Summary: With dual Serial ATA RAID controllers, a parallel IDE RAID controller, and support for Intel's latest Pentium 4 processors courtesy of its 875P "Canterwood" chipset, Gigabyte's GA-8KNXP is built for the future. And with bus speeds up to 350MHz offered in BIOS, it has plenty of headroom for overclocking. But that's not all, Gigabyte throws in its DPS2 6-phase power system, DualBIOS, and even a Serial ATA expansion header for the front of your case! See why this board impressed us so much in today's review!
Over the years we’ve had the pleasure of watching many companies evolve, expanding into different markets and ultimately attempting to meet the needs of a new group of consumers. Sometimes these transitions can be brutal, with final products that fail to live up to their billing. Said company will then chalk the experience up as a lesson learned and move on, or pack up their products and stay with tried and tested waters, never to enter that market again. Fortunately the latter example doesn’t apply to Gigabyte.
Gigabyte Technology, frequently referred to as Gigabyte, has been in the motherboard business for quite awhile, establishing itself as one Taiwan’s largest motherboard manufacturers, right up there with ASUS and MSI. Today Gigabyte is a well-known name in enthusiast circles, but just a few years ago the company relied mainly on its OEM roots.
From OEMs to Prosumers
The OEM market served Gigabyte well, but ultimately the company wanted to compete in the high-end space as well. Gigabyte had a few compelling features going for it. For instance, Gigabyte was the world’s first motherboard manufacturer to implement dual BIOS chips, providing end users with a form of backup protection in case their original BIOS became corrupted. In today’s Internet age of viruses that will attack the system’s BIOS, this feature is a welcome addition. For years Gigabyte was also the only motherboard manufacturer to implement integrated audio from Creative Labs, this was miles ahead of the audio CODECs implemented on most motherboards, if integrated audio was offered at all.
The 6-Dual Miracle
For those of you who don’t know, the 6-Dual Miracle is the name Gigabyte has come up with to summarize a few important new features unique to Gigabyte’s motherboards. The first two miracles apply to Intel’s new Pentium 4 processors with Hyper-Threading and the dual-channel nature of the chipset, whether it is 875P, 865P, SiS 655, or E7205. The third, and most interesting miracle is Gigabyte’s Dual Power System (DPS). DPS is essentially an external power source, capable of delivering more juice to the CPU. This gives Gigabyte a six-phase power solution, more than any other motherboard manufacturer. Gigabyte claims that this should extend the durability of the system. With faster processors requiring increasing levels of voltage, you can be rest assured that the DPS has enough power on tap to keep up with Intel’s latest and greatest.
For the GA-8KNXP, Gigabyte fuses Intel’s 875P North Bridge with the ICH5R South Bridge, bringing native Serial ATA support to the chipset, and ultimately, to the GA-8KNXP motherboard itself. We’ve been looking forward to Serial ATA since it was first announced at Intel’s Developer Forum a few years ago, thankfully it’s finally here thanks to ICH5. RAID functionality of the ICH5R chip is limited to RAID Level 0 (striping) and with one hard drive supported per port, therefore you’re limited to just two hard drives. Fortunately, that’s where Gigabyte steps in with additional storage controllers, one of the six miracles we mentioned previously.
Serial ATA RAID
For connecting additional Serial ATA storage devices to the GA-8KNXP, Gigabyte has integrated Silicon Image’s very popular Sil 3112 controller. Like Intel’s ICH5R the Sil 3112 supports up to two hard drives, but goes one step beyond the ICH5R South Bridge in its support for RAID Level 1 (mirroring). The dual Serial ATA RAID controllers should bring grins to the faces of many storage gurus. You can setup multiple RAID arrays for your brand new Serial ATA hard drives, or run them as independent units if you wish. This gives end user’s an incredible amount of flexibility in the disk subsystem department.
External Serial ATA
One of Serial ATA’s advantages is that it’s hot-swappable, meaning you can connect or disconnect the Serial ATA drive without powering the system off. When you couple this with the capacity of today’s Serial ATA hard drives, this enters in a new era of semi-portable storage capability. But how can you take advantage of this if your Serial ATA ports are built on your motherboard? Simple, provide an external Serial ATA header!
While Serial ATA is the storage interface of the future, there are still millions of consumers with multiple parallel ATA hard drives in their systems. What if these end users need more than the four hard drives the ICH5R natively supports? Or what about the consumer who doesn’t want to pay the premium for Serial ATA drives, opting for storage on the cheap instead? For these users, Gigabyte has also integrated the ITE IT8212 ATA RAID (GigaRAID) controller.
