Home Chaintech’s Zenith ZNF3-150 motherboard

Chaintech’s Zenith ZNF3-150 motherboard

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor Author expertise
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Manufacturer Chaintech
Model Zenith ZNF3-150
Price (street) $159
Availability Now

FOR A WHILE there, the Socket 754 motherboard market looked a little bleak. Although AMD launched the platform with its 754-pin Athlon 64 processors way back in September, it didn’t look like motherboard manufacturers were in any hurry to adopt the platform. Honestly, I don’t blame them; with only a $400 Athlon 64 3200+ available at launch, the Socket 754 platform was initially a very expensive upgrade, even without the cost of a new motherboard. However, AMD’s $200 Athlon 64 3000+ has quickly made the Socket 754 platform an affordable option for PC enthusiasts and gamers alike.

As the Athlon 64 becomes more affordable, now is the perfect time to check out Chaintech’s Socket 754 Zenith ZNF3-150. Like Chaintech’s early Zenith boards, the ZNF3-150 is loaded with integrated peripherals, bundled extras, and a decent array of overclocking options. However, this latest Zenith is quite a bit cheaper than Chaintech’s previous high-end offerings, making the ZNF3-150 especially tempting for anyone looking for an AMD64 bargain.

Has Chaintech kept the peripheral and bundle gravy train flowing, despite the ZNF3-150’s more affordable price tag? Can the board’s nForce3 chipset, with a little help from NVIDIA’s latest Forceware drivers, keep up with VIA’s K8T800 chipset? Read on; you might be surprised.

The specs
Before we take a look at the ZNF3-150’s layout, let’s have a quick peek at the board’s specs.

CPU support Socket 754-based Athlon 64 processors
Form factor ATX
Chipset NVIDIA nForce3 150
Interconnect HyperTransport (3.6GB/s)
PCI slots 5 32-bit/33MHz
AGP slots 1 4x/8x (1.5V only)
AMR/CNR slots None
Memory 3 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
Storage I/O Floppy disk
3 channels ATA/133
Serial ATA 4 Serial ATA channels via Sil3114 SATA RAID controller
RAID RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 support via Sil3114 SATA RAID controller
Legacy ports 1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse, and 1 Serial port
USB 2 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
Additional 2 USB ports via CBOX3 drive bay insert
Firewire 1  IEEE 1394 Firewire port via VT6306 Firewire controller
Audio 7.1-channel audio via VIA Envy24PT audio controller
analog front, rear, surround, and center outputs
analog line and microphone inputs
digital S/PDIF output
CBOX3 front-mounted headphone and microphone ports
Video None
Ethernet 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via Broadcom BCM5788
BIOS Phoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speeds CPU: 200-400MHz in 1MHz increments
AGP: 66-100MHz in 1MHz increments
Bus dividers None
Voltages CPU: default, 1.45-1.7 in 0.025V increments
AGP: default, 1.6-2.2 in 0.1V increments
DIMM: default, 2.7-2.9 in 0.1V increments
Chipset: default, 1.7-1.9 in 0.1V increments
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

Chaintech loads the ZNF3-150 with a veritable cornucopia of integrated peripherals, features, and even a few extras. There’s a lot to cover, and we’ll get things rolling with a look at the board’s layout.


Board layout
All those integrated peripherals make for a crowded layout, but Chaintech’s engineers somehow manage to squeeze everything onto the board.

The ZNF3-150’s dark brown board is offset by a collection of bright orange slots and ports that gives the board an almost 70s feel. The aesthetic certainly won’t be for everyone, but the board’s brown coloring is thankfully dark enough to pass for black under most lighting.

Though it feels a little nitpicky, I have to point out that the ZNF3-150’s power plug placement is less than ideal. The main power plug is conveniently located along the edge of the board, but the secondary 4-pin power plug is buried between the AGP slot and CPU socket, which creates additional cable clutter around the processor cooler.

