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Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal Motherboard
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Date: Mar 13, 2006
Section:Motherboards
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction

For the better part of the last decade, there has only been two major players in the discreet graphics field, and as one of those players, nVidia needs no introduction. The GPU manufacturer has stayed at or near the forefront of technological advances through the years. Although there has been a misstep or two along the way, you generally can expect something good to emerge from their R&D labs. And we aren't speaking strictly about the company's GPUs. They have also been a major player in the chipset business with their very successful nForce products.

As time moved onward, the nForce chipset has matured and evolved to the point that it is now considered one of the "must-haves" for enthusiasts. nVidia had, in effect, started a nice little niche for themselves starting with the nForce 4 SLI boards. These boards not only were performing on the same level or better then their competition, but they offered up the first taste of dual-video card setups, of course using nVidia's own graphics cards. It was a win-win situation for nVidia. Without too many other options to choose from, a potential buyer was looking at purchasing a motherboard and two video cards, all from nVidia's stable.

We're now looking at the next generation of this chipset, called the nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition X16, which fixes some compatibility issues as well as doubles the number of PCI Express lanes for the graphics cards. Our first look a few months back at the Asus P5N32-SLI was not overly favorable, but that was the first such motherboard to hit the market. With the extra time that Gigabyte has had with the GA-8N-SLI, we hope to find some improvement.


    
CLICK ON ANY IMAGE FOR A CLOSER VIEW

Specifications of the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal
Gigabyte gives us the Royal treatment
Processor
- LGA775 Intel Pentium D / Pentium 4 Processor
- Supports 1066/800/533MHz FSB


Chipset
- Northbridge: nVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 Intel Edition

- Southbridge: nVIDIA CK804

Memory
- 4x DDR2 DIMM Memory Slots (supports up to 8GB)
- Supports Dual channel DDR2 667/533 unbuffered DIMMs
- Supports 1.8V DDR2 DIMMs

Storage/RAID
- 2 ports from CK804 (IDE1/IDE2) allows connection of 4 IDE devices
- UDMA 33/ATA 66/ATA 100/ATA 133


- 4 SATA 3GB/s ports from CK804 controller (SATA1, SATA2, SATA3, SATA4)
- Supports RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5 function
- Supports data transfer rate of up to 300 MB/s

Audio
- ALC850 CODEC
- Supports 2/4/6/8 channel audio

- Supports S/PDIF IN and S/PDIF Out (optical and coaxial) connections
- CD-IN connection

LAN
- Two RJ-45 jacks

- Onboard Agere ET1310 chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)
- Onboard Marvell 88E1111 phy (10/100/1000 Mbit)

Slots
- Four PCI Express X16 slots:
- Two PCI Express x1 slots

- One PCI slot

IEEE 1394
- Texas Instruments IEEE 1394 controller

- Supports up to 3x 1394 ports with transfer rate up to 400Mbp

Onboard Connectors
- 1 x Floppy port supports 1 FDD
- 1 x PS/2 keyboard, 1 x PS/2 mouse

- 1 x Serial port (COMA)
- 1 x Parallel port supports Normal/EPP/ECP modes
- 10 x USB 2.0 (Rear x 4 / Front x 6)
- 2 x RJ-45 Gigabit LAN jacks

- 2 x IEEE 1394a connectors

BIOS
- Uses licensed AWARD BIOS
- Supports Dual BIOS/Q-Flash/Multi-language BIOS

Dimensions

- ATX form factor 30.5 cm. (L) x 24.4cm. (W)

Additional Features
- NVIDIA SLI multi-GPU support
- Bluetooth Connectibity
- NVIDIA Firewall
- Xpress(TM) Installation and Recovery 2
- C.I.A. 2 (CPU Intelligent Accelerator 2)
- M.I.B. 2 (Memory Intelligent Booster 2)







The Bundle:

The GA-8N-SLI is packaged in an oversized box complete with huge pictures that display the various features of the motherboard including the Quad PCIe slots and RAID configurations.  Also on display in a small window was a Bluetooth USB dongle that allows for instant connectivity to any Bluetooth enabled device.

