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Asus P5N-E SLI Nvidia nForce 650i SLI
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Date: Jan 25, 2007
Section:Motherboards
Author: Alex Evans
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Introduction and Specifications

Nvidia's newly launched nForce 680i SLI for Intel's Core 2 processors is undoubtedly the most lavish, extravagant, and exiting chipset currently on the market. This chipset, which we recently looked at in depth with our review of the high-end Asus Striker board, features such features like DDR-1200 memory support, triple PCI Express x16 sized slots, 16 x 16 SLI support, and it's designed specifically for the ultra high-end gamer. Nvidia released this high-end chipset first in order to provide attention to their product line, which certainly worked well. Now that Nvidia has arguably supplanted Intel's 975X as the most desirable chipset on the market, they are rounding out their product line with the release of their less feature packed and more budget friendly options, the nForce 650i SLI and nForce 650 Ultra.

Like Nvidia's product lines of the past, the mid-range SLI and mid-range (non-SLI) products are largely based on the high-end chipset, but are stripped down in order to keep costs down. For the most part, the nForce 650i series offers the same core features, benefits, and drawbacks which the nForce 680i has, but does so at a much lower price point. While no one likes having features stripped out, what Nvidia has taken out of the 680i chipset in order to make the 650i a reality is quite reasonable - and the end result is a chipset which creates less heat, consumes less power, performs nearly identically, and costs quite a bit less.

The core differences are these. The nForce 650i SLI, which is what we'll be looking here today, only supports 8 x 8 SLI, rather than the full 16 x 16 SLI on the nForce 680i. The nForce 650i also does not support Nvidia's LinkBoost technology (automatic PCIe overclocking with nVidia GPU's), nor does the 650i support DualNet (dual Gigabit Ethernet links + linking dual NICs together) and cannot support a third PCI Express graphics slot due to its fewer PCI Express lanes. Beyond these four features, the 650i and the 680i are virtually identical. Therefore, if you're like many users and don't need SLI x16 support, don't need multiple NIC's and can do overclocking the manual way, well, the nForce 650i is a much better value. Today we'll be looking at the premiere nForce 650i SLI platform on the market, the new Asus P5N-E SLI. This board has garnered a lot of attention lately, both positive from overclockers and negative from those claiming it was rushed out too quickly. Let's see what this board is capable of.

Specifications:

 

CPU

  • LGA775 socket for Intel Core 2 Extreme / Core 2 Duo / Pentium Extreme / Pentium D / Pentium 4 / Celeron D Processors
  • Intel Quad-core CPU Ready

Chipset 

  • NVIDIA nForce 650i SLI

Front Side Bus

  • 1333 / 1066 / 800 / 533 MHz
  • (available when CPU's supporting 1333 MHz FSB)

Memory

  • Dual channel memory architecture
  • 4 x 240-pin DDR2 DIMM sockets
  • Support up to 8 GB DDR2 800/667/533

Expansion Slots

  • 2 x PCI Express x16
  • Single VGA mode: x16 (Default)
  • SLI mode: x8, x8
  • 1 x PCI Express x1
  • 2 x PCI (PCI 2.2)

Scalable Link Interface (SLI)

  • Supports two identical NVIDIA SLI-Ready graphics cards (8 x 8 mode)

Storage

  • 2 x Ultra DMA 133/100/66/33
  • 4 x Serial ATA 3.0 Gb/s
  • Support RAID0, 1, 0+1, 5, and JBOD
  • 1 x External Serial ATA 3.0 Gb/s (SATA On-the-Go)

LAN

  • 1 x Gigabit LAN featuring AI Net2
  • Marvell 88E1116 PHY

Audio

  • Realtek ALC883 6-channel CODEC
  • Audio Sensing and Enumeration Technology
  • Multi-Streaming
  • 1 x Coaxial S/PDIF out ports on back I/O

IEEE 1394a

  • Supports 2 IEEE 1394a connector onboard (1 in back + 1 on board)

USB

  • Supports up 8 USB2.0 ports (4 ports at mid-board, 4 ports at back panel)

Overclocking Features

  • AI Overclocking (intelligent CPU frequency tuner)
  • ASUS CPU Lock Free
  • Precision Tweaker
  • vCore: Adjustable CPU voltage at 6.25mv increment - max. 1.6V
  • vChip: 4-step Chip voltage control - adjust Chip voltage max. 0.55V
  • vDIMM: 8-step DRAM voltage control - adjust DRAM voltage max. 0.6V
  • SFS (Stepless Frequency Selection)
  • FSB tuning from 200MHz up to 750MHz at 1MHz increment
  • PCI Express frequency tuning from 100MHz up to 131MHz at 1MHz increment
  • CPU Multiplier
  • ASUS C.P.R.(CPU Parameter Recall)

