Summary: Based on the 845PE chipset, ABIT's IT7-MAX2 V2.0 is loaded with all kinds of features. For starters, you've got bus speeds up to 250MHz, Serial ATA and ATA/133 RAID support, 5.1 audio, 10/100 Ethernet, and for connecting peripherals the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 supports up to 10 USB ports (more than any other board on the market) and three FireWire devices. See why we like this motherboard so much in today's review!
While the IT7-MAX series is just over seven months old, ABIT has made quite a few changes to its positioning with the product. Originally the IT7-MAX was intended as a take-no-prisoners, legacy-free, high-end motherboard. Gone were the outdated serial and parallel ports, ABIT even did away with the PS/2 ports used for your keyboard and mouse! The future as ABIT saw it was with high-speed USB 2.0 and FireWire devices, the days of being constrained to legacy devices was long gone, it’s almost a surprise ABIT included a floppy connector!
The future ABIT had envisioned didn’t quite pan out however. Numerous requests came in to bring back the PS/2 ports; it turns out there were people who didn’t have USB keyboards and mice after all. Chalk the IT7-MAX up as a product that was ahead of its time.
This shouldn’t be surprising though, considering that it was coming from ABIT. You see ABIT has always been at the forefront of incorporating new technology into their motherboard designs. Jumperless motherboard technology – you can thank ABIT for that, as their motherboards supported this feature years’ before the competition. Integrated IDE RAID controllers? You can largely credit ABIT for this feature as well. We still remember the speech we were given by a former ABIT VP a few years ago “IDE RAID for Everyone”. ABIT has been offering this feature on their motherboards for quite a few years now. We could go on and on about the innovations ABIT has brought to the marketplace, but we’ve only got so much time, and you’re hear to read about the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 right?
Taking MAX to the next level
ABIT refined the IT7-MAX recipe by including Serial ATA, and bringing back the PS/2 ports in the IT7-MAX2. We also really dug the black PCB it was built on. Unfortunately however, it was based on Intel’s 845E chipset, which only supports PC2100 DDR memory. This limits bandwidth to 2.1GB/sec. This is fine and all when you’re running a Pentium 4 processor with a 400MHz system bus, but with 533MHz Pentium 4’s like the 2.53GHz becoming increasingly popular, the discrepancy between the memory bus and the system bus increases substantially, as these processors can eat up to 4.2GB/sec of memory bandwidth. Hence the 845PE chipset from Intel was born.
The IT7-MAX2 V2.0 retains all of the features of its predecessor; that should come as good news to many of you as the original IT7-MAX2 was loaded with goodies, earning our Editor’s Choice Award last year. This makes it the most feature-packed 845PE motherboard on the market, everything but the kitchen sink has been included in the IT7-MAX2 V2.0. Lets go over the features.
USB 2.0 Galore/FireWire
While most 845PE motherboards stop at the six USB 2.0 ports natively offered by the 845PE chipset, ABIT goes one step further by integrating VIA’s VT6202 USB 2.0 controller, which supports up to four devices. This brings the total count of USB peripherals supported by the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 to ten. Six USB ports are provided on the IT7-MAX2 V2.0’s back plate, while another two devices can be connected via the USB header included in the IT7-MAX2 V2.0’s packaging. If you need all ten ports, you’ll have to pick up another USB header or one of ABIT’s handy Media XP/XP Pro units, which we’ll discuss a little further in this review.
Although Serial ATA hard drives still haven’t made their debut, the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 supports this upcoming storage technology today. Up to two Serial ATA drives are supported by the IT7-MAX2 V2.0, which is powered by the Marvel 88i8030 chip. Unlike other motherboards that support Serial ATA, the 88i8030 isn’t a dedicated Serial ATA controller; rather it’s a Serial ATA bridge. This means that the parallel ATA signals from the HighPoint controller are converted to Serial ATA. In theory this could come with a slight performance hit, although we haven’t tested with a Serial ATA hard drive to confirm this.
In addition to supporting Serial ATA drives, the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 also supports ATA/133 RAID through the HighPoint HPT374 controller, which has been incorporated in quite a few ABIT motherboards in the past. The HPT374 supports up to eight hard drives, and supports RAID Levels 0, 1, and 0+1. Many other motherboards on the market use “lite” controllers from Promise Technology that aren’t as flexible as the implementation on the IT7-Max2 V2.0.
Like the two previous IT7-MAX motherboards, Realtek provides onboard audio and networking. While the onboard audio of the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 won’t compete with Creative’s Audigy2, it is nonetheless fairly adequate. If you’re running a pair of budget speakers, there really is no point in spending $100 on a sound card anyway and the Realtek ALC650 audio controller should more than suffice.
Fortunately for motherboard manufacturers, the 845PE chipset is pin-compatible with its predecessor, 845E. As a result, manufacturers don’t have to go back to the drawing board when designing their respective 845PE products. As a result, the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 is practically identical to the IT7-MAX2 from a layout perspective, you’d have to look really close to see any differences (other than the PCB color). The only real dramatic change is the location of the system battery, which has been moved to a more traditional orientation along the bottom edge of the motherboard. This is definitely a good thing, as the layout of the original IT7-MAX2 was pretty good.
As you can see in the image above, there is now just enough space between the AGP slot and DIMMs to install the graphics card and system memory without interfering with either component. On many motherboards, you have to install the memory prior to installing the graphics card for lack of space.
