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GIGABYTE X58A-OC LGA1366 Motherboard Review

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MAC

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It has been about 5 years since motherboard manufacturers started taking overclocking seriously, and during that time there have been numerous motherboards marketed towards the overclocking community. However, up until recently, most of those motherboards were either superficial efforts at best or were very clearly attempting to target two very different groups at the same time, namely gamers and overclockers. This latter approach was problematic since both groups have distinct and diverging requirements when it comes to a motherboard, and as the expression goes, never the twain shall meet.

With this in mind, GIGABYTE set out to build the very first purely overclocking-oriented motherboard. The über high-end X58A-UD9 has been a very 3D benchmarking-focused model, and a good learning experience for the company, but at $700 it was price prohibitive for all but the most well-heeled or well-sponsored overclockers. It was also a very fully featured model, so the next step was obviously to start cutting away the fat. With their in-house overclocker 'Hicookie' in charge of the project, this new model would feature the highest quality PWN components, have no unneeded features, and also be more reasonably priced.

However, the challenge was to design a motherboard that met all the needs of hardcore overclockers but that was also financially viable. From a purely engineering standpoint, building a barren no-nonsense benchmarking-only motherboard would have been easy, but it would have completely alienated retail consumers. Even if John Q. Public has no business buying a product like the X58A-OC, the marketing department still views him as essential to the success of such a motherboard, and thus pushed hard for certain features to be added. As a result, the X58A-OC is not entirely a 'stripper' model, it has more superfluous features (USB 3.0, SATA 6Gb/s, onboard audio) than some people would like. Furthermore, its $380 price tag is about $100 higher than most people were expecting, which is a serious drawback. However, as you will see in the coming pages, it is still a tremendously good motherboard for those who enjoy tweaking and playing with the venerable LGA1366 platform.


 
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MAC

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Specifications

Specifications





As a necessary companion to the Core i7 processors, Intel released the X58 Tylersburg northbridge, now known as the IO Hub (IOH). This reclassification has occurred because of the fact that the memory controller has been integrated into the processor itself. As a result, the IO Hub is now solely responsible for implementing PCI Express lanes and linking to the I/O Controller Hub (ICH) southbridge. Since the front side bus is no more, the X58 communicates with the processor via the new high-speed QuickPath Interface (QPI), and it is connected to the southbridge (ICH) via the traditional Direct Media Interface (DMI). The southbridge is the venerable ICH10R that was first introduced with P45 Express chipset, and it supports six SATA II ports, AHCI, and Matrix RAID technology.

The X58 features 36 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes, which signifies that it supports two proper PCI-E x16 slots. However, depending on the motherboard manufacturer's design, those 36 PCI-E 2.0 lanes can also be utilized in a triple PCI-E x16 (x16/x8/x8) and/or quad PCI-E x16 (x8/x8/x8/x8) configuration. The X58A-OC that we are reviewing today supports up to 4-way CrossFireX and 3-way SLI. For those who are curious, 4-way SLI would have required an NVIDIA NF200 PCI-E bridge chip, which would have added cost, heat, and latency to this model, so we can do without it.

Officially, Intel's specifications list DDR3-1066 as the highest supported memory speed on the Bloomfield/X58 platform. However, all motherboard manufacturers have marketed their models as DDR3-1600 capable, and Gigabyte have certified the X58A-OC for up to DDR3-2200.

Now that we have examined some of the specifications inherent to the new platform, let's see what kind of motherboard Gigabyte have built around this new chipset:

 

MAC

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Package & Accessories

Package & Accessories



Now that we have gone over the X58A-OC's chipset and its extensive specifications, it is time to take a look at the packaging and the included accessories. At over $350, this model features a high-end price tag, but since it is focused on overclocking we don't expect a fancy selection of accessories.

Let's check it out:




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The X58A-OC ships in an eye-catching black and orange box that is very reflective (as you can clearly see). A cool new OC badge was designed for this motherboard, and we suspect that will be seeing it again in the future, at the very least on the upcoming X79A-OC. By the way, this is actually the first GIGABYTE X58 motherboard that we have reviewed that didn’t come in a huge box. Hopefully, this no-nonsense packaging is a little foreshadowing to the motherboard itself.





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Once you remove the outside packaging, you are greeted with an inner box that contains two separate sections, the top half contains the motherboard while the bottom half holds the accessories and the documentation.





