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Abit IS7-G - Getting acquainted
Abit have a curious position in the motherboard industry. There's little doubt that they are one of the most celebrated motherboard manufacturers by enthusiasts, gamers and knowledgeable purchases, but whilst this may sound like a good thing, it can result in problems with the increasingly bland OEMs. So with Intel's 865PE chipset already well known for being a value chipset with some bite, it seems the perfect showcase for Abit to harness their overclocking prowess and still produce something that will appeal to the mainstream market. As you'll find out after this two part review the IS7-G not only harnesses the 865PE, it pushes it to the limit.

Before we look a the IS7-G, lets just take a minute to talk about the background surrounding the 865PE chipset from Intel. Known as Springdale, it's bigger brother, the 875P (or Canterwood) was launched to much acclaim until it was known that the 865PE still had many of the performance vectors that were found in it's bigger brother. So why did Intel bother in launching a similarly performing chipset you may ask.

The 875P is clearly aimed at the high-end enthusiast/low to mid range workstation market. Motherboards initially were priced to reflect this, with boards from Asus, Abit and Gigabyte retailing for just under 200. It features a host of new technologies that were never seen before on the Pentium 4 platform. Technologies such as dual channel DDR RAM, Communications Streaming Architecture (CSA), Performance Acceleration Technology (PAT) and DDR 400 were all supported.

To compliment the new Northbridge came a new Southbridge from Intel, the ICH5. This featured for the first time native Serial ATA support, and in the case of the ICH5R, Serial ATA RAID. Other technologies like 6-channel sound and 8 USB 2.0 channels were also present.

And to cap it all off, new 800MHz FSB capable CPUs were also launched on the same day. This all added up to make for a very successful launch for Intel. Not only was performance higher than ever before, their great rival, AMD had no answer. The desktop performance crown was with Intel and no one was questioning it. However not everyone will want to spend 200 on a motherboard, 300+ on a CPU and 150 for two sticks of quality DDR 400 RAM. Something had to fill the gap that was the mainstream market.

Enter the 865 chipset. It comes in three fruity flavours 865P, 865G and 865PE. We'll concentrate on the 865PE, but the whole range of 865 chipsets is chiefly aimed at the mainstream end of the market. The mainstream sector is the most important and whilst it doesn't hold the same prestige as the high-end, it is the mainstream accounts for the vast majority of sales and therefore income for most manufacturers in all aspects of computer manufacture, be it motherboards, video cards or processors. So getting the balance of performance and cost right is key.

The 865PE chipset, when initially announced was greeted with a mixed reception. Not due to prior knowledge of it's features or performance but due to the scepticism that since it was aimed at the mainstream market, the 865 would be far too cut down for any real use. As we found on the day of launch this was far from the case, in fact it was completely different scenario. The 865PE based motherboards whilst being a good 3-5% behind most 875P motherboards was over 35% cheaper. It meant that many editors were recommending the 865PE over the 875P even for enthusiasts.

A few weeks later came the announcements from a number of the major motherboard manufacturers that they were able to enable Performance Acceleration Technology (PAT) on 865PE chipsets. PAT was the very thing that differentiated the 865PE from the 875P. Unsurprisingly Intel weren't too happy about this, however for the consumer this was an absolute blessing. So whilst stories of Intel taking steps to completely eradicate the possibility of manufacturers enabling PAT are still circulating, companies like Abit are still producing boards that have one of the best looking mainstream chipsets we have ever seen.

So lets take a look at Abit's IS7-G.

The box is very typical of Abit in recent times. Very little information on the front, with little more than a simple text denoting the manufacturer's name, the 'series' in which the motherboard belongs to and a simple, understated graphic.

On the reverse side it's a completely different story. A picture of the motherboard is given along with a comparison matrix of the IS7 series of motherboards and the features that are included with each motherboard. It's a very good way of telling the user what features are in each of the motherboards, and this can be great should one want to know what the, difference in features between aIS7 and a IS7-G. A little information is given on the value-added features that are present on the motherboard too. It's quite a good mix of information without blinding the consumer with science.

The important thing to note with most recent Abit motherboards is the sticker on the side. This denotes the actual model that is inside the box and it's features. In this case it states IS7-G, as expected.

A two-tier packaging is pretty common and whilst we don't get the luxurious feel that was found in the IC7-G, it is adequate for the job in hand. Abit supply all the relevant cables, including Serial ATA (SATA) power cables that many manufacturers annoyingly miss out. Unlike old times, Abit don't ship their motherboards in bubble wrap anti-static bags which is a real shame. One of the best packaging parts, serving a dual purpose has vanished most probably due to cost cutting. Nevertheless, a piece of sponge is present on the bottom to provide cushioning against minor knocks and bumps.

Abit supply a motherboard schematic sticker, which is great for administrators who can stick it to the side of the case and get information about the motherboard without having to dig out a manual. Two manuals are provided too, with the main manual providing a great deal of information regarding the IS7 series in general. Also present is a quick start guide which helps first time installers considerably.

