We have earlier reviewed ASUS flagship for Intel’s processors based on NVIDIA’s chipset. With support for SLI and other nice features it is looking very promising, but can it live up to the expectations?
The market for SLI has drastically increased over the last year, but unlike the support for the AMD platform, the Intel support has been very delayed. AMD’s lead can be explained by its success in the gaming market – where the SLI demand is high. Another explanation is that nVidia got a good foothold with AMD chipsets. A lot of manufacturers have tried to build chipsets for Intel processors but none of them have either got a license from Intel or just haven’t succeeded in building any successful alternatives to Intel’s own chipsets.
Asus was one of the first to release motherboards based on nVidia’s circuits for Intel with their P5ND2-SLI cards, they’ve also been early with the second generation nForce4 circuits for Intel. The big difference is the increased number of PCI-Express lanes to 16x width to both graphic cards, where the first generation only gave 8x per card. Increased support for the latest generation of processors from Intel, including dual core processors is another improvement.
Let’s see what Asus has to offer the Intel market with its P5N32-SLI Deluxe.
Asus P5N32-SLI Deluxe – Specifications
|Processor support||Intel Socket 775|
Pentium 4, Pentium Extreme Edition, Pentium D, Celeron
|Chipset||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI Intel|
|Memory||4x 240-pin DIMM|
Dual DDR2 400/533/667 channels
Up to 16GB
|Expansion slots|| 2x PCI-Express x16|
2x PCI-Express x1
1x PCI-Express x4
|Storage|| 1x Floppy disk drive |
2x Ultra DMA 133/100/66/33 IDE
6x SATA 3G (RAID 0/1/0+1/5/JBOD) (one external)
|Internal connections|| 6x USB|
2x IEEE 1394 (Firewire)
1x CD/AUX input
|External connections|| 1x PS/2 Keyboard |
1x PS/2 Mouse
1x Parallel port
2x RJ-45 (10/100/1000Mbit)
2x S/PDIF (optic and coax)
6x Audio connections
|Size||305 x 245mm|
|Other||SLI bridge |
WLAN support (optional)
Asus has managed to squeeze in a lot of equipment on this board, and even though the COM port’s been moved from the rear connectors, in benefit for the digital audio output connectors, it’s still on the board as an internal connection. We have no problem at all with Asus’ choice of board design.
Time to look at the bundled accessories.
The motherboard is delivered well packed in an antistatic bag protected from electrical shocks.
In the box, we could find four SATA cables, two IDE cables, one floppy cable and two Y-power cables for a total of four SATA drives. Asus also bundled three jumpers for e.g. hard drives or CD/DVD drives. There are also three optional expansion brackets that can be installed, if you want to use the internal connections for MIDI/GAME, USB, the serial port (COM) and Firewire. On the last picture we have the bendable SLI bridge and two fans for cooling the heatsinks on the CPU power circuit.
Here we can really see how thin and bendy the SLI bridge is, making it good for use on motherboards with different space between the PCI Express slots. On the last picture, we have a hefty manual, a CD with drivers, ASUS sticker and a CD featuring WinDVD.
Now, let’s have a look at the board itself.
The motherboard has a black color as we’ve seen on several of Asus’ performance motherboards. The connectors are mostly blue and yellow. This may not be the first-hand choice for the modder, but more of the stylish and functional approach. The motherboard gives a very positive impression with quality components and with a well-considered placement of connectors. With so many possibilities of expansion offered by the Asus board, it’s not very spacious.
The power supply connectors for the board comes in the shape of a 24 pin ATX connector and an 8 pin ATX12V connector, which both are placed neatly at the edge of the board while the extra 4 pin connector is placed between the PCI-E 16x ports. Asus calls this connection ”EZ Plug”, which according to the manual is a way to increase the stability for the motherboard when video cards without an extra power supply connector are used, thus the connector is not crucial for the motherboard to function.
