Asus attempts to create a reasonably priced, high performance Intel motherboard with a definitely non-standard approach. Does it deliver the goods?
The first really high performance SLI motherboards came out about 9 months ago, using Nvidia's 680i chipset. They offer stellar performance and loads of expansion in the form of SATA, USB and firewire ports. They also offer sticker shock - the boards were expensive when they came out and they really haven't gotten any cheaper.
In the non-reference board game, prices went even crazier, with the Asus Striker Extreme pushing the limit at just south of $400. 680i LT chipsets have helped in the pricing department, although at a cost in performance and features.
Asus must have seen the price to performance light after the introduction of the Striker Extreme. Not too long after launching that board, they introduced the P5N32E-SLI motherboard. It appeared to be a cost-reduced Striker Extreme, a "Striker Lite", if you will, but, performance-wise, it just couldn't compete with the 680i boards. So Asus took a different approach. They created the P5N32E-SLI Plus.
This board is something of a Frankenstein's monster. The 680i chipset would have priced the board out of its intended market and the 680i LT wasn't around when this board was designed. So, Asus took the interesting path of combining the 650i SLI SPP and the 570 SLI MCP. The "interesting" part is that while the former is designed for Intel processors, the latter chip is straight out of Nvidia-based AMD motherboards. Asus gave it a snappy name: HybridUp Technology. What it does is pretty special for a sub-$200 motherboard.
The board features dual x16 PCI-E slots, plus a third x16 PCI-E slot that is wired as a x8 slot. The 650i chipset provides the primary PCI-E slot (Asus combined the 650i's dual x8 PCI-E support into a single x16) and the 570 chip the other, along with the third slot. The interface between the two chips is more than fast enough for the maximum bandwidth that the two slots need when operating in SLI mode. Asus suggests that the third slot could be used for some "future" physics card.
The 650i chipset offers front side bus speeds of up to 1333MHz and memory speeds of up to 1200MHz using enhanced performance profile (also known as SLI ready) DIMMs. Manually, the memory bus can be tweaked to much higher speeds - assuming that the memory can go that fast.
Peripheral support is rather substantial. The motherboard has dual gigabit ethernet, ten USB ports, 6 SATA ports, 2 firewire ports, 1 PATA port and a floppy port. Audio is not onboard, but is provided by a daughtercard, just as on the Striker Extreme. It fits in a slot that looks like a 1X PCI-E (although it's not) and actually does seem to perform better than the traditional AC97 audio on other systems.
The board layout is good, although the location of the PATA port right next to the ATX power connector makes for a pretty cramped space. In a perfect world, the floppy connector and the PATA connector would be swapped - but that's a minor complaint. The SATA connectors are particularly well placed, on what would be the front edge of the board, and at right angles to the board, making for very easy connecting and routing of cables.
In fact, Asus made the board connections (other than the PATA connector) quite easy to use on the P5N32-E SLI Plus. The front panel header, something that can give even the most patient person fits, is still awkward, but Asus provides a monolithic adapter that allows you to connect the wires off the motherboard, then simply plug everything in as a single assembly. A very nice touch, indeed!
Cooling on the board is both adequate and visually appealing. There are two heatpipe assemblies connected to the two chipsets that move the heat to two sets of finned heat sinks at the top of the board. Although they are located around the CPU socket, they provide enough clearance to allow almost any heat sink/fan to be used on the CPU.
The motherboard supports Intel Socket 775 CPUs: Pentium 4, Celeron D, Pentium D, Pentium Extreme Edition, Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme. The BIOS provides a vast array of voltage, multiplier and frequency controls for overclocking both the processor and the memory. The five phase power supply and solid capacitors should make power delivery for high performance tweakers a sure thing.
Performance-wise, the motherboard is really quite exceptional. Our performance measurements are purely subjective - we don't do synthetic measurements. Compared to equivalently configured 680i and 680i LT motherboards, the P5N32-E SLI Plus performed equally, if not slightly better in every task that we presented. In purely CPU-intensive tasks, like compressing and extracting files, this motherboard was a clear winner. The motherboard also had the capability to really dominate in memory performance. The caveat hear is that although the P5N32-E SLI can support some really tight memory timings, the memory also has to be up to the task.
The P5N32-E SLI motherboard is really quite an interesting product. Asus has created a serious benchmark with this non-reference board that is going to be quite hard for others to reach at the same price point. They deserve a big pat on the back for taking the time and expending the resources in deviating from the tried and true path of building reference design boards and actually engineering something completely different. The results are well worth the price of this board, which should be between $180 and $200 on the street. If you're looking for high performance at an affordable price, this is the motherboard to get.