The i815e chipset is Intel's latest evolution of the venerable BX. It's the first really effective 133MHz FSB chipset to come out of Intel. Sure, you could clock the BX at 133, but since that left the PCI bus at 83MHz, plenty of cards couldn't keep up the pace. The i815e also features DMA 100 support. As far as I can tell, the i815e has all the charm of the BX chipset that I loved, with added punch.
The board layout looks, quite honestly, like every other Abit board. It's almost like these guys have a blueprint that they set up the same for every board, deviating only when they absolutely have to. Other than the power connector that's not at the edge of the board, everything is where it should be. There are two fan power and tach headers. The board has the requisite suite of ports: keyboard, mouse, 2 USB (with a header for two more optional USB ports), 2 serial, parallel, joystick, sound and video.
Speaking of video and audio features of the i815e...the AC'97 audio is a workman-like choice that is better than a lot of solutions. It's not a Sound Blaster Live, but I couldn't really pick any nits with it. The video, on the other hand…let's just say that fortunately for Abit there is an AGP slot. The onboard 2x AGP video lets you plug an AGP inline memory module (AIMM) into the AGP slot, sort of like plugging a DIMM into the slot. Without the AIMM, the video shared one meg of memory with the system. That's it…a one megabyte video card. And its performance is visibly, well, terrible. The screen seemed to be kind of washed out and I kept seeing an effect that I can only describe as static. Do yourself a favor…even if you're building a budget system (although this isn't really a budget motherboard) get a video card. Even the cheapest AGP card is better than the onboard video.
The hottest deal in hard drives is DMA 100. I grabbed a Maxtor 40GB drive and compared it with its slightly older DMA 66 cousin. Sisoft Sandra showed a performance increase of almost 100%. Actual transfer rates were really more like 40% greater, but that's still not shabby at all. DMA 100 drives aren't any more expensive, so it's a bargain in my eyes.
The manual is extravagant. It's like every other Abit manual sitting on our shelf. The manual is big, it's very complete and it covers virtually every aspect of the motherboard that you could possibly have any question about. It meshes very nicely with Abit's Softmenu II. Although the BIOS doesn't have Softmenu III, Abit has extended the older version with a few new features for this chipset. I'm a great fan of Abit's Softmenu. It works, it's so much better than jumpers and the manual is so clear about it that I think anybody could understand it.
The only real quirk with Softmenu II on this board is that the clock speed selector isn't as intuitive as I would have preferred. The presentation in the BIOS is a little confusing. Abit did a better job of managing this feature in Softmenu III. This is really just a nit, though, because although the display is a little difficult to interpret, it's still possible to set pretty much any bus speed combo, so overclocking with this motherboard is certainly possible.
When I tested this motherboard, I was really concerned about stability. This isn't a tried and true BX system, so I gave it the same workout I did with the KA7. And the system came through, so long as the processor wasn't overclocked.
I used the following gear on the system I tested:
Maxtor 40GB DMA 100 drive
Creative Annihilator Pro video
128MB Crucial PC133 memory
Kenwood 72x CD-ROM
Pentium III 600e
For stability testing, I copied files. Several large (>600MB), hundreds of small files (<50KB) over and over again, both over the network and on the drive. At the same time, I ran
SETI@home in the background, just to be sure that the system was completely exercised. The results? As long as the system was not overclocked, the Celeron installation worked flawlessly. When it was overclocked, it would last for about 45 minutes, then lock up. Now, I'm not going to complain about that…overclocking, in my mind, is a gamble. If you're after rock solid dependability without any errors, you probably shouldn't do it. The PIII ran just fine at 600MHz or 800MHz. I let it run for over 8 hours at each speed setting (6x100, 6x133, 8.5x66) without a hitch.
I also ran a series of benchmarks including Sisoft Sandra and WinBench. I'm not a big fan of benchmarks since I think that they bear no resemblance to real world use, so instead of filling this review with abstract numbers, I simply used them for rough comparison. I did use Q3Test to measure video performance and it backed up my intuitive feeling about the onboard video…18 frames per second to 100 frames per second. Enough said.
An odd problem that cropped up (and that others have experienced) is that if I enabled the Quick Power On Self Test, the system would not boot. It would count the memory just so far, but then it would stop. I tried it with a few other memory chips with the same results. So it sounds like a good idea to leave that feature off. This is supposed to be fixed in the next BIOS update.
So, performance-wise, this board goes fast. I was anxious to compare this board with a VIA Apollo Pro 133A system. I had a Tyan Trinity board sitting around, so I did a one on one comparison. The Abit board held its own with the Trinity, so long as I didn't use the onboard video. With the onboard video, the processor was extremely bogged down and memory bandwidth suffered incredibly. With the Creative video card, the SE6 took off slightly ahead of the Tyan when I overclocked the processor to 800MHz. But while it was enough to measure, I didn't feel that the difference was enough to notice. And since I'm very sensitive about destroying somewhat expensive processors, I have to say that overclocking a PIII isn't for me.
Abit could have left off the video and audio to save a few dollars and swapped the CNR slot for an ISA, something that would probably endeared them to hardcore gamers. The board does have a minor BIOS glitch and it doesn't overclock the way that we're used to from an Abit board. But it does performs as good or better than the VIA chipset and it definitely shows that Abit is thinking the right way about motherboard performance. Abit has chosen a good chipset that solves the problems of Intel's earlier post-BX iterations. The board is stable which is important to me. The documentation is great and the jumperless setup is, without a doubt, a winner. All in all, I like the board.
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