08/28/2006 | 10:31 AM
The mainboard is a key component whose capabilities largely determine those of the whole computer. Unfortunately, not all is well in this market sector if viewed with an overclocker’s eye. Brands that have traditionally been friendly towards the overclocker are not such nowadays. Abit was long beset with all manner of troubles and was then bought out and hasn’t yet returned to its own level in the past. EPoX mainboards are generally good at overclocking processors, but each has a few more or less serious defects. DFI’s products have gained recognition recently, but they are not ideal, either, and are not very widespread.
I won’t mention mainboards from Acorp, Biostar or Chaintech because their production volumes are small and there’s lack of statistical data. You can get an overclocker-friendly or an absolutely non-overclockable product.
Among the top four manufacturers, Gigabyte’s and MSI’s mainboards have never been really good at overclocking while ECS is not even to be mentioned in this context. The news about the spinning off of Gigabyte’s mainboard and graphics card manufacture into a joint company with ASUS gave us a hope, but it was soon extinguished by the subsequent comments: nothing is going to change for end users, including overclockers, after this merger.
So what do we have in the end? ASUSTeK, all alone. Its mainboards are generally good and the model range is extensive so you can easily select what suits you best. Considering that the company boasts the largest mainboard production volumes, has a long-established distribution network and a well-recognized brand, and enjoys high popularity among the users, it is not surprising that ASUS mainboards are often reviewed in our labs and, thanks to their overclocking merits, often remain here as the basis for our testbeds. This time I’m inviting you to learn more about the capabilities of two mainboards from ASUS designed for AMD Socket AM2 processors.
The ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe mainboard is based on the Nvidia nForce 570 SLI chipset.
The front side of the box promises us highest performance in a few languages; the reverse side describes the capabilities of the chipset. The sides of the box tell you about the mainboard’s innovations and special features.
Let’s see what’s so special about this product.
There’s nothing wrong at first sight. The mainboard is designed properly. Take a closer look at the heatsink to evaluate its fan-less concept:
The heatsink cools the mainboard’s MOSFETs and chipset, taking heat off the latter with the help of a heat pipe. The four-phase CPU power circuit consists of six 1500µF and four 1000µF capacitors from Matsushita.
The technical characteristics of the ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe come from the chipset’s capabilities with an addition of a few extra controllers. I won’t dwell upon obvious things like the mainboard’s support for Socket AM2 processors, SLI in x8 mode and DDR2 SDRAM, but I can tell you that its six Serial ATA and one ATA-133 port are implemented through the chipset and there is also a JMicron JMB363 controller with two ports, one of which is placed near the first PCI Express x16 connector and the other is located on the mainboard’s back panel.
A little above it, there is a FireWire port implemented through an additional Texas Instruments controller. The chipset provides ten USB 2.0 ports (four on the back panel) and two Gigabit Ethernet controllers that work via a PHY controller from Marvell. 8-channel High-Definition Audio is provided by an ADI 1988B chip; coaxial and optical S/PDIF interfaces are present. An ITE IT8716F-S chip is responsible for input-output functionality.
I want to specifically mention the fact that the ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe has six (!) fan connectors which are placed quite conveniently: two near the mainboard’s back panel, two at the top and two in the bottom right corner of the PCB.
An LPT port is wired on the PCB, but you have to purchase an appropriate bracket separately. At the very bottom of the PCB, below the PCI slot and near the audio connectors there is a mysterious header labeled ADH Connector. Its purpose is not explained in the documentation and remains a mystery to me.
The following things are included with the mainboard as accessories:
Besides that, the box contains an Array2-SNA microphone manufactured by Andrea Electronics Corporation. This device supports noise and reflection reduction. Besides that, the noise filter function identifies and removes repeated, constant and background noises.
But it was another feature of the ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe that made the biggest impression on me despite its simplicity. It is called ASUS Q-Connector Kit.
As you know, audio, USB and FireWire connectors are often put out on the front (or side or top) panel of the system case in modern computers. But I have often seen that the connectors from these ports consist of separate wires for compatibility reasons (in case the mainboard has a non-standard onboard header). As a result, you have to attach the wires one by one, messing around deep in the system case, helping your eyes with your flashlight and checking with the illustrations in the user manual. This is all over now. You just take the blue USB adapter or the red FireWire adapter from the Q-Connector Kit and, guiding yourself by the labels, attach the wires and then put the adapter in place.
The same goes for the front-panel connections: speaker connection, Turn-On and Reset buttons, HDD and Power indicators. Instead of straining your eyes to read the barely legible labels on the mainboard or making out the color coding of the connectors which differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, you can now just take the white adapter, connect the necessary wires and put the adapter in place in one step. That’s how easy it is!
