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ABIT BE6II motherboard: a review

by Mark Rode
2000/02/25



BE6 II motherboard
by Rode

Hold No Punches... by Rode

The ABIT BE6 II is ABIT's flagship Pentium III motherboard and lives up to it's reputation for bleeding edge high performance, quality engineering and configurability. My BE6 II arrived the first week of January, so cutting edge I swear the box was bleeding!

The BE6 II comes packed in a substantial well padded anti static bag. The box contains the usual assortment of EIDE and floppy ribbon cables as well as a special ULTRA 66 cable for the ULTRA 66 controller. ABIT also includes a temperature sensor that plugs into the motherboard and can then be attached by tape to anything within reach to monitor it's temperature. I put this directly on the back of my CPU although you may choose to put it on a high end video card, the chipset, or on any device about which you have temperature concerns. You can monitor your temperature, voltage, and fan RPMs from within a BIOS screen or even within windows after installing the utility ABIT provides on the driver CD ROM. The BIOS even provides for automatic shutdown if a dangerous temperature is reached.

The package also includes a first rate manual and a CD ROM with drivers, technical documents, and utilities. The manual is written with the new PC builder in mind and takes you through a new install step by step. ABIT writes the most comprehensive manuals I have come across but then it makes sense for them to provide this kind of manual in order to reduce tech support requests or unnecessary returns. This benefits both the consumer and the manufacturer. Other motherboard manufacturers should take note.

The board itself is well thought out and employs useful ergonomic touches such as color coded input jacks. This is nice when you're peeking around the back of your PC trying to remember which PS2 plug was for the mouse and which for the keyboard. I have worked with professional products and tools for a couple of decades and I really appreciate this sort of attention to detail. ABIT has a well deserved reputation for quality that is exemplified in this board.

The quality doesn't end with the presentation. This board is fast and you start to suspect this when you notice the heat sink on the chipset.

The BE6 II has one AGP slot, 5 PCI slots, and one ISA slot. I would really like to have see one more ISA slot but the trend seems to be away from this as fewer and fewer ISA devices are manufactured. The Slot 1 for the CPU supports everything from the slowest Celeron up to the fastest Pentium III. The BE6 II uses the Intel 440BX chipset. There are three fan plugs that support on board monitoring. There are 3 DIMM slots that support up to 768 Megabytes of SDRAM. It is also setup with two USB ports that are ready to plug in and use. The board has a wide range of onboard esoteric capabilities including a wake on LAN header, a wake on ring header that with the right modem will turn your PC on, boot up and answering a ringing phone. There is also full support for Power Saving features and is fully ACPI compliant.

The BE6 II comes with four ... yes that's right four ... hard drive controllers. The usual ULTRA 33 Controller's Primary and Secondary channels AND a separate ULTRA 66 controller provides Primary and Secondary channels for ULTRA 66 drives which means you can run up to eight drives on this motherboard out of the box. The ULTRA 66 controllers have their own BIOS provided by:

HighPoint Technologies
http://www.highpoint-tech.com

For a complete explanation of ULTRA 66 please go to: http://nospin.com/pc/ultra ATA66.html

You determine in the BIOS which drive you wish to boot from. First you set the boot drive in the regular BIOS and then in the HighPoint BIOS. When the BE6 II posts the normal post screen appears followed by the blue HighPoint screen which is the ULTRA 66 BIOS screen. By entering the HighPoint BIOS you can choose which ULTRA 66 drive to boot from. There have been a lot of complaints posted about the ULTRA 66 controllers in the ABIT news groups and I think a lot of them are caused by putting an incompatible ULTRA 33 or EIDE drive … particularly CD ROMs …on the ULTRA 66 controllers. ABIT's position is that you may do this however NoSpin recommends you only put ULTRA 66 devices on the HighPoint controllers. Of course ULTRA 66 drives are backward compatible and can be placed on the ULTRA 33 controllers. In addition you must use the special ULTRA 66 cable on ULTRA 66 drives and channels. The cable is most easily identified by the blue end that plugs into the motherboard. The ULTRA 66 cable may appear like a regular EIDE cable but it contains twice as many wires.

A lot of the other problems are caused by older drivers and at first I too had some problems. Most of which were resolved by flashing to the latest BIOS and using the most recent HighPoint drivers. The first thing I would do upon installing a new board would be to check ABIT's web site for the latest drivers.

