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What Makes The Perfect Motherboard?
Once upon a time, in a forum not so far from here, there was a discussion. "What would you design into your own ultimate motherboard?"
The discussion seemed to focus on putting together on an Athlon platform for affordability. The fantasy board supported DDR, four IDE channels with two of which being courtesy of a third party chipset capable of RAID. The board was imagined to have on board 5.1 sound that could support 6 channels.
The discussion really started to take off when we started talking about what we would want in overclockability. Of course, all adjustments were to be made in the BIOS. The adjustments were to include not only the adjustment of front side bus, but also multiplier and voltage adjustment. Some even suggested an adjustable PCI divider so as the front side bus went up; the PCI could be adjusted down.
I think Iwill read our discussion!
When our discussion was underway nearly half of a year ago, there was no PC2700 and ATA133 was unheard of. Back then; our ultimate motherboard was to feature the AMD 761 Northbridge because of its unparalleled stability and lack of compatibility issues.
Since then, AMD bowed out of the chipset market stating that companies such as VIA and SiS had things covered and that there was no need for the more expensive AMD chipset in the desktop market. There was a huge gasp of disbelief that could be heard across the industry. How could AMD leave the future of the Athlon platform in the hands of motherboard manufacturers that primarily use VIA chipsets?
Truth be told; the fact that the Iwill XP333R features an ALi Magik 1 M1647 Northbridge and M1535D+ Southbridge with it's PC2700 support and ATA133 not only refreshing, but also makes this reality in motherboard heaven exceed our dreams!
Why the Iwill XP333R may be that perfect motherboard?
The XP333R featured everything we wanted and then some. The ALi M1535D+ Southbridge supports ATA133 natively, and in case a RAID array is in order for your rig, or a simple need for an additional pair of ATA133 controllers, the XP333R also features the Highpoint HPT372 controller.
The sound is courtesy of C-Media's CMI8738 MX sound chip. It supports 6 channels and is capable of decoding the 5.1 standard, which allows for 5 discrete channels of audio ideal for DVDs.
The BIOS is truly the shining star of this awesome line up of specs. It's all on one page called the "Iwill Smart Setting" menu that made me feel like a kind in a candy store. In this menu, one can select the CPU front side bus, the CPU multiplier, the PCI divider and the CPU core voltage. Core voltage could either be selected from a list, or increased by a flat 10% (the quick and dirty, yet effective way).
Some day, those who wish to use PC333 asynchronously with a typical 266 MHz FSB CPU will be able to do so and see a performance increase. This is something that Iwill assures me is in the works for the XP333R motherboard, but currently the newest BIOS features the ability to set the RAM at 166 with the CPU FSB still at only 133, but one suffers a performance hit as opposed to a performance increase. This did not concern me all too much as other boards on the market with the same chipset don't even benchmark as high as this one WITHOUT overclocking it! The fact that this board is only going to get better for a larger populous through BIOS revisions should make other motherboard manufacturers shake in their bunny suit boots!
If we look at the motherboard, we see a few pros and a few cons.
The board gives us 5 PCI and no AMR or CNR. This is fine with me. Of course, we have an AGP 4X slot, but no retention mechanism is provided. This is not a big deal unless you are a system builder that plans on implementing this board. Of course, this is more of an enthusiast's board than an OEM's motherboard, so this is actually quite a moot point. There are also three DIMM slots, each capable of using a 1 GB DIMM.
All four IDE controllers are nestled together right by the edge of the board, but the floppy controller is all of the way down by the BIOS chip.
The CMOS battery as well as the clear CMOS jumper is located in the lower portion of the board where they are easily accessed. Speaking of jumpers; the RAID enable/disable jumper as well as the on board sound enable/disable jumpers are located in the lower half of the board as well. This makes them free from the obstruction of drive cables or the drives themselves.
There are two jumpers located all of the way up and to the right of the board. These jumpers control the voltage to the DDR memory.
Covering the ALi Magik 1 Northbridge chip is a very dookie green anodized fan very similar in appearance to Thermaltake's Blue Orb.
The trained eye will notice that the XP333R has 3-phase voltage regulation. This allows the board the board to push up to 46A to the processor. Other motherboards that cost more but are made considerably cheaper do not have 3-phase voltage regulation. These other companies don't count on the consumer noticing (*cough* Asus).
Unfortunately, there are only two available fan headers: one for the CPU and one for a front mounted case fan.
In The Box
When we open the box we see our motherboard, a CD, driver floppy disk for the Highpoint controller, cables, the audio module and documentation.
The CD includes a driver diskette creator, user manuals, McAfee Anti-Virus, drivers for the ALi chipset, the on board sound and utilities for the Highpoint RAID controller as well as hardware monitor software.
The floppy allows one to install drivers for the RAID controller in NT or 2000 during the OS installation process. There is also a floppy cable and two 80-conductor IDE cables.
The audio module upgrades your standard two-channel audio to the 5.1 sound built into the C-Media's CMI8738 MX sound chip. The module is merely a bracket, with a rear and center channel jack, that plugs into the motherboard. The motherboard also can have the optional "Super Audio" module, which adds a pair of SPDIF inputs and SPDIF outputs.
In an age where some motherboard manufacturers tend to save some money by not printing up very extensive manuals and putting most information on CD, Iwill had no reservations about killing a few trees for each XP333R motherboard.
Sure, the documentation that the other boards out there lacks helps the "know enough to be dangerous" syndrome that some newbies may experience. As a PC tech, far too many times I'll get a call from a first time computer builder with documentation overload that can't get their PC to POST because "the manual told him to change all of the jumpers".
