August 14, 2001

Review: Soyo K7VDRAGON motherboard

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -
Calling this board the DRAGON is not merely Soyo's attempt to give a cool name to a motherboard, but is actually an acronym for DDR SDRAM, RAID controller on board, Audio on board, Graphics (representing the AGP Pro slot), Overclocking and Networking -- all of the features offered with this board. Read on to find out if this board lives up to its name.The board and expansion
I'm not really a fan of integrated boards -- either there's too much integration, such as with Tyan Thunder boards, or they have very basic features such as AC97 audio, which is one of the first things I turn off. I can't really recall any integrated board that ever fit all of my needs -- until now, that is. The Soyo K7VDRAGON has hit the integration sweet spot. The board features integrated digital audio, IDE-RAID, networking, and overclocking, not to mention a non-essential but stylish design with plenty of visual appeal. Check out the Dragon in action.

PCI expansion on the Dragon doesn't stand out from the crowd, featuring five PCI slots, the same configuration for newer Athlon-based boards. AGP capabilities are represented by the AGP Pro slot, allowing the motherboard to deliver all the power needed for AGP Pro. While not as fast as AGP, AGP Pro provides more electricity for power-hungry video boards. In addition to the two standard ATA 100 ports supported by the VIA KT266 chipset, a pair of additional ports powered by the Promise PDC20265R IDE/IDE-RAID controller allow up to eight IDE devices to be installed on the board at once. I imagine this should be plenty for most users.

As for external expansion, the Dragon has some standard connectors on the ATX IO panel -- two USB ports, two serial ports, one parallel port, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, and the connections for the integrated sound. In fact, the only unusual feature on the IO panel is the integrated NIC connector, located just above the USB ports. The board differs from some boards in a couple of other places, however. The Dragon supports a total of six USB ports, including the two on the IO panel, allowing you to make use of front-facing USB connectors popular in new computer systems, as well as add more USB ports in the back. This is a nice feature to have, as USB devices continue to replace older peripherals (this is coming from someone who still types on an IBM Model M). The other unusual external connection is the Digital Audio daughterboard, which has the extra outputs needed by the onboard sound.

Layout and design
The layout of the Dragon isn't as crowded as it sounds, despite all those integrated components. There are a few problems, however: If you plan to make use of the second IDE controller and full-length PCI cards, you can almost certainly count on being able to use only two of the five available slots; the other three will be blocked by the IDE cables. To test this I installed an Adaptec 3200S (picture), quite a long card, and two IDE cables. The cables had to run to the right, and then to their destination, in order to get there, reducing cable length a couple of inches, but otherwise not impairing function. Not too many people have more than one long PCI card, so using the last two shots should solve this. The other possible problems are the distance of the ATX power connector from the top of the board -- large heatsinks could get in the way of the cable.

The next problem, and somewhat more serious, is the placement of a capacitor between the CPU socket and the DDR SDRAM slots. This capacitor can and will block larger heatsinks, but average heatsinks like my Taisol cooler or the Dragon Orb 3 shouldn't experience any problems. Speaking of heatsinks, my one minor problem with the design is that the heatsink does not have thermal grease between it and the chipset. Soyo includes a packet of thermal grease with this board, so I would suggest that be the first place you put it, overclocker or not; the thermal grease has no downsides and helps keep your chipset cool. Due to the placement of the capacitors, the CPU lever can be difficult to use. Tread with care; damage one capacitor, and you will ruin the board.

As for the appearance of the board, Soyo has clearly decided to push this board to the overclocking, case-modifying type of user -- and I have to say, did a good job. With a black PCB and the dark purple PCI slots, Soyo has created a motherboard that is not only completely functional, but as stylish as a motherboard can be.

Documentation and configuration
Soyo documentation has always been slightly lacking, normally a mere 20-page booklet with very basic information on the hardware. The Dragon's documentation is a completely different story, with 200 pages almost evenly divided between technical information on the board itself and the other peripherals, such is the onboard sound and IDE-RAID. The documentation is both thorough and well written, and covers everything in detail, including the BIOS settings. All of this is a real improvement for Soyo, and I hope this is not merely a special case. All motherboard makers should strive to make documentation that is this good.

Configuration of the board is well covered in the manual. One setting I'd suggest while you are configuring is to set the performance to "maximum." Doing this increases performance quite a bit and I didn't encounter any stability problems while using this setting.

Onboard Devices
Promise IDE/IDE-RAID Controller
The Promise controller on the board is labeled PDC20265R. This controller provides either IDE-RAID or normal IDE functions depending on which setting the IDE-RAID jumper is set to. In testing the IDE-RAID under Linux 2.4.7, I found that Linux could not properly address RAID arrays created with it, which is somewhat of a disappointment, but the IDE controller itself functions perfectly under Linux, allowing you for double the number of IDE drives of a normal board.