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With regard to accessories, the X58A-OC comes with a user manual, installation guidebook, driver DVD, a special I/O shield for enhanced airflow, two SATA 6Gb/s cables, 2-way SLI bridge connector, 3-way SLI bridge connector, and 2-way CrossFireX bridge connector. Last but not least are the seven voltage cables which attach to the voltage headers, and allow users to more easily monitor system voltages with a digital multi-meter. As we expect, there is nothing fancy in this bundle, but that is not what this motherboard is about.
 

MAC

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A Closer Look at the X58A-OC

A Closer Look at the X58A-OC





Although it may look unusually large in this picture, the X58A-OC is actually the standard length and only 20mm wider than the reference ATX specification. As such, it should fit into just about any case. Having said that, this motherboard belongs on a test bench since that is what it was designed for. Its entire layout was thought out with the needs of hardcore sub-zero overclockers in mind, as such all the numerous buttons, connectors, and switches are very easily accessible.


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As you can see, the X58A-OC has the cleanest CPU socket area of any motherboard ever. This is mostly do to the brand new low-profile POScap tantalum electrolytic capacitors. This is the first X58 motherboard that completely does away with traditional solid capacitors, and that makes insulating the motherboard’s various critical areas significantly easier and faster.

Having said that, the DIP switches used to adjust the PWM switching frequency and reset button aren't in the best locations, since they do get in the way when trying to insulate the CPU socket area. Relocating them to OC-Touch panel would have been ideal.


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The power design is obviously the heart and soul of this motherboard. The X58A-OC features the OC-VRM that was custom designed for this model and purpose-built to help overclockers push processors to their absolute limits. There is a 12-phase power design for the CPU core, which features twelve third-generation Vishay Driver MOS MOSFETS rated 35 amps each and twelve 50A MPFC (Max Power Ferrite Choke) inductors, the latter of which are also exclusive to this model. The Uncore has its own 3-phase power design with more traditional Renesas Low RDS (on) MOSFETs.

GIGABYTE have obviously added two 8-pin CPU connectors to this motherboard, which is essential when you’re trying to push a six-core/twelve-thread Gulftown processor to 6.6Ghz or above.


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The X58A-OC has a large one-piece heatsink that cools both the northbridge and the MOSFETs, and that features an integrated heatpipe. The northbridge portion of the cooler has an orange light, which gives off a pretty cool glow.

The X58 IOH on this motherboard is not binned, unlike the one on the $700 X58A-UD9, but it does feature a three-phase power design.



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The black and orange DDR3 memory slots on the X58A-OC are actually closer to the CPU socket than on most motherboards in other to shorten the data pathway and improve overclocking. This motherboard supports 24GB of system memory, and it has been certified as DDR3-2200 capable with a 6GB kit. The memory slots have their own three-phase power design for the memory, which is definitely above average.

While the 24-pin ATX power connector is in its usual spot, the LED debug is particularly well located. This proves GIGABYTE’s attention to detail, since it won’t be blocked even when multiple graphics cards are installed. This is a common oversight on most other motherboards.

The OC-Touch panel is definitely one of the X58A-OC’s best features. It not only allows users to manually adjust the CPU multiplier and BCLK in real-time via dedicated buttons, but thanks to the Gear button users can now select whether to change the BCLK by increments of 0.3MHz or 1MHz. This is a significant because when you’re using a high CPU multiplier a mere 1Mhz BCLK increase really bumps up the CPU clock speed. This feature allow should allow overclockers to better balance on the razor’s edge of stability.

The onboard 4G Ready button is superfluous for serious overclockers, but novices will definitely find it appealing since it painlessly sets your Bloomfield or Gulftown processor to 4Ghz upon reboot. The eight voltage headers and voltage measurement pads are obviously indispensable for any overclocker, and with the included voltage cables it has never been easier to keep an eye on all the system voltages with a few digital multi-meters.


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While the southbridge heatsink might seem large, half of it is just long fins overhanging nothing. Having said that, the ICH10R southbridge doesn’t run hot at all. GIGABYTE have added an orange light to the cooler for a little pizzazz.



