The calm before the storm, we all felt it before the initial release of BX motherboards and we are feeling it yet again before the release of the second wave of BX based motherboards.  One of the companies that was late to releasing their BX motherboard was the highly acclaimed First International Computer (FIC), known for their excellent Socket-7 motherboards and more recently fairly decent Slot-1 boards. 

FIC's first entry into the BX market, the VB-601, is one of three BX motherboards AnandTech has reviewed so far which feature the rare 5/2/1 expansion slot configuration (5 PCI, 2 ISA, 1 AGP), but how well does the VB-601 stack up against its other two competitors? 


Anand Tech Report Card Rating
92/A-

Motherboard Specifications

CPU Interface Slot-1
Chipset Intel 440BX
L2 Cache N/A (on-chip)
Form Factor ATX
Bus Speeds 66 / 100 MHz
Clock Multipliers 3.5x - 5.0x
Voltages Supported 1.5v - 3.5v (Auto Detect)
Memory Slots 4 168pin DIMM Slots (EDO/SDRAM)
Expansion Slots 1 AGP Slot
5 PCI Slots
2 ISA Slots (1 Shared / 2 Full Length)
BIOS Award PnP BIOS

The Good

When it comes to quality, FIC knows how to make a motherboard, the tough construction of the VB-601 and the spacious layout of the board accommodating all 5 PCI, 2 ISA, 1 AGP slots, not to mention the 4 DIMM slots draw attention to the board's expandability features.  About the size of the ASUS P2B, the VB-601 will have no problem fitting in most ATX cases, and with the BX chipset placed in close proximity of the 4 DIMM slots (which happen to be placed flush against one another) an external DRAM data buffer isn't necessary as there will be very little loss of data integrity while making use of all 4 DIMM slots at once. 
On the opposite side of the BX chipset you will find 6 mid-sized capacitors, and a toroid (donut shaped objected with coiled wire - serves as an inductor, however produces less electromagnetic interference which can effect stability) separating two 3/4" voltage regulator heatsinks.

The VB-601's front panel block connector's pins are all bent away from the motherboard, as to offer easy access to them even in the most cramped quarters, although with a BX board of this size it is quite difficult to place it in what would become a stuffy area.  Like most newer motherboards, the VB-601 features a SB-Link connector which serves as an interface between your PCI SoundBlaster and your motherboard, allowing for it to be detected as a Legacy sound card by older DOS applications therefore maintaining backwards compatibility, a definite plus if you're looking for a PCI sound card.

FIC's User's Manual is pretty much standard, its strong points being the quality of the written material and the informative gray-scale pictures found in the manual.  The documentation is very easy to read and contains bolded/colorful topic headers, while that may not seem like much it will if you are a first time builder/upgrader, if you happen to be an expert in the area then you're better off tossing the manual aside and using the settings printed on the board itself. 

Surprisingly enough, FIC's newest Slot-1 motherboard takes a step back from its predecessors Jumperless CPU Setup making use of an 8-switch Dip Switch block located between the last DIMM slot and the Floppy Disk connector.  Once again, all of the bus speed/clock multiplier settings are well documented both in the manual and on the motherboard itself. 

The performance of the VB-601 is above that of the other motherboards in its class, however that isn't saying much considering all BX motherboards perform virtually identically to each other.  If you happen to be a big FIC fan then you won't be too saddened by the facets of the 601 that are about to be brought up, its rock solid stability, decent documentation and quality construction do make up for some of its faults. 

The Bad

There are no bus speeds higher than 100MHz found on the VB-601, which is unfortunate since it has already been proven that the 112MHz bus speed is well within our reach, and the 133MHz bus speed simply takes a little bit of work to achieve.  A jumperless setup on the 601 would have been a nice addition, especially since in order to set the dip switches that configure the clock multiplier/bus speed you probably need a tiny pen or screw driver to get at the flat switches themselves.   While both IDE connectors on the board are enclosed by a plastic casing, a fairly common feature on motherboards these days and a thoughtful addition on the part of the manufacturer, the FDD connector on the 601 is left completely open and its pins can be easily bent if you're not careful during the installation process.  It would have been nice for FIC to implement a Serial Presence Detect communication sequence into their boot process, unfortunately the VB-601 does NOT take advantage of SDRAM with on-board EPROM, forcing you to manually set the SDRAM CAS Latency Time in the BIOS Chipset Features Setup, frankly, I trust the hardware to know more about itself than I do about it. 

