When ASUS unveiled their Republic of Gamers (ROG) series of products, they stated their mission clearly: "deliver the most innovative and best performing PC solutions to enhance the usage experience for power users". There's a lot in that statement to live up to, but ASUS was confident in their abilities. Over the years that we have covered many of their products, and we've seen a fair share of hardware that performed at or exceeded our expectations. Thus, when NVIDIA upped the core-logic ante last year with the introduction of the 780i chipset, one of the first boards we checked out was the ASUS P5N-T, which can be viewed here.
As with previous Republic of Gamers packages, nothing seems to be spared from inclusion. Clearly indicated on the front of the box is the full retail version of Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts - a standalone expansion to the well received real-time strategy (RTS) game that we have used in other graphic card reviews. On a separate disc come the drivers and utilities, as well as full versions of Futuremark's 3DMark06 Advanced Edition and Kaspersky's Anti-Virus. Here's a full list of what can be expected to be included in the package: A few of the more interesting pieces are the 3-way SLI connector (which comes in addition to the standard SLI cable), the LCD Poster, and the SupremeFX II Audio card. Currently only used for 8800 GTX and 8800 Ultra cards, the 3-way SLI connector is the a means of communication, other than the PCI Express interface, when using three cards in tandem. This, NVIDIA claims, will prevent any issues caused by having two cards in the PCI-E 2.0 slots (controlled by the nForce 200 chip which interfaces with the North bridge) and one card in a PCI-E 1.0 slot (that feeds into the South bridge.)
A few of the more interesting pieces are the 3-way SLI connector (which comes in addition to the standard SLI cable), the LCD Poster, and the SupremeFX II Audio card. Currently only used for 8800 GTX and 8800 Ultra cards, the 3-way SLI connector is the a means of communication, other than the PCI Express interface, when using three cards in tandem. This, NVIDIA claims, will prevent any issues caused by having two cards in the PCI-E 2.0 slots (controlled by the nForce 200 chip which interfaces with the North bridge) and one card in a PCI-E 1.0 slot (that feeds into the South bridge.)
|Close-up of the ASUS Striker II Formula|
Consistent with NVIDIA's reference design for the 780i, the slot configuration of the Striker II consists of three PCI Express x16 slots, two in blue and a white one sandwiched in between, two standard PCI slots, and a single PCI Express x1 slot. An additional x1 slot colored black is notched in the cutout of the main heatsink, and is used with the SupremeFX II audio card. The overall layout is similar to that of previous ROG boards such as the Maximus Extreme or Blitz series, except addtional heatpiping exists alongside the DIMM sockets and there aren't any mounts for water-cooling apparatuses.
The CPU Socket area seems a bit congested, what with all the fin-type radiators and power regulation. The FETs and polymer capacitors are smaller than those used on other boards, but should have an improved lifespan and enhanced thermal capacity. Along with the addition of the ASUS Energy Processing Unit or EPU, the increased number of FETs should provide a more stable and efficient working environment by providing more power when under load and improving efficiency when idle. Even the DDR2 gets a 2-phase power treatment, ensuring longer lifespan and better overclockability due to cooler temperatures and better efficiency.
Alleviating some concern about installing larger cards, the IDE and 6 SATA II ports are all on a right-angle along the front edge of the board, directly facing the drives themselves. The SATA ports wind up stacked like a pile of bricks which saves some room on the board and makes cabling a bit neater, if not more annoying when trying to remove the lower placed cable. The power connectors, floppy drive connector, and USB and front panel pins are also placed along the edge although in the standard orientation. Although their placement is rather standard, we particularly liked the positioning of the 12V Power connection, as it keeps that pesky cable from interfering with other components and works well with cables routed underneath.
