micro-ATX Athlon motherboard recommendations?

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haysdb
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micro-ATX Athlon motherboard recommendations?

Post by haysdb » Sun Jan 18, 2004 2:45 pm

I have tried four micro-ATX motherboards, all VIA KM400 chipset boards. Two of the four have been "satisfactory," two have been "unsatisfactory". Of the two that have been "satisfactory," one of those has experienced some intermittant problems with the onboard network controller.

Primarily I am referring to their stability with Athlon FSB 333 processors running Folding@Home, but there are other factors contributing to my overall dissatisfaction:
  • Poor placement of ATX power connectors. On one board the power connector is so close to the CPU that the connector becomes nearly impossible to disconnect with a cpu heatsink attached. Another places the power connector on the "wrong side" of the CPU, creating a cable routing problem.
  • Poor placement of the CPU. One is so close to the corner that one mounting hole screw is nearly unreachable with a cpu heatsink attached.
  • No power LED. This can lead to fried components when things are plugged and unplugged while the board has power.
  • No onboard "buzzer" to signal POST codes. When a board fails to boot, you have no idea WHY.
  • Poorly tested BIOS's. One board will not POST if the option "Ignore CPU fan fail" is enabled. Another won't boot unless the floppy or IDE controller is enabled, even though the board is booting off a LAN and has no drives attached.
  • Essentially ZERO overclocking ability. Most boards allow frequency adjustment, but are unstable when overclocked by even 1 MHz. None offer voltage adjustments.
I have avoided NForce chipset boards for one simple reason: Their onboard network controller is not supported "out of the box" by LTSP. I didn't want to tackle the job of recompiling LTSP or whatever is necessary to add in a driver.

But the Linux issue, as daunting as it is to me, is a one-time problem. Once I figure it out, I won't have to mess with it again until I need to upgrade the kernel the blades boot from.

SO, this begs the question. Are there NForce chipset micro-ATX boards that would be stable, offer some overclocking features, and be better designed and tested than the boards I have tried so far?

A couple of related notes:
  • The ASUS board I have has been excellent. My only beef is that it offers little in the way of overclocking features. This isn't necessarily a show-stopper, but OC'ing is something I would like to experiment with.
  • I am returning the two Abit boards and the Shuttle board. This means I am in search of three new boards.
Recommendations?

David

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Post by haysdb » Sun Jan 18, 2004 4:25 pm

The downside of the nForce2 boards is that they aren't as cheap as the VIA boards. ASUS micro-ATX board costs $91 (and still doesn't comes with a damn buzzer). Some of them have active North Bridge cooling. I dismiss these immediately. I'm just not fighting that noise battle.

The price issue is a delicate one. I don't want to spend more than I have to, but after bitching about the lack of features and testing, I'm willing to pay more if I GET more. I just want some confirmation that I'm getting something for my money.

Some of these boards list a Realtek onboard LAN. Is this the nForce2 LAN or a separate chip? I'd love to find nForce boards whose LAN is supported by LTSP.

David

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Post by MajereXYU » Sun Jan 18, 2004 4:42 pm

I'd suggest the Shuttle MN31/N.

It's a NForce 2 though...

But stability is excellent, overclocking is not too bad, I think but don't expect Abit-grade overclocking...

The network controller that is integrated is the Realtek 8201B.

It has S/PDIF out, two VGA ports, 3 DIMM Slots, IEEE1394 (Firewire), 3 PCI and the Northbridge is passively cooled.

As for stability, well the nForce platform has proven itself in that regard and this motherboard is the same one that is in Shuttle's SN41G2 XPC SFF PC.

What more do you want? I don't know about LTSP compatibility as I don't use it but it would be a bad idea to buy a crappy motherboard just to get compatibility with one O/S, especially when you think that Software can be easily upgraded whereas hardware can't.

I know you need it to work, but why would you not buy some cheap 10/100 NIC's to do the job and get a great mobo instead of getting a crappy one with a working integrated NIC??

