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Board layout
Abit is trotting out a new color palette for its Fatal1ty-branded products. The blood-red-and-black color scheme is a refreshing break from the orangey red hue that graces the rest of Abit's lineup. Red isn't exactly an original motherboard color, but the shade Abit uses on the Fatal1ty board is deeper and darker than red boards from MSI and others. I'm not too crazy about the board's light blue north and south bridge heat sinks, though. The AA8XE would look much better with black coolers.

Pastel heat sinks aside, the Fatal1ty board's layout is pretty good. I'm particularly fond of the placement of the four-pin 12V power plug, which sits on the top edge of the board. Unfortunately, the AA8XE's 24-pin power connector is located mid-way down the board, which makes clean cable routing a little more challenging.

The Fatal1ty-AA8XE's socket area is pretty crowded thanks to the board's tall north bridge heat sink and wrap-around OTES shroud. Intel's stock LGA775 heat sink is a perfect—if tight—fit, but larger third-party heat sinks like Zalman's gargantuan CNPS7700AlCu aren't as accommodating.

Despite tight socket clearance, there's plenty of room between the Fatal1ty board's PCI Express x16 and DIMM slots. Memory modules can easily be removed and replaced without messing with even the longest of graphics cards. All board-mounted components around the PCI-E x16 slot are short enough that they shouldn't interfere with double-wide graphics card coolers, either.

The Fatal1ty-AA8XE is populated with a full array of PCI Express and PCI slots, including a couple of x1s for PCI-E peripherals that have yet to emerge. Don't confuse the slot at the bottom of the board with a backwards PCI-E x1; it's actually a special connector for the AA8XE's audio riser card.

Moving to another corner of the board, you'll find that all of the Fatal1ty-AA8XE's storage ports are neatly consolidated in a tight cluster. The locking Serial ATA ports are especially nice to see given the fact that normal SATA ports tend to hold cables rather loosely.

Speaking of little touches, notice that the Fatal1ty-AA8XE boasts not only a two-digit POST code display that's a godsend for troubleshooting, but also a pair of handy on-board power and reset buttons. Although Abit has been putting the power and reset buttons on its high-end Pentium 4 boards for years, the buttons have, curiously, never made the migration to the company's AMD-based offerings.

The Fatal1ty-AA8XE's port cluster is dominated by a pair of OTES exhaust fans, which I'll discuss in a moment. Abit also manages to squeeze the board's PS/2, LAN, and some of its USB and Firewire connectors into the port cluster. The rest of the board's USB and Firewire ports (four more USB and two more Firewire) are available through onboard headers

With little room in the AA8XE's port cluster, Abit is forced to move the board's audio ports to a riser card. The card features a full array of analog and digital input and output ports, including a shared line in that handles both analog and digital S/PDIF input. Abit claims that this AudioMAX riser reduces interference and improves sound quality by moving the ports off the board, but I have to wonder how effective the solution can be considering that the codec chip isn't on the riser.