From that point, the bundle consists of mostly expected paraphernalia, but with a few oddities as well, some of which are specifically tuned to the GA-8N-SLI.  For starters, there are three sets of brackets used to supplement the connections on the board itself.  Two of these brackets are simply 2 USB port extenders, but the third has not only two USB ports, but also two FireWire ports.  An I/O shield completes the set, with openings to match the external connections, although some of the metal pieces still need to be punched out first.

While multiple GPUs are the focus of the GA-8N-SLI, multiple drive arrays are also expected, and as such Gigabyte has included flat-ribbon ATA and floppy cables and four orange-colored SATA cables which match the on-board SATA connectors.  The cables have a useful locking mechanism, which prevents them from slipping loose while tooling about inside the case.

It's expected that SLI requires some kind of special configuration tools, and there are two of them.  The first is the SLI bridge, which is used to bridge two of the same model nVidia GeForce cards to increase performance.  The second are two chips that need to be installed in the board depending on the number and type of cards that are used.  Finally, a small, relatively flimsy fan is provided, which can optionally be installed over the northbridge.

 

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Layout and Features

  

Layout and Features of the GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal
Why settle for two graphic cards when you can have four?

The GA-8N-SLI uses a 4 phase voltage regulation system, which can be seen spaced neatly around the CPU socket. Interspersed are a few lower profile capacitors, the end result being a clear area around the CPU perfect for installing larger third-party coolers. That being said, the power connectors are placed a bit awkwardly. The 24-pin ATX connector is fine, placed directly on the edge of the board near the DIMM sockets. The 4 (or 8-pin) ATX connector is placed on the far side of the CPU and NorthBridge, which requires some tricky wiring, especially if using the 8-pin type. Running the wires up or around the heatsinks restricts airflow, which is a no-no with today's hot CPUs.

    

    

The list of expansion slots include four PCI Express x16 slots, two PCI Express x1 slots and a single PCI slot. The PCI-E slots are defined further by having two black colored slots on the outer edges and two blue slots towards the middle. By default, the black slots are set up as 1x, while the blue slots are designed to be run at x16 speed. Thus, in a single card environment, you would be installing the video card into the second available slot rather than the first. A single SLI connection can occupy the first two, the middle two, or the latter two slots using the SLI bridge connector.  The optimum placement here is the middle two slots, which will fully utilize the 32 available lanes for the graphics cards.  Using the outer sets limits the number to 16 lanes, essentially the same as the original nForce4 SLI chipset.  To manage these scenarios, the user must install one of two SLI switches, with the appropriate side facing inwards.

    

    

As you can imagine, the four full-sized PCI-e x16 graphics slots require that other components be moved around a bit. As such, the lower corner around the southbridge is much busier than a typical motherboard. This region is fully populated with four SATA-II ports which are controlled by the nearby SouthBridge, as well as the two IDE ports and three USB connectors. The SouthBridge itself is covered by a very thin active heatsink with a grated top. Of course, there's no way that any larger heatsink or fan combination could have been installed here, as it is possible that two video cards will be running directly over the top. Along with the battery and front panel pins, there's an LED readout for diagnosing system errors. Even when turned off, the numbers '00' are lit up, which can be seen glowing in cases with window panels. Even though this could be used to let the user know that the system is still receiving power, we would rather not have anything lit on our board when not being used.

    

    

The rear panel comes fully stocked with two PS/2 ports for standard keyboards and mice, a legacy parallel port, Coaxial and Toslink audio out jacks, one Firewire port, four USB ports and two Gigabit RJ-45 ethernet jacks. There are also 6 audio jacks to use with the onboard sound. On the board itself, there are no less than seven 3-pin connectors for fans, including the CPU, Southbridge, and optional Northbridge coolers. The SouthBridge HSF is pre-installed, as past results have shown this chipset can often run quite hot. The NorthBridge is normally saddled by a larger passive heatink, but why waste the optional cooler and 3-pin connection? The fan barely adds in any additional noise, and the blue LEDs incorporated into the fan add a nice touch.

 

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BIOS Features

 

Examining the BIOS of the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI
Tinkering with this and that...

Gigabyte uses an AWARD BIOS for the GA-8N-SLI, that is both similar to most users, but at the same time unique.  The main menu options are straight-forward and point you directly to the BIOS sections you are looking for.  Typical of most Gigabyte motherboards, hitting CTRL-F1 brings up a few extra options usually reserved for the most hardcore tweakers and/or overclockers.

