nVidia's nForce 4 SLI X16 is the latest variant of the nForce 4 chipset series to hit the market, offering full speed SLI - that is, two full bandwidth 16 lane PCI Express graphics slots instead of the regular 8 lane slots which we had to sacrifice if we wanted to use SLI.From what we were told when we were briefed on the SLI X16 chipset a couple months ago, nVidia didn't plan on releasing the new core logic so soon. From what we understand, Dell put a little pressure on nVidia to come up with a full speed SLI solution for use in Dell's new performance PC, the XPS 600 - Dell's first system to use nVidia core logic over Intel. If it wasn't for Dell, we might not have seen this chipset from nVidia for another 12 - 18 months since it's questionable if we even need full speed PCI Express graphics slots at this stage.Just because there isn't some big NDA or a huge marketing campaign, it doesn't mean we don't want to know about it and thanks to our good friends over at ASUS, we are going to be having a look at their latest motherboard exclusively
here at TweakTown.This article won't be so much of a motherboard review but a direct comparison of the nForce 4 SLI (two 8x PCI Express slots) and nForce 4 SLI X16 (two 16x PCI Express slots in terms of graphics card performance with a pair of GeForce 7800 GTX's.
SpecificationsSpecifications of the ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe
Before we begin let's take a quick look at the specifications of the motherboard...CPU
Socket 939 for AMD Athlon 64 FX / Athlon 64 X2 / Athlon 64 / Sempron processorAMD Cool 'n' Quiet Technology* Refer to www.asus.com for AMD CPU support listChipset
NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 (NVIDIA nForce SPP 100 / NVIDIA nForce4 SLI)Front Side Bus
2000 / 1600 MT/sMemory
Dual channel memory architecture4 x DIMM, max. 4GB, DDR 400 / 333 / 266, ECC, non-ECC, un-buffered memory* Refer to www.asus.com or user manual for "Memory QVL (Qualify Vendor List)Expansion Slots
2 x PCI-E x16 with SLI support at full x16, x16 mode1 x PCI-E x4 (Support PCI-E x4 or PCI-E x1 card)3 x PCI 2.2SLI
Support two identical SLI-ready graphics cards (both x16 mode)ASUS EZ PlugASUS two-slot thermal designASUS Soft SLI BridgeASUS PEG Link for dual PCI Express graphics cardsStorage/RAID
NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 Southbridge supports- 2 x Ultra DMA 133 / 100 / 66 / 33- 4 x Serial ATA 3 Gb/s- NV RAID: RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 and JBOD on Serial ATA drivesSilicon Image 3132 SATA controller supports- 1 x Internal Serial ATA 3 Gb/s hard disk- 1 x External Serial ATA hard disk (SATA On-the-Go)- Support RAID 0, 1LAN
Dual Gigabit LANMarvell 88E8053 PCI-E Gigabit LAN controllerNVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 Southbridge built-in Gigabit MAC with external Marvell 88E1111 PHY supports:- NV Firewall- NV RIS (Remote Installation Service)- NV ActiveArmor- AI NETAudio
Realtek ALC850 8-channel CODECUniversal Audio JackAudio Sensing and Enumeration TechnologyCoaxial / Optical S/PDIF out ports on back I/OIEEE 1394
TI 1394a controller supports:- 2 x IEEE 1394a connectors at midboardUSB
10 x USB 2.0/1.1ASUS AI Life Features
Stack Cool 2SATA on the Go (External SATA on back I/O port)Overclocking Features
Intelligent overclocking tools:- AI NOS (Non-delay Overclocking System)- AI Overclocking (intelligent CPU frequency tuner)- ASUS PEG Link - Automatically performance tuning for single/dual graphics cardsPrecision Tweaker:- vDIMM: 8-step DRAM voltage control- vCore: Adjustable CPU voltage at 0.0125V increment SFS (Stepless Frequency Selection)- FSB tuning from 200MHz up to 400MHz at 1MHz increment- Memory tuning from 400MHz up to 800MHz- PCI Express frequency tuning from 100MHz up to 200MHz at 1MHz incrementOverclocking Protection:- ASUS C.P.R.(CPU Parameter Recall)Special Features
ASUS 8-Phase Power DesignASUS Fanless DesignASUS AI Overclocking (intelligent CPU frequency tuner)ASUS AI NET2ASUS C.P.R. (CPU Parameter Recall)ASUS MyLogo2ASUS Q-Fan2Back Panel I/O Ports
1 x PS/2 Keyboard1 x PS/2 Mouse1 x Parallel1 x S/PDIF Out (Coaxial + Optical)1 x External SATA2 x RJ454 x USB 2.0/1.11 x Wireless LAN antenna jack1 x Wireless LAN activity LED8-Channel Audio I/OInternal I/O Connectors
6 x USB 2.0/1.11 x Floppy disk drive connector2 x IDE connector5 x SATA connectors1 x CPU / 2 x Chassis / 2 x Chipset / 1 x Power Fan connectors1 x GAME / MIDI connector2 x IEEE1394a connector1 x COM connectorFront panel audio connectorChassis Intrusion connectorCD / AUX audio in24-pin ATX Power connector4-pin ATX 12V Power connector4-pin EZ Plug power connectorBIOS
8 Mb Flash ROM, AMI BIOS, PnP, DMI2.0, WfM2.0, SM BIOS 2.3, Multi-language BIOS, ASUS EZ Flash, ASUS CrashFree BIOS2
The new SLI X16 chipsetnVidia's new nForce 4 SLI X16 chipset
The nForce 4 SLI X16 is the normal SLI chipset on steroids - we think that's the best way to explain it. As with the regular chipset, when we want to SLI our graphics cards, each PCI Express graphics slot is given 8 lanes of bandwidth. The X16 variant of the nForce 4 SLI gives us two full speed 16 lane PCI Express slots making sure that we get the most potential for our current nVidia graphics cards which come with PCI Express 16x capable GPU's.18 PCI Express lanes are added to the new AMD version of the chipset providing a total of 38 PCI Express lanes (40 on the Intel platform). 32 of those lanes are used for the graphics cards, the remaining lanes will be setup differently depending what the motherboard manufacturer wants to do with them.
