AOpen AX4PE MAX 6th January 2003
AOpen have been known for some time as a manufacturer that provides extra features on their products and the release of their AX4PE Max promises another feature packed motherboard. They also have a reputation for producing products that are very robust and have extremely low failure rates. Many i845 series boards are just copies of Intel's reference design but this is not the case with the AX4PE Max. Let's take a look at what extras come with the board.
While many manufacturers leave out additional USB connectors as "optional extras" we find here that everything is provided including digital outputs for sound and firewire connectors and a Serial ATA cable. The main drive cables are black to match the style of the motherboard although this should also be the case for the extra IDE cable. Perhaps it was a last minute decision to throw in the additional cable. Users should be pleased though at the extra cable and those who insist on stylish leads will probably get black rounded cables which are commonly available these days.
The black PCB is a subtle contrast to the more common greens and reds. Here are the manufacturer's specifications:
You can click on any of the Hyper Links in the above list to get more details directly form AOpen's site. We will be covering Silent BIOS and Silent Tek in a separate article as part of our series on quieter PCs. Initially we were pleased by the size of the manual which is very comprehensive but after reading through it we found it to be slightly evasive and containing a lot of trivial data while leaving out other more important bits of information. Despite this most people will find the quick installation guide in the form of a full color foldout poster to be more than adequate for installing this board. The only jumpers that users need to know of are the CMOS clear settings and the doctor voice jumper.
Doctor Voice is a great benefit when diagnosing POST errors (as are the diagnostic indicator lights on the board itself) and gives audio error messages rather than forcing the user to interpret a sequence of long and short beeps which has been the norm for many years. In beeper mode the quality is very poor and sounds like a railway station PA system on a bad day. When the jumper is set to speaker mode (and connected to external speakers) a clear voice states the error in a strong American accented voice. We tested several different error types and the voice was correct in each case.
The AOpen jukebox allows the user to enter a special BIOS mode where the PC just acts as a CD/MP3 player without booting up. In conjunction with the Silent BIOS feature it is possible to actually turn off the CPU and case fans (since the CPU is not actually doing much) so there is no background noise to detract from the music. It certainly is an interesting feature for those that don't have a separate CD player.
The DieHard BIOS is very useful to restore the main BIOS if it gets corrupted (through over-clocking etc) and changing a jumper will restore the BIOS to a working state.
Looking at the I/O panel on the board we see the usual connectors.
Combined with the extra back panel connectors (included) there are plenty of connectors to suit every requirement.
Test Set Up
To test this board we used a Pentium4 2.8 GHz CPU with 2 sticks of Crucial PC2700 memory and a Creative Ti4600 graphics card. We were able to successfully over-clock the board to board to 166MHz giving us a speed of 3.5GHz and everything was very stable at that speed. This is largely down to the ability to fix the AGP and PCI bus speeds in the BIOS and is sure to please over-clockers in particular. It was puzzling however, that we were unable to use CAS2 with any memory we tried let alone the setting for CAS level 1.5 which the BIOS provides so all tests were run at CAS2.5 and incidentally we could find no difference between loading the default and performance BIOS presets.
Boot time was very good once XP was installed and we could use the Vivid BIOS feature to put our own logo up during the POST phase. One up and running we ran the usual SiSoft and Mad Onion benchmarks along with DIvx tests. The latter may sound like a CPU test but is actually more a function of bandwidth and latency efficiency. Here's what we found.
We ran CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, Cache Memory and Memory Bandwidth benchmarks.
The board performed as expected without problems.
Again we see another solid performance as expected from an 845PE based board.
Another decent result.
Results are as expected for this type of board and it is only beaten by the much higher bandwidth of the i850 chipset.
Overall the synthetic results tell us that the board performs as well as any other board of this type to within about 1% of other similar boards.
3DMark and PCMark
These should be more interesting.
This is a very respectable score for a Ti4600 card and shows the efficiency of the board. Although AGP 8x is supported by the board we have yet to see it make a significant difference during testing. The motherboard has a warning light if the wrong type of AGP card is inserted and a retainer clip to hold the card securely in place.
We see very good results in this benchmark as well since any deficiency in the board would impact one of these three areas.
The performance of the board with gaming benchmarks needs to be determined so we ran UT2003 which will have to do until Doom3 becomes available.
A good result showing consistency from CPU limitations to bandwidth limitations.
Another good result showing playability right up to the high resolutions.
For consistency we will use Jet Li's The One as our test matter. It is not interlaced and contains a mixture of action types and is not too long. There will be three tests all using Divx 5.02. Audio will be encoded separately. I will try and keep my commentary to a minimum as all configuration information is shown in the images below.
We ripped our source material to hard disk and created a DVD2AVI project file using forced film (it was 99% film). Loading this into Gordian Knot we first saved an .avs file with no changes at all (720x480) and no filters of any sort. This was loaded into VirtualDub with the following CODEC parameters :
After encoding we got these results:
We are almost as fast here as the Dual Athlon rig. Only the Intel 850 based P4 3.06GHz with its PC1066 memory is much faster.
This is all good stuff but how about a real-world test? To simulate a realistic test we added a neutral bicubic resize filter in the .avs file and used the following CODEC parameters (including two popular Pro settings) which are designed to total 700MB (when the audio is muxed in):
Which resulted in the following.
This test is more CPU intensive so we fall behind the Dual Athlon. This is still a very good score for an 845PE based motherboard.
Extensive testing has shown that there is very little to choose between Intel 845 motherboards in terms of performance and so the buying decision must rest with extra features. This is where the AOpen AX4PE Max really scores well. A lot of what other manufacturers class as optional extras is included in the box and there are many useful utilities included which make a real difference in day to day use. The board is very stable and caters to the over-clocker with fixable bus speeds. If you're after reliability and stability and don't want to go down the Rambus path then an 845 based board is the only real choice (until Springdale and Canterwood chipsets arrive later this year) and we wouldn't hesitate to recommend the AOpen AX4PE Max.
We would like to thank AOpen Europe for the review sample motherboard.
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