Initial views of the motherboard shows generally good layout, with the only point of concern being the 4-pin ATX power connector. The PCB is coloured in a love-it-or-loathe it shade of orange and contrasts sharply against the blue and purple DIMM sockets. Those artists amongst you will have known that blue and orange are opposite colours in the colour wheel, so they should work together quite well. We also see active cooling on the 865PE chipset which isn't a great surprise since Abit really fashioned this trend some years ago.

Starting around the 'DIMM side' of the motherboard we find things are generally well done, with the 24-pin ATX power connector on one side of the board. Although not quite skirting the edge of the PCB, and shadowing the floppy drive connector it's an adequate placement. We also see the Winbond hardware-monitoring chip along with the battery. Interestingly we find the infra-red connector here, and whilst the corresponding header isn't supplied, this isn't the optimal position since any cables would have to stretch right across the motherboard.

The DIMM sockets are bunched in pairs, as is the common with motherboards supporting dual channel DDR SDRAM. The two pairs are well separated although each DIMM socket in that pair are a little too close together for our liking. It doesn't hurt to have a little gap between them, especially when you have popular modules sporting heat-spreaders. Our other major gripe in this area is the close proximity of the AGP slot to the DIMM sockets. In almost all cases you will have to fit the RAM before the video card. The distance between the CPU heatsink mount and the first DIMM socket is more than adequate. In that gap we find the fan header for the CPU - on the right side of the CPU and not too close to the edge.

The major problem issue here is the positioning on the 4-pin ATX power connector. Placed right beside the backplane ports it can be very awkward to insert or remove the connector after a CPU and heatsink is installed and the motherboard is in a case. Also the placing results in the cabling for the 4 pins stretching right over the CPU heatsink/fan.

Generally the CPU area is free of major obstructions, although a bank of smoothing capacitors is present on the backplane side. Whilst the 865PE cooler is pretty close to the heatsink mount, Abit have used a very small heatsink and an equally small but stylish fan resulting in a low profile cooling solution. This means that should you use an oversized heatsink, there won't be any problems with it encroaching on your chipset cooler.

Down south we find the 'functionality' part of the motherboard. With the ICH5R controller which handles the PCI slots, 6-channel sound, IDE channels and two Serial ATA channels amongst other things, the BIOS chip, a Silicon Image Serial ATA controller, two IDE connectors, front panel pin array, 4 Serial ATA connectors, a number of di-electric capacitors and mosfets it's a busy piece of motherboard real-estate.

The big new thing in ICH5 was it's native support for Serial ATA (SATA) and in the ICH5R we find RAID support too. Initially only RAID 0 (Striping) was supported but later came RAID 1 (mirroring). The Silicon Image controller compliments the RAID capabilities found on this motherboard and together with the 2 parallel ATA channels you can have a total of 8 hard disk drives connected to the IS7-G without any further upgrades. No parallel ATA RAID is supported by the ICH5R so you are left with ATA 100, not that ATA 133 brings a large performance difference.

One omission from the bulging feature list is 'dual BIOS'. A feature found in many motherboards, it provides the security of having secondary BIOS, sometimes read-only that can be used should a virus or improper flashing. The other very nice feature is the parallel IDE connectors being flush with the PCB. This allows IDE cables to be neatly positioned and not 'stick out' of the motherboard.

Two sets of pin arrays, the bases of which are coloured blue offer extra USB 2.0 connectivity. This brings the total USB 2.0 channels up to 8, the maximum supported by the ICH5R controller. The front panel pin array isn't colour coded like we saw on Gigabyte's 8IPE1000 PRO and has minimal labelling on the PCB, so you'll have to consult the manual.

Over at the 'PCI end' we find the Realtek ALC650 AC'97 6 channel sound controller and the 3Com gigabit Ethernet NIC. Just below the AGP slot the Texas Instruments Firewire controller is situated. One of the curious omissions in the ICH5 was Firewire support, so it has to come in the shape of an external controller. Interestingly Abit haven't gone with an Intel network solution, which is currently the only one that supports Communications Stream Architecture that is found in the 865PE chipset. The idea of this architecture is to mate the Ethernet controller directly to the Northbridge rather than utilize the bandwidth link between the ICH5 and the MCH (865PE in this case). Although for most people when utilizing 100mbit/sec networks you will see little difference with a CSA enabled NIC, the idea of CSA is a brilliant one for servers.

Thanks to the positioning of the TI Firewire controller, there is a large gap between the AGP slot and the first of the PCI slots. In this gap we find the Firewire headers. Not an ideal place for headers to be placed.

The backplane is of a fairly typical radical Abit design. Featuring the usual 4 USB 2.0, parallel, 1 serial and two PS/2 ports it also has S/PDIF, true 6 channel surround sound, Firewire and Ethernet jacks. The loss of one serial port shouldn't be a major problem for most and the 'new age' connectivity is very much welcomed.

The overall layout of the IS7-G isn't vintage Abit, with several things that could have done better. Things like the 4-pin power connector and the closeness of the DIMM sockets to the AGP slot should have been done better, but there are some very nice touches too. The low profile active cooling solution which is quiet and helps you reach the optimum overclocks and the IDE connectors being flush with the PCB itself also helps the airflow around the case. So all in all, it's not perfect but there are enough good bits to balance out the bad bits.