SLI is definitely one of the biggest talking points of the nVidia chipset community right now. Designed back in the PCI based Voodoo2 graphics board days as a way of boosting the overall frame rate of the very first 3D based graphics cards, although in a slightly different flavour these days, it is still all the rage.When it comes to the SLI side of things, its not impossible to get an SLI setup on a budget - a 6600GT or cheaper LE or 6800 SLI would be a great option for your semi-budget LAN gamers rig, but what about the motherboard side of things? Prices of nVidia's nForce4 SLI motherboards are currently worth around $220 USD (roughly $300 AUD) in Australia, which is until now.Albatron are one of Taiwan's leading budget motherboard manufacturers, with designs for low cost motherboards as well as mid-range enthusiast motherboards, Albatron is simply not just a value orientated company.Today we are looking at the Albatron K8SLI motherboard based on nVidia's nForce4 SLI chipset for the AMD Athlon 64 processor based around the value segment requirements - will this board hold up to the test? Let's have a closer look.
SpecificationsSpecifications of the Albatron K8SLICPU
Supports AMD Athlon 64 3000+ ~ 4000+Supports AMD Athlon 64x2 3800+ ~ 4800+Supports AMD Athlon 64 FX53 ~ FX57SChipset
nVidia nForce 4 SLInForce 4 SLI Single ChipHyperTransport @ 2000MB/s between NF4SLI and AMD64 CPUSystem Memory
4 DDR SDRAM 186pin DIMM SocketsSupports DDR-266/333/400Mhz64/128Bit Dual ChannelSupports up to 8GB Total Memory (4x 2GB)Bus Frequency
200Mhz Internal CPU20000Mhz External HyperTransportHyperTransportExpansion Slots
2 PCI Express x162 PCI Express x12 PCIConnectivity
2 Parallel ATA port supporting 4 IDE Drives4 Serial ATA ports1 Gigabit Ethernet PortExpansion Ports
1 PS2 Keyboard Port1 PS2 Mouse Port10 USB 2.0 Ports 1 Serial Ports 1 Parallel Port5 Stereo Audio Ports1 SPDIF Port
FeaturesFeatures of the Albatron K8SLI
Albatron's value nForce 4 SLI is a rather small motherboard, in fact so small in width that just about any mid sized ATX case would find it easy to cram into the most restricted mid-size ATX case, and in my travels, we have seen quite a few of them.Layout wise you will notice a few changes from the norm - for instance, the CPU socket is offset towards the right hand side and with the 24 pin ATX power connector, already we are seeing budget in terms of placements. The 4 pin CPU voltage power connector is placed between the other side of the CPU socket and the rear I.O panel.The DIMM sockets are located at the top with green slots for Channel 1 and purple for Channel 2. Also located at the top of the motherboard is the FDD connector, keeping it well out of the way of most of the sockets. The IDE ports you will notice are down below the 24 pin power connector just above the 4 SATA ports.Expansion slots are pretty standard for SLI based nForce4, you have two PCI Express x16 ports, two PCI Express x1 ports and two PCI legacy ports. In the next generation we will start to see PCI ports going the way of the dodo, and PCI-E can handle what PCI can do with extra to spare.Albatron has gone a different way in terms of its PCI-E support. Rather than having a SLI selector card, the two PCI-E x16 slots are permanently hardwired to x8 slots, which means when using a single graphics card, you will only get a x8 reading in Windows. While this eliminates the need for SLI bridges, it will limit transfer speeds to x8 no matter what you do. Fair enough the motherboard is designed to be an SLI system however some people might not be in the position to buy the board and two graphics cards at the same time.
The nVidia nForce4 SLI chipset is the biggest launch and success for nVidia since the nForce2 chipset. nForce4 builds on the existing technologies that have made nVidia a household name for the AMD community. The nForce4 SLI for AMD is a single chip solution, which makes perfect sense since there is no memory controller to be integrated into the chipset. AMD K8 puts its memory controller on the CPU itself with its own Northbridge and HT link, all that is required for the K8 is a HyperTransport interface of 2GHz. The nForce4 chip runs quite warm, so Albatron has used an active cooling solution on the FC-BGA setup, allowing maximum cooling.
nVidia is the only company to integrate a Gigabit Ethernet MAC directly into their chipset. Other companies like Intel and VIA rely on PCI-E based Ethernet controllers or like ULi, SIS and VIA only have 10/100 Fast Ethernet on their Southbridges. With media now growing from Megabytes to Gigabytes, a faster interconnect between PC's is needed than 100mbps Ethernet. The nVidia Gigabit Ethernet is a proprietary MAC that connects directly to HyperTransport link rather than the PCI-E or PCI buses, thus eliminating any bottlenecks. The VITESSE VSC PHY is used to interface the RJ45 connector with the on chip controller.
