The last EpoX product we reviewed was the MVP3G2 Socket 7 Motherboard. It was the first ATA/66 and the last of the Socket 7 ATX motherboards. We called it the "G2" board. Since then much has changed. Along with the G2 we have used a couple of Athlon and Intel-based motherboards from other manufacturer's for customer computers. The first Athlon board we used was the Micro Star MSI-6167. It was one of the first available Slot A Athlon motherboards and was reviewed almost two years ago. The Abit KT7-RAID Socket A motherboard with the VIA KT133 chipset followed. The KT7-RAID was the first Socket A and ATA/100 motherboards we used and the last one to use single data rate SDRAM memory. The EP-8KHA+ is the first Athlon motherboard we have tested that uses Double Data Rate (DDR) memory and the first one with the VIA KT266A chipset, integrated audio, and no ISA expansion board slots. It arrived just in time to be part of the first computer built here with the new AMD Athlon XP processor and Windows XP operating system.
So, how much have AMD-based computers changed since the G2 board and what can one expect by upgrading to the 8KHA+? Besides reviewing the 8KHA+, this article will attempt to answer that question.
IN THE BOX The motherboard is attractively packed in a tough, plastic-impregnated retail box. It comes with a motherboard book (User's Manual), ATA/66 cable, floppy cable, CD with software, one USB cable/bracket assembly, and an ATA/33 cable for your DVD or CD-ROM drive.
USER MANUAL. The user manual is rather typical as far as motherboard books go and is adequate for most people who are technically inclined and have some experience assembling/troubleshooting computers. The diagrams are good. Section 2, Features, states that this motherboard supports EpoX's exclusive KBPO (keyboard power-on), a feature I have grown to like with previous EpoX boards. It doesn't or I could not find-out from looking through the book how to activate it.
INSTALLATION. See How to Install the EpoX 8KHA+ Motherboard for details and installation instructions. Additionally, see How to Build a Computer with an AMD Socket A Athlon or Duron Processor if you want to build a computer with this motherboard. The two articles are designed to complement each other.
CHIPS. The 8KHA+ motherboard uses the VIA Apollo KT266A chipset. It consists of two chips: the 552-pin VT8366A DDR North Bridge and the 376-pin VT8233 South Bridge. The VT8366A is located to the left of the CPU socket and has a small fan on top of it and the VT8233 is under the PCI expansion bus sockets. Simply put, the North Bridge controls the system and interfaces the CPU to the system memory and AGP display adapter. The buses to the CPU and memory can be set to 100 or 133 MHz. The Front Side Bus (FSB), which connects the CPU to the Northbridge, and the memory bus going from the Northbridge to the system memory use DDR memory technology to send data at twice the actual bus clock frequency for an effective speed of 200/266 MHz. This is done by transferring data on both the leading and trailing edges of the clock pulse. In other words, the data is "double-pumped." Furthermore, VIA has improved this Northbridge over its predecessor in KT266 chipset with a "Performance Driven Design" featuring an enhanced memory controller with better timing for faster transfers between synchronized FSB and DDR memory buses and deeper queues that permit faster, more efficient access to buffered data. The new controller can burst up to eight quad words per clock cycle as compared to four in previous chips. The AGP graphics bus connects to the AGP display adapter slot on the motherboard and operates at 4X or 66 MHz.
Instead of hanging the South Bridge off the PCI bus with a theoretical maximum burst speed of 132 MBytes/sec., which must be shared with all PCI peripherals, as it is done with older chipsets, the Southbridge is connected to the Northbridge with VIA's V-Link pipe, which is a 66 MHz quad-pumped bus for a 266 MByes/sec. transfer rate between the North and South Bridge. Not only is it faster, it frees the PCI bus to deal strictly with peripheral devices and motherboard resources.
The Southbridge supports four ATA/33/66/100 devices (hard disk, CD-ROM, and DVD drives) with two ATA/100 controllers, each of which can (theoretically) burst up to 100 MBytes/sec. The chip supports six PCI slots and has three USB hubs supporting two USB ports each. It has a Low Pin Count (LPC) interface to implement legacy I/O functions, such as a floppy disk drive controller, and serial and parallel ports, with a Super Input/Output (I/O) chip. An Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC), Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI), Advanced Power Management (APM), and 6-channel AC/97 2.2 sound support are built-into the chip. The Southbridge also has an MC/97 software modem interface, but it is not used by this motherboard.