BIOS

  • 4 Mb Flash ROM, AWARD BIOS, PnP, DMI2.0, WfM2.0, SM BIOS 2.3
  • ASUS EZ Flash 2,ASUS CrashFree BIOS 2

Manageability

  • WfM 2.0, DMI 2.0 , WOR by Ring ,
  • WOL/WOR by PME, WO USB/KB/MS, PXE, RPL & AI Net2

Special Features

  • ASUS Q-Connector
  • ASUS O.C. Profile
  • ASUS Fanless Design
  • ASUS PC Probe2
  • ASUS Q-Fan2
  • ASUS MyLogo2
  • ASUS Update

Back Panel I/O Ports

  • 1 x Parallel port
  • 1 x 1394a connector
  • 1 x S/PDIF Out port (Coaxial)
  • 1 x PS/2 Keyboard port (purple)
  • 1 x PS/2 Mouse port (green)
  • 1 x LAN(RJ-45) port
  • 4 x USB 2.0/1.1 port
  • 1 x External SATA
  • 6-Channel Audio I/O port

Internal I/O Connectors

  • 1 x 24-pin ATX Power connector
  • 1 x 4-pin ATX 12V Power connector
  • 1 x Chassis Intrusion
  • 1 x CPU + 2 Chassis FAN connectors
  • 1 x Floppy disk drive connector
  • 1 x CD audio in connector
  • 1 x 1394a connector
  • 2 x USB connector supports additional 4 USB ports
  • 1 x Front panel connector (AAFP)
  • System panel connector
  • 1 x COM Port connector
  • 1 x S/PDIF out connector

Accessories

  • 1 x SLI bridge
  • 1 x 2-in-1 ASUS Q-Connector Kit (Retail version only)
  • 1 x UltraDMA 133/100/66 cable
  • 1 x FDDe cable
  • 2 x SATA cables
  • 2 x SATA power cable
  • 1 x 2-port USB2.0 module
  • 1 x I/O Shield
  • User's manual

Software

  • Drivers
  • ASUS Update
  • Anti-virus software (OEM version)
  • ASUS PC Probe II
  • NVIDIA RIS (Remote Installation Service) application

Form Factor

  • ATX Form Factor, 12"x 9"(30.5cm x 22.9cm)

 

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Board Layout

Board Layout

The Asus P5N-E SLI uses a fairly standard design based on an ATX form factor and a sleek black PCB. Asus didn't take any huge chances with the design here, but considering this board is targeted at the mid-range market, they didn't really have to. Notable items upon first glance are the dual PCI Express x16 sized slots with SLI link adapter, the huge heatsink passively cooling the Northbridge, and a Southbridge which is not cooled by anything.

Asus P5N-E - Top Focused

Asus P5N-E - Bottom Focused

Starting off at the top of the board, we have support for Socket-775 processors. The board is designed with the Core 2 in mind, so Core 2 Duo and Quad processors are supported right out of the box. The board also supports older Pentium and Celeron processors as well, if you want to take that route. While Nvidia states that the nForce 650i SLI chipset only supports front side bus speeds up to 1066 MHz, Asus goes a bit further and gives official support for 1333 MHz FSB processors on their product pages and in the manual. As Nvidia's high-end 680i chipset (which the 650i is based on) supports 1333 MHz+ FSB processors, seeing this feature on the 650i isn't too shocking. In our testing, we found that this 650i board can go well beyond 1333 MHz FSB, so this board is certainly in the clear for Intel's next-generation 1333 MHz FSB Core 2 based products which are scheduled to hit later this year.

There are a number of onboard components which are a little too close to the CPU socket for comfort. In particular, there are capacitors to the top and left of the socket which may interfere with some coolers. One of the coolers we used on this board actually pushed down on these capacitors and was barely able to make contact with the processor, which is certainly not a good thing. Intel's stock cooler, however, is a perfect match for this board. The overly large passive Northbridge cooler is also pretty close to the CPU socket, and the height of this unit also may interfere with some coolers.

