Singapore Hardware Zone

ECS P6BXT-A+ Rev. 1.3b ATX Motherboard
Reviewed by CPU-ZILLA  (18 Aug 99)

Motherboard Specifications

Processor

  • Intel Celeron Processor 266MHz-500MHz (66Mhz).
  • Intel Pentium II Processor 233MHz-333MHz (66Mhz).
  • Intel Pentium II Processor 350MHz-450MHz (100Mhz).
  • Intel Pentium III Processor 450MHz-600MHz (100Mhz).

Chipset

  • Intel 440BX chipset 

Cache memory

  • CPU Built-in 128KB/512KB L2 cache for Celeron/Pentium II/III Processor 

System Memory

  • 3 x 168-pin 3.3v DIMM sockets support 
  • Supports 8/16/32/64/128/256 MB DIMM Module 
  • Supports SDRAM PC66 & 100(Supports ECC, 1-bit Error Code Correct function) 
  • Supports up to 768MB of memory size 
  • Supports 66/75/83/100/103/112/133 MHz System Clock Speed Setting
  • Supports 3.0-8.0 Multiplier Setting 

PCI IDE

  • 2 X PCI Bus Master UDMA/33 IDE ports (up to 4 ATAPI Devices) 
  • Supports for PIO Mode 0-4, UDMA/33 IDE & ATAPI CD-ROM 

I/O Interface

  • 1x floppy port (360KB-2.88MB) 
  • 2x serial ports (16550 high-speed) 
  • 1x parallel port (SPP/EPP/ECP) 
  • PS/2 Keyboard 
  • PS/2 Mouse 
  • 2x USB 
  • 1 IrDA ASKIR header
  • 1 Audio port (Line_Out, Line_In and Mic_In) and 1 MIDI/Game Port powered by the Elite PCI CMI 8738 3D audio chipset.
  • 1x 16-pin connector for optional modem card supporting the V90 standard.

Expansion slot

  • 4 x PCI 32-bit slots, PCI 2.2 compliant 
  • 2 x ISA 16-bit slots 
  • 1x AGP (1x & 2x Mode,66/133MHz) slot 
  • Supports Creative PCI Sound Card SB-Link™. 

Power Management

  • Power On by LAN, Modem, Keyboard & Soft-Power Switch 
  • Power Off by Windows 95/98 Shut down & Soft-Power Switch 
  • ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) feature
  • 3 level ACPI LED
  • Suspend To RAM (STR) feature

Form Factor

  • ATX Form Factor : 30.5cm(L) x 22cm(W) x 4 layers PCB
  • Fits into regular ATX Case 
  • ATX Connector on Board 

BIOS

  • 2 Mbit (256KB) FLASH memory
  • Award PCI BIOS with Green, PnP, DMI and Anti-Virus Functions 
  • LS120, ZIP, ATAPI CD-ROM, IDE #1, #2, #3, #4 bootable 

<Introduction><The Good><The Test> <The Bad><Conclusion><Rating>

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Introduction

An important part of improving oneself is to accept constructive remarks and act upon them accordingly. Very often, I find myself shrouded with too much pride that prevents me to admit my own shortcomings. I won't say I'm perfect, in fact, I'm learning valuable lessons everyday. Thus, it doesn't really matter how smart you are, or whether you possess a PhD, one would not succeed if one does not listen to people's comments humbly. I must say that being humble is one of the most difficult thing to do and I am still trying to be as attentive to people's criticisms as far as possible.

It is certainly refreshing to see how fast ECS reacts upon user's comments on their latest innovative board using the Gemini architecture, the famous P6BXT-A+. It was only about 2 months since I reviewed their Rev. 1.2c board, and now, they have released a new revision which promises to fix and improve on the previous board. It is good to see how much commitment ECS has placed into providing the best products users can buy. I must applaud ECS in choosing to listen to user's constructive (sometimes insulting) criticisms. I guess they have figured that customers are indeed more important.

Since this board is just an improvement and due to time constraints, I will only run very basic benchmarks and will only mention what are the principal differences between Rev. 1.2c and the new Rev 1.3b. The package comes packed with the same contents as the previous motherboard, namely the board, a manual, driver CD and FDD/HDD cables.

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What's New

So, what is new?? What makes it different from the previous version. Well, at first look, one would not notice much difference. However, upon closer observation, you could see quite a lot of difference between the two revisions. It is just like playing one of those "Spot the Difference" games. I'll try to provide you with as many pictures as possible but please bear with the poor capture quality. That's the best I could do before I spend a fortune on a Nikon digital camera.

Revision 1.2c
Revision 1.3b

Well, as you can see here, the revision number is kept in clear view between the third and fourth PCI slot.

