||AOpen AX4GE Max Review
January 17, 2003 Chris Angelini
Summary: AOpen's AX4GE Max motherboard is loaded with features: bus speeds up to 248MHz, Serial ATA, FireWire, 5.1 audio, you name it, this board's got it! On top of all this, AOpen adds a few unique features that not only makes the motherboard more friendly for overclockers, its Open Jukebox allows you to play audio CDs without loading an OS! Read all the highlights in the review and don't forget to enter the quiz giveaway for a chance to win this motherboard!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 14 )|
Hardware enthusiasts are magnetically drawn to powerful hardware. And with most components, there is little question as to the reining champion. Naturally, a 3.06GHz Pentium 4 outperforms the 2.53GHz variant. Similarly, a RADEON 9700 Pro will obviously outpace the less-expensive RADEON 9500. It gets a little trickier with motherboards, though. To begin with, performance between chipsets can differ tremendously. Then, depending on the engineering prowess of the motherboard manufacturer, a particular board may be faster or slower than a competing product based on the same chipset. Finally, there are a host of features that can optionally be integrated into a motherboard design, giving the board inherent value. As you can see, choosing the right board for your next PC is no easy matter.
Certain Pentium 4 chipsets are held in higher esteem than others by the enthusiast community. The E7205 “Granite Bay” is respected for its dual-channel DDR memory support. Though old, the i850E is still often regarded as the fastest Pentium 4 platform and SiS’ 648 has been lauded for exceptional performance at an attractive price, though we’ve seen some compatibility problems with the RADEON 9700 Pro. Intel’s i845PE is probably the most reasonable chipset, as it offers an ideal blend of performance, reliability, and value. In comparison, Intel’s i845GE chipset is a black sheep. Chipsets that sport integrated graphics are rarely taken seriously by gamers, if only because of the poor performance associated with the onboard 3D engine.
So, in light of the crowded Pentium 4 chipset market, why would a manufacturer opt to design a motherboard with a performance-oriented BIOS and a multitude of other features, and then center it on the i845GE chipset? An excellent question, to be sure…
Introducing the AX4GE Max
AOpen may not be a powerhouse in North America, but it still consistently manufactures impressive motherboards. Back in 2000, Brandon gave the AOpen AX34 Pro II FiringSquad’s Editors Choice award, and more recently, Alan recognized AOpen’s dedication to enthusiasts with the AX4B-533 Tube motherboard. The AX4GE Max is one of the company’s more recent offerings to showcase Intel’s i845GE chipset, among other features.
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AOpen also manufacturers an i845PE-based AX4PE Max, but for some reason, has decided not to market that board in the Americas even though it would appear to be a more ideal platform. Call it a cruel joke if you like, but it should be some consolation that the AX4GE Max looks to be every bit as capable as its 845PE cousin.
SIDEBAR: AOpen’s AX4GE Max product page
| Board Analysis||Page:: ( 2 / 14 )|
Of course, centering on the i845GE chipset means that the board sports a VGA connector that is powered by Intel’s Extreme Graphics engine. It goes without saying that the 3D processing power Intel has dubbed “Extreme” will probably be viewed by most gamers as simply mundane. Intel concedes that its integrated solution is an ideal choice for mainstream consumers, and the following graph of Quake III benchmark results shows why:
With that said, the AX4GE Max is also host to an AGP 4x slot, six PCI slots, and a CNR slot to provide for expansion capabilities. It also has three fan headers for power, processor, and chassis fans. The board’s back panel features two PS/2 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, a lone serial port, a parallel port, an RJ-45 Ethernet connector, 1/8” min-jacks for audio support and a 15-pin VGA output.
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From a layout point of view, AOpen has made several decisions that we applaud, and a few others that have us scratching our heads. The board is complex, so many of the space constraints are understandable. Even still, AOpen took care to locate the ATX power connector away from the processor interface to avoid inhibiting airflow. Similarly, the IDE connectors are low enough to clear the AGP port.
Cramping is evident on other parts of the board, though. The most glaring example is a small, 2200 microfarad capacitor that sticks up right below the heat sink retention mechanism. Intel’s reference cooling solution immediately got caught on the capacitor, preventing us from seating the ‘sink. We can only imagine that a larger unit with overhang would prove even more problematic.
On a lesser scale, the three, 184-pin DIMM slots are situated as such that a memory upgrade would first require removing the graphics card. It isn’t a show-stopper, but it is an inconvenience we’d prefer to circumvent.
SIDEBAR: AOpen has made some pretty eccentric motherboards in its day. Some have even featured pink PCBs!
| Board Features||Page:: ( 3 / 14 )|
On the bright side, the AX4GE Max is only cramped because of the number of features AOpen has included. In addition to the two parallel ATA channels supported by the ICH4, Promise’s 20375 controller is also integrated onto the board. The Promise chip adds a third parallel ATA connector and two serial ATA ports that can be configured to run in a RAID array (though only one serial ATA cable is provided).