The VT8233C version of the Southbridge adds an integrated 3Com Ethernet MAC controller for 10/100 MHz Ethernet and HomePNA phoneline network support. Use of this chip instead of the VT8233 and implementation of its networking capabilities would have added noticeably to the appeal of this motherboard.
The 8kHA+ employs the 128-pin Winbond W83697HF super I/O chip. It connects to the Southbridge's LPC interface and is located behind PCI slots 4 and 5 (counting from the right). It includes:
The floppy disk controller
Two serial ports (UARTs), one of which supports infrared.
Game and MIDI ports.
2 thermal inputs
2 fan speed inputs
The specification in .pdf format can be downloaded here.
A Realtek ALC201C AC' 97 18-bit, Stereo Full-Duplex CODEC (Coder/Decoder), the little chip to the right of the Winbond Super I/O chip, basically (and with the help of some audio circuitry) converts the digital signals to and from the Southbridge to and from the Analog signals at the I/O connector at the back of the motherboard. This little powerhouse has many features with many inputs and outputs, including two pairs of stereo outputs and support for a Sony-Philips Digital Interface (SPDIF) output; however, like many motherboards with integrated audio, the 8KHA+ only implements an output for one set of stereo speakers, inputs for line-in and microphone-in, and a header for CD audio-in, all of which is adequate for many, if not most, PC users.
LAYOUT. The 8khA+ is large as most ATX motherboards go, measuring 9 3/4 inches (24.8 cm) from front to back and 12 inches (30.5 cm) wide. It is a pleasure to work with. The IDE disk drive connectors are conveniently located at the front of the board and where they are not under drives. The floppy drive connector is also at the front of the board to the right of the IDE connectors where it is a little more difficult to plug-in the cable because of the proximity to the drives, but that is not a significant inconvenience. It is better placement than putting it to the left of the IDE connectors as it is rather easy to fold-up and zip-tie all three cables, which then present a good appearance and do not interfere with the CPU fan. The front panel header is right where it should be: at the very front of the board and to the left of the IDE drive connectors, where it is easy to see and pug-in cables. The ATX power connector sits behind the VIA Northbridge and to the left of the CPU socket, making it easy to plug-in power and to tie down the cables--I like it there; although, it may appear to interfere with the CPU fan, which it doesn't. The CPU socket is is nearly half way back on the board where it is out of the way of properly tied cables and right where hot air above it will be sucked into the power supply and out the case, and in a very good location for additional cooling by a case fan mounted in the rear of a case such as an Antec KS282 mid-tower. There is plenty of clearance all the way around the socket. There is sufficient room to easily install the rather large Thermaltake Volcano 5 CPU cooler, which I used for all three computers built with this motherboard to date. The memory sockets are well to the front of the CPU socket and 1 1/2 inches from the front of the board and are fairly easy to get at. However, I would suggest installing the memory (and the CPU and cooler) before putting the board in a case. There are only two jumpers on the board: one to clear CMOS and one to set the CPU FSB to 100 or 133 MHz. Both are rather easy to find and access; however, the FSB jumper, which is just to the rear and right of the AGP socket, would be a little easier to change (the factory setting on the three boards I installed was 100 MHz) before installing and AGP display adapter, and even easier when the board is out of the case. The three fan connectors are well located and easy to access. I would plug-in the CPU fan and zip-tie the cable going to it, before plugging-in power connector, and preferably before putting the motherboard in a case. One USB header, the WOL (Wake-up On LAN), and WOM The other USB, and the AUX, MODEM, and CD-Audio headers are at the rear of the board and are easily accessed, except the CD audio, which is difficult to get at once the AGP display adapter is installed. Some CD audio cables are not long enough to reach the header unless they are routed under the rear of the AGP display adapter, which must be removed to install the cable if the cable is not installed before the adapter. With this one minor exception, I rate the layout as excellent--one of the best I've seen.
SLOTS. This is the first motherboard I have used that does not have an ISA expansion board slot. I guess the ISA bus is now dead, but I would still prefer at least one ISA slot for a legacy board and fewer PCI slots as a trade-off instead of the six on this motherboard. Show me a computer with five PCI cards, let alone six, and one USB hub enabled, let alone all three of them, and I'll show you a computer that is probably locking-up with IRQ problems. The 8KHA+ has a 4X AGP slot and no MODEM riser slot (good).
CPU SUPPORT. The motherboard supports Thunderbird and Palomino (XP) core processors with 200 and 266 MHz FSBs. AMD recommends this motherboard for the Athlon and Duron processors through the Athlon XP 2000+ (1.6 GHz), the fastest XP currently in production.* EpoX's CPU Support list is available here in .pdf format. We have extensively tested it with Athlon XP 1600+ (1.4 GHz) processors.
