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Asus M3A76-CM motherboard review

The Asus M3A76-CM is a decent yet mildly disappointing affair. A mATX offering, it can’t seem to decide whether to aim to please HTPC owners or overclockers, and pleases neither.

A fairly bare motherboard box
A fairly bare motherboard box

Notable features include:

  • Socket AM2+: Athlon, Phenom and Phenom II processor support
  • DDR2 1066 support (for two of the four channels)
  • Maximum of 8GB RAM supported
  • Onboard graphics (ATI HD3000) with Hybrid CrossFireX Support
  • Onboard sound
  • RAID support
  • HyperTransport 3.0
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • PCIe 2.0

A full list can be found on Asus’s website.

Processor and RAM

Apparently supports Phenom, Phenom II and Athlon processors. Mine is currently running with the AMD Athlon X2 7750+ Black Edition. As for RAM, it does support DDR 1066, but for only officially one DIMM on each channel, making a maximum of 4GB. You might get away with more, but it’s at your own risk. The memory can be run in Ganged or Unganged mode, the latter providing more performance, in theory, for multi-core processors. I’m running a Corsair 4GB kit of 2 x 2GB DDR2 1066MHz/PC2-8500 XMS2 with 5-5-5-15 timings at 2.1V. Crucial RAM should be good as well, though.

Also useful is the provision of AMD-V technology, which offers the potential for virtualisation. In other words, on Windows 7 Pro/Ultimate, you should able to run Windows XP Mode.

Chipset

The M3A76-CM uses the AMD 760G chipset and is coupled with the SB710 southbridge. This provides RAID facilities in the form of RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1, and JBOD arrangements. Note, however, that RAID 5 is not available – for that, you need to look at the SB750 or some other similar chipset.

Unfortunately, XP doesn’t like this RAID setup. I had massive issues trying to install Windows XP Professional SP3 on a RAID 0 array. Neither loading the necessary drivers from a floppy disk nor slipstreaming them worked. Setup would fail with the message: “Setup did not find any hard disk drives installed in your computer.” After a lot of head-bashing, I tried Windows 7 RC on the first day it was released. The RAID 0 array was picked up by Windows 7 straight away without any quibbles whatsoever. Thumbs up to 7 for its built-in support.

The 760G is a cut-down 780G: it lacks the high-definition hardware acceleration of the 780G. Seeing that one of the main aims of this board might be the HTPC market, this could be a deal-breaker. You really don’t want a CPU fan going at full whack during a quiet period of your latest Blu-ray acquisition. Budget for a decent quiet CPU fan such as the Scythe Ninja II (or its smaller brother, the Scythe Mini Ninja, more suitable for HTPCs) if you must buy this board.

The other main issue I have with the chipset is with its limited overclocking facilities. I understand that if this is not aimed at enthusiasts, there may be little point in releasing enthusiast options. However, in this case, the SB710 hardware would be able to support Advanced Clock Calibration (ACC), which has the potential to unlock disabled cores in Phenom X3 processors and even Athlon Black Editions…and what have Asus done? Not enabled it. If the hardware can support it, why not provide the BIOS option? It’s annoying. As of BIOS version 1001, no ACC option is available.

Onboard sound and graphics

Not much to say here. It features onboard video in the form of the ATI HD3000. Interestingly, it does allow Hybrid CrossFireX, which allows another compatible ATI card to be paired with the onboard graphics for supposedly better performance. Personally, without having tested it, I’d be concerned about memory bottlenecks; however, I’m not a gamer, and would be interested to hear if it does provide benefit.

On the plus side, the onboard DVI connection is HDCP compliant, so provided you’re running Vista or above, you should be able to play Blu-ray films with little problem.

Conclusion

The Asus M3A76-CM is a mixed bag. It provides a decent array of features, and is probably adequate for normal business use. Yet it has a below-average northbridge paired with an above-average southbridge. It ends up just being frustrating, though: it’s being held back by a string of underwhelming BIOSes that fail to make full use of the hardware. Asus need to realise that since it’s not quite good enough for the HTPC market, it should be made as palatable as possible to overclockers. And that means enabling ACC.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Firewall causes Rails update failure in NetBeans

If you are receiving the following error message when trying to update Rails in NetBeans 6.7:

ERROR: While executing gem … (Gem::RemoteFetcher::FetchError) SystemCallError: Unknown error – An established connection was aborted by the software in your host machine (http://gems.rubyforge.org/gems/actionmailer-2.3.3.gem)

…try momentarily disabling your firewall. In my case, Windows Firewall seemed to be torpedoing the process: after disabling it for a moment, the update went through perfectly.