Moreover, the Realtek RTL8100BL PHY/MAC provides 10/100Mbps Ethernet operation. AOpen has also opted for the Texas Instruments TSB43AB22 IEEE 1394a controller, supporting two Firewire ports through an included header. AOpen has thrown in a second header with two more USB 2.0 ports, bringing the total up to six. Sadly, in the interest of cutting costs, most motherboard manufacturers have transitioned to using a software audio codec, rather than spending money on a hardware solution. Realtek’s ALC650 is one of the most popular, as it provides for 6-channel output. The latest revision of the codec, Rev. E, enables S/PDIF input. AOpen bundles a third and final header with S/PDIF input and output, through both optical and coaxial interfaces.
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We would have preferred a more robust three-phase power solution, but AOpen follows the example of the larger manufacturers by settling for a dual-phase implementation controlled by a Fairchild Semiconductor FAN5093MTC dual-phase buck converter.
AOpen has done a commendable job paying attention to some of the smaller details, though. For instance, the Watch Dog Timer automatically resets the system should an overclocking attempt fail. Upon restart, the BIOS will automatically detect the processor’s default settings and revert. Dr. Voice II provides audible diagnostic messages should a system component fail. Unfortunately, we couldn’t tell if the kind Doctor was speaking English, Spanish or gibberish.
And lastly, the AX4GE Max features its own software CD player called Open JukeBox Player. Even without an operating system installed, the JukeBox can play a CD immediately after the POST screen. We played with the feature for a minute or two, but it requires an analog CD-IN connector, making it a bit of a hassle. Even still, we can appreciate AOpen’s ingenuity and creative thinking.
SIDEBAR: Dr. Voice can speak in English, Chinese, Japanese, and German.
| BIOS||Page:: ( 4 / 14 )|
Though the AX4GE Max is based on the i845GE chipset, there are still several BIOS options that suggest AOpen is trying to give the board a more aggressive feel. The Frequency and Voltage Control screen, CPU, AGP, PCI and DRAM speeds are automatically calculated. Configurable options are highlighted, such as the front side bus speed (between 100 and 248MHz in 1MHz increments) and memory bus multiplier. The AGP and PCI busses are completely independent, so if you would like to overclock one or the other, several frequencies are available. There are also plenty of voltage settings to facilitate a more effective overclock. The Vcore voltage can be set between 1.1 and 1.925V in .025V increments, the AGP bus can be set to either 2.5 or 2.65V and the memory bus supports settings between 2.5 and 2.65V.
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More specifically, there are a few memory settings to optimize timings depending on the quality of your DDR modules. Of course, the integrated VGA can be switched on or off. In the ‘on’ position, two frame buffer options are available, 1 and 8MB. The rest of the BIOS setup is fairly standard, including the hardware monitor, peripheral setup and another advanced setup screen.
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The most interesting aspect of AOpen’s BIOS is the fail-safe Die Hard BIOS. We’ve recently had a couple of motherboards die due to BIOS failure, and the redundant Die Hard BIOS is one way of avoiding such a problem. If the primary BIOS should fail, the secondary unit can be used to recover the system. Only the primary BIOS can be flashed – an operation we were forced to perform in order to add Hyper Threading support to the AX4GE Max.
As with most systems nowadays, overclocking on the AX4GE Max is straightforward. We were able to run stably at 3.52GHz using a 3.06GHz processor. The result was a memory bus running at 382MHz, which we managed even at CAS 2 settings. Maintaining stability wasn’t a problem, even after supplying the processor with 1.8V and using Intel’s reference cooling solution..
SIDEBAR: If you aren’t a fan of the Open JukeBox Player, you can specify in the BIOS not to bring it up automatically.
| System Setup||Page:: ( 5 / 14 )|
Intel Pentium 4 3.06GHz Hyper Threading enabled
AOpen AX4GE Max i845GE Motherboard
ASUS P4PE i845PE Motherboard
ASUS P4T533-C i850E Motherboard
512MB Corsair XMS3200 CAS2 Memory (for DDR systems)
512MB PC1066 RDRAM (for RDRAM system)
ATI RADEON 9700 Pro 128MB
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA-100 Hard Drive
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1
Desktop resolution 1024x768, 32-bit color, 75Hz refresh
All power saving options were turned off, as were the Automatic Update and System Restore services. Graphics options under the ‘Performance’ tab were all disabled for maximum performance.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo
3D Mark 2001 Second Edition Build 330 – 32-bit color
Quake III: Arena version 1.17 ‘Demo001’ demo
Serious Sam: The Second Encounter – 32-bit color, Elephant Atrium demo
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth Benchmark
The AOpen AX4GE Max ran at CAS2 settings, as did the ASUS P4PE. The P4T533-C ran at PC1066 speeds with the Turbo mode enabled.
SIDEBAR: AOpen also manufactures an AX4GE FM, which includes the same JukeBox Player, only with an FM tuner. Unfortunately, it is only offered in China.
| 3D Mark 2001 SE||Page:: ( 6 / 14 )|
3D Mark 2001 SE v.330 – DirectX 8
At stock speeds, the AX4GE Max succumbs to the competing i845PE and i850E platforms, and by a sizeable margin. However, the board responds remarkably to overclocking. At 800x600, the overclocked AX4GE Max jumps ahead of the P4PE by six percent – nearly an eight percent improvement overall!
