|A8N SLI Premium Specs & Bundle|
We probably haven't stressed this often enough, whether to you our faithful readers or to our OEM contacts in the PR and Product teams at various companies we work with here at HotHardware. But let it be known unequivocally now, we LOVE board revisions. Don't get us wrong, we're not losing it on you. We'd rather a manufacturer get their product right, out of the gate (and likely, so would they) but when a board revision means taking an already impressive product and making it better, it's sort of like a Tech Editor's nirvana; fewer headaches in testing, more performance, better features and usability. Wait, that's what end users are interested in too, isn't it? Great minds think alike we would say...
So, Asus did what we've been hoping many others in their competitive arena would do, take what is an already killer nForce 4 SLI for AMD based design and make it better. Better you say? How so? Let's take a collective look at the new Asus A8N SLI Premium and help you decide if it's better than its predecessor the A8N SLI Deluxe. "Deluxe", "Premium", it all sounds good but is the second gen product better? Judge for yourselves in the pages ahead.
A quick take at the above specifications versus those of the Deluxe version of the A8N SLI, show a few major differences to an otherwise very similar configuration. First, Asus' new "AI Cool Pipe" technology has been incorporated into the design, offering completely silent operation, at least at the motherboard level. More details to follow on this. Second Asus has refined their dual PCI Express SLI Graphics approach with a jumperless and software/BIOS configurable solution, that no longer requires you to pull out and flip around a PCI Express configuration PCB in between the slots. Again we'll take a closer look at the technology behind this in the pages ahead.
One thing is for certain, Asus isn't cutting back on their hardware and software bundle for the A8N SLI Premium. As is standard with most high end boards from Asus, the A8N SLI Premium comes packed with cables, additional USB, Firewire, SATA and other IO expansion brackets along with an Asus motherboard only keyed version of InterVideo WinDVD Suite. Within this multimedia pack comes DVD Copy 2.5, Disc Master 2.5, WinDVD Creator 2 and PhotoAlbum 1.0. Finally, the Asus utilities and drivers disc, in addition to all the required motherboard chipset drivers and such, also includes Asus' proprietary utilities like "AI Booster" for overclocking, "AI Selector" for Windows-based SLI configuration and PC Probe, Asus' Health Monitoring software.
|A8N SLI Premium Up Close|
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.
|BIOS, Overclocking & Utilities|
When it comes to the current "enthusiast class" highly configurable BIOS, Asus boards like the A8N SLI series have evolved to a level unsurpassed and equaled by a mere few in the market like Abit, DFI and MSI. The AN8 SLI Premium's BIOS menus are certainly no departure, and even the most tweak-crazed performance junkie will find the tools required within, to push the envelope nicely.
The A8N SLI Premium's BIOS options are wide-ranging and plentiful. CPU clock speeds and voltages, DDR speeds and voltages, Hypertransport link ratios, chipset voltages, all can be modified with a nice wide range of settings and good granularity. We do have a couple of small quibbles however. Asus' PEG Link (PCI Express Graphics Link) feature which is essentially a PCI Express Graphics card overclocking mechanism, with its rather ambiguous settings of Fast, Normal, Slow etc, doesn't really seem to do anything more than raise GPU core timings just a tad and shows no significant benefit on some graphics cards, like GeForce 6800GTs. In some cases, we've seen it cause some bugs with ATi based graphics cards affecting the otherwise superb stability of this motherboard. So, while it's really a unique added feature Asus brings to the table our advice is that users should shy away from PEG Link and if they are hell-bent on overclocking their graphics cards, use a utility like PowerStrip or NVIDIA's coolbits registry mod.
The other issue with the BIOS that is a bit misleading is that the memory speed settings suggest direct correlations in the memory clocks, when in fact they are multipliers or division off the main system, HT link and CPU base clock speed. For example a DDR400 setting would suggest an asynchronous 400MHz DDR speed, when in fact it's a 1:1 ratio based off the system clock, or in the case of a 225MHz system bus speed, you're looking at a clock double DDR450 speed setting although in the BIOS you have it set to "DDR400". A bit confusing for sure but we were able to work with the myriad of options in this menu area, like DDR333, 400, 433 settings and the like, all which correlate to different multipliers or divisors and not their listed speeds.
