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Mmmm.... shiny black box
I always feel a little bit silly taking pictures of a motherboard's box, so I don't do it very often. In this case, however, I felt it was necessary to show the care with which Abit has designed the AN7's packaging. We start with the box itself, which manages to be both slick-looking and understated at the same time.

Opening up the box, we have... two more boxes. These boxes are actually different depths, but Abit went to the trouble of creating a step in the cardboard "shelf" that separates the boxes from the motherboard, so that the top surface would be flush all the way across.

It's a realtively high attention to detail for a look that many consumers may not even notice, but I think it makes for a nice presentation when you first open the box. Speaking of boxes, let's look at what these inner boxes contain.

The thinner box has the printed documentation, and there is actually a lot of it. There is a user's manual and a quick installation guide for the motherboard, as well as a guide to Abit's µGuru monitoring solution. Finally, we have a drivers CD, a drivers floppy for the RAID controller, and a sticker diagramming jumper locations on the board. This last item is meant to be stuck inside the case as a handy reference.

The second box has cables and lots of them. There is a floppy cable and a single IDE cable, but obviously Abit is anticipating people will use SATA drives with this board. There are two SATA cables and a power adapter to convert a Molex connector to two SATA power connectors.

Those who would like to use a parallel IDE hard drive with the AN7 may be annoyed by Abit's SATA leanings, but it's a rare individual who has an IDE hard drive and no IDE cable to go with it. Most enthusiasts could wallpaper a room with their spare IDE cables.

Once you remove the inner boxes and flip the cardboard shelf out of the way, you're left with the motherboard itself. Let's take a look:

The layout of the board is fairly typical, but there are a few items that deserve special attention. For example, the floppy connector is in about the best place it can be, right next to the DIMM sockets. If you've ever had a board with the floppy connector stuck next to the last PCI slot, you'll definitely appreciate the placement on the AN7. Let's look at a few of the other highlights in greater detail.

To complement the excellent placement of the floppy connector, we have side-facing IDE connectors. These help to keep the IDE cables out of the way of the other components on the board, and their placement along the edge closest to the front of the board means that they're closer to typical drive mounting locations.

Here's a close-up of the heatsink/fan on the north bridge chip. I'm not a big fan (no pun intended) of actively cooled north bridge chips, because I view it as one more fan that adds to the noise of the machine, and one more fan that may cause problems one day if it stops turning.

There is another possible problem with active cooling on north bridge fans, which is that the manufacturer cancels out the benefits of active cooling by pairing the fan with a tiny heatsink. I'll reserve judgment on the adequacy of the heatsink until we see the overclocking results, but I will say that this is one of the weeniest north bridge heatsinks I've ever seen.

Here is a shot of the AN7's port cluster, and it's quite a collection. Starting from the left we have PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard, then one each of serial and parallel connectors. Just to the right of the serial port are Toslink optical connectors for S/PDIF digital audio in and out.

Next we have the analog audio ports. The two ports on the left are surround speaker outputs (left and right) and center and subwoofer outputs, while the other three are mic in, line in and front speaker outputs (left and right). To the right of these is a stack containing a single Firewire port and two USB 2.0 ports. The final stack has a 10/100 Ethernet port and two more USB 2.0 ports.

A nice troubleshooting tool is a dual-digit LED display on one corner of the board. As the system boots, the display flashes POST codes that correspond to each step in the boot process. If the board fails to boot, you can look the code up in the manual and hopefully get a handle on the problem. For example, if the code indicates a problem with the RAM, it might lead you to the discovery that there are no DIMMs plugged into the board. Not that I've ever done anything like that.

Finally we have the µGuru chip, complete with a label that's ooooh, sparkly! Abit claims that this chip is responsible for the AN7's monitoring functions, offloading that responsibility from the processor. At least one recent review has suggested that a dedicated processor for monitoring functions is A Good Idea.