|Introduction and the nForce 600 Chipset|
In early November of last year, NVIDIA unveiled their successor to the nForce 5, the nForce 600 series. The starting line-up included three solutions supporting Intel's Core 2 processor, each aimed at a different segment of the market and each with a different price point. The most expensive chipset in the series, the high-end 680i SLI provided a host of new features including dual X16 SLI support with a third X8 PCI-E slot. Next comes the 650i SLI, which lacks many of the 680i's fancier features like dual x16 SLI support, but makes up for it with a significantly lower price point. Finally at the low end is the 650i Ultra, which lacks SLI support altogether.
While the three boards in the series did a good job of covering the different segments of the market, there was a significant price gap between the 680i SLI and the 650i SLI chipsets. Going from a 650i SLI to a 680i SLI usually meant a price increase of about $100. ASUS found a solution to the problem by introducing a board that offered most of the same features of the 680i SLI at a lower price, fitting right into the price gap . They did this by creating their own hybrid chipset in cooperation with NVIDIA, dubbed the "NVIDIA Dual X16 SLI".
To give birth to the NVIDIA Dual X16 SLI, ASUS mated a nForce 650i SLI northbridge with a AMD edition nForce 570 SLI MCP southbridge. The 650i SLI northbridge provides support for one of two X16 PCI-E slots while handling communications with the processor and memory. The 570 SLI MCP southbridge provides the bandwidth for the second X16 PCI-E slot, as well as a third full-sized PCI-E slot with an X8 electrical connection, in addition to handling the board's storage features. This results in a hybrid chipset with a nearly identical feature set compared to the nForce 680i SLI, including the coveted dual X16 SLI support. In order to keep costs down, ASUS put their new hybrid chipset on the same PCB used by the P5N32-E SLI and the Striker Extreme. Finally, they named it P5N32-E SLI Plus.
As you can see in the chart above, ASUS' hybrid chipset sports a near identical feature set to the nForce 680i SLI. The only department where it falls behind is SLI-ready memory, since the chipset uses a 650i SLI to communicate with the memory. Since the P5N32-E SLI Plus currently retails for about $180, it has the potential of delivering nForce 680i SLI level performance and features at a near 650i SLI price.
But wait, didn't NVIDIA recently solve the price gap problem with the introduction of the 680i LT SLI? This is technically true, since the new chipset sits in the price gap and offers several key 680i SLI features that the 650i SLI chipset lacks. However, NVIDIA had to cut several features in order to keep the price of the 680i LT SLI down. The features that were cut from the 680i LT SLI include dual LAN support, the third PCI-E x16 slot and no DDR2-1200 support. As we saw in the above chart, ASUS' hybrid chipset has all of these features. The 680i LT SLI can currently be found for about $190. This puts the 680i LT SLI at a notable disadvantage to ASUS' hybrid chipset which offers more features for slightly less money.
By now your probably curious; can ASUS' "NVIDIA Dual X16 SLI" chipset really offer 680i SLI level performance for a near 650i SLI price? We set out to find the answer to that very question. We decided to pit the P5N32-E SLI up against a true nForce 680i SLI board. We wanted to see how ASUS' hybrid chipset will stand up to the onslaught of Abit's flagship 680i based motherboard, the impressive IN9 32X-MAX. Read on for our evaluations of both boards and a head-to-head performance comparison.
|ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus: Specifications & Features|
ASUS has adopted a very confusing naming scheme for their nForce 600 series boards. ASUS currently makes four different motherboards utilizing a nForce 600 series chipset, t hey are (in order of increasing price) the P5N-E SLI, P5N32-E SLI Plus, P5N32-E SLI and the Striker Extreme. Unless you read that list very slowly, the only one out of the four that you're likely to remember is the Striker Extreme. Why didn't ASUS give all their boards catchy names like the Striker?
Some explanation is in order. The P5N-E SLI is the entry level product in ASUS' nForce 600 range of boards, based on the 650i chipset. The Striker Extreme is the flagship ultra high-end board based on the nForce 680i chipset. The P5N32-E SLI non-plus is a high-end board utilizing the 680i chipset. The board we are looking at today, the P5N32-E SLI Plus, fills in the gap between the entry level P5N-E SLI and the high-end P5N32-E SLI. ASUS' NVIDIA Dual x16 SLI hybrid chipset positions the P5N32-E SLI Plus as an upper mid-range enthusiast product. The emphasis is on "enthusiast", as you'll see from the specifications below.
As previously noted, the P5N32-E SLI Plus weighs in at about $180. That's a hefty price for a motherboard, that is until you realize that you're basically getting a nForce 680i SLI. ASUS has packed the P5N32-E SLI Plus with plenty of goodies like 8 phase power, 100% solid-state capacitors, ASUS' SupremeFX audio card, 8 fan headers and intelligent overclocking tools that can automate overclocking and let you load and save overclock profiles.
|ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus: Board & Bundle|
Like many other recently released ASUS motherboards, the P5N32-E SLI Plus uses a black PCB, copper heatpipes and a two-color scheme for the soldered components. This makes the board look very slick and coordinated which sets it apart from motherboards made by other manufacturers who often incorporate a mix of components in a dozen contrasting colors. The P5N32-E SLI Plus' two piece copper heatpipe system certainly grabs your attention. The first piece connects the northbridge to a large heatsink covering some voltage regulators near the rear I/O panel, while the second piece connects the southbridge to a similar heatsink above the LGA775 socket.
