Summary: ABIT's IT7-MAX was widely regarded among hardware enthusiasts. With a plethora of bus options, onboard ATA/133-RAID, Firewire, and 5.1 audio, the IT7-MAX was packed with features. Well folks, the IT7-MAX2 comes back with even more -- including Serial ATA support that works with today's hard drives! Find out how this board rates in our review, and don't forget to fill out the quiz questions for your shot at taking this board home!
ABIT: Motherboard manufacturer extraordinairePorsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini. All three of these of these brands are well known for producing high-end sports cars. Just as these companies represent the cutting edge in automotive performance, ABIT has established itself as a dominant player in the upper echelon of performance motherboards. Unlike most motherboard manufacturers, ABIT has catered their products towards hardware enthusiasts. Only recently have they focused more production on the value and OEM segments. As a result, their board production isn't up there with the volume players such as MSI and ECS; instead they sell slightly fewer boards but they sell for greater premiums.
This tradition started many years ago when ABIT released its first jumperless motherboard. In today's day and age, nearly every motherboard on the market features jumperless technology but just a few years ago this was not the case. Early on ABIT did run into some problems gaining support of its jumperless technology, but ABIT proved that its jumperless configuration was a viable implementation when they released their IT5H motherboard. Based on Intel's 430HX chipset, the IT5H brought new levels of performance to the Pentium platform.
Over the years ABIT's jumperless technology dubbed "SoftMenu" became easier to use while at the same time it also became more powerful. End users had access to system settings they'd never seen before, allowing them to enhance their system's performance at the touch of a button. Today's SoftMenu III interface revolutionized the hardware world when it was launched on the BE6-II and BF6 back in 1999: for the first time in history consumers had bus speed settings in 1MHz increments, allowing for the ultimate in flexibility when it comes to overclocking the CPU. In fact, the article you're reading today was published on a system powered by ABIT's BF6 motherboard that has been running overclocked (142MHz) for two years nonstop. Truly ABIT's products have been designed for extreme use.
With so much success, it didn't take long for the rest of the industry to catch up. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find a motherboard that doesn't feature some form of jumperless technology and bus speeds in 1MHz increments are standard fare on practically every motherboard geared towards hardware enthusiasts.
Therefore, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from other motherboard manufacturers, ABIT launched its MAX series of motherboards earlier this summer. With the MAX lineup, ABIT has strived to remove all legacy components within the system. You won't find any serial or parallel ports on a MAX motherboard. Instead you'll find high-speed USB 2.0 and Firewire ports for connecting those devices. The MAX motherboards were quite a hit with the enthusiast community, but as good as they were, they were lacking in a few areas. In an attempt to make a good product even better, ABIT sweetened up the MAX formula and made it even more successful.
Read on to find out what makes the IT7-MAX2 an Editor's Choice product, and don't forget to answer the quiz questions for a chance to win an IT7-MAX2 of your own, courtesy of ABIT and FiringSquad.
SIDEBAR: We're giving away ABIT's IT7-MAX2, fill out all the questions in the quiz for your chance to win this motherboard!
From a features perspective, the IT7-MAX2 is stuffed with goodies. Onboard you'll find Serial ATA (an upcoming next-generation storage technology from Intel and other partners), ATA/133 RAID, 5.1 audio, Firewire, networking and more! Quite simply, the IT7-MAX2 is the most feature-filled 845E motherboard on the market.
Serial ATASerial ATA is an evolutionary replacement for today's Parallel ATA storage devices such as CD-ROM and hard drives. Rates of up to 150MB/sec are supported by Serial ATA giving it a theoretical performance advantage over today's storage technology, and for added flexibility Serial ATA cables are considerably thinner than their predecessors. The IT7-MAX2 features an onboard 2-channel Serial ATA controller bringing support for two Serial ATA devices. But, since Serial ATA hard drives aren't slated for release until next year, ABIT bundles its SERILLEL adapter for use with today's hard drives.
