Sept. 22, 2003 marked the release of AMD’s newest processor, the Athlon 64. After the release of the Opteron for the workstation, this processor is set to capture desktop computing with its 64-bit technology. Together with its release comes the launch of various chipset and motherboard products that would capitalise on this new technology. NVIDIA’s newest nForce3-150 for one is included as one of the most highly aniticipated chipset that most of us will be looking out for. Especially after their highly successful nForce 2 line.
Well that also marked the release of Chaintech’s Athlon 64 offering which we exposed sometime back. Based on NVIDIA’s nForce3-150 chipset, this board supports 800mhz FSB,DDR400, SATA, SATA RAID, IEEE 1394, 7.1- CH audio w/ SPDIF, AGP8X, USB 2.0 and Gigabit LAN. This board also debuts Chaintech’s RadEX thermal solution to ensure the board’s stability with overclocking. Introducing, Chaintech’s Athlon 64 offering, the ZNF3-150 Zenith Motherboard.
As we all know, Chaintech likes to color code their boards for added eyecandy. That is why it is not surprising that this Athlon 64 offering has a certain color motif as well. For this board, they elected to go for an orange color similar to that found on the Athlon 64 logo. As always, IDE, floppy and SATA cables are all color coded as well. The board’s black PCB is further complemented by the “signature” gold color found on the chipset heatsink grill, RadEX thermal solution and I/O backpanel. Speaking of the backpanel, a backplate is included to accomodate the extrusion made by the board’s active cooling solution. A colored backplate sticker is also present to liven up the dull looking aluminum plate.
The cpu socket looks like your typical P4. Gone are the lugs used in socket A boards for retaining the heatsinks. In its place is a retaining mechanism screwed to a backplate attached on the other side of the board. Tall purple capacitors line up the top of the socket. However not an issue when fitting heatsinks. As for aftermarket heatsinks and waterblocks, the ZNF3-150 is built so that such cooling alternative can be fitted with ease. There are the 4 holes around the socket for this very purpose. Definitely a thumbs up! The ATX power supply header is located on the lower right side of the pcb and is directly below the DIMM slots. In this position, there is less clutter caused by power cables thereby aiding in the airflow inside the case. There is also now the presence of a +12v connector similar to what you see on Pentium 4 boards. It is situated just behind the I/O ports and in between the agp slot and cpu socket.
The Chaintech ZNF3-150 Zenith uses the NVIDIA nForce3-150 chipset which supports three DDR DIMMs up to 2Gb maximum. Note that there is a warning sticker on the board telling you the recommended configuration when installing memory modules. Further details with regards to this can be read on the manual. The board utilizes a 4-Phase Power Design as evidenced by the presence of mosfets tucked underneith and actively cooled by the RadEX thermal solution. A combination that guarantees stability.
Onboard Audio is provided by the VIA Envy24PT. This is not just onboard audio, the chip is capable of 7.1 channel audio. The VIA Envy24PT is a multi-channel audio controller that delivers the latest audio standards in a versatile integrated solution. Enabling 24-bit resolution and 96KHz sampling rates, the VIA Envy24PT enables the latest audio content with breathtaking clarity. The VIA Envy24PT also supports up to 8-channel outputs enabling support for the latest Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES DVD-Video soundtracks. Up to 8 outbound streams and 4 simultaneous input streams allow for a wide range of connections that can fully support 5.1, 6.1, or even 7.1 channel surround sound audio. It also comes with an integrated S/PDIF transmitter and IEC958 line driver that allows easy accurate transfer of PCM, DTS, and AC3 digital audio formats to items like stereos and portable audio devices. Note that the 7.1 Channel audio works only under WIN XP and WINDVD 7.1 CH version, and this is a software limitation.
Unlike other Athlon 64 chipsets that utilizes a North-South bridge, the nVIDIA nForce3 150 utilizes a single chip solution. Revolutionary single-chip solution designed for the AMD Athlon 64 CPU enables higher-quality, full-featured motherboards and delivers maximum performance with the lowest latency. This Isochronous controller paired with HyperTransport results in fastest networking performance via NVIDIA’s NVIDIA StreamThru™ technology. For a full overview click here. The single-chip design also means less power consumption and less heat dissipation. That’s probably why Chaintech opted for a passive cooling solution on the chipset with just a fanless heatsink. I would have preferred an active solution here though. Notice that there is no thermal paste between the chip and the heatsink as well.
