|Intro, Specs, and Bundle|
For almost as long as there have been PC enthusiasts, it seems that Asus has been there catering to them with feature laden, high-performance products. Nowhere is it more apparent that Asus caters to enthusiasts than with their motherboards. Yes, some of their notebooks and graphics cards are cutting edge as well, but the company has released literally hundreds of enthusiast-class motherboards in their history.
Over the years we have evaluated a myriad of Asus-built mobos here at HotHardware, and with the exception of only a couple of designs, they have all been stand-out products in their respective classes. In this article, we'll be shining the spotlight on yet another stand-out product from Asus, the CrossHair. The Asus CrossHair is the first member of the company's flagship "Republic of Gamers" series of desktop motherboards. It's based on NVIDIA's nForce 590 SLI chipset for AMD socket AM2 processors and sports a number of features an innovations that make it truly unique. There is a lot to cover in this article, so what do you say we get down to business and see what the CrossHair is really made of?
There were a whole slew of accessories included in the CrossHair's bundle. Along with the motherboard itself, we found a very detailed user's manual, a driver / utility CD that contained copies of 3DMark06 and Kaspersky AV, and another CD dubbed Media Launcher that contained Intervideo's WinDVD Enhanced Suite. There were also floppy and IDE cables included, along with six SATA cables, and three 4-pin Molex to dual-SATA power adapters.
A custom I/O shield was in the box as well, but what makes this one really different is that it is illuminated. The port labels all light up, which facilitates plugging in cables in the dark recesses under your desk. In addition to the aforementioned items, Asus also includes a couple of USB and Firewire expansion brackets, some wire ties, a pack of Q-Connectors, an SLI bridge, and a three thermal probes with the CrossHair.
Finally, there is an optional fan included with the board, which should be used when the CPU is being water-cooled, along with a "Republic of Gamers" key chain, a SoundMax SupremeBeam microphone, and a SupremeFX audio riser card. The SupremeFX audio riser is powered by an ADI1988B 8-channel HD audio codec and gets installed into a proprietary slot near the I/O backplane on the CrossHair.
|The Asus CrossHair|
The Asus CrossHair is a menacing looking motherboard. Not only is it based on a dark-colored, nearly black PCB, but it's got an oversized cooling apparatus, a ton of integrated peripherals, and a unique layout with some eye-catching amenities. Upon first glance, it is readily apparent that this is not your average motherboard.
Overall, the CrossHair's layout is good. Things are relatively cramped due to all of the board's integrated peripherals and cooling hardware, but there are no major problems to speak of. There is ample room around the CPU socket for oversized coolers, all of the expansion headers and ports are situated around the edges of the board, and the DIMM slots do not encroach upon the first PEG slot. And when two graphics cards are installed, all of the board's SATA ports are accessible as well. The 24-Pin ATX power connector's placement just under the DIMM slots is somewhat awkward, and requires a bit of finagling to install an IDE cable once power is connected, but that's a minor quibble. The supplemental 8-pin power connector, however, is located in a good position, just behind the I/O backplane, near the top edge of the board.
There are four DIMM slots, six SATA ports, a single IDE port, and a floppy connector on the CrossHair, in addition to numerous headers for USB and Firewire ports. A front panel audio header is not available on the mobo itself, but there is one on the included audio riser card pictured on the previous page.
The CrossHair's two PCI Express X16 slots, three standard PCI slots, and notched X4 slot are organized in a way that when two double-wide graphics cards are installed, two of the PCI slots are still available. This is an ideal configuration in our opinion, due to the dearth of PCIe X1 (or X4) expansion cards currently on the market. If you've looked through some of the pictures already, it may appear that the CrossHair also has a PCI Express X1 slot in the first position, but it does not. That first slot is proprietary and supports only the included audio riser card.
The large copper-heatsinks on the CrossHair are all linked via a winding heatpipe. The lower two heatsinks obviously cool the nForce 590 SLI SPP and MCP (norhtbridge and southbridge), and the upper heatsinks cool the components in the motherboard's no-cap power circuitry. The CrossHair's 8-phase power array is not sold-state like some recent motherboards, but it is a capacitor-free design. Simply looking at the area surrounding the CPU socket reveals that the CrossHair has far fewer caps than most other mobos.
Now for the really cool stuff. The Asus CrossHair is equipped with numerous LEDs and switches designed to make installation, diagnostics, and expansion a bit easier for end users. There is a clear CMOS switch on the board, that - you guessed it - clears the CMOS, and there are handy power and reset switches on the board too. All of the switches are illuminated, which make them easy to see, even when crawling around under a desk in the dark. There is another switch in the I/O backplane that's used to illuminate a number of LEDs scattered across the surface of the board as well, which make is easier to work inside a dark system in general.
