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DFI's NB70-SC motherboard

A solid foundation for the future

Price (street)US$85

DFI ISN'T EXACTLY a household name in enthusiast circles, but they've built up quite a reputation for themselves over the years. Mainly prominent in the OEM space, DFI has been quietly building motherboards for years, and they are only now looking to the enthusiast community as a potential market.

For the Pentium 4 crowd, DFI has the NB70-SC, a typical mainstream offering that hints at DFI's future potential. However, at only $85, even a typical Pentium 4 motherboard can turn heads.

We've had the NB70-SC in house for some time now, and this review was even held up by an interesting AC'97 on-board audio issue that seems to affect more than just the NB70-SC. What were able to uncover about AC'97's limitations? How does the NB70-SC compare with its competition? What can DFI's current offerings tell us about their potential for the enthusiast market? The answers follow.

The specs
The NB70-SC is based on Intel's 845 Brookdale DDR chipset, but motherboard manufacturers have no shortage of options when it comes to differentiating their products. What has DFI done with the NB70-SC spec-wise?

CPU supportSocket 478-based Intel Pentium 4 CPUs
Form factorATX
ChipsetIntel Brookdale 845
North bridgeBrookdale MCH
South bridgeICH2
InterconnectIntel Hub Architecture  (266MB/s)
PCI slots5
AGP slots1, 2X/4X AGP (1.5V only)
AMR/CNR slots1
Memory2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of PC1600/PC2100 DDR SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/100
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse,
2 serial, 1 parallel, 2 USB
2 additional USB ports via PCI backplane connector

Game port and audio jacks
AudioAC'97 audio codec
Bus speeds100-133MHz in 1MHz increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

Sparse would be a good way to describe the NB70-SC's spec, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for everyone. Enthusiasts will quickly note the lack of on-board RAID and Ethernet, both of which have become increasingly popular. Though the NB70-SC has on-board sound, it's only AC'97, which is a far cry from even the C-Media integrated audio that's made its way onto many PCBs of late. Additionally, you only have two DIMM slots to work with, so reaching the NB70-SC's maximum memory size of 2GB could be an expensive venture.

The layout
How does DFI populate the PCB? Let's take a look.

Everything's nicely spaced on the NB70-SC PCB

The NB70-SC's feature set is spartan, so there's no problem with crowding anywhere on the PCB. Despite having red PCBs on its ATI-based graphics cards at last year's Comdex, DFI has eschewed garish PCB colors for the NB70-SC.

Intel's 845 DDR chipset

Intel's 845 chipset hides under a massive passive heat sink, and makes me wonder why so many other chipsets go with smaller heat sinks and fans. The larger passive heat sink doesn't get in the way, and you don't have to worry about fan noise or failure over time.

Two DIMM slots paired with a couple of IDE ports

The NB70-SC supports up to 2GB of DDR SDRAM, but you're going to have to manage that with the two available DIMM slots. Unfortunately, it seems that all DDR-based 845 boards share this limitation.

Without IDE RAID, the NB70-SC has only two IDE ports. DFI places these next to the DIMM slots, and because there are only two of them, there's plenty of room. With the IDE ports at the top of the board, you should be able to reach the uppermost drive bays in even full tower cases without a problem.

IDE RAID would have been nice here, because even if you don't use the RAID functionality, you still get two extra IDE ports. The ability to connect eight IDE devices to a motherboard is great in its own right, but even better when you can connect four devices without having to share any IDE channels.

Without IDE RAID, the floppy connector's lonely at the bottom of the board

DFI tucks the floppy port down at the bottom of the board, which shouldn't be a problem, unless for some reason you like to run your floppy drive at the top of a full tower case.

There's loads of room around the socket for a heat sink

Keeping up its spacious theme, the NB70-SC has plenty of room around the CPU socket for larger heat sinks. Honestly, the mounting hardware requirements for Pentium 4 motherboards almost guarantees you won't have to bend any capacitors to fit on a larger heat sink.

The NB70-SC's simple port layout

A standard cluster of ports rounds out the NB70-SC's layout, and there's not a lot to report here. The absence of an on-board LAN port is a little disappointing, especially for casual users who are generally happy with integrated components.