||ASUS A7N8X Deluxe Review
December 03, 2002 Chris Angelini
Summary: Motherboards based on NVIDIA's nForce2 chipset have finally arrived! ASUS is once again one of the first motherboard manufacturers with an nForce product, this time it's the A7N8X Deluxe. With bus speeds over 200MHz, Dolby Digital audio, Serial ATA, and NVIDIA's DualNet networking, the A7N8X Deluxe is loaded with features. But how does it perform? Find out in our review!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 14 )|
While the year may have changed to 2002, NVIDIA’s nForce2 launch almost eerily reminds us of the events that occurred a year ago. If you recall back to summer of last year, NVIDIA made a huge splash with its nForce announcement during Computex in Taiwan. nForce was such a revolutionary product that it literally stole the show. Not only did NVIDIA fuse a compelling graphics core to its chipset, they also broke all the rules when it came to integrated audio by incorporating Dolby Digital support. And not only was nForce capable of playing back Dolby Digital streams, it was also the only audio solution on the market capable of Dolby Digital encoding, a distinction it holds to this day. To top it off, NVIDIA included its DASP and TwinBank memory architecture, further improving chipset performance.
nForce was such a groundbreaking product that executives from Intel were literally fending off questions on why they hadn’t granted NVIDIA a Pentium 4 license to make nForce-based products for their processors. AMD had quite a coup on their hands.
By now we all know how the story ultimately played out. Motherboards based on the nForce chipset didn’t hit retail shelves until early winter, and even then from only a handful of motherboard manufacturers. NVIDIA proclaimed they had learned their lessons with nForce and wouldn’t make the same mistakes with nForce2, yet here we are in December and motherboards have only been available for just under a month and even then, from a limited number of manufacturers. But now that nForce2 is here, lets take a look at what NVIDIA’s latest platform processor (their word for chipset) brings to the table, specifically in the form of the ASUS A7N8X Deluxe.
The ASUS Experience
Over the course of the past few years, ASUS has established a reputation for delivering stable products that also offer a degree of performance. Sure, we occasionally hear about a bad motherboard or a malfunctioning optical drive, but for the most part, ASUS has set a high standard for itself, which we look for when reviewing its products.
A few of these ASUS specific features have found their way on to the A7N8X Deluxe. The attribute you’ll likely appreciate most is ASUS’ Q-Fan technology. Q-Fan constantly monitors system load an adjusts the fan speeds in your system accordingly. As your system comes under load and the temperatures increase, Q-Fan kicks the fan RPMs up a notch. Once the activity decreases, Q-Fan will slow things down a bit, decreasing the noise level of your PC. This ensures that your system temperature is kept in check as well as noise level. Those of you with noisy PCs will probably appreciate this feature.
ASUS’ C.O.P (CPU overheating protection) technology also makes its way to the A7N8X. As its name implies, C.O.P. protects your CPU from overheating. If the CPU’s temperature reaches a dangerous level, C.O.P. shuts the system down to prevent any permanent damage to the CPU.
SIDEBAR: ASUS’ A7N8X Deluxe product page
| Board Analysis||Page:: ( 2 / 14 )|
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The plethora of connectivity options begins on the A7N8X’s back panel. PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors are flanked by a pair of USB 2.0 ports and the first of two 10/100 Ethernet ports, driven by a 3COM MAC. ASUS includes one parallel and one serial port on the back panel. Audio connectors that enable 5.1-channel analog output, in addition to a coaxial S/PDIF port for digital audio output, have replaced the second serial port. A second RJ-45 connector (powered by the NVIDIA MAC) sits atop two more USB 2.0 ports. Three 1/8” connectors round out the back panel, offering analog audio input, output, and a microphone input. There wasn’t enough room on the board’s back panel so ASUS also included several headers intended to occupy unused PCI slots. One provides for the second serial port, while another delivers IEEE 1394 Firewire connectivity. A third header offers an S/PDIF digital input as well as a redundant second S/PDIF output. The last header supplies a game port and the fifth and sixth USB 2.0 ports, should you require them.
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Power delivery consists of a two-phase implementation and STMicro’s L6917BD 5-bit programmable dual-phase controller with integrated driver chips. ASUS has pushed the power circuitry further down the board, freeing up room around the processor. Better still, the ATX power connector is conveniently located alongside the IDE connector, promoting airflow around the Socket A interface.