Asus leaves the processor VRM modules around the CPU socket free of cooling, which may hinder heavy overclocking, as these get quite hot under heavy loads. Similar boards from Asus typically have heatpipes and/or heatsinks covering these components, so seeing a board suddenly without any cooling at all on these components leaves us somewhat weary. However, throughout testing, we did not run into stability issues due to overheating VRM's - not to our knowledge, anyway. 

CPU Socket

Northbridge Cooler

The nForce 650i Northbridge is covered by a massive aluminum alloy heatsink which sits in between the CPU socket and primary PCI Express graphics slot. The nForce 650i generates considerably less heat compared to the high-end 680i chipset, which typically needs copper heatpipes and/or fans in order to be cooled properly. The 650i, however, is perfectly happy being cooled passively, although this heatsink does run quite hot under normal loads. The heatsink is connected to the 650i Northbridge via a pre-applied layer of thermal paste. It's highly recommended that users of this motherboard have airflow coming from both the CPU cooler and from a rear exhaust fan in order to keep the chipset cool. On the plus side, with just a big heatsink cooling the board, it runs absolutely silent by default, even without the use of expensive heatpipes. In addition, the Nvidia Southbridge chip runs bare, free from any kind of cooling. This chip also runs slightly warm, but not hot enough to require dedicated cooling. Asus does leave mounting holes, however, should you want to apply your own third party chipset cooler. The Northbridge cooler also uses standardized mounting holes, so it's possible to remove the large aluminum alloy cooler to apply a different cooler on this chip as well.

The P5N-E SLI is equipped with 4 x DDR2 DIMM slots, capable of speeds up to 800 MHz. Unlike the high-end 680i SLI chipset, the 650i does not officially support DDR2 speeds of 1066 and 1200 MHz, nor does it officially support EPP memory modules. We have seen in newer BIOS revisions from Asus that EPP modules are supported, although we did not have the opportunity to test a large number of DDR2 modules beyond 800 MHz in order to test the flexibility of the board here. Interestingly enough, we found in testing that the board had a tendency to be more stable when using the "black" DDR2 slots on the board rather than the yellow slots, which is what Asus recommends if you're only using 2 x DDR2 modules. In terms of memory support, the board seems a bit quirky at this time, but when modules were placed in the black slots, we had no problem getting them to run at their fastest 4-4-4-12 timings and retaining full stability.

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Board Layout (Continued)

Board Layout (Continued)

As an "SLI" enabled board, one can obviously put two Nvidia SLI-equipped graphics cards into this system for a multi-GPU rendering setup. The nForce 650i has far fewer PCI Express lanes to utilize compared to the 680i, which limits how many PCIe lanes can go to each graphics card slot. The 650i SLI can only support 8 x 8 SLI, whereas the more expensive (and hotter, and power hungry) 680i SLI chipset can support 16 x 16 SLI. In our tests, we have found that no modern graphics cards really push the need for more than PCI Express x8 speeds and an 8x8 SLI configuration will typically only run about 1-2% slower compared to full 16x 16 SLI configuration. Therefore, if you're looking to go for SLI on a budget, this is a good board to go with . Two GeForce 7950 GT 512 MB's in SLI would be a great match for this board. If you're going with a GeForce 8800 SLI configuration, we would recommend going all out and going for a nForce 680i motherboard. 

The bare nForce 650i Southbridge handles the board's Serial ATA storage connectivity options, which are in line with what we would expect of a mid-range motherboard of late. The Southbridge supports 4 x Serial ATA-II/300 class ports in a flip-flop red-black layout, sitting next to two Ultra ATA/133 ports which hang off the side of the board. The Serial ATA-II/300 ports support RAID levels 0, 1, 0+1 and 5.

In addition to the 4 x SATA ports near the bottom of the board, there's also an eSATA port (or SATA-On-The-Go, as Asus likes to call it) on the board's I/O panel. The I/O panel also features legacy parallel and PS/2 ports, along with 5.1 digital (coaxial) audio, Firewire 400, 4 x USB 2.0 ports, and 6 channel analog audio. Compared to the Striker Extreme which we looked at a few weeks ago, the I/O panel of this particular board seems somewhat...well...boring, but it's an I/O panel. It's not really meant to be exciting, and as it is the P5N-E's I/O panel gets the job done. 