Other than that, the A8N SLI Premium's BIOS menu options are simply a top notch enthusiast class offering that will leave few wanting more features to play with. Two of our favorite features are the most simplistic. The board will automatically reset BIOS CPU and Memory timings to default settings upon repeated failed boot-ups, which really helps in finding that overclocking sweet spot. And you can always hold down the insert key on power-up as well, which effectively does the same thing. The other thing that is all too often unavailable in most BIOS options, is the ability for the board to boot from a mapped PS2 keyboard command. In the test lab, there's nothing like being able to just hit the space bar and power up. Macs have had this for years and years, why not PCs? The A8N SLI Premium does and it's a beautiful thing in all its simplicity.
Asus' AI Booster is a Windows based overclocking utility that will dynamically overclock the processor while under load. Users can choose between a 103%, 105%, 108% and 110% overclock. The utility also has integrated health monitoring functions in an attractive dashboard like interface. AI Selector on the other hand is a bit less novel in its functionality. It essentially just does what NVIDIA's Forceware drivers will do, enabling SLI or single graphic slot configurations from within Windows. The only bonus really is that AI Selector allows this functionality with a single mouse click and then a subsequent reboot.
Manual BIOS driven overclocking with the A8N SLI Premium turned out to be quite a productive effort and a whole lot of fun in the process.
In this test, we took the recently launch .09 micron Athlon FX 64 FX-57 out for some overclocking punishment. Although the remainder of our benchmark scores were taken with a stock speed Athlon 64 FX-53. Regardless, our test results speak for themselves. The A8N SLI Premium is a superb overclocker. We dropped the CPU multiplier to 12X, bumped the core CPU core voltage to 1.475, cranked the system bus (or HT link speed) to 258MHz, changed the HT multiplier setting to 4X and DDR speed setting to DDR333. The net timings were as follows: CPU clock speed 3.1GHz, HT Link speed 1032MHz, and DDR Memory speeds of 412MHz CAS2. This was easily the fastest we've ever seen an AMD processor run on air cooling. Incidentally, our CPU cooler of choice was a Zalman CNPS7700-Cu, which is a reasonably priced, high performance and very quiet copper CPU cooler.
|Test System & SANDRA Testing|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered the system BIOS and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." We then manually configured our system RAM to run at 200MHz (DDR400), with the timings set to CL 2,2,25 settings. The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. Then we installed all of the necessary drivers and removed Windows Messenger from the system altogether. Auto-Updating and System Restore were also disabled, and we set up a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drive, and ran all of the tests. Our World Bench 5 tests were done on a completely clean install as the very first batch of tests we ran.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory). All of these tests were run with our A64 FX-53 processor set to its default clock speed of 2.4GHz (12x200MHz).
The A8N SLI Premium clocked in at just about where we expected for an Asus board, slightly aggressive on the stock CPU timings at 2.42GHz for our Athlon 64 FX-53 processor. This board and CPU combo also shows characteristic strength as far as single core processors go, in both Integer and Floating point performance. However, SANDRA's tests heavily favor the multi-threaded capabilities of the Pentium 4, so the reference system scores reflect that advantage. In the "real world" those of you in the know most likely realize that these numbers don't directly correlate to actual application performance but rather are an indication of specific "Processor Optimized" performance.
The memory bandwidth scores on the other hand are pretty much straight forward raw throughput numbers that scale across architectures, memory and bus speeds. Here the Athlon 64 FX-53 and the A8N SLI Premium, with standard DDR DRAM at 400MHz CL2 settings, put up memory scores competitive with DDR2 667MHz memory, thanks in part due to the Athlon 64's low latency on board memory controller.
|PCMark05 CPU and Memory Testing|
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's brand new PCMark05. This is the first time we've worked with PCMark 05 and found it to be even more robust in terms of test features, than its predecessor. That said, the CPU and Memory test modules we use for comparison are very similar to the 04 version of the test suite. For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do, and how they work.
"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
The scores above are no big surprise, as one would expect, most nForce 4 motherboard designs, at stock speeds are generally right on top of each other performance wise. The MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI comes in slightly behind the A8N's but the scores are so close, the difference is negligible.