ASUS has a certain proclivity for including an AGP Pro slot on its higher-end boards, which the A7N8X has also received. Additionally, five PCI slots take care of expandability.
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NVIDIA’s nForce chipset featured a dual-channel DDR design like today’s nForce2, yet, boards always seemed to sport three DIMM slots. Two slots would comprise one of the 64-bit DDR channels and the third made up the rest of the TwinBank Memory Architecture. The A7N8X similarly offers three DIMM slots. Again, the first two correspond to one 64-bit channel and the third makes up the second. Combined, the DualDDR architecture (as it has been renamed) offers up to 6.4GB per second of theoretical memory bandwidth using PC3200 memory. In reality, that number is actually much lower since the Athlon XP can only utilize 2.7GB per second running on a 333MHz front side bus. The extra bandwidth is consumed when integrated graphics are used (in other words, when the IGP is used in place of the nForce2 SPP).
Although the chipset supports PC3200 memory, NVIDIA maintains that maximum performance is attained when the memory and front side busses are run synchronously at 333MHz. Aggressive memory timings apparently compensate for the slower memory bus. We decided to test this theory, using a single 256MB PC3200 module running at 333MHz and 400MHz, CAS2 in both instances.
In real-world gaming applications, such as Quake III, platform performance is most significantly impacted at low resolutions, whereas higher resolutions tend to stress the capabilities of a graphics card. All the way up to 1280x1024, the synchronous bus speeds result in better performance. At 1600x1200, the difference is, for the most part, imperceptible.
SIDEBAR: If you think you’ve heard it all, download NVIDIA’s SoundStorm theme song. It’s at least good for a chuckle.
| MCP-T, HyperTransport, and BIOS||Page:: ( 3 / 14 )|
As nForce2 boards begin to appear, you’ll notice manufacturers using one of two available Media & Communications Processors (MCP), depending on the target market. ASUS’ A7N8X Deluxe includes the more advanced MCP-T that features USB 2.0, ATA-133 and IEEE 1394 support. Additionally, it includes NVIDIA’s Audio Processing Unit and a pair of Ethernet MACs, making it easy to enable Internet Connection Sharing. ASUS uses two different Physical Layers (an Altima AC101LKQT and Realtek’s RTL8201BL) to enable both 10/100Mbps connections. Moreover, the Realtek RTL8801B PHY interfaces with the MCP-T to enable IEEE 1394 support at 100, 200, or 400Mbps. Despite the complexity of NVIDIA’s MCP-T, it doesn’t include Serial ATA support. So, ASUS integrated the Silicon Image Sil3112 controller, adding two S-ATA channels to the A7N8X.
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The aforementioned Audio Processing Unit is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the MCP-T. An nForce2 motherboard equipped with the MCP-T can output an encoded Dolby Digital signal to an external decoder, which separates the signal into 5.1 channels of discrete audio. NVIDIA’s reference design includes a SoundStorm ACR riser card featuring the connectors required for either digital or analog 5.1-channel output. However, the A7N8X comes equipped with analog and digital audio outputs, negating the need for NVIDIA’s ACR card.
Each chipset designer uses a different method for connecting the North and South Bridges. Intel uses its Hub Architecture – an 8-bit link between the two chips capable of transferring 266MB per second. VIA’s latest chipsets utilize 8x V-Link, an 8-bit bus running at 133MHz that is “quad-pumped,” transferring 533MB per second. NVIDIA was the first to use AMD’s HyperTransport with the original nForce and it capitalizes on the technology a second time with nForce2.
The SPP and MCP-T are linked using an 8-bit HyperTransport link operating at 200MHz, for a total data throughput of 800MB per second. The technology itself is scalable up to 12.8GB per second, but we probably won’t see bandwidth numbers like that unless AMD designs a specialized high-end server platform for its upcoming Opteron processor.
The A7N8X features an Award BIOS with a host of adjustments catering to the enthusiast. Standard front side bus adjustments are available in 1MHz increments up to 211MHz, as well as multiplier adjustments that only become useful if you’ve unlocked your Athlon XP processor. NVIDIA recommends running the front side and memory busses synchronously, but if you’d prefer to overclock the memory bus, adjustments are available in the form of percentages. A Resulting Frequency field eliminates the guesswork, alerting you of the final memory frequency. Memory latencies can be altered down to 1 (we were unable to run CAS1 with our memory modules).