The six black SATA 3Gb/s ports come from the ICH10R southbridge and support RAID 0/1/5/10. However, the two grey ports are SATA 6Gb/s and come from the new and very high performance [zoom="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/mac/reviews/gigabyte/X58AOC/X58AOC_35.jpg]Marvell SE9182 controller[/zoom]. This BIOS-less controller supports RAID 0/1, can use up to two PCI-E x1 lanes, and performs almost as well as the native SATA 6Gb/s interface found on the new Intel P67 PCH chipset. It is a great chip to integrate on an X58 motherboard, but it is really not needed on the X58A-OC. This is clearly on the features that was added for marketing purposes in order to make this model slightly attractive to your Average Joe.
 
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MAC

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A Closer Look at the X58A-OC pt.2

A Closer Look at the X58A-OC pt.2





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The bottom-right corner of the motherboard is home to the user-friendly colour-coded front panel header. The USB header with the red marking supports GIGABYTE’s On/Off Charge technology, which allows you to charge your mobile devices even when the PC is turned off.

The BIOS switch (SW4) allows user to select between the main and backup BIOS, which is useful for those who want to quickly switch between two different BIOS versions. This is useful because some manufacturers offer overclockers BIOSes that are specially tuned for SuperPI, for example.


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Like any true enthusiast motherboard, the X58A-OC features four physical PCI-E 2.0 x16 slots, and is one of the even fewer models that can actually fit four dual-slot graphics cards, albeit with a bit of overhang at the bottom. There are no PCI-E x1 slots on this motherboard since they serve no purpose when benchmarking. The legacy PCI slot is only there because some overclockers like using dedicated diagnostic cards.

In a dual graphics card configuration, the first and third PCI-E x16 slots will operate at the full x16 speed (x16/x16). When three graphics cards are installed, either the first or third x16 slot will run at x16, while the other two will operate at x8 (x16/x8/x8). If four graphics cards are installed, all four PCI-E x16 slots will operate at x8 (x8/x8/x8/x8). GIGABYTE has certified this motherboard for 4-way CrossFireX and 3-way SLI. There is no quad SLI since this model doesn't feature an NVIDIA NF200 chip. This might seem like a negative but it is a blessing in disguise since that PCI-E bridge chip adds latency, a 1-3% performance penalty, and a not inconsiderable amount of extra heat as well.

Those who do set up a triple or quad graphics card configuration will definitely want to make use of the two SATA power connectors in order to ensure that the PCI-E slots get all the power that they require for such a power-hungry configuration...and to ensure that the 24-pin ATX connector doesn't draw too much current and melt. The X58A-OC is actually the first motherboard that we know of that utilizes SATA instead of Molex connectors for this task.



Here we have the sparsely-populated rear I/O panel. There are PS/2 mouse and PS/2 keyboard ports, which remain widely used by overclockers, a Gigabit LAN port, two USB 2.0 ports, three audio jacks, and two USB 3.0 ports. Thanks to all the empty space and the custom rear I/O panel, some hot air should be expelled out of the back.


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Much to some people’s dismay, this motherboard does have a few extra controllers on board, specifically a Realtek ALC889 eight-channel audio codec and EtronTech EJ168 USB 3.0 controller. These are great features to have on a mainstream motherboard, but overclockers don’t need them. The Realtek RTL8111E Gigabit LAN controller is a welcome addition though.



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GIGABYTE have used a number of screws to fasten the northbridge and southbridge heatsinks. However, for some unusual reason they elected to use plastic push-pins for the MOSFET cooler. There are some elements of the CPU and Uncore VRM on the back of the motherboard, but they are just secondary components.
 
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MAC

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation



In the Hardware Installation section we examine how major components fit on the motherboard, and whether there are any serious issues that may affect installation and general functionality. Specifically, we are interested in determining whether there is adequate clearance in all critical areas.


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The X58A-OC’s northbridge and MOSFET heatsinks are sufficiently low-profile so that they shouldn’t cause any clearance issues with most large CPU heatsinks, fan clips can may make contact though. Those installing a water block, phase-change evaporator, or LN2 pot will definitely have no clearance issues, since the CPU socket area is large and uncluttered.



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When installed in the traditional North-South orientation, the fan clips from our Prolimatech Mega Shadow did prevent the installation of memory modules with tall heatspreaders in the first memory slot. The fan clips also touched the memory module when it was installed in the orange slot, but we were able to force it in place. It is definitely not an ideal solution, but it does work…if you don’t mind scratching your heatspreaders. The best idea is simply to use the black memory slots or get modules that are the standard height or no taller than 4.25 centimeters.