SIDEBAR: Gigabyte makes several variants of this motherboard, for instance you can get it without the DPS2 module or the dual RAID controllers (the GA-8IK1100). Or you can even get it with a SCSI controller, the GA-8KNXP Ultra.
If you recall the original DPS system, it brings 6-phase power circuitry to Gigabyte’s motherboards. Unofficially Gigabyte will tell you that this will also have ramifications when overclocking. No, you won’t be able to overclock your processor any further, as that’s entirely reliant on the processor itself, but the motherboard will be able to supply your processor with a steady flow of power at even the most extreme clock speeds. This is one aspect that many 3-phase motherboards lack. As a result, system stability won’t be compromised by the power subsystem of the motherboard, but it will still be up to the end user to take care of properly cooling their processor.
The new DPS2 module adheres to Intel’s brand new VRM10.0 specification first implemented in its 800MHz bus Pentium 4 processors like the 3.0C GHz chip we tested with today. VRM10.0 basically removes support for the higher core voltages required by Intel’s original Pentium 4 processors based on the “Willamette” core. Gigabyte also claims: “and ready for future coming processor” on its GA-8KNXP packaging. In other words, the GA-8KNXP is ready for Pentium 4 processors based on Intel’s upcoming “Prescott” P4 core.
As you’ve seen in our pictures, the GA-8KNXP sports six DIMM sockets, the only 875P motherboard on the market that we’re aware of with this feature. Physically, the GA-8KNXP supports up to 4GB of memory just like any other 875P motherboard, however, with 6 DIMM sockets, end users have more flexibility for memory installation. With 256MB modules being so prevalent, you can load your GA-8KNXP system up with these DIMMs. Just keep in mind that you will have to use single-sided modules in DIMM sockets 2, 3, 5, and 6. Single-sided modules are pretty hard to find these days, so this may come as a bummer to some of you.
RealTek’s ALC655 AC’97 CODEC handles audio duties. RealTek’s CODECs are used in a wide variety of motherboards, including NVIDIA’s popular nForce2 with Dolby Digital support. Like Analog Devices’ SoundMAX products, the ALC655 offers jack-sensing technology, meaning it will alert the end user if an audio device is connected improperly. This makes troubleshooting installation problems a snap for inexperienced users.
Intel’s Communications Streaming Architecture makes its presence felt on the GA-8KNXP. CSA provides a direct path between the 875P North Bridge and Intel’s Gigabit Ethernet controller. Offering up to 2Gbps between both components, CSA is a dramatic improvement over the PCI bus’ 133MB/sec that was previously implemented on motherboards with built-in networking. This ensures that the Gigabit network controller can live up to its full potential without bottlenecking the rest of the system. Considering that Gigabyte has implemented two external IDE controllers and Firewire (in addition to USB 2.0) the PCI bus is already burdened enough as it is.
Firewire and USB 2.0
Since the 875P chipset doesn’t offer native Firewire support, this capability is provided by the TSB43AB23 controller from Texas Instruments. An external header provides two ports, one of them being a mini-1394 jack (perfect for use with Sony’s camcorders). Gigabyte earns additional bonus points in our book for providing this feature, although we would like to see them include one additional port, the controller is fully capable of handling this.
With so many features built-in to the GA-8KNXP, it should be a seventh miracle that Gigabyte can implement everything on a standard-sized board (30.5cm x 24.4cm according to Gigabyte’s documentation). As usual, Gigabyte equips the board in the company color, blue.
Since the GA-8KNXP is designed for use in high-end desktops and workstations, a universal AGP Pro slot is used. We can also see that Gigabyte provides plenty of space between the AGP interface and the DIMM sockets, allowing both components to be installed independently of each other. This is a positive trait that we’ve seen on a number of 875P motherboards.
The IDE and floppy connectors that are tied to the chipset are neatly tucked away near the DIMM sockets, while the Serial ATA ports (all four of them) are just underneath the system battery. Unfortunately, Gigabyte has placed the ATX12V connector below the CPU interface, near the left edge of the motherboard. This means you’ll have to string the ATX12V cable between the DPS2 module (if you decide to install it) and the CPU cooler’s fan. The DPS2 module’s fan is recessed pretty deep into the DPS2 housing, reducing the chances that the power cable may accidentally jam it, but the chance is still there. This same danger applies to the CPU and its fan shroud as well. Unfortunately the upper portion of the GA-8KNXP is crammed with so many components that Gigabyte would have been hard-pressed to place the ATX12V connector anywhere else without increasing the size of the PCB.