*When Engineering Change Notices (ECNs) 01088, 01131, and 01184 are installed. Hopefully, they are.
MEMORY. The three DDR-SDRAM slots will take up to a total of 1.5 GBytes of non-ECC PC2100 (2X133 MHz = 266 MHz) memory.
I/O There are PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse, 1 printer, two serial, two USB, one game/MIDI, and three audio ports (Speaker, Line-in, and Mic) along the back of the motherboard (the A.3.a, Intel "Universal, "configuration matches all of the ATX cases I have reviewed). All connectors are of very good quality and color-coded. The 8KHA+ supports six USB ports. Two of them are taken to the exterior of the case by the I/O back panel. The other four are available from two headers on the motherboard. A USB cable and bracket set is supplied with the motherboard to accommodate one of the headers. You will need to obtain an optional USB cable and bracket set to bring remaining two USB ports to the outside of the case. The board has headers for IrDa infrared for remote devices, wake-up on LAN (WOL), and wake-up on MODEM (WOM). 2 ATA/100.
HARDWARE MONITORING. Like most, if not all, recent motherboards, the 8KHA+ does not fully support the Athlon XP processor. This processor has a built-in diode circuit to monitor processor temperature and to shut down system before damage can result from a defective heatsink-fan. Instead of using this feature, the 8KHA+ employs an inferior combination of the temperature monitoring capabilities of the Winbond 83697HF super I/O chip and a thermister mounted in the center of the socket A, which are a hold-over from previous motherboard designs and are necessary for monitoring and compatibility with older Thunderbird core processors. Another diode next to the W83697HF monitors the system temperature.
Fan monitoring by the W83697HF is inadequate. It can only monitor two fans and the jack that the Northbridge heat-sink fan plugs-into is not one of the ones that is monitored. The processor heat-sink fan jack and the chassis fan jack at the front, right of the motherboard are the only ones that are. The Northbridge fan jack and chassis jack at the rear of the motherboard should be monitored.
The 8KHA+ has a built-in P80P Debug Card with two seven-segment LEDs that display Award BIOS POST (Power-On Self-Test) codes as the BIOS checks the motherboard, etc. during bootup.
QUALITY. I counted 53 105°C electrolytic capacitors. That is an awful lot of capacitors for a motherboard, about 20 more than most motherboards I've seen. The tighter timing and bypass requirements of higher-speed processors and DDR memory probably accounts for the difference. Of course, 20 more capacitors are 20 more things that can break. There are many more bypass, etc. capacitors all over and under the board.
There isn't much information in the EpoX literature about the on-board power supplies and regulation, but voltage regulation components, etc. are apparent all over the motherboard, including the bottom under the main power circuitry for the CPU where there are four CET CEB6030L field effect (FET) power transistors in addition to the three on the top of the board (in fact, there are quite a few smaller components on the bottom of the board, particularly around the VIA chips).
Masking and wave soldering are good. Trace and ground plane layout looks very professional.
The silk-screening on this board is very good; however, it is not quite as good as previous EpoX boards which were rated excellent in this category. Some of the larger labels were a little blurred on the three motherboards that were examined and labeling of the front panel connectors is a bit confusing. However, just about everything from the jumpers to I/O connectors is clearly labeled. If you lose the motherboard book you can still configure the jumpers. All of the settings are printed on the motherboard.
There are ten mounting holes and oversized doughnuts surrounding each of them. One doesn't have to worry about the head of the screw, used to fasten the motherboard to the case, overlapping a trace on the motherboard and capacitively grounding it.
The DDR-SDRAM sockets are of very good quality and have what appears to be gold-plated contacts (they are difficult to see).
Just about when I was going to start calling this board the "A+" board I saw one glaring indication of poor quality. The word "sleeve" on the small cooling fan on the VIA Northbridge. On top of the fan it says: Cooler Master, etc., the company that sells the entire heatsink-fan unit. Unscrewing the fan from the heatsink and looking at the bottom reveals the true manufacturer and model number of the little thing that spins: T&T MW-410M12S. I cannot find any information on the fan on CoolerMaster's web site and no product info at all on T&T's web site, which appeared to be broken when I tried it. Fans with sleeve bearings usually have a specified lifespan of about 20,000 hours and single bearing, ball bearing fans roughly twice that long. My experience with chipset fans is limited, but with CPU sleeve fans it shows that you will be lucky if one doesn't break within a year of average use. And before they do break they have a nasty habit of depositing bearing residue in the form of a fine black dust, which seems to have an affinity for motherboards and is probably not too good for them. Passive cooling would be more reliable and the chip/motherboard should be designed to make it possible.