"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing." - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
Our PCMark 05 showed a very interesting anomaly we've seen on three different but identical Asus A8N SLI Deluxe boards here at HotHardware, and even when using the PCMark 04 version of the test suite. The A8N SLI Deluxe, for reasons unknown to us at the moment, will lock up in the middle of the 8 or 16MB block write portion of the test. Initially, we thought this was an issue with the processor but we have since determined it to be an A8N SLI Deluxe problem, due to the fact that both the MSI K8N Neo4 SLI and the new A8N SLI Premium are able to complete this test successfully.
|Photoshop & Office XP|
PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmark, poised to replace the aging and no-longer supported Winstone tests. WorldBench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance. Below we have the results from WB 5's Photoshop 7 and Office XP modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance.
That's what you call a photo finish, no pun intended. Or was it? Regardless, the A8N SLI Premium proves it's fastest by 1 second over the MSI board and the older A8N SLI Deluxe. However, we could have re-run this test a few more times and got variances that would show slightly different readings here. So consider this a virtual tie.
This is getting a bit bland we realize but the moral to the story here is that, as far as standard every-day desktop business applications go, most nForce 4 motherboards are going to show nearly identical performance. Let's move on to a few things more rigorous.
|Windows Media Encoder 9 & Lame MP3|
We continued testing these nForce 4 SLI based motherboards with a benchmark based on Windows Media Encoder 9. PC World Bench 5's Windows Media Encoding test reports encoding times in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance.
Once again all entrants posted scores well within this test's margin of error. The MSI board did lag ever so slightly but with a 2 second delta, you would have to agree that there really isn't much difference between these motherboard designs, with respect to this benchmark reference point.
In our custom Lame MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV digital audio file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. In this test, we chose a large 223MB file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format. Processing times are recorded below. Shorter times equate to better performance.
A tie ball game once again, but are there any tests we can show you that exhibit a real measurable difference in performance? We'll keep digging in deeper, not to worry.
|Kribibench 3D Modeling and Rendering|
Next up, we ran Kribibench, a rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer. A 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU, and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: an "Exploded Sponge" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and a gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys...
If we're looking for a performance difference somewhere in the mix, Kribibench isn't the test to shed any light on the subject. Once again, this CPU-intensive test reports back numbers that show simply a virtual dead heat.
|Cinebench and 3DMark 05|
The Cinebench 2003 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. 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).
Since we're working with all single-thread only capable Athlon 64 configurations here, we ran Cinebench's single processor test exclusively. Although if we ran some Pentium 4 Hyperthreading enabled, Pentium 8XX series or Athlon 64 X2 CPUs through the multi-processor settings of this test, we're certain times would be much lower (faster) than what you're seeing here from the Athlon 64 FX-53 we used in testing. This is one application where multi-threaded processing is highly beneficial. However, in our apples to apples test, based on a single Athlon 64 FX-53 core, once again we're witness to utterly identical performance characteristics amongst the motherboards we tested, with the Asus A8N SLI Premium squeaking in a tenth of a second sooner.
3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance. This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central host processor. The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.
Finally, in the 3DMark05 CPU test, we see something noteworthy in terms of relative performance. The A8N SLI Premium musters about a 100 point advantage over its older Deluxe version sibling and nearly that much over the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI. We're going to attribute this performance delta to perhaps the tighter, more aggressive CPU and HT timings of the A8N SLI Premium but in all candor that's a bit of speculation on our part.
|UT2004 and Doom 3 CPU Tests|
To start our in-game testing, we did some low-resolution benchmarking with Unreal Tournament 2004. When testing with UT 2004, we use a specific set of game engine initialization settings that ensure all of the systems are being benchmarked with the exact same in-game settings and graphical options. Like some of the other in-game tests in this review, we used a "Low-Quality" graphical settings and low screen resolution which isolates CPU and memory performance.
Here the two Asus A8N SLI boards show themselves to be just a few frames behind the MSI K8N Neo Platinum SLI. We would attribute small difference to the on-board sound solutions that are on each of the motherboards. The MSI board actually has a full-fledged Creative SoundBlaster Live! 24 chip powering its sound processing, so even though the A8N SLI boards may be timed a bit more aggressively at the CPU level, the K8N Neo4's dedicated sound chip, gives it a slight edge. Regardless, with a similar sound card installed in one of the A8N SLI Premium's PCI slots, we're fairly certain the net result would be another too-close-to-call finish.
