Today we’ll look at the SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra, the latest in the DRAGON line of Athlon boards. Once again Soyo has put together an intriguing batch of features for enthusiasts. While some of the new toys are thanks to Soyo alone, others come courtesy of VIA’s KT400 chipset, and since this is our first review of a KT400 board, we’ll be taking a look at VIA’s latest Athlon chipset as well. Finally, we’ll run the board through our new test suite using a variety of bus and memory speeds.
What’s the 400 stand for?
The heart of the SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra is, of course, VIA’s new KT400 chipset. The new chipset consists of the VT8377 north bridge and a VT8235 south bridge. At one time, the 400 in the KT400’s name was to represent support for DDR400 memory, but VIA has since backed off that claim. Although the VT8377’s memory controller has been upgraded with an eye towards reliable support for DDR400, the fact remains that JEDEC hasn’t finalized the DDR400 standard yet. And you can’t officially support something that doesn’t officially exist. It’s entirely possible that once JEDEC finalizes the spec, the KT400 chipset will work with the new RAM with no further modifications necessary, but only time will tell.
In the meantime, however, there are plenty of other reasons to recommend the KT400. Let’s start off with a block diagram shamelessly ripped off from VIA’s web site:
The astute chipset nerds out there will notice the differences between the KT400 and the KT333 immediately, but for the benefit of everybody else I’ll go over them one at a time. First up is support for AGP 8X in the VT8377 north bridge, which allows for up to 2.1GB/s of bandwidth for that swank new AGP 8X card you’ve been eyeing.
Moving on to the VT8235 south bridge, the key difference is the inclusion of three USB 2.0 controllers with up to six ports, as opposed to the USB 1.1 controllers in the KT333. If you’re interested in external peripherals like hard drives or CD recorders, this is A Big Deal, since USB 2.0 is literally 40 times faster than USB 1.1 while maintaining compatibility with USB 1.1 devices.
A final change from the KT333 is the V-Link interconnect between the north and south bridge chips. The KT400 interconnect transfers data at up to 533MB/s, doubling the KT333’s maximum transfer rate of 266MB/s. This certainly opens things up between the two chips, and ensures that the ATA-133, PCI and USB 2.0 interfaces won’t run into any traffic jams getting off the south bridge.
Theory vs. practice
Now that we’ve looked at what the KT400 chipset brings to the party, let’s take a look at Soyo’s implementation on the SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra. We’ll start with a table to summarize all the specs.
|CPU support||Socket 462-based CPUs, including AMD Duron, Athlon and Athlon XP processors|
|Chipset||VIA KT400 (VT8377 north bridge, VT8235 south bridge)|
|AGP slots||1, 2X/4X/8X AGP Pro|
|Memory||3 184-pin DIMM sockets for PC1600/PC2100/PC2700/PC3200 DDR SDRAM
|Storage I/O||Floppy disk
2 channels ATA-133
Highpoint HPT372 RAID controller
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse,
2 serial, 1 parallel, 2 USB 2.0,
4 additional USB 2.0 via expansion headers,
10/100 Ethernet LAN,
stereo audio line-out, stereo audio line-in,
microphone, game port.
(Stereo rear line-out, center and bass line-out,
optical digital input, optical digital output,
coaxial digital input, coaxial digital output
via included backplate.)
|BIOS||Award PnP with Soyo COMBO|
(official support for 100 & 133MHz)
1/5 and 1/6 PCI dividers
|Monitoring||Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Anti-Burn Regulator CPU protection
There are a few interesting things to see here. The obvious improvements over the KT333 DRAGON Ultra, such as AGP 8X and USB 2.0, are courtesy of the KT400 chipset. Also worth noting for the overclockers out there are the 1/5 and 1/6 PCI dividers. The user can explicitly set the divider in the BIOS, unlike some other boards which automatically “roll over” to a different divider at or above a certain bus speed. Additionally, the new board includes Anti-Burn Regulator (ABR), which reads the thermal diode present in later AMD CPUs and automatically shuts down the system if the core temperature passes a (user-selectable) threshold.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the support for PC3200, or DDR400, memory. Yes, while VIA doesn’t claim official DDR400 support for the chipset on which the SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra is based, Soyo is claiming DDR400 compatibility. It appears this decision was made late in the game. While Soyo’s web site and press releases on the SY-KT400 proclaim DDR400 compatibility, no mention of it is made on the box or in the user manual.
