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Abit's AT7 MAX legacy-free motherboard

Beyond legacy
— 12:40 AM on April 29, 2002

Price (street)US$160

ABIT ANNOUNCED its new MAX line of motherboards last month with an enthusiastic press release and a lot of hype. This motherboard launch showcased more than just an incremental improvement in features and performance; this was something much bigger. Not only had Abit integrated just about every peripheral you could want onto a single motherboard, they'd also done away with the majority of the board's legacy components. MAX was to be a forward-looking platform not only because of its wealth of integrated peripherals, but also because of its attempt to phase out legacy components altogether.

MAX isn't a completely new idea. Intel had a prototype legacy-free motherboard back at last year's Comdex. Still, the ideas behind MAX have considerable promise, and this was a production motherboard you could find on store shelves, not some one-off trade show demo. With the AT7 MAX, not only do you get a feature-rich, high-performance motherboard, you also get rid of a bunch of old ports you probably don't use anyway. Less is more, and more is less—more or less.

So just how many integrated peripherals are we talking about here? And beyond the hype, does the lack of legacy components really do anything other than leave you without a few empty ports? Does the AT7 uphold Abit's reputation for blazing speed, great tweaking options, and rock-solid stability? Sit tight; you're about to find out.

The specs
The AT7 MAX offers more of some things, and less of others; let's take a look.

CPU supportSocket A-based AMD Athlon, Athlon XP, and Duron processors
Form factorATX
ChipsetVIA KT333
North bridgeVT8367
South bridgeVT8233A
InterconnectV-Link  (266MB/s)
PCI slots3
AGP slots1, 2X/4X AGP
AMR/CNR slotsnone
Memory4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 3GB of unbuffered PC1600/PC2100 DDR SDRAM
Maximum of 2GB of unbuffered PC2700 DDR SDRAM
Maximum of 3.5GB of registered PC1600/PC2100 DDR SDRAM
Maximum of 3GB of registered PC2700 DDR SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/
4 channels ATA/133 RAID (Highpoint 374)
Ports4 USB 1.1 ports
2 additional USB 1.1 ports via PCI backplane connector

2 USB 2.0 ports
2 additional USB 2.0 ports via PCI backplane connector

2 IEEE 1394 Firewire ports
Audio jacks with S/PDIF-Out
1 10/100MB LAN connector
AudioRealtek 6-Channel audio
Bus speeds100-250MHz in 1MHz increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

The AT7 easily has the most impressive spec list I've ever seen. It's stacked. There's a lot there to read, so I'll run through a couple of the spec sheet's highlights for you.

You have a whopping six ATA/133 IDE ports split between on-board IDE and RAID controllers on the AT7—more than any other motherboard available. For your low-bandwidth peripherals, Abit gives you six USB 1.1 ports and, as if that weren't enough, you also get four USB 2.0 ports and two IEEE 1394 ports for bandwidth-hungry peripherals. Abit tops it all off with on-board 10/100 Ethernet and Realtek's 6-channel audio chip.

I can't think of another motherboard that can hold a candle to the AT7's slew of integrated peripherals and expansion capabilities. Sure you only get three PCI slots, but would you even need more with a motherboard like this?

Much ado about legacy-free
Although the AT7 MAX ditches PS/2, serial, and parallel ports, it's not a 100% legacy-free design. Not only is there a floppy disk connector—an old, musty, and arguably legacy item—the VIA KT333 chipset's legacy Low Pin Count interface is intact. In the purest sense, we won't have truly legacy-free motherboards until core logic chipsets drop their LPC interfaces.

So why remove legacy ports? Today's operating systems like interacting with hardware at a higher level than legacy ports and busses can generally support. This fact complicates everything from power management to support and installation, and it also hinders the ability to connect multiple devices to a single port. Additionally, Microsoft claims that removing or disabling legacy components can result in a more stable system.

The industry has already had a taste of legacy removal with the ISA bus, now all but eliminated. However, the ISA bus created performance bottlenecks and memory management problems, both of which are much more serious than the fact that you can't troubleshoot your PS/2 mouse with your operating system.

At the end of the day, the VIA 8233A south bridge chip on the AT7 has the logic to talk with legacy devices like PS/2 and COM ports, just as with any KT333 motherboard. The difference here is that Abit hasn't included the physical connectors for those devices, and no COM or LPT ports show up in the Device Manager.

The benefits of this design decision are twofold. First, eliminating those ports clears out a lot of backplane space for the USB, Firewire, and other ports that the AT7 gives you. Done right, future MAX boards could cram quite a bit more power into a much smaller form factor than the the standard ATX setup, too. Second, the industry gets a case study on the market viability of a legacy-reduced motherboard. If the AT7 is a great success, it will prove either the market's specific desire for legacy-free products or ambivalence to legacy support, both of which may encourage chipset manufacturers to consider dropping legacy at the chipset level.

Abit's MAX concept is especially aimed at PC enthusiasts like us who upgrade often and who don't care to keep older hardware dragging us down. Some of us on the TR staff wouldn't miss the legacy ports at all. However, if you plan on using your new computer to dial-up to AOL via your external 33.6K modem plugged into a COM port so you can print out your e-mails on your parallel-port printer, the MAX is gonna leave you high and dry.