Well, the Iwill XP333R is not a newbie's motherboard. It's an enthusiast's board. And enthusiasts want to know about every little aspect of their motherboard.
The first piece of documentation is the "easy installation guide". It alone is more informative then some board's entire manuals.
The easy guide has a checklist of the contents of the box, a diagram identifying the components of the motherboard, how to unpack and install the motherboard, installing the processor and memory, installing the heat sink, installing the audio module, setting the jumpers and the BIOS as well as basic troubleshooting steps.
The manual itself is a hearty 56 pages that covers not only the aspects of the hardware, but the software as well. I'm impressed with the complete break down of every aspect of the board. For example, each pin of each connector is defined, and each option in the BIOS is broken down and defined. Very nice.
One also gets a separate manual for the Highpoint HPT372 RAID controller. However, the manual covers the software aspect of the RAID controller more than anything, and not the hardware.
About The Benchmarks
The benchmarks proved to be very interesting. The unlocked AMD Athlon Thunderbird 1.33 GHz CPU was run at its default speed (133 X 10) as well as 1411 MHz (166 X 8.5) and 1485 MHz (166 X 9). The RAM was a pair of Mushkin PC2700 256MB, for a total of 512MB. The video card was an Asus GeForce 2 GTS 32MB DDR. The hard drive was a Maxtor ATA133 drive running Windows XP.
3DMark2001 would not run at 1485. This was certainly due to the CPU. Even with the voltage increased by 10% and a Coolermaster Heat Pipe, 3DMark2001 would not run at this speed or beyond.
Evolva saw an increase of minimum FPS at 1411 and an increase of maximum FPS at 1485. The bumpmapped benchmark, however, showed a slower average and maximum benchmark with the 166 MHz FSB. We thought that there was actually a very good reason for this. We had thought that at 166 MHz FSB, the AGP was only running at 55.3 MHz as opposed to 66 MHz due to a 1/3 divider instead of a 1/2. Iwill assures me that the AGP divider is 2/5 at 166 MHz FSB.
Unfortunately, I could not prove or disprove this. Ordinarily, I would go into SiSoft Sandra and click on "Mainboard Information" and scroll down to "AGP Bus". For some reason, when I tried this on the Iwill XP333R, there was no AGP bus information!
I'll just have to take Iwill's word for it about the AGP divider and figure out why the slower benchmarks at 166 MHz at another time.
We had thought that perhaps Evolva was just being a crack-head, so we tried Quake 3 Arena.
We all had a good laugh over the Q3A benchmarks. After establishing a base with the CPU running at 1333 MHz with it's default 133 MHz FSB, we stepped up to 1411 and we obtained nearly identical scores!
Certainly, the GeForce 2 being used is a year shy of being state of the art, so it was speculated that the reason for the Quake results was a bottleneck at the video card. We then tried 1485 MHz and Q3A locked up like 3DMark2001 did. Can I get a collective Homer Simpson style "DOH!"?
The Sandra scores are all self-explanatory. The faster the CPU, the better the CPU benchmarks. And of course, the memory benchmarks went up as the memory's front side bus went up. The only time the memory benchmarks did not go up when the memory's bus went up was when we tried to run the RAM's speed asynchronously with the CPU's FSB. But as stated earlier, this is something Iwill is working on and is currently just a flaw in the current BIOS. For this reason, I did not even post the memory benchmarks in this review, as it would be negative press that simply has no bearing on the actual performance of the board. What these benchmarks will be AFTER Iwill fixes the BIOS is something that's worth reporting, and if I remember to do so, I will post an update with the asynchronous scores at that time.
Overclockability is going to depend completely on your CPU. Unless you have an unlocked multiplier, or can unlock the multiplier on your Athlon, your Iwill XP333R is just a mediocre overclocker. This is because the only way you are going to increase the speed of your CPU, if you cannot change your multiplier, is to inch up your front side bus.
The only saving grace that the Iwill has in this category is the fact that if you have a FSB that causes the PCI bus to run beyond the capabilities of certain PCI cards, the Iwill will allow you to manually knock down the PCI bus speed.
Of course, once the problem in the BIOS concerning running the RAM asynchronously with the CPU bus is solved, there will be one more notch in the XP333R's belt to attest to the overclockability of this board. Although I can't say exactly how much the performance increase may be, I would venture to guess that it may be an average of 4% just as we saw when PC133 RAM started running asynchronously on 100 MHz system bus Athlon systems when the first VIA chipsets for the Slot A came out.
The Iwill XP333R was an all around great motherboard to play with for a week. The pros far, far out weighed the very, very few cons.
As stated throughout this review, the board features a 3-phase voltage regulation, 166 MHz FSB (the FSB is actually adjustable up to 233 MHz in the BIOS), easy multiplier adjustment, easy core voltage adjustment, an adjustable PCI bus divider, ATA133 a RAID controller that can be used to either stripe drives or add an additional pair of IDE controllers, and 6 channel on board sound that, for some, eliminates the need to install a third party sound card.
The only "cons" where menial at best. Sure, the board has only two fan headers. I admit that this bothered me somewhat. But, the location of the floppy controller and the lack of an AGP retention device were nothing to me. The "problem" with running the memory asynchronously causing the PC to run slow is just a BIOS program limitation and not a chipset limitation, so this isn't a strike against this board.
So as you can see, this board made quite an impression. And if you could not tell from my last two reviews (the Kinyo speaker set and Targus Handcam), I grade on a very tough scale. But this board is going to have to receive the first Editor's Choice that I have ever given. I'm giving this motherboard a 9.5/10 faulting only the aforementioned cons as reason for not giving it a perfect 10.
Re-Printed From SLCentral