We've seen a lot of Pentium 4 based hardware at Hexus recently which has been welcome since the platform is undergoing a renaissance in popularity since the move to Socket 478 and especially since the new Northwood CPU's came into existance. However we shouldn't shift our focus entirely since AMD and the companies that support them with chipset logic and boards to support the processors are still working very hard.
NVIDIA are one such company. Despite being well known for their graphics chipsets in the form of the GeForce series that has been around for the past few years, they have also dipped their toes in the water of chipset development and 2001 saw the release of the nForce. We've only covered one example of the chipset at Hexus since it's release in the form of the MSI K7N420 Pro so it's especially nice to take a look at an implementation of the chipset from another company.
Abit are well known for their fully featured boards for the performance user so the NV7m is a rather large departure for Abit, a company that has also tried to diversify in the past year, much like NVIDIA. It's rare for a motherboard bearing the Abit name to not be aimed at the performance user in some way but the NV7m is definitely not and we'll see why as the review progresses.
We covered the chipset in the MSI review in a fair bit of detail and since both are implementations of the 420D version of the chipset, I'll direct you to the previous review here.
It's worth noting however without looking at the older review that the nForce is a jack of all trades and still the most technically advanced AMD chipset despite recent advances by VIA with the KT333 and SiS with their 745. TwinBank is a much lauded technology and while it's difficult to fully quantify any improvements that it might bring to the table, it certainly doesn't remove any performance. Being a twin channel DDR chipset, much like Intel's Plumas/E7500, it offers twice the available memory bandwidth than a similarly clocked single bank DDR chipset. The idea behind a twinbank implementation is that the CPU is allowed to have full access to as much bandwidth as it may require while still leaving some spare for the rest of the system.
The APU is an excellent audio implementation with full Dolby Digital support and it's the same audio processor that you'll find in the Microsoft X-Box.
Also present in the nForce 420 northbridge is a technology called DASP. It claims to offer speedups by intelligently guessing what instructions and data will be needed next by the CPU and making it available without the CPU having to go to main memory. It's similar in technique to the trace cache in the Pentium 4.
Lastly we can't forget the integrated GeForce2 MX GPU in the IGP (northbridge). We saw in the MSI review that it offered poor performance, even against standalone GF2 MX cards despite some apparent advantages. We'll look at that later on.
A closer look at the spec will give the game away. With only 3 PCI slots you can probably guess the board is a mATX offering designed for compact system where small is most definitely big.
Supports AMD-K7 Athlon /Athlon XP Socket A 200/266MHz FSB Processors
Supports AMD-K7 Duron Socket A 200/266MHz FSB Processors
nVIDIA chipset (Crush12 & MCP-D)
Integrates 128-bit memory controller
Dual independent 64-bit memory controllers
4.2GB/sTotal Maximum Memory Bandwidth
Supports AGP 2X/4X only 1.5V
Chipset integrated nVIDIA 256-bit 3D/2D graphics accelerator,Second generation Transform and Lighting engine
Two 184-pin DIMM sockets support DDR SDRAM module up to 1 GB MAX,unbuffered Non-ECC type DDR DIMM
nVIDIA MCP-D built in Audio Processing Unit w/ 256 total voices,Support AC3 encode purpose,Professional digital audio interface supporting SPDIF OUT
AC'97 Audio CODEC on board
Multi I/O Functions
2 Channels Bus Master IDE Ports supporting Ultra DMA 33/66/100
2 USB connectors with on-board header for 2 additional USB channels
1 AGP 1.5v slot, 3 PCI slots
On board Realtek 8201L Physical layer interface
User friendly driver included
Despite the lack of expansion, the informed choice of chipset gives the board a decent feature set. The nForce provides graphics and audio. All that's needed from the user to build a working system is CPU and cooler, memory module(s) and some form of storage for the operating system. This means that a working system of the type this board is aimed at can be assembled quickly and cheaply.
As we saw in the MSI review, the nForce is a poor overclocker and Abit have gone one step further and removed all overclocking options from the board so you don't even get the chance. You have the choice of running CPU front side bus at 100 or 133Mhz depending on your processor and the choice of 100 or 133 for the memory bus too. No other options are available to you overclocking wise so throw all preconceptions of a good overclock out the windows. No multiplier adjust, even on unlocked processors. No voltage adjust on anything and no front side bus adjustment will thwart any attempts.