The lack of 8-channel HD audio is surprising, given the fact that Azalia (HD) components are so readily available on the market and so inexpensive. Interestingly enough, the P5N-E SLI utilizes a Realtek ALC883 CODEC, which in itself is an HD ready CODEC. However, Asus only provides the outputs for six channel audio, perhaps in a move to distinguish between the high-end and mid-range boards. Kind of weak, we say. On the plus side, Asus does utilize a Marvell 88E1116 PHY for the onboard Gigabit Ethernet, a positive move as this chip is based on a PCI Express x1 connection to the chipset. The board does not support Nvidia's DualNet nor TCP acceleration technologies, however.  It's just a good old fashioned Gigabit Ethernet port. 

As for bundled extras, the board includes Serial ATA data and power cables, Ultra ATA / floppy cables, an SLI bridge, a USB port expander, and Asus's Q-Connector, which makes plugging in front panel power/reset/LED indicators easier. Asus kept the bundle to a bare minimum here in order to keep costs down. If you're buying this board, don't expect a lot of extras or niceties - simply buy it for the board alone.

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BIOS and Overclocking

BIOS and Overclocking

Despite being on the market for only a scant month or so, the P5N-E SLI has gained a reputation as a great budget overclocking board, thanks to a few choice reviews around the web. While Asus doesn't push the overclockabilty of this board as a prime feature, in our testing, we've found that the board is quite tweakable, if you're willing take the time to endure a little hassle.

The shipping BIOS for this motherboard, 0202, is somewhat limiting in its feature set. Asus recently released a newer 0307 BIOS to the world which seems to fare a bit better, but most overclockers are still reporting issues with this board. Our testing was done with an 0304 BIOS, which we found to provide excellent overclockability and solid stability. Asus uses a Phoenix BIOS for this motherboard, with all of the overclocking utilities featured under the "Advanced" menu. 

Voltage Levels

FSB/Memory Levels

Like the high-end nForce 680i, the nForce 650i makes for an excellent overclocker as front side bus speeds can be tuned independently of the memory bus. This allows you to keep your memory speed at a reasonable level while cranking your FSB (and peak overclocks) as high as they can go, without the memory being a potential stability issue. The board supports front side bus speeds up to a whopping 3000 MHz, giving quite a lot of headroom for Intel Core 2 processors which have a 1066 MHz FSB by default.

Memory Timings

Fan Speed Controls

We didn't get quite that high in our testing - the maximum front side bus speed we were able to attain was 1933 MHz, however, we were only able to have a stable system to run through our full benchmark suite at 1866 MHz. 1866 MHz is still a very high front side bus overclock, and even more impressive is that we were able to attain these speeds with stock voltage and passive chipset cooling. Cranking up the Northbridge voltage levels did not improve our overclockability, and neither did putting active cooling on the Northbridge heatsink.

The peak (stable) overclock which provides us with the best performance was running our Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz) processor at 1666 MHz FSB on an 8x multiplier, which gave us a clock speed of 3.33 GHz. This is the level we ran our processor at for our "overclocked" series of benchmarks on the following pages.

One oddball aspect about this board is voltage tweaking. Instead of being solid voltage amounts to push to (for example, 1.9V, 2.0V, 2.1V), the P5N-E uses non-standard voltage levels (1.92V, 2.012V, 2.085V) for processor, memory, and Northbridge voltage modification. Being a percentage or two off in terms of voltage likely won't hurt any components, but it didn't install confidence either.

The board support Asus Q-Fan for low-noise computing, although one can only control two 3-pin fans through the BIOS. We should note that the board only has a scant three 3-pin connectors, so if you're looking to hook up a lot of fans, you might want to look into a drive-bay mounted fan speed controler.

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SiSoft Sandra
Test System Details
Specifications and Revisions
  •   Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz) Processor
  • 2 x Corsair XMS DDR2-800 Memory (2 x 1 GB, CAS 4-4-4-12)
  • 1 x Nvidia GeForce 7900 GT 256 MB (Nvidia 93.71 Driver)
  • 1 x Maxtor DiamondMax 10 Serial ATA Hard Disk
  • 1 x Plextor PX-755SA DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Corsair HX620W 620W Power Supply
  • Windows XP Professional SP2 (32-bit)

     

  • Asus P5N-E SLI Nvidia nForce 650i SLI Chipset (0304 BIOS)
  • Asus Striker Extreme Nvidia nForce 680i SLI Chipset (701 BIOS)
  • Asus P5NSLI Nvidia nForce 570 SLI Chipset (0903 BIOS)
  • Asus P5W DH Deluxe Intel 975X Chipset (1707 BIOS)
  • Asus P5B Deluxe Intel P965 Chipset (0804 BIOS)
Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks
SiSoft Sandra XI

 

 

 

CPU benchmarks show the P5N-E SLI right on target with other high-end boards in terms of CPU performance - and that our healthy overclock can improve performance by quite a lot. Memory performance of the nForce 650i SLI is a smidge worse compared to the nForce 680i, but in comparison to Intel's competing P965 chipset, the nForce 650i provides more bandwidth at lower latencies,  a definite win.