Although we mentioned the various extras when we covered the packaging in the introduction, we thought a few pictures of these devices in action would be helpful. First, additional cooling can be had by installing 2 fans directly on top of each of the radiators around the CPU socket. As the 780i (and the 680i before it) runs a bit hot, any extra cooling is always welcome. The integrated audio and analog ports are handled by the SupremeFX II riser card, plugged into a specially located PCI-Express x1 slot above the main graphics card. Finally, we've got the LCD Poster connected to a set of pins just to the left of the PS/2 port, programmed with our own message, and a couple images of the lighted components onboard, including the SupremeFX II card, the ROG logo placed over the heatsink, and the power and reset buttons.
|Utilities and BIOS Options|
We also took a look at some of the utilities on the disc that came with the ASUS Striker II Formula. Futuremark's 3DMark06 Advanced Edition and Kaspersky Anti-Virus are known entities, so we focused instead on the ASUS AI Suite. This application is more or less a fancy GUI that allows the user to optimize their system without getting their hands dirty in the BIOS.
The majority of the screen is taken up by a digital representation of the FSB and CPU speeds, with the current load listed underneath. Real-time temperatures and fan speeds are displayed above, but voltages seem to be limited to CPU Voltage. Serving as a starting point, the buttons on the lower left side launch separate utilities including AI Gear 3, AI Booster, AI Nap, CPU Level Up, and Q-Fan 2.
AI Booster takes the chore of overclocking and makes it a one-click wonder. You can choose percentages you want to overclock your system by, such as a tame 5% or a robust 20%. The downside is this effects the CPU speed only without being able to raise voltages or set memory dividers. Depending on the chosen hardware, it's possible that the settings will work without any further tweaking. CPU Level Up, which we will encounter later in the BIOS, is a more thorough overclocking application - as long as you have one of the CPUs listed in the picture. If so, CPU Level Up will provide a more comprehensive overclocking experience, tuning frequencies, voltages, and memory timings to work within that setup. AI Gear 3 works hand-in-hand with the EPU chip that automatically adjust processor frequency and core voltage for different computing needs. Using the Gearshift, the user can choose from Turbo, High Performance, Medium Power Saving, and Max power saving modes. These only come into play when not overclocking the system, however, as the application will not even launch when doing so. Not pictured are AI Nap and Q-Fan 2, which put the PC into sleep mode or control fan speeds for either better cooling or quieter operation.
Moving onward, AI NET2 checks for ethernet cable issues by testing one or both of the cables connected to the LAN jacks during the POST routine. Just about all onboard devices can be enabled or disabled including setting up SATA RAID, HD Audio, as well as the LAN and FireWire capabilities. This section also covers the LCD Poster, allowing the user to turn it on or off, provide a backlight, or choose their display. The default option is to show the current time, but this can be changed to show a short text string entered on the next line. This is probably where some of the latter items on the Extreme Tweaking page should have went, but it's not a huge issue.
Getting back to the Extreme Tweaker, this BIOS practically screams overclocking as the very first two options involve some kind of pre-set routines. CPU Level Up will optimize the board's voltages and memory dividers provided the CPU is one of a chosen few: E6600, E6700, X6800, or E6850. It will be interesting to see if newer CPUs are added in future BIOS revisions. Using the AI Overclock Tuner, a manual attempt can be initiated, or the user can choose from Auto, Standard, AI Overclock or, wait for it, CPU Level Up. Auto and Standard are just other terms or optimal or default settings, and don't necessarily fall under the OC guise. AI Overclock enables the same options found in the AI Booster, providing percentages to raise the CPU speed by, but without any other tweaking. Once you've chosen your desired overclocking options, you can save them under an O.C. Profile which can be restored at another time.
Selecting a manual overclock is where it all gets exciting, as this enables the manipulation of clock speeds, voltages, and other goodies to get that CPU cooking. Memory timings are actually located here as well, which might throw some people off if they don't associate the two. A quick check under Power will show you the current voltages and temperatures - a good section to keep an eye on to head off any potential issues when raising bus speeds. Over Voltage allows the boosting of the voltage for each component, including some values that should be considered dangerous to the lifespan of the hardware. Here are some of the ranges:
Choosing a voltage in the BIOS not only colors it green, yellow, or red in the BIOS, warning you of danger, but LEDs placed around the board will also light up as well. These LEDs can be separately configured to display any three of the voltages listed above.
|Test Systems and PCMark Vantage|
How we configured our test systems:When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for DDR2-800 with 4-4-4-12 timings. The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows Vista Ultimate was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
For our first round of benchmarks, we ran all of the modules built into Futuremark's PCMark Vantage test suite which was updated using the November 2007 Hotfix. Vantage is a new Windows Vista-only benchmarking tool that we've incorporated into our arsenal of tests here at HotHardware. Here's how Futuremark positions their new benchmarking tool:
The Asus Formula Striker II improves over the older 680i chipset used on the MSI P6N Diamond by just over 100 points, yet still comes in second overall to Asus' other board, the Formula Blitz, based on the Intel P35. Since the overall score is derived from individual Windows Vista Scenarios as well as subsets of the individual tests, it remains to be seen where the 780i really shines.
