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Asus N4L-VM DH Core Duo Motherboard
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Date: Apr 23, 2006
Section:Motherboards
Author: Alex Evans
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Introduction

Asus has been more cautious compared to most motherboard makers when it comes to using Intel's mobile processors in a desktop environment. In late 2004, when the first Pentium-M desktop motherboards started hitting the market, Asus took a back seat and did not put out a product for this rapidly expanding market, whereas smaller motherboard makers ate up this small amount of niche market sales. It's unlikely that this was due to any technical reason, as Asus has plenty of experience with the Pentium-M processor, as they produce dozens upon dozens of Pentium-M based notebooks. Rather, the timing wasn't right for them and the demand wasn't there.

Asus finally caved into peer pressure (Everyone's doing it!) and released their first Pentium-M desktop product nearly six months later, although not in the form of a full-fledged motherboard. Their first Pentium-M desktop product was the CT-479, which was an adapter card which allowed Pentium-M processors to be used in Socket-478 desktop motherboards. While quite an ingenious product, the timing of its release was unfortunate, as Intel platforms were in the middle of a migration towards Socket-775 CPU form factors and PCI Express graphics cards. Socket-478 sales had all but stopped at the time, and such, Socket-478 to Socket-479 adapters weren't popular either, despite the stellar performance of these cards in comparison to newer Pentium 4 solutions.

With the release of Intel's Core Duo, Asus is doing it right this time. They are one of the first with a full-fledged Core Duo desktop motherboard out on the market in the form of the N4L-VM DH. This platform is targeted directly at desktop users and gamers who want an ultra-low noise, low-power system, in addition to the rapidly expanding home theater PC market. As an added bonus, the N4L-VM is the least expensive Core Duo desktop platform to hit the market yet, finally cracking the sub-$200 barrier. Pentium-M/Core Duo desktop motherboards have been notoriously expensive compared to Athlon64/Pentium 4 based platforms, so hitting these lower price points certainly may help spur adoption of Core Duo on the desktop.

 

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Specifications

Asus N4L-VM DH Specifications & Features
Core Duo Socket 479 On The Desktop
CPU
  • Socket 479 for Intel Core Duo and Core Solo processor
  • Intel ViiV Technology requires Intel Core Duo processor

Chipset

  • Intel 945GM
  • Intel ICH7-M DH

Front Side Bus

  • 667/533 MHz

Memory

  • Dual Channel Architecture
  • 2 x 240-pin DIMM sockets
  • Support 2 GB DDR2 667 / 533
  • Non-ECC, un-buffered memory

Expansion Slots

  • 1 x PCI-E x 16
  • 1 x PCI-E x 1
  • 2 x PCI

VGA

  • Integrated Graphics (Intel Graphics GMA 950)

Storage/RAID

  • Intel ICH7-M DH South Bridge:
  • 1 x UltraDMA 100/66/33
  • 2 x Serial ATA support RAID 0, 1, and Intel Matrix Storage Technology

     

  • Jmicron SATA controller:
  • 1 x Internal Serial ATA 3.0Gb/s
  • 1 x External Serial ATA 3.0Gb/s (SATA On-the-Go)
  • Support RAID 0, 1

Audio

  • Realtek ALC 882M, 8-ch High Definition Audio CODEC
  • Jack-Sensing & Enumeration
  • Multi-Streaming
  • Dolby Master Studio
  • Dolby Prologic IIX
  • Dolby Headphone
  • Dolby Virtual Speaker
  • Dolby Digital Live

LAN

  • Intel 82573L Gb Ethernet (Vidalia)

IEEE 1394

  • TI 1394a controller supports:
  • 2 x IEEE 1394a @ 400 Mbps speed

USB

  • Max. 8 USB 2.0 ports
Special Features
  • ASUS C.P.R.
  • ASUS MyLogo
  • ASUS Q-Fan
  • ASUS EZ Flash
  • ASUS CrashFree BIOS 2

Back Panel I/O Ports

  • 1 x VGA port
  • 4 x USB
  • 1 x IEEE1394a
  • 1 x External SATA
  • 1 x RJ45
  • 1 x PS/2 Keyboard + 1 x PS/2 Mouse
  • 1 x Optical S/PDIF out
  • 1 x Coaxial S/PDIF out
  • 1 x 8-Channel Audio I/O