    

    

For the most part, setting up the basics of a system requires determining which onboard devices to enable such as the audio CODECs, single or dual LAN jacks, or even the legacy ports.  Standard rule of thumb says if you won't be using that port then it's best off to leave it disabled.  Drive options are numerous, befitting the SouthBridge's abilities, ranging anywhere from single drive setups to multi-disks in a RAID array.  Once these options are decided, it's always best to take a quick peek into the health of your PC, which visually displays temperatures, voltages, and fan speeds.  If anything appears out of whack, you should check into correcting the problem before continuing further.

Assuming everything is running correctly, it's time to get to the real meat-and-potatoes of the BIOS, a screen called the M.I.T., short for the MB Intelligent Tweaker.  Keeping with the not so cryptic nomenclature, the first two options to look into are C.I.A.2 and C.A.M.  C.I.A.2, or CPU Intelligent Accelerator 2, is Gigabyte's version of an automatic overclocking utility that only kicks in when the CPU is running full throttle for 10 seconds or more.  There are varying degrees that can be set, starting from Cruise and going up to Full Thrust mode, which aims to overclock the CPU by about 17-19%.  C.A.M. is probably less useful for most users, as it only allows users of unlocked CPUs to set the clock ratio to High or Low.

Of course, many users will want to find out the limits of their system on their own, so rather than enable C.I.A.2 they will want to go the System Clock Mode and choose either Linked or Expert Modes.  Linked allows the user to raise the clock speed, but doing so will raise the CPU and Memory at the same time.  Expert, on the other hand, allows the clocks to be raised asynchronously.  Separate speeds can be entered so that the CPU, Memory, or both are left at their original speeds or overclocked.  Gigabyte allows the user much freedom in the way the GA-8N-SLI is used.

    

    

More advanced options are available further down the M.I.T. page, some of which are expected, but at least one requires a little forethought.  As the GA-8N-SLI technically supports up to 5 graphics cards, there needs to be a way to decide which one is the primary adapter.  Any card can be selected, although PEG Slot 2 is, by default, the first choice.  This means, contrary to most builds, the card should be installed in the second PCI-e slot, rather than the first to get optimal performance.  Installing more than one card involves the installation of the paddle board, but also a little tweaking in the BIOS as well.  Depending on which way the SLI card is installed determines the slot lane configuration options.  For the majority of us, choosing 1-16-16-1 here will result in enabling 16 PCI-e lanes for PEG slots 2 and 3 - perfect for single card or SLI configurations.

 

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Testing Setup and SANDRA Scores

  

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 their "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults".  The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 was installed. Then we installed all of the necessary drivers, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were disabled, and we setup a 1536MB 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 drives and ran all of the tests.

Test System Specifications
Intel and NVIDIA come out of their corners!
Motherboards Tested:
Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal (nForce 4 SLI X16 Intel Edition)

MSI P4N Diamond (nForce 4 SLI Intel Edition)
Asus P5N32-SLI Deluxe (nForce 4 SLI X16 Intel Edition)
Asus P5WD2 Premium (Intel i955X)

Common Hardware:
Intel Pentium 4 550 Processor @ 3.4GHz
2x512MB Corsair XMS2 Pro DDR2-667 (CL 4-4-4-12)
nVidia GeForce 7800GT

On-board audio & LAN
Seagate Barracuda V SATA Hard Drive

Software / System Drivers:
Windows XP with Service Pack 2
DirectX 9.0c
nVidia nForce4 SLI X16 Chipset Drivers, v6.85
nVidia ForceWare Drivers v81.98

Intel INF Chipset Drivers, v7.21.1003

Preliminary Benchmarks With SiSoft SANDRA 2005 SR2
http://www.sisoftware.net

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 sub-system tests (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth) that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite of benchmarks.  All of these tests were run with the GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal powered by an Intel Pentium 4 550 3.4 GHz CPU with 1GB of Corsair XMS2 Pro DDR2 and compared against similar systems from SANDRA's database.