Yours to decide but my choice would be the MN31/N

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Post by haysdb » Sun Jan 18, 2004 4:49 pm

User arkaine23 said in this thread:
Nvidia Nforce2 NICs can't be PXE-booted by a Linux Terminal Server.
Is this true? Even if the nForce driver is added?

David

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Post by haysdb » Sun Jan 18, 2004 5:16 pm

MajereXYU wrote:I'd suggest the Shuttle MN31/N.
I'm not keen on trying another Shuttle board. The one I have is flakey and short on features. I'm not ruling out Shuttle, but I will have to be impressed.
It has S/PDIF out, two VGA ports, 3 DIMM Slots, IEEE1394 (Firewire), 3 PCI
All unimportant for my application. The only port I use is the LAN.
As for stability, well the nForce platform has proven itself in that regard and this motherboard is the same one that is in Shuttle's SN41G2 XPC SFF PC.
So it's REALLY small. In general that's a good thing, but for my folding farm, the smaller than normal size is actually an inconvenience. BTW, my server is a Shuttle SN41G2. Other than being noisy, it has been a good little box.
I know you need it to work, but why would you not buy some cheap 10/100 NIC's to do the job and get a great mobo instead of getting a crappy one with a working integrated NIC??
Crappy motherboards are what I am trying hard to avoid, but I don't believe these are my only two choices. There is no reason an onboard Ethernet controller can't be reliable. I'd turn the question around and ask "Why should I buy PCI NICs when every motherboard sold today comes with a perfectly good one built in?"


[Edit] After further study, two features of this board fail my criteria: 1) Limited overclocking features and 2) Active NB cooling.

There is no question that this is a popular board though. 85 votes for it at NewEgg!!! [/Edit]

David
Last edited by haysdb on Sun Jan 18, 2004 11:45 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by haysdb » Sun Jan 18, 2004 9:43 pm

I have found one post that indicates it is possible:
Don Burns wrote:I'd like to...report success on getting the nforce2 mobo config to successfully boot an ltsp kernel with PXE.
Here are the requirements:
  1. PXELINUX must be 2.0 or greater not 1.66. The pxelinux that is being distributed with the ltsp package (ltsp_kernel-3.0.11-0.i386.rpm) seems to be 1.66. My RH9 distribution came with a pxelinux.0 that is distributed with syslinux-2.00-4. Using the 2.0 got the kernel tftp'ed over and beginng to boot.
  2. The driver for the network device must be precompiled, added to the initrd, and the initrd linuxrc script must be edited to hard code the NIC variable to be nvnet. We couldn't find a cleaner way to do this. The nvidia network device doesn't seem to be queriable as linuxrc would like.
The above post was on the "Ltsp-discuss mailing list" rather than a forum. I don't know how those work. I have sent an email to the author.

I should already have the driver since the server itself (which has an nForce2 chipset) uses it, and I have ltsp 2.4.

David



I found the nvnet driver:
/lib/modules/2.4.20-24.9/kernel/drivers/net/nvnet.o
and where I assume it would go in LTSP:
/opt/ltsp/i386/lib/modules/2.4.22-ltsp-2/kernel/drivers/net/

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Post by haysdb » Mon Jan 19, 2004 12:10 am

The Biostar M7NCG is looking like my first nForce2 board:
  • Inexpensive for an nForce2 board. $22 less than MSI KM4M-L, $27 less than Asus A7N8X-VM
  • Good overclocking features, including control over multiplier and voltage
  • Supports Mobile Athlon
  • Very positive feedback at NewEgg. Voted down mostly for poor documentation.
  • Passive North Bridge cooling (like the ASUS and MSI)
  • No 12V ATX power connector, making one less cable to connect and disconnect
  • Good location for the ATX power connector
David

