ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe

Author: Tom K
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, June 22nd, 2006
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/asus_m2n32-sli_deluxe/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

With the recent unveiling of AMD's Socket AM2 platform, we are starting to see a barrage of new motherboards popping up all over the place. NVIDIA was the first to join the AM2 fray with their nForce 5XX series chipsets, and we're seeing the results of that early start with the presence of the third nForce 590 SLI motherboard in our lab today.

Enter ASUS' M2N32-SLI Deluxe edition.

AMD's Socket AM2 review kits originally shipped with a pre-production sample of the M2N32-SLI, sporting a revision number of 1.02G. With the exception of a few cables and other odds and ends, the pre-production M2N32 shipped with nary an accessory. As such, we opted to get ahold of a retail, final sample of the board before committing to a review -- and here we are today, armed with a revision 1.03G board.

While the boards themselves look physically identical (short of a change of  heatsink color), we got the impression that this newer revision is more reliable when it comes to overclocking. Bill is the resident overclocking aficionado, and he reports that the new revision can be taken much further as far as the memory bus is concerned. The first revision of the M2N32-SLI, along with the BIOS that it shipped to us with, was not very overclocking-friendly. It overclocked rather poorly, and did not exhibit the rock-solid fail-over that we are used to from ASUS boards.

On the other hand, the Foxconn C51XEM2AA overclocked much better out-of-the-box, and we were about to lose hope in the M2N32-SLI as a result of that. Shortly after receiving the 1.02G M2N32-SLI, ASUS sent us an updated BIOS that literally opened a cornucopia of overclocking capability. The new board revision follows through with this even further, to the extent that Bill is now jokingly calling the 1.03G M2N32-SLI the "God board".

We've probably made you salivate enough, so without further ado, let's tear things open!

The Board

At first glance, ASUS' M2N32-SLI's layout doesn't appear to be anything special -- until you do a double-take and start noticing its nuances.

For instance ... six of its SATA ports are grouped tightly together, the RAM slots are placed horizontally across the top of the board, the area around the CPU socket is rather barren, and there is a massive cooling contraption linking together the CPU's power supply components, and running to the north bridge and then to the south bridge.

 

Let's start with ASUS' heatpipe-based cooling solution. The goal of this system is clearly to remove heat from the high-output components on the motherboard -- namely, the CPU's voltage regulators, and the notoriously-hot nForce 590 SLI north bridge. Moving heat away from these components increases their life span and stability, as well as aiding in overclocking.

It sounds good -- at least on paper. There is some controversy surrounding motherboard cooling systems of this sort however, and it can be summarized with a simple question: Once removed, where do the heatpipes carry this heat? By looking at the heatpipe implementation as it is on the M2N32-SLI, it's clear that while the heatsink fins over the voltage regulators do help out with dissipation, the system as a whole simply serves to "even out" the hotspots on the motherboard. Hotter components are cooled down, while components that normally don't heat up very much gain some heat. While I'll reserve judgement before I'm privy to the hard facts, it's probably safe to assume that the system as a whole serves its purpose to some extent.

Fans of over-sized coolers will either love or hate this motherboard -- depending on their cooler of choice. While the area around the CPU socket is barren, as mentioned, the heatsink/heatpipe contraption over the voltage regulator sections could present clearance problems for coolers that overhang in those directions. Otherwise, there is plenty of room, and no tall capacitors to get in the way of installation/clipping.

Next up, let's take a peek at connectivity. ASUS is not being skimpy, and they're attempting to leverage all of the nForce 590's major features. This include six nForce-hosted SATA ports, in addition to a seventh SATA and one eSATA thanks to a Silicon Image Sil3132 controller. Dual Gigabit Ethernet is a no-brainer, and 7.1-channel high-definition audio with both analog and digital coax/optical outputs rounds out the multimedia side of things.

Continuing on, we see two PCI-Express x16 slots with a true 16 lanes of bandwidth to each slot. SLI support is a given, considering the chipset. In addition to those slots, we also have one PCI-Express x4 slot, as well as three legacy PCI slots. Unfortunately, with a double-height video card installed in the first PCI-E x16 slot, the PCI-E x4 slot becomes inaccessible. I would have preferred to sacrifice two legacy PCI slots in a double-height SLI setup, leaving me one PCI and one PCI-E, rather than leaving me just two PCIs.