CPU Arithmetic Benchmark
Pentium 4 550 @ 3.4GHz
1024MB DDR2 (CL4)


Memory Benchmark
Pentium 4 550 @ 3.4GHz
1024MB DDR2 (CL4)


CPU Multimedia Benchmark
Pentium 4 550 @ 3.4GHz
1024MB DDR2 (CL4)

SANDRA's CPU Arithmetic and Multimedia benchmarks don't offer up much of a comparison between the performance of the GA-8N-SLI and a similarly configured system in the internal database.  The charts do show the increase in performance that we might see with Dual Core processors, which the nForce 4 SLI also supports.  As we've seen with other NVIDIA boards, the memory bandwidth was just a bit lower than expected values from SANDRA, and also below the scores we've seen with Intel's own 955X boards. 

 

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PCMark05 Comparisons

Futuremark's PCMark05
http://www.futuremark.com/

For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's brand new PCMark05.   In the course of working with PCMark 05 we have 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 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 CPU module's results had the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI matching up directly with the Asus P5N32-SLI Deluxe, the previous high mark we had achieved with this processor.  Closely behind these two was the i955x based Asus P5WD2 Premium.  MSI's P4N Diamond brings up the rear, but only trailing the rest by a mere 50-55 points.


"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.

The GA-8N-SLI makes it a clean sweep of PCMark05, by pulling out the top score in the memory module as well.  These scores contradict the SANDRA scores somewhat, as the two nForce4 SLI X16 boards both manage to outperform the P5WD2, rather than slip behind as saw with that other synthetic benchmark.  Again, differences are so slight, that we can't really make any definitive judgments just yet.

 

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World Bench 5.0 - Photoshop 7 and Office XP Modules

PC World's World Bench 5.0: Photoshop 7 & Office XP Modules

http://www.pcworld.com/pcwtools/worldbench.asp

 

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 Content Creation and Business 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 SP2 modules, recorded in seconds.  Lower times indicate better performance.


 



Disregarding the Asus P5WD2, which seems to be the exception to the rule, the three nForce 4 SLI boards all completed the Photoshop 7 module at an average of 358 seconds.  The Office XP module also grouped the three boards in close proximity, with a mere 3 seconds separating them.  Once again, we will mark these tests as virtual ties, but make a mental note that the GA-8N-SLI was the overall leader in these benchmarks.

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Encoding Time Tests

 

World Bench 5.0 - Windows Media Encoder 9
Digital Video Encoding

We continued testing with another module from World Bench 5, this time based on Windows Media Encoder 9.  PC WorldBench 5's Windows Media Encoding test reports encoding times in seconds, and like the tests on the previous page, lower times indicate better performance here.

This winds up being the first benchmark that the GA-8N-SLI failed to compete for the top spot.  Gigabyte's motherboard took the longest to complete the encoding, and at 374 seconds was 8 seconds longer than the top score held by the Asus P5N32-SLI.  There were relatively equal differences separating each board from another.

LAME MP3 Encoding Tests
Breaking the Sound Barrier

In our custom Lame MP3 encoding tests, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a regular basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  In this test, we chose a large 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format.  Processing times are recorded below.  Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.

The LAME MP3 tests told us a different story - all boards turned in roughly the same time.  While the Asus P5N32-SLI technically held the top spot, coming in at 2:25, the one second variance can easily be dismissed within the limits of standard deviation.  We typically haven't seen too many differences in this test using the current crop of P4 boards. 

 

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Kribibench 1.1 Benchmarks

Kribibench v1.1
http:// www.adeptdevelopment.com

Next up was Kribibench, a 3D 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: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and a gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys...

 

Gigabyte gets off a one-two punch in the Kribibench testing.  Both tests had the GA-8N-SLI board in a lead that relative to the times listed was notable, but in real-world performance would wind up being negligible.  Although most of these tests have been decided by fractions of a second, we're mostly impressed by how often the GA-8N-SLI has been putting in the best times.  Generally, we would expect that the boards would flip-flop in the benchmarks, with one board taking a test here or there, but it's been almost all GB.

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Cinebench 2003 and 3DMark05 Results

 

Cinebench 2003 Performance Tests
3D Modeling & Rendering Tests

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). 

 

No surprises with Cinebench's rendering tests either.  The GA-8N-SLI finished in the quickest time at 87.3 seconds.  This was 0.2 seconds faster than the next board, the P5N32-SLI, and 0.4 second better than the P4N Diamond and P5WD2.  It looks like Gigabyte has tweaked this board just enough to beat the competition, albeit by marginal numbers.  

 

Futuremark 3DMark05 – CPU Test
Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "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 processor.  The number of frames generated per second in each test is used to determine the final score.