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Post by Lockheed » Mon Jan 19, 2004 10:04 am

haysdb wrote:I have found one post that indicates it is possible:
Don Burns wrote:I'd like to...report success on getting the nforce2 mobo config to successfully boot an ltsp kernel with PXE.
Here are the requirements:
  1. PXELINUX must be 2.0 or greater not 1.66. The pxelinux that is being distributed with the ltsp package (ltsp_kernel-3.0.11-0.i386.rpm) seems to be 1.66. My RH9 distribution came with a pxelinux.0 that is distributed with syslinux-2.00-4. Using the 2.0 got the kernel tftp'ed over and beginng to boot.
  2. The driver for the network device must be precompiled, added to the initrd, and the initrd linuxrc script must be edited to hard code the NIC variable to be nvnet. We couldn't find a cleaner way to do this. The nvidia network device doesn't seem to be queriable as linuxrc would like.
The above post was on the "Ltsp-discuss mailing list" rather than a forum. I don't know how those work. I have sent an email to the author.

I should already have the driver since the server itself (which has an nForce2 chipset) uses it, and I have ltsp 2.4.

David



I found the nvnet driver:
/lib/modules/2.4.20-24.9/kernel/drivers/net/nvnet.o
and where I assume it would go in LTSP:
/opt/ltsp/i386/lib/modules/2.4.22-ltsp-2/kernel/drivers/net/
This is interesting... I just got my Nforce2 board working with LTSP last week, and I used a different method than what that post refers to. I used the GPL forcedeth drivers instead. http://www.hailfinger.org/carldani/linu ... forcedeth/

I did not have to edit the initrd linuxrc script.

I also had to use the latest version of pxelinux, which is 2.08, but I had that from a while back when first began playing around with LTSP.

Let me know if you find out any more details on what Don did.

--Lockheed

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Post by cmcquistion » Mon Jan 19, 2004 10:25 am

haysdb wrote:The Biostar M7NCG is looking like my first nForce2 board:
  • Inexpensive for an nForce2 board. $22 less than MSI KM4M-L, $27 less than Asus A7N8X-VM
  • Good overclocking features, including control over multiplier and voltage
  • Supports Mobile Athlon
  • Very positive feedback at NewEgg. Voted down mostly for poor documentation.
  • Passive North Bridge cooling (like the ASUS and MSI)
  • No 12V ATX power connector, making one less cable to connect and disconnect
  • Good location for the ATX power connector
David
I was just going to suggest that board. I bought one a few weeks ago from Newegg and it is a fantastic board, for the price. Absolutely no problems with it and it does have decent overclocking features, although I'm not sure if it has PCI lock, or not.

The one I recieved was a M7NCG Pro, with Nforce2 400 IGP chipset, Newegg part number N82E16813138234 and it only cost about $65. This is by far the best mATX board I've ever used. Most, don't offer any overclocking (or undervolting) options. Those that do, sometimes have really limited functions, like letting you change the FSB, but not the Vcore or Vmem. This BIOSTAR board lets you change multiplier, FSB, Vcore, Vmem, NB voltage, memory settings, etc. I was using the onboard video, sound, and LAN, with no troubles at all. I was also running only one stick of memory. Supposedly, some Nforce2 boards have problems with the onboard video, unless you run dual channel memory. I had no problems running single channel on mine. Video performance won't be as good, running single channel, but this was for an upgrade for a family member, who was previously running a 500 MHz PIII and Voodoo graphics. I slapped a 1400 MHz Duron in the BIOSTAR board, unlocked its cache, so it is now a T-bred, and I overclocked it to 2 GHz, with a mild Vcore bump up to 1.6V, from a default 1.5V. I got a 2 GHz system, for $102 ($65 motherboard and $37 CPU.)

In the future, I will buy more of these boards. BIOSTAR's documentation is flimsy, but the board is really solid.

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Post by mas92264 » Mon Jan 19, 2004 10:33 am

The only matx 333 board that I have is a Shuttle mn31n running win2k. Nforce2. Kinda expensive tho, at about $85 (didn't look up current price.)

After reading through the posts at forum.folding-community.org, however, I'm getting more convinced that the sse/freeze issue seems to be specific wu related.

The point that I'm trying to make is that with respect to sse lock ups, there's likely no difference between via and nforcex boards.

I understand that your nearly quixotic :) linux quest, however, has additional requirements.