For our next game test, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom multi-player Doom 3 timedemo. We cranked the resolution down to 640 x 480, and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. Although Doom 3 typically taxes today's high-end GPUs, when it's configured at these minimal settings it too is more CPU / Memory-bound than anything else.
This time the Asus boards show a slight advantage over the MSI nForce 4 SLI board, but again this benchmark essentially shows comparable performance all around. Turn up the resolution and graphics settings and the numbers would map out even tighter. We'll do just that for you, along with some SLI dual GPU driven testing, next.
|Doom 3 & Splinter Cell CT - SLI Testing|
With Doom 3's graphical settings configured for "high quality" mode and the screen resolution turned up to 1600X1200, the game engine and graphics rendering loads are a heavy burden for even one of the most powerful Graphics Processors on the market today, the GeForce 6800GT. Certainly the recently released GeForce 7800GTX would have a much easier time with this, but then again a pair of 6800GTs in parallel at least in theory should offer nearly twice the performance.
As expected, this high resolution in-game test benefits in a big way from dual GeForce 6800GTs in an SLI configuration. Also as we envisioned, all three boards we tested, including the new Asus A8N SLI Premium posted scores within 1% of each, performance wise, whether configured with single graphics or an SLI setup.
Leading edge DirectX 9 driven graphical effects, like those that can be found in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, also showed the three nForce 4 SLI motherboards we tested to perform at essentially identical levels. Obviously, while the new A8N SLI Premium is a top end enthusiast class motherboard that is ideal for gaming, its new all digital SLI configuration design (versus the mechanical SLI configuration PCBs that are found on the A8N SLI Deluxe and MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI) does not afford it any advantage in performance. However, without question, its benefits are obvious with respect to ease of use and possibly even reliability, due to the fact that single card or SLI settings can be configured by a simple toggle of the BIOS and driver setting.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
When all is said and done, judging these nForce 4 SLI AMD-based solutions, solely on performance, is an exercise in futility. All three of these nForce 4 SLI based motherboards, including our spotlight Asus A8N SLI Premium board that we tested in this article, performed at near identical levels in virtually every benchmark. Technically speaking, the Asus AN8 Premium scored the most first place finishes in our tests, followed by the A8N SLI Deluxe, and then the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI. However all boards tested in most cases were within 2% of each other in raw performance metrics. So, we're essentially left with differentiating feature sets, build quality, stability and price points of each motherboard tested, as the leading indicators with which we can asses the Asus AN8 SLI Premium's overall value.
What can be said about the new Asus A8N SLI Premium, that isn't obvious to you with all that you've seen in the pages preceding our summation here? Frankly, not much. The performance numbers speak for themselves. The A8N SLI Premium's feature-set is second to none, with its dual on board SATA RAID controllers (one via the nForce 4 MCP), SLI Dual Graphics capability, dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and a completely silent cooling solution for the NVIDIA MCP (Southbridge) that also works to keep the CPU power array cool as well. Finally, it terms of overclocking features and general "tweakability", the A8N SLI Premium is easily one of the best equipped boards we've seen come through the labs here for the Athlon 64 in a very long time. And it performed admirably, overclocking our A64 FX-57 chip to a snappy 3.1GHz.
A quick HotHardware PriceGrabber search for the A8N SLI Premium shows the board weighing in at right around $175 and in stock at some very popular net retailers like NewEgg and ZipZoomFly. This puts the board, along with it's well equipped bundle right in line with other boards we've recently tested in Marco's NF4 SLI Round-Up back in March. Against the back-drop of all these other highly regarded nForce 4 SLI boards we've looked at thus far, the Asus A8N SLI Premium stands tall, as one of the best values available right now, if the Athlon 64 is your processor of choice and the ability to scale to Dual PCIe Graphics is something you would like to keep in your future. We've rarely done this here at HotHardware but we're giving the Asus A8N SLI Premium our Editor's Choice Award, which it will now share with DFI's LANPARTY UT nF4 SLI-DR.