With so many controllers and the ability to designate the boot drive there is an issue with drive lettering when booting from a floppy that I at first considered a BIOS problem but now realize is just the price of having so many controllers and so much latitude on boot drive selection. When you boot into any version of Windows you won't notice anything unusual. Neither will you notice anything unusual when you run a DOS Window or exit to DOS from Win9X. However if you boot from a floppy, the hard drive letters start with the hard drive you selected as the boot drive, and then move to the first ULTRA 33 channel (master drive first, then the Slave drive), then to the second ULTRA 33 channel (master drive first, then the slave), then to the first ULTRA 66 channel (master first, then slave), and finally to the second ULTRA 66 channel (master first, then slave). The first time you do this it can be pretty confusing but once you realize how the lettering is setup you can work with it.

The BE6 II offers you ABIT's now famous Soft Menu BIOS to set up your CPU. A new feature revision two offers is the ability to disable the SoftMenu and use on board dip switches to set up the board. Using dip switches offers the advantage of protecting your settings in a multi user environment where a novice could inadvertently or intentionally enter the BIOS and change your CPU settings … possibly endangering your board and CPU. However, most buyers of the BE6 II will be using the Soft Menu. Boot up and enter the BIOS / Soft Menu and you will discover that you can tweak BUS speeds, external clock frequencies, and voltages in tiny incremental amounts. The FSB Clock can be raised from 66 to 200 and multiplier factors from 2 to 8. Both Core and IO voltage can be incrementally adjusted.

I have been running this board for 7 weeks and my first setup was pretty basic. This allowed me to become familiar with the boards features, particularly the ULTRA 66 drives.

First Setup

CHIPS:

CPU: INTEL CELERON 300A Over clocked to 100 X 4.5 = 450 at 2 volts
RAM: 250 megs of Micron 128 megs ECC P-100…two 128 megs DIMMs

DRIVES:

Teac 1.44mg Floppy drive
Teac CD-532E-B CD Rom drive

Seagate Medalist Pro ST39140A 7200RPM Ultra 33
on Primary ULTRA 33 EIDE controller

IBM Deskstar 22 GXP DJNA-371350 7200RPM
ULTRA 66 on Primary ULTRA 66 (boot drive)

Seagate Barracuda ATA ST328040A 7200RPM
ULTRA 66 on Secondary Controller

AGP: None

PCI:
Slot 1: Matrox Millennium 1
Slot 2: CPRO 120c NIC 10/100 high speed NIC

ISA:
SoundBlaster AWE64 Value

My current upgraded setup has a faster processor over clocked to 550 , a cutting edge gamer's AGP card, a SCSI controller for a Scanner and a mobile drive bay where I can plug in different EIDE drives.

Current Upgraded
Setup

(Upgraded items are in Blue)

CHIPS:

CPU: INTEL CELERON 366 Socket 370 on a MCI 370 Slot 1 converter Over clocked to 100 X 5.5 = 550 at 2.1 volts

RAM: 128 megs of Micron ECC P-100…one 128 megs DIMM

DRIVES:

Teac 1.44mg Floppy drive
Teac CD-532E-B CD Rom drive

I have a mobile drive bay installed on the ULTRA33 Primary channel

IBM Deskstar 22 GXP DJNA-371350 7200RPM
ULTRA 66 on Primary ULTRA 66

Seagate Barracuda ATA ST328040A 7200RPM
on ULTRA 66 Secondary Controller

AGP:

Diamond VIPER 770 TNT2 ULTRA with 32 megs of RAM

PCI:

Slot 2: CPRO 120c NIC 10/100 high speed NIC
Slot 4: Adaptec 2906 SCSI controller for scanner and future SCSI CD Writer

ISA:
SoundBlaster AWE64 Value

With this configuration I have installed or attempted to install a wide range of operating systems. At the moment I am running Windows98 SE2 and the final retail version of Windows 2000 Professional. Windows 2000 is handling the dual boot, although in previous installs I used System Commander 4.03 for this. I previously had NT4 SP6a Workstation installed and I made an unsuccessful attempt to install Linux Red Hat 6.1.

Installing Windows 98 SE2 is pretty straightforward. If you are using ULTRA 66 drives on your ULTRA 66 controllers, you must manually and individually install the Highpoint drivers for both controllers after Win98 is up and running. Once you have an OS installed you may come up against the most significant problem I had with this board. There is nothing wrong with the board per se but the ULTRA 66 controllers use an IRQ, USB uses a IRQ, and your AGP may require a IRQ. It doesn't take long before you run out of IRQs . Windows 98 will share IRQs like crazy and you may be surprised to discover that your NIC is sharing a IRQ with your video card. It works but I would avoid this sort of thing if possible. You may not have a choice and this is one of those situations where if works then live with it. However NT4 does not like to share IRQs and I had a lot of problems sorting out things with the install.

