Articles: Mainboards
 

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Closer Look

The ASUS N4L-VM DH mainboard is in many respects an odd product. Its targeting at multimedia applications is emphasized even in its name: the letters DH stands for nothing else but “Digital Home”. So it’s quite interesting to see what exactly this mainboard can do.

Its compatibility with CPUs comes first. Although the mainboard carries a Socket 479, it only supports processors of Intel’s Core Duo and Core Solo series. Earlier mobile processors from the Pentium M series cannot be installed on the ASUS N4L-VM DH. It’s Intel’s fault, of course: processors of the Pentium M and Core series are pin-incompatible mechanically and electrically, although both use a 479-pin interface.

The Socket 479 itself is implemented in its desktop modification. It is opened and closed with a steel lever rather than with a screwdriver like on notebooks. In other words, ASUS made life easier for those users who are going to manually assemble a system on the N4L-VM DH.

The mobile chipset i945GM is the basis of the reviewed mainboard and it doesn’t differ much from the i945G which is meant for use in desktop computers. Putting aside the power-related improvements, the i945GM only differs in its support of the 667MHz Quad Pumped Bus that Intel’s Core Duo and Core Solo processors use.

The ASUS N4L-VM DH has two DDR2 DIMM slots. The memory bus can be clocked either at 667MHz or at 533MHz. You can use the memory in single-channel or dual-channel mode (two identical modules are required to enable the latter). It should be noted that the i945GM supports the same operating modes for DDR2 SDRAM as are available with the i975X, the most advanced chipset from Intel for high-performance systems.

The ASUS N4L-VM DH features the Intel GMA950 graphics core integrated in the chipset’s North Bridge. In comparison with the earlier GMA900 core from i915 series chipsets, the new integrated graphics accelerator has higher frequencies and supports higher memory speeds (you can learn more about Graphics Media Accelerator 950 in our Centrino Duo platform review). Fortunately the ASUS N4L-VM DH doesn’t limit your choice to the integrated core only. The mainboard also offers a PCI Express x16 slot for an external graphics card. If you install one, the integrated core is automatically disabled.

Most peripheral interfaces are implemented on the mainboard via the ICH7-M South Bridge; some are provided by additional onboard controllers.

Particularly, the South Bridge supports one Parallel ATA-100 and two Serial ATA-150 channels on this mainboard. The Serial ATA controller integrated in the ICH7-M allows uniting the hard drives into RAID arrays of levels 0 or 1 and to use Intel’s exclusive Matrix Storage technology. However, ASUS thought this insufficient and added an additional Serial ATA RAID controller JMicron JMB363. This chip is connected via the high-speed PCI Express x1 bus, provides two more Serial ATA ports, and allows uniting the connected drives into RAID arrays of level 0 or 1. The ports are Serial ATA-II compliant. It means they provide a peak bandwidth of 3GB/s, support NCQ and hot swapping.

So, the ASUS N4L-VM DH mainboard can work with up to four Serial ATA drives simultaneously. One Serial ATA port (provided by the JMicron controller that supports the hot swapping feature) is located at the mainboard’s back panel. The owner of an ASUS N4L-VM DH thus has an opportunity to work with external SATA drives, but has to take care about power issues – the drive needs power, but there is no external SATA power connector on the mainboard’s back panel.

The audio section of the ASUS N4L-VM DH employs a Realtek ALC882M chip, which is one of the most advanced High Definition (192kHz/24bit) codecs for today. Besides eight audio channels and two additional independent channels for headphones, this codec supports the mainboard’s SPDIF input and output. The codec also supports hardware AC3 coding/decoding, thus allowing to use the ASUS N4L-VM DH with Dolby Digital equipment.

The networking opportunities are provided by a Gigabit Ethernet 82573L controller from Intel which is connected via a PCI Express x1 bus.

Besides the functions mentioned earlier in this section, the mainboard supports USB 2.0 and FireWire interfaces. The chipset’s South Bridge is responsible for the mainboard’s eight USB 2.0 ports, four of which are located at the back panel and four more are onboard headers. The FireWire ports are supported by an onboard controller from Texas Instruments: one is on the back panel and the other is a pin-connector on the mainboard. Just to remind you, back-panel brackets with two USB 2.0 and one FireWire port are included with the ASUS N4L-VM DH.

 
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