 

In what is perhaps the biggest reversal so far, the GA-8N-SLI not only doesn't come in first place, but was handily outgunned by the leader, the i955X based P5WD2 Premium from Asus.  In general, all of the nForce 4 SLI boards seem to fall slightly behind the competitor's chipset.  However, by looking at the slew of benchmarks we have thrown at these boards, there doesn't seem to be as much of a difference in performance as 3DMark05 would make out. 

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Gaming Performance: UT 2004 and Doom 3

Unreal Tournament 2004
DirectX 8 Gaming Performance

To start our in-game testing, we did some low-resolution benchmarking with Unreal Tournament 2004.  When testing with Unreal Tournament 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.  In the following two game tests, we used "Low-Quality" graphical settings and low screen resolutions which isolates CPU and memory performance.

This test is far too close to make any real judgment about.  Using identical components (CPU, memory, and video card), we're maxed out at approximately 139 frames per second.  This is demonstrated by the fact that all four boards are performing within 0.24 frames per second of each other. 

 

Benchmarks with Doom 3
OpenGL Gaming Performance

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 and memory-bound than anything else.

 

While Doom 3 is certainly grouped close as well, we have a little more breathing room between the boards' framerates.  Asus' P5WD2 and P5N32-SLI are dead last, running neck-and-neck at about 170.5 fps.  The MSI P4N Diamond was just under a frame better, but the GA-8N-SLI recorded the best overall rate at 173.3 frames per second.  It's not much, but it does come out to a 2% difference over the lowest performing board in the bunch.

 

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SLI Testing

 

SLI Testing Comparisons
Two cards are better than one

From the low-quality gaming benchmarks, we're now going to move on to some more demanding tests using a pair of 7800GTs in SLI mode.  For these tests, we will only be using the MSI P4N Diamond (n4Force-SLI) and the two boards using the updated n4Force-SLI X16: the Asus P5N32-SLI and Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI.  In the past, we hadn't seen much improvement when moving from 16 to 32 graphic lanes, so we were hoping for some improvement with the GA-8N-SLI.  To do so, we will be using two of the more demanding graphic engines: Doom3 and Far Cry.

 

Well, we're still not seeing any huge improvements when using nForce4 SLI X16 motherboards.  The GA-8N-SLI, coming to market a few months later than the Asus P5N32-SLI slightly outperforms the older MSI P4N Diamond by a few frames in most tests, with the widest margin occurring during testing Far Cry at 1600x1200.  On the other hand, the Gigabyte board typically fell behind the Asus P5N32-SLI in just about every benchmark run, although usually by not much more than a frame or two per second.

 

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System Stability and Overclocking

System Stability
Holding up under pressure

Placing four full PCI-e x16 slots on one board is no simple feat of engineering, it requires the ability to manage and power up to four or five power-hungry devices and keep them from conflicting with each other.  Hardware and BIOS options allow the user to define their setup, but running them all could be another thing entirely.  As such, the first thing that needs to be checked is the Power Supply Unit.  The manual suggests a PSU that supplies at least 500W, but our gut feeling is that you'll probably need more than that since SLI configurations alone call for that spec.  For our testing, we tried setting up a four GPU configuration consisting of two 7800GTs in SLI, a Radeon X1800XL and an additional X800XL (yes, you can mix and match NVIDIA and ATi in the same case!)

    

The results were a little puzzling; we could install and use the three higher-end cards requiring external power connections, but not the bus-powered X800XL.  Our first inclination was that there was a power problem, but we found that we couldn't run it as the single-card in the system either.  As such, we were left with running the system with just the two 7800GTs in SLI and the X1800XL.  We did not run into any problems running all three cards with a 500W Antec PSU in general operations.

We did, however, have some issues with the system stability overall that may or may not be solely Gigabyte's problem.  First, while we had one of the 7800GTs in PEG Slot 2, we found some instability running 3DMark05 that wasn't present had we installed the same card and drivers in Slot 1.  The scores obviously reflected the difference in performance, shifting from 16 lanes to 1, but while it was rock solid at the slower rate, the benchmark typically crashed at the faster rate.  Reinstalling the application, and even reinstalling the OS and 3DMark05 by itself, did not correct the issue.  On a somewhat less concerning note, we also ran into problems when switching between systems while using a KVM box - a problem that has almost never reared it's head before.  Often, switching to another system and returning would leave the GA-8N-SLI completely frozen and unrecoverable.  We tried isolating the problem by limiting the connection to just the video card, and this seemed to help to a degree, with far fewer lockups.

