Gizmo takes a long look at the Abit AN7. Initial impressions are good, but there's one or two things that aren't all they seem to be! Find out just what's good about this board, and what's not quite so good.
A good motherboard, whose execution is marred by a lack of
significant support in current overclocking tools, a poorly implemented
utility set, and a lack of interest from ABIT to address these issues.
Many of you have no doubt been following my trials and tribulations
in building my own direct-die waterblock for cooling my CPU. (If not, you can read about it in the forums.)
During the course of my experiments I managed to kill my NF7-S motherboard. Having had good luck with my NF7-S, and after
having read positive reviews of the AN7 at some other enthusiast sites, I thought getting an AN7 might be a good proposition.
The built in μGuru circuit seemed like a real plus (more on that later), and the board was only $1 more from NewEgg than
the NF7-S, so I took the plunge.
The AN7 is
very much like the NF7-S. It uses the same general layout, and is
based on the same nForce2 chipset as the NF7-S, with the same Serial
ATA controller. It has the same number of ports, with one exception,
but the ports are arranged slightly differently. You will also note
that the ATX power and ATX-12V headers have changed their
orientation. This makes it a bit easier to plug and unplug power than
with the NF7-S.
NF7-S Back Panel
has 2 USB, 2 Serial, 1 parallel, S/PDIF out, Ethernet, 5 audio jacks
and the keyboard and mouse ports on the back panel, and then four
more USB and two Firewire ports on board headers.
AN7 Back Panel
AN7, you only have one serial port, and no IRDA header (I believe the
second serial port is used to communicate with μGuru, but Im
not certain; this also explains the absence of the IRDA header, as
this function is usually implemented on the second serial port), but
you get 4 USB, 1 firewire, and S/PDIF in, in addition to the ports
available on the back panel of the NF7-S. You have a second firewire
as well as two more USB ports on board headers.
AN7 IDE Connectors
headers have rotated 90 degrees and are now arranged down the edge of
the board on 90-degree connectors. This means that your ribbon cable
now comes off the board to the side, instead of the more tradition
vertical orientation. In my Yeong Yang server case this works quite
well, but this is a matter of taste. Also, notice the screw hole on
the left side of the IDE headers. Most motherboards use this hole
for a mounting screw to attach the motherboard to the case.
Unfortunately, with the AN7, the hole is too close to the IDE1
connector, and you can't get the screw in.
has a plethora of fan headers, with no less than five. While this is
only one more than the NF7-S, these are more flexible. Both the CPU
and North Bridge fans can be speed controlled now. In addition, one
of the auxiliary fan headers (fan 4) can also be controlled. This
functionality is enabled through the μGuru.
three temp sensors, one for the motherboard itself (the location of
which I have not been able to find), one for the CPU (which now uses
the built-in thermal diode instead of a socket thermistor), and one
for the Vcore regulator section (located near the keyboard/mouse
connector). This last sensor is really nice, IMHO, because the Vcore
regulator can get quite hot, especially when pushing your board for
The voltage regulators for the Chipset and DIMM voltages feature larger,
beefier switching FETs than the NF7-S, and you have more options for
voltage settings (for example, the VDIMM can now go to 3.3 volts).
The design of the Chipset regulator has changed somewhat. Instead of
using a standard forward mode switching regulator using inductors,
they appear to have switched over to a simpler linear regulator
arrangement, similar to the way the VDIMM circuit is done. This was
probably done to reduce costs (torroid inductors are expensive), as
well as improve performance (linear regulators produce less
electrical noise). In addition, the VDIMM circuit now uses two FETs
on the AN7, instead of the single FET used by the NF7-S. The VDIMM
regulator is also fed from the +5v rail instead of the +3.3v rail as
in the NF7-S.
AN7 Chipset Regulator
NF7-S Chipset Regulator
AN7 VDIMM Regulator
NF7-S VDIMM Regulator
Probably my most favorite feature on this board is the addition of
the dual 7-segment POST Code LED display. Similar to what is found on
many other boards these days, ABIT have included a diagnostic display
that gives a step-by-step indication of the boot process.
we come to the μGuru circuit itself. This is not so much a circuit as
a dedicated microcontroller, based on the Winbond W83L950D and some
associated Windows software. The controller is actually an embedded
8051-based microprocessor originally designed for keyboard interfaces
in notebooks. All of the control and monitoring functions for the
Vcore, Vdimm, and Vagp regulators, and the fans, are done through
this chip. This allows the AN7 board to track the CPU temperature
using the CPU thermal diode and report it back to applications while
still being able to guarantee shutdown of the CPU quickly in the
event of a cooling failure. It also allows this monitoring to be done
while using a minimum of host CPU cycles.