Internal I/O Connectors

  • 2 x USB connector supports additional 4 USB ports
  • 1 x IEEE 1394a connector
  • 1 x COM connector
  • 1 x Printer connector
  • 1 x TV out connector
  • 1 x S/PDIF in/out connector
  • 1 x CPU / 1 x Chassis Fan connectors
  • 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
  • 1 x Game / MIDI connector
  • Azalia Front Panel Audio connector
  • CD audio in
  • System panel connector
  • 24-pin ATX Power connector
  • 4-pin ATX 12V Power connector

BIOS

  • 8 Mb Flash ROM, AMI BIOS, PnP, DMI, WfM2.0, ACPI 2.0a, SM BIOS 2.3, ASUS CrashFree BIOS 2, EZ Flash, Intel Quick Resume Manageability
  • WOR by Ring, WOL/WOR by PME, WO USB, WO KB/MS, PXE

Accessories

  • User's manual
  • 1 x UltraDMA cable
  • 1 x FDD cable
  • 2 x SATA cables
  • 1 x SATA power cable
  • 1 x USB 2.0 cable
  • 1 x IEEE1394 port module
  • 1 x CPU Fan Heatsink
  • 1 x I/O shield
  • InterVideo WinDVD Suite (OEM version)

Support CD

  • Drivers
  • ASUS PC Probe II
  • Anti-Virus Software
  • ASUS LiveUpdate
  • Intervideo WinDVD Suite
Form Factor
  • mATX, 9.6"x 9.6"(24.5cm x 24.5cm)

 

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Layout

While the Asus N4L-VM DH is based on a standard Micro-ATX sized PCB, the layout of some of its primary components appears strange upon first glance. Most notably, we see that the memory slots are positioned between the processor / chipset and the I/O panel, while typical desktop motherboard motherboards feature the memory slots closer to the IDE connectors. Other than the seemingly odd placement of these items, the rest of the board follows a fairly standard Micro-ATX layout.

 

 

The N4L-VM DH only supports Socket-479 Core Duo and Core Solo processors. The CPU socket is placed near the top of the motherboard, and uses an easy-to-use latch-based Socket-479 open/close mechanism for processor installation. Typical Socket-479 desktop motherboards require a flat-head screwdriver to install, whereas the N4L-VM DH is requires no tools. The board supports Core processors at 533 MHz and 667 MHz FSB, but does not support older Pentium-M processors. Intel has changed the pin grid of their new Socket-479 processors, so older Socket-479 Pentium-M processors will not fit properly in this socket.

There is very little breathing room around the CPU socket, and in addition, there are no mounting holes for a cooler around the socket. Since Intel does not bundle coolers with their retail boxed Core Duo processors, Asus has been forced to custom design and bundle a CPU cooling system with this motherboard. The Asus cooler hooks on to the motherboard by two small metal latches on each side of the processor. Asus's cooling unit is a small aluminum alloy HSF, similar to Pentium-III processors of the past. The cooler comes with thermal paste pre-applied and leveling foam on the bottom of the cooler, lessening the chance of cracking the exposed processor core during installation. We'll look at the effectiveness of this cooler later in this article.

 

 

The motherboard supports two (bright yellow) 240-pin DDR2 DIMM sockets. Each of these slots can hold up to a 1 GB module for 2 GB maximum capacity. The board supports DDR2 modules at 533 MHz and 667 MHz. Since the 945GT's memory controller is dual-channel compatible, with two memory sticks installed you will get a theoretical peak memory bandwidth level of 10.6 GB/s.

Sitting next to the processor is the Intel 945GT Northbridge, which is cooled passively with a large aluminum alloy heatsink. The 945GT Express chipset is designed specifically for Core Duo processors, although is heavily based on the 945G series chipset for Pentium-4/D processors. The feature-sets are virtually identical between the two chipsets, although the 945GT has Intel ViiV compliance (for whatever that is worth) and supports the Core Duo's 533/667 MHz FSB speeds. The chipset supports PCIe x16 graphics, GMA950 integrated video, and has an integrated dual-channel DDR2-667 memory controller.