Gigabyte may have pioneered Dual BIOS, but that doesn't mean it cannot be improved. In the box of goodies you get a small riser board with an EEPROM chip built onto it. There is a special connector on the motherboard that is covered with two jumpers that need to be removed if using the external BIOS. If you managed to get a bad flash or a virus in the BIOS, you remove the two jumpers on the marked port and install the riser board. You than switch a jumper on the riser to force the motherboard to boot from the external BIOS, you can swap the jumper around once the system has booted, which will force the BIOS on the motherboard to update from the riser boards BIOS, restoring a usable image, allowing you to re-flash with the more updated and working BIOS.
OverclockingOverclocking of the Albatron K8SLI
When we first started to overclock the Albatron K8SLI, we kept running into walls. Every time we tried to adjust a setting, the system would completely freeze up and refuse to boot. We went to the Albatron website and downloaded the latest R1.12 BIOS update and after this, when settings were changed, the system booted fine. If you run into this same problem, R1.12 is what you need.Albatron uses a similar BIOS setup to ASUS motherboards, so finding your way around is just like working on an ASUS motherboard. The Award 6 core is used as the base of choice these days. Under the advanced menu the Frequency/Voltage Control Sub-Menu is where all the overclocking options are located, and Albatron for a value motherboard has done pretty good in the amount of setting you have available. CPU Frequency (MHz) is your FSB adjustments; you can change them from 200MHz up to 300MHz in 1MHz increments. DRAM adjustments allow you to select base 200, 266, 333, 400MHz memory speeds which are your dividers for your memory controller. PCI-E frequency can be locked to 100MHz to keep PCI-E clock at defaults when overclocking the FSB. The last of the frequency controls is the Hammer FID which is where you can change your CPU ratio. K8 CPU's don't allow you to raise your multiplier but you can go down to as low as 4x and raise the FSB.The HT ratio setting allows you to adjust the HyperTransport ratio from 1x up to 5x.CPU voltage can be adjusted from standard up to 15% above default. The steps are +5%, +10% and +15%. While limiting, it does give enough to allow you to overclock. DDR voltage allows you to raise DDR core voltage from 2.6v standard up to 3.0V in 0.1v increments which is pretty good for a value motherboard. The last voltage option is chipset voltage; settings are from 1.5v up to 1.8v in 0.1v increments.
With theses options we managed an FSB of 258MHz with memory at 1:1, CPU voltage at +10%, HT link at 3x and DDR voltage at 2.9v - in all, not too bad.
Benchmarks - Test System Setup and SandraTest System SetupProcessor
: AMD Athlon 64 3000+ (Winchester)Memory
: 2x 512MB Corsair DDR-533Hard Disk
: 2x Seagate 7200.8 (RAID 0) (Supplied by Seagate
: ATI Radeon X800XT Platinum (Supplied by ASUS
: Microsoft Windows XP SP2Drivers
: ATI Catalyst 5.9 and DX9cIn order to give you an idea about the performance of the Albatron K8SLI, we've compared it directly against the EPoX nForce4 Ultra motherboard which is known to be a good performer.We've only included benchmarks with a single graphics card plugged into the Albatron motherboard since we're not terribly interested in SLI performance in this article but how the motherboard itself performs.SiSoft SandraVersion and / or Patch Used:
2005 SR2aDeveloper Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.co.ukProduct Homepage: http://sisoftware.jaggedonline.com/index.php?location=home&a=TTA&lang=enBuy It Here
SiSoft Sandra (S
iagnostic and R
ssistant) is a synthetic Windows benchmark that features different tests used to evaluate different PC subsystems.
Memory scores are what are expected for the AMD64 line since the memory controller is built into the CPU itself.
Benchmarks - PCMark05PCMarkVersion and / or Patch Used:
UnpatchedDeveloper Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/pcmark04/Buy It Here
PCMark is a multipurpose benchmark, suited for benchmarking all kinds of PCs, from laptops to workstations, as well as across multiple Windows operating systems. This easy-to-use benchmark makes professional strength benchmarking software available even to novice users. PCMark consists of a series of tests that represent common tasks in home and office programs. PCMark also covers many additional areas outside the scope of other MadOnion.com benchmarks.