Processor, AGP, and DDR voltages can all be adjusted – Vcore voltages are available between 1.1V and 1.850V, AGP voltages range from 1.5-1.7V, and DDR voltages can be between 2.6 and 2.8V in .1V increments. AGP frequency can be set independently, anywhere between 50 and 100MHz, though we’d recommend sticking to the ‘Auto’ setting.
The nForce2 features several integrated subsystems like Ethernet, audio, and IEEE 1394. These systems can be independently turned off or on according to your needs. Finally, ASUS uses the Winbond W83791SD hardware-monitoring chip for the POST Reporting technology, which is adjustable in the BIOS.
SIDEBAR: After you’ve heard the SoundStorm .mp3, download the 5.1 channel version (all 97MB of it).
| System Setup||Page:: ( 4 / 14 )|
AMD Athlon XP 2800+ (333MHz)
ASUS A7N8X Deluxe nForce2 Motherboard
ASUS A7V8X KT400 Motherboard
512MB Corsair XMS3200 CAS2 Memory
NVIDIA Reference GeForce4 Ti 4600 128MB
Detonator Driver 40.72
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA-100 Hard Drive
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1
Desktop resolution 1024x768, 32-bit color, 75Hz refresh
All power saving options were turned off, as were the Automatic Update and System Restore services. Graphics options under the ‘Performance’ tab were all disabled for maximum performance.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo
3D Mark 2001 Second Edition Build 330 – 32-bit color
Quake III: Arena version 1.17 ‘Demo001’ demo
Serious Sam: The Second Encounter – 32-bit color, Elephant Atrium demo
Jedi Knight II v.1.04
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth Benchmark
Our graphics card of choice for this platform review was an ATI RADEON 9700 Pro. We experienced problems getting the card to work properly on the KT400 board at 333MHz, though (266MHz front side bus speeds worked fine), even with the latest BIOS and board revision 1.04. Instead, we opted for the reference GeForce4 Ti 4600. Even the GeForce4 card experienced stability issues, which were fixed after we turned off Fast Writes in the BIOS.
Irregardless of platform, we encountered some texturing anomalies in Serious Sam SE using NVIDIA’s latest 40.72 WHQL drivers.
In testing the DualDDR architecture, we put one memory module in the first DIMM slot and one in the third. In order to test a single 64-bit channel, the modules were installed in the first and second slots. All tests are performed on a 333MHz CAS2 synchronous memory bus unless otherwise specified.
SIDEBAR: I recently invented the Big Blue Banana – equal parts of Pepsi Blue and Cruzan Banana Rum. Great for parties!
| 3D Mark 2001 SE||Page:: ( 5 / 14 )|
3DMark 2001 SE v.330 - DirectX 8
It is first interesting to note the difference between the single and dual-channel nForce2 numbers. Each resolution demonstrates less than a 200 point difference between the configurations. A similar gap exists between the single-channel nForce2 numbers and VIA’s KT400 board.
SIDEBAR: NVIDIA’s APU is fully compliant with DirectX 8.
| 3D Mark 2001 SE – Frame Rates||Page:: ( 6 / 14 )|
3DMark 2001 - Car Chase
3DMark 2001 - Dragothic
3DMark 2001 - Lobby
3DMark 2001 - Nature
SIDEBAR: Expect to see a lot more talk about HyperTransport when Athlon 64 platforms become available.
| Serious Sam SE||Page:: ( 7 / 14 )|
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
Whereas 3D Mark 2001 measured performance synthetically, Serious Sam SE gives a better indication of real-world results. At 800x600, the dual-channel configuration shows a mere two percent improvement over the single-channel setup, while at 1600x1200, that lead shrinks to one percent. The good news, at least for those who are interested in the non-integrated graphics version of the nForce2, is that enabling the second memory controller doesn’t seem to buy much performance.
The low resolution test exhibits the nForce2 platform (dual-channel) outperforming KT400 by an incredible 12 percent. At 1600x1200, the lead shrinks to one percent.
SIDEBAR: Brandon’s A7N8X died during an overclocking test, so we’ll leave you with a standard warning about overclocking – it does result in dead hardware occasionally.
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 8 / 14 )|
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
Quake III mirrors the results we saw with Serious Sam. Mainly, at 800x600, a scant one and a half percent separate that one and two-channel nForce2 configurations. At 1600x1200, the difference is an imperceptible .2 frames per second. On the other hand, the nForce2 bests the KT400 by a more measurable 12 percent at 800x600. At 1600x1200, though, there is virtually no difference between the nForce2 and KT400, as the graphics card plays a bigger role in overall performance than the platform.
