Intel makes nice mobo – shock!

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Review After the horror that was the Cape Cod 820 mobo fiasco, the launch a few weeks back of Chipzilla's first mobo using the new i815E chipset must have caused a few nervous twinges at Satan Clara.

The snappily-named D815EEA was codenamed Easton, no doubt after the hard-rocking Sheena, and supports Socket 370 Pentium III processors with 100/133MHz system bus speeds and Celerons at 66MHz.

The board offers the flexibility to choose between using the on-chip 3D graphics, to improve performance with a Graphics Performance Accelerator (GPA) card which plugs into the AGP slot to provide 4MB of display cache, or an upgrade to a 'proper' AGP graphics card. Kingston, Samsung and Micron are lined up to produce GPAs which Intel claims can boost graphics performance by up to 30 per cent.

The Easton supports up to 512MB of PC-133 or PC-100 SDRAM (three slots) and ATA-100 hard drives. Other goodies include suspend to RAM, a digital video output header for TV and DVI, as well as four USB ports (two on the back and a header for another couple on the front panel).

Options include on-board Creative Labs SoundBlaster PCI audio, Intel PRO/100 V 10/100 Ethernet, and a Communication and Network Riser (CNR) slot.

Although officially launched in June, it took Intel a while to actually send us a Sheena of our own, which finally arrived in the middle of last month. We would have tried it before now, but due to problems strangely redolent of AMD's thermal woes, we couldn't get hold of a fan to go on its 800MHz FC-PGA Pentium III until the end of last week.

Our particular mobo doesn't have the optional SoundBlaster 128, but has the lesser basic audio subsystem that uses the ICH2 and an Analog Devices AD1885 analog codec. This works just fine although, as you'd expect, the MIDI voices do leave something to be desired. We'd recommend forking out the extra dosh for the optional SoundBlaster chip.

The built in graphics on the 815E are fine for everyday use but will hardly cause excitement amongst Quakeheads, but there is the option to slap in your fave AGP 4x card. We didn't try using a GPA cache card, mainly because we couldn't lay our hands on one, so we couldn't verify the 30 per cent performance boost claim.

We did, however have an annoying issue (what Intel would call a 'challenge') with the graphics. A CTX 1510 monitor, which we know for a fact can support 85Hz refresh rates, would only run at 60Hz, regardless of screen resolution and colour depth. An upgrade to the latest BIOS (using the excellent windows-based Express BIOS update) and video drivers made no difference. We eventually discovered that this is a 'feature' of newer 810 and 815 video drivers and that it is necessary to install the specific driver for the monitor and then select a higher refresh rate.

Here's Intel's official line: "Refresh rate enumeration has been disabled in the PV 3.0 and later Windows 9x drivers. As a result, only 60Hz is listed for all video modes in the Advanced Diagnostics. This is expected behaviour in PV 3.0 and later drivers. Higher refresh rates can still be selected in display properties if the proper monitor driver is installed and the monitor supports those modes."

As the CTX monitor in question ran perfectly as a generic plug & play monitor with an ancient Intel i740 graphics card in a previous existence, we cannot help but feel there is some room for improvement here. We initially thought this might be an issue with Windows ME (build 3000), but an Nvidia GeForce 2 GTS card in a second ME machine behaved perfectly normally, so this one looks to be down to Intel to put right - removing plug'n' play functionality seems like a retrograde step.

In graphics terms, we didn't expect the Easton to blow us into the weeds with its performance, but the test machine at least did have 256MB of PC-133 memory, so it should have been in with a chance.

An overall 3Dmark score of 1047 at 800x600x16 was hardly in the same league as a Chaintech RI-91 GeForce 2 GTS with 64MB of DDR memory on board which notched up 6426 3Dmarks. With the new Detonator 3 drivers, this increased to a tasty 6609 3Dmarks. The high resolution helicopter test returned a measly 6.4fps compared with 48fps on the GeForce 2 (50fps with Detonator 3 drivers), rather neatly showing where at least some of the $330 cost of the Chaintech card goes.

Coming from the Great Stan of Chipsets, no one would expect you to buy an Easton if overclocking was your main interest in life, but as a well built entry-level board with lots of scope for upgrading and plenty of built-in goodies, at between $150 and $170, it has to be worth a look, even with its currently less than perfect plug'n'play. ®

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