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Thanks to the expansion slot layout, there is an adequate gap between the memory clips and the back of the graphics card, so there is no need to take out the GPU before installing/removing memory modules. The 24-pin ATX power connector and the 8-pin CPU power connector are both ideally placed, so that makes assembling and disassembling the system just a tad easier.




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This board will hold four dual-slot graphics cards without issue, but as usual there will be a little bit of overhang when a card is installing the fourth slot. We do wish that the northbridge cooler wasn’t so close to the first PCI-E x16 slot though, since there may be a clearance issue for those who are using an LN2 GPU pot that has a bulky rear-mounting plate (or just thick foam insulation).


The eight 90-degree SATA ports are obviously accessible no matter how many graphics cards are installed.


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The mounting bracket of our Prolimatech Mega Shadow came pretty close to one of the northbridge cooler’s screws on the back of the motherboard, so keep that in mind if your CPU cooler has an unusually large mounting bracket.
 

MAC

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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown



The X58A-OC features GIGABYTE’s traditional Award BIOS, but it has been spruced up a bit with the addition of some EFI technology in order to properly support 3TB+ hard drives. These screenshots are of a slightly pre-retail version of the BIOS, but the later retail versions don’t have any aesthetic differences.


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Like all special edition GIGABYTE motherboards, the X58A-OC has a cool splash screen, but you will obviously want to disable it if you want to shave a few seconds off the boot time.


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Recently, GIGABYTE revamped the MB Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T.) section and broke it down into five main sub-menus. This is where enthusiasts should expect to spend 99% of their BIOS time. First and foremost, we have M.I.T Current Status sub-menu which contains a convenient overview of all the system frequencies, memory sizes and timings.







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When you open the Advanced Frequency Settings sub-menu, you are greeted with all the essential system clock control options that a serious overclocker needs: CPU & memory multiplier, BLCK, UCLK (Uncore), QPI Link, PCI-E, etc.

The Advanced CPU Core Features sub-menu is where you can enable or disable the various CPU-specific settings like Turbo Boost, C1E, C-STATE, Thermal Monitor, and Enhanced SpeedStep (EIST).





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As its name suggests, the Advanced Memory Settings section is where you will find all the memory-related settings. Within this section you can select the memory multiplier, change the performance profile, enter the memory and QPI (VTT/Uncore) voltages, and obviously tweak the memory timings. Each memory channel has its own section, within which you can alter the primary and secondary timings. It had just about every memory setting that an enthusiast or overclocker will need to fine-tune their memory modules.




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The Advanced Voltage Settings is where you can enable or disable Load-Line Control (LLC), and more importantly, where you can control up to 16(!) system voltages. They all feature drop-down menus, but you can also manually enter your desired voltage which is a big time saver for most.
 

MAC

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BIOS Rundown pt.2

BIOS Rundown pt.2




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The Miscellaneous Settings section is where you can enable or disable the CPU’s Virtualization Technology.

The Standard CMOS Features section displays all the connected storage devices some basic system memory information, and of course the date and time.




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The Advanced BIOS Features is where you can select the boot device priority, enable/disable the full screen logo, and also saving the BIOS image to a hard drive.


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The Integrated Peripherals section is where you can enable or disable all of the various onboard devices (SATA 6Gb/s, audio codec, USB 3.0, GbE LAN, etc).

The Power Management Setup section contains the power management settings linked to the power-saving sleep modes, it also allows you to enable/disable the new EuP standard.


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As on most motherboards, the PC Health Status section is a slight disappointment since there is insufficient voltages and temperatures readouts. Having said that, any overclocker truly interested in temperatures and voltages will just be checking the readouts from their dedicated multi-meters and thermal probes.

When you press on F11 you will get a pop-up screen allowing you to save your current settings as a BIOS profile, and you can even save that profile to the hard drive or a USB flash drive. If you press F12, you can load one of the saved profiles.


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This last screenshot is of the Q-Flash utility which is accessed via the F8 key. Since Q-Flash is built right into the BIOS and it can read files directly from a USB flash drive, making BIOS flashing a simple and quick procedure. However, this feature appears broken in recent GIGABYTE bioses, it simply will not recognize any of our numerous USB flash drive. (EDIT: Our mistake, the flash drive(s) must be formatted in the FAT16/32 file system in order to be supported by Q-Flash. All of our units were in the NTFS format, as most of yours likely are as well.)
 

