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ASUS P5N-E SLI

Date: December 27, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams

When the 680i chipset was launched last month, it proved to have exactly what the enthusiast was after. However, most of those boards range in the $250 area. ASUS has just released their new P5N-E SLI board which offers the 650i chipset. It’s a scaled down version of it’s bigger brother, but costs far less and still contains a huge punch for enthusiasts.



Introduction


Last months launch of NVIDIAs 600i series was a welcomed one by enthusiasts. It was finally a chance to step away from Intels proprietary chipset and to start taking advantage of what nForce is capable of. Of course, we can’t overlook the SATA and Audio issues that proved problematic for many. NVIDIA since released a hotfix that takes care of the SATA data corruption problem.

Pros and cons aside, any motherboard that uses the 680i chipset retails for around $250. Personally, I think this is well worth it for what the boards offer. But what if you got rid of a few small features? You wind up with a board like the ASUS P5N-E SLI, which uses the 650i chipset that costs far less.

Who’s the 650i marketed for? Those who want a solid board for a great price and doesn’t skimp on performance potential. After my week of testing with the board, I can admit that it’s a fantastic performer, regardless of the price range.

 

Closer Look

 

Before we get into the board layout and other snapshots, I’ll go into detail of what this board offers over the P5N32-E version and also the differences between the 680i and 650i chipsets themselves.

Although this board uses the 650i SLI chipset, there is also a 650i Ultra version available, which is not yet seen on any retail boards. The primary difference between the two is that the latter does not support SLI, as the title suggests. Other than that, the other difference is the name.

 

 

With regards to the 680i vs. 650i bout, the 680i offers more peripheral support in general. Using the 650i SLI chipset, the board developer can either implement a single 16x PCI-E slot, or dual 8x PCI-E slots, which gives us the SLI capabilities. The 680i on the other hand, offers two 16x PCI-E slots in addition to an 8x PCI-E slot, which can be used for physics cards, whether it be another NVIDIA card or the PhysX from AGEIA.

The 680i also offers EPP support, while the 650i does not. I personally find this very odd, however I still believe EPP is a waste of time all around. Learning to overclock on your own will give you far more satisfaction and better performance in the end.

Another notable difference is that while the 680i can allow up to 6 S-ATA ports, the 650i only offers 4. Instead, while the 680i offers support for only two IDE drives, the 650i offers support for four. This personally doesn’t make a difference for me, as I use a single S-ATA and single IDE, but it may be a deciding factor for those who have large RAID setups or a bunch of drives.

Personally, the thing I noticed faster than anything was the fact that the 650i chipset allows for only one Gigabit ethernet connection. So, if you are on a wired connection and connect to another computer via cable, it won’t be happening here without installing your own nic card. Occasionally, board manufacturers can throw an additional chipset on board, such as a Marvell, to enable an additional NIC port. That wasn’t done here, because it probably won’t affect that many people. This is a “budget” board, also.

The box for the board is smaller than most other I’ve seen. This is simply because it doesn’t include that many extras, such as a board like the M2N32-SLI does. It’s a pretty barebones board, built to satisfy the enthusiast. So, it only includes what it needs. As you can see, my delivery guy may have tried to use the box as a soccer ball.

 

 

What you see in the picture is what you get. Two IDE cables, 2 S-ATA cables, motherboard guard, SLI Bridge, PCI USB connector, manual and Q-Connector. The Q-Connector is designed for those people who don’t enjoy squinting and playing around in a small area when plugging the ATX cables. You first plug them into the Q-Connector, and that way you will have a single connector to plug in just like you would with the USB connector.

 

 

I should also mention that the chipset software includes beta Vista drivers. Despite this fact, the autorun will not function properly in Vista, so you will need to fish around the folders and find the correct drivers.


Board Layout

Does this look like a budget board? Yes, and no. It appears feature packed, but there is a lot I’d change.

 


(View Full-Res Image)

 

Since there are two IDE connectors, one should be higher and the other lower. The only IDE device I have is a CD-Rom, so I have to stretch the cable past many other cables to reach the destination. There appears to be sufficient room on the tip of the board for one. One thing to note though, is that there is NO connector! I have not personally used a in years, so I am surprised that they are still included on near every motherboard available. The only time I’ve used a in recent memory was for a GPU bios update, but that can be done with a USB drive. Regardless, I’m glad to see a board without one finally. Although, that massive pink printer port is still there, so that’s kind of an oxymoron?

Dec 27th edit: There is indeed a floppy connector. I am either half blind or had a drink prior to writing this review. – Rob

You’ll also notice that there is a SLI card you will need to flip in order to enable support. Many people seem to hate this method, but I don’t really see it as a huge problem. It’s a one time thing, more often than not.