Cmedia CMI8738 Onboard Audio
Calling the CMI8738 simply "onboard sound" seems unfair; that's like putting it in the same league with AC97 generic audio. For onboard sound, the Cmedia on this board is nothing short of exceptional. The most exciting feature for me was the Optical Digital output on the Cmedia daughtercard, delivering optical digital out and in and SPDIF out and in, as well center/sub and rear analog outputs. Optical and SPDIF outputs allow for output to home theater systems or devices with digital inputs.

Optical output really excited me because I have a home theater setup, and the optical digital output lets me output from my PC to my HT receiver without the problems of interference I have always had. Optical cables use light to transmit data, so as long as they are not badly bent or kinked, they will deliver a perfect digital signal. The only thing this lacks is Dolby Digital 5.1 output -- optical output is limited to stereo output, though it is the best stereo output I have heard from a PC. Perhaps in future Cmedia chipsets, we'll see Dolby Digital encoding for 5.1 signals from a PC to a home theater, but for now the Cmedia is excellent, it has features you might expect on a much higher-costing board. For Linux support, there is support in the kernel, and Cmedia actively supports its products under Linux.

VIA Rhine 10/100 Onboard Ethernet
Onboard ethernet is something that, like audio, I expect to become commonplace on motherboards. This is mostly due to the proliferation of broadband Internet access methods, such as cable or DSL, that use the standard ethernet connection to provide their connections. The onboard VIA Rhine ethernet was supported by Mandrake 8, and is supported in 2.4.7 as well, functioning fine under both.

Overclocking
While I don't overclock my systems, I have read a number of success stories of overclocking the Dragon, with a few known problems. First, once you get above 145MHz or so on the system bus, USB on the board stops functioning. Soyo will be addressing this in a BIOS update in the next several weeks. Next is a problem with the CPU voltage adjustment; any voltage adjustments greater than +.100 volts will revert back to the default voltage, another problem being fixed in the BIOS.

The last issue with overclocking is a physical one, and was mentioned above -- there is no thermal grease between the heatsink and the chipset on this board, so I would advise anyone, overclocker or otherwise, to use the included packet of thermal grease between the chipset and the heatsink. The actual overclocking features on this board are excellent, allowing for 1MHz increments in front side bus speed, and control of the CPU voltage.

Once Soyo works out these few issues, I would suspect this will be an excellent overclocking board, as of now, it is a very good one -- the BIOS update should make it great. The highest I got, with no special cooling, was 1523 MHz, completely stable, and with some minor effort, I suspect it could go a good bit higher.

Performance
System Specifications
Athlon 1.4GHz (266FSB)
256 Megs PC2100 DDR SDRAM from Crucial.com
Western Digital 7200 RPM 10.2 gig hard drive
3Com 3C905TX-C 10/100 NIC (PCI)
400 Watt Future Power ATX 2.03 Power Supply
Gigabyte GV-GF3000 GeForce3

Mandrake 8.0 with Kernel 2.4.3-mdk or custom 2.4.7 (used for sound testing)

Results labeled "maximum" are using the maximum performance setting in the BIOS under Soyo Combo Setup. The result of 1523MHz is a 1400MHz Athlon at 145 x 10.5, default voltage, with maximum performance enabled.

Kernel compiles
In order to test both the board's stability and speed, I ran three sets of Linux kernel compiles on this board. One is a normal, "uniprocessor" make, or make -j1, which is the default. This uses one process, and does not always maximize system usage. I then did make -j2, which spawns a second process. The last test I run is with make -j3, spawning two extra processes. I do this for several reasons -- to find the "sweet spot" for the board/CPU, as well as to stress the system as much as possible when trying to rate its stability. Also, the kernel is extremely useful as a measure of integer performance. The kernel is compiled with all "default" settings.

Kernel 2.4.6 Compile Times (Minutes:Seconds)
Board -j1 -j2 -j3
Soyo DRAGON 4:35 4:31 4:30
Soyo DRAGON - Maximum 4:28 4:21 4:21
Soyo DRAGON - 1523MHz 4:02 4:03 4:02
Gigabyte 7DXR 4:29 4:20 4:21

Here we see several things. First of all, the "maximum performance" setting does indeed make a large difference -- decreasing a kernel compile by as much as 10 seconds. Also, we see just what kind of numbers you stand to gain from overclocking, and this overclock was done with no special cooling -- its as easy as changing a setting in the BIOS. Also, once the maximum performance setting is turned on, the board easily holds its own against the 7DXR.