Chaintech gets props for speccing the ZNF3-150 with a heat sink retention bracket. Manufacturers aren’t required to ship Socket 754 boards with AMD’s new heat sink retention bracket, and some heat sinks may not come with the all the necessary mounting hardware, so it’s nice to see Chaintech throw the bracket in as a little something extra. Thanks to this bracket, the ZNF3-150 has plenty of room around the CPU socket for larger heat sinks. One of the bracket’s edges pushes up against a row of taller capacitors, which could create clearance problems for larger passive heat sinks, but the board should easily accommodate standard Socket 754 heat sinks.

Speaking of clearance, the ZNF3-150 has just enough room between its AGP and DIMM slots to allow for swapping out memory modules without removing a system’s graphics card.

Like just about every Socket 754 board on the market, the ZNF3-150 has three DIMM slots and supports up to 2GB of DDR400 SDRAM. AMD’s 64-bit processors are capable of addressing more than 4GB of memory, but for some reason many Socket 754 boards are rolling out with 2GB memory limits. 2GB should be enough for the Athlon 64’s more mainstream target market, but it would still be nice to see a higher memory size ceiling.

Thanks to NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 chipset, the ZNF3-150 has three ATA/133 IDE ports—one more than most motherboards.

As Serial ATA begins to replace “parallel” ATA devices, the ZNF3-150’s extra ATA/133 port seems a little excessive. However, Chaintech covers the SATA angle with four ports fed by a controller from Silicon Image. The ports are located along the bottom edge of the board, which might have created routing and reach problems for standard IDE ribbons, but is no problem for thin and flexible SATA cables.

Without the finned exhaust port, the ZNF3-150’s rear port cluster looks pretty pedestrian. In addition to PS/2, parallel, and serial ports, the cluster has a couple of USB ports, three analog audio jacks, and an Ethernet port. I’ll get to those fins in a bit, but I’m not quite done with the ports yet.

To pick up a few ports that it misses in the rear cluster, Chaintech includes a CMR (Chaintech Multimedia Riser) card. The riser contains one of the board’s codec chips, its digital S/PDIF output, and analog center, rear, and surround output ports. A couple of Firewire ports also grace the CMR card, which nicely fits into a special slot on the board that doesn’t block any PCI slots.

Chips, chips, and more chips
Despite the fact that the ZNF3-150 uses NVIDIA’s single-chip nForce3 150 core logic chipset, the board is littered with extra peripheral chips from various manufacturers. Let’s start with the nForce3.

The Athlon 64’s integrated single-channel DDR400 memory controller has given chipset manufacturers one less feature to worry about, and I’m sure that’s helped NVIDIA integrate all the nForce3 150’s hardware onto a single chip. The nForce3 150 interfaces with the Athlon 64 via a 600MHz HyperTransport link that offers 16-bit downstream and 8-bit upstream data paths. There’s been some concern that the nForce3’s HyperTransport implementation doesn’t offer sufficient bandwidth, especially considering the fact that VIA’s K8T800 chipset uses a 16-bit, 800MHz link in both directions. With 600MB/sec of bandwidth, the nForce 150’s upstream link is a matter of particular concern. However, if we consider the chip’s lack of integrated Serial ATA and Gigabit Ethernet, and its basic AC’97 audio implementation, 600MB/sec may actually be plenty.

That’s right, I said basic AC’97 audio. NVIDIA, a company whose powerful nForce2 Audio Processing Unit took the enthusiast and gaming markets by storm, offers only basic AC’97 audio capabilities in the nForce3 150. No hardware acceleration for 3D audio. No real-time Dolby Digital encoding. That NVIDIA didn’t integrate its APU into the nForce3 has to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year, but just because NVIDIA isn’t delivering on the audio front doesn’t mean that the ZNF3-150 falls flat.

Rather than force users to purchase an auxiliary sound card to avoid the nForce3’s basic audio capabilities, Chaintech taps VIA’s Envy24PT audio controller to drive the ZNF3-150’s 7.1 output channels. With a little help from the Envy24’s Sensaura drivers, the Envy24PT supports all sorts of 3D audio goodness. The audio chip can also sample audio at up to 96kHz with 24 bits of resolution, though the ZNF3-150’s sampling rates are limited by its codec chips.