Taking a look
Now that we’ve seen the SY-KT400 on paper, let’s look at the board itself:
First, a brief primer for those who aren’t familiar with previous DRAGON boards (and shame on you for not reading my DRAGON Plus and KT333 DRAGON Ultra reviews). The DRAGON name is actually an acronym of the features of the board: DDR memory, RAID, Audio, Graphics (via an AGP Pro slot), Overclocking and Network. The KT333 board fulfilled this acronym with DDR333 memory, a Highpoint RAID controller, 6-channel C-Media audio, a good selection of overclocking features and 10/100 Ethernet. Now that we have the history down, let’s look at what’s changed and what hasn’t.
The most striking new feature is the PCB itself, which is now a bright silver color. Soyo has a “Platinum Edition” of the KT333 DRAGON Ultra which shares this PCB color, but we’ve only reviewed the original model, so this is new to us. The silver north bridge heatsink with clear fan really adds to the effect, and those of you with case windows will have plenty to show off if you go with this board.
Some of the features from the KT333 are still here, but the way they’re provided has changed. For example, the KT333 DRAGON Ultra had USB 2.0, but it was provided by an external chip. The KT400 has this feature built into the south bridge, so no external chip is necessary. This does mean that the KT333 model has two more USB ports than its successor (eight vs. six) but the number of USB 2.0 ports is up from four to six on the new board.
There is a similar change on the networking side of things: Soyo has gone from the Realtek chip on the KT333 board to using the Ethernet support built into the VIA chipset, like they did with the KT266A-based DRAGON Plus. This suits me fine. I mentioned in my review of the KT333 DRAGON Ultra that I’ve never had (or even heard of) any issue with Ethernet based on VIA chipsets, so I’m not sure why Soyo went with the Realtek in the first place.
Beyond these changes, the main difference in components between the KT333 and the KT400 is the addition of a buzzer in the upper right corner of the board, near the DIMM sockets. The buzzer provides an audible warning for the ABR CPU protection, and as we’ll find out later, it does its job painfully well.
Opening the Sigma Box
Though it’s not part of the board per se, Soyo has included a new Sigma Box with the KT400 DRAGON Ultra. The Sigma Box is a piece of hardware that fits into a 3.5″ drive bay (or a 5.25″ bay with included hardware) and conveniently locates USB ports or other useful bits. I wasn’t a big fan of the KT333’s Sigma box; it contained all four of the board’s USB 2.0 ports, which made permanent connections of typical USB 2.0 hardware like hard drives and CD-RW drives an awkward and unattractive endeavor. It also contained a LAN activity light that was useless because there was no header on the KT333 motherboard to which the cable from the LED could be connected.
Soyo has done considerably better this time around. The new Sigma box mounts two USB 2.0 ports up front, as well as a CompactFlash and SmartMedia reader. This (combined with the new USB 2.0 ports on the back of the motherboard) makes the KT400 DRAGON much more versatile in terms of USB 2.0 attachment points than its predecessor. The inclusion of the CF/SM reader is a great bonus as well, since this is one of the more popular USB devices out there. Having it nicely mounted in a drive bay is a good-looking alternative to external units that tend to move around too much due to their small size.
While the new Sigma Box is a nice addition once you get it installed, the installation is considerably more cumbersome than I would have preferred. The USB 2.0 ports install by way of a cable with a keyed connection on each end, so that part is easy. The media reader is a USB device, so it also plugs into one of the board’s USB headers. However, while the Sigma Box end of the cable is keyed, the other end is four separate wires, as you can see here. To install the cable onto the motherboard, you have to look in the (5″ tall) Sigma Box installation guide, at a tiny table with very tiny print, to determine each wire’s purpose. Then, you have to look at the diagram for the USB header to figure out which pins on the motherboard correspond to each wire. Finally, you plug each wire onto its corresponding pin on the USB header.
