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Review: Aopen Ax3S

by David Ross on 27 October 2000, 00:00

Tags: Aopen

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Aopen Ax3S


Intel motherboards had been having a hard time in the world of home system builders recently. With the disastrously high price of Rambus RDRAM and the horrible latency with their Band-Aid fix, the MTH (Memory Translator Hub), the whole Intel 820 chipset never really took off. For the past year we Intel users have been stuck with either going over to VIA boards like the popular Asus P3V4X, or sticking with pimped-up BX boards, offering perks such as ATA-66 through 3rd parties (like Highpoint).

The gradual transition to the 133 FSB is making use of BX boards a bit risky. In the case of my old BE6 which wouldn't run stable above 120 FSB Combined with the lack of a 1/2 AGP divider, the BX boards days are number, even if their performance is top-notch.

What do you get for your money?

This board has a cool box which I wish others would copy. It has a transparent cover which means you can see what you're buying for a change. Basically you get a board, Setup disk with a freebie copy of Norton Anti-Virus 2000, and an ATA-66 cable.

The board itself, like all Intel 815 chipset boards, has onboard graphics and sound. The graphics are adequate for business but not for 3D games, and are disabled as soon as you put something better in the AGP slot. Sound is adequate if you're not used to 3D sound and all the associated effects. Might be worthwhile for people on a budget or who aren't too interested in sound, for me its just a jumper switch more to kill something off.

Board layout

As you can see, its takes a Flip-chip rather than slot 1, and though I worried initially about the large capacitors round the slot, it took my Globalwin FOP32 HSF easily. I like the positioning of the ATX power connector right at the top too. On the downside I didn't like the horizontal IDE slots. They are a bit too low on the board, and the cables would only reach in my case by using the second of the two connectors. In my opinion the IDE slots should be where they placed the floppy drive connector, and vice-versa.

It also only has 5 PCI slots along with the AGP and CNR. While 5 is probably enough for most people, I've already filled 4 on mine and could see it being a problem for some people. One good thing about this layout though is that, for me at least, the board sits one slot lower relative to the case than most BX boards I've tried. This means I can have a slot cooler parked above the AGP slot, pulling air straight off the processor HSF.

The integrated video doesn't have a riser card as I had expected, but rather comes premounted beside the parallel port, going where one of the two serial ports normally goes. I can foresee this be a slight pain when Windows goes belly-up and my USB mouse won't work, as it means I have to unplug my modem to put in a serial mouse. It could also be a problem for people wanting to use both a serial mouse and another serial device. Audio doesn't cause a problem as it comes out in one of those points on the case where there normally isn't anything.

Finally on the nice-stuff front, it has a couple of useful LEFs, one to tell if power is getting to the motherboard, and one to tell if power is getting to RAM. Useful as a quick diagnostic check if you get that 'I won't start - help!' feeling.

Specifications and stuff

Rather than regurgitate it all, here is the link to the AOpen webbie for this board.

The only bit I'd disagree with is the max FSB setting of 166 - in the BIOS the highest setting on mine is 150. I assume the higher clock is only for the Pro version, though nowhere is this mad clear. Given the good stability I get off this, I was left itching for higher settings.

The good stuff that people should want this board for is official support for 133 FSB with half AGP divider support, ATA 100, and also AGP X4.

Setting it up

In short, this should be pretty easy for anyone used to installing new motherboards. Its a bog-standard ATX size and the only jumper you really need to play with is the one to disable onboard sound. Everything else is handled from within the BIOS. The BIOS itself is all fairly standard, and was second nature to me as an ex-ABIT user. As I mentioned above, the maximum FSB available to me was 150, not 166 as stated on the spec sheet. Whether this is addressed in the beta BIOS on their website, I don't know. It does have the slightly unusual FSB of 95 available, which could be handy for all you Celeron 2 OCers. Vcore setting is available but at first I thought it was resetting itself to the default every time I rebooted. After much fiddling about, I discovered that I could only make it stick by hitting the 'Save settings' F-key from within that BIOS screen, not from the main menu. I assume this is a bug, along with the several instances of utter bol$%^& which come up on the 'Help' menu beside the BIOS settings. Finally, on the good side, the BIOS can take readings off the boards inbuilt Winbond heat-sensors (CPU and case), which saves fiddling about with thermistors.

I did briefly try getting it to run without doing a proper Windows reinstall, and of course it went flaky. In particular it caused some cross-linked file problems on my Maxtor hard drive which Windows ME seemed incapable of fixing, requiring a run at DOS scandisk. My guess is that the transition from Highpoint to Intel ATA66 drivers didn't go too smoothly. I can't really fault the board for this, I'm just the eternal optimist and a bit lazy. Windows ME seems to have all the drivers it needs for the 815 chipset as part of the package, so I did not bother with the supplied driver disk. Everything seemed happy once I did a proper reinstall.

