Well, I have this little project going on...
Last week a co-worker brought in their home system for me to take a look at. I asked them what was wrong, and they said that it wouldn't boot. "It's just dead." Oh fun. This is a common occurrence that I am sure MANY of us find ourselves in, some of us more often than others. At least this individual asked me the day before he brought in his personal "High End Gaming Rig". (His words, not mine.)
Socket 478 3Ghz CPU, Asus VIA chipset Mobo, ATI 9600-128MB AGP, etc...
So, eventually I find a little bit of time to start troubleshooting, and of course it turns into big bit of time. Mainly because I could not convince this individual that they had a bad motherboard, so I spent ALOT of time thoroughly testing all of the other components, only to conclude in the end... It's a bad motherboard! <blah>
I jump on the Web, and look to see what motherboard options were available. There wasn't much. So, I finally got him to settle on one, ordered it, installed it, and ran into a plethora of problems installing the OS. Crap, the RAM is bad too (It passed Memtest86+ BTW). I chuck in some old Micron DDR that I have sitting around, and get things moving again. Eventually I get the box out of my office and out of my hair.
In my searching for a motherboard, I happened on this little Frankenboard: ASRock 4CoreDual-VSTA
Back in the day, I would have written a hybrid board like this one off as Junk, but after reading recent reviews of the ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus , I thought, "That could be interesting for someone stuck in AMD Socket 939 Hell." And honestly, it could be interesting for anyone on a budget looking to upgrade from the AGP Era on the cheap.
The quick and dirty:
ASRock 4CoreDual-VSTA LGA 775 VIA PT880 Ultra ATX Intel Motherboard - Retail
AGP Slots: 1 x AGP 8X
CPU Type: Quad-core / Core 2 Extreme / Core 2 Duo / Pentium
Dual Channel Supported: Yes
Maximum Memory Supported: 2GB
Memory Standard: DDR 400/DDR2 533
Number of Memory Slots: 2×184pin + 2×240pin
PCI Express x16: 1 x PCI Express Graphics slot *WARNING* This is only PCI Express x4 electrically
South Bridge: VIA VT8237A
Supported CPU Technologies: Hyper-Threading Technology
I had to do a bit of research after reading this to make sure the specs were legit, but there is some great information out there available. I highly recommend reading through the forum posts for this board over at Anandtech . It seems to have it's own little cult following.
First of all, Yes it really does accept a pair of DDR OR DDR2 DIMMs. It does accept AGP and PCI Express x16 Video Cards, though it has a PCI Express x16 Slot, that Slot is ONLY x4 electrically. Newegg does NOT list this in the specs, nor does the ASRock site, nor does the ASRock Manual available for download on the site. Frustrating and unacceptable to me, but you can find out this info from various reviews and forums available. Oh, and it also has some basic overclocking features. ALL for $60!
Well after reading till my eyes were ready to bleed, I finally decided I had to check this little sucker out for myself. So, I ordered one, and an Intel E4400 from Newegg of course...with overnight shipping. I went with the E4400 for the high multiplier. If you are interested in overclocking at all, these seem to hit the FSB Wall at 280-310ish. 280 X 10 = 2.8Ghz of C2D goodness, if all goes well.
Yesterday FedEx dropped off the package at work, so I took it home and decided to throw it together workbench style on the dining room table...
My first impressions:
Packaging - The packaging is nothing special, but still professional and efficiently protects the contents. It comes with a pretty stark manual, a driver/utility CD, 1 PATA Ribbon Cable, 1 SATA Cable, 1 Floppy Ribbon Cable, 1 Audio Cable, 1 Molex to SATA Power Adapter, and a Rear I/O Shield.
Build - I didn't really check the layout for ease of access much, but I will when I put this in a case. Besides that, I couldn't really get a feel for the layout because it looked so danged weird with AGP and PCIe, DDR and DDR2 Slots. The chipsets are passively cooled with a Heatsink on the North, and nothing on the South. There are some capacitors a little close to the 20 pin ATX connector, but shouldn't be a problem unless you have a 24 pin connector that doesn't break away completely to 20 pin.
I decided it was time to slap some components in this thing and see what I thought...
Initial Test Build:
I wanted the first experience to be as a new user trying to migrate from an old system affordably, so I purposely chose components from and old AMD 939 build. I will test with newer components in a simulated migration in the future. I am writing this from memory, away from the components, so I don't have exact part numbers handy in some cases.