It is very easy to spot this, unlike some motherboards. Anyway, seems like motherboards are going in the same direction as softwares, with all the version numbers. Wonder when we'll see P6BXT-A+ Ver. 2000?

As I've mentioned in the Rev. 1.2c review, the large capacitor in the center of the ATX connector is the main hindrance to a smooth installation. The capacitor blocks the ATX connector lock and is not possible to attach the power cable unless you bend the capacitor slightly.

Here, we see that ECS have taken my criticisms seriously and has replaced the capacitor with a smaller capacitor, both in dimension and value. The capacitor value is rated at 10µF while the previous capacitor was rated at 470µF. I really do not know what difference it will make to the overall stability of the board, since I did not design it. Anyway, I just thought you'd like to know. : )

The older board uses an Elite CMI8338 PCI sound chipset. A very low cost solution to built-in sound with 3D positional audio capabilities. Good for most users with little demands.
It is interesting to see that they have upgraded to a higher version of the sound chipset using the Elite CMI8738.
Well, the area near the 2nd PCI slot is rather plain and empty as we can see here. There's only the SPDIF header and two jumpers, one for disabling the on-board sound and the other to change the SPDIF output level from 0.5V to 5V. The output level is rather useless unless you own a DAT player which you have modified its input connector to fit your motherboard. Most SPDIF signals are at 0.5V, but in the case of my Sony DAT player, the input/output signals are at 5V. Anyway, its an almost useless feature.
In the new revision, you can see that the two jumpers are removed and there's an additional 16-pin connector for what was later revealed to me as an option for the addition of a modem card. Of course, you would have to spend extra on a custom made modem card, but you can be assured that it will be really cheap since it is software controlled rather than hardware. The jumper for disabling sound was removed and the option is now available in the BIOS. This is good for those who hate jumpers. Oh yes, you can also disable the built-in modem feature in the BIOS. The SPDIF input level jumper was removed for good and this feature is nowhere to be found. Anyway, I doubt it will hurt many, unless there's another use which I've not heard of.
There's nothing much here except the hardware monitoring chip using the Genesys Logic GL520SM chip.
On the top right corner, you can see a red LED. What's it for? Well, it is an indicator lamp that tells you if your computer has been suspended to RAM. The STR feature is new on this board and is part of the PC99 specifications for low power consumption and ease of use.
Hmm... what is it here that I miss out? Well, you have to take a really close look. You should find a blue coloured temperature probe with a white top between the Socket-370 and Slot-1 connector. This is the probe used to sense the temperature of either CPUs in use.
The flaw is obvious in the previous design. The probe is not in proximity to make any accurate measurements. Here, they have lengthened the probe so that it stretches out closer to either the Slot-1 or Socket-370 CPUs. Still, I'd prefer a removable probe like the one in MS-6163.

The modem riser card plugs easily into the 16-pin header. The card is aligned near the PCI slot, so that it behaves like a PCI card, and the bracket could be screwed onto the casing. The fax/modem also supports the standard V.90 protocol and is fully compatible with earlier transmission and error correction standards. To give you a better view of how the card looks like, here are some pictures which I snapped during the review. I believe a picture tells more than a thousand words.

I tested out the modem card by connecting to my dial-up Singnet account. The setup was simple and straightforward, just like any other modem. Upon dialing, I was surprised to hear the dialing tone from the audio speaker instead. This confirms one thing, that the modem is actually very closely tied to the sound chipset. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the web-site of this chipset manufacturer, thus, I was unable to look up the specs. Anyway, the modem operation is actually controlled by software since it does not use any Rockwell or 3Com modem chipsets. To test how much processing power the modem removes from the overall system, I powered up Quake 3 Test and joined into one of the internet games. I have to say that I'm impressed!! Quake 3 ran smoothly without any hiccups. In fact, it was so cool that I played almost two hours, and was blown off to bits and pieces countless times.

The voltage read-out from the hardware monitoring chip was found to be fixed. In the last review of the Rev. 1.2c board, I was shocked to see the voltage read-out to be higher than what was set in the BIOS. Fortunately, it was due to the hardware monitoring chip. Still, any unsuspecting user would have freaked out at the extremely high voltage read-out. In this board, I was determined to find out if the problem was fixed. So, I took out my digital multimeter and put the board to a probing test. What I found was a much improved read-out, and here's a summary of the little probing experiment I did on the board.

Voltage setting in BIOS
Revision 1.2c
Revision 1.3b
Reading in multimeter
Reading in BIOS
Reading in multimeter
Reading in BIOS
2.0
2.02
2.10
2.02
2.03
2.05
2.07
2.14
2.07
2.08
2.10
2.11
2.18
2.11
2.11
2.20
2.21
2.29
2.21
2.21
2.30
2.31
2.39
2.31
2.30

As you can see from the table above, user's of the older board has nothing to worry about. The voltage was still well within acceptable limits. In fact, the voltage levels on the older board were the same as that in Rev. 1.3b.