Moving a little further down the GA-8KNXP board, we see that the IDE connectors that are tied to the GigaRAID controller are placed alongside PCI slots four and five. This could be an issue for those of you who own multiple PCI cards that are longer than normal, although you do have three other alternatives (assuming you place a PCI card in the slot next to your AGP slot) to choose from. In our opinion, the primary setback is the orientation of the RAID IDE connectors -- being perpendicular to the right edge of the motherboard means that you’ll need a slightly longer cable to hook everything up.
Like DFI’s Canterwood board which we just tested, Gigabyte has chosen to place the third fan header below the fifth PCI slot. We still believe a better location would be on the left side of the board near the AGP slot, as there are a large number of cases with fans located near the motherboard back plate. If the fan header were on the left side of the board, this would be perfect for those cases.
We were definitely disappointed to see Gigabyte remove the jumper to clear BIOS. If you’re an experienced overclocker, the clear CMOS jumper has probably saved you on multiple occasions. With the clear CMOS jumper now removed on our Rev 1.0 board, we had to remove the system battery in order to accomplish this. Hopefully Gigabyte integrate the clear CMOS jumper on a later board revision, as it makes life much easier for overclockers. Of course, Gigabyte will argue that they no longer need the clear CMOS jumper, because of an overclocking feature present on their motherboards that we’ll discuss on the next page.
SIDEBAR: We do wish Gigabyte would come up with catchier names for their motherboards. It’s easy to confuse GA-8KNXP for GA-8KXPN or any other combination for that matter.
Gigabyte utilizes the Award interface every enthusiast has grown so familiar with over the years. If you plan on overclocking your processor, the heart of the GA-8KNXP BIOS will likely be the “frequency/voltage control” menu, where you can adjust such parameters as system bus speed, memory bus frequency, and voltages. Lets start there first.
As we’ve seen from most motherboards, the GA-8KNXP supports bus speed adjustments in 1MHz increments up to 350MHz. Not quite as high as some of the other 875P motherboards we’ve seen, but lets face it, 350MHz is still extreme overkill. You can manually type in the clock frequency you desire, or use the plus and minus keys on your keyboard if you want to do things the slow way.
Gigabyte provides the ability to lock the frequency of your AGP, PCI, and Serial ATA devices. In fact, they offer a wealth of options here. Settings from 66MHz all the way up to 96MHz are available in 1MHz ticks, this is more functionality than even ASUS’ P4C800 Deluxe, which only offers three options.
Likewise, memory ratios are provided so you can lock the frequency of your memory bus. This allows you to run the memory bus independent of the system bus, which can be helpful when overclocking, or for those of you who don’t have DDR400 memory. The GA-8KNXP BIOS will even give you the final frequency for the memory bus and AGP interface.
CPU voltages are offered up to 1.6V in 0.0125V increments, the most flexible level of voltage adjustment we’ve seen to date, but at just 1.6V, the least robust. We’ve found that we need about 1.65V of juice to get the most of our 3.0C processor when overclocking, so obviously the 1.6V cap puts a slight damper on our overclocking effort. We’ll have those results a little further down this page. For adjusting DIMM voltage, settings of 2.5V, 2.6V, 2.7V, and 2.8V are available while AGP settings can be set as high as 1.8V (in 0.10V increments).
The rest of the GA-8KNXP BIOS is fairly self-explanatory. Keep in mind that you will have to press “Ctrl+F1” to enter the advanced chipset features menu, which is required for manually adjusting memory timings.
One new feature you will want to keep in mind can be found under the PC health status menu: Smart Fan. Smart Fan monitors can adjust the rotation speed of the CPU and North Bridge fans depending on temperature. In its current form the setting isn’t very powerful, only two options are provided: enabled or disabled. Hopefully in the future Gigabyte can implement a more dynamic variation of Smart Fan that also controls the system fans as well.
Overclocking and EasyTune4
EasyTune4 is meant to bring overclocking to a whole new level of ease, all while within a Windows environment. In addition to frequency adjustment, EasyTune4 also offers hardware monitoring. In its current iteration, EasyTune4 does this job somewhat admirably. For instance, the 1MHz bus adjustments found in BIOS are maintained in EasyTune4’s interface, while CPU, memory, and AGP voltages can be adjusted as well. In addition to these settings, EasyTune4 also offers the selectable memory bus ratio we just discussed in BIOS. Everything sounds good right?
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