Summary: After a week of little sleep and lots of walking, Chris is back from Taiwan to bring us his final Computex 2003 report. In today’s wrap-up edition, Chris brings us more details on Sapphire’s unique front panel, X-Control, coverage of an exotic $1,000 water-cooled GeForce FX card from Gainward, a report on XGI’s Volari, which is primed to take on the RADEON 9800 and GeForce FX 5900, and motherboards and other products from Albatron, Arima, ASUS (who had a PCI Express motherboard on display), Chaintech, ECS, and MSI. Ready…Set…Go!
There’s no need to hit that ‘Back’ button. After two consecutive all-night writing marathons, we decided to recharge and get some rest for the fourth day of Computex. Thus, the coverage herein includes our meetings from the second half of the show, in chronological order.
First, we have an exclusive bit of information to share with you. On the second day of Computex, we reported that Sapphire is working on a control panel that, when released, will reside in a spare drive bay. The following is a picture of the second version of that panel.
This unit is a bit different from what Sapphire originally described – it lacks a DVI connector and TV output. However, USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 are more useful front panel capabilities anyway. The small LCD display, as reported, displays GPU temperature as measured by a thermocouple under the VPU and fan speed. Further, the FX Emulation mode we heard Sapphire joking about is, according to Sapphire’s director of marketing, real, though he claims it is more of a facetious gimmick.
After thumbing through Arima’s literature, we also discovered a desktop replacement system, the W730-DTR, that combined the Athlon 64 and RADEON 9600 families, forming what we believe to be a compelling gaming machine. Among its list of features is a 15.4” WUXGA widescreen display, up to 2GB of DDR333, up to 128MB of graphics DDR memory, integrated 802.11a/b/g, and up to 80GB of storage space. Unfortunately, all of those high-end components consume lots of power and Arima is targeting two hours for the system’s battery.
SIDEBAR: You won’t see laptops sold under Arima’s brand name
Chaintech: Another High-End Player
Like the Zenith boards before it, Chaintech is striving to differentiate its ZNF3-150 with high-end features. Gigabit Ethernet, four channels of Serial ATA support, and a three-port Firewire controller round out the hardware side, while several accessories, including a software bundle, round cables, and the CBOX3 card reader infuse value. Chaintech’s most significant hardware inclusion is its RadEX cooling technology that draws heat directly from a motherboards power circuitry with a large heatsink and cools with a small fan. According to Chaintech, it has seen temperature reductions of up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit using RadEX.
After talking with representatives for Chaintech for about an hour, it became quite clear that we won’t be seeing any branded ATI products any time soon. The company is confident that NVIDIA’s next generation of graphics cards will restore its dominance, and the upcoming Personal Cinema family will give ATI’s ALL-IN-WONDER a run for its money.
SIDEBAR: Chaintech dropped its IR remote from the NF3-150 bundle to save money. Considering that ATI and NVIDIA both include RF controllers with their multimedia products, Chaintech made a good choice.
Gainward: GeForce FX to the Extreme
The graphics market is risky business, so Gainward is expanding out into multimedia and communications manufacturing as well. We saw several new products from Gainward, including a multi-port USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 expansion card built on ALi’s 5271 controller, a 7.1-channel sound card, and several 802.11g wireless networking adapters, of which two support Gainward’s Long Range technology that extends the wireless capabilities up to 600 meters.
SIDEBAR: Gainward was giving out the best swag – Dan and I both received backpacks from Patricia, Gainward’s marketing specialist.
We also found Albatron’s latest graphics board, the FX5900 Turbo, designed to operate with a pair of cooling fans. However, on the off chance that one of the fans fails, a third fan is included to recover from the outage. A representative from Albatron indulged us by placing his finger in one of the fans, instantly prompting the third to engage. The result, according to Albatron’s representative, is much quieter operation and enhanced reliability.
But while the high-end boards are great for augmenting ECS’ reputation with the enthusiast crowd, its mainstream boards are more profitable. The 760-M, for instance, is the first Athlon 64 motherboard we’ve seen with a SiS 760 chipset. The low-cost platform includes integrated graphics, though an AGP 8x port enables discrete graphics as well. It also boasts SiS’ 964L south bridge with integrated Serial ATA and eight USB 2.0 ports.
Another board that caught our attention was the P6VEMD2, equipped with a CLE266 chipset and 1.1GHz C3 soldered onto the motherboard. The micro-ATX platform isn’t powerful enough for a gaming platform; however, it’d make for a nice PVR or mobile computer.
SIDEBAR: Despite a suite full of motherboards, ECS was also demonstrating its EZ-Buddie, an overclocking-friendly small form-factor platform.