Other aspects of the IT7-MAX2 V2.0’s board layout that we like are the location of the four pin ATX power connector, which is placed just above the DIMM slots. This ensures efficient airflow on the upper half of the motherboard, and thus helps to keep CPU temperature in check. We also really like ABIT’s diagnostic LED display for troubleshooting system errors and the power and reset buttons located just below it. This makes testing the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 a snap for reviewers like us.
For those of you who hate having to reach around the back of your case to install your peripherals, ABIT manufactures its Media XP module, which fits in a standard 5 ¼” bay on the front of your system case. Media XP contains two USB 2.0 compatible ports, as well as one for FireWire devices, in addition to supporting memory card readers (Compact flash, Sony Memory Stick, and Secure Digital). For audio duties, ABIT provides a S/PDIF output as well as microphone (or line-in) input and headphone output.
ABIT claims that the Media XP only works with its IT7/AT7 MAX series, but in all honesty, it uses the same universal connections for USB/IEEE-1394 headers we’ve seen on other motherboards. Setup is a snap, although if you own an aluminum case with a front panel door (such as the Cooler Master ATC-111-SX1) you won’t be able to close the door on your case, as the Media XP module protrudes too far.
If you want to take your Media XP experience a bit further, ABIT also offers its Media XP PRO. In addition to the aforementioned features, PRO models also ship with a copy of WinDVD and WinRip, as well as an accompanying IR remote control unit. The remote has buttons for launching both applications as well as providing functionality for them. As a result, you can control many common functions from your couch. The Media XP module is currently selling for $39.99 at Excalibur PC, while the Media XP PRO sells for $62.99.
SIDEBAR: The 845PE chipset supports up to 2GB of DDR SDRAM
The IT7-MAX2 V2.0 uses the same SoftMenu III BIOS interface that we’ve fallen in love with over the past few years. Like its predecessor, bus speeds available in the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 BIOS range from 100-250MHz in 1MHz increments, allowing for maximum flexibility. Multiplier adjustment is also available if you happen to be lucky enough to own a Pentium 4 processor with an unlocked clock multiplier.
In terms of voltages, both the CPU and memory voltages can be adjusted. Hopefully ABIT can add AGP voltage adjustment in their next MAX motherboard. While the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 was initially limited to a maximum CPU voltage of 1.7V (in 0.025V increments), ABIT has upped that to 1.85V in their latest BIOS release. PCI dividers of 1/3 and 1/4 are provided to keep your PCI bus in check, or you can lock them down to 33, 37, or 44MHz, regardless of bus speed.
Besides the omission of AGP voltage adjustment, another area where ABIT is beginning to show signs of slacking is in the memory-tweaking department. It’s not that we’re upset with ABIT for their implementation on the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 as it offers all the basic memory timing settings available on every other 845PE motherboard on the market, it’s just that they don’t go quite as far as ASUS, who offers a few additional performance settings in their P4PE BIOS.
You’ll see what we mean in the performance test results, as the P4PE can be tuned to outperform every other 845PE motherboard we’ve tested. This is an area where ABIT has traditionally excelled, offering many performance-enhancing options within BIOS that can’t be found anywhere else. Oh well, at least the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 offers a CAS latency 1.5 setting.
As far as overclocking is concerned, the main limitation we’ve run into nowadays isn’t the motherboard, rather the processor, as all the Pentium 4 chips we have are multiplier locked, meaning we can only use the system bus to overclock the processor. As we found in our 2.8GHz Pentium 4 review, our 2.8GHz chip tops out at 144MHz, the maximum overclock we were able to get out of the IT7-MAX2 V2.0. We also tried our 3.06GHz Pentium 4, and were able to overclock the motherboard a bit higher, hitting 155MHz (again, the max of our processor).
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
At 800x600, the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 trails the P4PE by 3%, not a whole lot but still a slight margin. We attribute this to the aggressive BIOS settings available within the P4PE BIOS, as you can see, the MSI 845PE board finishes 2% behind the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 at the same resolution.
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
In Quake 3, we see the MSI and ABIT boards offer similar levels of performance, while the P4PE finishes ahead of both boards by 4% at 800x600.
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
Again, the P4PE is able to outpace the other 845PE motherboards ever so slightly. At 800x600, we’re looking at a margin of 3%. Not a whole lot, but this is a larger gap than you typically see with motherboards based on an Intel chipset.
Jedi Knight II – OpenGL
Content Creation Winstone 2002
Business Winstone 2002
845PE chipset: When you weigh in factors such as price/performance, Hyper-Threading support and other intangibles (such as the SiS 648 chipsets’ issues with RADEON 9700 cards) the 845PE is arguably the best solution out there for the Pentium 4 right now. Sure, E7205 and 850E are slightly faster, but both solutions are most costly. In our opinion, 845PE is the chipset 845D and especially 845E should have been. In comparison to its past, it’s almost shocking to see Intel release three different DDR chipsets in such rapid succession. It’s a shame for end users that Intel didn’t get things right the first, or even second time, requiring those of you who purchased a state-of-the-art 845D motherboard just a year ago to upgrade. Fortunately 845PE offers all the performance we’d expect out of a contemporary PC2700 DDR chipset, giving 850E quite a run for its money in some cases.
Price: Online prices for the IT7-MAX2 V2.0 seem to hover around $150 and go up from there pretty quickly. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as this is the most feature-rich 845PE motherboard on the market. At prices that high, we almost wonder if ABIT shouldn’t just go ahead and include the Media XP module in the packaging and add another $15 or $20 to the price. When you’re spending that much on a motherboard, many consumers probably wouldn’t mind spending a little more money --it’s all relative at that point.
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