Installation was trouble free. We were able to get the system up and running in no time. Installing the Thermaltake Venus 12 heatsink which we used for the test was uneventful as well. As soon as all the hardware was loaded into the motherboard, getting the board inside a case was again standard. The only gripe I had with the board was the lack of board markings for the power-on, reset, etc headers. Even for the seasoned system builder, this is a nuisance as you have to refer to the manual or quick installation guide to get it right. Aside from that, everything else was a breeze.
With a plethora of BIOS options to fiddle with, getting the Chaintech ZNF3-150 to overclock was very easy. Especially since most K8 boards out there seems to be struggling in this field. The nForce3 150 chipset was a big factor in this as AGP locking became possible and was effectively utilized by this Chaintech board. Something that is missing in all VIA K8T800 boards available to date, you can correct me on this.
I found that setting most options to auto is the best way to overclock this board. It is also the most stable as we have discovered in our tests. That can only be good as it makes overclocking this board a lot easier. But as always, you can manually set most settings yourself for optimum performance. Of course there is still one thing missing that would make the overclocking perfect, and that is a multiplier option. Sadly, this is also unavailable even for the Chaintech ZNF3-150. Hopefully future BIOSes will pave the way for this. Or not.
The Athlon64 is notorious for being a poor overclocker, obviously because it only allows for FSB overclocking at the moment, however it actually did very well on this Chaintech K8 board. We were able to get our Athlon64 3200+ (2GHz) chip to run ROCK SOLID at 2.25GHz with the Chaintech ZNF3-150 running at 225mhz FSB. At this speed, it ran all the above benchmarks without any hiccups. This is really impressive as I have not seen any current K8 board to run solidly at this FSB. The Chaintech board actually booted into Windows up to 235mhz but anything past 225mhz causes crashes when any benchmark is run.
Getting an extra 250mhz speed boost for free is indeed an added bonus for this Athlon64 chip as benchmark results becomes more interesting as well. Most gaming benchmark scores generated has been the highest we’ve seen in our labs. With an initial showing like this, expect Chaintech to come up with better “overclocking” BIOS in the future.
The Chaintech ZNF3-150 is definitely a worthy board for AMD’s Athlon64 processor. Chaintech’s implementation of the nForce3-150 chipset is indeed very impressive. Performance and stability of the board is no doubt solid as evidenced by 2 weeks of 24/7 testing here in our labs. The RadEX is a great add-on. I can probably partly attribute the board’s stability at stock and overclocked modes due to this excellent cooling feature. That plus all the goodies that comes with the bundle is a great addition to this board.
Overclocking wise, this board has a lot of potential. If I am to compare its overclocking ability to current K8 motherboards available at the moment, I can say it is great. With its vast BIOS overclocking options, you can be assured that you can push your Athlon64 system further. One negative thing though I encountered when overclocking was the need to clear the BIOS when overclocking went over the limits. Call me spoiled but I’m already used to boards having the BIOS revert feature as standard. Previous Chaintech boards supported this so I was a bit disappointed that this one doesn’t come with that.
Another thing that I’ve also noticed is the board’s inability to run 3 dimms all at once. This I think is a CPU limitation and I believe every MB manufacturer has the same problem. This was evident when I tried filling all slots with 3 x 512mb double sided ddr modules. Windows detected and recognized all 3 DIMMs but only counted them as 1Gb total ram instead of 1.5Gb. According to the manual DIMM 1 can take up to 1Gb and DIMMs 2 & 3 for a combined 1Gb. That makes up to 2Gb of ram which is the maximum for this board. We met that criteria but it seems like it doesn’t want to add up to 1.5Gb. Emailed Chaintech to clarify this and was told that if you use DIMM2 and DIMM3 at the same time, you can only insert 2 x single sided memory modules. Double sided modules can only be inserted in DIMM1 and DIMM2 or DIMM1 and DIMM3 combination but not on DIMM2 and DIMM3 together. They did specify in the manual that DIMM2 and DIMM3 should not be used together. But there is no mention of the double sided memory limitation. Something that is worth noting really.
Price wise, the Chaintech ZNF3-150 Athlon64 Zenith motherboard is currently available for about US$199. This puts them in the same price range as most major players in the Athlon64 market. Current premium i875P Canterwood boards are also in the same price range. However, AMD Athlon64 processors are quite expensive and scarce. That is actually the biggest obstacle most have been complaining about. This makes upgrading to this platform a toughie. But for those who wants the best gaming experience now and have very deep pockets, then the nForce3-150 based Chaintech ZNF3-150 Zenith Athlon64 motherboard is definitely a great choice. It is hard not to recommend this board to anyone jumping on the Athlon64 bandwagon. But like I said, it’s gonna cost you.