Simply plug the SERILLEL adapter into the back of your hard drive, power up both the hard drive and the adapter, and then hook your Serial ATA cable into one of the two Serial ATA ports on the IT7-MAX2 motherboard and you're good to go: one less gigantic IDE cable constricting airflow within your system case! We tested the SERILLEL adapter thoroughly with our IBM Deskstar ATA/100 hard drive in Windows XP and didn't encounter any problems. We see no reason why any IT7-MAX2 owner should not take advantage of this feature; it truly puts the IT7-MAX2 in a class of its own at the top of the 845E market!
ATA/133-RAIDHighPoint's HPT374 controller serves as the RAID controller for the IT7-MAX2. This is the same controller that was used on ABIT's original IT7-MAX motherboard and supports RAID Levels 0, 1, and 0+1. ABIT has been using HighPoint's controllers for years now with no significant problems in any of their newer controllers. With the two native ATA/100 controllers provided by the 845E chipset, the IT7-MAX2 can handle up to 12 hard disk drives! It goes without saying that the IT7-MAX2 won't disappoint in the storage department.
USB 2.0/FirewireIf you recall, Intel's 845E chipset natively supports up to six USB 2.0 ports. USB 2.0 offers up to 480MB/sec of bandwidth, in comparison USB 1.1 tops out at 12MB/sec. On top of this, ABIT adds VIA's VT6202 USB 2.0 controller to the mix, bringing support of up to four more USB devices (for a maximum of 10). A Texas Instruments Firewire controller supports up to three devices.
Audio/NetworkingRealtek provides the audio and networking controllers for the IT7-MAX2, both of these chips are unchanged from the original IT7-MAX. We ran performance tests comparing the onboard audio provided by the IT7-MAX2 to Creative's Sound Blaster Live! as we were a bit concerned how well the controller performed. You'll have to turn to the Quake 3 benchmarks to see those results, but audio-wise the IT7-MAX2 doesn't disappoint. While we didn't test the 5.1 audio of the Realtek chip, in typical Windows applications audio was crystal clear.
SIDEBAR: Wouldn't it be awesome to see a MAX product based on the SiS 648 chipset?
The first feature that caught our eyes on the IT7-MAX2 was its distinctive black printed circuit board (PCB). We're big fans of black PCBs, it gives the IT7-MAX2 a sleek, stealthy look. For added flair ABIT also bundles the IT7-MAX2 with black IDE cables. The original IT7-MAX was tan, so the IT7-MAX2 is a huge improvement over its predecessor in the visuals department. ABIT also includes tie downs for neatly bundling the IDE and power supply cables inside your system case.
With the original IT7-MAX, ABIT strived to remove all legacy components from within the system. This included PS/2 ports for the keyboard and mouse. ABIT must have received lots of negative feedback on this as they've brought the PS/2 ports back for the keyboard and mouse for the IT7-MAX2. Also included on the back panel of the IT7-MAX2 are six USB ports (with a 2-port USB header also provided) two Firewire ports, one RJ-45 connector, a SPDIF out, and audio connectors for all six channels of audio supported by the IT7-MAX2's audio controller. Clearly this board is stuffed with features.
Board LayoutIn terms of board layout, ABIT did a wonderful job with the IT7-MAX2 considering just how many goodies this board boasts. The ATX power connector is located on the upper right edge of the motherboard, leaving plenty of clearance for the CPU's heatsink/fan unit. The ATX12V connector is on the other side of the CPU socket, which is a bit disappointing, but if we had to choose between one connector or the other next to the CPU interface, we'd definitely go with the ATX12V connector.
The DIMM slots are placed a little close to the AGP slot, so you will have to install your DDR memory before installing the video card, but this is the case with most motherboards on the market so we really won't fault ABIT too much on this point.
Initially you may be a bit disappointed to only see four PCI slots on the IT7-MAX2, but when you consider the level of integration the motherboard provides four PCI slots should be more than enough. Just think, you've got all the storage capacity you'll ever need with the Serial ATA and HighPoint controllers, plus you've got 10 USB ports available, 5.1 audio, and 10/100 networking all provided natively by the motherboard.