Overclocking Tools
Time for a tune-up

      

One of the bundled applications that came with the GA-8N-SLI is a comprehensive utility dubbed Easy Tune 5.  It supports many of the same features that we first encountered in the BIOS, including C.I.A.2, PC Health, and M.I.T., and gives the user a Windows-friendly graphical view of these settings.  The first time we used it, we didn't make any changes and clicked on the 'GO' button, which promptly caused Windows to crash.  Subsequent usage didn't prove to be as problematic, but while great for viewing information, we didn't have the greatest overclocking results, so we headed back to the BIOS for another round.

     

    

Our first step was to unlink the CPU and Memory, to limit any problems that overclocking the DDR2 RAM would have on the system.  We are quite convinced that these sticks are able to get higher than their original speeds, getting as high as 798MHz effective, but we wanted to remain on the safe side and left it at 667MHz.  The CPU was another story: we've typically taken this P4 550 CPU from the stock speed of 3.4GHz and reached just over 4.0GHz using a stock Intel cooler.  With the various voltage options on the GA-8N-SLI, including CPU, memory, NB, SB, and FSB voltage settings, we had hoped for roughly the same results...

SANDRA CPU Results
Overclocked to 3.84GHz
PCMark05 Details with CPU
Overclocked to 3.84GHz

The final overclock, however, was well lower than what we had expected.  Initially, we shot forward, reaching an FSB of 220MHz without any problems whatsoever.  At this point, we needed to raise the CPU voltage up to 1.425V to ensure some stability.  Moving up from that speed to the 225-230 range proved perilous.  225MHz (900MHz effective for a quad-pumped P4) was attainable by putting the CPUVolt at 1.45V without changing any other voltages, but getting any higher resulted in an unusable system.  We were able to boot into Windows at 910MHz, but could not run any benchmarks, even after raising NB, SB, and FSB voltages up 0.2V each.  Thus, we were left with a small overall overclock of only 25MHz for the FSB, with the P4 running at 3.84GHz.  There were obvious benefits, as seen in the jumps in the SANDRA and PCMark05 scores, but the feeling was that we left some performance out there on the playing field.

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Benchmark Analysis and the Conclusion

Benchmark Analysis: Our testing of some of the more well-known manufacturer's motherboards left us with an indelible impression: they almost all perform at a similar level.  Whether it's an Asus P5WD2 Premium using the i955X chipset, or any of the nForce4 SLI boards from Asus, Gigabyte, or MSI, you really can't go wrong.  That being said, the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI was typically just slightly ahead of the rest of the pack.  Noticeable?  Hardly, but still worth mentioning.

There's simply no denying that the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI is ahead of the curve. Quad SLI is an enticing idea, but currently there are no drivers that exist that'll let you run four cards on this specific board for increased performance, and from what we've heard nVIDIA doesn't have any plans on changing that just yet.  Perhaps modified drivers could do the trick, but we suspect anyone who invests in four graphics cards wants to know they're going to work properly "out of the box".  Disregarding the thought of Quad SLI, the board supports up to 10 monitors when using five discreet graphics cards, a number that most people will find outstanding, if not impractical.  There may be a very small segment of the market looking for such functionality, and this is one of the only boards that will suit that need.

If you're more rooted in the normalcy of PC setups, the GA-8N-SLI fits the role admirably as well.  Dual LAN, dual-core CPU support, SLI X16 configurations, and RAID support are all found on this board, and there's really very little lacking from either the board itself or the bundle that accompanies it.  All of this might make it sound like a hefty price tag should be attached, but from what we've seen online, the average price is not much higher than other nForce4 SLI X16 Intel Edition boards, which have far fewer options.  We're going to mark the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI as a solid 9 on the HotHardware Heat Meter, and hope that the few issues we found with overclocking get cleared up with a BIOS revision.

_Four PCI-e PEG slots
_SLI X16 configuration
_Attach up to 10 monitors
_Expansive bundle incl. bluetooth dongle

_No Quad SLI drivers (yet?)
_Some stability issues
_Heavy-duty PSU required

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