Also visible in the I/O backplane is an LCD POST code error reporter, which is also illuminated. In addition to reporting problems with the board in plain english, the LCD can be customized to show an 8 character message of your choosing. The only problem is that the screen is situated on the back of the board, so you'd have to stick your head behind the system to see it.
The remaining items in the I/O backplane consist of PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs, two eSATA ports, a Firewire port, dual GigE RJ45 LAN jacks, and lastly four USB ports. The eSATA ports are powered by a Silicon Image 3132 controller and the Firewire port by a Ti controller. USB and network functionality come by way of the nForce 590 SLI chipset itself. Noticeably absent are any analog audio ports; those are located on the included audio riser card and are powered by an ADI1988 HD codec.
|The BIOS and Overclocking|
The Asus CrossHair is equipped with a Phoenix/Award BIOS that is is very complete and relatively easy to navigate. From within the BIOS users have the ability to configure, enable or disable all of the board's integrated peripherals, and monitor voltages and clock speeds. The CrossHair also has a very complete set of memory timing options that offer amazing flexibility for fine tuning memory performance.
The CrossHair's standard BIOS menu screens don't reveal anything out of the ordinary, but they will give you a "feel" for the general layout and organization of the options. Each individual screen has a host of menus that tunnel deeper and deeper as the options get more complex.
Overall, other than the color scheme, it is very similar to the BIOS derivatives used on most other motherboards, but navigating through Asus' BIOS menus does take some getting used to if you've never experienced them before.
Yes, we know, that's a whole heck of a lot of BIOS screenshots, but the CrossHair has so many overclocking and tweaking related option, we felt compelled to show them all. This motherboard is easily one of the more tweaker-friendly offerings available for users in the market for an AMD socket AM2-based processor. Shoot, it's one of the more tweaker-friendly boards period, regardless of the platform.
From within the "Extreme Tweaker" section of the BIOS, users have the ability to alter clock frequencies and voltages for virtually every major on-board component. The CPU and PCI Express frequencies can be altered in 1MHz increments, and the CPU multiplier and memory ratio can also be manipulated manually, as can the HT link ratio, memory bus width and HT bus width. There are also extensive voltage options for the CPU, Memory, chipset, HT link, and DDR2 termination. The CPU voltage can first be set to a specified range, and the specific voltage within that range can be altered in increments of tiny fractions of a volt.
There are also an extensive array of memory timing options available on the CrossHair. In addition to memory termination voltage options, memory voltages as high as 3.425v, and memory clock frequency options, the CrossHair offers a multitude of tools related to memory timings. And were not talking just about the traditional five or six options you may be accustomed to. In addition to CAS latency and command rate options, there are nearly two dozen memory timing related menus available in the CrossHair's BIOS. There are also a host of automatic overclocking tools available (AI Tuning), all of the features inherent to the nForce 590 SLI chipset (LinkBoost, EPP, etc.) are exposed, and fans speeds can be monitors and tweaked from within the BIOS as well. Without a doubt the CrossHair has one of, if not the most complete BIOS menus we have ever come across.
To assess the overclocking prowess of the Asus CrossHair, we dropped our Athlon 64 X2 5000+'s multiplier, locked the PCI clock, and lowered the memory frequency / ratio. Then we gave the CPU a .1v bump in voltage, set the memory voltage to 2.4v, and increased the chipset and HT link voltages (all other settings were left on Auto). Then we began raising the HT reference clock frequency until our test system was no longer stable. In the end, we were able to take the Asus CrossHair up from the default 200MHz all the way to 382MHz. With our CPU's multiplier set to 8x, that was a final stable clock speed of just over 3GHz. The board would actually boot Windows with slightly higher HT frequencies, but we weren't able to completely stabilize the system until we dropped it back down to 382MHz.
|Our Test Systems and PCMark05|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the drivers necessary for our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were then disabled, and we set up a 1024MB 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.
"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.
PCMark05's CPU performance module had the Asus CrossHair finishing just behind the M2N32-SLI. The performance delta was minimal though, as it should be considering both of these boards are based on the same chipset.
"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.
According to the memory performance module built-into PCMark05, the Asus CrossHair offers slightly better memory performance than the M2N32-SLI, but again the delta separating the two boards is minimal. For all intents and purposes, the CrossHair and M2N32-SLI performed on the same level here.
|Office XP and Photoshop 7|
PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmark, that has replaced the aging and no-longer supported Content Creation and Business Winstone tests in our suite. 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 Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.
