vary from case to case, we think this won’t be an issue in most system cases but there will always be those that don’t work. This is why many motherboard manufacturers have chosen to place their fan headers just above the AGP slot.
Our final complaint is the location of the DIMM sockets. As with far too many motherboards we’ve seen, they’re located too close to the AGP slot (which has a handy retention mechanism). As a result, you’ll need to install your system memory before installing the graphics card, and if you do decide to add more memory at a later date to DIMM sockets two or three, you’ll have to remove your graphics card first. This is an inconvenience that we’d like to see more motherboard manufacturers address.
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We know all of these issues may be minor to many of you, but we’ve seen all of them addressed in the ASUS A7N8X. While its dimensions are very similar to the AU11 Chameleon, it doesn’t have any of these issues and the board itself is packed with more features. Clearly its board layout is the benchmark for space efficiency.
SIDEBAR: FIC was actually the reference motherboard for AMD’s 1GHz Thunderbird launch.
| BIOS Interface||Page:: ( 4 / 13 )|
One thing that strikes us about the nForce2 motherboards is how similar their BIOS fields are. Page for page, most of the same settings are present from board to board, regardless of manufacturer. Even many of settings themselves have many of the same parameters, for instance the memory timing options on all the motherboards are the exact same, including CAS latency. Pretty much the only area where motherboard manufacturers are differentiating themselves is on bus speeds and CPU voltages available. Other than that, you’ll get the same general BIOS experience from all the nForce2 motherboard manufacturers.
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In terms of BIOS tweaking options, the AU11 Chameleon is pretty tough to beat. For instance, CPU voltages are available in 0.025V increments all the way up to 2.20V! Therefore, the AU11 Chameleon has voltage settings for even the most extreme of overclockers. We haven’t seen any other motherboard manufacturer offer this many voltage options and to be frank, we can understand why. 2.20V is probably too aggressive for today’s 0.13-micron Athlon XP CPU’s, even for those of you with water-cooling units. Electromigration is the silent enemy of any overclocker and 2.20V is just too much juice for the core.
AGP voltages up to 1.8V are provided, as well as DIMM voltages topping out at 2.9V.
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In terms of bus speed adjustments, settings up to 200MHz are available in 1MHz increments, and from there settings of 204, 207, and 211MHz are offered. Personally we would have liked to see these additional settings available in 1MHz increments as well; hopefully this will be addressed in a future BIOS update.
The memory bus can operate asynchronous to the system bus, meaning you can run your system bus at 333MHz while your memory bus is operating at 400MHz, but we’ve found that for best performance its best to run these in synch with each other. The setting for this is “Memory Frequency” and the AU11 Chameleon will conveniently spit out the final clock frequency of the memory bus at all times to ensure that you’re running it at the clock frequency you want.
All nForce2 motherboards we’ve tested have the “System Performance” setting as well. We like to keep this setting at “Expert” so we can crank the memory timings down manually, but if you don’t have the patience to play with these parameters set it at “aggressive” for good performance.
One other aspect that we’d like to point out is the available clock multipliers. In its current state the AU11 Chameleon offers multipliers up to 24X, so you can be assured that it will support the latest AMD processors. In any case, these can always be adjusted in a future BIOS update.
We were pleased to get 190MHz out of our AU11 Chameleon motherboard. Actually, we cranked the multiplier down to 6.0 and were able to hit bus speeds as high as 192MHz with complete stability, but once we cranked the multiplier up we couldn’t get that bus setting to run with 100% stability for some reason. We were still quite satisfied with our overclock however.
SIDEBAR: It’s a bit surprising to see so little innovation in the help menu of today’s BIOS’ since it was introduced a few years ago.
| System Setup||Page:: ( 5 / 13 )|
AMD Athlon XP 2600+ (333MHz bus)
FIC AU11 Chameleon (nForce2)
ASUS A7N8X Deluxe nForce2 (nForce2)
MSI KT4 Ultra-FISR (KT400)
512MB Corsair XMS3200 CAS2 Memory
ATI RADEON 9700 Pro 128MB
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA-100 Hard Drive
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1
Desktop resolution 1024x768, 32-bit color, 75Hz refresh
All power saving options were turned off, as were the Automatic Update and System Restore services. Graphics options under the ‘Performance’ tab were all disabled for maximum performance.
Unreal Tournament 2003
3D Mark 2001 Second Edition Build 330 – 32-bit color
Quake III: Arena version 1.17 ‘Demo001’ demo
Serious Sam: The Second Encounter – 32-bit color, Elephant Atrium demo
Jedi Knight II
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth Benchmark
Content Creation Winstone 2002
Business Winstone 2002
SIDEBAR: FIC stands for First International Computer
| 3D Mark 2001 SE||Page:: ( 6 / 13 )|
3D Mark 2001 SE v.330 – DirectX 8
SIDEBAR: What do you think of the new 3DMark benchmark? Drop your thoughts in the news comments!
| Serious Sam SE||Page:: ( 7 / 13 )|
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
SIDEBAR: FIC is also working on a line of small form factor and brick (even smaller) systems
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 8 / 13 )|
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
SIDEBAR: Based on the looks of FIC’s product lineup, it seems that most of their focus is on the AMD platform.
| Comanche 4||Page:: ( 9 / 13 )|
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
SIDEBAR: FIC also manufactures ATI-based video cards
| Unreal Tournament 2003||Page:: ( 10 / 13 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
SIDEBAR: NVIDIA’s latest press release states 400MHz capability, but we still haven’t seen it. We’re keeping our fingers crossed on this one.