The BIOS is very similar to what we have become used to with the
NF7-S, so I wont dwell on it. A couple of new things that have been
added are OC on the fly, and the ability to save up to 5 custom BIOS
configurations which can be loaded. The OC on the fly option is
designed to allow you to apply your BIOS OC changes (such as Vcore and
FSB) immediately instead of having to reboot. The custom configuration
settings allow you to save your favorite OC settings (such as max
absolute OC settings and then max stable OC settings, or similar) so
that, when you have to blow your BIOS settings away, you can restore
them from FLASH with one keystroke.
comes with the normal complement of drivers and utility software. The
driver installation is pretty straight forward. The utility
installation is a little less so. The utilities will want to install
the Winbond Hardware Doctor. Don't! This utility cannot coexist with
the Abit AN7 software.
utilities are installed, you will be greeted with a start menu
containing the AbitEq, the FanEq, the OCGuru, the Flash Menu, and the
Collapsed AbitEq Display
Expanded AbitEq Display
is the utility that you use for monitoring system and CPU temps, Fans
speeds, and system voltages. It has an interesting design, using a
'skin', which makes it look 'cool'. The display is fairly static,
from the standpoint that you get three rows of three guages each,
plus a top row of guages that cycles through a set of guages. The
functions that are monitored in each of the three lower rows, and in
each guage in the top row, are static. For example, the first row of
auxiliary guages can only be used to monitor voltages, although you
can choose what voltages to monitor. Likewise, the second row is for
fan speeds, and the third row is for temps. For the top row of
guages, the left guage cycles through various voltages, the middle
guage cycles through fan speeds, and the right guage cycles through
FanEq is a
utility that allows you to program the voltage range through which
the fans operate, and at what temp the range takes effect. You will
notice in this picture that I have my CPU Fan set for a low of 8
volts and a high of 12 volts. I also have it set to run at 8 volts
all the way up to 50C, and then to ramp up the voltage until I am
running maximum voltage at 60C. 8 Volts and 12 volts represent the
absolute limits of the adjustable voltage range, however you can set
the high and low voltages to anything within those limits. The
software allows you to configure the fan voltage and temps to behave
in any fashion you desire, or you can select one of the default
settings of 'Cool', 'Quiet', and 'Normal'. The NB Fan tab works the
same way. I assume that if I had a fan plugged into the System Fan
header on the board, there would be another tag for adjusting that.
OCGuru 'Turbo Mode' Display
provides you with an interface for adjusting your system speeds. The
'Turbo Mode' shown above only allows you to set the FSB, or to save
and load presets. Other than that, it displays some information about
the CPU you are running.
The 'F1 Mode' tab provides you with a bit more..........
OCGuru 'F1 Mode' Display
have the ability to set the CPU, AGP, and DIMM voltages, in addition
to the FSB.
mode, I wouldn't recommend actually trying to change these settings.
Every time I tried to adjust the FSB, the thing just locked up.
Flash Menu and Black Box
remaining utilities, Flash Menu and Black Box, are pretty straight
forward. Flash Menu is nothing more than a Windows based BIOS flash
utility that can download BIOS updates automatically, thus preventing
you from accidentally downloading and flashing the wrong BIOS on your
mobo, and making the process relatively simple. Black Box simply
allows you to store information about your system configuration, so
that if you have a problem, Abit tech support can have a simple and
easy way to find out how your system is configured.
is very similar to the NF7-S in design, so it is not unreasonable to
expect it to perform like the NF7-S. Indeed, it does. Just one
example of the similarity, SiSoft's Sandra. The tests were conducted
using SiSoft's Sandra2004 software and OCZ Platinum EL3200 memory
with Trp 3, Trcd 3, Tcas 3.0, Tras 11 timings at 200 Mhz FSB. The CPU
was the AthlonXP 2400+ Mobile clocked at 200x11 (2.2 Ghz):
AN7 Sandra Memory Performance
NF7-S Sandra Memory Performance
As you can
see, the performance of the AN7 and the NF7-S are similar to within
the margin of error of Sandra.
Note: In cleaning up this article for presentation, I tried to get some
better screen captures. Unfortunately, I had done the original screen
captures under Windows 2000. When I went to redo the screen shots for
the AN7, I had installed Windows XP. This is the reason for the slight
difference in the dialog boxes shown above. Nonetheless, the results I
obtained under Windows XP were consistent with the original results
taken under Windows 2000.
I was able
to overclock the FSB to 241 Mhz on the AN7 vs. 221 Mhz on my NF7-S
running at 2.9v VDIMM and 1.6v Chipset, but I don't know if I just
happened to get a good board or not. In either case, I am pretty
certain my memory is holding back my FSB. Both boards act like they
want to go further. Interestingly, neither board showed any gain in
stability by increasing the Chipset voltage. If anything, they became
So whats not to like?
this is a solid board and would be a worthy successor to the NF7-S.
