The package showed up a couple of weeks ago, but I've been so busy that it's taken a while to get the review done. Not that I've ignored the shiny new Abit SA6R motherboard…oh no, far from it. Abit replaced the SE6 with this new board and I replaced an SE6 with it also. Is it a good replacement? Well, just adding a built-in ATA-100 RAID controller (the HighPoint HPT-370) was worth it. Increasing the number of DIMM sockets to four was worth it. Upgrading to SoftMenu III was worth it. Put it all together…it was a good replacement.
The SA6R is a very similar board to the SE6 except that it's bigger. Obviously, the inclusion of the ATA-100 RAID controller is a big change, but performance-wise, the two boards share a lot. Basic benchmarks testing various system specs showed precious little difference between the two boards. Well, except for hard drive performance.
The HPT-370 RAID controller is the same device that Abit installs in their HotRod Pro 100 RAID controller. I had been using the SE6 board with a HotRod Pro 100 controller and two Maxtor Diamond Max Plus 7200 RPM drives. The drives (configured as a RAID0 array) plugged right into the on-board interface and were instantly recognized as a RAID0 array with no further tinkering necessary. The performance from the onboard controller exactly mirrored that of the HotRod Pro 100…it was very, very fast. You can check out the benchmark scores in the Abit vs. Promise review here on the site.
Other interfaces on the board include the standard loadout of two ATA-100, one floppy, a parallel port, a serial port (plus a header for port number two, including a supplied port), two USB connectors (plus a header for two more), a VGA port for the onboard video and the normal slate of multimedia connectors for the SA6R's AC'97 audio. The board also has a header for an additional thermal monitoring device, something that might be good for keeping tabs on, say, a toasty video card. Infra-red and Wake on LAN/Modem headers round things out.
Stability is a big issue with us. We've stayed out of the bleeding-edge overclocking game because to us, having a reliable system that you can count on day in and day out is much better than a really fast computer that crashes every hour or so. In that regard, the SA6R strikes gold. The board is fast and stable with both Celeron and Pentium III processors. I ran the board for several days with a mix of a PIII-866, PIII-933, Celeron 366 and Celeron 733. I never overclocked the processors (sorry, like I said, that's not our game) and never saw a lockup, even with the system under very heavy loads.
It looks like Abit has abandoned the lowly ISA bus for good. The last few i815 boards that we've looked at have included a CNR slot in place of ISA. I don't really have any problem with the replacement, other than that I think that CNR is something of an improvised technology that just isn't gaining any acceptance. On the other hand, ISA cards really don't have a lot of place in the PCI/AGP world because of their dramatic impact on system performance. So while I don't have any ISA cards anymore, I guess my advice to those who do would be to find a PCI replacement…quickly!
SoftMenu III is a welcome addition to this board. It provides a degree of control over the system's configuration that almost seems too good to be true. The 1MHz bus setting increments make the board ideal for overclockers (although I'd be terrified to crank up my PIII-933). Other BIOS settings were fairly standard as Abit boards go, which is to say, very complete indeed.
I suppose that this is getting redundant, but the manual for this board was, as usual, first rate, with very complete explanations for virtually every function of the motherboard and its BIOS. Abit has always been a leader in documentation and they pulled off another fine job here.
As I mentioned before, the board has four DIMM slots, something that I initially thought was sort of a marketing ploy. Now I'm not so sure. This board, like all i815-based boards, is limited to a maximum of 512MB of memory. Now, that's not so bad, except that you can only get there by using two 256MB DIMMs. Why? Because when Intel designed the chipset, they only allowed addressing for up to four banks of memory. That's a little confusing, I think, because most DIMMs are double sided, that is, each DIMM uses two banks. So, in most cases, two DIMMS equals four banks…with (in this case) two DIMM slots left over. So, like I said, I started out think that this was marketing fluff. But now I don't think so. I think that there are enough people out there with 64MB DIMMs that would like to use them, and since those are single sided, it does make sense to at least give the opportunity to make them all fit. Even though an awful lot of people won't be able to take advantage of all four sockets, I think that I'd be kind of frustrated if I had to just toss one of my DIMMs only because there weren't enough slots. This is a good compromise that lets budget upgraders hang on to some old parts without having to go through the expense of replacing memory AND a motherboard, yet it doesn't have any adverse performance implications. So I'll give Abit a star for thinking ahead of everyone else on this.
And another thing…speaking of thinking, the SA6R comes with the extra USB adapter to take advantage of the extra USB header on the motherboard. Four USB ports aren't uncommon now, but it does seem to be uncommon for the extra two USB ports to come with the board. The SA6R includes them, as a set of two ports attached to a rear slot cover.
Other accessories included with the motherboard are IDE and floppy cables and a driver CD. The sturdy cardboard box has logos for various online hardware web sites, although The NOSPIN Group/FreePCTech is notoriously absent…probably just an oversight on Abit's part.
Is anything wrong with this board? Not really. It's a good implementation of a reasonably good chipset. I have gripes about the onboard AGP video and the CNR slot, as well as the measly allotment of memory address lines, but those are more properly aimed at Intel for attempting to cram everything but the kitchen sink onto a motherboard.
All in all, Abit has put together a solid package of speed, stability and value in the SA6R that places some very high performance features smack dab in the budget of an average upgrader on a budget. The compromises in this board don't affect its performance, and should allow anyone considering an upgrade to hang onto some older parts until they can afford something better. Price-wise, the SA6-R is right on. For about $20 more than the SE6, you get a built-in RAID0 controller and more memory flexibility, to say the least. The SA6R is definitely a worthy follow-on to the SE6 and ought to be at the top of the list for your next motherboard purchase.