Testing The E-Class: 9 Pentium 4 Motherboards With The 845E Chipset

AOpen AX4B Pro-533: Black Beauty

BIOS Version: 1.01 (June 6, 2002)

The Pro series from AOpen is characterized by its extensive hardware features. The AX5B Pro-533 is no exception, with six PCI slots, a CNR, an AGP 4x slot with card lock, three DIMM sockets and an ATA/133 Promise controller. We would have liked to have seen RAID functionality here, particularly since the chip needed (PDC20276) is pin-compatible with the ATA/133 controller.

Of course a network controller (Realtek RTL-8100BL) is also included. The board also sports a surround system based on a Realtek ALC650. Two internal ports are available to hook up a TV card or CD drive with the sound system.

AOpen has had two debug features in its arsenal for a while now - Dr. LED and Dr. Voice. The latter is nothing more than an extension of the BIOS POST codes. Instead of beeping, BIOS clearly describes the error using the on-board piezo speaker (e.g. "Check RAM") in either English, Chinese, Japanese or German. Dr. LED needs an additional module in the form of a 5.25" slide-in unit. Once connected to the motherboard, the Dr. LED module uses several LEDs to report on the system's current status - a useful, if fiddly, feature. Dr. Voice is a better pick.

Four ports can be activated in addition to the two USB ones. However, the board doesn't come packed with the adapter cables needed to do so. Instead, you get a whole slew of software of greater or lesser utility, such as Norton AntiVirus 2002, Norton Crash Guard, Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0, DocuCom Reader and AOConfig, a motherboard utility developed by AOpen. But since this last bit of software does about the same as shareware or freeware utilities, it doesn't really add any value.

One useful feature is the CD player that is integrated in BIOS. When you boot up, you just hit "Insert" ("Ins"), which takes you to a relatively peppy interface that allows you to play back audio CDs without the need to load the operating system. This is a nice feature for audiophiles. Too bad, though, that you can't play back MP3 files on CDs or DVDs.