Abit AW9D-Max 975X-based mobo
Abit rises from the ashes?
Review Abit was synonymous with top-performance motherboards, but of late its products have been less than impressive. Abit has set out to correct this with its latest line-up of boards, including the AW9D-Max, designed to be a top-of-the-range Core 2 Duo mobo based on Intel's 975X chipset. But does it live up to the expectation?
Abit's Max series of motherboards has always been quite different and daring in terms of design and features. The AW9D-Max doesn't surprise here as it has some rather quirky features. The rear I/O layout is very basic, with two PS/2 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, two Ethernet connectors for the dual on-board Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and finally an e-SATA connector.
You might wonder what happened to the audio connectors, but as anyone that has owned a recent high-end motherboard from Abit will know, these come in the shape of an AudioMax HD riser card. This fits into a special slot at the bottom of the motherboard and adds 7.1-channel HD audio with optical S/PDIF output. The line-in jack also doubles up as a 3.5mm S/PDIF input.
Moving onto the board itself, the most noticeable features are the two heatpipes that help cool the chipset. These are connected to a heatsink at the rear of the board which also cools the power regulation circuitry. The hot air is vented out of the case through a hole in the I/O shield. All of the heatsinks have copper plates in the bottom to further enhance the heat transfer away from the chipset and MOSFETs.
If you're still not happy with the system cooling and want to add some extra fans, you'll be happy to know that there are no less than seven additional fan headers not counting the one for the CPU cooler.
In terms of expansion capabilities, there are four memory slots for DDR 2 memory, two x16 PCI Express slots - which will operate at x8 when two graphics cards are used in CrossFire mode - two x1 PCI Express slots and a single PCI slot. Having only one PCI and then placing it this close to the lower x16 PCI Express slot is a poor design choice, as it becomes unusable if you fit a dual-width graphics card in the lower x16 slot. Considering how many things still use PCI, Abit should make it more easily accessible. A nice touch is the top-mounted release clips on the x16 slots, as this makes it much easier to remove your graphics cards than some other boards do.
There are four SATA connectors towards the front of the board courtesy of the Intel ICH-7R South Bridge chip - which also adds an IDE connector - but Abit has fitted a further two SATA controllers on the AW9D-Max. One is located toward the rear of the board for the single e-SATA connector and a internal SATA connector that is awkwardly located between the CPU socket and the heatpipes. This means that if you use a large CPU cooler, this SATA connector will become virtually inaccessible. Towards the bottom of the board is the other SATA controller. It adds a further two SATA connectors which are located between the PCI slot and the floppy connector.
In addition to the four rear USB 2.0 ports there are two headers on the motherboard for a further four USB 2.0 ports. There are also two connectors for Firewire. A bracket with two USB 2.0 ports and a six and four-pin Firewire connector is supplied with the board.
The location of the power connectors are towards the edge of the board, making both the 24-pin and eight-pin connectors easy to reach. However, for CrossFire set-ups a Molex connector has been fitted to the bottom of the board, just below the connector for the AudioMax riser card. This is very awkward to get to and adds to untidy cable routing in the case.
Abit has also added a couple of features that can be useful when you're putting together your new system: a power and reset button on the board and a debug LED display. The two LEDs will show error codes that can then be referenced with the manual in case something isn't working properly.
Overall build quality seems to be very good, although only time will tell. But judging by the components used, Abit has pulled out all the stops when it comes to the AW9D-Max. The layout is slightly cluttered, with the heatpipes helping to give this impression. Finally, Abit has added blue LEDs to several locations around the board which lights up when you power on the board.
In addition to the USB/Firewire bracket, the AW9D-Max also comes with a full set of seven SATA cables, an optical S/PDIF cable with a 3.5mm connector at one end and a normal Toslink connector on the other, and IDE and floppy cables, both of the rounded type. Abit also supplies an SLI bridge connector, but I wouldn't read too much into any future SLI compatibility of the AW9D-Max, at least not in the short term.
Performance was very good, outperforming the Intel's own 975X-based D975XBX by a small margin in SYSMark 2004SE. It's also ahead in most of the benchmarks in PCMark 2005, although for some reason the hard drive score is slightly slower. The 3D benchmark numbers aren't half bad either and show off the potential of the AW9D-Max.
However, this is where we ran into a snag, as adding a Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire master card caused some very strange benchmark results. This seems to be a BIOS issue with the AW9D-Max as we've not come across this in any other 975X boards that we've tested. In all of the tests the results dropped below 50 per cent of the single-card scores, so there's something seriously odd going on here. Hopefully, this is something Abit will fix quickly, as it makes the AW9D-Max a bad choice for anyone considering a CrossFire setup.
Despite the CrossFire issue, the AW9D-Max is a decent board, although it can't quite compete in terms of features with the high-end Asus boards. At £150 it's also a rather expensive board with most competing products being £10-20 cheaper. Nonetheless, the AW9D-Max shows that Abit is back and eager to try and reach the top again.
The Abit AW9D-Max is a very good motherboard, although there's an issue with CrossFire performance, the price is quite high and the connector layout could be better. At least you get quite a feature-rich board for your money. ®