Date: September 4, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams
The M2N32-SLI Deluxe is one feature packed motherboard in every sense of the word. Whether you are a hardcore gamer, enthusiast overclocker or Joe HTPC, this board delivers what you are looking for.
Though the AM2 platform was not released that long ago, there are an innumerable amount of motherboards to choose from. Choice is a good thing though, especially when you may or may not be on a budget. The board we are looking at today comes from ASUS and is one of their top models. It has all the goods, including the nForce 590 chipset. Beyond that though, there are features found here that only ASUS provides.
The M2N32 is an AI Lifestyle board, meaning it’s feature complete for your lifestyle and performance needs. As we will see later in the review, this is clearly the case.
The addition of WiFi and AMD Live! support may make the board out to seem like it’s for an HTPC or the like. Make no mistake, this is a board also caters well to enthusiasts and overclockers.
I won’t be getting into every minor thing this board offers, but if you are interested in the overall look you can take a look at the official specs page. The M2N32-SLI Deluxe is designed for anyone, whether you be building an HTPC or a sweet gaming rig. This board has it all. This is not ASUS saying this, this is -me- saying this. I’ve been using the motherboard for near a month, and I am left quite impressed with all it offers.
The board packs the nForce 590 SLI MCP chipset meaning you can hook up SLI right away. This chipset in itself introduces a lot of features to the user:
A feature complete motherboard would not be as such without proper cooling considerations. The M2N32-SLI uses a special heatsink that covers the Southbridge, Northbridge and PWM all in one fell swoop. This sink uses copper heatpipe technology to dissipate heat quickly, but fins are only found on the PWM. The SB and NB are merely covered with a heatpipe enhanced heatsink. It does the job though while taking away the need for a chipset fan. This should result in less power consumption (albeit low) and less noise.
Since this board also caters to overclockers, it’s no surprise the wealth of tools that are included. I will give a brief overview:
So, I think it’s obvious that this is indeed a packed board. Time to take a look at the packaging and the board overview!
The boards packaging is nothing out of the ordinary, but it is heavier than others I have seen due to all of the extras. The box you see below is the outer casing, which has a flap in the front which can be lifted up to view more info. Removing this casing you will have the actual box. From the small stickers, we can see the board is compatible with all AM2 CPU’s, supports SLI and Corsair memory. Of course it supports other memory, but Corsair is a leading partner. I apologize in advance for these horrible pictures…
Upon opening the box, there’s quick proof that this is one stuffed package.
First, I took out the motherboard plate for the back of your PC, cables for extra firewire/USB functionality and a Q-Connector. This is quite a useful little device, although I have not used it because I don’t feel I need it. In gist, you insert your HDD LED/Power LED/Power Switch/etc wires into this, which will essentially make it one cable instead of four or more. This is great if you are swapping motherboards often.
When I first pulled the next piece of equipment out, I had no sweet clue what it was. Until I saw the pink connector… which obviously is used for mics. Yes. this is a strange looking microphone, but a cool looking one. It doesn’t have any clips or sticky surface so no matter where you put it, it will move around if a desk/monitor is nudged. Cool addition, however.
Next we have the S-ATA and IDE connectors, in addition to the SLI bridge.
The WiFi connector!
The manual and support CD-Rom.
Optional chipset fan, if you prefer to have one.
Onto take a hard look at the board and layout.
Time to take a look at the board itself and examine the layout. When it comes to motherboard layout, there never seems to be a “perfect” solution. There always seems to be a few minor things that keep it from being the perfect board. Let’s see if that’s the case here.
Some aspects of the board prove to be a tight squeeze. Take the top PCI-E slot, which is directly next to the large heatsink. Removing a GPU will be a fun experience with such a tight space. Pushing up on the tab will hit the heatsink. Nothing major, but a slight bit of extra space would have been welcomed.
Here is a close-up of the copper heatsink unit. Quite an interesting design. You can see the single heatpipe running through the entire unit. Along the way, each ‘checkpoint’ is secured with screws and plastic tabs.