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Layout And Setup - Continued

The 945GT's integrated GMA950 integrated graphics core is the first to be fully Windows Vista compliant, meaning that it supports DirectX 9.0C class pixel/vertex shading abilities. The GMA950 core is powerful enough for standard desktop PC's and for Home Theater boxes, but certainly won't be powerful enough for any real gaming. However, we should note that the GMA950 core isn't as terrible as one would expect in a gaming environment. Older games like Unreal Tournament 2004 will run fine at lower resolutions, although trying new games like FEAR or Oblivion on this GPU would be a frustrating experience. Performance wise, it will be similar to nVidia's GeForce 6200 or ATI's Radeon X300 series. The real issue, however, is outputs. Asus decided to only provide an analog HD-15 output connector from the GMA950 onboard audio, forgoing a higher-quality DVI port instead. With the vast amount of new HD screens and TVs on the market being sold supporting DVI connectivity, the lack of such a connector is quite a shame. 

If you have the need for a more high-powered graphics solution, Asus does provide a full PCI Express x16 graphics card slot, in addition to a PCI Express x1 slot and two 32-bit PCI slots. The board also supports 2 x Serial ATA-II/300 ports connected via the Intel ICH7M (Mobile) RAID Southbridge. These ports support RAID-0 and RAID-1, in addition to the (highly under-appreciated) Intel Matrix RAID technology. There is also a second Serial ATA Controller onboard by a company called JMicron, which controls a third onboard Serial ATA-II/300 port along with an external SATA port on the I/O backplane. This port supports eSATA / SATA-On-The-Go, for connecting external SATA devices for additional high-speed storage. The N4L-VM DH does currently have a bug where CPU performance is higher than usual when ACHI mode is enabled - this can be fixed by changing the onboard Serial ATA to "IDE" mode. (Thanks to our friends at Tech Report for discovering this issue).

The motherboard supports Intel HD Audio through a Realtek ALC882M CODEC and the board allows 8-channel analog output and 7.1 digital output through its coaxial or optical S/PDIF ports. As noted by the sticker on the top of the box, this board supports Dolby Digital Live and Dolby Master Studio, which allows for real-time encoding of audio content for output to a 7.1 digital speaker setup. The board has onboard Gigabit Ethernet which is connected through the native ICH7M Southbridge.

 

 

The N4L-VM DH is the first motherboard we've tested which has Intel's ViiV logo splashed all over it. Intel has sunk a lot of marketing dollars into the ViiV campaign, but has done a pretty terrible job of actually detailing what the platform includes. Unlike Centrino, another Intel "Platform", ViiV doesn't follow a particularly strict set of guidelines. Centrino was three core components - if it didn't use all three of those components, it wasn't a Centrino platform, and this simplicity worked. ViiV is much broader, as ViiV platforms could literally encompass thousands of different configurations.

The key features which a ViiV PC must have are a dual-core processor, a 975x/955x/945-series chipset, at least 7.1 audio abilities, a SATA-II/300 hard drive, dual channel DDR2-667 memory (or greater), and the ability to support instant on/off. The Asus board supports instant on/off, and even installs a hardware driver for this ability. Instant on/off allows the system to go into a deep sleep mode, where the system is virtually turned off (fans don't turn, power consumption is dramatically cut). However, when the power button (or a remote control power button) is pressed, the system can wake from the sleep mode in 2-3 seconds. This function is great for Home Theater PC's, as instant on/off allows the PC to function more like a television compared to a PC which has been unwillingly thrown into a living room.

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Cooling, Power Consumption, Overclocking

The bundled aluminum alloy cooler from Asus (which is quite small in comparison to the motherboard, as you can see below) is surprisingly effective at keeping the Intel Core Duo processor cool. At 2.0 GHz, our Core Duo CPU was kept at around 96ï¾°F with the fan running at full speed. By default, the motherboard's Q-Fan functions (thermal sensing and fan throttling) are disabled, so the fan runs at a brisk 3000 RPM by default. At this speed, the fan is audible, but certainly isn't what we would consider to be loud.  When Q-Fan is enabled, the fan speeds dropped to about 800 RPM, and at this point basically became inaudible. Not surprisingly though, our CPU temperatures rose with the decreased amount of airflow going through the cooler. Our temperatures rose to 108ï¾°F maximum, which is still far lower than Athlon64 X2 / Pentium-D based systems run at normally.

