The combination of Intel's new P965 north bridge and ICH8R south bridge is our chipset of choice for Core 2 processors, making the AB9 Pro a potential favorite out of the gate. After all, the Pro is the cheapest motherboard on the market to pair the P965 with an ICH8R. Most boards in its price range drop the ICH8R in favor of Intel's vanilla ICH8, which lacks support for AHCI, Native Command Queuing, and RAID. For an enthusiast-oriented motherboard, that simply won't do.
Of course, it takes more than a solid chipset and affordable price tag to make a good enthusiast board, especially in a market rife with competition. But Abit's been catering to enthusiasts for years, and it shows. Most of the time.
The AB9 starts well enough. Abit drapes the board in its trademark shade of reddish orange, which at least sets it apart from the color palettes used by the competition. I'm not particularly fond of having so many different accent colors for the board's various heatsinks, slots, and ports, but then I can barely color-coordinate my own outfits.
For once, I don't have to gripe about a motherboard's power plug placement. The AB9's primary and auxiliary 12V connectors are both located along the edges of the board where cable clutter won't interfere with airflow around the CPU socket. This arrangement is somewhat less ideal for enclosures that place the power supply below the motherboard, but it's perfect for the vast majority of ATX cases.
Leaving plenty of room around the CPU socket is essential for maintaining compatibility with larger aftermarket coolers, and users should have few problems with the AB9 there. The socket area is almost completely devoid of taller capacitors, and even the north bridge heatsink is a low-profile design. That low-profile cooler pipes heat to a larger array of fins that covers the board's voltage regulation circuitry. The whole setup is a silent, passive design intended to work with ambient enclosure airflow.
You'll also find a low-profile passive heatsink on the board's south bridge chip, which apparently doesn't need a fancy heatpipe. The low-profile design won't conflict with double-wide graphics coolers, although there isn't much clearance between longer graphics cards and the board's DIMM slot retention tabs. This is a surprisingly common issue with modern motherboards. Although it's possible to swap DIMMs without removing graphics cards from the AB9 Pro, it's a tight squeeze.
Swapping DIMMs might be a bit of a pain, but working with the AB9's south bridge Serial ATA ports is a joy. All six are located in the bottom right-hand corner of the board—nice and close to where most enclosures hang their hard drive cages.
Unfortunately, the placement of the other internal storage ports isn't so hot. The two Serial ATA and one IDE port associated with the board's JMicron storage controller are wedged in the middle of the slot stack where they absolutely don't belong. The ports monopolize real estate that could have been used to add a third PCI slot or a second PCI Express x16 slot. Also, connecting an IDE optical drive to the board's lone ATA port can be a pain.
Given the dearth of PCIe peripherals, it's a good thing the AB9 Pro includes two PCI slots. We wouldn't mind one more, but at this point I'm almost reticent to recommend investing in PCI expansion cards.
I'd even go so far as to not recommend PS/2 peripherals, but the AB9 Pro still features PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. Serial and parallel ports are nowhere to be found, though; there are none in the port cluster and no headers onboard.
This lack of legacy connectivity doesn't give me anywhere to plug in my SpaceOrb, but I'd rather have the AB9 Pro's range of up-to-date expansion ports instead. The board combines a standard array of USB, Ethernet, and analog audio ports with digital audio input and output ports and an external Serial ATA (eSATA) connector. There are also onboard headers for an additional six USB ports and dual Firewire ports.