It's time to take a look at the most important part of the motherboard review; the board itself. While the box colour scheme may have changed from the dark black/grey scheme we are used to, the boards PCB hasn't changed in colour. The same black/dark brown full ATX size PCB measuring 24x30cm makes its appearance here.
The layout from ASUS couldn't have been designed better; the 24-pin ATX power connector along with the FDD connector are placed on the upper right hand edge of the board, behind the four DDR2 memory slots. The 4/8pin combo power port gets located in its usual spot on the upper left hand corner, right behind the PS2/USB combo tower for the rear I/O.
The IDE connector and four of the eight SATA ports are located on the right hand edge of the board at the mid-way point. Two of them are orange and two are red. These ports have been place on the 90 degree angle to help keep the cables as tidy as possible. The last four SATA ports that the board supports are located right behind the two red ports on the 90 degree angle and face straight up.
The reason the board has two orange ports is that they are controlled by a Silicon Image 5723 Drive Xpert chip that allows for a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array and can automatically back up any data from anywhere on the system. This means the main RAID array on the ICH10R can be backed up to the Silicon Image system if you wish; a very impressive feature. GIGABYTE already has this system in place on its P45-DQ6 and it's nice to see ASUS following suit. The two orange ports do not support ATAPI devices, so no SATA DVD drives or any other form of ATAPI device using SATA protocols can be used on these ports.
The CPU area is rather cramped by today's standards. ASUS has gone with a very intricate heatpipe that cools not only the ICH10R Southbridge, but also encompasses the Northbridge and the Mosfets on the left side and top row. While keeping them cool, it makes it hard to get large heatsinks installed; in fact, our OCZ Vanquisher had a few issues getting installed. A few copper fin cuts to the fingers and knuckles were the results. If this board was installed in a case before putting the heatsink on, it would have been totally impossible to get the push pins down, so if you're going with a large heatsink, install the CPU and heatsink before putting it into the case; your fingers and knuckles will be less damaged by the end of the day.
The CPU is fed its power through a 16 phase VRM system. That's right, 16 phases; four more than the top GIGABYTE board on offer. Though ASUS does not have any info as to whether or not this is a true 16 phase system or a dual 8 phase system. Remember, GIGABYTE doesn't have 12 phases, but a dual 6 phase setup working in parallel to supply its power to the CPU. We asked this question of ASUS at Computex 2008 during the technical Q&A, but received no answers on whether or not it was a true 16 phase arrangement or how many phases it would shut down at idle.
Turning our attention to the rear I/O ports, ASUS has a fantastic layout and design. Of note here, there is only one PS/2 port, but it has a half purple and half green colour scheme. This is a dual purpose port; if you have a PS/2 mouse, you can run it off the PS/2 port and run the keyboard off the USB, or vice versa. If you have both a PS/2 keyboard and mouse, you're stuffed here; time to pick up a USB mouse/keyboard.
Digital audio is handled by either the Toslink or RCA S/PDIF port and digital connection is through the FireWire and eSATA port that runs off the same chip which controls the IDE port on the motherboard. While ASUS has touted its SupremeFX audio card on a few other models, this one gets the audio codec soldered to the board. There's no fancy module board here; just as well though, as there's no real need to have it external unless it's a dedicated sound system.
Time to look at the expansion layout that ASUS has managed to slip into the frey. First off, we look at the PCI Express slots. In total we have three PCI Express x16 slots and two PCI Express x1 slots. Out of the PCI-E x16 slots, we have one blue slot and two black. The blue slot runs at a full 16 lanes when only a single graphics card is inserted onto the board in this slot. If you plan to go Crossfire on this board, a second graphics card needs to be inserted into the upper black slot; this will then trigger the digital switch to split the 16 lanes from the Northbridge down to 8 lanes for the blue and 8 lanes for the black slot. The last PCI Express x16 slot is a universal slot that runs x4 max speed and is created using the PCI-E lanes from the ICH10R Southbridge. If you plan to use an extra graphics card in here, you can't use any of the PCI-E x1 lanes as their bandwidth is routed to the last slot to make it functional. If you do use the other PCI-E x1 slots, the last x16 slot will only work in x1 mode.
To wrap up the legacy connections, two PCI slots are also included if you want to use older sound cards, modems, TV tuners or anything PCI based.
Additionally, since the ICH10R does not support any form of IDE port, ASUS added in a Marvell 88SE6121 PATA/SATA PCI Express combo chip. This chip gives the board its single IDE port along with two SATA ports. However, only one is used and it is routed to the eSATA port for the rear I/O.
As mentioned earlier, the board has two orange SATA ports at the bottom of the board which are not controlled by the ICH10R, but are run off the Silicon Image SIL5723 PCI Express RAID controller supporting Drive Xpert technology.
An LSI logic FW-3227 PCI based FireWire controller takes care of the two FireWire ports the board has, while two Marvell PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet chips gives the board its Dual Net support.