Abit BP6: In memoriam

Somewhere around here I still have my old Abit BP6 motherboard. Abit is a long-dead manufacturer of enthusiast motherboards, and the BP6 was one of its landmark achievements. It was the first cheap dual-CPU board.

The Abit BP6 is a bit obscure today, but hardware enthusiast sites like Tom’s Hardware Guide were pretty excited about it in 1999.

Abit BP6
The Abit BP6 was the world’s first dual Socket-370 board to allow a dual Celeron system. Intel didn’t support this configuration, but Abit’s customers didn’t care.

CPUs didn’t always have multiple cores like they do today. But in the late 1990s, after Windows NT 4 came out, some people started to figure out that two lower-speed CPUs could outperform a higher-speed CPU that cost more than twice as much.

Then along came Intel’s Celeron CPU, which was the answer to AMD’s K6. The first Celerons were junk; Intel took a P2 CPU, removed the L2 cache, disabled the SMP capability, and created a CPU that was OK for 3D gaming but terrible at anything else. Intel followed up with a Celeron that had 128K of cache. The Pentium II had 512K by comparison, but that was the point. The goal was to take sales away from AMD without hurting P2 sales much.

But it wasn’t long before someone figured out how to re-enable the multi-CPU capability in Celerons. Then Abit went ahead and built that trick into the BP6. That allowed you to buy a pair of 366 MHz Socket 370 Celeron processors and outperform a 400 MHz Pentium II for half the price.

And of course Abit put good overclocking ability on the board. So people would buy the 366 MHz chips, run them at 550 MHz by changing the bus speed to 100 MHz, and have a very hot system for the 1999-2000 timeframe. Celerons had locked CPU multipliers, but lower-speed Celerons typically ran reliably with a 33% overclock.

Power users loved it. Intel was less enamored, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Expansion capability

On top of all this, the BP6 had a nice disk controller on it, so an enthusiast could build a really nice system with it and spend about half what Intel intended for that kind of performance. It also had an AGP slot, four PCI slots, and ISA slot, and one shared PCI/ISA expansion slot. You could load it up with pretty much anything you would want in 1999 or 2000.

The BP6 sported three memory slots. In theory it could take 768 MB of RAM, if you could get 256MB DIMMs. But those DIMMs were expensive at the time. I started out with 128 MB and eventually expanded mine to 384 MB.

How I used my BP6

I bought my BP6 to run Linux on it. I often ran compile-it-yourself distributions like Gentoo and Sourcerer on it to squeeze just a bit more out of it. Eventually I realized I was spending hours a day compiling code to save myself seconds in effort, and installed Debian on it. But I learned quite a bit in the process.

I retired that system at mid-decade. I had 500 MHz CPUs in it, but by 2004, even dual 500 MHz CPUs felt a bit outmoded. A dual 500-MHz CPU system with 384MB of RAM would have been fine for Windows XP when it first came out, but after XP Service Pack 2, it started to feel underpowered.

Abit went out of business around mid-decade as well. Their motherboards were good quality, but like many companies at the time, they bought a lot of bad capacitors and they didn’t handle the fallout well.

It was an inglorious end for a pioneering motherboard manufacturer. Arguably it was Asus who invented the enthusiast board, but then Abit came along with its jumperless IT5H. In some ways the Abit BP6 was its pinnacle. Today there are several enthusiast brands out there, but it was Abit who really blazed that trail for them.

Collecting the Abit BP6

Abit BP6 boards turn up on Ebay from time to time, but the prices people get for them suggest more people talked about the BP6 than actually bought it. They are fairly scarce today, and often sell for over $100.

The limitations of the platform make it better as a collectible than as a retro gaming rig, since the operating systems it ran best, Linux and Windows NT 4, weren’t the best gaming systems.

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