On the AMD platform, the extra PCI Express lanes are made available thanks to the addition of the new System Platform Processor (SPP) that is connected via the Hyper Transport Link. The Hyper Transport offers us a maximum bandwidth of 8GB/s and shouldn't cause any latency problems with the SPP coming between the CPU and the MCP.Apart from the extra PCI Express lanes, the difference between the current SLI chipset and the new seems minimal. No pricing is currently released on the motherboard so it is hard to tell if the X16 will phase out the other SLI chipset as one would assume if pricing is similar you would venture for the newer X16 variant, as more is always better - especially for future-proofing your motherboard.ASUS are currently the only motherboard manufacturer that we have heard of with a motherboard ready to come out utilizing the new chipset and it would seem they are getting the jump on a lot of their competitors much like they did when we saw the release of the original nForce 4 SLI chipset.
The PackageThe Package
Under the usual "Deluxe" naming scheme as you would expect we have got a huge bundle of cables and other goodies to play with. In true ASUS fashion we have a simply yet elegant looking box that opens up and gives us a huge list of features that are supported on the motherboard.Included in the package we have 5 x SATA cables, 3 x SATA power cables, 2 x black IDE cables and 1 x black floppy cable.
Extra connectors we find 2 x USB ports, game port, 1 x mini Firewire, 1 x normal Firewire and a serial port connector.
We also have a few extra jumpers included in the package if you happened to lose yours and our normal back plate.
Finally we have the manual, driver CD and a copy of the WinDVD suite which comes with Photoalbum, WinDVD Creator 2, DVD Copy 2.5 and Disc Master 2.5.
The FeaturesThe Features - Layout
The new high-end motherboards that we are seeing from ASUS are utilizing a heat pipe design to help cool the main chipsets. The copper heat pipe not only looks great but seems to work quite effectively as we have also been using the ASUS A8N-SLI Premium which has only worked well.
The board layout is easy to work with 1 IDE, floppy drive and the main ATX connector on the top right side of the board. Just next to the main ATX connector we also see the EZ PLUG connector that is used if you're running SLI. This helps your PCI Express slots get a little bit of extra juice and keep things stable.
Moving to the bottom of the board we have another IDE port, 4 x SATA ports and our MCP that helps power one of the PCI Express 16x slots along with our other features like Gigabit LAN and SATA.
The slot layout consists of two 16x PCI Express slots along with one 4x PCI Express slot and 3 normal PCI slots. The Deluxe/WIFI model also has the wireless device just above the 4x PCI Express slot. Around this area we also have a spare SATA port.
As far as connectivity goes on the IO side of things we have our normal PS2 ports, parallel port we see on all motherboards along with a SPIDF and optical output for sound, 2 Gigabit LAN ports, 4 USB 2.0 ports and our 6 audio ports for analogue sound and even a SATA port for external drives.- Gigabit LAN
The two Gigabit LAN ports are powered by two separate controllers - one being the native one built into the nForce 4 MCP and the other powered by the Marvel 88E8053.- Firewire
For the mini and normal sized Firewire ports we have the Texas Instruments controller that offers support for Firewire A, providing a maximum bandwidth of 400Mbps. This is the same controller found on the ASUS P5WD2 motherboard we just looked at.- A few extras
A few things that you don't pick up until you setup the motherboard is the extended space between the PCI 16x slots that ASUS have used on all their SLI motherboards, which is great for graphics cards which come with large coolers or if you intend to use after market coolers from companies such as Arctic Cooling.Normally you have to use an SLI selector adapter and adjust it to single or SLI but the new ASUS motherboards (including the A8N-SLI Premium) are able to do it automatically now which makes installation that much more painless.