It's quite obvious just from the feature set that the baord isn't an out and out performance monster and the lack of adjustment for anything confirms this. Memory performance is governed by two toggle options in the BIOS, CAS2/CAS2.5 latency selection and an Optimal/Aggresive selection toggle for the rest of the DIMM timings.
Layout and installation
Starting as we do at the top left and moving left to right and then down, we can see that the board is a lot smaller than we are used to. The CPU socket and IGP dominate the top half of the board. The CPU socket is flanked on the left by a row of 7 capacitors and the bottom edge by 1 smaller one. However I had no trouble at all fitting the test Swiftech MCX478 heatsink so any other sink of similar dimensions should fit without issue and the board obviously sports the 4 holes for mounting similar heatsinks. The Swiftech wont be the normal heatsink for such a motherboard but it does fit!
The IGP is only passively cooled by a packed fin heatsink but it's all the chip needs and given that it can't be overclocked, a fan would just add cost and noise unnecessarily. Carrying on to the right half of the board you get the 2 DIMM slots that support up to 1GB of unregistered DDR memory. Remember that the nForce sports a dual channel DDR chipset and using a 2nd module automatically adds up to 2.1GB/sec more memory bandwidth to the mix depending on memory speed.
The IDE connectors live halfway up the board on the right hand edge and given the size of the board, anywhere along that edge would be fine! The floppy connector is just below thos ports. From there down, everything is standard bar the actual size of the board. It's only 1 AGP plus 3 PCI slots deep so everything stops abruptly compared to a normal board but the peripheral connectors for things like the ATX header are all in sensible places. An extravagant layout this is not, due to the small size. Small and perfectly formed.
The only other item of note is the ATX power connector placement to the right of the IGP and above the AGP slot. It means in some cases you will have to drag the ATX connector over the CPU socket area which isn't ideal. Watch out for that.
Installation was a breeze. Installing the CPU and Swiftech cooler made the board look even smaller since the sink dwarfs any other component on the board. While it's a shame I didn't have a mATX case to see how easy it is to work with the form factor, it fit no problems in the massive Lian Li PC78 case I use. Abit use a custom ATX backplate design for some strange reason and thankfully they supply one in the box. The board does nothing extra than most boards except provide an ethernet port above the USB ports, just like the Soyo K7V Dragon boards but at least you get the backplane in the box. Installed, the board looks very lonely up there in the corner of the Lian Li!
The 3 PCI slots would usually have been filled completely in my test system with SCSI, Ethernet and Sound cards but with all 3 installed, plus the GeForce3 card used in testing, the network card was very close to touching the GeForce3 and airflow was severy prohibited. I discarded the usual Sound (Audigy) and Network cards in favour of using the onboard versions with only the SCSI card remaining in the bottom most PCI slot.
Apart from those space issues, everything was fine.
Installing an operating system, in my case Windows XP, on the nForce is fine. Just remember that XP doesn't natively know about the chipset so a full set of motherboard and component drivers are needed. You can fall into the trap of pointing device manager at the required directories on the CD but that misses out the GART driver needed for full graphics performance and some audio components. Run the full chipset installer on the CD and leave device manager alone when using an nForce.
Bundle and Presentation
The board was supplied in a cute little motherboard box made especially for the board. In the red and white Abit presentation colours and with a little carry handle, it's the cutest motherboard box I've seen. Inside the box you get the essentials. The manual is usual Abit quality and easy to read with the information you need never far away and easy to find. Not quite Asus but not bad either. The rest of the box contents are taken up with the board itself, the ATX backplane, CD-ROM for installation, floppy and IDE cable and USB backplane (2 ports). Sparse, but it's all you need really and the USB ports are always nice to see since they've been missed on a couple of test boards recently.
It's hardly worth running the numbers here since we could just direct you to the MSI review. Performance is nearly identical and since we use the same graphics and processor here you'll see the correlation. But run the numbers I will since pretty graphs appeal to some! The only thing we wont look at in this review is TwinBank. I didn't manage to source another stick of Samsung PC2700 or Crucial PC2100 for the review and both sticks didn't like running with each other in the nForce unfortunately.
Therefore the review numbers are with a single stick of Samsung PC2700 memory in the slot nearest the CPU. Both Crucial and Samsung (effectively underclocked!) give the same numbers so I left the Samsung in.
Performance will be tested by our usual test suite and where the test is a graphical one, I'll also include the results from the onboard GF2 MX core (32Mb shared memory framebuffer) as well as the test GeForce3, just so you can see what you get from using the onboard core. Overclocked performance wont feature simply because you cant. The chipset doesn't overclock well from experience and given the layout of the board, the target market isn't the overclocker.
