The Next Best HTPC Mobo?
A little over a year ago, we reviewed what I called The Best mATX Motherboard Ever. That was the Abit NF-M2 nView, which was based on the GeForce 6150 chipset (yeah it's confusing now - Nvidia has "MCPs" or "Media and Communications Processors" for their higher-end chipsets, and "mGPUs" or "Motherboard GPUs" for their more simple integrated-graphics motherboard chipsets). Until then, it was hard to find a decent all-in-one mATX solution. In the vast majority of cases, mATX motherboards = ghetto. With no need to put desirable features on a micro ATX motherboard, most of them are left unsuitable for those who want a lot of power in a smaller/quieter package.
In that review, I stated my basic needs for a mATX motherboard to be considered worthy of a good HTPC system:
-If using integrated video, it should have DVI output in addition to RGB
Now you could probably update that first requirement to include HDMI output. Really, the most important thing that is lost on most mATX boards is digital outputs and inputs on the rear panel. The NF-M2 nView had all that, and we loved it, giving it our coveted Editor's Choice Award.
It held up pretty well, as I have been using it on my HTPC ever since. The only issue I came up with is that the GeForce 6150 does not fully support PureVideo acceleration, so it was choking on interlaced 1080i MPEG-2 video sources. So I ended up installing an old GeForce 7600GT I had reviewed, and everything was fine.
I'm not sure why, but Abit discontinued the NF-M2 nView shortly after we reviewed it. No explanation was given, and it is odd that Abit discontinued such a great board.
However, Abit is back with a replacement to that great board. It features one of Nvidia's latest "mGPUs" that has full support of all PureVideoHD features. There are rumors that Abit is leaving the motherboard market, so it should be interesting to see if they go out with a bang or not...
As metnoned, the A-N78HD is a micro-ATX board using Nvidia's GeForce 8200 motherboard chipset. This chipset technically "supports DirectX 10 games" but as you will see later, it is absolutely not to be used for games at all. Instead, the focus is on PureVideoHD support, which will allow it to run ultra high bitrate video such as Blu-Ray discs, while using very little CPU power. This allows you to run a slower CPU, which in turn makes for a quieter, low-power Home Theatre PC. GeForce 8200 also adds two new features based on Nvidia's new Hybrid SLI Technology; Hybrid Power and GeForce Boost.
GeForce Boost is pretty much what it sounds like - add a discrete video card that uses a supported GPU, and it will work together with the integrated GPU on the motherboard in SLI mode. This is pretty much required to play any games on the GeForce 8200 chipset.
It sounds like a great feature, but unfortunately it is not very widely supported. Currently, only two Nvidia video cards will work in GeForce Boost mode - the GeForce 8500 GT and GeForce 8400 GS. Both are budget cards to say the least (in the $40-60 range), but Nvidia has a video on their site that shows Call of Duty 4 performance going from about 20 fps to around 40 fps using the same settings.
The question is, do you want to spend an extra $40-60 to get what is still pretty poor performance? A better choice might be to go with a higher end video card, and in that case you can make use of Hybrid Power.
To use Hybrid Power, you install one of the supported Nvidia graphics cards. Again, not that many cards are supported - basically all the latest high-end GeForce 98xx cards. If you are still using a quite-capable 8800 series, you cannot use Hybrid Power.
Hybrid Power basically works by switching from the onboard GPU to the discrete GPU, depending on whether you are playing a game or not. If you're not playing a game, the motherboard's GPU is used, and the video card is shut down. This potentially saves power consumption. Unfortunately we do not have any of the few video cards supported by these Hybrid SLI features, so we can't put them to the test.
Now let's have a look at the specs of this board. I am not going to simply cut and paste the text from the product page, but rather compile all the information and post it here using the same layout for all our motherboard reviews.
The A-N78HD takes over where the NF-M2 nView left off, so it has a very good feature set for a small motherboard. It fully supports AM2+ and Phenom, including HT 3.0 and DDR2 1066. Thanks to the GF8200 chipset, there is good RAID support, with 0/1/0+1/ and 5. Awkwardly, while there are six SATA ports, the last two can only be used in RAID mode.
Video output is handled well, with no less than three modes of support; VGA, DVI, and HDMI. Only one digital output can be used at once though, so multi-display users will have to use the VGA output with either DVI or HDMI, not both.
Unfortunately that brings us to the audio output, which is not handled well at all. Particularly digital audio. If you recall, my main beef with wannabe HTPC mATX motherboards is that most of them do not have digital audio out. The NF-M2 nView fixed that, and it earned an Editor's Choice Award partly because of that. Unfortunately, the A-N78HD takes three or four steps back, and gets rid of any sort of discrete digital output on the rear panel. Instead, they went back to offering a header onboard (so you know they could have supported it). If I was a consumer and not a reviewer, I would be saying things like "Abit is RETARDED for doing this". But let's not stoop to that.. Instead, I'll just say that Abit made a VERY poor decision in designing this board, and it will severely harm my final conclusion of it.
If you were to look at these BIOS specs, you would probably guess that this is not an Abit board at all. I mean, just look at the lack of frequency and voltage tweaks! That just goes to show that this board is meant to be run at stock speeds, in order to attain a stable, quiet system for HTPC use. Not being able to set a HT frequency will severely hamper overclocking efforts, that's for sure. The HT frequency can be changed in Windows using either Nvidia's performance tools, but as any overclocker knows, nothing beats OCing in the BIOS. Hopefully they add these with a later update.
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