 

 

The northbridge is kept cool by a passive heatsink. I’d would have loved to see a fan on this though, because it gets -very- hot with a lot of overclocking.

 

 

That’s not half bad though, when you see the MCP chipset doesn’t even have a heatsink at all! I can assure you though, that even during heavy overclocking this does not seem to get -that- hot. I still have my fingers to prove it. However, a heatsink would have been a nice addition. If you plan to do a lot of overclocking, pointing an 80mm fan towards it may be the smart thing to do. Or purchase a $5 chipset sink.

 

 

Here is the VIA chipset that handles the firewire operation.

 

 

As we see on most current motherboards, this one also includes the ITE IT8718F-S monitoring chip.

 

 

If you plan to use a beastly GPU card in SLI, prepare to lose one of your PCI slots.

 

 


Board Layout Cont.

All four S-ATA ports are located in the same place, right above the ATX connector port and beside the first IDE port. This allows easy reach to your drives regardless of where they are located.

 

 

Close up of the main caps.

 

 

The top right corner of the board is where the DIMM slots are found. I like having them in this location, because it makes it easier to mount a cooling fan for overclocking. Your situation may be different however.

 

 

There are many caps surrounding the CPU socket, with two directly behind it. Those -may- get in the way with various heatsinks, so be sure to keep that into your equation when considering this board. I use simple water cooling, so a block isn’t any larger than the socket itself. Cooling was apparently not a huge priority on this board. The PWM has to fend for itself.

 

 

Here you can see all of the available ports on the back. We can see that we have only 4 USB ports to deal with, along with a firewire. There is also an eSATA port for those of you with an external drive.

 

 

Let’s boot up, and take a look at what the BIOS has to offer.


Inside the BIOS

Since this is a budget board, I was curious as to how much functionality and flexibility the BIOS offered. Would this prove to be an ultimate budget overclockers board?

ASUS chose to use a Pheonix AwardBIOS here, which should feel right at home for many. The first screen you will see delivers all of the options regarding the date, time and hard drive configuration. By default, is enabled and HDD SMART is disabled. This seems strange to me, as it would normally make sense for those two options to be switched around. If you want SMART capabilities from the get go, make sure to enable it here.

 

 

The Advanced tab is where all of the overclocking action happens. You will need to switch the AI Tuning to Manual to have full control, or you can choose automatic overclocking if you don’t feel like stepping into the time consuming world of tweaking.

 

 

Under the System Clocks submenu is a single option… PCI-Express frequency. Voltage Control is where some fun begins, however. By default, all of these are set to Auto, which should be perfectly suitable for stock speeds. VCore allows a full range of flexibility, from 0.83125v all the way up to 1.6v in increments of 0.00625v.

The full vdimm range is as follows: 1.920v, 2.013v, 2.085v, 2.178v, 2.259v, 2.353v, 2.424v and 2.517v. This may seem low compared to some other enthusiast boards, but more often than not, you don’t need more voltage for a bigger overclock. I’ve often seen overclocks of DDR2-1200 using only 2.2v. If you have good memory chips, you shouldn’t need a huge amount of vdimm.

The last Voltage option here is for your northbridge, and its options are: 1.208v, 1.393v, 1.563v and 1.748v.

 

 

The FSB & Memory Config portion of the BIOS proved to be the one I was inside of most frequent. This section also proves that just because of it’s budget moniker, it’s not about to hold you back from an insane overclock.

The first option in the menu allows you to either Link or Unlink the FSB and Memory. This is as to say, will your CPU/Mem scale to each other using the usual dividers, or not? If you choose Linked, you will have an option of a 1:1, 5:4 or 3:2 divider. If you are running PC2-8500 memory and plan to run your C2D at stock speed, you would run a 1:1 divider to make both the FSB and DDR2 speed 1066MHz.

Unlinked is the option I chose to use though, because thanks to NVIDIAs memory controller, there is a lot more flexibility here. As an example, at one time I chose to use a 375FSB (1500MHz) and then 800MHz for the ram, or DDR2-800. This gave me a divider of 15:16. As odd as it is, it works and works well. This essentially means that your ram should not be the factor for your CPU overclock not being able to reach new heights. I am unsure how out of whack the dividers go, but it certainly didn’t stop me from reaching my max CPU overclock.

 

 


Inside the BIOS Cont.

Under the CPU Configuration you will have a few options of interest. First is the CPU multiplier, which can be changed if your chip is unlocked. If you do have a locked chip you can still change the option here, but it will simply revert to it’s stock status once you reboot. Intel SpeedStep can be adjusted here also if you want to use it.

 

 

Like the P5N-Es bigger brother, the P5N32-E SLI, there are many memory tweaking options available. In addition to the standard CAS-tRCD-tRP-tRAS-CPC, you can also tweak the secondary timings, such as tRC, tRRD and others including the Async Latency. As we will find out in our testing though, these timing tweaks may not actually be such a big deal right now.

