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Gigabyte 8KNXP - getting acquainted
Gigabyte are well known for providing good quality motherboards in the past and have done well in both the mainstream and enthusiast market through aggressive pricing of their products. Gigabyte has also done well with their line of "Powered by ATI" graphics cards. However in this industry you are only as good as your last product. The 875P chipset from Intel has been getting some much deserved attention over the 'Net, and Gigabyte were quick to throw their hat into the ring with two models. The 8KNXP and 8KNXP Ultra both feature the 875P and ICH 5 combo from Intel and whilst the latter commands a price tag that will make most home users, be it power or enthusiast whine, the 8KNXP is well placed in the line of 875P motherboards on the market.


The 875P brought some important new features on its arrival last month. First was dual channel DDR 400, which finally replaced the single channel PC2700 (333MHz) support found in the popular line of 845PE motherboards, and the dual channel PC2100 (266MHz) support that was seen on the E7205 (Granite Bay) chipset. Dual channel DDR 400 support has been around for a fair old while on the AMD platform with the nForce 2 debuting over 8 months ago (although motherboards started appearing some time after the initial launch).

Next up came Performance Acceleration Technology (we'll talk about this a little later), which intends to decrease latency through "optimizing data paths". Springdale motherboards should have this technology disabled in them, although some manufacturers are already claiming that they are able to turn PAT 'on'. A big bonus was the move to ICH 5. ICH 5 has built in support for Serial ATA, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and the ICH 5R has RAID support. CSA (Communication Streaming Architecture) is also present, but only used if the motherboard manufacturer uses certain Ethernet controllers. So lets see what Gigabyte did with all the latest gubbins from Intel.

The 8KNXP comes in a large box, and it's clear that Gigabyte have put a lot of effort in making this product stand out from the crowd. We saw Asus go with relatively bland outer packaging, but the 8KNXP can only be described as voluptuous and informative. It features a folded front page which can turned over to reveal a wealth of information regarding the motherboard, it's various on board components, Gigabyte's video card range and the "6 dual miracle" (which we'll talk later).

     

Inside things continue in what can be described as the Rolls-Royce of motherboard packaging. In a separate box we find the motherboard packed in a 3-tier packaging structure. Thanks to having so many accessories, manuals and cables Gigabyte have felt the need for a little something over the standard packaging we see on most motherboards. The motherboard is fairly well protected; however more could have been done, especially given the effort they made on the outer aesthetic features on protecting the motherboard in transit. That said, this model survived the journey from Taiwan in perfectly good condition, without as much as a hint of damage inflicted upon it.


The box needs to be big; it has a lot to hold as we can see. An extensive array of Serial ATA cables, USB and Firewire headers, additional daughterboards and three manuals plus the board itself are all present. Certainly no marks deducted for effort and completeness here.


The 8KNXP comes in full Technicolor and some will brand this as tacky, especially since the Canterwood chipset is aimed for high-end desktops where users generally aren't all that impressed by fancy colouring. There doesn't seem to be any theory behind the colour scheme, although the two orange DIMM sockets are colour coded to denote which sockets give you dual channel functionality. From our elementary art education, we can also see that the two colours used on the DIMM sockets are opposite colours of the colour wheel - not that it should make a whole lot of difference to your choice of motherboard.

With all the added on board functionality it is clear that something had to suffer and that something is layout. Although it's not a complete disaster, there are certain issues that could have been worked out more favourably. We'll mention them as we tour around the board.

  

The "RAM corner" is pretty well done, with IDE and the ATX power connections neatly placed to one side. The 6 DIMM sockets that are present eat up PCB real estate, however Gigabyte have done a good job in keeping the DIMM sockets a fair distance away from the AGP Pro slot. Things are still pretty tight due to having 6 DIMM sockets as opposed to the standard 4.


We can see that the capacitors which line the top of each bank of three DIMM sockets have very little room to manoeuvre (not that one should manoeuvre capacitors, but it's an illustration at the lack of space that is available on this board). Note the rounded edges of the PCB - it's nothing special, it doesn't do anything extra, but it looks good and shows that care and attention has been put into this motherboard. In a mass market industry it's nice to see little things like that pop up.

