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Asus P4C800 Deluxe - getting acquainted
At last month's CeBIT many motherboard manufacturers were showing off their Canterwood and Springdale boards. One notable exception was Asus. Asus did have models present, however in an unusual move, decided not to show them publicly. They allowed selected journalists to have a look, and unsurprisingly one such journalist posted pictures up of these boards a few weeks ago. We had a good look at some of Asus's new products at CeBIT and shortly after CeBIT, thanks to Asus inviting us to their UK offices. Finally we are able to publish our review of what is, one of their most important motherboard releases this year, the P4C800.

The P4C800 is based on Intel's i875P chipset, better known as Canterwood. It also features the long awaited (and some may say, overdue), I/O Controller Hub (ICH) 5. Before we talk about the P4C800, lets take a look at the background.

A few months ago we started to see Intel E7205 based motherboards on retail shelves. They were better known by their codename of Granite Bay. For the first time we saw dual channel DDR (albeit PC2100) and AGP 8X support. These are features that have been present on motherboards that used SiS and VIA chipsets for some time, but Intel left these key features out until the E7205. Aimed at the entry level workstation and high-end desktop market the Asus P4G8X (the most commonly available E7205 motherboard in the UK) commanded a price tag of just under 170 including VAT. Sadly as our review proved, the performance gains exhibited by the P4G8X over popular 845PE based motherboards weren't enough to justify the high cost of this motherboard.

Unsurprisingly, many manufacturers left the E7205 out of their product line-up, and we started to see the older 845PE chipset appear on motherboards that promised 800MHz Front Side Bus through overclocking. The most famous of these motherboards is the Abit BH7, a review of which is coming later this week. There is absolutely no doubt that 845PE based motherboards still provide some of the best value motherboards on the market today. However the lack of support for AGP 8x and DDR 400 (let alone dual channel DDR) is something that will become more apparent as 2003 progresses.

One cannot fail to mention Intel's rise in the chipset market over the past 12-16 months. Usually better known for strong-arm tactics against their competitors, Intel has produced good (if somewhat conservative) products and have re-built their once fearsome reputation in the chipset market. But SiS stole a good lead on them this year, producing 655 chipset and it was clear that Intel's 845PE and E7205 coupled to ICH 4 couldn't hold the fort for long.

Step up i875P (Canterwood) and ICH 5. One of the most eagerly anticipated chipsets Intel has produced in recent times, the i875P aims to provide the user with 800MHz (200x4) FSB, dual channel DDR 400 support (the older 533MHz FSB does not have the bandwidth to support dual channel DDR 400) along with AGP 8x, which had it's Intel debut on the E7205.

The big arrival in ICH 5 is the support for Serial ATA. With drives appearing on the shelves (albeit mostly Seagate ones), now is probably the right time to start embracing this technology in the ICH. Sadly we weren't able to get more detailed information on the architecture of this chipset for this review, but an article discussing the technologies in i875P and ICH 5 will be published within the week. So lets look at Asus's implementation of the Canterwood.

The understated packaging really is a refreshing change from the bright colours we usually see. The P4C800 is the first model in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) series of motherboards from Asus. Other models include P4P800 Deluxe, P4P800 and P4P800-VM, all of which are based on the yet to be released Springdale chipset. The AI features will be discussed later.

On the reverse side there is ample information regarding the product, its supporting technologies and further information about Asus's AI features. Inside, the packaging is similar to what we've seen with previous Asus motherboards and everything was satisfactory.

The usual array of cables coupled with headers are provided, however the motherboard sits on top of a thin layer of foam below the cables. It would be nice to see the motherboard in extra padding. One of the best packaging features we've seen are found in Abit motherboards. The board comes in a buddle-wrapped anti static bag. We've seen Abit using this for years now, and it's surprising why other manufacturers haven't started doing the same.

The board is a standard side ATX measuring in at 12"x9.6". It comes in the rather horrible shade of vomit yellow that is associated with almost all Asus motherboards. If you have to pick a PCB colour other than green, please don't make it look like the remains of 10 pints of beer and a chicken korma. However, looks aren't everything and Asus have made a few changes to the layout which help it gain an "above average" liking in the motherboard layout league.