At the bottom left of the motherboard, most of the internal connectors are gathered and all of them are clearly marked which makes the assembly easy even without a manual. Above the orange pins for the Game/MIDI port sits the jumper for resetting the CMOS settings. Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard to reach because of a jumper close to it and also the Game/MIDI port, which could have been solved by using a jumper with a longer handle. In the second picture we see a SATA port with an odd placement, which probably ended up there because of its brother being at the back of the motherboard. Asus calls this port ”SATA On-the-Go”. It’s designed for connecting external SATA devices. Further on, all of the back connectors are neatly placed on the last picture.
We continue our inspection on the top part of the motherboard.
Heatpipes are beginning to show up everywhere and not even motherboards can get away anymore. Here’s Asus’ solution for decreasing the amount of fans on the motherboard and instead using the air circulation around the CPU fan. Thanks to the heatpipes, heat is transported from the north and south bridge to the bigger heatsinks around the CPU socket. The bigger heatsinks also cool a set MOSFETs’ that belong to the voltage part for the CPU.
This voltage regulation area in particular is worth a few comments indeed. Asus kept on using voltage regulation in three phases while others used four phases. After a quick intermediate landing of four phases on some boards, they’ve now really gone the whole way – eight phase voltage design. With more phases, you’ll get a cleaner and more stable source of voltage that can deliver more current to the CPU, which we’ve seen is what the P4 processors of today need. Asus also sends along two fans that can be mounted onto the heatsinks for the voltage part. If you use water cooling or some other kind of cooling that doesn’t create any flow of air through the heatsinks, this is something that we really recommend you to use.
Now we’ll take a look at the motherboard’s BIOS.
Asus uses a BIOS that is different from Abit’s and DFI’s, among others. The way Abit has arranged it is that you have five basic menus where you can find the respective settings. This lets you go several levels into the menus to find what you seek, unlike Abit and DFI who uses a more shallow menu system. The overclocking settings are placed in a menu three to four levels deep into the structure, which is a pity, because those are the settings that you change most of the time when you enter the BIOS. Fortunately, it’s easy to navigate through the menus and on the right side is a Help pane that gives you information about the currently highlighted setting.
Here are some interesting settings that originate from nVidia’s Intel chipset where you can set the memory speed in separate from the CPU bus. This is where we encountered a problem. The problem is that they’ve used the MHz as a unit for both the CPU bus and the memory bus. While the value of 800 is the effective frequency for the CPU bus, thanks to its ability to send 4 bits per clock cycle, the actual frequency is only 200 MHz. The memory type is DDR2 and it can send 2 bits per clock cycle and a setting of 800 would thus generate the actual frequency of 400 MHz. To run the CPU bus and the memory bus in sync (1:1), you should type 800 MHz and 400 MHz. Something that dilutes the confusion is that CPU-Z can’t show the correct memory speed as it is now. It only shows half of the actual frequency. Confused?
|CPU bus||up to 400MHz/1600FSB (1 MHz increments)|
|Memory bus||Bound to the CPU bus or freely up to 1200MHz (1 MHz increments)|
|PCI-Express||100MHz – 150MHz (1 MHz increments)|
|CPU voltage(vcore)||1.1v – 1.7v (0.0125v increments)|
|FSB termination voltage (fsbvtt)||1.25v, 1.35v, 1.45v|
|Memory voltage (vdimm)||1.80v – 2.40v (0.1v increments)|
|North bridge voltage (vmch)||1.4v, 1.5v, 1.6v|
|South bridge voltage (vsb)||1.5v, 1.6v|
All vital voltages can be adjusted for optimum stability. Memory voltage up
to 2.4v is more than most manufacturers give you access to, even though it’s
not especially common today with DDR2 memories that respond well to high voltages.
Let’s go on and look at some other interesting parts of the BIOS.
Here we can see settings for functions in the processor. In this case, we’re using an unlocked processor, thus letting us change the multiplier. You can also use something called EIST (Enhanced Intel SpeedStep Technology), shown on the second picture, to force the processor to work in its maximum or minimum multiplier, which is very useful to get the optimum performance from the memories.