Power Consumption And Vital Stats
Mobile Chip Sips Power

 

The entire platform is extremely light when it comes to power consumption. When we tested the platform using the onboard Intel GMA950 video (no dedicated graphics card), our configuration (Core Duo T2500, 2 GB of RAM, Raptor 74GB hard drive), the system used only 68 Watts at idle. Of course, when idling, the Core Duo's Enhanced Speedstep functionality will kick in and clock the CPU down to 1.0 GHz in order to conserve energy. Still, when we kicked up the system to full load, the system still only was using 89 Watts of power. This platform is ridiculously efficient. Throwing in a GeForce 7900 GTX 512 MB graphics card and an Audigy card bumped up our power consumption levels to about 150W under full load. Forget 400W and 500W power supplies. With a Core Duo based system, you can get away with 250W power supplies and still have plenty of room for expansion.

 

Overclocking Tools
Left wanting more...

The BIOS of the Asus N4L-VM DH is surprisingly bare, considering Asus's motherboards are typically filled to the brim with tweaking and overclocking features. The board supports front side bus speed alterations, allowing for minor overclocking options. However, Asus forgot (or purposefully left out) the ability to modify CPU vCore, so overclockers will certainly be disappointed, as this greatly limits the overclocking potential of this platform. Heavy overclockers should look at AOpen's new 975X based Core Duo board as an option instead. The N4L-VM DH does, however, allow you to modify DDR2 voltages, and does provide the ability to manually control DDR2 timings. However, using these techniques, we were only able to get our Core Duo 2.0 GHz chip up to around 2.3 GHz. Hopefully Asus can add vCore support in a future BIOS update, but at this point, it's not a great board for tweakers.

 

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Testbed Specifications

   

Test System Specifications
"Intel & AMD Inside!"
  • Intel Core Duo T2500 (2.0 GHz)
  • 2 GB Samsung DDR2-667 (5-5-5) Memory
  • Asus N4L-VM DH Intel 945GT Motherboard
  • 1 x nVidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512 MB
  • 1 x Western Digital Raptor 74 GB
  • 1 x Sony DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Antec 460W PSU

 

  • Intel Pentium-D 940 (3.2 GHz)
  • 2 GB Samsung DDR2-667 (5-5-5) Memory
  • Asus P5WD2-E Premium Intel 955X
  • 1 x nVidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512 MB
  • 1 x Western Digital Raptor 74 GB
  • 1 x Sony DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Antec 460W PSU

 

  • AMD Athlon64 X2 4800+ (2.4 GHz)
  • 2 GB Infineon DDR-400 (2.5-3-3) Memory
  • Asus A8N-SLI Premium nForce4 SLI
  • 1 x nVidia GeForce 7900 GTX 512 MB
  • 1 x Western Digital Raptor 74 GB
  • 1 x Sony DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Antec 460W PSU
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SiSoft Sandra 2005
SiSoft Sandra 2005 Professional
Higher Benchmark Scores Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

 

Intel's Core Duo holds its own in synthetic tests quite well. In raw CPU performance, the Core Duo can easily outpace Intel's new Pentium-D 900-series processors, despite a huge raw clock speed advantage in the Pentium-D's favor. Our Athlon64 X2 4800+, however, was able to outperform both Intel setups, in terms of raw CPU performance and memory bandwidth. Despite a new dual-channel DDR2-667 interface, the Core Duo on the N4L-VM HD only utilizes around 4 GB/s of its theoretical 10 GB/s bandwidth ceiling.

 

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3DMark06, PCMark05
Futuremark 3DMark06
Higher Benchmark Scores Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

 

 

Futuremark PCMark05
Higher Benchmark Scores Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

Futuremark's synthetic tests don't show a huge gap between our three vastly different platforms. The Core Duo and Pentium-D processor each take a win over each other here, as the Core Duo scores a little better in a gaming environment, but the Pentium-D takes the edge in a heavily multi-threaded environment. Like our Sandra synthetics, however, the Athlon64 X2 4800+ holds on to the performance lead overall.