It's quite unusual to see the battery positioned right at the top of the motherboard. Asus have done a good job neatly tucking this space grabbing monster away in a corner (albeit a busy corner) of the motherboard. In close proximity you have the two IDE channels, floppy drive connector and ATX connector. The four DIMM sockets are positioned in sets of two to further illustrate the fact that this motherboard utilizes dual channel memory.

The 12V ATX connector has finally moved from the middle of the motherboard to just beside the first DIMM socket. However, all is not perfect here. The black capacitor is almost on top of the 12V connector and when you have RAM installed, it isn't a comfortable place to put your hand and pull a cable out. That said, this new position is a whole lot better than the traditional spot below the CPU and just above the AGP slot.

On the CPU end of things, the layout is better. Two fan headers surround are available in close proximity to the CPU and although the one nearest to the parallel port can be almost impossible to reach once you place a heatsink, it's an improvement from previous designs. A bank of smoothing capacitors line the top of the CPU bracket, and this could cause problems for people with larger than usual heatsinks.

Interestingly, the CPU heatsink mount is firmly screwed onto the motherboard and the mount itself looks to be of extra construction on the bottom. It's nice to see extra thought and care going into such a vital support component of this motherboard but it does beg the question, what is wrong with the standard mount we've seen and used in all the other motherboards?

Due to the 875P MCH being placed at a 45 degree angle, there is less room on the chipset facing side for a large heatsink. If you are wondering why the MCH is angled in such a way, the answer is quite simple (sadly it's not done to make it look cool). Placed at an angle makes the path for connections is shorter, and therefore the latency is lower. Placing components closer together means data/signals have to travel less, just reducing time. The most common and visual application of this is in super computers where CPUs (and other components) are all aligned in a circle to reduce the distance of data transfers.

Down south we have the ICH 5 which now handles two of the four Serial ATA channels that are present on this motherboard. The other two are controlled by the Promise 20378 controller which also support parallel ATA 133 RAID. The modes supported are 0 (stripe), 1 (mirror) and 0+1 (stripe and mirror). The connectors are nicely placed away from the PCI slots, and no real problems should arise with the placement of these.

Just above it is the BIOS chip. Unlike Gigabyte or Albatron, Asus use a software "BIOS saviour" rather than a hardware one. It's always nicer to have a hardware backup, and we would really like to see proper dual BIOS on more motherboards in the future.

The parallel ATA connector is positioned at 90 degrees to the standard, and whilst this may look good and be better for airflow, it doesn't make the job of inserting and removing the actual cable any easier. Just above the IDE connector is the third and final fan header. The BIOS monitors it as the chassis fan, however like many other motherboards, without an extension lead, most chassis fan cables can't reach this header. Of course this depends if you say the exhaust fan above your CPU is the chassis fan or not.

The two blue array of pins are USB 2.0 headers. With 8 USB 2.0 connectors present on this motherboard, four being found on the backplane, these two headers are at the worst possible position if you intend to use the two PCI slots it almost sits over. If Asus could manage the lovely positioning of headers that was seen on the P4G8X, where all the headers were placed along the bottom of the motherboard it would be brilliant.

On the PCI slot end of the board, things are stilly fairly busy with the 3Com Ethernet chip taking up room along with the Asus WiFi connector at the bottom. This is an optional add-on which brings WiFi capability. We don't have any more details regarding this at the present time, but we will update you as soon as we do. The 6 channel ADI SoundMax 6 channel CODEC is also present on this side of the board along with the S/PDIF and game port headers.

Finally you have an unorthodox backplane. The S/PDIF connector taking the place of a serial port, and a FireWire port being placed on top of the first tower of USB 2.0 sockets.

Overall the layout of this board is an improvement and while it's no where near perfect it certainly represents a step in the right direction, with the major change being the 12V ATX connector coming out of the centre.