As you can see here, the heatsink is covering the entire PWM to dissipate heat quickly. The caps in between are not touching this sink, but leave 2mm~ in between.
The socket in it’s 940-Pin glory:
As mentioned earlier, the board includes six S-ATA ports, all located nearer the bottom of the board, just underneath the BIOS battery. Also seen here are four 3-Pin fan connectors. No doubt that should prove more than enough for anyone.
The IDE/Floppy and motherboard connectors are all incredibly close to one another. This will not prove to be a problem in the least if you don’t use any IDE devices, but plugging in an IDE CD-Rom proves a tight squeeze.
At the top left corner of the board we can see another S-ATA connector and 4-Pin CPU fan connector. There’s also a tilted cap. Strange.
The non-removable WiFi card is located directly below the rest of the connectors. There is no antenna pre-connected, which is great for those who don’t intend to ever use it.
Now here’s an odd place for the 4-Pin motherboard connector. Honestly, I have no idea why it belongs here, because the power cable will just be resting atop your video card. Strange place indeed. Not to mention a tight squeeze. During installation, I didn’t notice this connector until after I had the GPU installed. The spot was so tight, that I could not plug the cable in without having to cut myself to pieces. So I was forced to remove the video card and plug it in first. In a good spin though, here are even more fan connectors.
Here is a glamour shot of the available slots. Two PCI-E 16x, One PCI-E 4x, One PCI-E 4x and two PCI slots. The blue and pink ports are for hooking up external Firewire or USB ports.
The BIOS chip and voltage regulator. Also the BIOS battery and reset switch.
There are a slew of ports available here, including a PS/2 keyboard/mouse, S/PDIF, firewire, S-ATA, USB ports, Ethernet and of course the audio. This board takes advantage of SoundMAX digital HD audio.
Lastly, here is the back of the board. Since the board is black on the front, it was a surprise to see it completely blue on the back.
Whew, that was a lot of ground covered. Let’s dedicate some time now to taking a hard look everything the BIOS has to offer.
The BIOS in the M2N32 comes straight from Phoenix and is one of the best I’ve ever used. Before I jump into the screens though, I will explain a minor problem, that almost cannot even be called a problem. This motherboard POSTs incredibly fast. Yes of course this is a good thing for the most part… shorter boot time is hard to complain about. However, I have found myself having to rapid-tap the DEL button after turning the PC on, in order to assure I will get into the BIOS. Even then, I’ve had to reboot the PC a few times before getting in there. So, it is a problem and it isn’t, just depends on how much overclocking or BIOS customizing you plan on doing :-)
If you’ve ever been in a Pheonix BIOS you are well aware of what you will see first. Setting the time and date is rather mundane, but must be done. One thing I find somewhat odd here is the fact that by default, HDD SMART is disabled while Diskette A: is enabled. I’m willing to bet the majority of people with this board will not even use a Diskette drive, but most everyone would want SMART. Could be just me, who knows!
This is where all of the fun stuff takes place. Anything overclocking or tweaking related is in here. The first option is for Jumperfree Configuration and here is where you can overclock your CPU and set voltages. Since ASUS includes a feature called “AI Overclock”, you could use that if you want a modest overclock but want to remain in safe boundaries. Of course the real fun takes place when you set the option to manual, which allows you full control over everything.
The max VDIMM on this board is 2.500v while the max CPU VCORE is 1.5625v. Nothing extreme here, although you are able to enter the Advanced Voltage Control area and enable the Vcore Offset voltage, which gives an approximate 5% – 6% boost. Using 1.5625 and that option gave me 1.66Vcore according to AI Booster.
Under the CPU Configuration, we will see more DRAM values than CPU, really. Within these menus you will be able to customize your ram timings, default speeds and drive strengths. This is where the board comes alive though and proves that it’s an enthusiasts motherboard. There are -so- many options to deal with, it’s actually overwhelming when you first look at it. I previously thought the DFI Ultra-D was amazing in this regard, but the M2N32 takes things to a new level.
