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