The first problem I had with NT4 was that I discovered after many attempts that you can only install NT4 on the C drive. The following applies if you are using a ULTRA 66 drive and use it as your boot drive. If you have setup the BIOS to boot from an ULTRA 33 drive, then you should not have this problem. Normally I like to keep my system files on a small 200 meg C drive and put my operating systems on logical drives. With NT4 my preference would be to install it at the end of an extended partition on a NTFS partition. This is how I now have Windows 2000 installed. Windows 98 doesn't see the NTFS partition but Windows 2000 sees all the partitions and installing the NTFS at the end of the logical drives allows for less of a chance of screwing up drive letters. However this did not work when I attempted to install NT4 because using the ULTRA 66 controller resulted in only being able to install NT4 to the C drive.

When installing NT4 you must treat your ULTRA 66 drives on the HighPoint controller like SCSI drives. When NT gets to the part of the install process where you are asked for additional drivers, you must hit F6 and present it with the Service Pack 4 MSATAPI drivers so that it can see drives larger then 8 GB. You must then provide the Highpoint NT4 drivers so the setup program can see your Ultra 66 drives. At this point everything will proceed normally as long as you install to the C drive. I discovered on UseNet that this is a known BE6 II NT4 problem and hopefully future drivers will address the issue. I also discovered that once you are up and running you still have to manually install the Highpoint drivers in NT4 in order to achieve ULTRA 66 support.

Installing Windows 2000 Professional went very smoothly. You must still manually give Windows 2000 setup the correct Highpoint drivers and then install them again once you are up and running. But Windows 2000 will install to any partition and it gave me no particular problems with the ULTRA 66 drivers.

Both NT and Windows 2000 presented a challenge in getting IRQs sorted out. My SB16 driver had a IRQ conflict and would not work. I resolved this by going into the BIOS and setting things up for a NON PNP OS. Then I selected < Manual > for IRQ and DMA settings and I specified IRQ 5 and DMA 3 and 7 as ISA legacy. This seem to have no effect on my Win98 settings but it did make my NT4 SB 16 and my Windows 2000 install work correctly.

I would suggest you read the manual and pay particular attention to the way the BE6 II routes IRQs. PCI slot 3 is shared with the HighPoint controller and I would simply not use slot 3. PCI slot 1 is shared with the AGP card so depending on the device and the operating system, you may or may not have a problematic setup if you use slot 1. PCI slot 5 shares the busmastering thread with the HighPoint controller and would only be appropriate to a non busmastering device like a older NIC or a Video card. When installing PCI cards I would give this some serious thought or you could be in for some real headaches.

The ULTRA 66 controllers have problems with hard drive utilities. The latest version of Norton Utilities 2000 Disk Doctor works but reports partition table errors in the extended partition as does System Commander 4.03. There are of course no errors and turning off this feature gets rid of the warning message. I would not rely on any disk utilities to repair supposed MBR or Partition errors. Norton benchmarking incorrectly shows the drives running slower then a plain EIDE 5400 RPM Western Digital drive ! I had this sort of experience with two other benchmarking utilities which is why I do not trust any of them and am not posting any results. ULTRA 66 is relatively new technology and it will be a while before software device utilities catch up. This is always the case when new technologies or operating systems enter the PC market.

There is however a noticeable performance increase from ULTRA 33 to ULTRA 66 that is most evident during multitasking, gaming and loading applications. Having so many controllers allows me to have three hard drives each on their own controller. This allows the drives to access data simultaneously which can have an big effect on performance. This is in addition to any boost in bandwidth that the ULTRA 66 controllers and drives provide.

Although I tried various approaches I could not install Linux Red Hat 6.1. It just can not see the drives even when I tried to install it on a lone ULTRA 33 drive running on the Primary channel of the ULTRA 33 controller. The presence of the HighPoint BIOS confused it. Fortunately LINUX is an open source operating system and it should not be long before someone writes the correct drivers for Linux. (see Linux update below)

Make no mistake about it … the BE6 II is a bleeding edge board that is by design an Overclocker's dream machine that has been lovingly designed to tweak that last megahertz from the fastest of CPUs, and deliver screaming performance. If you are just going to build an Internet, Office, or Word-Processing box then look elsewhere; but, if you want a powerhouse gaming or graphics workstation then this is your board. The ABIT BE6 II is a high end Pentium III class motherboard that achieves the pinnacle of performance in it's class. While it has the usual problems and headaches associated with bleeding edge technology, you will not find comparable performance, engineering, quality and attention to detail for the price.

ABIT Computer Corp.
http://www.abit-usa.com

http://www.abit.com.tw

Rode
February 25, 2000

 

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