 

 

In regards to onboard device configuration, we have the usual slew of options. One thing of interest is the Front Panel Support Type. Some new Chassis’ on the market use HD Audio instead of the usual AC’97. If that’s the case, you can change it here. If you won’t be using your NIC, you can disable it here, in addition to your S-ATA and Firewire. If you have a RAID setup in mind, you can set it up under the submenu here.

 

 

The usual can be found under the power configuration, including the Monitor which will show you temps and voltages.

 

 

 

 

If you want to disable the annoying full screen logo at boot, you can do so under the Boot configuration. Since I am running a water cooling setup, I also disabled the Halt On so as to avoid the “No CPU Fan Detected” on boot.

 

 

The last part of the BIOS I will show is one of my favorites. I first saw this with our M2N32-SLI Deluxe review and wish -every- board on the market featured it. If you have a thumb drive, you can save your BIOS profiles to it. This is a huge benefit, because if you fail an overclock, you can simply load up your last successful overclock instead of going through resetting every option manually. Although it takes around 10 seconds to save a BIOS profile to the drive, it will load it instantaneously when you are inside this menu.

 

 

So, how does this board overclock? I’m about to tell you.


Overclocking

In this section, I will touch on my overclocking experiences with the board. The C2D I have is an E6300, which runs stock at 1.86GHz with a painfully low 7x multiplier. That multiplier by itself takes out a lot of overclocking potential the chip has to offer. To hit 3.5GHz, which is a joke for some of the bigger CPUs, you’d need a staggering 500FSB which is foolish to consider on most boards. Needless to say, I was keen on knowing how well this budget board could handle a huge FSB.

Below you can see the stock CPU-Z report. Nothing in the BIOS really had to be changed in order to have the right clocks, but I did manually set the DDR2 speeds and timings. You may ask why I chose a 2T instead of 1T, and I will tell you in a few moments. The BIOS used on the board is dated for Nov 22, so it’s a full month old. This is no surprise, as about two weeks after this date is when you could purchase the board at retail.

 

 

The reason I chose 2T as opposed to 1T for the ram clock is simple… this board is not for ram overclocking. I found this out quickly and even blamed my CPU at first, but it definitely wasn’t the case. The problem is, this board doesn’t seem to want to clock -any- ram beyond DDR2-1000 speeds, regardless of what timings you are running. The folks at AnandTech backed up my findings, by relaying the same issue. However, they seem to have had more success than I did.

In their review, they mention that DDR2-800 speeds at 1T is fine and dandy. I had the opposite experience. DDR2-800 1T would boot fine and be somewhat reliable for Windows use, but as soon as I tried benchmarking, the computer would either halt or reboot. I tried this with two different kits of high-end ram and experienced the same issue. I also tested 1T using both 2.0v and 2.2v, but it made no difference.

Also in their review, they noted that they could use their OCZ Flex ram at DDR2-1066 speeds with 5-6-6 timings. Even though that combination of speed and timings makes me want to cry, I gave it a shot. This was a failure also. I tried to boot with this combination at 2.5vdimm and the PC would not even POST. AnandTech has had better luck than I did, apparently. ASUS is currently in the process of developing a new BIOS to combat this issue, and to me it’s a huge issue.

I look at it this way. All C2D (minus the X6800) has a stock FSB of 1066. On a 1:1 ratio, that would make your ram DDR2-1066 or PC2-8500. This is a common memory speed now, and -should- work since many people like running a 1:1. As the state of the BIOS stands, buying an enthusiast kit of ram would be a complete waste because you cannot overclock it to your liking.

As I mentioned, this is a big issue to me and there is really no excuse for it. I am hoping to see a revised BIOS on the market soon, and will update this section once I have it and can relay my experiences.

 

 

Ram rant aside, this is a superb overclocking board otherwise. 86% overclock anyone? Yes, that’s a 3.46GHz speed on a 1.86GHz chip. This speed was benchmark stable, but not Prime95 stable. My absolute 100% stable overclock proved to be 3.33GHz, or a 79% overclock.

The point is not of a huge E6300 overclock though, but the fact that the board handled 495FSB without issue. There are reports around the web from other enthusiasts with this board, who have hit 500 – 515FSB no problem. I believe that would be the max of the board, but that is a huge max! With this type of potential, it means you could “technically” get 4.5GHz out of your E6600, which most likely wouldn’t happen anyway. I think the thing to make clear though, is that it will be the CPU holding back an overclock, not the motherboard.

In the end, I absolutely loved overclocking with this board, but I really hope the ram issue gets sorted out soon. I’ve had my ram at an absolute max of DDR2-990 4-4-4-12-13 with the max chipset voltage, but even a single MHz beyond that point was impossible.