Overall, the P5N32-E SLI Plus is a well laid out design, free of any major problems. ASUS left plenty of room around the LGA775 socket and the board should be able to accommodate all but the largest of oversized after-market CPU coolers. The heatsinks around the CPU socket are designed to take advantage of any residual airflow created by the CPU cooler. This might lead to heat problems when a passive cooler or water-cooling is installed, so keep that in mind. However, most modern computer cases have fans positioned near the CPU socket, either on the rear or side panel, and that should create enough airflow to let the P5N32-E SLI Plus' heatpipe system effectively cool the components.
A 24-pin ATX power connector and an 8-pin 12V power connector supply the board with power. The power connectors are backwards compatible with older 20-pin and 4-pin power connectors but it's highly recommended that a modern power supply with the correct 24-pin and 8-pin power connectors be used. Unlike some other boards, the P5N32-E SLI Plus does not have an optional molex power connector for additional power, which makes it even more important that a modern power supply with 24 and 8 pin connectors be used. Also note that the board will not boot unless a 4 or 8 pin power connector is plugged in.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus' rear I/O array is rather sparse looking. This is mostly due to a complete lack of legacy connections. The lack of legacy connectors could be an inconvenience for those of us who wish to use older peripherals, but for most users it won't be a problem since just about everything uses USB these days. Stacked above the USB ports are dual gigabit LAN ports, which are starting to be pretty standard fare on enthusiast boards. Next to the PS/2 connectors are two S/PDIF ports, one coaxial, the other optical. Between the USB and the S/PDIF ports is a single, lonely looking Firewire port. We wish the I/O shield included with the board had grills cut into it, right above the lonesome Firewire port, which would have provided some ventilation for the nearby heatsink.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus provides a total of eight fan connectors, all of which can be controlled from within the BIOS to some degree. The connectors are relatively evenly spread out along the edges of the board so there should be at least one connector within reach of the fan you wish to connect. Located at the bottom of the board are two USB header ports and a single Firewire header port. The header ports aren't color coded which makes connecting your case's front USB/Firewire ports much more tedious since you must constantly refer to the manual for the pin-out. Luckily, ASUS provides a Q-Connector set with this board, which greatly simplifies the process. You simply plug your front panel connectors into the USB/Firewire Q-Connector, then when everything is hooked up, connect the Q-Connector to the motherboard's header port.
The three PCI-E x16 slots are conveniently separated from each other by one expansion slot. This means that there will be plenty of room for your video cards to breath. It also means that unless your using three double-height video cards, there should always be at least one PCI or PCI-E x1 slot available. Most users probably won't have much use for the white PCI-E x16 slot hich only has 8 PCI Express lanes until GPU physics becomes widespread, so the PCI port under it should be free to accommodate your PCI expansion card of choice. Note that the slot above the first blue PCI-E x16 slot is meant for the SupremeFX audio card that's included with the board. You won't be able to fit anything else in it.
The ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus appears to share its PCB with the Striker Extreme and the older P5N32-E SLI (non-plus). This results in the three boards having nearly identical layouts. In fact, the P5N32-E SLI Plus and its older non-plus brother have exactly the same board layout. The only difference we were able to spot, besides the color of certain components, was the plus version's exclusive use of solid-state capacitors while the non-plus version mixes in some conventional electrolytic capacitors.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus also resembles a toned down version of the Striker Extreme. Gone are the Striker's LEDs, back panel LCD, on-board lighted power, reset and clear CMOS buttons and the heatpipe system has also been down sized. You can clearly see the empty solder points on the P5N32-E SLI Plus where these components would have gone had the PCB been binned as a Striker Extreme. Despite these omissions, the P5N32-E SLI Plus' PCB still manages to look quite busy. The logo painted on the southbridge's heatsink is a reminder that this board belongs to ASUS' AI Lifestyle product range and not the new Republic of Gamers series that the Striker belongs to.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus makes use of a small audio riser card called the ASUS SupremeFX. The SupremeFX has six 3.5mm analog audio ports which support auto jack-sensing, enumeration, multi-streaming and jack-retasking. The audio CODEC is also on the riser card. However, the digital outputs are still on the rear I/O panel. The ADI SoundMAX 1988B CODEC supports high definition sound with 8 channels, EAX 2.0 for games, and DTS Connect. While it isn't quite up to par with discrete solutions from companies like Creative and M-Audio, it beats the Realtek CODECs commonly used as onboard solutions on other motherboards.
Usually, daughter cards like the SupremeFX are used to isolate noise away from the rest of the system. In this case however, the riser card was probably implemented because the rear I/O panel of the Striker Extreme had so many components that it just didn't have space for six analog audio ports. Since the P5N32-E SLI Plus uses the same PCB as the Striker Extreme, it too needs to use the SupremeFX, although its no longer strictly necessary since unlike the Striker, the P5N32-E SLI Plus' rear I/O panel is pretty barren. This actually turns out to be a disadvantage for the P5N32-E SLI Plus since the SupremeFX requires a special slot which hogs valuable real estate that could have been occupied by a standard PCI-E x1 slot.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus comes with a pretty standard set of accessories. In the box, you'll find the user manual, driver/utility CD, I/O shield and an ASUS case badge. Also included is a Q-Connector set, which consists of Q-Connectors for USB, Firewire and the system front connectors. The bundled accessories include an IDE cable, FDD cable, SLI bridge, USB and Firewire headers, two SATA cables, and two molex-to-SATA power cables. We found the accessory bundle to be a bit sparse since the board has six SATA ports and only two sets of cables were included. We wished the the two molex-to-SATA power cables were replaced with SATA data cables since most modern power supplies come with four or more SATA power cables. We would have also liked to see the USB and Firewire ports be combined into a single header, like the ones often bundled with Abit boards.