Another new feature is the inclusion of the new Suspend To RAM (STR) option as part of the Power Management. However, in order to enable the feature in Windows 98, one needs to setup the OS either from scratch by typing "setup /p j" during Windows 98 installation, or replace the "Plug and Play BIOS" under the System Devices to "Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) BIOS". Unfortunately, this procedure was not documented in the manual and I had to ask Vijay for it.

As for the built-in sound, although the chipset has been upgraded to a newer version, the quality of the sound was still the same. It still maintains a bright sounding playback with support for four speakers.

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The Test

In the tests, I only used a Slot-1 Pentium-II 350 as a form of comparison between the two different motherboard revisions. Due to time constrains, I did not carry out any tests on the Socket-370 as I believe the results would have been much the same anyway. However, I did managed to run some tests on the Socket-370, and there's nothing much I can say except that it performed as well as its previous revision.

Test Configuration

Processor(s): Pentium II - 350 Retail, batch=SL37F, 2.0V, Philippines
RAM: 1 x 128MB Micron PC133 SDRAM DIMM and
1 x 64MB Micron PC133 SDRAM DIMM
(48LC8M8A2 -75B)
Hard Drive(s): IBM Deskstar 22GXP DJNA-371350
Video Card(s): Microstar NVidia Vanta 16MB
Bus Master Drivers: Windows 98 Bus Mastering Drivers
Video Drivers: NVidia Reference Detonator Drivers 2.08
Operation System(s): Windows 98 Second Edition (build 4.10.2222A)

Ziff-Davis Benchmark Results

Benchmark on PII-350 Rev. 1.2c Rev 1.3b
CPU mark 99 27.6 27.6
FPU Winmark 1800 1800
Business Winstone 99 20.5 20.5

Comparing the benchmark score of the two motherboards, it is not surprising to find the performance to be similar. What's interesting is the stability of the motherboard performance. Anyway, this indicates little, or no change in the motherboard architecture, and it's apparent that ECS did not tweak anything to enhance its performance further.

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The Bad

The BIOS does not allow you to enable the on-board modem (using the modem riser card) if you want to disable your built-in sound. It looks like the modem is closely tied to the sound chipset. You can only enable the modem if the on-board sound is enabled. This isn't very appealing at all. In addition, the speed of the modem is not really on par with other modems using proper Rockwell or 3Com chipsets. It is slightly slower than normal. I can't give you any numbers as time does not permit me to perform any benchmarks. I do hope the price is attractive and is bundled with free local dial-up ISP accounts. Otherwise, you would be better off with other modems that offers free dial-up accounts that's worth as much as the modem.

Although the temperature sensor near the CPU has been elevated higher, I'd still prefer a more versatile probe like that found in the Microstar 6163 motherboard. I really doubt the final accuracy of the temperature reading as it is only measuring the temperature of the heated air blown to it from the heatsink. One should be cautious of this since the air temperature is always lower than the actual temperature of the heatsink. Thus, as a guide, users should add a few degrees more to the temperature read-out.

In addition, I think the board could use another fan connector. I'm sure by now, on-board fan connectors are almost a must for overclockers, and since this board was made with a lot of overclocking in mind, fan connectors are highly treasured. Also, since I'm onto overclocking, I guess adding more FSB settings to the board won't hurt. Most newer BX motherboards were built with about 30 FSB settings, and yet some overclockers were still unsatisfied. So, I believe adding more FSBs would really give buyers tougher decisions to make.

Lastly, the voltage settings in the BIOS could do some sort of limiting. I think it is not very safe to have all the voltage settings enabled. Suppose an ignorant user set his Deschutes CPU voltage to 2.8V! This would produce some serious fireworks, and I'm sure it's one costly display.

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Conclusion

I am certainly glad that ECS took some of my criticisms in the last review seriously. It is great to finally see that motherboard manufacturers have come to depend on suggestions by end users. The board is still not the perfect board even after the numerous changes. However, I believe that it is as good as it can get, and is definitely good value for money considering the built-in 3D sound with good future upgradability. Although lacking FSBs, the board does allow voltage tweaking to make overclocking a breeze. In summary, this board does deserve the same award as its previous revision as one of the most overclockable product around with good stability in overclocking. However, I'd give it only an overall rating of 4.5 stars.

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MOTHERBOARD RATING

Overall Rating (Out of a maximum of 5 Star)

Installation ****½
Performance *****
Price ****
Overclockability *****
Material Quality ****½
Stability ****½
Overall Rating ****½

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