This is the menu for all the other equipment on the motherboard such as sound, network, SATA, Firewire, serial ports and parallel ports. To the right, you can see an overview of the supervision of temperatures, fan speeds and voltages. Compared to Abit, this hardware monitor is pretty slim on information. To know the current memory voltage wouldn’t be too much to ask for, if you ask us. Smart Q-Fan saves the situation which makes it possible to change the processor’s and the north bridge fan speeds depending on the stated temperature levels.
Let’s take a quick look at the benchmarking-rig before we take the card for a
|Motherboard||Asus P5N32-SLI Deluxe, BIOS 0202
Asus P5WD2 Premium, BIOS 0606
|Processor||Intel Pentium 4 660, 3.6GHz (Prescott, 0442)|
|Memory||Corsair XMS 5400UL DDR2 (2x512MB)
Corsair XMS 5400Pro (2x512MB)
|Video card||nVidia GeForce 7800GTX512
nVidia GeForce 7800GT
nVidia GeForce 6800Ultra
nVidia GeForce 6600GT
|Power supply unit||OCZ PowerStream 520W|
|Operating system||Windows XP (SP2)|
|Drivers||nVidia nForce4 6.82
nVidia Forceware 81.89
|Monitoring application||Asus AI Booster|
|Benchmarking applications||SiSoft Sandra 2005 SR3
VirtualDub 1.6.10, XviD 1.0.3
|Idle||One hour in Windows without any load|
|Load||One hour with two instances of Prime95|
|Stable||No errors reported by Prime95 during load|
|Processor temperature||The temperature in the processor, according to AIBooster|
As a reference system, we’ve included Asus’ P5WD2 motherboard which is based on Intel’s 955X chipset. The P5N32 board chooses to run the memories in 266 MHz by default, so we chose to also change the memory frequency on the P5WD2 board to give the most equal comparison as possible.
We’ll begin with the compatibility tests.
To examine how the motherboard behaves when switching between different memory configurations, we used a variety of memory modules with different SPD settings. SPD information is programmed into every memory module and sets the standard latencies that the memory is made to run at. Problems may arise when installing memory with different SPD settings and when using four memory modules at the same time.
Despite our hopes that four modules would work, the motherboard simply refused to boot. We have, however, seen proof that this board works with four memory modules, so it’s probably the fact that we’re using two types of memory circuits that’s causing it to malfunction.
We have some complaints about the placement of the ”EZ Plug” connector, which is located below the upper PCI-E slot. As you can see on the first picture, it’s impossible to use this connector if the video card takes up two slots. However, as we mentioned earlier this feature isn’t vital for the motherboard to function, but some extra stability won’t hurt and as Asus has placed this connector in different places before, it wouldn’t be too much to ask for. Even if we choose not to use this connector, we can see in the second picture that the video card rests on two capacitors. It works without a computer case but the card is slightly tilted upwards, which could cause some problems in a case. Luckily there’s another PCI-E slot with identical performance, but we’re not completely satisfied with this one either. As you can see in the last picture, the top-most SATA connectors are very close to the video card and if there had been even the tiniest component mounted there, one SATA connector would have been unusable.
At the time of testing we only had access to dual setups of 6800Ultra and 6600GT, but seeing as these work we are quite certain that the 7800 series cards would function as well. As you can see on the board there is no SLI selector card or any jumpers to move, on account of the fact that motherboards based on these chipsets give 16x dedicated PCI-Express lines to each video card. Therefore, all there is to do is to insert another video card, connect the SLI bridge between the two cards and start up the computer.
We now move on to some synthetic tests.
First out of our synthetic tests is SiSoft Sandra, which can benchmark several different parts of the computer.
In the first two tests the board performs in line with the reference P4 at the same speed, which is to be expected. In the memory test, however, it doesn’t quite reach the Intel 955X chipset. On the other hand, it never has been easy to compete with Intel’s own chipsets.