The driver/utility CD includes drivers for the chipset, audio codec, USB 2.0 ports and a variety of proprietary utilities including ASUS PC probe II, ASUS Update, ASUS AI Booster, and ASUS Music Alarm. Adobe Reader 7.0, DirectX 9.0c and Norton Internet Security 2006 are also included on the CD. The CD can also be used to create 32-bit as well as 64-bit SATA RAID driver disks.
|ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus: BIOS & Overclocking|
The P5N32-E SLI Plus uses an Award BIOS that is very comprehensive and packed with features. Like many other Award BIOS menus, this one is easy to navigate and well laid out. From within the BIOS, users have the ability to configure, enable or disable all of the board's various integrated peripherals, and can monitor fan speeds, voltages and clock speeds.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus' BIOS is highly configurable and offers many of the same options featured on the Striker Extreme. There are seven main tabs and inside of almost every tab are several sub-menus.
Besides the usual set of rather standard BIOS settings, a couple more interesting options are also included such as the ASUS music alarm, fan speed control menu, OC profiles, EZ Flash 2 and the extensive PC health monitor. The ASUS music alarm allows you to set a alarm that plays music from an inserted audio CD. The time and days of the week that the alarm should be active on can both be set from the BIOS. The fan speed control menu allows you to individually control all 8 fan connectors. The OC profile features allows you save and load your overclocking settings. The EZ flash 2 utility allows you to flash the BIOS without requiring a bootable floppy disk. Finally, the PC health monitor lets you see real-time data like voltages, temperatures and fan speeds.
While these options are quiet useful, the real fun is in the 'Extreme Tweaker' menu. Inside, you'll find just about every voltage, frequency, multiplier, ratio and timing setting you'll need to push your CPU beyond its manufacturer recommended limits. Before you can get to all the manual controls, you first need to select the AI Tuning mode you would like to work in. There are five modes to choose from, they are Manual, Auto, Standard, AI Overclock, and AI N.O.S. Manual mode allows you to individually tweak the various BIOS options as you please. Auto mode loads the optimal default settings while Standard loads the standard settings. AI Overclocking mode loads overclocking profiles with optimal parameters for stability when overclocking. Finally, AI N.O.S. mode intelligently determines the system load and boosts performance while the system is performing particularly demanding tasks.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus allows the user to manipulate the CPU multiplier, although you are limited to decreasing the multiplier unless you have an unlocked processor. The front side bus frequency can be adjusted in 1 MHz increments, from the stock frequency to as high as 3000MHz. PCI-E express frequency can be adjusted for each of the three PCI-E x16 slots individually, from 100MHz to 200MHz. The multiplier to the LDT bus between the north and south bridge can also be adjusted anywhere from 1X to 8X. There are a lot of memory timing options available and ASUS has divided them into two groups, one for the major settings and a second group for the more advanced options.
The memory clock mode can be switched between linked and unlinked. In linked mode, the memory clock depends on the FSB. The two frequencies are separated by a ratio that can be 1:1, 5:4, 3:2 or 'sync' mode. In sync mode, the ratio being used it determined by the chipset in real-time. In unlinked mode, the memory clock and FSB are independent of each other. This can be an asset in certain situations where the provided memory ratios in linked mode just don't fit the bill. Choosing unlinked mode will unlock the memory bus frequency setting, which can be set to anything from 400MHz to 2.6GHz.
The BIOS offers thorough voltage adjustments. The Vcore voltage can be adjusted as high as 1.9V, in 0.00625V intervals. Memory voltages can be set as high as 3.425V, in 0.025V intervals. The HyperTransport voltage can be increased to 1.95V in 0.05V intervals. The north bridge can be fed up to 2.75V, also in 0.05V intervals, while the south bridge goes as high as 1.85V. The VTT bus of the processor can be increased in 0.05V intervals up to a maximum of 1.55V. The DDR2 memory controller's voltage can also be increased by as much as 30mv separation in either direction.
Overall, we found the P5N32-E SLI Plus' BIOS to be excellent. There is an abundant selection of overclocking options and the voltage adjustments are very generous. The menus are well laid out and it only took a couple moments to figure out where everything was.
We took a Core 2 E6400 processor and set out to see if the P5N32-E SLI Plus' extensive BIOS settings could amount to equally impressive overclocking results. We loaded the BIOS' optimized defaults, then increased the FSB as far as we could go without having to increase voltages to achieve stability. The frequency of our Corsair TWIN2X1024-8500 modules were locked to their rated speed of 1066MHz in the BIOS' memory multiplier settings.