SIDEBAR: The nForce2 IGP sports an integrated GeForce4 MX core operating at 250MHz.
| Comanche 4||Page:: ( 9 / 14 )|
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
No surprise here – both nForce2 systems nearly pace each other, while the KT400 is bested by six percent at 800x600 and four percent at 1600x1200.
SIDEBAR: nForce was the first dual-channel DDR chipset for the Athlon, and Intel’s E7205 “Granite Bay” is the first dual-channel DDR chipset for the Pentium 4.
| Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo||Page:: ( 10 / 14 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
The Unreal Tournament 2003 demo reaffirms the results we’ve seen from the past few benchmarks. That is, the nForce2 does significantly better at low resolutions than the KT400, regardless of its single or dual-channel status.
SIDEBAR: If you’re looking for a good multimedia surround sound system to accompany ASUS’ A7N8X motherboard, I’d suggest Klipsch’s Pro Media 5.1 system with the DD-5.1 decoder.
| Jedi Knight II||Page:: ( 11 / 14 )|
Jedi Knight II – OpenGL
At the risk of sounding redundant, the single-channel nForce2 configuration fares very well against the dual-channel memory setup. If you’re interested in an nForce2 board and would prefer to buy a single 512MB DIMM, rest assured that you won’t lose much performance. Also, you’ll enjoy the flexibility of having two DIMM slots for future memory upgrades.
SIDEBAR: While NVIDIA claims that having a 3COM MAC makes nForce2 more appealing to corporate types, eliminating driver issues was another major reason for integrating Ethernet MACs from two different manufacturers.
| SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth||Page:: ( 12 / 14 )|
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
Memory bandwidth can make or break a platform’s overall performance. Armed with two 64-bit channels of DDR memory, the nForce2 chipset comes well-equipped to deal with potential bottlenecks. Since the Athlon XP can only utilize 2.7GB per second, the left-over bandwidth powers the integrated graphics, when applicable. Otherwise, it goes unutilized for the most part. The results from Sandra 2003 indicate that the dual-channel configuration is able to approach the 2.7GB per second limit of the Athlon XP’s 333MHz system bus. The single-channel setup isn’t far behind, and the KT400 trails by another three percent. Since the performance difference we’ve seen in the benchmarks is in many cases several times the difference we see in the bandwidth benchmark, we can safely say that the performance difference is attributable to more than just raw bandwidth.
SIDEBAR: What’s your favorite cologne? Right now, mine is Acqua Di Gio. Let me know here
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 13 / 14 )|
Feature Set: It would be hard to deny that the A7N8X Deluxe is one of the most complete motherboards we’ve ever seen. The nForce2 chipset alone offers dual-channel DDR, official 333MHz front side bus support, IEEE 1394 support (along with USB 2.0 and ATA-133), two 10/100 Ethernet ports, and Dolby Digital encoding with analog and digital output. ASUS also takes care to integrate Serial ATA support. The package is sweetened by a quantity of headers that allow you to take advantage of the board’s features.
Performance: The performance card may seem overplayed, but in the case of the A7N8X Deluxe, it is certainly apropos. We haven’t yet had the chance to evaluate competing nForce2 boards, but the platform itself offers enough performance to oust the KT400 from its throne.
Stability: Like performance, stability is one of those characteristics you’d naturally expect from a product purchased for more than $100. However, lately we’ve had some problems getting ATI’s RADEON 9700 Pro to work properly with chipsets other than those from Intel. The A7N8X fortunately doesn’t suffer the same ailment.
Price: Considering its level of flexibility, the A7N8X Deluxe isn’t overly expensive, but it can still be tough to justify a $140 motherboard purchase. If you find that the board is pushing your budget, consider the A7N8X, which can be found for about $20 less.
S/PDIF Header: While it lists the digital S/PDIF header as an optional feature, like Serial ATA and IEEE 1394 connectivity, ASUS doesn’t include the bracket in the Deluxe package. If you are looking for S/PDIF input, you’ll have to track the header down on your own. Otherwise, the S/PDIF output on the board’s back panel will serve your purposes.
SIDEBAR: We got a chance to see NVIDIA’s Athlon 64 chipset, CK8, while we were at Comdex.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 14 / 14 )|
Let us know!