Review: SilentTEK - AOpen's mobo-embedded fan controller

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Dec 29, 2002 -- by Mike Chin

Product AOpen SilentBIOS / SilentTEK in AX4GE Max P4-478 motherboard
Manufacturer AOpen
MSP "Free" - Feature is embedded in a large number of AOpen motherboards released since November 2002

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find meaningful differences in PC hardware products. Take motherboards, for example, which are grist for the daily mill of PC hardware review web sites. Given the latest and greatest chipset release from Intel or VIA or SiS or..., the various competitors quickly trot up an enormous array of motherboards that appear to deviate from the reference product only by its heatsink and the color of its printed circuit board! The buyers are expected to choose, then, on the basis of packaging, brand, and features.

A comparison review of 13 new 845GE motherboards by Tom's Hardware Guide earlier this month showed once again that performance differences between first and last in a group of same-chipset motherboards is tiny -- no more than 4%, in this case, but for one underachiever. You can measure the differences but it is almost impossible to perceive in actual use.

Perhaps this sameness beneath the skin is a testament to rapid development cycles in the industry. Manufacturers no longer feel they have the luxury or time to fine-tune the latest components because their competitors would use that time to clean up in the marketplace. No one can afford to wait. So rather than offer superior execution, parity in performance is offered -- along with more bells and whistles in features to persuade the buyer.

So which features? The answer seems to be expanding, as usual. In the battle for features, the inclusions on motherboards are staggering, even compared to just a scant year or two ago. A quick visit to any major motherboard maker's product pages will have you reeling...

Support for 533Mhz FSB, DDR400 memory, ATA133 IDE, Serial ATA on-board, Hyper-Threading Technology, High-end Audio Grade Capacitors, CPU Jumper-less Design, 1MHz Stepping CPU Overclocking, Adjustable CPU Vcore, AGP and Memory Voltage, Low ESR Capacitors, Watch Dog Timer, AGP Protection Technology, CPU Over Current Protection (OCP), Hardware Monitoring, IDE RAID,100/1000 Mbps PCI LAN Chip, 5,1 Channel Sound built in, etc, etc...

And that is just a very small sampling, of course.

When it comes to the killer motherboard feature of the season, however, it is none of the above. For those who try to achieve the quiet PC operation that most of the industry still seems to consider irrelevant or unprofitable, the killer motherboard feature of the season was just launched in November by AOpen on 140(!!) of its motherboards: SilentBIOS and SilentTEK. There was barely a murmur of acknowledgment by the technology press other than SPCR's own coverage of their press release.

AOpen's Killer Motherboard Feature

SilentBIOS/TEK is a sophisticated thermal-noise fan management system. The system allows the user to establish a feedback loop between CPU temperature, as reported by the CPU core thermal diode, and the voltage that controls the speed of the cooling fan(s). The incorporation of CPU thermal diode reporting of temperature gives the system a high degree of consistency and accuracy.

This feedback control loop can be defined with precision. SilentBIOS is embedded in the motherboard, accessed via the BIOS, and its control extended into all recent flavors of Windows through a software utility called SilentTEK. According to AOpen,

The fan control function is based on the motherboard's Super I/O signal. The Super I/O (in the AOpen AX4GE Max motherboard, this is Winbond W83627HF) reports the CPU temperature and fan speed. The fan speed is controlled by using an onboard IC. So the Silent Tek/Bios is almost completely software-based, which makes the processing more flexible.

AOpen has catapulted PC thermal / noise management to a level that has hardly been imagined by even silent PC diehards in SPCR's own forums. With one of these new AOpen motherboards, gone is the need for any external fan controllers, fan bays, system monitors or general purpose thermal speed fans. Whether conventional air-cooling or water cooling is utilized, maintaining the balance between cooling and noise can be neatly carried out by SilentBIOS/TEK. Their implementation of embedded thermal / noise control is so far in advance of the competition that AOpen looks like a warrior wielding a sword of steel against contestants armed only with sticks.

This is not to say that SilentBIOS/TEK is without deficiencies. It is the first iteration of a software utility; it almost goes without saying that flaws and inconsistencies are part of the current package. One can expect these problems to be improved in future patches or releases. For the time being, however, AOpen has no serious competition in an embedded motherboard thermal-noise solution.

The AOpen AX4GE Max

AX4GE Max: One of at least 140 AOpen motherboards now equipped with SilentBIOS/TEK

SilentBIOS/TEK was examined as implemented on a new AX4GE Max motherboard sample for P4-478 submitted by AOpen. One of the models that fared well in the aforementioned Tom's Hardware review, AX4GE Max is an extremely well-equipped new motherboard based on the recent Intel 845GE chipset. The board's long roster of features is fully detailed on AOpen's web pages. In terms of suitability for testing, the unit's independent settings for FSB, AGP/ PCI and CPU speeds, plus CPU Vcore from 1.1 to 1.925 volts are very useful.

The BIOS-implemented SilentBIOS basically provides a simple speed control for two fans that applies regardless of the OS in the system. SilentBIOS may be the prerequisite for the Windows-based SilentTEK, which adds a plethora of noise / thermal control functionality. Fan control passes from SilentBIOS to SilentTEK when the latter is turned on.

The test PC assembled for this review is described in full below:

Intel P4-1.8A CPU Rated at ~50W max. at stock. Overclocked to 133 MHz FSB for 2.4 GHz CPU speed with Vcore raised 0.1V to 1.6V.
AOpen AX4GE Max motherboard Built-in VGA and LAN used.
BIOS version R1.05c Beta, 2002/12/02
SilentTEK Version 3.1.00
Thermalright AX478 HS Very good P4 heatsink
256 MB DDR RAM Samsung 2100
Seagate Barracuda IV 40G Single-platter, 12.8W max
Hitachi 16X DVD ROM Detailed specs unknown
Antec Sonata case + True 380S PSU Recently reviewed case and PSU

Large variety of mostly 3-lead 80-120mm fans

OS Windows XP Pro, SP1

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