To the right of the PCI slots is ABIT's excellent diagnostic LED display. When the motherboard boots up, the LEDs display the current stage of the boot sequence. That way, if your system locks up during a particular point in the boot sequence all you have to do is look up the appropriate number code in the IT7-MAX2 manual to determine what went wrong.
BIOS ImplementationABIT's legendary SoftMenu interface is standard fare on the IT7-MAX2. Based on their third generation SoftMenu technology, the IT7-MAX2 shouldn't disappoint in the overclocking department. For starters, bus speeds of 100-250MHz are available in 1MHz increments, just like the original IT7-MAX. Also, the PCI bus can be locked at speeds of 33, 37, or 44MHz, regardless of what bus speed is used. If you don't mind overclocking your PCI devices a little more the standard PCI multipliers are also provided.
In terms of voltage adjustment, voltages of up to 1.7V in .025V increments are available for Northwood Pentium 4 processors. DDR voltage adjustments are also provided. In its case, 0.1V increments are provided up to 2.8V.
Besides adjusting those functions, end users can also tweak memory timings to their hearts delight. In fact, the IT7-MAX2 offers a setting for CAS latency 1.5 memory! Unfortunately, the 845E chipset doesn't support DDR333 memory, so you're stuck with DDR266 only, but at least ABIT provides all the settings you'll need to run your memory as fast as possible. In fact, we weren't able to get one setting ("Enhance DRAM Performance") to run with complete stability once we cranked our memory timings to the max. We can only imagine what kind of performance we would have seen out or IT7-MAX2 motherboard had we been able to combine that setting with our low memory timings. For our tests, we used Corsair's XMS3000 module, so we definitely gave it our best shot.
One other feature we really like about the IT7-MAX2 is its ability to enable/disable all of the integrated functions on the motherboard within the SoftMenu III BIOS. With many other motherboards pulling jumpers on the motherboard itself can only disable these features. It's a lot easier to press a button on a keyboard than reaching inside a case to pull a jumper!
OverclockingUnfortunately, we don't have any unlocked Pentium 4 engineering samples that support bus speeds greater than 133MHz. Our 2.53GHz and 2.8GHz Pentium 4 CPUs are both multiplier-locked, just like the CPUs you buy at retail. Therefore, our overclocking experience with the IT7-MAX2 was extremely limited -- we were only able to hit 145MHz before our CPU couldn't take it anymore. With its 19.0 multiplier, this resulted in a final clock speed of 2755MHz at 1.7V.
SIDEBAR: If you're unable to boot up your IT7-MAX2 after overclocking, simply press the insert key while powering up and the BIOS will reset itself. No need to pull the clear CMOS jumper or remove the system battery!
Intel Pentium 4 2.53GHz
MSI 648 MAX (SiS 648 chipset) ABIT IT7-MAX2
256MB CAS2 DDR333 SDRAM (running at 266MHz for the IT7-MAX2)
NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4600
Driver version Detonator 30.82
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA/100 Hard Drive
AFREEY 12X DVD-ROM
Windows XP Professional
Desktop Resolution: 1024x768x32
3DMark 2001 Second Edition - 32-bit color, 32-bit textures
NotesPerformance of the IT7-MAX2 is on par with other 845E motherboards on the market, so rather than focus on comparing it to other solutions, we decided to throw in MSI's SiS 648-based 648 MAX into the mix. ABIT also manufactures their own SiS 648-based motherboard, the SR7-8X.
SIDEBAR: ABIT provides its Media XP front panel with additional USB and audio connectors as well as Sony's memory stick technology for MAX owners. More details can be found here.
3DMark 2001 - DirectX 8
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
Quake III - High Quality
Jedi Knight II - High Quality
Content Creation Winstone 2002/Business Winstone 2001
NotesComanche 4 is one of the newer games we've added to our stable of benchmarks, and we've noticed that it tends to favor the Intel platform as well. In our testing, the 2.53GHz P4 finished ahead of Athlon XP+ by six percentage points.
SIDEBAR: ABIT was founded in 1989.
