AOpen was kind enough to send us the AX6BC Pro Gold to review. AOPen, if you don’t know already, is the retail motherboard arm of ACER. Apparently ACER is the largest mobo manufacturer and should benefit from the Experience Curve (i.e. – the more you make, the better they are). Let’s put it to the test:
The board comes with an slim Quick Installation Guide, the usual cables and slot 1 retainer, and a CD with the full Manual plus Norton AntiVirus and some utilities from AOpen including a slim Hardware Monitoring program, bus master drivers, BX drivers, and a nice test suite to check out components. Not bad – I really like NAV and its inclusion is a plus. The Hardware Monitoring program is a must because AOpen uses a temperature chip to monitor CPU temp not supported by the ever-popular Motherboard Monitor. Frankly, I don’t think it matters too much because the chip is at the base of the CPU slot and, in my opinion, acts more like a system temp monitor. I have been spoiled by ABIT’s BX6-2 thermal diode and it really is the only way to go.
I am flagging this because, in my testing, I used my trusty old C266 SL2QG with Tom’s Peltier heatsink and I know the CPU is a lot colder that room temp. I did this to see how stable the board would be at higher bus speeds and know the 266 will allow me to hit higher bus speeds than anything else I have.
Now testing this board by itself doesn’t mean much, so what I did was first to run the SL2QG to see what I could do with the ABIT BX6-2. Using Prime95 to test stability and Soft FSB, I blew through 4×112 quickly and went to 4×117 @ 2.0 v – no sweat. CPU temp (thermal diode) measured a cool 71F.
OK, a quick test to see how far we can go – 4×124 2.0 v and no blue screen; then I try 4×129 2.0 v – same result. I ambitiously try 4×133 and it takes it but crashes quickly. OK, we hit the wall at 534 MHz. Now I go back to see what stable speed I can hold.
Tom’s Peltier Heatsink cools the CPU to 32F at rest with Waterfall running – about what you would expect since with Waterfall the CPU is basically an inert piece of silicon. I start to test with 4×129 (515) @ 2.0 v and this setting fails under Prime95. I jack the voltage to 2.2 and test again – it runs for about 3 minutes and fails, so this is not stable.
I notch it back to 4×124 (496) at 2.0 v and run Prime95 again – this holds for about 5 minutes and then fails. Bump voltage to 2.2, run it and achieve stability (As an aside, CPU temp at 2.0 v was 80F and jumps to 95F at 2.2 v – remember that heat increases to the square of voltage increases). So this combo gives me an 85% speed jump over spec with the ABIT BX6-2 – not too shabby!.
Now on to the AOpen Pro. I install the board and notice something that irritates me to no end: If you use an AGP card and it extends more than ¼ inch past the end of the AGP slot, you can not remove your SDRAM from the first DIMM slot because the DIMM retainer is blocked by the video card. The longer the card, the more slots are blocked. If you’re like me, you routinely play with things and this is a pain.
Now there is one thing I did like: The power slot is on the top right, easy to get to so you don’t go through contortions to remove it. If you have a slide-out mobo tray, this is a nice feature. However, in order to do this the floppy connector is on the extreme left hand side, which means you have to snake the cable across the CPU etc. I routinely slit and tie cables so this is not a problem, but if you don’t it can be cumbersome and block airflow.
Setting up the board is no big deal – screw down, plug in cables, yadda yadda.
The AOpen uses a soft menu approach so setting different bus speeds is easy. I set for 4×112 and boot. No boot – beeps and black screen. What the hell is going on? I search around, try seating cables etc. No luck. Then DUH! – selecting AGP ratios is by a jumper on the board, and it comes set to AUTO. This means it reads the bus speed and sets to it, so the AGP card is running at 112 MHz – no wonder it did not boot! I set the jumper to2:3 and it boots fine. However, annoyance # 2 – can’t set AGP ratios in soft menu.
So now I start to ramp up the bus speeds. The AOpen has a nice feature in that if you can’t boot up after changing the BIOS, you hold down the Home key and boot and it goes to default settings – worked every time. I can’t use Soft FSB as I can’t find the ICW chip in the list, so I change speeds in BIOS; 4×124 boots OK but nothing beyond that, even at 2.2 volts. The AOpen changes voltage by adding .1 or .2 volts to spec voltage, so you can’t play too much with voltage (I don’t like to go beyond 2.2 v anyway so not a big deal to me).
Well looks like 4×124 (496) is it so we try Prime 95 at 2.0 v. Now I am expecting something different from the ABIT because, in looking at the board, you notice right away that the capacitors around slot 1 look like Coke cans – really large (2200 uf) compared to the usually smaller ones on other boards. This is supposed to increase stability, so I expect that 496 at 2.0 volts is achievable.
No such luck – fails Prime95 after a short while. OK, bump to 2.2 v and run again. After a couple of minutes it fails. Can’t be. Try Again. Fails. It fails not by blue-screening but Prime95 reports an error. So what I find is it can’t hold 496, while the ABIT could. Now let’s be fair – All things are not equal. While I normalize the CPU and ram, these are 2 different boxes. The ABIT is fully loaded (sound, modem etc) while the AOpen just has a video card and nothing else. So let’s call it a draw.
AOpen has a nice feature to make BIOS upgrades easier – the download file for BIOS upgrades contains both the BIOS file and flashing program, so all you do is download one file, save it to a bootable floppy and boot the system with it. Nice. It also looks like if the BIOS upgrade fails, you can use a PCI VGA card to reboot and flash again, a really great feature for paranoid BIOS flashers.
The on-line manual contains an overclocking section which lists what peripherals work at 133 MHz, a nice addition to see in motherboard manuals (although I would prefer a paper manual – still like the feel of paper and a lot easier to use when you need some detail when setting up the board).
So where do I come down on this board? I don’t think this is a great board for an avid overclocker – AOpen may be making a bid for this market, but they have a fair amount of catching up to do. This board’s features are considerable and competitive – maybe 6 months ago. Compared to the numerous bus speeds now available and the comprehensive SoftMenu approach pioneered by ABIT, the AX6BC Pro Gold comes up a tad short. I was surprised that the board was not able to show more stability than it did, as AOpen seems to enjoy a reputation for it.
Even so, this is a board I would use when I make up a “normal” system that runs at spec. I like the features and software that comes with it and find its quality a step above the usual clutter of boards one would use in these instances. I can readily see this board as a “bread and butter” product for such systems, especially considering the extensive support which ACER provides.