This is just ridiculous.
I can see what Soyo is doing here. They have designs on selling the Sigma Box as a separate product (the installation guide has a dedicated section for non-Soyo motherboards) and a keyed cable can’t be compatible with all varieties of USB headers on the market. That’s fine, but would it have killed them to come up with a keyed cable for inclusion with their own boards? Imagine plugging in your front panel connections (speaker, power and reset switch, etc.) with no labels on either the board or the wires, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how much fun you’re going to have installing this cable.
I should also point out that since the reader plugs into a USB header, it effectively eats two of the board’s six USB 2.0 ports. This isn’t really that big a deal (with the included hardware, the last USB 2.0 header would go unused anyway) unless you have ideas of purchasing a backplate to give yourself two more USB 2.0 ports. In that case, be aware that the additional backplate will keep you from utilizing the media reader.
Overclocking the Dragon
The DRAGON line has always had a good selection of overclocking options in the BIOS, and the KT400 just adds to the legacy. The KT400 DRAGON Ultra has a huge variety of multipliers ranging from 3X all the way up to 18X. Frankly, I’ve never seen such a wide range in a board before. Previously mentioned (but worth bringing up again) is the new PCI divider setting, including 1/5 and 1/6 dividers. This is the first board I’ve run across that has the dividers manually selectable. Most boards which have a 1/5 divider simply change the divider at 166MHz and up, for example, and the user has no choice in the matter. The manual dividers give you a lot more flexibility, and with a built-in “calculator” in the BIOS that shows what the RAM, PCI and AGP speeds will be, you always know exactly what you’re getting. CPU, AGP and DDR voltage adjustments round out the mix, along with the typical complement of RAM tweaking options such as CAS latency, interleave and command rate.
Finally, those who know about the previous DRAGON boards know about the software bundle Soyo includes, but I’ll mention it here anyway, because it’s an impressive one. The bundle includes Norton Antivirus 2002 and Norton Ghost 2002, as well as Adobe ActiveShare and InterVideo WinDVD, among others. Compared to the threadbare drivers CD that accompanies most motherboards, it’s a nice package.
Now that you’re familiar with the features of the KT400 DRAGON Ultra, we can move onto the benchmarks. Before we do, however, there are a couple of things you should know. . . .
Best-laid plans of the 2600+ . . .
One of the things we wanted to accomplish with this review was to see how the KT400 chipset responded with the fastest Athlon XP in AMD’s stable, the 2600+. We were especially curious to see if the trends revealed in our 333MHz bus article continued, with the Athlon XP benefitting more from a faster bus as clock speeds rose. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. A one-two punch of bugs (one from AMD, one from Soyo) prevented this test configuration in a way that brought tears to our eyes, and not tears of disappointment.
You will recall that the KT400 DRAGON Ultra board has ABR, a special circuit that monitors the thermal diode present in Athlon XP chips and shuts the system down if things get too hot. Unfortunately, we learned that early samples of the Athlon XP 2600+ (including the one AMD sent us for testing) had an issue with the onboard thermal diode. Even at room temperature, the diode falsely reported a temperature high enough to trigger the Soyo’s ABR function. As soon as the lever was lowered on the processor socket, the buzzer on the motherboard would emit an ear-piercing shriek which persisted until power was removed from the board.
As an aside, we’re not kidding when we say ear-piercing. I can barely imagine how a dime-sized component could be so loud. Readings with a sound level meter held a few inches from the buzzer measured approximately 100dB, and the sound was somewhere between highly annoying and slightly painful for anyone within ten feet or so of the motherboard.
Soyo suggested using a different processor to power the board up and disable the ABR feature in the BIOS. We did so, but unfortunately the setting had no effect; the board would still blast out the audible warning, and refused to power up. We flashed to the latest BIOS and cleared the CMOS as a last resort, but the result was the same.
AMD is aware of the thermal diode issue, and they say it will definitely be corrected on production processors. Consumers purchasing 2600+ processors shouldn’t run into this problem. We mention it here only to explain the lack of results with the 2600+.
