Hybrid vs Native Dual X16 SLI: Asus P5N32-E SLI Plus vs Abit IN9 32X-MAX
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.