SIDEBAR: AOpen bundles an OEM copy of Norton AntiVirus 2002 with the AX4GE Max.
| 3D Mark 2001 SE – Frame Rates||Page:: ( 7 / 14 )|
3DMark 2001 - Car Chase
3DMark 2001 - Dragothic
3DMark 2001 - Lobby
3DMark 2001 - Nature
SIDEBAR: AOpen also offers an AX4GE Tube board, but that is listed as “OEM only.” It only has three PCI slots but the onboard vacuum tube is supposedly better than the one Alan evaluated in his AX4B-533 review.
| Serious Sam SE||Page:: ( 8 / 14 )|
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
We again see the i845GE board beaten out by the more performance-oriented platforms, by up to five percent at 800x600. Overclocked, the same AX4GE Max takes a nearly nine percent lead – a 13 percent improvement over default!
SIDEBAR: The Nakatomi Tower from ‘Die Hard’ is actually in Los Angeles
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 9 / 14 )|
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
History repeats itself yet again. The AX4GE Max finishes last, but responds to overclocking like a champion, again picking up 13 percent at 800x600. By the time 1600x1200 is reached, all of the boards perform similarly and even the gains realized from overclocking disappear.
SIDEBAR: The AX4GE Max also includes a pair of parallel ATA cables and a custom back plate.
| Comanche 4||Page:: ( 10 / 14 )|
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
If the previous benchmarks weren’t enough, we see the same story told through Comanche 4. Once again, overclocking yields an extra 13 percent over the stock 3.06GHz settings.
SIDEBAR: The AX4GE Max support Wake on LAN through an onboard header.
| Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo||Page:: ( 11 / 14 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
The largest discrepancy between the three platforms is evident in the ‘botmatch’ demo, where processor performance plays an important role. Up through 1600x1200, the AX4GE Max trails the P4PE and P4T533-C. Although high resolution tests generally stress graphics performance, the overclocked i845GE platform maintains a seven percent advantage over the nearest competitor.
SIDEBAR: Don’t expect to see many Serial ATA optical devices – manufacturers are seeing a larger market for high-speed, external devices.
| SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth||Page:: ( 12 / 14 )|
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
The memory bandwidth numbers fall in line with what we’d expect from each platform. ASUS’ P4PE technically shouldn’t be exceeding 2.7GB per second since it utilizes a 333MHz memory bus, but it is feasible that the Turbo mode increase the speed of the bus, increasing the board’s theoretical throughput. Effectively running DDR382, the overclocked AX4GE Max is nearly able to transfer 3GB per second – a roughly 400MB per second increase!
SIDEBAR: The board’s AGP bus frequency is adjustable from 64MHz to 100MHz.
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 13 / 14 )|
Features: Some of the features AOpen has chosen to integrate are standard fare for other motherboard manufacturers and some are completely unique to AOpen. And with so many features, some are bound to be more useful that others, though that’s a subjective call. Sure, the Open JukeBox Player may seen silly, but there is definite value in having a backup BIOS or even the Watch Dog Timer, especially for overclocking enthusiasts using trial and error to find their system’s “sweet spot.”
Connectivity: From USB 2.0 to IEEE 1394, parallel ATA to serial ATA RAID, the AX4GE Max comes well-equipped. Audio, networking, and video capabilities are all intact. Add RAM, stir in a hard disk drive, garnish with a processor, supply with power and you’ve got an entire system ready to go.
Stability: At this point, we wouldn’t except anything less from an Intel chipset, especially considering the competing platforms that offer superior performance.
Overclocking: Yes, overclocking varies from system to system, but the AX4GE Max looks like a solid overclocking candidate any way you look at it. We just so happened to hit 3.52GHz with our own sample. In several instances this 13 percent gain resulted in a comparable performance boost, mainly at lower resolutions.
Board Layout: We don’t often nitpick about board layout, but we can’t ignore the capacitor positioned right below the heat sink retention mechanism. We’d also like to see more space between the AGP port and the memory slots to ease installation of either component.
AGP 8x: It isn’t a major issue right now, but AGP 8x graphics cards have been on the market for a few months. It would be safe to assume that any upcoming core logic will comply with the AGP 8x specification, so boards that top out at AGP 4x will start showing age later this year.
Integrated graphics: The Intel Extreme Graphics engine is a “feature” even casual gamers will disable, but that doesn’t mean the features wasn’t factored into the board’s final price. We’d prefer to pass on the graphics and save a couple more dollars.
Price: We found the board online for about $133.00. Compared to, say, a “Granite Bay” platform the AX4GE Max is relatively inexpensive. There are certainly faster boards than can be found for less money, though. Before spending the extra money, make sure you can utilize the AX4GE Max’s extra features.
SIDEBAR: Wireless networking enthusiasts will be glad to know 802.11g is starting to emerge. 54Mbps at 2.4GHz and backwards compatible with 802.11b!
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 14 / 14 )|
Let us know!