As we've seen in many recent high end motherboard offerings in the market these days, the A8N SLI Premium is a highly integrated product with an impressive amount of features and technology populated on a very dense PCB design. Let's have a look.
Let's start with the obvious and move on to the less obvious areas. First the back panel I/O bracket sports dual Gigabit Ethernet ports courtesy of an Intel Gig-E MAC/Phy chip and Marvell Gig-E phy chip in combination with NVIDIA's built in Gigabit MAC with NV Firewall and NV ActiveArmor intrusion detection features.
Then there is the addition of 3Gbps capable SATA hard drive support with NCQ (native command queuing) driven by the nForce 4's Southbridge chip. 3Gig SATA NCQ capable drives are just starting to show up on the market now and while we were only able to test this new Asus board with a standard SATA drive, the upgrade path to next gen SATA drives with NCQ and their theoretical 3Gbps bandwidth, double that of "SATA 150" , make it a very attractive bonus feature that users can benefit from in the months ahead as these new SATA-IO drives become more prevalent. As an aside, the SATA-IO Standards Group, has recently offered more specific definitions of what SATA II is/was exactly. As you can read here, transfer rate is only part of the equation.
Layout wise the board is well thought out, but there are a few snags along the way. There are three standard PCI slots in addition to the two PCI Express 16 graphics slots. However, in between those slots is where Asus has added a bit of new technology. Here, Asus placed several Pericom PCI Express compliant 2:1 mux/demux switches, which allow the board to be configurable on the fly in either single X16 or Dual X8 PCI Express SLI Graphics mode. There is no longer a need to open up your system and flip a PCIe configuration PCB around in its slot to go from a discrete single card config to an SLI config. Users then just have to go into the BIOS and enable or disable SLI mode depending on which they prefer to run at the time. This is just one of the refinements Asus has made to the A8N SLI, there are more but let's dwell a bit on the PCI Express slot area.
Notice the somewhat odd placement of the X1 PCIe and X4 PCIe slots, in between the X16 PCIe Graphics slots. Now the X4 slot in there may make sense for future PCI Express graphics cards that might come out with X4 lane configurations but if Asus had to put that X1 PCIe slot somewhere, perhaps a more optimal location could have been found? Regardless, with virtually zero X1 PCI Express add-in cards on the market, end users are much more likely to fill those standard PCI slots with any other peripherals that could possibly be needed in the future. Other than that, power and storage connectors are in all the right places and this board works really well cable management-wise, considering all that it has going on under the hood.
Finally, as you can see in some of the shots above the cooling on this motherboard is all passive (and completely quiet too). That is to say that there are no fans installed on the NVIDIA MCP (Media Communications Processor - which replaces the Southbridge in traditional PC architectures) or anywhere else on the board for that matter. Rather, what Asus has come up with is a very innovative heat pipe design that wicks heat away from the MCP and pipes it up to a small thin-finned cooler that is also attached to a MOSFET array on the area around the CPU socket. This is an ideal location because it can benefit from the airflow generated from an adjacent CPU heat sink and fan assembly in the main socket area. In our testing this setup did an excellent job of keeping both the MCP and the socket power array area cool, especially under the rigors of our overclocking efforts, which we'll cover for you shortly.