We were able to take our E6400 CPU to 3.04 GHz, by raising the FSB to 380MHz. This is the highest speed our system was able to handle with perfect stability. We know from past experience that the particular E6400 we used was capable of a bit more than this and our RAM was locked at their rated speed, so it was probably the board that was preventing us from pushing further at stock voltages. We were able to boot into Windows at slightly higher frequencies but we weren't able to stay there very long since our system was terribly unstable. Out of curiosity, we lowered the multiplier from its default of 8 to 6, the lowest setting we were allowed to go, and tried to achieve a higher FSB overclock. Reducing the multiplier, along with our past experience with the particular processor we were using safely rules out the possibility that our CPU was holding us back. Unfortunately, we were unable get anything more out of this setup at stock voltages, even with a reduced CPU multiplier. Overall, the P5N32-E SLI Plus is a decent overclocker. The FSB overclock it was able to achieve is about average compared to other enthusiast boards.
|Abit IN9 32X-MAX: Specifications & Features|
The NVIDIA 680i based IN9-32X MAX is the only Abit board based on a NVIDIA 600 series chipset that is currently available. However Abit announced in February that they will be producing a NVIDIA 650 based board that will be part of the Fatal1ty series of gamer oriented boards, called the FP-IN9. It will retail for about a third of the price of the IN9-32X MAX. It's already listed by a couple of european retailers but has yet to reach north america. The IN9-32X MAX is Abit's attempt at an ultra-high end NVIDIA 680i based board and as you'll see it's loaded with features.
The IN9 32X-MAX's feature set is fitting for a $320 motherboard. Highlights include both input and output optical S/PDIF ports, dual eSATA with RAID capability, ECC memory support, 100% solid state capacitor design and the onboard uGuru chip. uGuru is a custom microprocessor that, in conjunction with Abit's software utilities, allows the user to modify system settings and monitor system status in real-time from within the operating system. The dedicated uGuru chip allows all of this to be done with zero CPU utilization. The ability to modify and monitor system settings like frequency and voltages in real time greatly simplifies the process of overclocking.
Included with the IN9 32X-MAX is a generous accessory package that includes all the cables you'll likely need. The IDE and FDD cables were also rounded, which is a nice touch that we don't see very often anymore, now that the move to SATA is in full swing and floppy drives have given way to cheap recordable optical media and flash drives. Of particular interest is the included Abit Airpace Wi-Fi card. This little device fits into a PCI-E X1 slot and provides 802.11B/G wireless support. The best part is, it is a dedicated device and can be used with any PCI-E X1 slot. The Airpace unit doesn't require the IN9 32X-MAX to do any of its processing. In fact, it can be bought separately from the IN9 32X-MAX. To make the deal even sweeter, Abit includes software that allows the Airpace unit to act as a software wireless access point.
|Abit IN9 32X-MAX: Board & Bundle|
As we stated earlier, we're pitting ASUS' hybrid chipset up against the best 680i based board Abit has to offer, the IN9 32X-MAX. This board retails for a full $100 more than the ASUS board and it shows. In return for the additional investment, you get just about every feature you can imagine from a motherboard, as well as a fully implemented 680i chipset. It even comes with a wireless PCI-E adapter. The IN9 32X-MAX uses the same color scheme as the P5N32-E SLI Plus, except that Abit chose to use black for the memory and expansion slots, instead of the white used by ASUS. Dominating the board is a copper heatpipe system with a massive heatsink cooling the northbridge. The northbridge heatsink is larger than most CPU heatsinks were a couple years ago. If that is somehow not enough cooling for your tastes, a 40mm fan can be installed on the northbridge heatsink with the included brackets.
We really liked the IN9 32X-MAX's layout. Abit left tons of room around the CPU socket. The LGA775 socket is located at the edge of the board with nothing to one side. This board should be able to accommodate nearly every heatsink. Like the ASUS board, the heatsinks on the IN9 32X-MAX are designed to take advantage of the residual airflow from the CPU cooler. Users of passive or water cooling may have slight heat issues with the board since, unless there are case fans near by, there will not be enough air passing over the heatsinks near the CPU to cool them effectively. Abit solves this potential problem by providing two metal brackets that can be used to attach a 40mm fan to the northbridge heatsink, although a 40mm fan was not provided.
Installing a fan on the northbridge will also cool the southbridge since the heat from it will be carried to the enormous northbridge cooler via a heatpipe. A cooler northbridge heatsink also means that less heat is carried to the heatsink cooling the voltage regulators near the rear IO ports. We really liked that Abit chose to keep the northbridge fan optional since many users will be using CPU coolers capable of effectively cooling the board without the use of a fan over the northbridge. The top of the northbridge heatsink has a grooved surface. This design looks great but it's also functional. The grooves help reduce air turbulence when a fan is installed which results in less fan noise.
Power is supplied to the board by a 24-pin ATX power connector and a 8-pin 12V power connector. The board is compatible with 20-pin power connectors, but not 4-pin power connectors. A 8-pin power plug must be plugged into the 8-pin power connector in order for the system to boot. While 20-pin power connectors are supported, it is highly recommended that a 24-pin connector be used to ensure sufficient power is delivered to the board. An optional molex power connector is provided at the bottom left corner of the board, under the expansion slots. The molex connector supplies additional power to the board when several thirsty PCI-E devices are being used.
Like the ASUS board, the rear I/O panel of the IN9 32X-MAX lacks legacy support. Instead of parallel and serial ports, the rear panel has two eSATA ports, optical S/PDIF input and output and a large empty area where the voltage regulator heatsink is. The included I/O shield has vents cut out in this area so the voltage regulator heatsink can ventilate. Four USB ports, two gigabit LAN ports and PS/2 ports round out the rear I/O selection. The two eSATA ports are controlled by a Silicon Image Sil3132 chip which doesn't support RAID.