Here we see that the Albatron motherboard is able to hold its own against the EPoX NF4 Ultra.
Benchmarks - 3DMark Series3DMark03Version and / or Patch Used:
Build 360Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark03/Buy It Here
By combining full DX8 and partial DX9 support with completely new tests and graphics over the previous version, 3DMark03 continues the legacy of being the industry standard 3D benchmark.Please Note: Due to recent events with the 3DMark03 series, we are adding results purely for those who are still in favor of 3DMark03. These results should not be taken too seriously and are only added for interest sakes.
Here Albatron falls only very slightly behind.3DMark05Version and / or Patch Used:
Build 110Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark05/Buy It Here
3DMark05 is the latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and higher.For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here
3DMark05 shows the Albatron motherboard fall a bit further behind.
Benchmarks - Doom 3Doom 3Version and / or Patch Used:
UnpatchedTimedemo or Level Used:
Custom TimedemoDeveloper Homepage: http://www.idsoftware.com Product Homepage: http://www.doom3.comBuy It Here
Doom 3 is the latest game to hit our test lab and is one of the most intensive games to dates. With our own custom time demo we are able to give a realistic rating on what kind of FPS you will be achieving.For more information on benchmarking Doom 3 we recommend you check out our extensive article regarding it here
Doom 3 shows the Albatron motherboard slightly behind in our first real world benchmark.
Benchmarks - Half Life 2Half Life 2Version and / or Patch Used:
UnpatchedTimedemo or Level Used:
Custom TimedemoDeveloper Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com Product Homepage: http://www.half-life2.comBuy It Here
By taking the suspense, challenge and visceral charge of the original, and adding startling new realism and responsiveness, Half-Life 2 opens the door to a world where the player's presence affects everything around him, from the physical environment to the behaviors even the emotions of both friends and enemies.We benchmark Half Life 2 with our own custom timedemos as to avoid possible driver optimizations using the "record demo_name" command and loading the timedemo with the "timedemo demo_name" command - For a full list of the commands, click here
Half Life 2 closes the gap a little on the EPoX NF4 Ultra.
Benchmarks - Battlefield 2Battlefield 2Version and / or Patch Used:
1.1Timedemo or Level Used:
Guru3D DemoDeveloper Homepage: http://global.dice.se/Product Homepage: http://www.eagames.com/official/battlefield/battlefield2/us/home.jspBuy It Here
Battlefield 2 is the successor to the original multiplayer online game Battlefield 1942. Battlefield 2 takes advantage of the latest DirectX 9.0c optimizations and is best used with DX9 cards from nVidia, ATI and various upcoming makers like XGI.
Battlefield 2 shows the Albatron motherboard only just behind the EPoX motherboard.
Final ThoughtsFinal Thoughts
It is clear that the nVidia nForce4 platform has become the chipset of choice for the AMD Athlon 64 platform for the moment, however, we are starting to see ULi coming up with chipsets that are not only powerful, but are offering the same features and the nForce4 at a cheaper price. This is why we are starting to see a drop in nVidia's pricing on NF4 SLI chipsets, and why we are now seeing budget motherboards for K8 with SLI support.Albatron has done a very good job in terms of its implementation of the NF4 SLI. One thing that impressed us was no SLI adjustment card that you normally see, however, this is done not though a SLI digital switch like MSI and ASUS now have, but by actually routing the two PCI-E x16 slots with only 8 lanes each. When only using a single graphics card, you will find that it will only run in PCI-E x8 mode, this is why we believe we had a slight drop in gaming performance. You will notice performance decreases more when you're running at a high resolution with AA and AF turned on, at 1024 x 768 with no AA and AF and medium quality settings for example, you likely won't see much performance penalty.Overall we found that Albatron's past implementations have been rather impressive, and this motherboard is no exception - if you want budget SLI, the Albatron K8SLI is one to really consider. - Pros
Cheap (but not nasty)Supports SLISATA-IIGigabit LANDual BIOS solutionWill fit inside tight-fitting mid-sized casesNo need to use an SLI selector- Cons
Permanently hardwired x8 PCI-E x16 slotsRating - 8 out of 10 and TweakTown's "MUST HAVE" Best Value Award