845E chipset: The IT7-MAX2 is based on Intel's 845E chipset, which brings official support for the 533MHz system bus to the DDR platform. Unfortunately, Intel hasn't officially validated DDR333 so memory support is limited to DDR266, but we've found that the 845E chipset is incredibly reliable. SiS' 648 chipset offers more features and performance, but for those of you who are wary of using a non-Intel chipset to go with your brand new Pentium 4 CPU, the 845E chipset offers a good price/performance ratio.
Features: ABIT's IT7-MAX2 is the most feature-packed Pentium 4 motherboard on the market. You name the technology; chances are very good the IT7-MAX2 supports it. Serial ATA is here today thanks to ABIT's innovative SERILLEL adapter, which comes bundled with the motherboard. On top of this, you've got 5.1 audio, 10/100 networking, ATA133-RAID, support for up to ten USB devices, and for multimedia enthusiasts, a Firewire controller is integrated onboard.
Overclocking: Like all of ABIT's motherboards, the IT7-MAX2 is a champ in the overclocking department. Bus options from 100MHz-250MHz are available in 1MHz increments, and for added overclocking success, the speed of the PCI bus can be locked. Some may complain that the 1.7V limitation hurts the IT7-MAX2, but for extended use with today's 0.13-micron Northwood Pentium 4 processors, we understand why ABIT decided to keep the voltage down. Electromigration is one menace that isn't discussed as much as it has been in the past, but it's still very much a clear and present danger when it comes to system durability. We've seen many horror stories of 1.6GHz Northwood owners who were a bit too aggressive in the voltage department when overclocking. Things worked fine at first, but today many of those CPUs are now dead.
Performance and Stability: The IT7-MAX2 is just as stable as any other motherboard we've seen based on the 845E chipset, likewise its performance is right up their with other solutions based on this solution. This is one trait we've seen on pretty much all of the motherboards based on Intel chipsets we've tested for the Pentium 4, you'd really be hard-pressed to find a lemon among the bunch. We definitely feel this is a tribute to the time Intel devotes to validating its chipsets. They may not be the fastest chips on the block or the most feature-rich, but you're definitely getting a solution you can depend on regardless of the motherboard you end up choosing.
Price: With so many features offered on the IT7-MAX2, the final price on the board isn't cheap. Or at least, we're not expecting it will be. Board prices on PriceWatch are as low as $173.50 at the time of this writing, and with original IT7 MAX motherboards still in the $140 price range we're not sure if this price will go down too much anytime soon. However, if you consider just how many features you're getting with the IT7-MAX2, you'll realize that you're getting quite a bit of bang for your buck, even at $170+.
Now that you've read the review, you see why we're so impressed with the IT7-MAX2. Not only does this motherboard offer all the performance and overclocking functions we're so used to seeing in an ABIT product, this board is loaded to the brim with features. It's no wonder why ABIT refers to these motherboards with the "MAX" designation. The IT7-MAX2 clearly lives up to the moniker.
As long and hard as we've thought about it, there really isn't anything we'd change on the IT7-MAX2. Some may wish ABIT had used a different audio controller, but we honestly weren't disappointed with the audio quality of the Realtek ALC650 chip. We also tested its performance in comparison to the Sound Blaster Live! and while it has a slightly larger performance hit, the difference is only 1%: nothing you'd notice in games.
We did notice the SERILLEL adapter ABIT provided with the IT7-MAX2, and we're big fans of it. Serial ATA cables are much thinner than their predecessors, allowing for improved airflow and easier access inside your system case in general. Now we're just waiting for Serial ATA hard drives to appear on the market. Unlike all of the other 845E motherboards, the IT7-MAX2 is ready to support the next generation in storage technology today, making it the most future-proof solution currently available.
As big of a splash as the original IT7 MAX motherboard had on the market, we honestly feel that the IT7-MAX2 is even more groundbreaking. Basically, ABIT has sweetened the MAX recipe even more, making it an even more appealing motherboard to those who may have shunned the original model. And as good as the IT7-MAX2 is today, we can only imagine what ABIT's engineers are cooking up next. We're pretty sure of one thing though -- it's bound to be good!
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