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The boards
We've rounded up eight KT600 boards for testing, and despite the fact that they're all based on the same chipset, there's actually quite a bit of variation between the boards. Here's a quick cheat sheet on the main differences:

PCI slots IDE RAID SATA RAID Networking Audio Codec Digital audio ports Auxiliary power HSF mounting holes North bridge cooling USB 2.0 ports Firewire ports Price
ABIT KV7 5 None None VIA VT8237 VIA VT1616 TOSLink S/PDIF output Yes Yes Active 4 backplate, 4 auxiliary None $74
ASUS A7V600 6 None None 3Com Marvell 950-MV00 Analog Devices AD1980 Coaxial S/PDIF output No Yes Passive 4 backplate, 4 auxiliary None $75
AZZA KT600 ALX 6 None None VIA VT8237 Realtek ALC650 None No No Passive 2 backplate, 6 auxiliary None NA
EPoX EP-8KRA2+ 5 Highpoint HPT372 None VIA VT8237 Realtek ALC650 None No No Passive 4 backplate, 4 auxiliary 3 auxiliary $88
FIC KT-600 PRO 5 None None VIA VT8237 Realtek ALC655 None Yes No Passive 4 backplate, 4 auxiliary 3 auxiliary NA
MSI KT6 Delta-FIS2R 5 Promise PDC20378 Broadcom BCM5788 C-Media CMI9739 Coaxial, TOSLink S/PDIF outputs Yes No Active 6 backplate,2 auxiliary 3 auxiliary $128
SOLTEK SL-KT600R 6 None None VIA VT8237 VIA VT1616 None Yes No Passive 2 backplate, 6 auxiliary None $78
SOYO SY-KT600 Dragon Ultra 5 None Silicon Image Sil3112 VIA VT8237 C-Media CMI8738* Coaxial, TOSLink S/PDIF inputs and outputs No Yes Active 4 backplate, 4 auxiliary** 1 backplate, 2 auxiliary $146
*The C-Media CMI8738 is a full blown audio chip with an integrated codec
**The SY-KT600 Dragon Ultra's 3.5" memory card reader consumes two of the board's auxiliary USB ports

I'm going to explore the layout of each board in a moment, but before I get into that, it's worth taking a look at some of the different chips used on each board. These chips help differentiate some boards from their competition by augmenting the KT600 chipset's storage, networking, audio, and even connectivity features.

Highpoint's HPT372 IDE RAID chip

Promise's PDC20378 S/PATA RAID chip

Silicon Image's Sil3112 SATA RAID chip

On the storage front, EPoX, MSI, and SOYO all incorporate third-party RAID controllers. EPoX is the only manufacturer to include an IDE-only RAID chip, Highpoint's HPT372, which offers support for single "parallel" ATA drives in addition to RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 arrays. This IDE RAID option nicely makes up for the fact that VIA's V-RAID is Serial ATA only.

Instead of complimenting V-RAID with IDE RAID, SOYO chose to equip its KT600 board an additional Serial ATA RAID option. The SY-KT600 Dragon Ultra uses Silicon Image's Sil 3112 Serial ATA RAID controller to power a pair of Serial ATA ports for RAID 0 or RAID 1 arrays.

Instead of choosing between Serial ATA and IDE RAID, MSI employs Promise's PDC20378 RAID chip to support both on the KT6 Delta-FIS2R. The PDC20378 supports RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 arrays across not only two Serial ATA drives, but also two "parallel" ATA drives. Though the chip supports Serial ATA drives on individual channels, "parallel" ATA drives must share a single IDE channel, which will invariably degrade performance in arrays with two PATA drives. Still, the ability to span RAID arrays across multiple drive types is pretty slick.

3Com's Marvell 940-MV00 GigE chip

Broadcom's BCM5788 GigE chip

Though VIA's VT8237 south bridge's integrated 10/100 Fast Ethernet support should be fast enough for most home and business networks, ASUS and MSI pimp up their KT600 boards with a little extra networking love in the form of Gigabit Ethernet. ASUS uses 3Com's Marvell 940-MV00 Gigabit chip, while MSI integrates Broadcom's BCM5788. Unfortunately, both chips are forced to share PCI bandwidth with other add-in cards, and in the KT6 Delta-FIS2R's case, with an integrated Serial ATA RAID controller. It's unlikely that either GigE implementation will have performance approaching that of PCI-X or CSA-based Gigabit Ethernet solutions.

So far, only a handful of boards have offered different storage and networking chips. However, nearly every board in this comparison deals with audio a little differently. Check out this huge selection of audio and codec chips:

Analog Devices' AD1980 codec

C-Media's CMI8738 audio chip

C-Media's CMI9739a codec

Realtek's ALC650 codec

Realtek's ALC655 codec

VIA's VT1616 codec

Yikes! That's a lot of chips.

Let's deal with the odd man out first. SOYO's SY-KT600 Dragon Ultra is the only board in this comparison to forgo VIA's integrated VT8237 south bridge audio in favor of a third-party audio chip. The Dragon Ultra uses C-Media's CMI8738, which packs a six-channel audio controller and an accompanying codec into a single chip. The CMI8738 supports 16-bit, 48kHz audio recording and playback and is actually used in a number of low-end discrete sound cards.

Just because the rest of the KT600 boards we're looking we're looking at use VIA's integrated south bridge audio doesn't mean that all the implementations are identical. Nearly all of the boards route the VT8237's audio streams through a different codec chip. VIA actually makes a VT1616 codec chip to accompany the VT8237 south bridge, but only ABIT's KV7 and SOLTEK's SL-KT600R use VIA's codec. The VT1616 is a part of VIA's "Vinyl Audio" brand and supports 18-bit audio recording and playback at 48kHz.

Of course, no motherboard audio round-up would be complete without a little ALC action from Realtek. I've seen Realtek's ALC650 codec chip on more motherboards than I can count, and the popular chip is featured on both the AZZA and EPoX boards. FIC uses a close relative of the ALC650, the ALC655, on its KT-600 PRO. The ALC655 is actually a step down from the ALC650 in terms of supported sampling rates and resolutions. The ALC650 supports 18-bit recording and 20-bit playback at 48kHz, while the ALC655 only supports 16-bit audio up to 48kHz.

Rather than use popular codec chips from Realtek or VIA, ASUS and MSI opt for less common chips from Analog Devices and C-Media. ASUS' A7V600 uses Analog Devices' AD1980 codec, which supports 16-bit audio recording and 20-bit playback at up to 96kHz. The VT8237 can't take advantage of the AD1980's support for 96kHz sampling rates, but the codec should sound great playing back Wham MP3s. MSI's piece de resistance is C-Media's CMI9739a codec, which supports 18-bit recording and 20-bit audio playback at 48kHz.

Each board's audio implementation supports six analog output channels, but as we'll see later, performance and output quality varies quite a bit. The boards from ABIT, ASUS, MSI, and SOYO also support digital S/PDIF outputs, and SOYO's board even has digital input ports.

VIA's VT6307 Firewire chip

We're almost done with chips, but not quite. A handful of the KT600 boards we're looking at feature VIA's VT6307 Firewire chip for IEEE 1394 connectivity. The VT6307 supports up to three Firewire devices and is implemented in EPoX's EP-9KRA2+, FIC's KT-600 PRO, MSI's KT6 Delta-FIS2R, and SOYO's SY-KT600 Dragon Ultra. After seeing all those different codec chips, I half expected to see a couple of different Firewire solutions, but the VT6307 seems to be a popular choice among mainboard manufacturers.

So far, we've seen quite a bit of variety in the chips used on our KT600 boards, but there are even more differences in the board layouts.