POVRay Benchmarks
POVRay is a multi-platform raytracing program. It is a floating point-intensive task and serves well to help measure the floating point performance of a CPU. For more information on this benchmark, head to the official POVBENCH homepage. The command to run for this benchmark, once you obtain POVRay, you run povray -i skyvase.pov +v1 +ft -x +mb25 +a0.300 +j1.000 +r3 -q9 -w640 -H480 -S1 -E480 -k0.000 -mv2.0 +b1000 from the command prompt. Results are in seconds.

POVRay
Board Result
Soyo DRAGON 15 seconds
Soyo DRAGON - Maximum 15 seconds
Soyo DRAGON - 1523MHz 14 seconds
Gigabyte 7DXR 17 seconds

Again, we find the Dragon holding its own easily. The maximum settings have little effect on POVray because that setting mostly deals with RAM timings.

Quake 3 Arena Timedemos (Frames Per Second)
Board 640x480 800x600 1024x768 1200x1024 1600x1200
Default Quality
Soyo DRAGON 174.8 174.2 165.9 124.6 90.3
Soyo DRAGON - Maximum 186.5 185.0 172.4 125.9 90.7
Soyo DRAGON - 1523MHz 199.9 198.4 179.9 125.3 90.3
Gigabyte 7DXR 183.6 182.6 172.8 126.1 90.7
Highest Quality
Soyo DRAGON 173.9 172.2 143.6 97.3 71.4
Soyo DRAGON - Maximum 184.1 179.1 145.6 97.9 71.6
Soyo DRAGON - 1523MHz 198.5 190.4 146.2 97.5 71.3
Gigabyte 7DXR 183.2 179.0 146.1 98.0 71.4

We find that with the maximum performance setting the Soyo easily holds its own. We also find what exactly you gain from overclocking. In the case of Quake 3, you gain a lot in the high resolutions, but very little, if anything at all, in the higher resolutions where the graphics card, even a GeForce3, is limited.

bonnie++ results
Bonnie++ is a hard drive benchmark that tests the writing and reading
from both a single large file (such as that of a database) and many small files (like a proxy, or mail program). It is
useful for simulating performance under such applications.

Bonnie++ results
Sequential Output
Controller Per-Character Block Rewrite
Soyo DRAGON 15446 K/sec, 97% CPU 28800 K/sec, 21% CPU 7180 K/sec, 4% CPU
Gigabyte 7DXR 8608 K/sec, 57% CPU 20787 K/sec, 20% CPU 5168 K/sec, 4% CPU
Sequential Input Random
Controller Per-Character Block Random
Soyo DRAGON 10504 K/sec, 58% CPU 21853 K/sec, 9% CPU 165.7 Seeks/sec, 0% CPU
Gigabyte 7DXR 11187 K/sec, 61% CPU 21949 K/sec, 14% CPU 111.2 Seeks/sec, 0% CPU
Sequential Create
Controller Create Read Delete
Soyo DRAGON 18025 /sec, 96% CPU none 24256 /sec, 100% CPU
Gigabyte 7DXR 18752 /sec, 99% CPU none 22857 /sec, 100% CPU
Random Create
Controller Create Read Delete
Soyo DRAGON 19164 /sec, 97% CPU none 15439/sec, 77% CPU
Gigabyte 7DXR 15559 /sec, 86% CPU none 19043/sec, 99% CPU

Here we see the Dragon performing well, and neither board seems to be a clear "winner" -- both boards do equally well.

HDParm
HDparm tests the maximum data transfer rate of a hard drive in using two methods, uncached (but buffered still by the hard drives on board buffer) and cached (buffered by the drive and cached via the operating system cache). While the uncached test should not vary between different controllers that support up to the drive's ATA-version (such at ATA-66, which is what this drive uses), the cached test varies between boards because it is essentially a test of the CPU, cache and RAM on a system. This is what makes it interesting in this case -- it can help showcase the memory performance of these two boards.

hdparm -t (Uncached) Results
Soyo Dragon 23.70 MB/sec
Gigabyte 7DXR 23.88 MB/sec
hdparm -T (Cached) Results
Soyo Dragon 209.84 MB/sec
Gigabyte 7DXR 220.69 MB/sec

Again, no clear winner here, both are good performers, with the Gigabyte's theoretical maximum (if all conditions are optimal) being 220.69MB/second, 10 megabytes a second greater than the Dragon's.

Conclusion
The Soyo Dragon is on the most impressive motherboards I have used to date. Rarely does a motherboard impress me as this one has. Soyo has combined excellent documentation, easy setup, a good design, stability and excellent features into a very affordable motherboard. Not only that, but all the components work wonderfully under Linux, except the IDE-RAID controller in RAID mode, and that is a driver issue.

This is the first truly excellent Socket A motherboard I have seen. If you are planning on buying a Socket A board, I definitely recommend the Dragon; it looks good, its stable, it can be overclocked, and it has plenty of features. The SY-K7VDragon is available for $159 from SpecialtyTech.

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