It took over a year for the first non-Intel slot-1 chipset to hit the market, unfortunately the delay in VIA's release of the Apollo Pro chipset gave Intel the power to capture the majority of the mainboard industry with their more mature BX chipset.  Eventually, to encourage manufacturers to explore the possibilities the other slot-1 chipset held, VIA released an updated version of the Apollo Pro that was pin-compatible with the Intel BX, and called this solution the Apollo Pro Plus. 

Unfortunately there has been a lack of quality Apollo Pro Plus solutions on the market, making the solution even more handicapped in addition to its lack of a large presence in the industry.  The Apollo Pro Plus mainboard market is a unique one in that it has the potential to offer Intel some incredible competition, yet the solution has not been properly taken advantage of since it's debut.  With more and more manufacturers trying their hands at VIA's infant solution, it's good to see one of the big guns like AOpen support the other third party chipset manufacturers and do them justice with a well constructed board.  Imagine AOpen's killer AX6BC except based on the VIA Apollo Pro Plus chipset, and let's find out what the true limiting factor with the new AX63 is as AnandTech takes a look at one of AOpen's few non-Intel motherboards.

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Motherboard Specifications

CPU Interface Slot-1
Chipset VIA Apollo Pro Plus
L2 Cache N/A (on-chip)
Form Factor ATX
Bus Speeds 66 / 68 / 75 / 83
100 / 103 / 112 / 117 / 124 / 129
133 / 138 / 143 / 148 / 153
Clock Multipliers 1.5x - 8.0x
Voltages Supported 1.3v - 3.5v (Auto Detect)
Memory Slots 3 168pin DIMM Slots
Expansion Slots 1 AGP Slot
5 PCI Slots (5 Full Length)
2 ISA Slots (1 Shared / 1 Full Length)

The Good

The ease of integration the Apollo Pro Plus chipset provides manufacturers with allows them to produce designs similar to their Intel counterparts in a relatively easy fashion.  This is the explanation behind the AX63's similarities to AOpen's flagship AX6BC based on the Intel 440BX chipset. 

Just like the AX6BC...?

The board features the same 5/2/1 expansion slot configuration (PCI/ISA/AGP) that the earned the ABIT BH6 and AOpen AX6BC their popularity among newer users concerned with having room for the growing amount of PCI peripherals in today's systems.  To round things off, the 3 DIMM slots and the ATX power connector are placed in the same lower right hand corner that makes the case requirements for the AX63 as general as possible.

The layout of the rest of the AX63 is perfectly identical to that of the AX6BC, the majority of the empty space on the mainboard is taken up by capacitors that are strategically placed around components that are critical to stable operation of the motherboard.  A unique absence from the AX63, and all Apollo Pro Plus boards for that matter, is the green heatsink that made its way to the 440BX counterparts.  Other than that difference, there is no way you could tell the AX63 apart from the BX based AX6BC other than looking at the printed model number on the board.

As taken from the AX6BC Review on AnandTech, the setup and configuration of the AX63 is top-notch:

Accessing the jumpers and components on the AX63 is fairly simple, the jumperless CPU setup of the AX63 does contribute to its ease of installation, as the clock multipliers and front side bus settings are controlled entirely from within the Chipset Features Setup in the Award BIOS setup.  Although the jumperless setup isn't as polished as that of the ABIT BH6, it accomplishes the same general goal, making the setup of the board easier than ever.  The available clock multipliers on the AX63 range from 1.5x to 8.0x in order to support newer Celeron and Pentium III processors that require the increased clock multipliers, however the real "uniquity" the AX63 brings to the game is its 153MHz clock generator. 

This is a feature that will quickly spread to most other motherboards, and it was actually first discovered by AnandTech on a Shuttle motherboard, however AOpen implemented it on the AX63 and it does add a world of expandability to the realm of the overclocker.  Instead of offering the boring 100/103/112/124/133MHz FSB settings that most other motherboards offer, the inclusion of the 153MHz clock generator allows for the AX63 to support intermediate settings of 117MHz, 129MHz, 138MHz, 143MHz, 148MHz, and 153MHz.  For those of you wondering about the speed of the PCI bus at those frequencies, you have the option of running each one of those settings with either a PCI clock divider of 3 (FSB * 1/3 = PCI clock) or a divider of 4 (FSB * 1/4 = PCI clock) which makes overclocking using those settings much more "peripheral friendly."  Unfortunately, a limitation of the Apollo Pro Plus chipset is the derivation of its AGP clock, which is either a 1/1x the FSB frequency, or 2/3x the FSB frequency.  Since most AGP accelerators were never meant to be run at above 66MHz, bumping the FSB up to 153MHz and running an AGP accelerator at that speed would mean that your graphics card would be running at 100MHz, a full 50% out of the operating specification, sometimes resulting in severe damage to your hardware as was the case with a G200 board in the AnandTech test lab while experimenting with the 153MHz FSB setting on another AOpen board.  

AOpen allows the user to manually select the FSB setting regardless of the type of processor installed in the system, using a 6-pin jumper block that is adjacent to the last DIMM slot.  The board, by default, ships with the FSB selection set to auto, so if you're planning on overclocking you'll want to take a look at the jumper configuration. 

Just like the AX6BC, the AX63 made it all the way up to 143MHz using a PCI video card and one of the benefits of the Apollo Pro Plus chipset is the ability to run the memory bus at the frequency of the AGP bus, eliminating extremely high speed SDRAM as a requirement for the higher FSB settings.  The sweet spots with the AX63's FSB frequency range depends entirely on your hardware configuration, for those of you that can't seem to get 124MHz to work, 117MHz may be what you're looking for, and for those of you that can't get 133MHz to work reliably, there's always 129MHz.  Once again, the Apollo Pro Plus' flexible memory bus frequency comes in handy here as the AX63 makes your AGP card only real possible limitation the higher FSB settings impose on your system.  

Although overclocking has never been a supported practice from a manufacturer's perspective, AOpen dedicated an entire page to overclocking and their recommended settings in the comprehensive User's Guide that was packaged with the AX63.  The documentation bundled with the board is absolutely top-notch, as we've all come to expect from AOpen.  The quality of the AOpen User's Guide isn't as high as it could be in comparison to ABIT's "super manual" but it's definitely an improvement over some of the other creations it seems that manufacturers just throw together at the last minute.  To complete the package, AOpen includes their standard software bundle, which includes all of the latest driver files as well as a complementary copy of Norton AntiVirus for Windows 98. 

The performance of the AX63 is approximately equal to that of its BX counterpart, the AX6BC, however the Apollo Pro Plus does give the otherwise excellent creation from AOpen its own set of downsides...

The Bad & Features

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