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3DMark and PCMark
Synthetic Benchmarks
Futuremark 3DMark05 and PCMark05

 

Our synthetics show that with a single graphics card, the nForce 650i performs right on par with the more expensive nForce 680i platform in both gaming and application tests. Again, the nForce 650i delivers better performance compared to Intel's mid-range P965 chipset here as well.

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Half Life 2, Prey, FEAR
Gaming Benchmarks
Half Life 2, FEAR and Prey

 

 

Gaming performance is very solid with the nForce 650i chipset, as again we see levels right on par with the nForce 680i. Overall, our two nForce 600-series chipsets tended to offer slightly better performance compared to the Intel branded chipsets.

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Cinebench, DivX Encoding
Application Benchmarks
Cinebench and DivX Converter

 

Application performance is close, as expected. Our overclocked P5N-E SLI board gives some great numbers for a mid-range system - the 21 second time is edging up near levels seen with quad-core systems.

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HD Tach 3.0
Hard Disk Benchmarks
HDTach 3.0

 

 

The nForce 680i and 650i share the same relative Serial ATA controller design, and it shows as there is virtually no performance difference between these two chipsets. None of the chipsets prove themselves as dominant for storage with a single hard disk. RAID may be another story, though.

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Conclusion

At a price near $150, the Asus P5N-E SLI is a pretty great value in our eyes. The board delivers superb overclocking, silent stock cooling, and a solid feature set, not to mention SLI support as well. The board definitely has a mid-range feel to it, as some of the high-end niceties are missing and one has to work a little harder to truly get the expected performance out of the board, but in the end, we like the P5N-E. It's cheap but can provide great performance levels, if you don't mind rolling up your sleeves and dedicating some time for tweaking.

We will certainly say that we feel Asus rushed this board out to market a little too quickly. Competing nForce 650i SLI solutions are just hitting the market now, and if Asus had given this board a little more time to bake in the oven, we think they could have worked out some of the early quirks we're seeing with today's boards. Some of the problems with the board are downright confusing, like why one set of memory slots are more stable than the other, and why sometimes plugging in USB devices will reboot the system - just strange stuff. Hopefully over the next few weeks we'll see Asus get a more finalized version of the BIOS out there for early adopters, as we're certain that there is a great board here in terms of hardware which has yet to be fully exposed due to these early quirks.

In terms of hardware, we approve of the design and implementation of the P5N-E SLI. There are some items we would have preferred, such as a copper heatpipe cooling system to provide better cooling for the chipset and VRM modules, true 8-channel audio support, and additional fan headers. However, as a whole the P5N-E SLI is a very simple, nicely designed board. The rumored overclockability of this board is certainly true, as we were able to achieve our highest front side bus speeds to date on this board, hitting close to 2000 MHz FSB with no voltage tweaks or high-end cooling. The 650i SLI is a great chipset for enthusiasts and overclockers, and we're excited to see how far people will take this board with additional cooling methods in place.

The nForce 650i SLI certainly isn't the best choice for all Socket-775 users. We wouldn't recommend this board for high-end gamers with 8800 GTX SLI configurations (go for the 680i SLI), nor would we recommend this board for high-end workstation users due to early stability issues (go for the 975x or P965). We do, however, feel that this board hits a nice spot for gamers who want an SLI-capable board at a relatively low price. These gamers want overclockability, but don't necessarily require flashy add-ons or gimmicky features. The P5N-E SLI hits this market perfectly, and as of now, we feel is a better mid-range chipset for these users in comparison to Intel's P965. However, P965 boards have been out for many months now, and have had time to mature, while it will take several more months for the nForce 650i to reach this level. 

  • Low Price
  • Solid Feature Set
  • Great Overclocking With Little Effort
  • SLI Support
  • 680i Class Performance Levels
  • Unstable Shipping BIOS
  • Basic 6-Channel Audio
  • Chipset Can Get Excessively Hot

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