Since 7.1-channel codecs are hard to come by, Chaintech combines VIA’s VT1616 codec with Wolfson’s WM8728 DAC to feed the Envy24PT’s analog input and output channels. Wolfson’s DAC can handle 24-bit audio at up to 192kHz, so it doesn’t have to downsample audio streams coming from the Envy24PT. However, the VT1616 is only capable of sampling 18-bit audio at up to 48kHz, which is a little beneath the Envy24.

True 24-bit/96kHz audio quality on all input and output channels is probably a lofty expectation for integrated motherboard audio, but the fact that the ZNF3-150’s front output channel is fed through the VT1616 while the center, rear, and surround outputs run through the Wolfson DAC completely boggles my mind. If anything, the front output channel should run through the Wolfson DAC to ensure the best audio quality for music playback.

To Chaintech’s credit, I’ve yet to see an Envy24PT implementation—on a motherboard or otherwise—route front-channel output through a true 24-bit DAC. During music playback, the ZNF3-150 sounds pretty good for an integrated audio implementation, but I can’t help wondering if the board could sound better with Wolfson’s DAC handling the front output channels.

Moving from audio to storage, the ZNF3-150’s Serial ATA and RAID capabilities deserve a little attention. The nForce3 150’s lack of Serial ATA support is one of the chipset’s biggest weaknesses, but the ZNF3-150’s Silicon Image Sil3114 SATA RAID controller nicely fills the void. In addition to serving up four Serial ATA ports, the Sil3114 supports RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays that balance performance with redundancy and storage capacity.

In the networking department, Chaintech calls on Broadcom’s BCM5788 Gigabit Ethernet chip, which seems to be a popular choice among many motherboard manufacturers. Unlike Intel’s CSA-attached Gigabit Ethernet chips, the BCM5788 rides the PCI bus and could contribute to a bandwidth bottleneck. Surprisingly, the ZNF3-150’s potential for bandwidth clogging actually has nothing to do with its narrow HyperTransport uplink; it’s the fact that all the board’s peripherals share the PCI bus that could make things messy. With the board’s audio, Serial ATA RAID, Gigabit Ethernet, and Firewire capabilities running through the same pipe, the PCI bus has the potential to be a serious bottleneck. Bandwidth sharing issues may only arise when all those integrated peripherals are used simultaneously, but that seems well within the realm of possibilities with the board’s audio, Ethernet, and Serial ATA peripherals.

A passively-cooled nForce3 150

Envy24PT audio

VIA’s VT1616 codec

Wolfson’s WM8728 DAC

Serial ATA by Silicon Image

Broadcom’s BCM8788

VIA’s VT6306 Firewire chip

Extra cooling…
I promised I’d get to those fins, and here they are:

The fins are actually attached to an exhaust fan and a liquid-filled heat pipe as a part of Chaintech’s RadEX cooling system. RadEX is designed to leech heat from the board’s MOSFETs and expel hot air from the system; conceptually it’s quite similar to Abit’s OTES. Chaintech claims that RadEX can help improve system stability and prevent MOSFET heat from increasing the ambient temperature of the system, and they’ve got some neat thermal camera pictures to show just how much cooler a board with RadEX can be.

Because the RadEX system doesn’t get hot to the touch—even when the board is overclocked and under load—I’m assuming that the board’s MOSFETs are being kept cool. However, the system’s exhaust fan emits a high-pitched whine that’s definitely noticeable if the rest of a system is pretty quiet. Because of the fan’s small diameter, Chaintech has to crank up the RPMs to push a lot of air, and that invariably creates some extra noise. On a whim, I ran some tests on the ZNF3-150 with the RadEX fan disabled and found the system to be no less stable than with the fan spinning away.