The IN9 32X-MAX possesses a large number of internal connectors including three USB connectors for another six USB ports, two firewire connectors and S/PDIF audio output connector that can be used to output audio to a HDMI compatible video card. There are also six fan connectors located around the edge of the board. Located under the CMOS battery is a small connector meant for use with Abit's uGURU Panel. The uGURU Panel is an optional accessory that installs in a 5.25" bay and provides an interface to various overclocking features. The uGURU Panel also has USB, firewire and front audio ports as well as an LCD that displays temperature and overclock information.
One minor fault we found with the IN9 32X-MAX, which is also present on the ASUS board, is the orientation of the SATA connectors. The SATA connectors as well as the IDE connector are parallel with the PCB, which could lead to serious clearance issues in smaller cases where the hard drive rack may prevent access to these connectors. However, unlike the ASUS board, two of the SATA ports have a standard orientation and face perpendicular to the PCB which helps to alleviate the problem somewhat. Overall the locations of the connectors on the board are fairly standard and the same layout can be found on a lot of other modern motherboards. The locations of the various connectors shouldn't pose any cabling problems.
Like the ASUS Striker Extreme, the IN9 32X-MAX has a couple of "luxury" features aimed at enthusiasts. There are on-board power and reset switches under the expansion slots at the bottom of the board. Near by is a diagnostic LED display that will display BIOS POST error messages. A little black switch located on the rear I/O panel between the PS/2 ports and the two S/PDIF links will clear the CMOS settings. This is very convenient since you don't even need to open the case to access it. If for some reason you like to do it old skool, a traditional jumper can be found on the board.
Like the Striker, the IN9 32X-MAX has a series of blue LEDs that light up the board when the system is powered on. The LEDs are located around the edge of the underside of the board and they blink. This produces a pulsating blue glow from underneath the board. There are six different blinking sequences the LEDs can be set to, from a simple attention grabbing blink to a seizure inducing strobe. Not impressed by LEDs or not into strobe induced seizures? No problem, simply turn the LEDs off for an all natural look. The LEDs can also be locked on. We thought the board's lighting looked quite good and the fact that they are on the underside of the board means that the high-intensity LEDs won't be shining into your eyes. However, if you have a lot of wire clutter or your case is black on the inside (reducing reflectivity), you might have trouble seeing the lighting effects.
At the bottom of the board near the edge are two red LEDs, a blue LED and a green LED. The green LED indicates that the board is receiving power and the blue LED means the system is currently powered on. The two red LEDs are separated from each other. One of them is next to the blue and green LED, it indicates power. The second red LED is next to the optional auxiliary molex power connector and it lights up when the auxiliary power is not connected.
While the P5N32-E SLI Plus was bundled with the SupremeFX add-on sound card, Abit included their Airpace Wi-Fi wireless network card with the IN9 32X-MAX. The Airpace Wi-Fi is a small low-profile 802.11b/g compatible wireless network adapter. It comes with an external antenna that connects to a standard SMA connector on the card. Besides allowing your computer to connect to wireless networks, the Airpace also has a software access point ability so you can host them as well.
Unlike the SupremeFX which uses a proprietary interface resembling a reversed PCI-E X1 slot, the Abit Airpace uses a standard PCI-E X1 slot so if you don't need it, you'll have an extra PCI-E slot for other devices. While it doesn't have special proprietary speed boosting abilities or draft-N support, it's a solid little card that worked well in our lab. Combined with the board's dual gigabit LAN, the Airpace's wireless access point ability turns your computer into a pretty formidable networking device, allowing you to set up a pretty mean home media server without the need for a wireless router.
We have used the Airpace Wi-Fi card as the test system's primary link to the outside world and it has performed well. We found the drivers and software easy enough to use and everything worked out of the box. We also tried the card's software access point ability and we were able to connect to it without incident from a laptop equipped with wireless capability. Transfer speeds throughout testing were typical of standard 802.11g devices. Overall, we found the Airpace to be a solid device and a nice additional to the IN9 32X-MAX's bundle. The Abit Airpace Wi-Fi card can also be purchased individually as a retail product for about $25.
Included in the IN9 32X-MAX's hefty price tag is an ample accessories bundle and some fancy packaging. Upon opening the box, you'll find the board next to a fold-out cardboard accessory holder. The accessory holder has cut-outs for the Airpace wireless card, external wireless antenna, and two SLI bridges. Under the board are two boxes, one holding the manuals, driver CD, and I/O shield, the other box contains the bundled cables. The cable bundle includes six SATA cables, an optical cable, rounded IDE and floppy cables and versatile USB/Firewire header that supports two standard type-A USB ports, a 6-pin Firewire port and a 4-pin Firewire port.
We liked that the rounded floppy cable Abit included in the bundle is extra long, to accommodate the location of the floppy connector at the bottom of the board, which would usually be far away from the location of the floppy drive. However, we found the included IDE cable to be rather short. Its a good length for use with hard drives, since the IDE connector of the board is right around the area where a hard drive bay is located in most cases, but it may be too short to be used with optical drives located higher up in the case.