M

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Post by miker » Mon Jan 19, 2004 10:37 am

That biostar board looks pretty nice. I was using the MSI one, but this one looks superior.

haysdb
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Post by haysdb » Mon Jan 19, 2004 12:21 pm

Lockheed, not only do you provide a second option, but confirmation that it does work. I am full speed ahead with acquiring my first nForce2 board. Unfortunately NewEgg is currently out of stock on the Biostar board, but they are expecting more today or tomorrow.

M, I am aware that the SSE freeze issue isn't a factor, but thanks for pointing that out as others may have thought it was.

miker, the MSI board is a good looking board. If not for the Biostar, that's the one I would be focusing on. And it's not just the $22 price difference, but the Biostar genuinely seems to be a good board, based on the feedback it has recieved at NewEgg and now here.

I had to look quixotic up in the dictionary!
www.dictionary.com wrote: Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.
I have to admit, the word is used correctly. :lol:

David

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Post by mas92264 » Mon Jan 19, 2004 3:19 pm

David,

Note that I wrote nearly. Based on your recent posts, it looks like you have the evil linux.farm issue whupped. Nice going, I guess. What I know about linux, you could put on the head of a pin. Never did figure out why you sometimes need to wear a red hat. And, my brain "sees" disco when the word is distro. Ha!

M

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Post by haysdb » Wed Jan 21, 2004 3:08 am

Two more motherboards are being returned today, for a total of four in two days.

The Biostar M7VIZ has had intermittant problems with the onboard network controller, and gave me enough problems today that I decided not to put off any longer returning it for a replacement.

A Biostar M7VIG (KM266 chipset board) lasted for a few hours tonight and then experienced some type of failure, I'm not sure what. It would power on, but never display any video. I tried clearing CMOS, reseating the cpu heatsink, tried a different heatsink, different memory, different power supply, and a different CPU, but nothing helped. This one I am returning for credit since, aside from the fact it failed so quickly, had a really bad ATX power connector location, no onboard LED showing power, and like every VIA board so far (five), no beeper for signaling POST codes.

I am down to three VIA boards, counting a second ASUS board arriving later today.

A true glutton for punishment, I am considering trying one more KM400 board, an MSI KM4M-L.

Status of nForce boards: I have a Biostar M7NCG on order. I want to see whether it (1) holds up, and (2) whether I can get it to work booting off my server before I commit to any more than the one nForce board.

David

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Post by haysdb » Mon Jan 26, 2004 3:50 am

It took me all weekend to make it work, but I have the nForce board booting over the network.

The Biostar M7NCG is a nice enough board. The BIOS configuration has given me no trouble, unlike some other boards. Likewise I have no complaints with the board layout, except for the lack of an LED showing that the board has power. That's not a deal breaker in an otherwise good board, but it is a feature I value. The $24 more expensive MSI K7N2GM-L doesn't have an onboard LED either.

One surprise is the overclocking features. I haven't tried them yet, but the BIOS offers full control over multiplier, FSB, frequency, and also offers vcore adjustments.

Performance-wise, it looks to be no worse than the best of my KM400 boards.

I will likely order another of these tomorrow. For $65 it's a steal in the world of nForce2 boards. The next least expensive board I would consider costs $89. The ASUS A7N8X-VM costs $91 and is said no offer "no overclocking options" by one newegg reviewer.

My only complaint is a really crappy user manual. ;)

David

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Post by haysdb » Mon Jan 26, 2004 4:14 am

I went ahead and ordered another Biostar M7NCG and a Speeze FalconRock heatsink. I really like these Speeze heatsinks, even more than the Arctic Cooling Copper Silent's. They are a damn good heatsink for $12.99 plus the cost of either a Zalman FanMate, or a resistor. I'm using FanMate's on two of them now, but they are acceptably quiet at what I would estimate to be ~8v, and I have experienced no overheating, so I am going to make up some resistor cables. The AC Copper Silent HSF's are nice too, and the thermally controlled fans work extremely well, so long as your motherboard doesn't pitch a fit during the power-on self test. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I have to "jump start" one of my boards by blowing on the HSF with a heat gun. :)

David

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