In fact, other reviews have shown the AN7 to be so similar in
performance to the NF7-S that I almost chose not to benchmark the
board at all. In the end I chose to concentrate not so much on the
performance, as the other things that are valuable to overclockers;
things like support in widely used utilities such as Motherboard
As many of
you know, MBM 5 is a staple tool among overclockers. It has a simple,
no-frills interface that gives you the information you need. In
addition, 8rdavcore is a handy utility for tweaking many settings on
the nForce2 boards from within Windows. Even Nvidias own NVSU
and the Winbond hardware monitor have a place in the overclockers
tool kit. It is exceedingly disappointing, then, that Abit have made
the decision to not only change the architecture of the AN7 so that
it doesnt work with these tools, but to not even release the
information necessary for the authors of these tools to make them
work. (It is true that the author of MBM has been able to finally
figure out how to talk to µGuru, but this was without the aid
of Abit.) Instead, Abit have written their own set of utilities.
software is, I feel, a pathetic attempt at an overclocking tool
written by people who dont understand what overclockers want.
The software is, in my experience, unstable. It lacks significant
flexibility in configuration, and the overclocking options are a
joke. The OCGuru software only allows you to twiddle the FSB and
voltage settings. There is no provision for changing the CPU
multiplier or DRAM timings; these can only be changed in the BIOS.
This is probably just as well, because when trying to adjust the FSB,
even from 200 to 201 Mhz, the system would almost always simply lock
up, and I would be forced to reboot and make the setting change in
the BIOS anyway. Attempting to use the OC on the fly
option in the BIOS often resulted in the same behavior, so I suspect
the problem is actually in the μGuru controller. In addition,
because I use water cooling, I had the BIOS configured to ignore the
fan information. Despite this, I would still periodically get the fan
failure alarm, which is why I wrote this review with my CPU HSF
When I got
my AN7, the first thing I did was try to get a BIOS update. I was
informed that I had to download the latest Flash Menu utility before
I could flash the new bios. When I downloaded the new utility and
installed it, a NEW Start Menu entry was created for Flash Menu,
despite the fact that I already had an existing entry as part of the
µGuru software installation. Worse, when I click on the old
Flash Menu utility, that simply crashes, and I can't uninstall it
without also uninstalling the other µGuru utilities.
Box utility is a nice idea, but it requires the user to MANUALLY
enter a lot of information that it should be able to detect on its
own; things like the type of CPU installed, the type of motherboard
and the BIOS version, the operating system installed, etc., etc.
the only piece of software in this package that seemed to work
without a hitch was the FanEq. This has a relatively simple interface
and seems to do what it is designed to do. However, the same thing
can be accomplished in the BIOS (which you are going to be spending a
lot of time in, anyway, if you try to overclock this board).
problem I encountered while working with this system is that I was
not able to get my FSB over about 210 or 211 Mhz without experiencing
problems with my Ethernet interface. Troubleshooting with some people
on the Abit support forums lead us to the conclusion that the south
bridge was getting too hot. Unfortunately, I killed the board before
I was able to test this theory; however, the south bridge chip DOES
run rather hot (as high as 65C surface temp), so Abit might want to
consider putting a heat sink on this chip in the future. As well,
anyone running any nForce2 based board, particularly with the MCP-T
south bridge, should consider some cooling for the chip.
about me killing the board: As a simple experiement, I tried setting
Trp from 2 to 1. I really didn't expect this to work, so I wasn't
surprised when the board failed to reboot. Imagine my surprise,
however, when I discovered that the board had blown its flash. I
ended up having to hot-flash the BIOS chip by booting my NF7-S,
installing my AN7 ROM and then using AWDFLASH with the -f option to
force it to flash the AN7 BIOS while in the NF7-S. Once that was
done, I was then able to reboot on my AN7. An examination of the BIOS
while it was in the NF7-S revealed that it had been COMPLETELY wiped.
After I got the AN7 back up, I was able to put a HSF on the south
bridge, and the board was stable up to 241 Mhz clock on the FSB. I
haven't tried this experiment on my NF7-S or any other board, so I
don't know if they all suffer from the same problem or not. In any
case, the BIOS shouldn't allow you to make a setting that will
literally destroy your board. That is just poor software design.
is in general a nice board, Abits implementation of μGuru
has resulted in a board that has some issues overclocking, and
doesnt work at all with many of our favorite overclocking
tools (although Alex Van Kamm has managed to get it more or less
working with MBM, in spite of Abit's best efforts to the contrary).
This wouldnt be so bad, except that the tools that Abit
provides are crap, and Abit have no desire to publish the information
necessary for other people to write utilities that work and have
publicly stated as much (see
this thread on Abit's forums
). Not all of the BIOS options work properly (OC on the fly
and disabling the CPU Fan alarm). As a result, I cannot honestly
recommend this board to an enthusiast, which is where this board is
squarely aimed. If you are not an enthusiast, there are other boards
on the market that perform as well with similar feature sets, dont
have the headaches, and cost less.
Note: This article was originaly written
in March 2004, and the board I received had version 10 of the BIOS. It
is now late August 2004. I have upgraded both the BIOS and the drivers
to the latest version as of this writing (BIOS version 15, nVidia
Unified Driver version 4.27). The problems I mention elsewhere in this
article still exist.
I would like to thank Allan and Áedán
for their input on this review. They helped me take this article from
rough draft to something that was worthy of being published.
Discuss in the forum!