STABILITY. One measure or quality, the most important, is stability. This board employs a new CPU with a new chipset and runs faster than any other board I've seen, yet it is one of the most stable motherboards I've encountered. It is as stable with 1.4 GHz Athlon XP 1600+ as all of the before mentioned are with slower processors and memory. I have built three computers so far with this motherboard and all of them have been running without incident for months.
PERFORMANCE. The 8kha+ with Windows XP installed clocked an impressive Business Winstone 2001 of 50.4. Content Creation Winstone 2002 scored 27.7. Winbench 99 benchmarks were also impressive.
Let's make an Apples and Oranges comparison with five simple Wintune 98 benchmarks. This time such a comparison may actually be relevant to our times/economy and provide some insight into what the average prospective PC buyer/upgrader could expect from this AMD processor-based motherboard as compared to some that have appeared over the last couple of years. These benchmarks provide a rough comparison of computer technology based on five AMD processors, four motherboard chipsets, the evolution and increasing amounts of memory from 64 MBytes of 100 MHz PC100 to 256 MBytes of PC2100 DDR memory, changes in hard disk drives, and the current migration of the average PC from Windows 9x to Windows XP.
*The first number in the Abit KT7 memory read test is comparable to those that went before it. The second number is comparable to the tests with DDR memory that followed it.
Benchmarks mean different things to different people depending on what they do with a computer, their experience, and how they interpret the numbers. If you do a lot of number crunching and graphics for programming, engineering, science, etc. or are addicted to games, any reasonable increase of speed is probably significant.
One usually sees page after boring page of benchmarks in many motherboard reviews. Often these benchmarks do not provide a clear picture of what one can actually expect. Many of them are so focused on competing products that they do not compare motherboards and systems that are further separated in technology and time. In many cases, the real differences in perceived performance, despite the benchmarks numbers, are actually so small that they are almost insignificant to most computer users.
The Wintune 98 benchmarks are a step in the right direction, but even these numbers do not completely depict what one will perceive as a noticeable speed difference while sitting in front of a computer with this motherboard as compared to competing products and others from generations past. Perceived performance does not have a linear relationship to the results of benchmarks tests. Benchmarks measure computers, not human beings. If you are an average business/home computer user, you would probably not see any noticeable difference in speed between this motherboard and quality DDR motherboards using the most recent Athlon chipsets from competing manufacturers. The speed difference between computer #3 in the Wintune benchmarks and this one (#4) is not something I would call anywhere near overwhelming as may be suggested by the numbers. On the other hand, if you have an aging computer with 500 MHz K-6 processor, 64 MBytes of memory, and a 5,400 RPM hard disk drive, or something like that (sell it now or forget selling it), or a computer like computer #2 to a lesser extent, a computer with this generation of motherboard, processor, memory, and hard disk drive will probably make you start seriously thinking that maybe it's finally time for a major upgrade or a new computer? Let me say, that it would be wise to see a comparable computer for yourself and put your hands on it for awhile before reading too much into these numbers (and others) and deciding to do it. Click here for benchmark details.
EPOX'S WEB SITE. Specifics on the web site on this motherboard are a bit vague for those of us who like plenty of technical detail . In general, EpoX's U.S. web site is above average when compared to that of some other motherboard manufacturers as far as professional appearance, navigation, and content are concerned. However, it is often slow (I use a cable MODEM from the East coast of the U.S.A. and check it on most working days) and is not always kept up-to-date.
SHORTCOMINGS. Other than the shortcomings already mentioned, this motherboard does not support USB 2.0, Firewire, ATA/133, and DDR333 memory. The 8kHA+ does not have a RAID disk controller. I do not consider that to be a shortcoming and do not recommend motherboards with RAID controllers except for people who really need the feature as they add complexity and cost to a motherboard.
BOTTOM LINE. This is a stable, high-performance motherboard which is widely sold at a very competitive price. If I were to upgrade my computer today, I would probably choose this motherboard. I would also purchase a chipset cooler with a ball bearing fan to replace the one that comes with the motherboard.
Copyright, Disclaimer, and Trademark Information Copyright © 1996-2003 Larry F. Byard. All rights reserved. This material or parts thereof may not be published, broadcasted, rewritten, or redistributed by any means whatsoever without explicit, written permission from the author.