| SiSoft Sandra 2003/Content Creation Tests||Page:: ( 11 / 13 )|
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
Business Winstone 2002
Content Creation Winstone 2002
SIDEBAR: We used NVIDIA’s latest 2.03 drivers for our testing
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 12 / 13 )|
Price: Make no mistake about it, FIC’s AU11 Chameleon is priced to move. Online prices start just below $100, which is an incredible value for a motherboard packing the credentials the AU11 Chameleon boasts. MSI’s K7N2 that we reviewed last month can be found for about $10 cheaper, but you give up a lot in exchange: you don’t get the NVIDIA audio or FireWire provided by the MCP-T chip present on the AU11 Chameleon. We’d gladly pay a few bucks more to get these features alone, so we consider the asking price for the AU11 Chameleon to be a bargain.
Performance: While we’ve found that most nForce2 motherboards perform within a hair or two of each other, somehow FIC and Epox have found a way to squeeze just a little more performance out of their nForce2 boards.
In any case, the nForce2 platform is the fastest solution out there for the Athlon XP at this point. So there’s no way you can be disappointed with the performance of any nForce2 motherboard. As you saw in our test results, VIA’s KT400 chipset is quite a few paces behind.
Features: Besides the aforementioned six-channel audio and FireWire provided by the MCP-T, the AU11 Chameleon boasts additional features such as 10/100 networking, support for up to 3GB of memory, and AGP 8X. For expansion, you’ve got 6 PCI slots, 6 USB 2.0 ports (including external header), and the ATA/133 goodness the nForce2 chipset provides. FIC rounds out the package even further by including 2002 versions of Symantec’s Personal Firewall, Ghost, and Antivirus utility software.
NOVUS: NOVUS is a collection of FIC-unique software applications that make the AU11 Chameleon easier to use. For instance, the Overclock Partner will automatically restart your system with safe mode settings after an unsuccessful overclock. This is a very handy feature to have for overclockers. BIOS Guardian protects the BIOS from harmful viruses, while the Logo Genie allows you to make your own custom startup screen that will load during POST.
Tweaking machine: The AU11 Chameleon was built from the ground up for overclocking. Bus speeds are plentiful, while the AU11 Chameleon supports more CPU voltages than any other nForce2 motherboard on the market.
Layout: As good as the AU11 Chameleon is, it could have been even better had FIC made a few small changes to the layout of the board. In its current position, the ATX power connector constricts airflow within the upper half of the case, while the location of the floppy and IDE connectors is far from ideal.
SoundStorm: If you really need the SoundStorm connections, you’ll have to look elsewhere, as the AU11 Chameleon doesn’t offer the digital connectivity options on the board itself or as an external header. This is a shame, as the MCP-T/Realtek hardware combination is more than capable of handling these duties.
SIDEBAR: Keep in mind that our thoughts here also apply to the Epox EP-8RDA+ for the most part, as they’re based on the same design.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 13 / 13 )|
FIC’s AU11 Chameleon combines the enthusiast tweaking experience of Epox with the convenience features found in an FIC product. Older FIC products we’ve reviewed have always had cool features that make their boards easy to use like NOVUS (the AU11 Chameleon actually goes one step further by automatically rebooting your system with safe settings after an unsuccessful overclock), but they’ve traditionally been a little too mundane in the eyes of the overclocker.
For instance, bus speed adjustment hasn’t been as flexible or as powerful as solutions from other manufacturers, 1MHz increment bus speed adjustment was one feature that was often left out. In addition, previous FIC motherboards we’ve reviewed weren’t entirely jumperless -- we had to manually adjust the CPU’s clock multiplier via dipswitches much more often than we would like. The AU11 Chameleon changes all this, and if this is a preview of things to come from FIC, we eagerly await their future products, especially if they’re being co-developed with an enthusiast-minded manufacturer like Epox.
What really makes the AU11 Chameleon so sweet isn’t just the overclocking features, although we’ve got to admit that we did enjoy that particular aspect of the board. But it’s the other things that round out the package: the use of the MCP-T, the optimized performance, feature set (including goodies from Symantec like Norton Ghost), and most of all, price. The AU11 Chameleon can be purchased online for just under $100, making it an incredible value.
It’s because of this that we’ve awarded the AU11 Chameleon our “Bulls Eye” Award. The Bulls Eye Award is designed to reflect the needs of the consumer who wants to get the most bang from his buck. And as you’ve just seen in our review, the AU11 Chameleon packs all the performance of the nForce2 platform with a price that is unmatched for the features you’re getting. Quite simply, the FIC AU11 Chameleon (and its sister board from Epox) are the best values on the nForce2 market at this point. You won’t find anything better for less.
If you must have SoundStorm audio, obviously the AU11 Chameleon isn’t for you, which is why we wish FIC would make it available as an optional feature. But other than this omission, the AU11 Chameleon is hard to beat. Overclockers will love all the bus speed settings and voltages in particular, it’s really surprising to see any motherboard manufacturer offer so many voltages, especially coming from FIC. Meanwhile, those who just want a good nForce2 motherboard but don’t want to break the bank will love the AU11 Chameleon’s low price tag. And of course, everyone will love its performance.
In short, FIC has an excellent product on its hands with the AU11 Chameleon. This is the Athlon XP motherboard to buy if you’re on a budget and would make a perfect home for one of AMD’s shiny new Athlon XP 3000+ CPUs.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of the AU11 Chameleon? Is it the price/performance king or were you hoping for a bit more? Speak!