One interesting option to note is the AI Clock Skew, which effects the memory clocks signal timing. Simply put, if you master this setting, you should be seeing some of the best memory overclocks out there, within the 2.5vdimm reason of course. This setting came in handy soon after I got a hold of this board. As I was playing around with an NDA memory kit, I -had- to manually adjust this setting in order to have 100% stability. This primarily had to do with the memory chips used though, and chances are you will have a rough time buying memory with those particular ones. In the end though, it’s great to have this option, which is exclusive to ASUS boards.
Taking a quick look inside the Advanced Memory Timings, you can see what I mean when I say overwhelming. You have simple timings such as tRC, tWR and tRRD, but also a few such as tWRWR and tWRRD. Wow… I’ve never even heard of those ones. Most of these settings will be for hardcore memory overclockers because it would prove to be a very time consuming task. Regardless, it’s great to have such a wealth of options and tweaking ability here.
To aide in better overclocking, there are a few Chipset related options worth taking a look at. One of the most important is the CPU<->NB HT Speed. By default it’s at 5x (200MHz * 5 = 1000HT) but you have the choice of 1 – 5. You can also configure bus widths and also HT speeds. I personally never played around with these that much… most people would not. I am happy to report that this board is stable with 1425HTT (285*10). It may go higher, but there is no real point of even trying as there will be no real gain.
Under the Onboard Config you will find all the options related to the onboard peripherals. You can enable/disable your LAN, audio, S-ATA and more. These are also the menus you will be playing in if you have an S-ATA RAID set up. Other features that I will not get into include the AMD Live! and AMD Cool’n’Quiet. If you have EPP enabled memory installed, you will see additional options specifically for overclocking it.
Under the power options, there is not really that much to deal with except the Monitor. Though ACPI APIC support is there, I was unable to disable it. I am unsure why this is, because it’s odd to have an option there that I have no control over. Under the APM options though, you will have a little bit of configuring you can do such as power up options and the like.
The hardware monitor is likely to prove the most useful section in there though. It’s the -first- place I go after a fresh build, just to make sure the temps and voltages are within reason. If you want the motherboard to control your system fans speeds, you can here. You’ll note that I am lacking a readout for my CPU fan, but that is due to the fact that I’m on water cooling. The Vcore Voltage is a key option here also though, especially if you plan on using the previously mentioned Vcore Offset voltage. After setting that option, rebooting and coming back into here will show you what the Vcore is really at.
The Boot menu doesn’t include anything groundbreaking, but it proves to be one of the most useful. By default, the CD-Rom is not the primary boot device. So if you are planning on a fresh OS install, you may need to enable it as such prior to booting up with a CD-Rom. If you want to get rid of the boot splash screen, you can do so under the Settings Conf. If you are on water cooling, you will get a nag error at boot that tells you the fan is not running. Changing to Halt On > No Errors will get that error out of your way.
The Tools section is where ASUS stands apart from other manufacturers. First off we have a Music Alarm, and it is exactly as it sounds. In this menu you can set the day, time and starting CD track. Once you set up everything properly, you can safely turn your PC off and it will turn itself back on at the time you specified and start playing the CD. Beats an alarm clock!
Next up is the OC Profile. This is, by far one of the coolest features on this board in my opinion. Some motherboards out there allow a couple profiles to be saved in the BIOS, but this is different. If you only have a few profiles to save, then you can save up to two. If you have a flash drive plugged into a port, you are able to save as many as you like. This is the process:
One reason this is so useful, is the fact that a lot of time while overclocking, I will go overboard. This results in me having to reset the BIOS completely, then starting from fresh. Now, I tend to set over 20 options manually and this takes time… especially when you need to do it a few times in an evening. There was even an instance where I had to reset the BIOS twice [I really went overboard] and lost my profiles that were saved in the BIOS. So this is a great way to save it to a backup source that you will always have handy. It could also prove useful if you are helping someone achieve a good overclock on the motherboard. You could create the profile, save it and then e-mail it. Great addition here.
EZ Flash is the last major option in the BIOS. Need to flash your BIOS but don’t have a diskette drive? No worries here, as you can flash the BIOS from within the BIOS. If you download a BIOS from ASUS’ website and save to a thumb drive or CD-Rom, you can access it in here. You simply select the *.bin file you want to flash with, and it does the hard work for you. No diskette drive needed… no third party applications… just in the BIOS. It truly could not get any easier.