With a reputation founded on manufacturing motherboards, MSI has applied its expertise to server boxes, small form-factor systems, optical drives, and video cards. The most noteworthy evolution is taking place in MSI’s MEGA SFF lineup. Originally, the MEGA was intended to serve as a multimedia center, complete with remote control and optional TV tuner. But the lackluster SiS 651 integrated chipset was simply too much for enthusiasts to overlook. Thus, the latest models aim to infuse the MEGA family with a bit more potency. Intel’s 865G finds its way into the MEGA 865 Pentium 4 platform, with 6-in-1 card reader, Serial ATA support, and AM/FM radio. The MEGA 400, based on the VIA KM400 integrated chipset, offers similar specifications, sans Serial ATA. Finally, the MEGA 180 centers on NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset, though it is limited to DDR333 memory support and the Athlon XP 3000+ processor. We didn’t see a K8 platform, and with the exception of the MEGA 865, MSI trails its competitors in features. However, the MEGA is a sharp design, and future iterations should prove interesting.
Although MSI is playing catch-up in the SFF market, it is a definitive leader when it comes to motherboards. Of those that made an impression, the K8T Master-FAR was the most impressive. It is centered on VIA’s K8T800 chipset, but unlike the other K8T800 boards we’ve encountered, the K8T Master supports a pair of either Opteron or Athlon 64 FX processors. It also boasts an AGP Pro slot, Gigabit Ethernet, and Serial ATA RAID capabilities, qualifying it as an ideal candidate for a powerful workstation platform. The board’s four DIMM slots accommodate up to 8GB of registered DDR400 memory.
Among the more value-oriented boards, MSI displayed ATI RADEON 9100 IGP and VIA PT880 platforms, both of which are designed to support today’s Pentium 4 “Northwood” and tomorrow’s “Prescott” processors, according to an MSI representative.
MSI also appears to be on the cutting edge of optical drives, as it featured a host of CD and DVD writers. The DR8-A caught our attention, supporting up to 8x DVD+R writing and 4x DVD-R. Additionally, the DR8-A can burn CD-Rs at up to 40x speeds.
Although MSI is selling ATI-based video cards in Europe, its North American retail presence is still limited exclusively to NVIDIA’s GPUs. At this point, MSI’s flagship remains the N5900 Ultra, the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card that Brandon reviewed a while back. The latest graphics product, however, is the TV5200, a GeForce FX 5200 with Philips’ silicon TV tuner built onto the board. It also features an FM tuner and a remote control.
SIDEBAR: MSI was only showing off one Socket 940 motherboard. It seems as though most manufacturers aren’t catering to the Opteron/Athlon 64 FX crowd.
For example, ASUS’ A2000 family features an ATI MOBILITY RADEON 9600 graphics processor and Pentium 4 at up to 3.06GHz. It also comes with a built-in card reader and combo DVD-R/RW drive. Alternatively, ASUS offers the L5000 with NVIDIA’s GeForce FX Go5650 and up to a 3.2GHz Pentium 4. When the system becomes available in November, it will also suppoty 802.11b/g and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. On the other end of the spectrum are the Centrino systems, all of which are significantly less powerful than the desktop replacements. Nevertheless, they compensate with compact size and a sharp design.
Of course, motherboards dominated ASUS’ booth. While we were familiar with most of them, a few stood out. As it stands, ASUS offers one of the only single-processor Socket 940 boards in the nForce3-based SK8N. It is also finalizing a K8T800 board as well. Further, the same chipset will fuel a Socket 754 board called the K8V Deluxe.
Finally, ASUS provided an early conceptual model of the components we’ll see in 2004, including DDR2 memory, PCI Express, a revision to Serial ATA, and new cooling methods for processors.
According to XGI, Volari is ready to go and boards will emerge in the next month or two. It expects the high-end Duo to perform on par with a 9800 Pro or GeForce FX 5900 Ultra and cost upwards of $500. Promising as it may be, though, ATI and NVIDIA are both preparing refreshed versions of their existing products. And unless XGI can increase the operating frequency of the Volari V8 or reduce the enthusiast board’s price, it will face extremely compelling competition from the existing market leaders. We’ll reserve our final evaluation for when retail boards materialize, though.
SIDEBAR: XGI admits that Volari is scalable beyond two processors, though such a board would be cost prohibitive
The second device is a backlit keyboard no larger than that of a laptop. It’s incredibly slim, looks great, and is wireless to boot. For those with home entertainment machines, consider something like this that can be used in a dark room with a movie playing and still match your décor.
Next up, we’ve got a miniature video camera with a four mega pixel CMOS sensor that records in MPEG-4. It includes a 32MB memory card, which the representative mentioned holds roughly 10 minutes of video. Without a doubt, this little handheld is just asking for a 512MB or 1GB card.
Day Three and Four Impressions
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