Connectivity and Audio
Checking out the I/O panel of this platform, you’ve got a pretty interesting layout here. On the left edge of the motherboard, you see a small beige connector, which connects up to Asus’s bundled "LCD Poster", which we’ll discuss on the following pages. To the right of that, we have a single PS/2 keyboard slot paired with two USB 2.0 ports. The small button with a rotating arrow is a dedicated Clear CMOS button, which comes in handy if you’re pushing this board a little too hard when overclocking. On the right side, we have two Gigabit Ethernet ports connected to Marvell Yukon PCI Express x1 GigE chips, which sit atop four more USB 2.0 ports. The red connectors which sit in the middle are a Firewire 400 port on top, combined with an eSATA port on the bottom.
Asus Maximus II Formula I/O Panel
The obvious question is, where are the onboard audio connectors? That’s where this board gets a little interesting and unique. Bundled with the motherboard is the Asus SupremeFX add-in card, which is the first Asus board we’ve seen that is packaged with the Creative X-Fi label. Despite Creative’s woes in the industry (and newfound competition in the audio-card space from Asus’ own Xonar lineup), Asus has decided to go with a name that gamers know and respond to for this board.
Asus SupremeFX X-Fi Audio Card - Connectors
Asus SupremeFX X-Fi Audio Card - PCIe Interface
The add-in card is incredibly small, barely occupying the space needed to connect to a PCI Express x1 port. The Maximus II Formula has a PCIe x1 port that sits right by the I/O panel which is designed to accommodate this board. The board includes an array of analog audio connectors along with S/PDIF coaxial and optical outputs, and touts support for EAX audio extensions, the most popular method of modern positional audio in gaming environments. This is, however, not really an X-Fi card, as we soon found out.
In reality, what this card is, is a small PCB that houses an ADI Soundmax AD2000B 8-channel CODEC, which is not different from a variety of onboard audio solutions today. We’re not dealing with a true hardware Creative X-Fi implementation, we’re basically seeing software-layer X-Fi support, which Creative calls "X-Fi MB". It basically means that you can use Creative’s software layer on top of another manufacturer’s CODEC. You still get all the Creative goodies like EAX4 (not EAX5 like on true X-Fi cards), X-Fi Crystalizer (a favorite of mine for improving audio contrast), X-Fi CMSS-3D (faux 3D emulation for 2.1 speaker setups), and Creative’s general high-quality software setup.
If you’re running true 3D positional audio, you’ll still be relying on the system’s primary CPU for processing, as the chip used in this card is not a true hardware audio solution. In our testing, audio sounded great through a digital S/PDIF connection, and definitely on par with a dedicated X-Fi card, but we’re under no impressions that this is a true X-Fi replacement. However, for an onboard audio solution, it’s a step above what the competition is offering. This solution also recieves bonus points, since the card has an illuminiated SupremeFX logo which is backlit by a blue LED that looks surprisingly slick when installed. This card can also connect to front panel audio ports properly, whereas traditional X-Fi cards more often than not do not have the necessary connectors.
One of the other truly interesting aspects of this motherboard are its storage capabilities. The motherboard supports 8 x SATA-II/300 ports altogether, along with a single eSATA port on the I/O panel, although it’s not as clear and simple as that. Six of the Serial ATA-II/300 ports on the motherboard, seen in blue, are connected to Intel’s ICH10R Southbridge controller. These ports can support RAID levels 0, 1, 0+1, and 5, and can be configured through the RAID menu in the BIOS. Asus keeps four of these ports rotated at a 90 degree angle while two are direct connects to the motherboard, as is a popular option on modern motherboards.
Serial ATA-II Port Cluster and iROG Dual BIOS Feature
The interesting aspect is the two dark gray/black Serial ATA-II/300 ports near the bottom of the motherboard, which Asus dubs “Speeding HDD” ports. These ports basically are Serial ATA-II/300 ports which are connected to a small Silicon Image "Steelvine" 5723 storage controller nearby. Through the use of some clever software trickery, a pair of hard drives connected though these ports can be configured in RAID-0 (dubbed "Super Speed") or RAID-1 (dubbed "EZ-Backup" - ugh) without the need for drivers. To the operating system, these drives are seen as single disks, but the chip is controlling RAID functionality on a hardware level behind the scenes. For those who want a simple RAID setup for performance or backup purposes without the fuss of driver installations, this is an innovative little solution. It comes in especially handy when installing an operating system on a newly created RAID array, which can be done sans drivers.
We ran some quick performance tests on hard disks connected on the Silicon Image “Speeding HDD” controller setup compared to the Intel ICH10R controller. Our tests showed that disks connected in single disk or RAID-0 modes performed better across the board when connected to ICH10R to the tune of about 5%. ICH10R also has much better burst transfer rates compared to the Silicon Image controller chip. However, average transfer rates and CPU utilization were surprisingly close between the two controllers.