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Abit's AN8 32X motherboard

Comeback kid?

ModelAN8 32X
Price (Street)

ABIT PRACTICALLY INVENTED the enthusiast-oriented motherboard genre, but lately, questions surrounding the company's finances have overshadowed its actual products. Fortunately, Abit's financial woes appear to be behind it, as a recent merger with USI promises to deliver the company from what even it admits have been trying times. It will take more than just a merger to return Abit to the top of the enthusiast market, though. Abit first became popular among enthusiasts because its boards performed better, overclocked higher, and offered more unique features than the competition. If Abit is to return to grace, its boards will have to do so again, this time against even more refined rivals.

The first step in Abit's bid to reclaim the enthusiast market could be the AN8 32X, a Socket 939 Athlon 64 motherboard based on NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI X16 chipset. One of only three X16 motherboards available for sale, the AN8 32X doesn't mess around with cheesy gimmicks or Fatal1ty branding. Instead, it's equipped with useful peripherals, passive chipset cooling, loads of overclocking potential, and best-in-class fan speed control and hardware monitoring. But is all that enough to keep up with the latest enthusiast-oriented motherboards from Asus, DFI, ECS, and MSI? Read on to find out.

The specs

CPU supportSocket 939-based Athlon 64 processors
North bridgeNVIDIA C51D
South bridgeNVIDIA CK804 SLI
InterconnectHyperTransport (8GB/sec)
Expansion slots2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/133 with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via SiI 3132
Audio8-channel AC'97 audio via nForce4 SLI and Realtek ALC850 codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
1 Firewire via Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A with header for 1 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF input
TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output
BIOSPhoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speedsHT: 200-400MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 200, 266, 333, 400MHz
PCI-E: 100-145MHz in 1MHz increments
Bus multipliersLDT: 1x-5x
VoltagesCPU: auto, 1.5-1.9V in 0.025V increments
DDR: 2.5-3.2V in 0.05V increments
DDR reference: -0.06-0.06V in 0.01V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlCPU, north bridge, system, AUX1, AUX2

At the heart of the AN8 32X is NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI X16 core-logic chipset. Each member of this two-chip team is capable of driving a single PCI Express graphics slot with 16 lanes of connectivity. Between the two chips is a HyperTransport interconnect just fast enough to match the bandwidth of 16 PCI Express lanes—8 GB/s. That's sufficient bandwidth to keep the second graphics card in an SLI rig fed. Although this chip-to-chip interconnect has to accommodate other types of I/O traffic, as well, HyperTransport's traffic management and bandwidth reservation capabilities ought to prevent significant congestion problems. Indeed, our testing has shown the nForce4 SLI X16 to be a competent performer.

This certainly has its share of south bridge I/O components. RAID is supported in ATA and Serial ATA flavors, and the chipset has the ability to span arrays across drives connected to both interfaces. The south bridge also houses a Gigabit Ethernet controller, complete with an ActiveArmor offload engine, and hardware support for NVIDIA's firewall software.

High-end boards usually complement the nForce4's integrated GigE controller with a second networking chip, but that's not the case on the AN8 32X. The board does have an auxiliary Serial ATA RAID controller from Silicon Image, though. That chip provides a couple of extra SATA ports, and since it rides the PCI Express bus, it won't have to tussle for limited bandwidth with the board's PCI-based Firewire chip, or its two PCI slots.

Of course, no discussion of an nForce4 motherboard spec sheet would be complete without a nod towards the crab. Like just about every other motherboard on the market, the AN8 32X taps Realtek for its audio codec. The ALC850 provides eight output channels for AC'97 audio, but it can't handle high-definition sampling rates or resolutions, and it does all its positional 3D audio calculations in software.