One final note in this section is on RAM. These boards only take up to 512 megs of RAM in total, which could be a limiting factor for some people in 6 months from now. As it is, a lot of gamers have 256 megs of RAM, and I can foresee it not being long before this doubles again. While there are 3 DIMM slots on this board, I have been told that it will only take 4 banks of RAM in total, so with fairly normal 128 meg double-sided RAM sticks, you can only use 2 slots. A final moan is that it won't accept one of my DIMMs (generic stuff, but it works fine in my other systems). Again I have read similar complaints elsewhere about 815 boards not accepting all RAM, so be prepared for a bit of frustration if you have old RAM you want to use on the board.

Overclocking and benchmarks

Right then, down to the good stuff. My processor is one of the very first flip-chip P3 500s to be released. Previously my overclocking limits had been reached on a BE6 at 120 FSB. To my amazement I have been able to get this board to run it at 150 FSB, its maximum setting, with just a fairly standard Globalwin FOP32 for cooling.

Given I doubt anyone who reads this actually runs boards at default clock speeds, I'll give you the Sandra benchies run from 750 MHz on my P3 (i.e. 150 FSB) This will of course make it look better than it actually is under 'normal' conditions, but probably more like what our readership are used to. Enough waffle, here we go.

Test system

  • P3 500e at 750
  • AOpen AX3S
  • ATI Radeon 64 meg graphics card
  • Maxtor DiamondMax 27 gig ATA66 7200 rpm drive
  • 192 megs generic SDRAM at 3/3 timing
  • Windows Millenium
  • SB Live, Adaptec 2920 SCSI, 3Com NIC, ASUS ISDN card

CPU Benchmark

I doubt if this test gives a clear reflection of the motherboard to be honest, but it does partly take into account the cache so it is interesting nonetheless. Notice the relative Duron 700 score - I don't know enough about Sandra to be able to tell if this is a pile of tosh or realistic, so lets move on.

Memory benchmark

It takes the 150 FSB to bring the 815 up to the kind of memory bandwidth I was getting off my old BX at 120 FSB. While it is outclassed by the Thunderbird at a gig on a KT133, it does manage to fend off a Duron and the RDRAM board. Unfortunately I have no VIA 133a boards to compare against, but I am fairly confident from reading other sites that this chipset easily beats its VIA rival in this front. Verdict, solid if not inspirational.

Drives benchmark

This rating came off a Maxtor DiamondMax 7200rpm with ATA66 enable and DMA on. This is a fair improvement on the 10200 score I got with the same drive on my BE6's Highpoint controller with the same drive. It must be said though that this comes with a penalty in my case as the drive controller has been the most troublesome part of the system stability-wise (see below). There is also the option on this board to go for ATA100, but I don't have a drive capable of using it. I also tried the bench with DMA off and the rating was 6324, barely more than half - yikes!

Stability and general comments

I was quite surprised how stable in general this board is at 150 FSB, especially given that it is using some particularly cheap generic PC133 SDRAM. I have played a load of Quake 3 and UT on it at this bus speed and have not had any errors while playing. AGP X4 also seems to be fine with my Radeon.

However, the one thing that has let it down on a couple of fronts is the ATA66/100 controller. It has a tendency to sometimes, especially after a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death, i.e. bad Windows crash) not recognize the hard drive on boot-up, giving an 'Insert boot disk' error. This has been reduced slightly by changing the settings from Auto to Manual, but it still does it sometimes. Normally it is refound by a reboot, but it is still a pain. I have also had a couple of crashes related to file-system .VXDs going wrong. Given the absence of anything else to blame, I have to point the finger at the Intel drivers or the controller for this.

In general though I must say that so far, I am pretty happy with this board. Working at 150FSB feels very responsive compared to 120, and the only real complaint I have with it (the HD problem) is I suspect more to do with drivers than overclocked instability. I just wish they had put higher FSB settings in the menu to match what it says it can do on their webpage, given that for once my processor can cope with maxxed out settings on a motherboard.


I can't help wondering which target market was which Intel had in mind when they produced the chipset this board is based on. The onboard graphics and sound which can't be removed by manufacturers (just disabled) are of little interest to most 'power' home users and gamers, while the corporate world will be more interested in its much cheaper cousin the 810. We have a chipset which is made unnecessarily expensive for the gamers and of not much interest to the office-world. It ends up straddling two markets and not satisfying either properly.

While the 815 chipset isn't quite the BX-2 that many people hoped for, mainly because of the less-than-stellar memory bandwidth a limit to maximum RAM, it is still a solid offering. From reading round there doesn't seem to be that much of a difference between 815 boards on the market, so I'd advise looking out for a good price and the top FSB.

So back to the AOpen board in particular: apart from a few irritating quirks and niggles, I feel I can give this board a general thumbs-up. AOpen's contender in the marketplace seems like a good one.