The BIOS of the ASUS M2n-SLI Deluxe is based on the Award microcode and offers good overclocking opportunities, particularly:
Note the very high top limit of the memory voltage. In the earlier versions of the BIOS the multiplier could be adjusted with a step of 0.5.
Besides that, the Advanced Voltage Control section gives you the following options to control the mainboard’s voltages:
As for the memory timings, the list of adjustable parameters is very long and would take several pages to write down.
The testbed was configured like follows:
I took an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ processor for my tests. At its default voltage it is known to be able to work at a clock-generator frequency of 300MHz, i.e. at a clock rate of 2.7GHz. If the voltage is increased to 1.5V, this CPU is stable at 320MHz clock-generator frequency (2.88GHz clock rate).
Having reduced the memory and HyperTransport frequencies, I tried to start up at a clock-generator frequency of 300MHz, but the mainboard hung up during the POST right after detecting the memory modules. I thought there might be a problem with the BIOS, so I updated it from version 0202 to the newest 0304 and set the clock-generator frequency at 280MHz. The mainboard started up normally and booted the OS and passed a few tests. But when I restarted the computer, the system hung up. On the restart it issued the standard message that the CPU had been over-overclocked and invited me into the BIOS Setup. I thought the mainboard just lacked a bit of stability and reduced the clock-generator frequency by only 5MHz. But then I had to reduce it by 5MHz more, then by 10MHz more, etc.
In every case the system booted up normally, but always hung up on restart. It only became stable at a clock-generator frequency of 220MHz, i.e. a mere 10% above the default.
I won’t say I was pleased at finding the ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe to be no good at CPU overclocking, but I wasn’t greatly disappointed, either. I must confess I had had preconceived notions about that mainboard and hadn’t placed much hope in it. I hadn’t doubted its overclockability. On the contrary, I was surprised to find it so poor at overclocking, but overclockability varies from sample to sample, so I might have dealt with not a very good one. The problem is in the price of the ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe mainboard which is currently about $170.
As you know, AMD’s processors can’t compete with overclocked Core 2 Duo processors in performance, but AMD must find a way to sell its produce. How could the company do that? Of course, there is always a small and noisy group of hardcore fans that will buy an AMD in any case, but you can’t rely on them on a large scale. Quite naturally, AMD is playing with the price factor and reducing the price of its processors, moving them down into the mainstream and low-end sectors. This was already done at the end of July and retail prices on AMD processors are rather close to the official ones now.
The price reduction is the only possible way for AMD today. It doesn’t mean that AMD will be languishing in poverty, feeding on crumbs from the table of Intel with its high-performance Core 2 Duo. Expensive processors are selling in hundreds of thousands, but low-end processors are selling in millions! Besides numerous office machines, many people buy low-end computers into their homes just because they don’t need a $1500 gaming station for such tasks as surfing the Web or processing text. From such users’ point of view, it is silly to save on the CPU yet purchase an expensive mainboard.
I wouldn’t say the ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe isn’t worth its price. The microphone alone would cost you over $40 if purchased separately. The mainboard has good accessories and extra controllers, too. But do you really need this in an entry-level computer? Do you need the option of uniting two graphics cards into a SLI subsystem if you are trying to save even on the single graphics card you have? Obviously, it is inexpensive mainboards that are going to enjoy the highest demand after AMD’s processors have stepped down into the mainstream and entry-level sectors of the market. I would even put my bet on the nForce 550, but I’m afraid mainboards on this chipset are going to be too poor in terms of overclocking.
Yes, features-rich mainboards on the Nvidia nForce 590 SLI chipset are necessary, too. There will surely be some people who would want to have everything with two top-end graphics cards and an Athlon FX into the bargain. But such systems won’t sell in large quantities. The Nvidia nForce 570 SLI seems to have good capabilities, but its market positioning isn’t clear to me. It is not as uncompromisingly luxurious as the nForce 590 and is not as cheap as the nForce 550. Who is it meant for, anyway?
The Nvidia nForce 570 Ultra is quite a different story. Its capabilities are not as weak as those of the nForce 550, but not as excessive as the nForce 590’s. I suspect that nForce 570 Ultra based mainboards are going to have the optimal (or nearly optimal) combination of functionality, overclocking options, and price for computers with AMD processors. Let’s now check out this suspicion (and if you are interested in comparative characteristics of ATI and Nvidia chipsets for AMD processors, refer to our article entitled Chipsets for Socket AM2 Platform: ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 and Nvidia nForce 590 SLI).
This nForce 570 Ultra based mainboard is available for about $120. This is not a perfect price, considering the current situation with AMD processors, but better than $170. Let’s see what we get for this sum of money.