Depending on your tolerance for noise, the RadEX fan might not be a big deal. As a part of a complete system, it’s not much louder than the average graphics cooler (no, not the Dustbuster), but the higher pitch can get annoying.

Update – Chaintech has confirmed that the first batch of ZNF3-150 boards incorrectly use a 5V rather than 12V fan. Our ZNF3-150 sample was a part of that first batch, but subsequent boards correctly use a 12V fan that’s apparently much quieter than the 5V model.

And a bundle to go
Chaintech’s Zenith boards are perhaps most famous for their bundled extras, and the ZNF3-150 certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Chaintech anchors the bundle with its CBOX3 drive bay insert, which provides access to a couple of audio jacks, two USB ports, and one Firewire plug. The CBOX3 also comes with an integrated POST code display that can help users troubleshoot their systems without even having to crack open the case. As if that weren’t enough, the CBOX3 also integrates a 6-in-1 memory card reader. The media reader eats up two of the board’s six USB ports, but given the popularity of digital cameras and portable MP3 players, the ports are at least put to good use.

Because Chaintech knows how important PC aesthetics are, the CBOX3 comes with interchangeable face plates to match black, silver, and beige cases. The beige face is also light enough to paint or dye to match any case color, ensuring that the CBOX3 will seamlessly blend into any environment.

One feature missing from the ZNF3-150’s CBOX3 is the IR remote Chaintech shipped with its Canterwood-based Zenith boards. The remote was a unique addition to the bundle, but it may have been a more appropriate extra for a board directly targeting Home Theater PCs. I’m not sure HTPCs need the power of an Athlon 64 just yet.

The board still comes with a full complement of cables, though. In addition to rounded IDE and floppy cables, the bundle is loaded with four Serial ATA cables—all bright orange, of course. Chaintech also throws in an optical cable for the board’s digital S/PDIF output, which is a nice touch.

Because a bundle of cables and a CBOX3 apparently isn’t enough, Chaintech also puts a few extra goodies in with the ZNF3-150. A mini-screwdriver, a tube of thermal paste, a case badge, and five zip ties are nice little touches that will probably prove useful when installing the board.


The ZNF3-150 is loaded with peripherals and packed with extras, but does the BIOS have enough functionality for a tweak-happy overclocker?

The ZNF3-150 has plenty of AGP tweaking options, but memory timings are strangely absent from the BIOS. Users can set the board’s memory speed, but there are no latency options to manipulate—a shortcoming that has plagued all the nForce3 boards that have passed through the Benchmarking Sweatshop.

Thankfully, the ZNF3-150 BIOS’s overclocking options are quite robust. The CPU bus speed can be set between 200 and 400MHz in 1MHz increments, and processor voltages are available between 1.45 and 1.7V in 0.025V increments. A wide range of AGP, DIMM, and chipset voltages are also available, and the board’s AGP bus can be arbitrarily locked between 66 and 100MHz. Unfortunately, an arbitrary lock isn’t available for the board’s PCI bus.

The ZNF3-150’s BIOS lacks fan-triggered alarm and shutdown conditions, but does offer a CPU shutdown temperature that could help save a processor from damage in the event of a major cooling failure. The shutdown temperature is better than nothing, but it would be nice to see Chaintech include a fan failure-triggered alarm or shutdown option for those of us who are a little more paranoid.

I’m a little conflicted about whether to complain about the ZNF3-150 BIOS’s lack of peripheral disabling features, but I’ll mention it anyway. There’s no way to disable the board’s integrated Ethernet, Serial ATA, or audio chips from within the BIOS, though users can always disable them in Windows.

Saved by the system utility
It’s a little disappointing that the ZNF3-150’s BIOS lacks memory latency options, but that functionality is picked up by NVIDIA’s nForce System Utility, which can manipulate a number of traditionally BIOS-level options from Windows.

