||ABIT NF7-S 2.0 Review
June 05, 2003 Chris Angelini
Summary: With its nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset, the ABIT NF7-S 2.0 supports AMD's latest Athlon XP 3200+ processor with 400MHz bus and DDR400 memory. On top of this, ABIT adds Serial ATA support and NVIDIA's MCP-T chip for Dolby Digital audio. The price? NF7-S 2.0 board's can already be found for around $115! Read all about this exciting new motherboard in today's review!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 13 )|
When the nForce2 chipset launched in July of last year, AMD was still selling processors running on a 266MHz bus. During the chipset launch however, NVIDIA let it slip that its core logic would support an upcoming Athlon XP, reportedly set to utilize a 333MHz front side bus.
Fast forward to Comdex in Las Vegas. Once again, NVIDIA was proud to proclaim support for a bus speed that AMD hadn’t officially announced: 400MHz. According to officials at NVIDIA, nForce2 was then re-spun in January of 2003 with optimized power consumption and tuned timings. The result was an extra 40 to 50MHz of headroom, and consequently, excellent yields at the 400MHz bus speed.
Of course, NVIDIA couldn’t officially announce its accomplishment because at the time, the 400MHz setting was an enthusiast’s overclocking feat, not yet a setting offered for retail products. We all know how the story goes, though. AMD eventually let loose with an Athlon XP 3200+ and NVIDIA followed suit with its nForce2 Ultra 400, making the 400MHz front side bus official.
But what about all of the nForce2 chipsets that had shipped between January of 2003 and the launch of AMD’s Athlon XP 3200+ in the middle of May? They are actually nForce2 Ultra 400 silicon, according to NVIDIA; they just aren’t marked as such. There are a couple of ways to tell if your nForce2 board has ability to run a 400MHz front side bus.
Physically, the nForce2 400 Ultra SPP is completely black, whereas the earlier nForce2 SPP has a silver heat slug for enhanced dissipation. The easiest way to identify your chipset, though, is to install the latest drivers from NVIDIA that properly identify the nForce2 Ultra 400 memory controller. But be careful; according to NVIDIA, not all motherboard manufacturers have followed the supplied design guidelines, so pre-Athlon XP 3200+ motherboards might not work properly at 400MHz, even if it sports an nForce2 400 Ultra SPP.
True ABIT Style
Even though ABIT’s NF7-S has been shipping for months now, revision 2.0 of the product is equipped with NVIDIA’s nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset. However, be sure to read the fine print if you plan on purchasing an NF7-S, as the revision 1.0 and 1.2 boards utilize an earlier version of the nForce2 chipset, not the nForce2 Ultra 400.
|<% print_image("01"); %>||<% print_image("02"); %>|
It’s clear that when ABIT was designing the NF7-S, it did so with the enthusiast in mind, as ABIT has employed the top-end configuration (SPP and MCP-T). ABIT exposes the Firewire and 10/100 Ethernet features of the chipset and tacks on Serial ATA support as well. Moreover, the NF7-S can be found for under $100 online, making it an attractive prospect, indeed.
SIDEBAR: ABIT’s NF7-S product page
| Board Analysis||Page:: ( 2 / 13 )|
ABIT has a somewhat mixed bag in terms of layout. On one hand, ABIT has placed the 20-pin ATX connector and its 4-pin auxiliary associate below the CPU socket. While the overall effect on airflow is debatable, working in the general area can get cramped with a processor and video card installed, making this design choice an inconvenience more than anything. In addition, if the AGP slot is populated with a long graphics card, such as a GeForce4 Ti 4600, the DIMM slots will be obstructed from opening; again somewhat of an inconvenience.
Conversely, ABIT has taken great care to ensure plenty of room around the Socket 462 interface; a move sure to be appreciated by enthusiasts with large heat sinks, like an SLK-800. There are also four holes flanking the Socket for coolers that require a more robust mounting surface.