As always, the test system details.
- Abit NV7m mATX Socket A DDR Motherboard (nForce 420D chipset)
- Unlocked AMD Athlon XP1500+ Processor (1.33GHz, 10 x 133)
- 1 x 256Mb Samsung PC2700 DDR Memory Module (CAS2)
- Gainward Ti550 GeForce3 Ti500 64Mb
- Adaptec 39160 PCI SCSI Dual Channel U160 controller
- 2 x 73Gb Seagate Cheetah U160 10,000rpm SCSI disks
- Plextor 12/10/32S SCSI CDRW
- Pioneer 6x Slot-load SCSI DVD
- Windows XP Professional Build 2600.xpclient.010817-1148
- DetonatorXP 22.40 NVIDIA drivers
- Aquamark v2.3
- Quake3 v1.30
- POVRay v3.1g.msvc.unofficial-win32 dated 28 August 2001
- 3DMark 2001 Professional Second Edition
- SiSoftware Sandra v2002.2.8.64
- Serious Sam: The Second Encounter Demo
Just like the IWill XP333-R review, I'm going to save space and give the CPU benchmarks a miss. Sandra CPU numbers don't deviate with any kind of variance when you move chipset given the same CPU. Provided the chipset doesn't hinder the CPU in any way, the numbers will be the same regardless of chipset. However the memory controller usually changes per chipset so we'll take a look at the memory bandwidth benchmark results.
Remember that I couldn't test TwinBank due to my unusual memory module collection and that the result is for a stick of Samsung PC2700 DDR in the slot nearest the CPU. Also if you cast your mind back to the discussion on the BIOS, the memory settings throughout the review are CAS2, Agressive giving 2-5-2 CAS2 timings for all tests.
The graph is topsy turvy compared to a usual sandra graph so the integer performance is at the bottom and floating point on the top. The returned numbers are slightly down on the reference numbers most likely due to lack of agressive timings in the memory controller, something you can't adjust unfortunately. Unlike the ALi MaGiK 1 controller in the IWill, the nForce has no issues running with the Samsung.
3DMark 2001 SE performance next and a debut for the Second Edition of the benchmark for the first time at Hexus. Numbers are comparable to the older version however with the SE version giving ever so slightly higher results out of the box.
The out of the box performance was excellent and gave the best 3DMark results for the GeForce3 Ti500 and Athlon XP1500+ combination that we've yet seen. It beats the KR7A-RAID, IWill XP333-R, MSI K7N420 Pro quite handily by over 100 points. 40 or so of those points are down to the new version of 3DMark and the rest is due to board performance. It performed very well.
Using the onboard IGP provided graphics core was somewhat disappointing. We gain a few points over the K7N420 result using the same core but it's nothing to write home about. When using the onboard graphics core the BIOS allocates a framebuffer in main memory which in our tests was 32Mb, the maximum you could select in the BIOS. It actually performs slower than a standalone GeForce2 MX for this reason. Using shared system memory for the frame buffer is slower than using on-card display memory since the on-card memory is clocked higher and the GPU has it's own dedicated path to that memory.
When using the IGP, the core uses the TwinBank memory controller to access the shared frame buffer which isn't as optimised as a dedicated GPU memory controller. So the effect of using main memory for a framebuffer is slower performance than dedicated display memory. DirectX 8 performance, something that 3DMark 2001 tests, is poor on the onboard core plain and simple. The unit doesn't support DirectX 8 pixel and vertex shaders in hardware so the CPU has to do the calculations, hurting performance for obvious reasons.
Aquamark will show up the same downside to using the onboard core for all the same reasons. Lack of dedicated, faster display memory and complete lack of DX8 support in hardware makes Aquamark run very slowly on a GeForce2 MX and especially on the onboard core. An updated nForce chipset with an NV17 core or even NV20 would be very welcome.
11 frames per second is unplayable performance and even dropping to 640x480 wouldn't eek out that much and make the game playable. The core simply isn't designed to play DX8 games that utilise the pixel and vertex shaders. Moving to the GeForce3 Ti500 as the rendering device gives much better results. It beats the IWill XP333-R without any difficulty and also the KR7A-RAID (VIA KT266A chipset) and MSI K7N420 Pro (nForce chipset) giving the best Aquamark result seen at Hexus on the XP1500+ and Ti500 platform. Comendable performance indeed from the little board. The hardware support for v1.1 DX8 shader functions gives good performance here and everything was smooth (peak framerate was over 60fps).