Benchmarks - Test System Setup & 3DMark03Test System SetupProcessor(s):
AMD Athlon X2 3800+ Motherboard(s):
ASUS A8N SLI Premium and A8N32 SLI Deluxe (Supplied by ASUS
2 X ASUS GeForce 7800 GTX in SLI (Supplied by ASUS
2 X 512MB Mushkin PC4000 DDR (Supplied by Mushkin
WD Raptor 74GB 10,000RPM SATA (Supplied by Western Digital
Windows XP Professional SP1Drivers:
nVidia Forceware 80.40 and nForce4 AMD Edition 6.66As we mentioned in the introduction, we are going to be looking at the A8N32-SLI Deluxe against the A8N-SLI Premium which is very similar yet only utilizes a maximum of 16 PCI Express graphics lanes as opposed to the new A8N32-SLI Deluxe that utilizes 32 lanes providing theoretically twice the amount of available bandwidth.We will be testing the two motherboards in our normal VGA fashion with our normal array of tests at 1024 x 768 and 1600 x 1200 with a couple of ASUS GeForce 7800 GTX cards strapped in. We then begin to put a bit more pressure on the graphics cards via enabling AA and AF at 1600 x 1200 and finally we try and remove a bit of that CPU bottleneck by overclocking our processor.It is important to remember we are testing a new chipset with relatively new drivers (which will likely be tweaked as per usual for the X16 chipset to increase performance) and a motherboard with a BIOS that will likely see changes and performance improvements over time as we come to expect from any new product.Reminiscing of the good old days of AGP 4x vs. AGP 8x, it'll be interesting to see what type of performance differences we see between PCI-E 8x and PCI-E 16x in SLI. We didn't see much difference between the two AGP modes back in the day but will we see today?3DMark03Version and / or Patch Used:
Build 340Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark03/Buy It Here
By combining full DX8 and partial DX9 support with completely new tests and graphics over the previous version, 3DMark03 continues the legacy of being the industry standard 3D benchmark.Please Note: Due to recent events with the 3DMark03 series, we are adding results purely for those who are still in favor of 3DMark03. These results should not be taken too seriously and are only added for interest sakes.
3DMark03 shows that the X16 chipset from nVidia scores slightly lower then the normal SLI chipset which only has 8x pipelines per card.
Benchmarks - 3DMark053DMark05Version and / or Patch Used:
Build 110Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark05/Buy It Here
3DMark05 is the latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and higher.For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here
3DMark05 shows us that at both resolution we don't get any performance gains with the new chipset - it actually shows the X16 scoring slightly lower in both resolutions.It's strange to see lower scores - at worst we expected scores to be the same but it might come down to drivers and so on which haven't been tweaked properly yet.
Benchmarks - Far CryFar CryVersion and / or Patch Used:
1.3Timedemo or Level Used:
Ubisoft VolcanoDeveloper Homepage: http://www.crytek.comProduct Homepage: http://www.farcrygame.comBuy It Here
There is no denying that Far Cry is currently one of the most graphic intensive games on the market, utilizing PS2.0 technology (the latest versions support Shader Model 3.0 with DX9c) and offering an exceptional visual experience there is no denying that even some of the faster graphics cards struggle.
Far Cry is a game that is that much limited by the processor that it gives us lower numbers on the 16x chipset.With performance being lower here we would tend to think that it is an optimization problem - with the board coming to us so early the drivers aren't as mature for this extra bandwidth, we would assume.
Benchmarks - Half Life 2Half Life 2Version and / or Patch Used:
UnpatchedTimedemo or Level Used:
Custom TimedemoDeveloper Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com Product Homepage: http://www.half-life2.comBuy It Here
By taking the suspense, challenge and visceral charge of the original, and adding startling new realism and responsiveness, Half-Life 2 opens the door to a world where the player's presence affects everything around him, from the physical environment to the behaviors even the emotions of both friends and enemies.We benchmark Half Life 2 with our own custom timedemos as to avoid possible driver optimizations using the "record demo_name" command and loading the timedemo with the "timedemo demo_name" command - For a full list of the commands, click here
At the higher resolution we for the first time see that the X16 comes out ahead of the normal nForce 4 SLI chipset. Hopefully we see this performance carry onto Doom 3 and our High Quality tests.
Benchmarks - Doom 3Doom 3Version and / or Patch Used:
UnpatchedTimedemo or Level Used:
Custom TimedemoDeveloper Homepage: http://www.idsoftware.com Product Homepage: http://www.doom3.comBuy It Here
Doom 3 is the latest game to hit our test lab and is one of the most intensive games to dates. With our own custom time demo we are able to give a realistic rating on what kind of FPS you will be achieving.For more information on benchmarking Doom 3 we recommend you check out our extensive article regarding it here
Doom 3 like our 3DMark tests show that the x16 is performing slightly slower then the normal nForce 4 SLI chipset. We see again a game heavily limited by the processor show performance slightly slower.