With many manufacturers going back to two-phase power solutions, it’s good to see ABIT sticking with a three-phase implementation controlled by Intersil’s HIP6301CB. Hopefully, that will pay dividends in stability and processor life.
One of the primary features of the nForce2 chipset is its DualDDR memory architecture, effectively combining two, 64-bit DDR memory channels. ABIT’s NF7-S, like all other nForce2 boards we’ve seen, utilizes three 184-pin memory slots with a capacity for 3GB of DDR RAM – two of the slots comprise one channel and another slot makes up the second. Both channels need to be populated in order to realize the maximum bandwidth potential for the chipset, but as we illustrated in our ASUS A7N8X Deluxe review, there isn’t a major performance discrepancy unless you employ integrated graphics.
|<% print_image("04"); %>||<% print_image("05"); %>||<% print_image("06"); %>|
You can immediately tell that the NF7-S is an enthusiast board by looking at its back panel, which features a pair of USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-45 jack that interfaces to the onboard 10/100 Ethernet MAC, five 1/8” analog mini-plugs for audio connectivity, and an S/PDIF optical audio output. ABIT has also chosen to integrate Silicon Image’s 3112 Serial ATA RAID controller with support for two channels of SATA.
While the NF7-S sports one AGP 8x slot and five PCI slots, it is interesting to note that there is a blank space between the first PCI and AGP slot. More than likely, this was done to accommodate large AGP cards, such as NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, (and ABIT’s own OTES line of graphics cards) which consumes two expansion slots.
SIDEBAR: ABIT includes its Serillel Parallel to Serial ATA adapter with the NF7-S. The device can be used to adapt a parallel ATA drive to work with the Silicon Image Serial ATA interface.
| BIOS||Page:: ( 3 / 13 )|
ABIT’s reputation as an enthusiast-friendly manufacturer was solidified when it devised SoftMenu, allowing the end-user to take control of hardware functions through the BIOS. The NF7-S includes the third generation of ABIT’s BIOS software that permits front side bus modifications between 100 and 300MHz in 1MHz increments. It also supports multiplier settings between 5x and 22x. ABIT has decoupled the AGP frequency, offering settings between 66 and 99MHz, in 1MHz steps, of course.
Memory ratios can be configured by SPD, or, there are several manually selectable settings. Within SoftMenu III there are also a multitude of voltage settings. Processor voltages are adjustable between 1.1 and 2.3 volts in .025V increments. DDR memory settings are available between 2.6 and 2.9V, while the chipset itself can be set between 1.4 and 1.7V, and the AGP bus can operate between 1.5 and 1.8V.
|<% print_image("07"); %>||<% print_image("08"); %>|
For the most part, the rest of ABIT’s BIOS menu is par for the course. There are configurable memory timings and selectable hardware monitoring settings for CPU protection, but the NF7-S’ BIOS isn’t overly aggressive. It does, however, offer enough features to facilitate easy overclocking.
|<% print_image("09"); %>||<% print_image("10"); %>||<% print_image("11"); %>|
One of the best features offered by high-end nForce2 boards is the ability to unlock the Athlon XP’s multiplier. The NF7-S is no exception (ABIT enthusiastically advertises that particular feature), and so overclocking is a breeze. We used a combination of multiplier and front side bus settings to eventually land at 2.4GHz on a 200MHz front side bus using an Athlon XP 3000+. Not only was that particular setting completely stable, but it also turned in some impressive benchmark numbers.
SIDEBAR: ABIT uses thermal paste between its active heat sink and the nForce2 Ultra 400 SPP, not a mere thermal pad.
| System Setup||Page:: ( 4 / 13 )|
AMD Athlon XP 3000+ (2.17GHz)
AMD Athlon XP 3000+ @ 2.4GHz
ABIT NF7-S nForce2 Ultra 400 Motherboard
ASUS A7N8X Deluxe nForce2 Motherboard
AOpen AK79G Max nForce2 Motherboard
512MB Corsair XMS3200 CAS2 Memory
ATI RADEON 9800 Pro 128MB
120GB Seagate Serial ATA 7200RPM
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 Demo
3D Mark 2003
Quake III: Arena version 1.17 ‘Demo001’ demo
Serious Sam: The Second Encounter – 32-bit color, Elephant Atrium demo
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth Benchmark
SIDEBAR: ABIT also offers an NF7-M with integrated GeForce MX-class graphics.
