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Inte 875PBZ - Getting acquainted
Intel a name now synonymous with processors applies their skills to many other areas of computing. Their motherboards are lesser known, especially in gaming and enthusiast circles due to their conservative design and their perception of being boring. It's an image that Intel probably doesn't want to shake off, since a large amount of their business comes from the exceedingly lucrative corporate sector, who like the conservative design and reliability that provides years of trouble free service. The 875PBZ might be boring to many but boring doesn't have to mean poor performance, as we'll find out.

The 875PBZ is based on Intel's 875P chipset, otherwise known as Canterwood. The Canterwood chipset was greeted with much fanfare and rightly so. Its previous desktop counterpart, the 845PE/ICH5 was being put in the shade by other chipsets that supported Serial ATA, DDR 400, dual channel DRAM support and AGP 8x. Intel's E7205 did provide support for some these technologies, however it was squarely aimed at the workstation market and several features were still missing. Notably lack of PC3200 support. Whilst the E7205 did support dual channel DDR RAM, it only did so at the old PC2100 standard. Further, there was still no native support for Serial ATA and as we found out with Asus's P4G8X, the performance increase with the E7205 wasn't high enough to warrant the extra price tag that this workstation board carried.

In March and specifically at CeBIT we saw an explosion of 875P motherboards. Motherboard manufacturers were displaying their 875P units with pride on their stands and although a month would pass before the official release, one got a sense that there was maybe more than just hype to the 875P. So when it launched in mid April we all stood back and let the 875P display it's prowess over other chipsets. Needless to say there was a secondary role that needed to be filled too. The 875P would be a damp squid should the ICH5/R not have been released at the same time. Although ICH5/R was supposed to debut some months before the 875P, it helped the 875P cement itself at the top of the performance charts and provide good support for the latest peripherals.

Not only did the newer 800MHz FSB CPUs that were launched at the same time as the 875P itself show extremely good performance gains, the older 533MHz FSB CPUs (such as the Pentium 4 3.06GHz) exhibited good gains from using the 875P chipset. A little over a month later Intel launched the 865 chipset, known as Springdale. This too produced some very pleasant surprises too. Intel seem to be on a role and we look at their 875PBZ motherboard to see if they can match some that chipset prowess to a good stable design.

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Two things instantly hit you, the black PCB and the oversized aluminium heatsink on the 875P processing unit. An initial look at layout and we see there are some problems, although it's not a complete disaster area.

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Over by the RAM corner we see things are off to a pretty good start, with the ATX power connector nicely placed on the edge of the motherboard, the two parallel ATA and one floppy connector also placed near the edge of the motherboard. The DIMM sockets are grouped in banks of two, as is normal practise with dual channel motherboards, however the gap between each socket is a little too close for our liking. It's understandable that having components closer together results in better performance (however slight), but a larger gap will allow RAM modules that have heat spreaders on them (an example of which are the popular Corsair modules) have an ample gap to let some air pass in between the modules.

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Intel have done something that we hope others will consider. The AGP slot is far enough away from the DIMM sockets to allow you to install your RAM even after you have seated your graphics card. We hope other manufacturers take note of this, as it is a major gripe with most motherboards, and only a few exhibit this excellent characteristic.

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The space between the first DIMM socket and the CPU heatsink mount is fairly large and whilst the fan header could be placed more to one side, enabling people with larger fingers easier access especially when the CPU heatsink and the RAM loaded. Sadly we don't see the 4-pin power connector here, and as we move along we find it positioned between the CPU socket and the AGP slot. Not a nice place for such a connector.

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With such a large heatsink on the 875P when working around the CPU area you have to work with some caution otherwise you could end up with a few bleeding fingers (lightweights - Ed.). The 4 pin power connector could be better placed in it's current position means having the 4 power cables stretched over the CPU heatsink and fan, thus obstructing airflow. Another fan header is present between the CPU mount and the rear panel ports. Again fat fingered users will find it hard to deal with.

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The majority of silicon always ends up here, and it's where things can get fairly confusing. The two Serial ATA ports are controlled by the ICH5R which not only supports Serial ATA, but does RAID 0 (striping). A recent software patch released allows RAID 1 (mirroring). We see one last fan header placed down here. The BIOS chip is also present, and whilst Intel makes little fuss about it, they do have a pretty good dual BIOS system, so should your BIOS update fail then you should be able to boot without much problem.

Intel supply a very basic read only BIOS which can be activated by moving the jumper for the BIOS to it's alternate position. By inserting a BIOS floppy that you know is correct into the floppy drive, it will then read the floppy disk, write it to the flash ROM and give a number of beeps. Then placing the jumper back to its original position will allow a standard boot.

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A rather plain looking backplane with masses of USB 2.0 connectivity and not much else. It's surprising to see no second Serial port however we doubt whether it'll be missed much.

The Intel 875PBZ's design and features can best be described as conservative. It's got everything in the right place but doesn't push the envelope and to be fair, that's what this board was designed to be. The 875PBZ can be likened to a man, the sort of grey hair man who wears slippers around the house, drinks Cadbury's Bourneville before he goes to sleep and never breaks the speed limit in his reliable motorcar. He gets along in his day to day business with consummate ease and is never late, and wears a tiepin.

Performance however, is anything but an over excited pensioner wielding a Zimmer frame as we'll find out.