AOpen MX3W and ASUS CUWE-RM microATX motherboardsReview date: 18 April 2000.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Wow. Integrated, all-in-one PC motherboards that actually work. Will wonders never cease?
AOpen's MX3W Pro and ASUS' CUWE-RM are both small, simple mainboards that let you build a PC that might not need any extra cards at all, depending on what you want it to do. At $AU255, the MX3W Pro's not bad value for what you get; the ASUS board'll set you back more like $AU290. They're both more expensive than an Intel board like the CA810, which retails for $AU230 and uses the same basic chipset - are they worth it?
The Intel i810 and i810E chipsets are about as exciting, to hard-core hardware aficionados, as a very dull thing that's decided to have a little snooze. But they do let you build computers with more than acceptable performance, simply and cheaply.
The only standard built-in component for all 810-based boards is the graphics adaptor. Which is not up to the standard of a $150 stand-alone graphics card, but which is far better than the questionable video hardware that came on lots of other integrated motherboards.
An 810 board has 2D video output quite good enough for pretty much any application - high resolutions, high refresh rates, no problem. And the built-in adaptor gives a reasonable account of itself for 3D games, too; as long as you're happy to stick with 640 by 480 or 800 by 600 mode in 16 bit colour, an 810 board with an inexpensive Celeron on it won't spoil your gaming high too badly.
Both of these boards also have sound built in, with the usual line in, line out and microphone connectors, and a joystick/MIDI port.
If you want to put a lot of extra gear into your computer, don't start with a little microATX motherboard like either of these. They've each got only three PCI slots, and no ISA slots for older hardware.(The RM variant of the CUWE board is the microATX version. ASUS also make a plain ATX form factor "CUWE" , which has six PCI slots and an ISA one, plus an optional built-in network adaptor. If three slots is just too many for you, try the CUWE-FX and CUW-FX boards, which use the even-tinier-than-microATX FlexATX form factor. They each have a princely one PCI slot.)
Mind you, you do get two perfectly good Ultra ATA/66 compatible IDE connectors on each board, so you can have up to four cutting-edge IDE drives, as long as you're not using a teeny microATX case without enough room to physically hold them.
Each board comes with an 80 wire Ultra ATA/66 cable; if you use an older 40 wire IDE cable with Ultra ATA/66 hardware, you'll only get the slower Ultra ATA/33 mode. Which is not much slower, by the way - the 66 megabyte bandwidth of the faster mode isn't going to be more than half filled by any two current hard drives for any sort of sustained transfer. But the better burst transfer speed does make a difference, so you might as well take advantage of it.
The AOpen board has only two RAM slots. It supports up to 512 megabytes of memory, if you can lay your hands on 256Mb RAM modules. But with only two slots it may be a pain if you've got some lower-capacity RAM modules already sitting around; good luck trading them in.
The CUWE-RM, on the other hand, has three RAM slots, and the same 512Mb limit. It only supports up to four "sides" of memory, so if you've installed two double-sided modules, the third slot has to be left empty. But upgraders may still find a use for the extra slot.
Both boards also have an Intel AMR (Audio Modem Riser) slot, into which can be plugged inexpensive sound and/or modem hardware. But, probably, not by you.
Until recently, it seemed to be impossible for ordinary humans, as opposed to systems integrators, to buy anything at all that plugged into an AMR slot. Now Australian buyers at least can get hold of AMR modems (Aus PC Market, who provided the review boards, have them for $AU40); availability in other countries depends on telecommunications authority approval and the whims of distributors.
The AMR slot doesn't do any harm just sitting there with nothing plugged into it, mind you, but don't think it's a selling point. At most, it just lets you save a few bucks on a modem, and keep a PCI slot or serial port free.
Quite a few current big-name machines have sound and modem and joystick connections all sitting on an AMR board. On an 810 board with built in sound and game port connectors, of course, the AMR slot is only useful for a modem. All such modems are "host-based" units that use the CPU to do the hard work. This isn't such a big deal performance-wise, but few-to-no host-based modems work with any operating system but Microsoft Windows, and many of them have compatibility issues with some other modems.
So, frankly, if I need to add a modem to an 810-based system, I'll get a good old fashioned external serial one, which will only cost about $AU80 more than the little AMR internal one. It's not as if you're likely to have more than one other serial device you'll need to plug in. If you can't get AMR modems where you are, that doesn't mean you're missing much.
Incidentally, the Intel CA810 has no AMR slot, but four PCI slots. Which strikes me as a better deal.
810 and 810E boards all work only with Socket 370 processors - the simple square ones, as opposed to the big oblong cartridge that is the older Slot 1 processor package. There's quite a selection of Socket 370 CPUs, now, and you can plug all that have come out so far into an 810 board.
The original i810 chipset was a Celeron-only deal, because it only supported the 66MHz Front Side Bus (FSB) speed. Current 810 and 810E boards still support all models of Celeron (including the new, speedier ones, based on the Pentium III core, which have speed ratings from 566MHz upwards). And they support Socket 370 Pentium IIIs, too.
The 810E supports the 133MHz FSB speed, so it'll work with future Socket 370 P-IIIs that use this speed; the only ones on the market so far, though, use the slower 100MHz FSB.
The MX3W Pro's an 810 board, without the 133MHz support; the CUWE-RM's an 810E board, so it'll work with the processors that don't quite exist yet.
The $AU230 CA810 is a 100MHz-only board, like the MX3W Pro.
