Foxconn A79A-S Final verdict: Unfit for use

I must admit that I forsook my vow never to build a PC again, and as a result am now more than convinced of its validity than ever…

Read on for a final look at the Foxconn’s flagship A79A-S AM2+ motherboard, and how it is eclipsed in almost every way by the Gigabyte GA-MA790FXT-UD5P board with which I have now replaced it.

I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, so here’s the shortened version of why I’m more convinced than ever that if you want a PC then you should probably be buying one off-the-shelf:

After the instability of the A79A-S I wanted something provably correct, and saw that the Phenom II CPUs have native ECC support in their on-chip memory controllers. This seems to be a pretty rare requirement, since ECC support doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere – so I contacted both Gigabyte Technical Support (who confirmed that ECC memory was supported, and even showed me the part number of the ECC DIMM qualified against this board) and Technical Support (who, after first insisting that the chosen replacement board was actually a DDR2 board – it isn’t – confirmed that, in their opinion, the board should support ECC DIMMs but that they hadn’t tested this combination). Predictably, it turns out that ECC modules do not work, and the board fails even to POST. After going backwards and forwards or at least two weeks confirming what the problem might be, and Crucial allowing me to place an order for out-of-stock modules with next-day delivery without telling me that they’re out of stock, the replacement non-ECC modules arrived today – at half the capacity I ordered. Since building this new system, the 955 CPU I ordered has been superseded by the new 965 – that’s how long it’s taken! At least it’s fairly stress-free now – the worrying time was when, not having another system to test DDR3 memory in, it was unclear which component was faulty. I’m now running on 2GB memory until Crucial can fulfill my original 4GB order, which has been delayed because they have a DIMM shortage!

It’s probably worth a recap of the (many) problems of the Foxconn A79A-S:

  • it always had problems with USB devices (about 1/3 of the time failing to initialise mice or keyboards on boot and frequently failing to boot at all with a USB Bluetooth adapter inserted – this latter problem inexplicably causing a CMOS reset);
  • for much of its life it was unable to boot with DDR2-1066 memory set to run at more than 400MHz (x2), and then even after a BIOS update resolved this issue the board would require a CMOS reset if you told it to do anything as radical as using the DIMM’s SPD data for memory tunings;
  • various PCI-Express BIOS options would cause the machine to hard-lock either immediately or only when the internal codec is used to play sound (good luck on diagnosing that one…);
  • setting any PATA/SATA interface to “Legacy IDE” mode would cause the board to freeze before POSTing, requiring a CMOS reset to recover;
  • SATA ports are labelled backwards, with the BIOS inserting connected eSATA drives before on-board drives – meaning that a linux OS booted without an eSATA device connected sees its root partition on /dev/sda, but with an eSATA drive present instead sees its root partiion on /dev/sdb;

…and finally,

  • pressing the reset button briefly would cause the system to fail to restart until powered off – it has to be held down for several seconds.

All in all, one of the worst pieces of engineering I’m had the misfortune to come across. To rub salt into the wound, this was not a budget option – is cost just a shade under £200 when new, and is still about that price from certain retailers. To add insult to injury, the PCIe slots were of non-standard spacing – so that if you did ever want to run a Crossfire/SLI setup in any of the four 16-lane PCIe slots fitted, you’d have to order (at great expense, no doubt) a custom longer bridge-board from Foxconn in order to connect the cards together.

I was never sure, and still am not, quite what proportion of the problems with the A79A-S were down to the board itself, and what proportion were down to the AMI BIOS used on it. As mentioned before, recent Linux kernels have specific checks for AMI BIOS due to its tendency to corrupt the host machine’s low memory, especially after resuming from sleep.

In any case, I shelled out again for a Gigabyte MA-790FXT-UD5P, and so far I couldn’t be happier.

On the one hand, it’s certainly not as tweakable as the A79A-S – there are no BIOS settings to manually adjust the PCIe timings and configuration, for example. Since most of these resulted in a corrupt CMOS on the Foxconn board, though, this is probably no great loss. With non-ECC memory, the board worked first time – although it does seem strange that memory timings can be set to Auto (e.g. slow) or Manual, where you have to specify every setting yourself. SPD data is displayed alongside, but there’s no option to use use the SPD data. Very odd design choice…

Annoyingly, Gigabyte have removed the option to enable or disable Numlock, and have hardwired it to be on. This is exactly what you don’t want if you have a numeric keypad-less IBM Model M Space-saver keyboard, and want to be able to type anything other than numbers with the right-hand keys. The inexplicable lack of any indicator lights on this keyboard doesn’t help matters either.

The major chance between the two boards, though, is software – and specifically Linux – support. The A79A-S threw up SATA ‘softreset failed’ errors, stated that memory was being lost due to incorrect BIOS setup, output pages of complaints about malformed and incorrect (Microsoft-compiled) ACPI data, and frequently failed to resume from any form of sleep, requiring a power-cycle to continue. The Gigabyte, on the other hand, is much improved: Linux boots and suspends and resumes (from hibernation) without a line of complaint – from the same kernel! The ACPI tables are marked as ‘GBT’, suggesting that Gigabyte care enough to build their own tables – which, given that they appear to work, can be no bad thing.

The A79A-S had lofty ambitions and, on the face of it, an excellent hardware specification. However, this was marred by inexplicable design choices (such as the non-standard PCIe slot spacings), broken hardware support (for things as standard, these days, as USB), and general instability under Linux and Windows. The whole package felt unfinished even after BIOS updates, and reeks of throwing in all of the best toys and then shipping without taking any time or care to check that the combination actually works.

Even if the A79A-S were a budget board, then this would still be indefensible – but at almost £200 it is a shocking travesty. I honestly feel that this board is unfit for its intended use under the Trade Descriptions Act (1968) – and I for one will never again make the mistake of again buying a Foxconn-branded product(*).

The Gigabyte board, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a well designed and informative, if not overly feature-laden, BIOS sits before an able and high-quality mainboard which exudes capability and reliability in a way that the A79A-S failed to from day one.

(*) Yes, I realise that they manufacture most of Apple’s designs. Apple, presumably, have some concept of fitness and quality control which Foxconn themselves appear to be sadly lacking.