"Our memories are often kept in digital form. Here, large digital photos in HD Photo format are stretched, flipped and rotated using the CPU. Plenty of system memory is highly beneficial for manipulating large images. Importing digital photos to Windows Photo Gallery is where a high performance HDD shines. More and more image manipulation is being done using the GPU, enabling instantaneous color correction, sharpening and softening of images. Home video editing with Windows Movie Maker can be very time-consuming – unless you have a high performance HDD. Home videos recorded on digital video cameras are sometimes transcoded and transferred to a portable media player. High definition videos are often archived in media servers. It may, however, be handy to have them transcoded and transferred to a portable media player. A fast CPU with many cores can handle transcoding swiftly." - Futuremark
Memories 1 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU image manipulation and HDD picture import
The Memories Suite of tests painted the Striker II Formula in a good light, besting both of the other boards quite handily. The difference was most dramatic when moving from the 680i to the 780i, although the two boards are basically using the same architecture.
"High definition TV broadcasts and movies have arrived. Playing an HD DVD with additional HD content, a Blu-ray movie, or watching HDTV smoothly (while making a backup of an HD DVD by transcoding to a media server or transcoding from a media server archive to a portable media player) requires lots of computing and graphical power. Windows Media Center with a high performance HDD can handle simultaneous video recording, time-shifting, and streaming to an Extender for Windows Media Center, such as Xbox 360™."
TV and Movies 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback: HD DVD w/ additional lower bitrate HD content from HDD, as downloaded from the net
Vantage's TV and Movies test has the Striker II in a slight lead over the 680i-based P6N Diamond. Both of the NVIDIA chipset boards are also performing a hair faster than the Intel P35 board as well. But, will this trend continue?
|PCMark Vantage (continued)|
We continue our test coverage with the remaining modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks. Unlike the majority of our benchmarks, Vantage takes nearly and hour and a half to complete its round of tests, hitting upon all facets of hardware and drivers to come up with its results.
Courtesy, Futuremark: "Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment for all ages. Today’s games demand high performance graphics cards and CPUs to avoid delays and sluggish performance while playing. Loading screens in games are yesterday’s news. Streaming data from an HDD in games – such as Alan Wake™ – allows for massive worlds and riveting non-stop action. CPUs with many cores give a performance advantage to gamers in real-time strategy and massively multiplayer games. Gaming Suite includes the following tests: "
Gaming 1 - GPU game test
PCMark Vantage's Gaming benchmark has the 680i and 780i based boards deadlocked in this department, but the Asus Blitz Formula leapfrogged both of them to take the top spot. So far, the 780i and P35 boards have been bouncing around at the top.
"Online music shops have changed the way we purchase music, letting us buy exactly the tracks we want, right from home. Cataloguing your music library is a breeze for fast and powerful HDDs. The most common audio file formats decrease your music’s audio quality which is undesirable. Luckily, lossless audio file formats are becoming more popular. Transcoding from non-compressed audio to a lossless format is heavily taxing on the CPU. Transcoding your audio files from one format to another is much quicker and easier using high performance CPUs."
Vantage Music suite includes the following tests:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Web page rendering – w/ music shop content, Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
The lead here is much less pronounced, but the Blitz Formula again takes the top spot over the Striker II Formula. The MSI P6N Diamond is further back, almost 100 PCMarks behind the other two boards.