Fans of IDE storage devices will be disappointed to learn that the M2N32-SLI sports only a single IDE connector -- a limitation of the nForce 5XX series. Those two additional native SATA ports (nForce 4 features only four, as opposed to six in nForce 5XX) have cost us the secondary IDE channel. We've still got the floppy drive connector, but I have a feeling that even that will begin to be phased out within the next year or two.

On the hot-pluggable peripheral front, the M2N32-SLI takes advantage of all ten of the USB interfaces present on the nForce 590 chipset. Four USB ports are provided on the rear I/O panel, while six are in the form of pin headers on the board. Two Firewire 400 ports also grace the M2N32-SLI, one in the form of a physical port, and the second as a set of pins.

No modern home-entertainment PC would be complete without some form of wireless network access, and the M2N32-SLI has that covered with its 802.11g wireless card. It is provided as a removable add-in card, but it rides off a block of standard USB pin headers. While it is a physically proprietary addition due to its having to be plugged in to the specially-located USB pins, it should be relatively easy to turn this card into a removable USB WiFi adapter with a pin-to-plug PCB.

Lastly, we have a peculiarity worthy of mention: Seven fan headers. One of those is an Intel-style four-pin fan header for the CPU (which all of our AM2 boards to date have featured), while the other six are three-pin style. I believe this motherboard sets a record for the number of fan headers.

The Bundle

In my experience, I've found that it's rather difficult to go wrong with an ASUS motherboard bundle -- especially when it comes to their Deluxe edition motherboards. I'm pleased to report that ASUS has not dropped the ball this time around, and as usual, there are plenty of goodies packed away in that innocent-looking box.

Starting with the basics, we have a boatload of SATA-related cables: three power adapters featuring two SATA plugs each, and six SATA data cables. Six and six -- check. The rear I/O brackets pictured above are responsible for providing one Firewire port and two USB ports. Personally, I would have liked to see four USB ports on one bracket, as opposed to two -- especially since there are six USB ports provided through pins on the M2N32-SLI.

We can't forget the other staples of a motherboard bundle. The 80-conductor IDE cable, a floppy cable, the rear I/O shield, and a flexible SLI ribbon are all provided. Manuals and driver CDs are also all there.

Moving on to the more interesting stuff, we have three typically-ASUS toys. The first is a unique-looking WiFi antenna that is designed to be used with the provided wireless card on the M2N32-SLI. The center peg of the antenna rotates upwards 90 degrees, while the circular base acts as a stand.

The fan in the photo above is designed to be clipped on to one of the heatsink blocks on the M2N32-SLI's cooling system, but its purpose is a tad shady. The warning included in the fan pouch reads "Installing the optional fan with an active CPU Cooler will interfere with internal CPU cooler airflow and endanger system stability." ASUS recommends that the fan be used only in conjunction with passive/water CPU coolers. I suppose they assume that the hot air being blown out of the CPU heatsink will serve to create some kind of heat-removing airflow over the leftmost heatsink block, and their optional fan will disturb this.

Lastly, ASUS has thrown in a "soundMAX Superbeam" array microphone. Both ends of this microphone sport a receiver, and the audio jack conducts a stereo signal. The idea behind array microphones mimics the design of our ears and the signal processing our brains do. With multiple "receivers", our brain can concentrate on the principle sound that we want to listen to, and effectively "cancel out" extraneous noise -- even if the source of the sound is moving around.

The Superbeam microphone, aided by some software installed on your computer, filters out noise and "listens" to the primary source of the sound (you), even if you're moving around. Our editor, Redemption, heard this in action on the noisy Computex show floor, and reported that it did a great job at that.

That sums it up for the board and bundle! Let's take a look at the M2N32's BIOS now.

ASUS' M2N32-SLI motherboard follows ASUS' typical BIOS design. We've covered this on many occasions, so let's just get down to the nitty-gritty.

On the surface, things don't look so special. Digging deeper, we start to uncover an insane amount of tweaking capabilities.

The most impressive tuning is by far on the memory front, where I saw more memory options than on any other motherboard to date. Not being a memory engineer, I can't even begin to describe what most of these options do, but rest assured ... they're there, and if you have a knack for DDR2 tweaking, this is your board.

Moving on, we can see that the rest of the BIOS' overclocking options are not much different from what we've seen on previous S939 ASUS motherboards. The change to AM2 brings with it very little as far as overclocking techniques are concerned. Everything you could possibly want as an enthusiast is here -- yes, even BIOS profiles, though admittedly I forgot to take a photo of that screen.