Perhaps obvious, but also easily overlooked.

Credit: This post by “joseph george” reminded me to check the firewall settings.

Asus A8N-E nForce 4 Ultra RAID controller performance

With the recent HD video editing I’ve been doing, I’ve been on the performance hunt. My old Asus A8N-E setup had two Western Digital WD1200JS SATA II hard disk drives, in a RAID 0 configuration. I ran three tests, all straight after booting, and HDTach gave me these average readings:

Burst: 148.3 MB/s
Average read: 95.6 MB/s
Random access: 18.7s
CPU: 7%

This seemed low to me, considering that SATA II has a theoretical maximum of 3Gbps = 384 MB/s. I asked online about this but was told that this was normal.

I still wasn’t satisfied, though. I was suddenly struck by something I read – the Asus A8N-E has two onboard SATA controllers, one for ports 1 and 2, one for ports 3 and 4. Now both my hard drives were connected to SATA ports 1 and 2. What if I switched one drive to the other controller? I opened up the case and changed the configuration to use to ports 1 and 4. Restarted and ran HDTach, three times as before:

Burst: 276.6 MB/s
Average read: 106.0 MB/s
Random access: 18.7s
CPU: 5.3%

Yes, I couldn’t believe it either. Burst speed went up by over 83%! More importantly, the average read went up over 10% – a significant boost. CPU utilisation also appeared to decrease, but this could be normal variation.

So if you have an Asus A8N-E and want to optimise your RAID configuration – check your drives are making full use of both available controllers. Of course, usual caveats apply – make a backup, etc. RAID arrays have a nasty habit of exploding, slaying all.

NetBeans 4.1 with Windows 7 RC x64

Had some issues when I tried to install NetBeans 4.1 from the Open University CD-ROM, which is not surprising, considering its age and the determination of the Open University to keep on using legacy software.

First of all, the installer wouldn’t display correctly, with many graphical elements not appearing at all. Thanks to Simon over at abscforme.co.uk, I was able to get past this by forcing Windows 2000 compatibility mode.

Secondly, when going to File -> Open in NetBeans, Java crashed. This appeared to be a complete show-stopper. I even set up Windows XP Mode just to run it correctly. However, while I was doing that, I realised that the problem could lie with the Java Runtime: the Open University installer had installed the x86 version of the Java Runtime and the JDK. So I tried uninstalling the x86 versions and installing the Java SE Runtime Environment 5.0u19 and likewise the Java SE Development Kit 5.0u19 instead for Windows x64.

Upon installing NetBeans threw a paddy because it couldn’t find the JDK. I had to go to C:/Program Files (x86)/netbeans-4.1/etc/, set the permissions on the folder for Users to Write, and then edit the appropriate line in the netbeans.conf file to the following: netbeans_jdkhome=”C:\Program Files\Java\jdk1.5.0_19″. Then it was a case of putting the permissions on the folder back to as they were.

Upon restarting NetBeans, all seemed to be well…and so far, all is still well. As a bonus, using this version of the Java Runtime/JDK doesn’t force Windows 7 out of the Aero GUI. I’ll keep you posted if there are any further developments.

Having said all that, though…I really hope the Open University get a move on and switch to NetBeans 6.5 or later! It’s faintly ridiculous that courses that teach such a platform-independant technology as Java are so prescriptive of the platforms they will support.

Asus M3A76-CM doesn’t yet support ACC, despite its SB710 southbridge

It’s pretty annoying, but it appears that the Asus M3A76-CM motherboard doesn’t have an option in its BIOS to enable Advanced Clock Calibration. This is despite its southbridge supposedly supporting ACC.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, it isn’t for the average user, but if you’re an enthusiast and happen to have a dual-core CPU like the AMD Athlon X2 7750+ Black Edition, it certainly is. This CPU actually has two extra disabled cores, that have reputedly been enabled by flicking ACC on. You can imagine how useful this is if you happen to edit high-definition video, for example!

If anyone from Asus happens to be reading – small chance, I know – please do introduce this feature to the board in a BIOS update, if possible. I would imagine it would certainly boost the board’s popularity.