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Chaintech's Reloaded event

Geeks gone wild

BACK IN FEBRUARY, I dragged my laptop over to Spain for Chaintech's Evolution Event, which was supposed to unveil a motherboard built for the Athlon 64. Well, AMD's Athlon 64 delay scuttled those plans, and Chaintech wasn't even allowed to show us the board. Chaintech did have a GeForce FX 5800 Ultra on display at the event, but we all know what happened to that product.

Like an agile company should, Chaintech has tweaked, massaged, and in some cases revamped its product line to accommodate a later-than-expected release of AMD's Athlon 64, the early demise of NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5800, and new core logic chipsets from Intel and NVIDIA. This time around, Chaintech promised real products with retail availability to boot, so I packed up my laptop and headed to New Orleans for Chaintech's Reloaded event. Read on as I explore Chaintech's plans for the GeForce FX, Intel's Canterwood and Springdale chipsets, NVIDIA's nForce2, VIA's Envy24, and much more.

Motherboards new and refreshed
The recent release of Intel's Canterwood and Springdale chipsets have given Chaintech a lot to work with as far as Socket 478 motherboards are concerned. Chaintech will be offering boards based on the 875P Canterwood and 865 Springdale chipsets as a part of its Zenith and Apogee lines, respectively.

At the high end of its motherboard line, Chaintech is rolling out Canterwood and ICH5R in all their glory with the Zenith 9CJS. The Zenith 9CJS features everything you might expect from a Canterwood board with one notable exception: it uses VIA's Envy24PT audio chip. Though the board doesn't use a high-end, 24-bit/96kHz codec chip, the Envy24PT does serve up 7.1 output channels and could offer superior audio fidelity versus other integrated audio solutions. Chaintech's promised me a Zenith 9CJS, so I should be able to tell you all about it in excruciating detail soon.

For those looking for a more affordable Pentium 4 solution, Chaintech also has the Apogee 9PJL, which is pictured below; it uses Intel's 865PE chipset and ICH5 south bridge.

The Apogee 9PJL doesn't get the Serial ATA RAID capabilities of the ICH5R south bridge, nor does it integrate VIA's high-end Envy24PT audio chip, but it should be a compelling option for budget-conscious consumers looking for an 800MHz front-side bus. Chaintech is promising plenty of overclocking options on its Canterwood and Springdale boards, too, so I suspect many users won't be riding the 800MHz front-side bus for too long, especially if they pick up a Pentium 4 2.4C.

On the Socket A front, Chaintech isn't busting out anything radically new, which is to be expected given the fast-approaching launch of AMD's new Athlon 64 desktop processor. With the Athlon 64 looming, manufacturers have little motivation to roll out significant changes to their Socket A lineup. After all, AMD is hoping that the Athlon 64 will make the Socket A platform instantly obsolete, at least as far as high-end desktops are concerned. NVIDIA, SiS, and VIA have all released "new" Socket A chipsets in the last month, but these chipsets have only been slightly retooled versions of their predecessors. As one might expect, Chaintech's summer Socket A motherboard portfolio is only a slightly retooled version of its spring line.

For enthusiasts, the most interesting motherboard in Chaintech's Socket A lineup will be the Zenith 7NJS Ultra, which features NVIDIA's nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset. Previously, the Zenith 7NJS used the vanilla nForce2 chipset, so no board-level changes were necessary to migrate to NVIDIA's latest north bridge. Chaintech's new Zenith 7NJS has official support AMD's latest 400MHz front-side bus processors, which warrants the board an "Ultra" moniker.

We didn't have the opportunity to check out the original Zenith 7NJS when it was released last year, but many reviewers have noted that the board uses an audio chip from C-Media rather than the nForce2 APU. On its own, there's certainly nothing wrong with using C-Media's integrated audio chipsets on a motherboard, but using one in place of NVIDIA's feature-rich and arguably far superior nForce2 APU is a little odd for a high-end board. Unfortunately, Chaintech will continue to use a C-Media audio solution at the expense of the nForce2 APU in its updated Zenith 7NJS Ultra, which will be disappointing for those looking for real-time Dolby Digital encoding and Soundstorm's other features. Of course, those really concerned with audio quality can always pop in a discrete sound card of their choice, rendering the on-board audio issue moot.

Oh, and Chaintech had its high-end Athlon 64 board on display, too. At Chaintech's last event, we weren't allowed to see the board and were only told that it would use VIA's Athlon 64 chipset. This time around, a board was on display, but I can't show you any pictures or really tell you much about it since the product won't be released until the fall to coincide with AMD's Athlon 64 launch. With several months between now and then, new product releases may influence the board's final design.

One snippet of information on Chaintech's Athlon 64 offerings that I can reveal, however, is which chipsets they'll be using for their high-end and mid-range boards. (Well, I haven't been explicitly told that I can't reveal this particular nugget of information, but if this paragraph mysteriously disappears, you'll know why.) Back in February, Chaintech planned to use VIA's Athlon 64 chipset for its high-end Zenith motherboard and NVIDIA's Crush for the mid-range Apogee line. Since then, Chaintech has turned the tables and is now touting NVIDIA's Crush K8 as the chipset choice for the high-end Zenith board, relegating VIA's K8M chipset to the mid-range Apogee line.

More extras galore
Because motherboards based on the same core logic chipset typically perform within a margin of error of each other in benchmarks, at least when running at stock bus speeds and voltages, manufacturers have turned to innovative bundle options to entice would-be buyers. Chaintech is still relatively new to the high-end motherboard game, but its Zenith 9EJS1, which we reviewed back in March, had the most impressive motherboard bundle I'd seen at the time. Not satisfied to rest on its laurels, Chaintech has revamped the bundling options for its high-end Zenith boards in a bid to stay a step ahead.

I won't get into the differences between Chaintech's new Zenith and Apogee bundles since, well, Chaintech's web site is a great source of information on what's bundled with each board. However, I can't resist highlighting a couple of new additions to the high-end Zenith bundle that really blew me away.

The first new addition to the Zenith bundle is Chaintech's new Cbox3. Honestly, the Cbox3 is more of an evolutionary progression than a brand new product, but it's superior to everything else I've seen as far as 5.25" bay inserts go. Not only does the new Cbox3 provide access to a post code display and USB, Firewire, and audio ports, it also includes a 6-in-1 media card reader. For the cosmetically inclined, the Cbox3 comes with faceplates to match beige, silver, and black cases, so even those picky about aesthetics should have reason to rejoice.

Being the ambitious folks that they are, Chaintech hasn't stopped there; they've gone and bundled a remote control with the Zeniths, too.

Chaintech's "Handigator" remote is designed primarily to control multimedia playback, but it can also be used as a wireless mouse for those of us who like surfing from the couch. Because this is Chaintech's first stab at a remote control, the Handigator isn't as refined or flexible as something like ATI's Remote Wonder, which has been around for years. The Handigator's mouse control actually feels a little better than that of the Remote Wonder, which is impressive since the Handigator is essentially a "free" bundle item rather than a standalone retail product like the Remote Wonder.