Lately, I've come to like NVIDIA's reference BIOS design (as seen on the Foxconn C51XEM2AA") quite significantly, and while there were elements of that design present in the M2N32-SLI's BIOS (like "Current value" columns), it's hard to give it a 100% score if it can be done better.

In any case, aesthetics and layout aside, this BIOS is still exceptionally flexible, and the tweaker inside you will not be disappointed. I'd say it's about time for some testing -- how about you?

We used the following hardware for testing of the ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe:

The ASUS M2N32-SLI will be duking it out two other AM2 boards that we have around:

The M2N32-SLI is up against two other competitors that sport the same chipset. Unless ASUS has botched the design of the M2N32-SLI, resulting in serious performance degradation, we will probably find that these motherboards all fall in the same ballpark.

For now, here is a listing of the tests performed:

Drivers used were NVIDIA ForceWare version 84.21 and NVIDIA nForce 590 version 9.34 drivers. Let's get on with the testing!

Note: To save you from boredom, and to save myself some time, I won't bother discussing results that don't exhibit anomalies. There is no point in stating that Product A performed the same as Products B and C, when that much is obvious by looking at the graph.

PC Magazine Business Winstone 2004

The Foxconn board seems to have a bit of an edge here, but that's about it.

PC Magazine Multimedia Content Creation 2004

SiSoft Sandra Memory Bandwidth

WinRAR

HDTach

TMPGEnc MPEG2 Encoding

XviD Encoding

LAME MP3 Encoding

RightMark Audio

RightMark Audio results for all three of these motherboards are somwhat botched. First of all, the Foxconn and Gigabyte products would not successfully complete the 2D audio test. I will look into the reasons for this in the future -- possibly a newer version of RightMark Audio will alleviate the issue. Second, the ASUS M2N32-SLI refused to provide a hardware-accelerated audio interface, which explains its slightly higher CPU utilization in the 3D test, and its inability to run the 3D + EAX test. Our other two motherboards use a Realtek HD audio codec, while the M2N32-SLI makes use of a SoundMAX codec.

Call of Duty

The M2N32-SLI's result of 0 is due to its inability to do EAX audio, as described on the previous page.

Doom 3

Comanche 4

Halo

I tested and re-tested the Gigabyte board, but each and every time I received the same Halo score. I'll chalk this up to the occasional unpredictability of Windows and PC hardware in general.

Jedi Academy

Unreal Tournament 2004

Overclocking

The ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe has turned out to be one screaming monster of an overclocker. Let the highest achievable settings speak for themselves:

It's rare that we see such percentage increases when overclocking a motherboard. I think that with some higher-end cooling, and a few chipset voltage increases, this board can be capable of a whole lot more. For now, ASUS ought to be proud of their 80% overclock. Let's take a look at some quick benchmarks:

I don't think I have to say anything more. This truly does raise the bar for any future Socket AM2 boards that we will review.

Final Thoughts

The ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe has left me with a positive attitude regarding the transition to Socket AM2. This board is stable, fast, and extremely tweakable. It feels like a third- or fourth-generation product, rather than a first-generation product, and that is a testament to ASUS' engineering prowess.

I did come across a few kinks in the cloth, but they are all related to the onboard SoundMAX audio. The lack of hardware-accelerated 3D sound and EAX will severely detract from the gaming experience, unless a third-party sound card is purchased. ASUS should have gone with a tried-and-true Realtek HD audio codec, as their competitors are doing, but they opted for an alternative probably because they wanted to bundle the SoundMAX Superbeam array mic along with the board. That decision has come back to bite them, unfortunately.

On the other hand, problems with onboard audio are relatively easy to get over. I would be much more concerned if the M2N32-SLI was unstable, exhibited performance anomalies, or if the BIOS was completely user-unfriendly. No such things here, and there is nothing to say about the M2N32-SLI other than that it is rock-solid -- and showing off some serious, serious overclocking firepower. A future board revision could easily swap out the less-impressive audio codec with a proven solution, and at that point I would have no option other than to give it a hypothetical "100%".

ASUS has once again impressed me with a dependable piece of hardware. If you're out on the prowl for a brand-new AM2 system, and you've got your sights set on good design, boatloads of features, and overclocking mastery, the ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe should be one of the first on your list -- just don't forget to pick up an Audigy or X-Fi card to go along with it if you plan to do some gaming.

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