The system utility unlocks a few of the ZNF3-150’s memory timings, though CAS latency is strangely absent. Overclockers can also use the utility to crank up the system’s AGP and system bus speeds. It’s nice to see Chaintech supporting NVIDIA’s system utility, but the real credit goes to NVIDIA for making the app a free download for all nForce users. Free stuff is good, especially when it has the potential to simplify BIOS tweaking for those conditioned to shy away from blue screens. NVIDIA’s system utility is more than just a tweaking and overclocking tool, too. The app has an information page that displays all sorts of useful data on system components.


Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.

  KV8-MAX3 Zenith ZNF3-150 AB50R
Processor Athlon 64 3200+ 2.0GHz
Front-side bus HT 16-bit/800MHz downstream
HT 16-bit/800MHz upstream
HT 16-bit/600MHz downstream
HT 8-bit/600MHz upstream
Motherboard Abit KV8-MAX3 Chaintech Zenith ZNF3-150 Shuttle AB50R
North bridge VIA K8T800 NVIDIA nForce3 150
South bridge VIA VT8237
Chipset driver Hyperion 4.51 Forceware 3.13
Memory size 512MB (1 DIMM)
Memory type Corsair XMS3500 PC3000 DDR SDRAM
Graphics ATI Radeon 9700 Pro
Graphics driver CATALYST 3.9

Maxtor 740X-6L 40GB 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive
Western Digital Raptor WD360GD

Operating System Windows XP Professional
Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b

Today we’ll be looking at the ZNF3-150’s performance against Shuttle’s nForce3-based AB50R and Abit’s swanky K8T800-based KV8-MAX3 (look for a full review of the MAX3 soon). We’re using NVIDIA’s latest Forceware drivers, which the company claims fix issues that kept the nForce3 from being more competitive with VIA’s K8T800 chipset, so this should be a close race.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the high detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.


Memory performance

The ZNF3-150’s memory bandwidth scores are competitive in both Sandra and Cachemem, but the Abit board has lower memory access latencies.

Disk controller performance

Although the ZNF3-150 hangs around the front of the pack in HD Tach’s read speed tests, the board’s Sil3114 Serial ATA controller is a little slower when it comes to disk writes.

The Sil3114 redeems itself by offering the lowest hard disk access times of the lot, though the ZNF3-150’s CPU utilization with Serial ATA drives is a little high. Then again, only “parallel” ATA drives on the AB50R are frugal when it comes to CPU cycles.


Office productivity

Chaintech’s ZNF3-150 leads the way in the Business Winstone test, but all the boards are pretty close.


The ZNF3-150 is relegated to second place in all but one of our gaming tests, but the board is barely a frame per second behind the lead.


Cinebench rendering

The ZNF3-150 plays second fiddle in Cinebench, though only by the thinnest of margins in three of the four tests.

Sphinx speech recognition

The ZNF3-150 is just slightly off the pace in Sphinx’s speech recognition test, probably due to the board’s slightly higher memory access latencies.


Audio performance

The ZNF3-150’s Envy24PT audio is generally a good performer across RightMark’s 2D and 3D performance benchmarks. When we get into hardware 3D acceleration, the ZNF3-150 consumes 50% fewer CPU cycles than the KV8-MAX3’s VIA’s VT8237/VT1616 audio implementation.

Audio quality
For RightMark’s audio quality tests, I used a Terratec DMX 6fire 24/96 for recording. Analog output ports were used on all systems. To keep things simple, I’ve translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating in RightMark.

Even with its fancy-pants Envy24PT audio chip, the ZNF3-150 manages only an average score in our audio quality tests. RightMark only tests front-channel audio quality, and interestingly enough, the boards that score a 3 on our scale all use VIA’s VT1616 codec to power their front output channel. If only the ZNF3-150’s front audio outputs were routed through the board’s Wolfson DAC, better dynamic range and frequency response scores might be possible.


Peripheral speed
Our USB 2.0 and Firewire transfer speed tests involve transferring a 1.07GB file to and from a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure. The hard drive enclosure is connected to a 7200RPM Maxtor 740X-6L hard drive.

It can’t match the KV8-MAX3’s blistering Firewire read speeds, but the ZNF3-150 is otherwise competitive in our USB and Firewire throughput tests.