ASRock 4CoreDual-VSTA - $59.99 05/25/07
Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 Allendale 2.0GHz 2M - $139.00 05/25/07
Stock Heatsink and Fan
WD 200GB 7200 RPM SATA - Existing Hardware
2X 512 MB Patriot DDR 400 2-3-2-5 - Existing Hardware
Gainward 6800GT 256MB AGP - Existing Hardware
CORSAIR CMPSU-520HX Power Supply - Existing Hardware - $124.99 05/25/07
TDK 420N DVDR/DVDRW PATA - Existing Hardware
Windows XP Professional CD w/ No Service Packs - Existing Retail CD and License/Key from previous build
Total Cost of upgrade - $198.99 without shipping
BIOS - Well the BIOS is a little strange to me, but it is really quite simple. Hit F2 for BIOS options. As this board is geared to the person wanting to migrate to C2D on a budget, and not the OCing Enthusiast. There are some basic overclocking features that I will get into later. BIOS version was left as shipped, at v1.50. I went straight for 290 FSB for 2.9 Ghz on the E4400 with it 10X multiplier. Initially I left the memory timings at default and bumped the RAM Voltage to "High". Yes, that is really all the control you have over the memory voltages... F10 saves and reboots as usual.
I did an attended XP install as most people would do in a normal home situation. I did NOT configure RAID, I used a single SATA drive connected to the SATA1 Header. XP was installed from an original retail CD. The optical drive was a TDK 420N DVD Burner connected to the Primary IDE controller.
The install went flawless for me. There were no errors to report. Doing a manual install took pretty much dead on 30 min from start to final reboot. There was not a hiccup at all even after jumping out of the gate at 2.9Ghz on the 2Ghz CPU.
Windows XP booted without a hitch, and MUCH faster than the AMD 939 3500+ Box that most of the components were scavanged from. So far I was pretty dang impressed with this little budget motherboard. At this time, took a few minutes to set things up like I like them in XP.
I threw in the ASRock CD and a window popped on autorun. I went to the Drivers Tab and there were 4 selections:
VIA 4in1 Drivers, LAN/Network Drivers, USB2.0 Drivers, and High Definition Audio Drivers. Again, I simulated the way most people would do things (In my mind, anyway), and I went through all in order, accepting the defaults, and NOT rebooting the system between driver installs. Everything went well, and WinXP already has USB2.0 support, so it just pops a window telling you so, and that there is no need to install anything. Time for a reboot...
Went into BIOS and tightened the RAM timings to 2-2-2-5 1T.
Upon boot, I was met with the ever annoying 30 Days to Activate message, so I clicked it and chose to Activate via the Internet, and declined to register with Microsoft. No problems. Next I went to the nVidia site and grabbed the latest drivers for the 6800GT. Then I went through the arduous task of going through Windows Update process. Now, I hate Windows Update with a passion. I believe it is FAR too slow for what it does. Too slow downloading on my 10 Mbit connection, and WAY TOO SLOW actually installing the updates, but I digress... Everything went fine. I patched it up, and while I was waiting for the first of many reboots and subsequent trips to the Update site, I installed the nVidia drivers and chose, of course to NOT reboot until the current download and update process was complete... All patched up... Final reboot.
Went in to BIOS and bumped up to 300 FSB.
Windows booted without a hitch. It was time to go grab some utilities to see if this build was stable. While tooling around, I had some stability issues, so I dropped it down to 290 FSB. Upon running Orthos in blend mode, one of my cores errored but did not crash the system, so I dropped the FSB down again, this time to 285. At 285 I was able to complete 10 Hours of Orthos in blend mode (Stressing CPU and RAM) with no errors. I then ran Memtest86+ overnight and checked on things before heading to work, again, no errors.
While the system seemed completely stable at the above configuration, I decided I wanted to do some synthetic benchmarks at pure default Memory settings to simulate someone with little knowledge, making no changes to anything in BIOS besides the FSB increase. After changing to default timings, CPU-Z reported my RAM timings as 2.5-3-2-5 1T.
The following benchmarks were run with those default memory timings:
PCMark05 Testing resulted in 5804 PMarks.
3DMark05 Testing resulted in 5212 3DMarks.
While these are not bleeding edge results, they are not bad for the components on hand, and a vast improvement over my Intel Netburst P4 2.6 Ghz Socket 478 and AMD64 3500+ Socket 939 builds.
Final thoughts for this post:
I am extremely happy with this board so far. During the course of this post, I have played around with some more configuration options, and I continue to be impressed for the most part. For the general user that is looking for a means to upgrade to Core 2 Duo on a budget, this seems to be a very viable option. Honestly, it's the only option I know where you can use existing DDR RAM, and existing AGP video.
I have seen a VAST improvement in FPS in Counter-Strike Source and in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., though I do not have any hard benckmarks ready to put up at this time. So even if you are a gamer on budget, my real world subjective opinion is YES, I see a real improvement in my favorite current titles with ONLY upgrading the CPU and Motherboard.
More to come...