Since this is the first AM2 motherboard review we have done, it’s difficult to have a basis for comparison. Saying that, these benchmarks don’t mean that much right now, unless you know what you are looking for. As we evaluate more boards, this will be more complete. I will be using results from our recent AMD X2 4600+ review. Before we jump into those though, please review our testing methodology:
Throughout all of our benchmarks regardless of what we are reviewing, testing is done in a clean and stand-alone version of Windows XP Professional with SP2. Prior to testing, these conditions are met:
If you are interested in using the same benchmarks as us, feel free to visit the developers website:
The testing rig used for today’s benchmarking is as follows:
As mentioned, this is our first AM2 review so it’s rather pointless to barricade you with a bunch of meaningless results due to the lack of comparison. All future AM2 motherboard reviews will include comparisons to one another. I will not bother explaining these benchmarks, but they will become a basis for comparison.
Next up is some motherboard features that are actually meaningful to test. The onboard peripherals!
The M2N32-SLI Deluxe includes a few things that I will take a quick look at. Neither of these I would use on a regular basis simply because I do not have an immediate need for them. However, your daily routine differs from mine so you may very well use a few of them. Or all.
To give a test, I listened to various music on my primary PC, then moved the 5.1 headphones (Turtle Beach HPA) over to the M2N32 and listened to the same music. Overall, I found it to sound quite good, but it doesn’t beat out the Chaintech AV-710 in the other PC. Without any adjustments being made to the headphones during switching PC’s, the M2N’s audio sounded a little hollow during a few songs. Tweaking the headphones and software helped a bit, but not completely.
A quick game of HL2 proved better than the music, but I still heard a very minute hollow sound. With some tweaking, your experience may be different. However, comparing the AV-710 to this one, I can’t say I am overly impressed. It’s a solid ‘starter’ sound-card, though.
This is one of the strangest looking mics I’ve ever seen, but it’s pleasantly cool at the same time. Though it has an odd design, it sits atop any monitor without an issue, including my LCD TV and my LCD monitor for my primary desktop. Though it doesn’t have anything to really keep it on place, it hugs the top of the frame so it should stay in place unless you bump the cord. I didn’t do any in-depth tests using this, but I found the sound quality to match my Turtle Beach headset from a few quick tests. No doubt a headset would sound better for gaming and the like, but for quick messages or late night webcam action, this should be great. If you can get by the odd design. No doubt people who come over will stop in their tracks over confusion when they spot it.
After installing the driver from the CD-Rom, there were no issues to speak of. Installation when great, and the ASUS WiFi software was ready to use. One feature I quickly liked is in regards to the WiFi base. Though it’s a rather odd looking design, it’s for a reason. The bottom is magnetized, so that you can set it atop your PC and it will stay there.
In the software, you will have full control over every aspect of your network, even moreso than the Windows Zero Config. However, if you choose to let Windows handle things, the ASUS app will mainly display information for you including the signal strength and speed. For whatever reason, the ASUS software would not properly connect to my network, while the Windows Zero Config would. This wasn’t without surprise though… my router gives me so many issues with WiFi that I only rely on it for a single PC.
To give it a quick test, I cut off all internet connection to all the computers and pinged that one directly. For the tests, I used the ASUS WiFi, D-Link USB WiFi and a wired NIC. The results are seen above. The results are not too impressive, to say the least. Comparing the D-Link to this ASUS, the ASUS had far more latency than the USB adapter. Both adapters were sitting in the same spot during the tests. So, it’s a good adapter for regular use, but you would not want to be gaming over it… even on a LAN if you enjoy the lowest pings possible.
The last major addition to the board would have to be the chipset cooler. This is not a regular cooler though. It shares a trait of that mic… it’s strange. Looking at it, I do not understand how it is supposed to help. The fan spins around blowing air towards the chipset but the only place for the air to enter is on the opposite side. I would figure that the top of this cooler would be opened to allow air to flow in, but it’s not.