| 3D Mark 2003||Page:: ( 5 / 13 )|
SIDEBAR: NVIDIA has been shipping nForce2 Ultra 400 chips to motherboard manufacturers since February.
| 3D Mark 2003 – Frame Rates||Page:: ( 6 / 13 )|
3DMark03 – Wings of Fury
3DMark03 – Battle of Proxycon
3DMark03 – Troll’s Lair
3DMark03 – Mother Nature
SIDEBAR: nForce2 Ultra 400 is built on a 0.15-micron manufacturing process.
| Serious Sam SE||Page:: ( 7 / 13 )|
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
SIDEBAR: At this time, NVIDIA has no plans to offer an nForce2 Ultra 400 variant with the IGP.
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 8 / 13 )|
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
SIDEBAR: ABIT has certainly got the Matrix theme all over their website currently.
| Comanche 4||Page:: ( 9 / 13 )|
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
| Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo||Page:: ( 10 / 13 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
SIDEBAR: ABIT provides a list of supported memory they have tested with their motherboards.
| SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth||Page:: ( 11 / 13 )|
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
One of the features of the nForce2 that NVIDIA likes to advocate is the dual-channel memory bus that can theoretically transfer 6.4GB per second of information if you use PC3200 memory. Now that the Athlon XP 3200+ is available on a 400MHz bus, the processor can utilize up to 3.2GB. The difference between the two numbers, as you may already know, is used to power the onboard graphics core, when relevant.
With a 333MHz memory bus, the ABIT and AOpen boards perform comparably. ASUS’ A7N8X Deluxe establishes a slight performance lead; however, at 400MHz, the ABIT board demonstrates an additional 17 percent bandwidth advantage.
SIDEBAR: So far, ASUS’ A7N8X Deluxe is the only motherboard we’ve encountered to utilize DualNet, NVIDIA’s twin 10/100 Ethernet port design.
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 12 / 13 )|
Price: Sub-$100 used to be a rarity, but lately it seems that every manufacturer has at least one model priced in the double-digits. Nevertheless, ABIT’s NF7-S is a flagship board with a host of useful features, so that fact that it can be found for less than $100 is impressive.
Editor's Note: It has come to our attention that NF7-S prices currently start at $115 online, not the sub-$100 price point we mentioned in this review. NF7 boards (without MCP-T audio and Serial ATA) can be found for under $100 if you really like the other features ABIT offers in its nForce2 motherboard.
Performance: The NF7-S wasn’t the fastest board in all of our tests, but it stacked up well to some of its biggest competitors. At stock speeds, the NF7-S has what it takes to contend. With a little overclocking, however, the proverbial turbochargers spool, the hammer drops, and the board just flies.
Bundle: Considering that the NF7-S is a little less expensive than its competitors, we’d expect ABIT to cut a few corners to save money. On the contrary, the board comes with a USB 2.0 header, a Firewire header, several cables, and ABIT’s own Serillel adaptor.
Layout: ABIT could have made some better design choices, such as moving the ATX and auxiliary power connectors and repositioning the DIMM connectors relative to the AGP slot.
Timing: Although the NF7-S has been around for a while, it’s a somewhat difficult time to invest in the Socket A architecture. AMD’s Athlon XP 3200+ may very well be the last K7 processor released, especially with Athlon 64 reportedly on the way. Buy an nForce2 board today understanding that it may already be at the end of its life in terms of potential processor upgrades. Furthermore, if you wait until Athlon 64 debuts, there is a good chance that prices on Socket A boards will fall even further.
SIDEBAR: The onboard Attansic ATXP1 chip is capable of shutting off power to the NF7-S should the processor get too hot.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 13 / 13 )|
Let us know!