AOpen i915Ga-HFS ATX Pentium M Motherboard

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ON THE TEST BENCH

Methodology

The following components were used with the motherboard:

  • FSP Green PS FSP400-60GLN 400W power supply — 69.7% efficient at 40W output, 75.8% efficient at 64W output,
  • Intel Pentium M 770 — 2.13 GHz, 27W TDP
  • 2 x 1024 MB Corsair DDR2 SDRAM
  • Hitachi E7K100 100GB, 7,200 RPM notebook hard drive

These tools were used to make measurements during testing:

  • AC Power was measured with an Extech Power Analyzer / Data Logger 380803 AC power meter.
  • Processor temperature was monitored using AOpen's PowerMaster utility, as SpeedFan 4.27 did not work.
  • SPL was measured with a B&K 2203 Sound Level Meter.
  • CPUBurn was used to place the processor under load while thermal and acoustic testing was done

The goal of the testing was to find out how much (or how little) noise is produced by the motherboard in its stock form. Every effort was made to optimize the BIOS settings for low noise operation, so both the CPU and the Northbridge fans were set to Smart Control at the highest possible trigger temperature. Noise measurements were then made with the system at idle and under heavy CPU load, and the processor temperature was monitored to ensure that it did not overheat.

The ambient conditions during testing were 20 dBA and 21°C.

Test Results

Unfortunately, our careful tweaking of the fan settings in the BIOS all came to naught within a minute of pressing the power button; as soon as Windows finished loading, both fans immediately rose to maximum speed and stayed there indefinitely. No amount of tweaking settings in the BIOS (including turning the fans off altogether) could prevent this inevitable result, so we eventually concluded that Windows XP was overriding the BIOS settings entirely.

Our backup plan was to use AOpen's Windows-based SilentTek utility to control the fans, but here, too, we ran into problems. Running the fan control software required a calibration process to determine the range of adjustment for each of the connected fans. Unfortunately, the result of the calibration only allowed adjustment between 90% and 100% speed not enough to make an audible difference.

Eventually, we ended up measuring the noise level with the fans at full speed. Unsurprisingly, the noise level is too high to be considered quiet. However, in acknowledgment of the fact that the fans really shouldn't be running at full speed, we also took some hasty measurements while the BIOS was controlling the fans before Windows had finished booting.

AOPEN i915Ga-HFS SPL COMPARISON
Fan State
SPL (dBA@1m)
Both Fans Full Speed
32 (MP3)
CPU Fan Full Speed, NB Fan Stalled
27
BIOS Fan Control (cold boot into WinXP)
23

As the table shows, the i915Ga-HFS was at its quietest while the BIOS fan controller was still working. In fact, the northbridge fan turned off altogether in this state, leaving the CPU fan as the only source of noise. At this level, the noise level was quite low, consisting mostly of a low hum that disappeared into the whoosh of airflow as we moved away from it.

Unfortunately, the noise became nasty as soon as Windows finished loading. The bulk of the noise came from the tiny northbridge fan which produced a rough buzzzzzz in the frequency range humans are most sensitive to. A harmonic overtone could also be heard from time to time as a shrill whine in the background. Temporarily stopping the CPU fan had very little effect on the overall noise level, which suggests that most of the noise is from the northbridge fan alone.

Naturally, we wanted to know what the board would sound like without the northbridge fan, so we stopped it temporarily and listened to the CPU fan on its own. Much to our surprise, the noise of the CPU fan at full speed was quite bearable, though far from silent. The CPU fan was quite smooth and constant, although it was too pure a tone to ignore completely.

AOPEN i915Ga-HFS THERMAL PERFORMANCE
CPU State
System AC Power
Temperature
Idle (w/ SpeedStep)
40W
26°C
CPUBurn
65W
61°C

Not surprisingly, the CPU temperature at idle approached the ambient room temperature. In fact, it would have been surprising if it had been significantly higher, given that the power consumption of the CPU with SpeedStep enabled is ~1.0W.

The real test was the temperature under load, which topped out at 61°C — surprisingly high given that the fan was running at full speed. A quick finger test confirmed that the heatsink was indeed too hot to touch for more than a few seconds. No throttling was ever observed, however, and the system remained stable throughout several hours of extensive thermal testing.

A few words of caution about the thermal results: The thermal diode on the motherboard was not calibrated beforehand, and its very rapid changes suggest that the reported temperature may be something different than what most motherboards report (a diode that approximates exterior casing temperature). Additionally, a second sample of the i915Ga-HFS reported a temperature as much as 10°C different from those above with the same CPU (when all other factors were held constant). Hence, take the temperature data above with a grain of salt.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The AOpen i915Ga-HFS comes off as bit of a rushed showpiece. Although its multiple TV and VGA output capabilities are nice, they are not that useful in a home theater PC unless sound of equal quality can be delivered. Without a built-in S/PDIF port, that task is left up to the integrated audio circuitry and the 1/8" computer audio jacks that are not easily integrated with existing home theater equipment. There is an onboard header for S/PDIF; too bad no breakout connector is provided. On top of that, the noisy northbridge fan will almost certainly interfere with a quality home theater experience.

Audio aside, the biggest sign that the i915Ga-HFS was rushed out the door is the misaligned PCI Express 1x slot. It takes much more than a single engineer to make a mistake like this — surely the error should have been caught in the testing phases of the design. AOpen does not seem to have any plans to release a new revision to fix it, which is probably a reflection of the accelerated life cycle of such products in this transitional time in the PC industry. Admittedly, adoption of PCIe 1x cards is far from widespread, so the number of affected users is probably not large, but it is a bit amazing that they would simply leave it as is.

Although the board was quite noisy on our test bench, it doesn't seem entirely fair to blame AOpen for what may well be an issue with Windows, especially since the issue can be easily fixed by using an external fan controller to reduce the speed of the fans. Perhaps Linux users will have better luck getting the BIOS fan controller to work properly.

However, that doesn't excuse AOpen for choosing an active northbridge cooler in the first place. There is no shortage of other motherboards that use passive cooling on the i915Ga chipset, and all of AOpen's previous boards for the Pentium M have avoided the extra fan.

All in all, unless price is a huge issue (which it shouldn't be at US$200) or full ATX is a must, AOpen's other Pentium M-based offering will probably do better for a quiet home theater PC — or just a quiet PC in general.

PROS

* Supports Pentium M in a full ATX package
* Lots of video outputs
* Stock CPU heatsink is fairly quiet
* Integrated graphics supports dual monitors
CONS

* Noisy northbridge fan
* No external S/PDIF output
* No PS/2 port for mouse
* Misaligned PCIe 1x slot is useless
* BIOS fan controller doesn't play nicely with Windows XP
* No VCore control

Much thanks to AOpen for the opportunity to review this motherboard.

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