The driver/utility CD includes drivers for the chipset, audio codec, USB 2.0 ports and Abit's uGuru Utility. The CD also has PDF copies of the user manual, as well as the Airpace Wi-Fi manual. Adobe Reader 7.0, Award's BIOS Flash utility and DirectX 9.0c are also included on the CD. The CD can also be used to create 32-bit as well as 64-bit SATA RAID driver disks. Also included in the package is a SLI support bracket designed to support the SLI bridge. Worthy of note is the particularly poor manual.
The bundle includes three pieces of reading material, the main user manual, a manual for the Airpace wireless card, and a manual for Abit's uGuru utility. While the user manual does a great job of explaining the various hardware aspects of the board such as connection locations, complete with tons of pictures, the BIOS explanation consists of a single page. The driver and utility explanation was also just one page. We're guessing Abit is assuming that anyone willing to invest over $300 in a premium enthusiast motherboard would know their way around a BIOS.
|Abit IN9 32X-MAX: BIOS & Overclocking|
The IN9 32X-MAX uses a Phoenix-Award BIOS with a pretty "classic" layout. Unlike the P5N32-E SLI Plus' BIOS which was heavily modified from the basic Award layout to support a plethora of sub-menus, the IN9's BIOS looks a lot like other Phoenix-Award based BIOS used on lots of other boards. The most noticeable difference is the addition of the uGuru Utility menu. The advantage of sticking with the basic Phoenix-Award BIOS interface is that it's instantly recognizable and usable. This is particularly important since the included user manual only has a useless one page description of the BIOS.
Anyone who has worked with enthusiast boards before will know their way around a Phoenix-Award derived BIOS. Excluding heavily modified versions such as those commonly employed by ASUS, the BIOS installed in the IN9 will probably be the most feature packed Phoenix-Award based BIOS you have ever seen. Never have those familiar menus contained so many options.
The standard options are all there, in their usual spots. In the "Advanced Chipset Features" menu are three options for controlling the board's ECC memory support. LDT frequency multiplier and SLI related settings can also be found there as well as the memory timing sub-menu. The memory timing submenu is very similar to the one found on the P5N32-E SLI Plus. The five most common options are grouped at the top with a couple additional, more advanced, options at the bottom.
As with the P5N32-E SLI Plus, the real fun begins when we enter the overclocking menu, in this case the "uGuru Utility". This menu has two tabs labeled "OC Guru" and "ABIT EQ". The "OC Guru" is full of overclocking options while the "ABIT EQ" menu provides hardware monitoring for voltages, fan speeds and temperatures. The settings for the board's built-in aesthetic LEDs are also found in the "ABIT EQ" menu.
Like the P5N32-E SLI Plus, the FSB adjustment is done with the quad-pumped value, which means you need to divide by four to get the actual FSB. The quad-pumped FSB can be adjusted between 400MHz (100MHz actual) and 3000MHz (750MHz actual). The CPU multiplier option is available but you will only be able to decrease the multiplier from its stock setting unless you have an unlocked processor. The memory clock can be "linked" to the FSB via a ratio such as 1:1, 5:4 and 3:2. As with the P5N32-E SLI Plus, the memory clock can also operate unlinked from the FSB, allowing individual adjustment regardless of the FSB frequency. In unlinked mode, the memory frequency can be adjusted anywhere from 400MHz to 1400MHz. The frequency of all three PCI-E slots can be set individually from as low as 100MHz to as high as 200MHz.
A voltage control sub-menu can be accessed from the main OC Guru menu and it offers CPU, memory, nothrbridge, southbridge and HyperTransport voltage adjustments. The CPU voltage can be set as high as 1.925V, in 0.01V intervals. Memory voltage can be set from 1.8V to 3.0V in 0.025V intervals. The HyperTransport voltage can be increased to 1.40V in 0.05V intervals. The north bridge can only be fed up to 1.55V, in 0.05V intervals, while the south bridge only goes up to 1.50V. These voltages are significantly lower than what many other enthusiast boards are capable of providing. The P5N32-E SLI Plus is capable of providing significantly higher HyperTransport, northbridge and southbridge voltages.
The ABIT EQ menu is divided into four sub-menus. One for monitoring temperatures, one for voltages, another for fan speed and the final for controlling fan speeds. The on-board aesthetic LED's can also be controlled with the main ABIT EQ menu. The LED effect can be chosen from six different preset patterns, or the LEDs can be set so they are all on, or off. Unfortunately you must save the BIOS settings and restart the machine before changes to the LED settings take effect. This is very inconvenient since you need to restart the machine six times in order to see all the effects.
Overall, the IN9 32X-MAX's BIOS is well laid out and high functional. There are plenty of overclocking options and the voltage settings weren't bad either, although the chipset voltages were lower than expected. Abit's decision to keep the traditional Phoenix-Award BIOS layout makes it very easy to use and the interface will be instantly familiar to anyone who has worked with a motherboard or two in the last ten years.
We took a Core 2 E6400 processor and set out to see if the IN9 32X-MAX could match the P5N32-E SLU Plus' overclocking results. We loaded the BIOS' optimized defaults, then increased the FSB as far as we could go without having to increase voltages to achieve stability. The frequency of our Corsair TWIN2X1024-8500 modules were locked to their rated speed of 1066MHz in the BIOS' memory multiplier settings.