Not too many things in here, but you do get everything necessary to use the mainboard. And here is what the ASUS M2N-E mainboard itself looks like:
I didn’t tear off the paper sticker with the model name M2N-E, but I suspect it hides the text “M2N-SLI Deluxe”. The two mainboards are designed identically. There are only empty spaces instead of extra controllers on the M2N-E, and a PCI Express x4 slot instead of the second PCI Express x16. There are empty spaces in the mainboard’s back panel, too:
The BIOS options of the ASUS M2N-E aren’t cut down too much in comparison with the M2N-SLI Deluxe. The top limit of memory voltage is lower; this voltage can now be adjusted from 1.8 to 1.95V stepping 0.05V. Besides that, almost all options have disappeared from the Advanced Voltage Control page, except for the option of adding 50mV to the CPU voltage.
I started out with the ASUS M2N-E at a moderate clock generator-frequency of 250MHz. Like in the previous case, the mainboard hung up after identifying the amount of memory. After I updated its BIOS from version 0103 to 0203, the mainboard still wouldn’t start at 250MHz. It started at 230MHz, but hung up on restart, just like the senior model.
A second failure in a row unnerved me somewhat. I allow that anyone can get a bad sample of a mainboard, but I couldn’t have been as unlucky as to get two bad samples!
I try not to read other reviews or reports about a product when I’m writing my own review to avoid any prejudices. But in this case I had to hear what other users say and I learned that the restart-related problem was characteristic of the whole family of ASUS mainboards rather than of only my two samples.
The mainboard began to overclock the CPU eventually, but the problem with restarting didn’t vanish. I tried to achieve stability at 325MHz, but to no effect. The system would issue a BSOD right after I launched S&M. The system was not stable at 320MHz, either, even though I had to wait for the BSOD for a while. The M2N-SLI Deluxe and M2N-E mainboards being almost identical, it was possible to try to use the senior model’s BIOS in the M2N-E. I just swapped their BIOS chips, which turned to be identical, and enjoyed all the BIOS options of the M2N-SLI Deluxe on my M2N-E. Well, it might have made sense if the M2N-SLI Deluxe were an overclocking miracle. I had no improvements whatsoever because both the mainboards were no good at overclocking.
It’s sad such a renowned manufacturer thought it possible to issue mainboards that are absolutely non-overclockable. They do allow overclocking the CPU, but the overclocked system doesn’t work normally. I hope this is the mainboards’ fault, some errors in the BIOS, rather than an inherent defect of the nForce 570 chipset. There is in fact little difference between the nForce 5 family chipsets. The MCP carries the bulk of functionality and it is only with the nForce 590 that the added SPP brings support of additional PCI Express lanes. The CPU-Z utility doesn’t get the chipset right, but it is not too far from the truth:
The nForce 590 SLI South Bridge is in fact the nForce 570 SLI or nForce 570, but with fewer PCI Express lanes. And I had no problems with restarting the system when I was overclocking processors on an ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe (Nvidia nForce 590 SLI chipset).
I do hope it’s not Nvidia chipsets’ problem because if it were so, AMD’s processors would receive a heavy and unexpected blow. Nvidia is the main supplier of chipsets for AMD processors, and the company’s chipsets are known to be far from perfect. Particularly, they have high heat dissipation, have problems with certain HDD models, and lose packets with their network adapters. If overclocking-related problems add up to this list, the appeal of AMD processors will be dramatically reduced.
By the way, Nvidia’s graphics drivers aren’t blameless, either. They can’t solve problems with dual-core processors for a few months already. Each recent release of the ForceWare driver comes with a recommendation to disable support of multi-core processors for OpenGL and Direct3D applications and I wonder if they are trying to correct this issue at all. ATI doesn’t have it. Instead, they release ForceWare 91.31 with a monstrous and unhandy control panel as in the Catalyst. Fortunately, you can switch it back to the old view, but I couldn’t get rid of an annoying message that appeared at each start of the system to tell me that the second graphics card had been removed and SLI mode was unavailable. But I had never had a second graphics card! The color setup master doesn’t work, too, because my monitors are in the Clone mode. But I have only one monitor! So, not all is well with Nvidia…
ATI has unsolved driver issues, too, and as for its chipsets, there are none. I mean there are no chipsets. The rather large share of the chipset market the company has acquired recently was due to Intel’s temporal halt in production of inexpensive chipsets. After Intel has completed its technical modernization, and after ATI has merged with AMD, this share is going to shrink immediately if ATI doesn’t pay more attention to chipsets. I hope they will.
So, there are no positive results in this review, just some hopes that the errors in the tested mainboards from ASUS will be corrected, that Nvidia’s chipsets do not have intrinsic defects, that ATI will produce chipsets with higher functionality and in larger quantities. I hope these hopes won’t prove to have been groundless.