The ZNF3-150’s Ethernet throughput is right where it should be considering that the Gigabit Ethernet chips on each board are probably being held back by my 10/100 Fast Ethernet switch more than anything else.

Update 6/13/2005 — We recently discovered that the ntttcp CPU utilization results included in this review were incorrect. The CPU utilization results have been removed, but they didn’t factor prominently into our overall conclusion, so that remains unchanged. A full explanation can be found here.

I managed to get my Athlon 64 3200+ stable on the ZNF3-150 with a system bus of 215MHz—good for an extra 150MHz of CPU horsepower. Thus far, Athlon 64 processors have hardly been overclocking champions, so I’m not too disappointed by the board’s overclocking performance. RadEX may have the potential to keep the ZNF3-150 stable at higher system bus speeds, but until we get our hands on some Athlon 64 chips with more overclocking headroom, it’s hard to judge the effectiveness of Chaintech’s MOSFET cooling system.

As always, overclocking is never guaranteed. Just because my Athlon 64 and ZNF3-150 samples were stable with a 215MHz system bus doesn’t mean that all chips and boards will be capable of those speeds; some may overclock higher, and some may be stuck at default speeds. Overclocking tends to depend as much on the unique characteristics of individual chips as it does on the mix of system components and a little bit of luck, so your mileage may vary.

An extra 150MHz definitely helps the ZNF3-150 in Unreal Tournament 2003’s Botmatch test, but it may take an unlocked multiplier to usher in a revolution of Athlon 64 overclocking.


Although the ZNF3-150 scored reasonably well throughout our performance benchmarks, it’s not quite the fastest board on the block. The ZNF3-150 may owe much of its performance to NVIDIA’s latest Forceware drivers, which bring the nForce3 platform to within striking distance of VIA’s K8T800. Those new drivers can’t help the nForce3 achieve feature-parity with the K8T800, so Chaintech uses a couple of extra chips. Bolstered by VIA’s Envy24PT and Silicon Image’s Sil3114, the ZNF3-150’s audio and Serial ATA RAID capabilities are top notch as far as integrated motherboard components go. However, the ZNF3-150’s peripherals all share a narrow PCI bus, which creates a potential bottleneck that south bridge-integrated peripherals don’t have to face.

Competitive performance and integrated peripherals are great, but what makes the ZNF3-150 really unique is the board’s ample bundle of extra goodies. If you don’t mind bright orange, the board’s bunch of cables is pretty sweet. And don’t forget the CBOX3 drive bay insert, which is probably the most universally appealing extra I’ve seen bundled with a motherboard. It’s a little disappointing that the CBOX3 remote control unit isn’t included with the ZNF3-150, but given the board’s relatively low price, I can understand the omission.

The ZNF3-150’s RadEX MOSFET cooling system could also be considered a unique extra, but given the limited overclocking potential of current Athlon 64 processors, I’m not sure how much of a difference RadEX can make. If RadEX were silent, I’d probably be more enthusiastic about the system, but Chaintech will have to find a way to quiet the exhaust fan’s faint but high-pitched whine to make me a believer.

At the end of the day, what impresses me most about the ZNF3-150 is the fact that the performance, peripherals, and bundle are all available for such an affordable price. The ZNF3-150 can be found on Pricewatch for as low as $160—a bargain considering everything that comes in the box. Sure, cheaper Athlon 64 boards are available, but they can’t compete with the ZNF3-150’s opulent array of integrated peripherals and assorted bundled extras. Anyone looking for a loaded Socket 754 board to pair with a shiny new Athlon 64 should definitely have a ZNF3-150 on their short list. 

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Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior, a seasoned tech marketing expert with over 20 years of experience, specializes in crafting engaging narratives that connect people with technology. At Tech Report, he excelled in editorial management, covering all aspects of computer hardware and software and much more.

Gasior's deep expertise in this field allows him to effectively communicate complex concepts to a wide range of audiences, making technology accessible and engaging for everyone