Running Linux on the ASRock 775Dual-VSTA motherboard
Being a happy owner of the ASRock 775Dual-VSTA motherboard for a week, I decided to share my opinions about it and also give an advice or two to other people thinking about running Linux on it.
In short, this board is an exceptional piece of engineering and Linux runs GREAT on it. I'm not going to list all the specifications of the motherboard, because they're readily available on its official page, but let me go through the interesting features:
- the board can use both DDR & DDRII memory (but not at the same time!)
- you can equip it with AGP or PCIe graphics card, your choice
- there's plenty of connectors for both older ATA or newer SATA drives
- you can run any LGA 775 processor you can get hands on, including latest Intel Core 2 Duo (Conroe core)
- the board is very affordable (or should I say dirt cheap)
If you followed the above list closely, you'll soon understand what's the real value of 775Dual-VSTA. It's a very good choice if you're trying to make an incremental upgrade and continue using most if not all of your existing hardware trying just to invest in your CPU speed. And then later, when you're ready and/or when prices of new technology drop, you can buy additional goodies and put it on this same motherboard. That's another reason, beside low price of the board (around $50, but check with your favorite hardware dealer) why this board is such a good value: it preserves your current investment but also gives you an opportunity to upgrade components later.
To end this superlative rich part of the article, allow me to give you an interesting example of my own upgrade. I was able to upgrade from a dual Pentium III board to the latest and greatest Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 by replacing just motherboard and processor(s), I kept EVERYTHING else! That's an enormous improvement in raw CPU speed for a relatively small investment. Now, most of you who remember PIII era will also remember that those Pentiums run on SDRAM memory, but hey, I had some wild motherboard before that actually used DDR (MSI MS-9105RL), so I got to keep even my old DIMMS.
With all these good features, it's maybe time to mention some of the shortcomings of this interesting board. First, there are 4 memory sockets on the board, two for DDR and two for DDRII. You can use only 2 of them at the same time and with the maximum supported DIMM size of 1GB it sets the maximum amount of supported memory to 2GB. Quite enough today, but somehow I feel that in the next few years those 2GB of RAM are actually going to become the minimum required for many OS. We'll see...
Next, from what I hear, the only PCIe socket on the board is x4 while todays graphics cards are capable of x16. The manual even goes so far to state the supported PCIe cards which is quite an unusual practice. So, if you're into gaming and/or expensive graphics cards this board might not be a good choice for you.
In all truth, Linux runs great on the E6600. Firefox is finally responding fast as it should. Kernel compiles are also blazingly fast, what took 10 minutes before, now is 2 minutes plus few seconds. The only problem that I had with 775Dual-VSTA in the beginning is that my ATA disks ran in the PIO mode which made them unbearably slow, of course. After some investigation I found that the current 2.6.17 kernel doesn't have proper support for the Via 8237A southbridge that is onboard, but that the problem is also easily solved with oneliner patch. I was originally going to attach that patch to this article, but hey, I checked and I see that the abovementioned oneliner is included in 2.6.18-rc6 which means that, by the time 2.6.18 is out, this board should be fully supported. I say "should" because of the unfortunate fact that I don't have any SATA disks to test the board with. So, if you're using ATA disk drive(s), you're safe, but with SATA you'll need to investigate further. I see that guys at the popular Phoronix portal had trouble with SATA support, but that could also become old news with 2.6.18. If anybody succeeds running SATA drives on Linux on 775Dual-VSTA, please leave a comment, so other people know what to expect.
Finally, I believe that running E6600 with DDR400 is as fast as it would be if you bought and run DDRII. If not even faster! Somehow this new memory technology doesn't yet bring speed increases as we would expect. So if you were wondering if your old DDR400 is good enough for new processors, rest assured that it is. Read these articles if you want to know more:
- ASRock 775Dual-VSTA: Does DDR2 matter?
- Intel Core 2 Duo: Memory Performance Part Deux
- ASRock Core 2 Duo: AGP/PCI Express Graphics Performance, Part Tres
And if you're compiling your own kernels, like I do, I'm sure you'll find the relevant parts of my kernel .config below useful:
# Linux kernel version: 2.6.18-rc6
# Tue Sep 5 21:16:50 2006
After I went through my .config, I now see that I didn't even try to compile the kernel with support for the onboard audio (Realtek ALC888 7.1channel audio CODEC with High Definition Audio). That's because I kept my trusty old Sound Blaster Live Value which perfectly fulfills all my needs regarding audio recording/playback. Sorry for that! But, I would bet, knowing that ALSA is of such high quality, that onboard audio is surely supported. If anybody really needs to be sure, let me know and I'll check.