Fancy CPU support is pretty much a moot point, though, because there's not a lot of reason for most people to put anything but a Celeron in an 810-based machine. The faster Celerons are quite speedy enough for business computing, Web browsing and even the modest-speed 3D gaming that's all you're going to wring out of the 810's video hardware; there's just not a lot of point paying for a more expensive CPU.
VIA Cyrix's inventively named "III" processor, by the way, is a Socket 370 jobbie, and should work fine on these boards too. The III hasn't made it to Australia yet, and from reports so far doesn't look as if it's worth holding your breath for. If you're assembling a ton of systems, the low unit price of the VIA Cyrix III might make it a worthwhile proposition, but its performance figures are unexciting.
If you want a bit more speed out of a cheapo processor, though, there's always overclocking.
Overclocking ain't something you're meant to be able to do on friendly little all-in-one boards. It's running processors faster than their rated speed. It's practically always done to get better performance in the most demanding applications ever run by most PCs. Namely, games. And it's a common feature on boards from Taiwanese manufacturers like AOpen and ASUS. But not business box boards like these ones.
Most 810 boards are plug-and-go units, with no manual CPU setup. This is fair enough; they're meant to go into meat-and-potatoes business and home computers, not be turned into fire-breathing overclocked monster-boxes. Most people, and certainly most businesses, don't want to fool around with their CPU speed, and possibly lose reliability.
With no AGP slot and unexciting performance from the on-board graphics adaptor, an 810 isn't the right starting point for a turbo games machine, anyway. And gamers are the major market for overclockable motherboards.
But both of these boards allow you to run the CPU faster than stock, by manually adjusting the Front Side Bus (FSB) speed. You can also change the CPU multiplier setting, but that's useless for any meant-to-be-sold Socket 370 processor Intel's ever made. Only a few special sample processors have an "unlocked" multiplier, allowing the CPU core to run at various different multiples of the FSB speed; all ordinary Intel CPUs for some time now have a locked multiplier, stuck on one setting. So the only way to set a faster processor speed is by changing the FSB, and multiplier settings have no effect.
Both of these boards have simple, easy to use software CPU speed setting, from the BIOS config program. You don't need to fiddle with jumpers or switches - although the ASUS board also has rudimentary hardware setup, to lock out curious users.
The AOpen board offers a smooth selection of 25 FSB speeds from 66.6 to 166MHz, with the only real gap being between 80 and 95MHz. This could be a tad inconvenient for Celeron overclockers. With the Celeron's 66MHz default FSB, 80MHz is a 20% overclock, and is quite likely to be successful. 95MHz is a more-than-40% overclock, and is likely to be too much for late model P-II based Celerons, which have big multipliers to achieve their high core speeds.
Mind you, 95MHz or even higher seems, on early reports, quite likely to work just fine with the latest P-III based Celerons.
The ASUS board has a more useful selection of sub-100MHz FSB speeds.
The MX3W doesn't let you change the CPU core voltage, so extreme overclockers won't be able to goose up the supply to get a balky CPU running reliably at a higher speed. Increasing the voltage can greatly increase the heat output of the CPU, but Intel's FC-PGA processors (the Socket 370 P-IIIs and faster-than-533MHz Celerons) run pleasingly cool even after their voltage has been increased.
The ASUS board lets you twiddle the core voltage to your heart's content.
How useful all this is is, of course, debatable. But if you're building a basic home PC, the ASUS board in particular gives you a friendly introduction to the dark art of hot-rodding your PC. Even if you just wind your 66MHz FSB Celeron up to 75MHz - which is practically guaranteed to work perfectly, with zero reliability loss - that's more than 10% more CPU power, for free.
The MX3W PRO comes with a slim 16 page manual. As is becoming usual, its full manual is on an accompanying CD in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format.
Now, this is all very well for studly hardware review types like me who can barely get into their houses for computers. But it's no use for people with a pile of boxes on their living room table which, they hope, will soon become a PC. Until it's built, they can't read the manual; this can cause a certain amount of awkwardness, if they need to read the manual to build it.
Fortunately, the AOpen mini-manual clearly shows the location and meaning of all of the connectors, so anyone with any experience at all of basic computer-building (it's not hard - see my still quite current tutorial here) shouldn't have any real difficulties. The manual text is slightly Chinglish, but it's comprehensible, and tells you handy things like what to do when your earlier-edition Win95/98 doesn't know about the 810 chipset.
In case the dog eats your install CD, you can also download the MX3W PRO manual, and various others, from here.
The ASUS motherboard, on the other hand, comes with one of ASUS' typically comprehensive and comprehensible manuals. There's an on-disc manual as well, but you're not likely to need it.
ASUS have a manuals-download page too, here. It's nice to be able to get the latest version of the manual, to cover new features in the latest BIOS updates and previous errata.
Neither of these boards is much of a bargain - for once, the brand-name Intel alternative, the CA810, is substantially cheaper. The CA810 is much like the AOpen board; plain 810 chipset, two memory slots. It can't be overclocked, but that's not much of a selling point.
The CUWE-RM is a strange hybrid; it's half i810E baby-board, half ASUS overclocker's special. This may account for its steep-ish price, but it doesn't make it a terribly attractive product, really. $AU290's not an outrageous price for an 810E board with these features, but most people would be just as well off with the lower-spec $AU230 Intel alternative.
Overclocking is, overwhelmingly, a thing that fanatical game players do. And fanatical game players are not big fans of the low-graphics-performance i810.
Then again, if you find yourself using a PC based on either of these boards, you won't have any complaints about its basic performance. And you may find you can wring rather a lot more out of it.