We were able to take our E6400 CPU to 3.24GHz, by raising the FSB to 405MHz. This is the highest speed our system was able to handle with perfect stability. That's a 200MHz higher CPU overclock than the P5N32-E SLI Plus was able to achieve. Like we had done with the P5N32-E SLI Plus, we decided to lower the CPU multiplier to 6 so it would no longer be a potential bottleneck for the system. Then we went about overclocking the FSB further. We finally settled on a FSB clock of 435MHz (1740MHz effective) at stock voltages with stock cooling.
That is a 169MHz (676MHz effective) overclock from the stock FSB of 266MHz (1066MHz effective), which is very impressive at stock voltages. The IN9 32X-MAX was clearly superior to the P5N32-E SLI when it comes to overclocking. Unfortunately, at that frequency, our particular E6400 could not keep up with the board's FSB overclock and we were forced to use a CPU multiplier of 7. However, when paired with the right hardware, the Abit IN9 32X-MAX would make a deadly overclocking board.
|Test Systems & SiSoft SANDRA|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring our test systems for the following set of benchmarks, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for DDR2-800 at 4,4,4,12 1T latency. 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 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2007 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory) with the Abit IN9 32X-MAX, ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus and our Core 2 Duo E6400 processor. All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed of 2.13GHz.
ASUS' hybrid chipset starts well as the P5N32-E SLI Plus barely edges out the IN9 32X-MAX in all three tests. The two boards post nearly identical scores in every test except for memory bandwidth, where the P5N32-E SLI Plus pulled ahead with a nearly 10% lead.
|PCMark05 CPU & Memory Benchmarks|
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. For those interested in more than just the graphs, however, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work.
"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
Just like with SANDRA, the PC Mark 2005 scores don't show much of a difference between the two boards. The NVIDIA 680i chipset also doesn't appear to have a clear performance advantage compared to Intel's P965 platform.
"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.
As with the CPU test, the four boards are neck and neck when it comes to memory performance. Our benchmarks show no significant performance difference between the ASUS' hybrid 650/570 chipset, NVIDIA's 680i and Intel's P965.
|WorldBench Office & Photoshop Benchmarks|
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.
With WorldBench, we see a similar trend to our PC Mark results, with all four boards scoring nearly the same. Although the highest and lowest scores differ by as much as 10 seconds, that is not a significant difference and the scores aren't surprising considering the margin of error. Chances are, you will never notice the difference during every day usage of either program.
|WorldBench Multi-task & MP3 Encoding|
We continued our comparison of the ASUS and Abit motherboards with a Windows Media Encoder benchmark that is is also part of the Worldbench 5.0 suite, a video is encoded using Windows Media Encoder, while an instance of the Mozilla browser is also running and navigating through various cached pages. Because the system is multi-tasking with two different applications, this test is more taxing and representative of a common multitasking end user experience.
Staying consistent with the previous two WorldBench tests, all four boards post scores within 5% of each other. The Intel P965 based AB9 Pro manages to lead the slowest board, the P5N32-E SLI Plus, by 17 seconds. Once again, during real-world usage, the performance difference would be nearly unnoticeable.
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 Abit AB9 Pro wins again, although its bigger brother, the IN9 32X-MAX isn't far behind, tying it in the multi-threaded benchmark. The 1-2 second difference between the two boards doesn't seem like much but it could add up if your in the habit of encoding huge amounts of MP3s in one go. This is especially common with portable music players that use proprietary encoders to load files into memory.
|Cinebench & 3DMark06 CPU Benchmarks|
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).
We finally see the boards using NVIDIA based chipsets take the lead in the Cinebench tests. The P5N32-E SLI Plus wins the single-threaded test by edging out the AB9 Pro by 0.2 seconds, but loses to the IN9 32X-MAX by 0.2 seconds in the multi-threaded test.
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 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 are used to determine the final score.
Remembering that higher scores are better in 3DMark, we see the two NVIDIA based boards lead the pack, barely. The Intel P965 based AB9 Pro has put up a lot of stiff competition so far in our benchmarks but it fell slightly behind the more expensive NVIDIA based boards here.
|Game Testing: Quake 4 & F.E.A.R.|
For our first gaming test, we benchmarked the test systems using a custom single-player Quake 4 timedemo, then we set them loose on F.E.A.R. Normally for motherboard reviews, we like to see how the boards run at very low resolutions with all the bells and whistles turned off, to make the game as CPU dependent as possible. However, since these are premium boards and the main attraction is the presence of triple PCI-E support, we decided to use more realistic settings.
While the Intel P965 based DQ6 put up a good effort, it was solidly beat by both NVIDIA based boards. The ASUS board once again edges out the Abit board. The Radeon X1950 XT used in our gaming test systems manages healthy frames rate at both resolutions.
The two NVIDIA based boards tie in first place at both resolutions in or F.E.A.R. test. Once again the DQ6 is left behind. Now that we've seen most of the benchmarks, we can conclude that while the two much more expensive NVIDIA based boards don't necessarily rule the roost when it comes to productivity software, they do seem to have a knack for games. However, we have yet to explore the real reason why someone would want to buy a nForce 680i solution, dual x16 SLI.
|SLI Testing: Quake 4 & F.E.A.R.|
So we have finally arrived at the heart of the matter. The real reason why we are here. To find a solution to the question that this article set out to answer. Can we get NVIDIA nForce 680i level SLI gaming performance at a NVIDIA nForce 650i price? The answer may surprise you.
