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ABIT KA7 motherboard: a review

by Drew Dunn

[ a product review ]

by Drew Dunn

Let me start off by saying, "Wow."

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A lot of attention has been stirred up by Abit's KA7 and their claims of stability, compatibility and performance. I'll give away the ending right here. The board rocks. It rocks hard. But don't stop reading, because you'll want to know why.

The motherboard was packaged in a padded antistatic envelope inside of the two level box. The bottom of the box held the IDE and floppy cables, a thermal sensor, CPU support brackets, a CD-ROM and the manual.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, yet again I must point out that the manuals that Abit provides are unmatched in the industry. I have yet to see anything that even remotely approaches the detail, comprehensiveness and clarity of Abit's manuals. Every computer manufacturer ought to have a couple of them around as a reference on how to write a good manual.

Now, just looking at the board told me that something special was going on. It features six PCI, one ISA and one AGP slot. That's right, six PCI. In a decision that I heartily applaud, it appears that Abit deep-sixed the AMR socket in favor of the sixth PCI slot. And if that's not enough, you can install up to four 168 pin DIMMs. And even better, there is plenty of room between the processor slot and the first DIMM socket. Overclockers will love this board…there is room for even the most massive heat sink and fan. Just make sure that you have room in your case. The board is a bit larger than most.

The board uses VIA's KX133 chipset. The chipset supports PC100 or PC133 memory, AGP2X/4X and a whopping 2 gigabytes of memory. It also includes support for UDMA/66 hard drives without the hassle of an extra onboard controller.

Abit tuned the chipset by adding a data buffer set that supports ECC. Abit's explanation is that the buffer improves stability and data integrity when all four DIMM sockets are in use by adjusting signal length and bandwidth. The buffer is critical for the fourth DIMM socket. Obviously it costs more and adds a bit of complexity to the board…and that's why you only see three DIMM sockets on other boards. Since this is the only four DIMM board that we've tested, it's hard to evaluate the stability claim on a relative basis…but with four DIMMs installed, the system was rock stable.

The board also features the requisite ATX connectors, including keyboard, mouse, two USB, two serial and parallel ports, all on the back of the board. An additional two USB ports are available via headers on the motherboard. Also on the motherboard are the two IDE and a single floppy connector. A nice piece of work is that the ATX power connector is easy to get to, yet out of the way of large heatsinks. 

The BIOS is essentially the same Award Plug and Play BIOS that Abit motherboards feature, with a few extra enhancements for the AMD Athlon processor. It features Abit's SOFTMENU III and is, of course, Y2K compliant.

AMD Athlons are toasty processors, and Abit did their homework. As I mentioned before, there's plenty of room to install a massive heat sink on the processor. There are also a total of four fan power headers on the board, as well as a thermal sensor header. A sensor on a cable is included, allowing the user to position it exactly where it can do the most good.

KA-7 with very massive Alpha P7-125 heatsink/fan installed. Notice that the fourth DIMM socket is still accessible, as is the ATX power connector.

We tested the motherboard with an AMD Athlon 700MHz CPU, 256MB of Micron PC100 SDRAM memory, two Western Digital 20GB UDMA/66 hard drives, an STB Velocity 4400 AGP video card and a generic 42x IDE CD-ROM drive. We used a 330 watt power supply… AMD makes no bones about the Athlon's hunger for power.

Installation and setup were very easy. The fit and finish of the board was perfect for the SuperMicro full tower case that we used. Every hole was perfectly centered and the external ports fit the case gasket exactly.

The IDE and floppy connectors are at the top of the motherboard, so if you've got a large case like we do, you'll probably appreciate the extra few inches that you gain by their position.

The BIOS was a snap to configure. The two drives were auto-detected easily, and the rest of the default settings were appropriate. Abit's SOFTMENU makes it very easy to configure CPU settings. Although we left the system at it's default values, we saw that front side bus speeds of up to 155MHz were selectable. Core and I/O voltages for the CPU are also adjustable here. For over-clockers, this motherboard is a dream because, in addition to the SOFTMENU tweaks, the memory CAS and access timings are also adjustable. A great feature of the VIA KX133 chipset is that the front side bus clock can be configured independently of the memory clock. The KA-7, like many other Abit products seems to have been designed with overclocking in mind.

With the system up and running, we ran a few tests just to confirm what our eyes had told us. The board is very stable and works very well. Ziff Davis's Winbench put this board on a par with a similar Apollo Pro/Coppermine configuration. Without a similarly configured Rambus system, we couldn't run actual tests, but based on available data, a comparable i820/Rambus configuration would probably be a little faster, but given the cost of Rambus memory, the cost/performance ratio would be quite high.

We tested the system with both Windows 2000 and Windows 98SE. Since Abit made significant claims about the reliability and stability of the motherboard, we gave those points our greatest attention. We ran memory intensive programs such as Photoshop and POVRay, disk intensive operations, such as very large Access database sorts, and processor intensive programs like SETI. Even with several simultaneous processes thrashing the system as hard as we could, we were unable to induce any failure, hardware or software related.

The only problem that we saw with this board was that the UDMA/66 data transfers weren't as fast as we felt they could be. Our Celeron board of choice, the BP-6 uses HighPoint's HPT-366 UDMA/66 controller and it is a bit faster. But that's a small nit to pick because we could only see the speed difference in benchmarks…real world performance appeared identical. With support for CPUs up to 1240MHz, six PCI sockets and four DIMM slots, all rolled into one very stable, hot performer of a motherboard, the Abit KA-7 is a hands down winner.

Drew Dunn




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