In both the Office XP and Photoshop 7 Worldbench modules, the Asus CrossHair put up slightly better numbers than the M2N32-SLI. In the Office test, the CrossHair finished 3 seconds faster and in the Photoshop test is finished 4 seconds faster. The Core 2 machine was fastest overall, however, by a wide margin.
|LAME MT: MP3 Encoding|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV 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 created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
The Asus CrossHair and M2N32-SLI motherboard finished our custom single- and multi-threaded LAME MT benchmark in exactly the same amount of time in both configurations. Real-World scenarios like this are part of the reason we don't harp over tiny differences in performance in synthetic benchmarks.
We should also note that the Intel-powered machines were the fastest here, but we've included those numbers only as a reference point.
For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where 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 the test suite's "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.
Once again, the Asus CrossHair performed almost identically to the M2N32-SLI in both tests. While rendering the Sponge-Explode model, the CrossHair put up a slightly higher framerate than the M2N32-SLI, but the .02 FPS difference falls well within the margin of error in this test. While rendering the Ultra model both boards put up the exact same number, so there's not much to talk about there.
|Cinebench and 3DMark06|
The Cinebench 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).
The CrossHair and M2N32-SLI finished the single- and multi-threaded Cinebench benchmarks right on top of each other, with the CrossHair coming in a fraction of second faster in both test configurations.
3DMark06'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 dependent 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 are used to determine the final score.
We had another photo finish in the 3DMark06 CPU performance module. The Asus CrossHair finished 14 points ahead of the M2N32-SLI, for a margin of victory of .07%. Needless to say, that small of a delta falls well within the margin of error for this test.
|Low-Res Gaming: F.E.A.R. and Q4|
To start our in-game testing, we did some low-resolution benchmarking with F.E.A.R. When testing motherboards and processors with F.E.A.R, we drop the resolution to 640x480, and lower all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible.
The CrossHair put up 7 more frames per second than the M2N32-SLI in our low-res F.E.A.R. benchmark. Despite being based on the same chipset, and using the exact same supporting hardware, the CrossHair's framerate was 3.9% higher than the M2N32-SLI. It seems Asus has done some tweaking with the CrossHair that gives it an edge here.
For our next game test, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom single-player Quake 4 timedemo. Here, we installed the game's official v1.2 patch which is SMP capable, tuned the resolution down to 640x480, and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. Although Quake 4 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.
Here too the CrossHair puts up a markedly higher framerate than the slightly older M2N32-SLI. A 4.2 frame per second advantage is hardly noticeable when framerates are this high, but the CrossHair nonetheless put up a score 2.8% higher than the M2N32-SLI.
|High-Res Gaming: F.E.A.R. and Q4|
To see how the Asus CrossHair fared in a high-end gaming scenario, we also tested the motherboard with some popular games at high-resolution settings that taxed the graphics sub-system of each of the platforms.
In a high-resolution gaming scenario, where the graphics cards become the bottleneck as opposed to the CPU and memory, the M2N32-SLI and CrossHair perform identically. There was technically a 1 FPS difference in the SLI tests, but F.E.A.R. doesn't report the framerate with fractions, so the real difference here is likely less than 1 FPS.
Once again the CrossHair and M2N32-SLI performed at virtually the same level in our high-res Quake 4 benchmark. With a single card installed, the CrossHair was a bit faster, but with dual cards installed running in SLI mode, the M2N32-SLI pulled out in front. In both test configurations though, the performance delta was less than 1 frame per second.
|Our Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The Asus CrossHair performed on-par or slightly better than the M2N32-SLI throughout our entire battery of benchmarks. This was to be expected considering the facts that both boards are based on the same chipset and we used the same supporting hardware for all of the tests. However, the CrossHair was slightly faster overall, even if its margins of victory were quite small. It seems Asus has done a bit of tuning with the CrossHair to give it a slight edge over the older M2N32-SLI.
The Asus CrossHair is an enthusiast-class motherboard in every sense. From its accessory bundle, to its feature set, to its performance and overclockability, the CrossHair does not disappoint. The only areas where the CrossHair stumbles a bit are in regards to its layout and price. The board's 24-Pin ATX power connector and single IDE port are too close together and the integrated LCD POST code error reporter's screen is located in the I/O backplane, which forces users to stick their heads behind their systems to read it. Then again, it's probably easier to read Asus' reporter than any of their competitors because the screen is visible from the outside of a system. The CrossHair's price may put some user's off as well. This board is currently selling for about $250, which is expensive in the socket AM2 world. Despite our concerns with the layout and price, however, we feel the CrossHair is easily one of the best socket AM2 motherboards on the market. This board is fast, stable, overclockable, and its BIOS and feature set are second to none. We're giving the Asus CrossHair a well deserved Editor's Choice award and applaud Asus for their innovations. Anyone in the market for a high-end socket AM2 motherboard should put the CrossHair on their short list.