Quake 3 should run OK on the built-in core and fly on the GeForce3 so you'll see a good contrast in scores here and a nice illustration of the performance a modern graphics accelerator brings to the table.
Performance on the Ti500 is between 3 and 5 times that of the onboard core for the same reasons we outlined when talking about the 3DMark performance. The onboard core is simply not a performance gaming solution but given the target market for this board, it can be forgiven to some extent since people using this board wont be going for all out gaming performance.
The IGP solution is only playable at the lowest test resolution of 1024x768 and being a GeForce2 MX it performs fairly well. Lack of dedicated frame buffer memory is again a downside.
Lastly in our list of performance benchmarks we have POVRay. Just a single test at 1333MHz using the P3 Binary which, if performance is spot on, should complete in 53s.
Spot on results from the little motherboard and XP1500+ at 1333MHz. Nothing out of the ordinary at all and confirmation, if any was needed, that things are running properly on the board.
Performance hit two extremes here depending on whether the onboard core was used for display rendering. With the Ti500 installed we consistently saw the best XP1500+ performance at Hexus with the board beating even the KR7A-RAID in out of the box untweaked performance. Of course the KR7A-RAID's ability to overclock would cause it to demolish the NV7m when pushed.
Using the onboard core gave poor performance. There is no way to disguise that the IGP core isn't a gamers solution unless possibly paired with a quicker processor. Even that would bring ever deminishing returns as the CPU simply becomes too fast for the underperforming core the quicker you go. Putting a half decent graphics card in this motherboard is a must for anyone wanting to do even a small amount of 3D gaming.
Memory bandwidth performance while not incredible for a PC2100 solution on the surface when looking at the Sandra results, did perform very well in the benchmarks. The nForce memory controller is very advanced and does a lot for the performance on the board when running 3D applications and anything data heavy.
The board isn't targetted at the performance market however and running a Ti500 in this board will be something of a rarity. This board will sit in small systems, mainly dedicated to media processing, say a DVD/DivX player in the living room where ultimate 3D gaming performance.
The motherboard doesn't feature a TV-out port however so routing to TV will require the use of a VGA to TV convertor, adding to the cost of creating such a solution. mATX boards featuring onboard graphics cores really should endeavour to add TV-out to the mix of outputs. This is a pretty large downside given the target audience.
Overall performance was great using the Ti500 and mediocre at best when using the onboard core. Remember when using the onboard core you lose some memory bandwidth (about 100MB/sec) to it.
It's plain this board isn't aimed at the enthusiasts market and we've discussed that from the beginning. So what market is it aimed at and is it a good board for the target audience? It's aimed at the user wishing to build a small, quiet system, possibly in a stylish case to integrate into their home equipment like television, DVD player etc. The only downside to the board in relation to the target audience is the lack of TV-out for the integrated core reducing its effectiveness as a DVD/DivX base.
Lack of expansion doesn't matter to the target market since it ha a lot onboard but there are some downsides. First the 3D performance of the IGP graphics is poor. It's not suitable for new 3D games, especially ones that rely on hardware acceleration of DX8 features.
Secondly, and this is something we noticed when looking at the MSI, the 2D quality of the IGP solution is very poor. I wasn't comfortable using the onboard graphics at 1280x1024 in Windows, my native working resolution. This seems to be indicative of the chipset as a whole and the image was quite dark and quite poorly focussed at the edges. Dropping to 1024x768 improved things but it wasn't great and I wouldn't enjoy using it being too used to excellent quality at 1280x1024 from the Gainward Ti500.
Performance using the GF3 in the AGP slot was excellent and the best we've seen from a Socket A AMD system using this processor however I can't see a GF3 seeing much action in this board due to the target market. The nForce graphics needs an overhaul if it's to gain any plaudits from this reviewer unfortunately.
Overall a nice little board with a couple of nasty downsides depending on your usage of it. Not for the performance enthusiast and very much for the same user who'd buy something like a Shuttle SV24 and would like to roll their own.
Memory controller performance
Overall performance when paired with the Ti500
Excellent audio solution
Onboard 100MBit Ethernet
Poor performance from the onboard graphics core
Horrible image quality from the onboard graphics core
Where is the TV-Out?!
A nice little board but for me the cons are quite serious. The best performing mATX board you can buy, just watch out for the pitfalls. As far as availability goes, in the UK OcUK are stocking the board for ~£127 + their high delivery charge and Komplett are in stock for ~£124 + delivery. It's not hard to pick one up at all.