After adding this fan, the chipset temp didn’t budge… it stayed at 47°C. So the actual gain of this is debatable, but I’d recommend to not even bother. Though it’s extremely quiet, I fail to see a gain by using it.
I am not going to get too far in-depth regarding the board on Linux, because I didn’t get to delve into it as much as I had wanted to. Though this is a great board for Windows, you will need to take some extra steps to get full functionality on Linux. The first Linux attempt on this board was using Gentoo. After the boot sequence, the screen went completely blank, which is apparently due to an APIC issue. Booting with the noapic parameter fixes the problem perfectly. I ran into the same problem with SUSE (Pictured below) so I know it’s not a distro-specific issue.
Another oddity. I upgraded to the 704 BIOS, which is currently still in testing, and it fixed the APIC issue perfectly. I was able to boot back into the distro without specifying noapic in the grub. However, upon booting back into Windows, neither my mouse or keyboard worked! Strange enough, so I reverted back to the 603 release. I didn’t have any PS/2 converters for my keyboard to see if it was a USB issue, as they were packed away.
In the picture above you can see that things are detected properly. Even the audio worked without a problem… the USB audio also. I was not able to get the WiFi to work with common kernel modules. This isn’t to say it’s not possible, as I did not devote that much time to it. Besides this though, I had no problem with any other hardware on the board that I can think of. I did not touch the Firewire as I do not have any such devices.
Despite not having any comparison benchmarks in this review, I feel we got a good grasp of what the board has to offer. As mentioned, our future AM2 reviews will all have comparison benchmarks, but this was the first one received. Another is en route, so you can expect another motherboard review with such comparisons in the coming weeks. After it’s all said and done, I have to say I am quite pleased with everything the board has to offer.
When it comes to top technology, this board has it all. The board includes the nForce 590 MCP chipset, so we already have plenty of useful options simply because of it. One thing I enjoyed about the board immediately though, was the feature packed BIOS. I said the same thing about the Ultra-D last year, but this takes the cake. There is plenty of overclocking and tweaking ability in here. Enough to please the novice overclockers and the hardcore alike. There are many options available that I personally would never even touch.
In addition to that though, the extra features are a great addition. While the usefulness of the EZ Alarm depends on your lifestyle, the easy BIOS flashing is incredibly nice. Add to the fact that you can save and load profiles from a thumb drive… that’s a huge plus.
When it comes to the integrated peripherals, I don’t have immediate complaints. I did find the audio from my Chaintech AV-710 to be better than the onboard HD Audio, however. That’s saying a lot when the AV-710 costs less than $20. The mic is well designed though, and sounds quite good. Due to it’s unique design, it will sit atop your monitor with ease, which is a nice touch. As we found in our quick WiFi tests, there was nothing that impressive there. Paired against the D-Link USB Wireless, it was no comparison. While the D-Link hovered around ~12ms, the ASUS was above 30ms. That’s not the type of latency you will want for online gaming. It could be that it all had to do with my router or configurations, but both WiFi setups used default settings.
I haven’t a single major complaint about the board layout, though some minor things could have been altered to make things much better. The fact that the top PCI-E slot’s pull tab is so close to the many copper fins is a little strange to me. You will have to be careful when removing the card, unless you enjoy cutting yourself. Out of all the ‘minor’ issues though, I have to say the weirdest is the fact that the 4-Pin motherboard power is directly above the top PCI-E slot. This means that the power cord will lay on top of your GPU, and also made plugging it in difficult. If you decide to pick this board up, you will want to plug that cord in first prior to plugging in a card.
This board currently retails for around $200 even, and that is no doubt worth the price. This is a packed board, perfect for an HTPC, hardcore gamer or an overclocker. It delivers what the enthusiast is looking for, and even throws a few cool extras in there. I have no problem with highly recommending this board to anyone who is looking for an AM2 model in the $200 range. Even if you took out the WiFi and various extras, this board would -still- be fully worth the asking price. For that, I am awarding the M2N32-SLI Deluxe an 9 out of 10 in addition to an Editors Choice award.
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