Benchmarks - High Quality AA and AFHigh Quality AA and AF
In our High Quality tests we bump the Antialiasing (AA) and Anisotropic Filtering (AF) up causing the card(s) to be put under more load which usually helps us remove the CPU limitation.We'll use 4 x AA and 8 x AF as this is quite a common setup for most people who are venturing into the AA and AF area.
We see that at the high resolution Half Life 2 performance is up again compared to the original SLI chipset.
As you would expect, when we start putting more strain on the graphics cards (in this case a high resolution mixed with AA and AF), we begin to see the tables turn.If you're going to see any real benefit of the full bandwidth provided by the new chipset, you'll have to be running a high resolution with all the settings turned up!
Benchmarks - CPU OverclockingCPU Overclocking
Even with the power of the AMD Athlon X2 and Intel Extreme Edition processors, we still find ourselves hitting a CPU limitation in a lot of our benchmarks. That is, the graphics cards have more performance to give but the processor is letting the team down.By overclocking the processor we can see what kind of a performance increase we get. When something isn't CPU limited the performance increase isn't all that major but when we do have a CPU bottleneck, every MHz extra we can get can show us an excellent jump in performance.The Athlon X2 3800+ was increased from 2GHz to 2.35GHz with a slight increase in the front side bus utilizing the stock X2 HSF.
While we don't call our 350MHz jump in speed a huge overclock, it is worth nothing that the A8N32-SLI Deluxe had no problems doing it which is good to know as we did wonder if the extra chip on the motherboard was going to hinder our overclock - which it didn't.
3DMark03 again shows the X16 behind the previous chipset by a few hundred points.
Both resolutions show the newer chipset being a little slower then the original nForce 4 SLI.
It seems that with the processor overclocked to 2.35GHz in our CPU limited benchmark we again see the x16 chipset lagging behind.
Final ThoughtsFinal Thoughts
The A8N32-SLI Deluxe like all products that we have seen from ASUS is tops, as far as we are concerned. It would seem though that the new X16 chipset from nVidia doesn't give us a huge boost in performance, not in today's games or until you really turn your graphics settings up at a high resolution - and we're talking above 1600 x 1200. If you remember benchmarking at 4x AGP and 8x AGP back some years ago now, the performance difference was extremely minor or none at all.The motherboard itself though is fantastic - SATA on the IO panel, dual gigabit LAN, optical audio, 6 SATA ports, Firewire, SLI, heat pipe cooling technology - it pretty much as everything you could want.We might not see the performance difference between the GeForce 7800GTX in SLI with the full bandwidth PCI Express slots but it could be the next generation line up from nVidia that lets us make use of the huge bandwidth available. This is the kind of motherboard from ASUS is one we recommend to someone who doesn't upgrade their motherboard very often as it offers a more "future-proof" design thanks to the huge amount of bandwidth available. It wouldn't seem that the current generation 7800 GTX cards gets much extra performance from the extra lanes but it doesn't mean its not coming - new drivers and new cards could see this becoming one of the more popular technologies around.Plus we're sure as new games are released, they'll be far more demanding than any of today's best titles and the full bandwidth PCI Express slots will be more crucial than when the extra bandwidth available to the graphics cards can be properly utilized. Just as we saw in our testing, as soon as we turned up the settings in our benchmarked games, we started to see some improvements from the extra bandwidth.The ASUS A8N-SLI Premium and A8N32-SLI Deluxe both have their places in the market. The A8N-SLI Premium seems to offer the best performance with the 7800GTX running in SLI where the A8N32-SLI one would tend to think is going to achieve greater numbers when games and applications are released that need more bandwidth. In the end this is why we have moved from AGP to PCI Express - to get more bandwidth. While this is only a personal opinion, I feel that extra performance is only a BIOS and driver update away.- Pros
Packed full of featuresRoomy SLI ports3 x PCI slotsHeat Pipe CoolingFuture-proof designGood overclockerGreat bundle with in the motherboardAMD Athlon X2 support out of the boxNo SLI selector adapter anymore- Cons
X16 performance is up and downNo pointing upgrading unless you're an ultra high quality and high resolution gamerThe A8N32-SLI is for
people who upgrade their graphics card regularly but not their motherboard and want the highest resolution with extreme AA and AF settings and is not for
people who don't venture past 1600 x 1200 with AA or AF turned off. In other words, it's for extreme gamers who are really going to want to push as much data through the PCI Express slots as possible.Rating - 9 out of 10 and TweakTown's "MUST HAVE" Best Features Award