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Half Life 2, Call Of Duty 2
Half Life 2
Higher Benchmark Scores Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

 

Call Of Duty 2 Demo
Higher Benchmark Scores Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

Surpringly, the Core Duo scores a definite win in Half-Life-2, easily outpacing the Pentium-D and even the Athlon64 X2 4800+ by a good margin. COD2, which is more GPU intensive, shows the three test systems performing quite close to each other, although here we see the Athlon64 X2 4800+ platform hold on to a slight performance edge.

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Windows Media Encoder, LAME
Windows Media Encoder 9.0
Lower Benchmark Times Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

 

LAME 3.97
Lower Benchmark Times Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

Intel's mobile chips have never been strong in media encoding, but the Core Duo certainly is making progress in the right direction. The Athlon64 X2 4800+ takes the lead in our video encoding test and the Core Duo trails behind slightly but remains ahead of the Pentium-D, which historically has been stronger in encoding tasks versus legacy Pentium-M architectures.  Finally, the Core Duo T2500 and Athlon64 X2 4800+ sit neck and neck in our LAME encoding test.  Intel's Core Duo line continues to show significantly better performance per watt versus either AMD or Intel Desktop dual-core CPUs that are available currently. 

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KribiBench, Cinebench

For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by 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 one of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons.

KribiBench 1.1
Lower Benchmark Times Are Indicative Of Better Performance

 

 

Cinebench 9.5
Lower Benchmark Times Are Indicative Of Better Performance

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).

While the Core Duo (nor the Asus N4L-VM DH motherboard) are designed for workstation use, the combination actually performs quite well in these kinds of environment. Both of our rendering benchmarks show the Core Duo ahead of the Pentium-D, although trailing the Athlon64 X2 4800+. Of course, any real workstation user might scoff at the platform's 2GB memory limitation and the processor's lack of x64 support.

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Conclusions

The appeal of the Asus N4L-VM DH motherboard will differ greatly depending on which market perspective you're looking at the board from. If you're looking at the platform as a high-end gamer or workstation user, we would recommend that there are better options for you at this time, in comparison to this Asus motherboard. However, for those looking for an ultra-low noise, ultra-low power system configuration, which can still perform on par with hotter, noisier dual-core desktops, the N4L-VM DH fits nicely.

The perfect place for this motherboard will be in a Home Theater PC configuration. The Core Duo can finally keep up with other dual-core processors in terms of video playback and encoding, and the chip simply sips power rather than gulping it. Combined with the 7.1 Dolby Digital audio abilities of the N4L-VM DH, instant power on/off, Gigabit LAN, eSATA, and micro-ATX board layout, this board is a perfect match for a modern HTPC configuration. The only downside, we wish the motherboard supported DVI video output, as this is a much higher quality and flexible format for HTPC users. However, one can simply throw in a cheap PCI Express graphics card if DVI is really needed, not to mention, that option would definitely upgrade your gaming performance as well.

We're still skeptical of Intel's ViiV Media Center PC scheme, as the guidelines are simply too loose to be taken seriously by most. With thousands of potential configurations, it's likely that we'll see many "partial" ViiV compliant components hitting the market. We certainly have to give Intel credit for trying to standardize the components for a media center system, although we cannot see ViiV taking off in its current form at this time. With that said though, we certainly wouldn't shy away from purchasing ViiV certified components, as it may give some that little extra bit of mental security knowing that the component will work well in a HTPC environment. However, we wouldn't go out of our way to purchase all ViiV compliant components, as there are simply too many good options out there to pass up, that don't have the ViiV logo stuck on them.

All in all, we're pleased with this little Asus motherboard. It's surprisingly in-expensive in a land of pricey Core Duo platforms, and its performance is quite good. Power consumption levels are amazingly low, and the bundled cooler is very quiet (with Q-Fan enabled, that is). We wish it was a bit more friendly towards overclocking, but this is only a minor nuisance. As a whole, Asus has created a terrific Home Theater PC platform within their new N4L-VM DH motherboard.

 

  • Ultra Low Noise, Low Power

  • Excellent Overall Performance
  • Dolby Digital Encoding, ViiV Compliance
  • eSATA Support

  • Lacks DVI Port For Onboard Video
  • Lackluster Overclocking Features
  • Proprietary Cooler, Cannot Use Other Units

 

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