"To compress and encrypt all personal information is vital for safe computing. Emails are the most important type of communication, whether it is personal or business. To keep the workflow smooth and enjoyable, high performance CPUs and HDDs are recommended. Reading news online while having your cup of coffee is quality-time. Often one site isn’t enough, so tabbed browsing is a perfect solution for news-hungry people. Spyware is very common on systems without protection against it, letting Windows Defender scan & protect your system is recommended. Voice over IP – with Skype™ or Windows Live Messenger – is very popular these days. Encrypted messaging for home and workplace gives additional security."
Communications 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Data compression, Web page rendering: graphics content, 1024x768, windowed
Vantage's Communications Suite represents another "win" for the P35, beating out the other two boards. The 780i-based Striker II Formula board actually came out in last in this test, although the margin of difference between it and the P6N Diamond was only 4 points.
"Starting various applications can take a long time – unless you have a high performance HDD. Editing text with WordPad is a breeze when done with fast CPUs and graphics cards. Often one site isn’t enough, so tabbed browsing is a perfect solution for highly productive people. Spyware is very common on systems without protection against it, letting Windows Defender scan & protect your system is recommended. Starting Windows Vista is a rather demanding task for the storage device, but a fast HDD will notably decrease the loading time. Our busy lives find us hard at work, balancing multiple tasks; with little time for breaks. It’s the same for our computers. Multiple tasks, running simultaneously, put your system under a lot of stress. Having a modern, up-to-date CPU, HDD, graphics card and board full of system memory increases your computer’s productivity and reduces your stress."
Productivity 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Text editing, HDD: application loading
Finally, the Productivity Suite also was a solid win for the Formula Blitz. On the other hand, the Striker II Formula was placed in the middle of the Blitz and the P6N Diamond. Although the testing started out favorably for the Striker II, these last sets of modules all belonged to Intel, helping place the Blitz Formula into the lead in the overall score that we saw earlier.
POV-Ray, or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is an open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard included benchmarking model on all of our test machines and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second (PPS)throughput.
Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D. Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below, listed in seconds.
|3DMark06 and LAME MT MP3 Encoding|
3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance. Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering. The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.
CPU performance based on 3DMark's results also placed the three boards in a very close knit group, with the Blitz Formula once again in the lead. On the bright side, the Striker II Formula has moved up into second place, 13 points behind. We're still looking at a margin of difference less than a single percent, however.
LAME MT is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications. In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file and converted it to the MP3 format using this multi-thread capable application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Here, shorter times equate to better performance.
|Low-Res Gaming Framerates|
For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with the Crysis SP demo and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we dropped the resolution to 800x600, and reduced all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
Gaming frame rates, at least, are more favorable to the ASUS Striker II Formula and seeing as how this is a product of the "ROG" line that's probably a good thing. In Crysis, the Striker II edged out the Blitz motherboard by just under a frame. The roles were reversed in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, however, with the Blitz taking the lead by just over two frames. In both gaming engines, the 680i board placed last.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The performance of the ASUS Striker II Formula board was in line with the last 780i-based board we looked at. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as it improved upon the numbers from a 680i board that we used for comparison, yet fell a few points shy from matching another one of ASUS' board, the Blitz Formula that used an Intel chipset. One area we had really hoped for better numbers was in overclocking, as the Striker II Formula comes with a slew of options to choose from in this regard, but we couldn't get a much better overclock than our previous efforts a few months back.
As we concluded our look at the ASUS Striker II Formula, we went back to the original premise: does this board live up to the terms of Republic of Gamers' mission statement? Does it provide the fastest performance? Is it the most innovative?
From a performance standpoint, we can say that this motherboard provided a good experience. It didn't exactly knock the socks off any of us during the benchmarking runs, typically giving us only slightly better numbers than a MSI P6N Diamond using the previous nForce 680i chipset. It was however, a very stable platform for testing, something that anyone can truly appreciate. Our overall overclocking experience fell a bit short of what we were hoping, especially considering the number of settings in the BIOS, but as we always like to say, "your mileage may vary".
Innovation, and a nifty bundle, are what truly set this board apart from others. Power users will be pleased by the LED Poster and onboard Power and Reset buttons, not to mention the rear-mounted Clear CMOS button. And hardcore gamers with deep pockets can dream of 3-Way SLI configurations. Unfortunately, Stan Lee said it best when he said, "with great power there must also come