. . . and DDR400
I mentioned earlier the curious situation with this board’s DDR400 support (Soyo supports it, but VIA, makers of the underlying KT400 chipset, do not). I had planned to test in four configurations: 266MHz front-side bus with DDR333 and DDR400, and 333MHz front-side bus with DDR333 and DDR400 (before you ask, yes, I tried the 400MHz front-side bus/400MHz RAM setting with a 1/6 divider, and the board refused to POST). The 333/400 combination was knocked off immediately, as the board doesn’t support a memory speed of 400MHz when the front-side bus is set to 333MHz. As it turns out, the 266/400 combination didn’t work out so well either.
I started by testing with a Corsair XMS3200 DIMM, running each of the above configurations through our entire test suite. Unfortunately, the 266/400 combination’s scores were substantially lower than the 266/333 configuration on all benchmarks. I contacted Soyo’s technical support, and they suggested trying a different DIMM. I wound up benchmarking a total of three DIMMs (two Corsair and one TwinMOS) in Sandra, with a variety of RAM timings, and the end result was this: The highest CAS 2 DDR400 scores were still lower than the lowest CAS 2.5 DDR333 scores.
Because of these unexpected performance deficiencies, I decided not to include the 266/400 results in this review. I just don’t feel comfortable putting them in without knowing whether this is typical KT400/DDR400 performance, or whether this is a motherboard issue that may be fixed next week with a BIOS update.
To sum up, with this motherboard, using this chipset, and using pre-JEDEC-specification memory, DDR400 actually hurt performance. That might not be true tomorrow, but until you hear otherwise, you should bear my results in mind when choosing which type of RAM to put in that new system you’re building. Caveat emptor.
Even if I hadn’t experienced these issues, there is a nagging question: Would it have mattered? Compared to the Pentium 4, for example, the Athlon XP isn’t a terribly memory-hungry processor, and because of that (and because of its relatively slow 266MHz front-side bus) it gains little from DDR333. Given that fact, it seems likely that DDR400 would make even less of a difference.
Of course, your next thought is “But what about the fact that AMD is going to a 333MHz front-side bus?” Well, as you (hopefully) saw in my article on the subject, the faster bus allows the Athlon XP to wring more performance out of DDR333 memory. One of the reasons for the performance boost, however, is that the memory bus and front-side bus are synchronous, which minimizes latency and helps the processor take full advantage of the extra bandwidth. Bumping the memory clock up to 400MHz will almost certainly increase latency along with bandwidth, so the question is: does the added bandwidth offset the added latency? We won’t know until the bugs are shaken out of DDR400, but considering how the current 266MHz bus Athlon reacts to DDR333, I’m not placing any bets on the 333/400 combination.
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least twice, and the results were averaged.
Our test systems were configured like so:
|Athlon XP KT333||Athlon XP KT400||Pentium 4 DDR|
|Processor||AMD Athlon XP 2200+ 1.8GHz||AMD Athlon XP 2200+ 1.8GHz||Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz|
|Front-side bus||266MHz (133MHz double-pumped)||
266MHz (133MHz double-pumped)
|533MHz (133MHz quad-pumped)|
|Motherboard||Soyo KT333 DRAGON Ultra||Soyo SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra||Abit SR7-8X|
|Chipset||VIA KT333||VIA KT400||SiS 648|
|Chipset drivers||VIA 4-in-1 4.42v(a)||VIA 4-in-1 4.42v(a)||SiS AGP 1.10|
|Memory size||512MB (1 DIMM)||512MB (1 DIMM)||512MB (1 DIMM)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3000 PC2700 DDR SDRAM||Corsair XMS3200 PC3200 DDR SDRAM||Corsair XMS3000 PC2700 DDR SDRAM|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4600 128MB (Detonator XP 30.82 video drivers)|
|Sound||Creative SoundBlaster Live!|
|Storage||Maxtor DiamondMax Plus D740X 7200RPM ATA/100 hard drive|
|OS||Microsoft Windows XP Professional|
Thanks to Corsair for providing us with DDR400 memory for our testing. If you’re looking to tweak out your system to the max and maybe overclock it a little, Corsair’s RAM is definitely worth considering.