MAC

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Included Software

Included Software



EasyTune6

EasyTune6 is a system management utility that displays system clock speeds, voltages, temperatures, and fan rotation but more importantly it allows users to overclock from within Windows. Anyone familiar with past EasyTune iterations knows that although this utility has always contained a fair bit of functionality, its ease of use left much to be desired. Thankfully Gigabyte went back to the drawing board and created a brand new EasyTune version from scratch. Let's check it out.


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The CPU and Memory tabs provide basic component information and are somewhat reminiscent of the widely used CPU-Z utility.


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The Tuner section is really the only one that's important. First, it contains the Quick Boost feature, which allows automatic overclocking at the touch of a button. Simply pick the Quick Boost level that best suits your needs/courage, reboot the system, and voila! Overclock achieved.

If you click on Easy or Advanced mode, three additional tabs appear: frequency, ratio, voltage. The Frequency tab allows you to tweak the BCLK, memory, and PCI-E frequencies.
Within the Tuner section, the Ratio tab allows you to independently set the multiplier on every individual CPU core, even the 'virtual' logical cores...which is unnecessary to be honest.

The Voltage tab is arguably the most important one since it allows complete control over every voltage option that is found in the BIOS. This is a great tool to fine tune an overclock.

The Graphics tab can be used to manipulate your graphics card’s core/memory/shader clock speeds. Unlike past versions of ET6, this section no longer allows you to control the GPU fan, nor monitor the GPU temperature.


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The Smart tab gives you access to the Smart Fan feature and its finely-tuned control over the 5 Smart Fan headers.


AutoGreen


In effect, the AutoGreen utility can help reduce energy consumption when you are away from your computer by putting the system into a low power state when it doesn't sense your bluetooth-enabled cell phone in the vicinity. Once again, since there is no bluetooth receiver included, we didn't get a chance to test out this feature.


@BIOS


This is GIGABYTE's Windows-based BIOS flashing utility. While we strongly recommend that you use the BIOS-based Q-Flash utility to do your flashing (when it isn’t broken), @BIOS has never let us down yet.


Cloud OC


CloudOC is GIGABYTE’s unique remote monitoring and overclocking tool that utilizes an HTML-based interface, which means is that it can be used from any internet-enabled device. If you want to know more, click here to see the CloudOC demonstration that we witnessed during Computex 2010 in Taiwain.
 

MAC

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Included Software pt.2

Included Software pt.2



Smart 6


One of the keynote new technologies introduced by GIGABYTE at Computex 2010 was Smart 6, which is a collection of six user-friendly system management tools. In their own words, Smart 6 "allows you to speed up system performance, reduce boot-up time, manage a secure platform and recover previous system setting easily with a click of the mouse."



As you can see, Smart 6 has its own dock that allows quick access to the six SMART utilities.



Smart QuickBoot, as the name suggests, helps reduce boot-up time. This tool consists of BIOS QuickBoot and OS QuickBoot. BIOS Quick Boot allows your system bypass the time-consuming power-on self test (POST) procedure after three successful boots, if no changes are made to the BIOS or hardware configuration. The OS QuickBoot on the other hand makes the system go into an advanced S3 sleep mode upon exiting the operation system, and it permits a quick resume to full OS functionality.



Quick Boost provides quick and effortless overclocking for novice users. Just click on one of three overclocking presets and the program does the rest of the work for you. This is the same Quick Boost as found within Easy Tune 6.



Smart Recovery 2 is kind of like Windows Restore/Apple Time Capsule function, where you can roll-back system settings to a previous working status. Users can select just about any day, week, or month to roll-back from, without having had to manually tell the program to create a backup flag.



Now most GIGABYTE motherboards feature two physical BIOS ROMs, but with Smart DualBIOS this is the first time that important passwords and dates can be saved directly to the new 16MB BIOS chips (up from the previous 8MB). While this might seem like a security risk, the only way to access Smart DualBIOS is with a password. It is simply a secure way of storing the countless passwords that most people have nowadays.



Smart Recorder monitors and records system activities, such as when a system was turned on or off, and what data files were accessed or copied.



Smart TimeLock is a feature all kids will despise, as it allows parents the ability to schedule time limits for their children to use the PC. Parents can even make different usage time rules for weekdays and weekends.
 
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