With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the performance results and then our conclusion.


Testing Results and Final Thoughts


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:

The testing rig used for today’s benchmarking is as follows:

That system isn’t really representative of a normal computer, since it’s a true combination of value and high-end parts, but I’m strange like this. This is also the first Core 2 Duo motherboard I’ve reviewed, so I am not going to delve deep into the results, since I really have no basis for comparison. Instead, I am going to go graph-less with this one, and present the results from both the stock speed and also my highest stable overclock. I am also avoiding GPU specific benchmarks for this review, since that will have even less meaning than the benchmarks below.

  •  
      Cinebench

    • Single Thread: 314
    • Multi Thread: 582
      Sciencemark

    • Molecular Dynamics: 83.22s
    • Cipher: 15.25s
      PC Mark 05

    • CPU Score: 4805
      Super Pi 1/4/8

    • 1 Million: 28.938s
    • 4 Million: 2m 26.531s
    • 8 Million: 5m 20.094s
      SANDRA XI

    • Sandra Arithmetic: 17212/11915
    • Sandra Multimedia: 102788/55480
      Everest 3.5

    • CPU Queen: 3788
    • CPU PhotoWorxx: 16309
    • CPU ZLib: 24762
    • FPU Julia: 7137
    • FPU Mandel: 3452
    • FPU SinJulia: 5198
  • 1.866.7MHz 1066FSB / DDR2-800 4-4-4-12-13-2T

  •  
      Cinebench

    • Single Thread: 555
    • Multi Thread: 1025
      Sciencemark

    • Molecular Dynamics: 46.75s
    • Cipher: 8.58s
      PC Mark 05

    • CPU Score: 8522
      Super Pi 1/4/8

    • 1 Million: 17.172s
    • 4 Million: 1m 29.86s
    • 8 Million: 3m 17.016s
      SANDRA XI

    • Sandra Arithmetic: 30707/21101
    • Sandra Multimedia: 183432/98908
      Everest 3.5

    • CPU Queen: 6748
    • CPU PhotoWorxx: 20838
    • CPU ZLib: 44037
    • FPU Julia: 12701
    • FPU Mandel: 6150
    • FPU SinJulia: 9260
  • 3.325.4MHz 1900FSB / DDR2-950 4-4-4-12-13-2T

 

Final Thoughts

 

As you can see from our performance results, this board is not going to hold back. Given the fact that this board retails for $140 and the CPU for $190, there is incredible performance to be seen here. Granted, the setup was water cooled, but it certainly won’t cost you an arm and a leg to get some serious performance nowadays.

In the end, I have to recommend the board despite the quirky DDR2 issues. Bear in mind, if you purchase the board, don’t expect high ram overclocks. You may prefer to wait it out to see what the beta BIOS offers, which “should” take care of these issues. If it does, then this is one explosive motherboard for the price range. While 680i boards retail for $250 at a minimum, you can have this step down for $140 and -still- have your SLI support. Granted the board is not as feature-rich as it’s bigger brother, but we are taking about a product that’s around 45% cheaper.

 


(View Full-Res Image)

 

As it stands, I love this motherboard. Aside from the memory issues, this is a board that even hardcore overclockers will want to give a try. Not too many motherboards will handle up to 500FSB with such ease, but this one does.

Of course there are things that do hold this board back from having a superb score, but even that aside I am awarding the P5N-E an 8 out of 10. There are a few things that I have to quickly gripe about though. There is no heatsink on the MCP chipset.. why? I cannot completely rip the board apart for this though, because it did -not- hold me back from a top overclock. Even with a fan pointing at it, it did me little good. Your situation may be different though. I highly encourage anyone who is planning on big overclocks to purchase a southbridge heatsink, or even place a fan at the bottom of your case to blow air towards it.

Another problem is that whenever I failed an overclock, there was an 80% chance that I would have to get into the computer and play with the BIOS switches in order to reset it. When I reviewed the M2N32-SLI Deluxe board a few months ago, I was impressed by the fact that it was incredibly difficult to completely overdo an overclock. Even if your OC was unstable, it would still boot in order to let you change the settings to something more suitable. That’s not the case here though. I many times had to go into my tower and manually reset the BIOS… which is not only time consuming, but tiresome after doing it 10 times in an evening ;-)

I wholeheartedly believe this board warrants an 8 out of 10 score. If this new BIOS fixes the memory problems as I hope it does, then it will also earn itself an Editors Choice award, but I am withholding that for the time being to see how it plays out. It’s hard to go wrong. I look forward to seeing other 650i motherboards emerge, and intend to take a few for a spin myself to see how they compare to this one.

If you are in the market for a great OC’er now and don’t mind the DDR2 issue, you can feel confident by picking this one up.

 

 


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