For these two final benchmarks, we have equipped our test systems with two NVIDIA GeForce 7900GTs configured in SLI mode. As with the previous benchmarks, all the components on our test systems are at stock speed and using default settings.
Amazingly, ASUS' hybrid "NVIDIA Dual x16 SLI" chipset beats the nForce 680i SLI based IN9 32X-MAX in both of our SLI gaming tests. However, the P5N32-E SLI Plus' lead is negligible in both cases, only differing from the Abit's score by about a frame per second. The point, however, isn't that the P5N32-E SLI Plus barely won. It's that it did so with a cleverly designed hybrid chipset that is capable of nForce 680i SLI level performance, with 680i SLI amenities, whilst still retaining a nForce 650i SLI price.
|Our Summary & Conclusion|
Benchmark And Performance Summary:
This article set out to find the answer to a question inspired by ASUS' hybrid chipset; can you have nForce 680i SLI performance with dual x16 SLI, at a nForce 650i SLI price? In order to answer that question, we took the only commercially available example of ASUS' hybrid chipset, the P5N32-E SLI Plus and pit it against the nForce 680i SLI based Abit IN9 32X-MAX. After reviewing both boards, comparing their features and pitting them against each other in a slew of benchmarks, we think we have our answer. Yes, you can get nForce 680i SLI level performance, complete with dual x16 SLI, triple SLI slots and lots of features all at a nForce 650i SLI price.
Abit IN9 32X-MAX:
So if we can get nForce 680i SLI level performance at a nForce 650i SLI price, why would we want to spend an extra $100 for a premium nForce 680i SLI based board like the IN9 32X-MAX? Simple, because premium boards like the IN9 32X-MAX offer features and packages you simply can't get with cheaper boards. Ultra high-end premium motherboards like the IN9 32X-MAX can never be replaced by cheaper boards, even if the performance gap is negligible. With their comprehensive accessory bundles, extreme overclocking options, and over-engineered design, these boards will always appeal to a certain bracket of the enthusiast market looking for the best gear.
The IN9 32X-MAX quickly makes you forget about the hit your wallet just took with its excellent overclocking performance. Even though we only overclocked it at stock voltages with all stock cooling, we were able to achieve an impressive frequency of 435MHz (1740MHz effective). Some boards can't even reach those numbers with water-cooling. Without a doubt, Abit's IN9 32X-MAX is an excellent motherboard. The only complaint we can leverage against it is its rather modest chipset voltage settings. Although even that is a rather moot concern since there usually isn't much point in pumping huge voltage into your board's components, when a modest voltage bump will do.
The IN9 32X-MAX is one of the most fully featured motherboards currently available for the Intel platform. The only other motherboards in this league is the similarly priced ASUS Striker Extreme and Gigabyte's N680SLI-DQ6. Triple SLI slots, dual x16 SLI support, dual eSATA, dual gigabit ethernet, ECC memory support, LED ground effects, onboard power and reset hard switches, externally accessible clear CMOS switch, onboard diagnostic LED display, 100% solid capacitors, massive all copper passive heatpipe system with included fan brackets for a 40mm fan; the feature list goes on and on. Of course the price of admission is quite steep. An Abit IN9 32X-MAX can be yours for about $320. That's a hefty price to pay for a motherboard but for those looking for the ultimate gear, the IN9 32X-MAX is worth every dollar.
ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus:
Although NVIDIA recently released the nForce 680i LT SLI chipset to plug the price gab between the 680i and the 650i, the ASUS P5N32-E SLI Plus remains highly relevant. Boards based on the new 680i LT SLI chipset are still not widely available yet, and the P5N32-E SLI Plus offers almost all the features of a full-sized 680i SLI solution, while the cut down 680i LT SLI only supports a single gigabit LAN port, lacks official DDR2-1200 support, and uses noisier active cooling. To make it even sweeter, the P5N32-E SLI Plus costs about the same or even less than initial 680i LT SLI based offerings.
The P5N32-E SLI Plus is a great motherboard and it represents an excellent value. It effectively presents a cheaper alternative to basic nForce 680i SLI based boards and it also overshadows the brand new nForce 680i LT SLI, all while maintaining a lower price point. Our review unit performed very well in our benchmarks and managed to best the significantly more expensive IN9 32X-MAX in all of our gaming tests, although it couldn't keep up when it came to overclocking. While our particular P5N32-E SLI Plus wasn't a very good overclocker, there are plenty of people reporting good results with this board.
In order to keep costs down, ASUS used a clever tactic. They reused the PCB of the Striker Extreme for the P5N32-E SLI. While this helped save production costs and helps to keep the board's price low, it also means that the P5N32-E SLI Plus must use the same SupremeFX audio card used by the Striker Extreme. While the SupremeFX card was necessary on the Striker because the rear I/O panel simply didn't have room for a set of audio connections, the P5N32-E SLI plus' I/O panel is nearly desolate. The SupremeFX audio card consumes valuable space on the PCB and it uses a proprietary expansion slot that cannot be used by any other device.
Despite a few minor complaints, the P5N32-E SLI Plus' excellent value makes it a great product and well worth its current price of $180. You truly can get nForce 680i SLI level performance and features for a nForce 650i SLI price, and the P5N32-E SLI Plus is proof.