  

On the CPU side things are not so great. The 12V 4-pin ATX connector is poorly placed, and with wires coming directly above the CPU heatsink, we had to make sure the cables didn't touch our cooling fan (the reference design cooling fan is simply unguarded from any angle). The Dual Power Supply (DPS) daughterboard, although having a small fan, does a lot to disrupt the airflow to the exhaust fan. The DPS connector which brings back memories of ISA slots, is placed just fan enough away from the CPU heatsink mount not to cause problems.

Removing the DPS is extremely tricky, although very few people would want to remove it, the retainer although at first glance looks flimsy does an excellent job of holding the daughterboard in place. The blue LEDs that are set in the heatsink also gives an added aesthetic pleasure.

  

Gigabyte decided to go with active cooling on the 875P as part of the "6 Dual Miracle". Generally we aren't fans of active cooling on the Northbridge (no pun intended) (One more of those and you are fired - Ed.) since they represent instability, generate extra noise and give one extra part the ability to fail. However, actively cooling the Northbridge is good when you want to overclock your CPU, and depending on how determine you are, noise plays a secondary role to a good overclock. With the Pentium 4 'C' range of chips being pretty good overclockers, the active Northbridge cooling isn't frowned upon too much.

With regards to noise, when coupled to the fan that is present on the DPS and the CPU's heatsink fan, there is little audible difference in having this fan present in the system. The heatsink itself is fairly small, mainly thanks to having the fan aiding it's cooling properties. It's coloured it a glossy golden finish which makes it look like it was made out of plastic rather than aluminium. A little tacky, but eye-catching nonetheless.

     

Mid way down the motherboard we can see how tightly packed this motherboard is with features. Credit to the Gigabyte techies who managed to fit all this in, without resorting to an oversized PCB. Although the 8KNXP is no small motherboard, it's not overly large either. That said, a larger PCB would have helped with the layout of this board, and no doubt raised the price too.

  

It's at the bottom we see the sheer amount of silicon and headers present on this motherboard. The ICH5R (which supports Serial ATA Raid 0) has been accompanied by the Silicon Image Sil3112 controller which supports RAID 0 (striping) and RAID 1 (mirroring). Therefore you end up with a total of 4 Serial ATA channels. It also opens up the possibility of having your data on a RAID 1 array and your system files, accompanied by less important data (such as game data) on a RAID 0 volume. With Serial ATA hard drives appearing en masse from Seagate and Western Digital at reasonable prices it's certainly time to consider jumping on the SATA bandwagon.

The Serial ATA headers have been painted a fetching shade of red to contrast violently against the blue PCB of the motherboard. Adding to the cocktail of colours we have grey, slime green, vomit yellow and the minty white of the PCI slots. We always wonder where these colour schemes come from, the remains of a technician's lunch perhaps?

The two green parallel ATA headers you see are controlled the ITE IT8212F chipset labelled as GigaRAID. This supports ATA 133, RAID 0, RAID 1 and RAID 0+1. So all in all, storage wise this motherboard keeps all your options open and certainly those of you that want to keep hundreds of gigabytes of data on your computer will have no problems utilizing the resources available on this motherboard.

Over by the PCI slots things silicon continues to be packed onto the 8KNXP. Here we have several pin arrays for various add-on cards, such as the S/PDIF card, game port, CD-IN and AUX. Also present is the Intel 82547EI chipset which makes use of Intel's Communications Streaming Architecture (CSA) in order to connect it directly to the Northbridge instead of going through the Southbridge as we see on almost every other chipset.


Nothing extraordinary on the back ports. It's surprising to see no Firewire port, however this is catered for by the two PCI backplanes that are provided.

An interesting point is that 4 PCI backplanes are supplied - 3 being various USB 2.0 and Firewire ports and the fourth being the SATA daughterboard. If you fit all four then there will be some issues should you want to use the full compliment of PCI slots.

Overall the layout isn't great, but Gigabyte have packed this board full of silicon that it's inevitable something had to suffer. There are some good points, such as the colour coded front panel pin array (although this doesn't provide to be as much of a help as it first sounds). The unusual colour scheme will not be to everyone's tastes but at least Gigabyte have made an effort.

Time to look at the Gigabyte 8KNXP at close quarters.