The test systems’ Windows desktops were set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Cachemem 2.6
- SiSoft Sandra Standard 2002 SP1
- Compiled binary of C Linpack port from Ace’s Hardware
- ZD Media Business Winstone 2001 1.0.3
- ZD Media Content Creation Winstone 2002 1.0.1
- POV-Ray for Windows version 3.5
- Sphinx 3.3
- ScienceMark 1.0
- LAME 3.92
- Xmpeg 4.5 with DivX Video 5.02
- MadOnion 3DMark 2001 SE Build 330
- Codecreatures Benchmark Pro
- Comanche 4 demo benchmark
- Quake III Arena v1.31
- Serious Sam SE v1.07
- SPECviewperf 7.0
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
As always, SiSoft’s Sandra will kick things off, to give us an idea of the memory bandwidth of the various configurations.
The KT400 seems to offer just a tiny bit more memory bandwidth than the KT333, but it’s nothing significant. The 333MHz bus helps things considerably in this area, but the Pentium 4 still wins handily.
Cachemem measures both read speeds and write speeds, and it’s not so aggressive with buffering and SIMD instructions as Sandra.
The Pentium 4 takes the read portion of this test while the Athlons take the write portion, though the Pentium 4’s margin of victory is certainly larger. Once again, the KT400 seems to offer a marginal improvement over the KT333. The 333MHz bus gives a healthy boost in both categories.
The 333MHz bus cuts the Athlon’s latency down quite a bit, bringing it fairly close to the Pentium 4 system. Bus speed being equal, the KT333 and KT400 tie this one.
The Pentium 4 drops to the bottom of the pack here, while the KT400 remains just ahead of the KT333. Upping the bus speed is good for another 1.7 points.
Content Creation Winstone
As we’ve seen in the past, the Pentium 4 comes roaring back for Content Creation Winstone 2002. The jump to 333MHz nets only a half a point, but the difference between the KT333 and the KT400 is fairly large. Content Creation Winstone gives the entire system a thorough workout, so the 8X V-Link might be partly responsible for the separation we see here.
LAME MP3 encoding
We used LAME 3.92 to encode a 101MB 16-bit, 44KHz audio file into a high-quality, variable-bit-rate MP3. The exact command-line options we used were:
lame -v -b 128 -q 1 file.wav file.mp3
Here are the results…
CPU power rules the day in LAME, with memory bandwidth and bus speed playing only a tangential role. Only two seconds separates the KT333 from the KT400 at 333MHz, while the Pentium 4 takes top prize.
DivX video encoding
Xmpeg can encode video files using the popular DivX format, which produces very high quality video in relatively small amounts of space. For this test, we took a 279MB video file, encoded in MPEG2 format at DVD quality, and converted it to a 37MB DivX file. We used the “fastest” setting on the DivX encoder, and we turned off audio processing. Otherwise, all settings were left at their defaults.
Xmpeg supports all the various x86 SIMD instruction sets, including MMX, 3DNow!, SSE, SSE2even different flavors of 3DNow!, like 3DNow! Enhanced. Most importantly, perhaps, Xmpeg makes good use of the Pentium 4’s SSE2 instruction set, which offers potentially higher performance than the SSE or 3DNow! instructions supported by the Athlon XP.
Here the advantages of good SSE2 optimization become apparent, as the Pentium 4 leaves the Athlons in the dust. The 333MHz bus knocks a good chunk off the Athlon’s time, however. The KT400 continues to cross the finish line barely ahead of the KT333.
Quake III Arena
This one isn’t as bad for the Athlon as the Xmpeg results, but Quake III Arena has always been the Pentium 4’s playground. Q3A loves memory bandwidth, however, and the jump to 333MHz is good for an extra 20 frames per second or so. By now you’re familiar with the KT400’s pattern of teasing the KT333.
3DMark 2001 SE
The Athlons tend to trail the Pentium 4 in 3DMark, but the faster bus lets the KT400 make up most of the difference. Insert your favorite “KT400 barely beats KT333” comment here.