SuperPi is where Intel’s processors usually perform comparatively well, but the results we get here are far from remarkable. The motherboard has no stability problems at all with SuperPi and manages a 32M calculation with ease, and the overall results are as they should be for a non-overclocked system with these specifications.
|1.6GB AVI||11m 3s|
Performance-wise, we’re back to where we should be, and we didn’t notice any strange occurrences during these tests either. Video compressing is usually an area where the P4 does well, and it even manages to compress the AVI file to Xvid some seconds faster than an FX-57 at stock speed. When it comes to WinRAR it’s more a question of pure processing power, and the P4 is 15% behind the FX-57.
Next up, some tests of the transfer capacity of different parts of the motherboard.
To test the capacity of both onboard network cards we used IPERF, a program for measuring the transfer speed between two computers in a network. We used another computer with Gigabit LAN and connected a crossover cable from it to the respective network connectors on this board.
|nVidia NIC||Marvell Yukon||770MBit/s|
|Marvell Yukon||nVidia NIC||790MBit/s|
As we don’t have access to a network card that we know can manage 1Gbit/s, we cannot safely say that this is not the limiting factor. In any case, we can conclude that both network connections can handle more than 760MBit/s. Now we move on to the USB tests.
The fastest USB device we had at hand was a USB memory from Corsair which we tried out in all the different USB connectors to see what transfer speeds SiSoft Sandra reported.
All connections managed easily to reach maximum transfer speed to the USB memory, which is the limiting factor in this test. 16MB/s is 128MBit/s, which means that the card certainly works according to the highest transfer category of the USB 2.0 specifications. Asus hasn’t made any mistakes at all in the implementation of networking and USB on the motherboard, which works completely without remarks.
We move on to some synthetic 3D tests.
The different 3DMark programs are standard when it comes to benchmarking personal computers and give a good indication of both system and video performance. Both systems are run with a P4 660 at 3600MHz, memory at 266MHz and graphics cards at stock speeds.
Not surprisingly, it’s very even between the two boards and they each win two rounds in this test.
We move on and look at some regular game titles.
We’ve chosen three types of games to give an image of the motherboard’s performance in them. Unreal Tournament 2004 is a slightly older game which is more limited by the system than the video card itself. Far Cry and Doom3 represent a newer generation of games, based on Direct3D and OpenGL respectively, and are more demanding on the whole system.
The P5N32 board performs better in UT and Doom3 than P5WD2 but slips a bit behind in Far Cry. Despite several tries the test result was the same. Since the setups use the same hardware other than the motherboard, we draw the conclusion that the difference is because of the chipset itself.
On the next page we’ll tie it all together and sum up our experiences of the board.
It hasn’t always been easy for third-party manufacturers to compete with Intel and its own chipsets, and those who succeed have often focused on the budget segment where performance isn’t the main focus of the product. nVidia has, with its nForce4 chipset, broken this trend and created a very potent and well-performing chipset for Intel’s processors. Before we list our experiences we’re going to comment on a far from uninteresting aspect of the motherboard.
Overclocking is something that’s dear to our hearts, and part of our standard procedure is examining that part of the products we review. We have seen several hardware sites fail to overclock this, and other nForce4-based Intel motherboards, which is why we spent a considerable amount of days exploring all the possibilities. The result of these sessions has been far from impressive; as we’ve only been able to overclock the motherboard to a modest 230FSB. Other motherboards with the same chipset have had similar tendencies, which leads us to the conclusion that something in the chip itself is the limiting factor. 230FSB isn’t close to being enough to utilize the full potential of the P4 architecture, neither FSB- nor frequency-wise. We shall continue our research in this and we will return if we find a solution to this problem.
Aside from the overclocking possibilities, there are several things we like about the motherboard which we think should be put forward.
There are, however, a few things that we aren’t quite satisfied with, regarding the motherboard.
+ Very competent SLI board for Intel
+ Performance that matches or surpasses Intel’s own chipset
+ Completely passive cooling
We’d like to thank Asus for providing this board for us to review.