 


BIOS Settings

FIC VB-601 Chipset Features Setup

Item Recommended Settings
SDRAM 66/100MHz Bus Safe
SDRAM CAS Latency Time: 2 3
DRAM Data Integrity Mode: Non-ECC Non-ECC
System BIOS Cacheable: Enabled Disabled
Video BIOS Cacheable: Enabled Disabled
8 Bit I/O Recovery Time: 1 4
16 Bit I/O Recovery Time: 1 2
Memory Hole At 15M-16M: Disabled Disabled
Passive Release: Enabled Disabled
Delayed Transaction: Enabled Disabled
AGP Aperture Size (MB): 64 64

 


Recommended SDRAM

Recommended SDRAM: Corsair PC100 SDRAM; Memory Man PC100 SDRAM
SDRAM Tested: 1 x 64MB Corsair PC100 SDRAM; 1 x 64MB Memory-Man PC100 SDRAM

Manufacturer: Corsair Microsystems
Purchase Web-Site: http://www.nf-ny.com

Manufacturer: The Memory Man
Purchase Web-Site: http://www.memory-man.com

 


The Test

In recent times, choosing a motherboard cannot be completely determined by a Winstone score. Now, many boards come within one Winstone point of each other and therefore the need to benchmark boards against each other falls. Therefore you shouldn't base your decision entirely on the benchmarks you see here, but also on the technical features and advantages of this particular board, seeing as that will probably make the greatest difference in your overall experience.

How I Tested

  • Each benchmark was run a minimum of 2 times and a maximum of 5 times, if the motherboard failed to complete a single test within the 5 allocated test runs the OS/Software was re-installed on a freshly formatted Hard Drive and the BIOS settings were adjusted to prevent the test from failing again.  All such encounters were noted at the exact time of their occurrence.

  • Business Winstone 98 was run at each individually tested clock speed, if reliable scores were achieved with the first two test runs of the suite an average of the two was taken and recorded as the final score at that clock speed.  If the test system displayed erratic behavior while the tests were running or the results were incredibly low/high the tests were re-run up to 5 times and an average of all the test runs was taken and recorded at the final score at that clock speed

  • After each motherboard was tested a complete format of the test hard drive was initiated and the OS/benchmarking software was re-installed afterwards a defragment was initiated using Windows 95's Disk Defragmentation Utility

  • Tests using AGP Video cards were run under Winstone 97 and Winstone 98

  • No foreign drivers were present in the test system other than those required for the system to function to the best of its ability

  • All foreign installation files were moved to a separate partition during the test as to prevent them from effecting the test results

  • All tests were conducted at 800 x 600 x 256 colors

Test Configuration

Processor(s): Pentium II - 333 OEM
Pentium II - 400 OEM
RAM: 1 - 64MB Corsair PC100 SDRAM DIMM
1 - 64MB Memory Man PC100 SDRAM DIMM
Hard Drive(s): Western Digital Caviar AC21600H
Video Card(s): Matrox Millennium II (4MB WRAM - AGP)
Bus Master Drivers: Intel v3.01.01
Video Drivers: MGA Millennium 4.03.00.3410
Operation System(s): Windows 95 Service Release 2.1

 

Ziff Davis Winstone - Windows 95 Performance

Business Winstone 98 Business Winstone 97
Intel Pentium II Deschutes - 333 (66 x 5.0) 23.2 70.1
Intel Pentium II Deschutes - 350 (100 x 3.5) 23.8 71.7
Intel Pentium II Deschutes - 400 (100 x 4.0) 25.3 75.4

 


The Final Decision

For a FIC fan, the VB-601 is a decent motherboard, however it could use a few more features than what it was provided with.   An average BX board, hopefully we'll see a real killer in the next month or two from a company that has yet to step up...

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