Serious Sam SE
If Q3A is the Pentium 4’s playground, the Serious Sam SE is where the Athlon spends its recess. The Athlon wins hands-down, but the 333MHz bus greatly increases its lead.
The faster bus is good for a couple of frames per second, and the KT400 once again ekes out a victory over the KT333.
The new rev of viewperf measures performance in a range of CAD and workstation-class graphics apps.
While the Athlons leave the Pentium 4 at the bottom of the pack on two of the tests, it’s the 333MHz bus KT400 configuration that’s the star of this show, taking the lead from the Pentium 4 on the other four tests.
Sphinx is a high-quality speech recognition routine that needs the latest computer hardware to run at speeds close to real-time processing. We use two different versions, built with two different compilers, in an attempt to ensure we’re getting the best possible performance.
There are two goals with Sphinx. The first is to run it faster than real time, so real-time speech recognition is possible. The second, more ambitious goal is to run it at about 0.8 times real time, where additional CPU overhead is available for other sorts of processing, enabling Sphinx-driven real-time applications.
Sphinx is both CPU and memory bandwidth dependent, and the substantial gain brought by the 333MHz bus is an encouraging predictor of the performance of rumored future Athlon processors.
POV-Ray 3D rendering
POV-Ray is more about raw FPU than anything, and the Athlon shines in that area. It’s obvious that memory bandwidth and bus speed play a small part here, but it’s nothing to write home about.
The 333MHz bus is good for a few extra points in ScienceMark, and the KT333 vs. KT400 trend continues. The Pentium 4 brings up the rear. Let’s break the composite score down to the individual tests.
The KT333 actually manages to steal a couple from the KT400 here, albeit just barely. The 333MHz front-side bus helps some in Primordia, less so in the QMC and Liquid Argon tests.
With the SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra, Soyo has once again raised the bar on its innovative line of DRAGON motherboards. The SY-KT400 board builds on the foundation of its KT333 predecessor with additions like a doubling in chipset interconnect speed and AGP 8X. Several of the new features are especially helpful to overclockers, such as the wider range of multiplier settings and the new PCI dividers, which allow anyone with an unlocked processor to gain the advantages of a 333MHz front-side bus without overclocking the snot out of the PCI and AGP interfaces. Finally, my largest complaint with the KT333 DRAGON Ultra (the lack of rear USB 2.0 ports) has been solved with a much more versatile port arrangement and a handy media reader.
Now we come to the subject of DDR400 support, and based on my experiences with the board, if I had to describe that support in a word, it would be “premature.” With all the trouble I had, I suspect that Soyo’s technical support line is going to be ringing off the hook with DDR400-related issues. Soyo has a DDR compatibility list located here; perhaps if you stick to it, you’ll have better luck than I did. Still, my experiences and the existence of the list both have the same root cause: DDR400 isn’t finished yet, at least not according to JEDEC. VIA backed off this one for a reason, and the fact that Soyo pressed on surprises me, especially in light of the difficulties I encountered.
At this point, when evaluating the SY-KT400 DRAGON Ultra, I think the smartest thing to do is ignore Soyo’s claims of DDR400 support. Even when you throw this feature out, the SY-KT400 is a compelling product: Let’s break it down.
The best comparison to draw would be between this board and the KT333 DRAGON Ultra Platinum Edition (which includes the SY-KT400’s newer Sigma Box design and currently costs $144 street). The SY-KT400 costs $169 street; for the extra $25, you get AGP 8X support, the ABR protection circuit (deafening alarm included at no extra charge!), a wider range of multiplier choices and user-selectable PCI dividers (and the rock-solid 333MHz front-side bus that comes with them).
In my book, that’s a bargain. If, in a few months’ time, Soyo and JEDEC get on the same page and the performance of your SY-KT400 gets a shot in the arm courtesy of DDR400, consider it mana from Heaven, courtesy of the extra twenty-five bucks you shelled out. Soyo continues to exceed my expectations by one-upping themselves with every release in the Athlon DRAGON line. The SY-KT400 is a board packed to the gills with nearly every feature you can think of; if you want one-stop shopping for all the goodies, look no further.