When the board arrived, I had already done some preliminary research on AOpen's website. After discovering that the AX37 Plus had an onboard RAID controller, I was extremely curious (and excited!) as to its capabilities. Here is a shot of the board:
As you can see, the layout is large and spacious. AOpen certainly put a great deal of effort into designing this board, deciding that big and spacious is better than small and cramped. A total of 1 AGP, 1 AMR and 6 PCI slots are present, which is fast becoming the new defacto standard for "enthusiast" level boards. 6 USB ports are catered for, and the headers for the (optional) brackets are located behind PCI slots 3 and 4.
Here is another of AOpen's trademark features - Die-Hard BIOS. This trend was started by Gigabyte around 1998, and is very useful if a virus such as CIH or Magistr that causes BIOS erasure infects your system. Simply move a jumper, reflash the BIOS and you're good to go again. Unfortunately, this feature does drive the cost of the motherboard up, so it is only found on high-end boards. Some other AOpen products such as the AX3S Pro also come with this valuable feature.
These two pictures show the IDE/RAID connectors and the Promise FastTrack 100 "Lite" controller chip. The red connectors are for RAID drives, the blue one is for the Primary IDE channel, and the black one is for the Secondary IDE channel. I had never used RAID before, and was dreading the fact that I didn't have two identical hard disk drives to test it. However, I did manage to source a 6.4GB Quantum Fireball EX and a 6.4GB Fireball CR. Despite their differing speeds, they worked together admirably in a RAID-0 array. The onboard IDE, provided courtesy of the VIA VT8233 south bridge, was very mature and flawless in operation, a noticeable improvement from previous chipsets.
The Apollo Pro 266 is comprised of these two little critters, the VT8633 north bridge (shown without heatsink) and the VT8233 south bridge. What makes the Pro 266 important to VIA is that it heralded the arrival of V-Link, their new bus topology for connecting the two bridges. Earlier chipsets used the PCI bus, with its maximum transfer rate of 133MB/sec to connect the two chips. Unfortunately, due to increasing adaptor card bandwidth requirements, this needed to be replaced - fast! Intel introduced their Accelerated Hub Architecture with the i810 chipset, and now VIA has replied with V-Link, providing a maximum transfer rate of 266MB/sec. Future versions of V-Link are predicted to exceed 1GB/sec in available bandwidth!
See those 3 capacitors at the top of the above shot? Well, when installing a GlobalWin FOP32-1, these are absolute MURDER! Other brands of HSF units that only require a screwdriver to install are fine but the GlobalWin HSFs with their crappy clip need a pair of fine-nose pliers as well. There is no room to manoeuvre inside the case, and it is no easy task to accomplish outside the case as well. However, once installed the FOP32-1 had plenty of room surrounding it, unlike other Apollo Pro 266 boards (such as the EPoX EP-3VHA). By and large, the board layout is well thought out.