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ASUS Crosshair — an Image Model Based on the NVIDIA nForce 590 SLI Chipset

September 5, 2006



Along with inexpensive mainstream and reasonably expensive models, the leading motherboard manufacturers indulge in producing elite models as well. Their sales hardly amount to 500-1000 items (depending on sales and elite properties of the product itself) for the entire life cycle of such a "monster". But such motherboards do their ad/demo job well. Designing them pays off by attracting users' attention to the brand and… less expensive motherboards, which in time absorb the initially-ultimate options.

In order to stress the unique nature of the flagship model based on the nForce 590 SLI chipset, ASUS masterpiece has a proper name instead of a usual alphanumeric designation. The name has a gaming undertone. The term "CĀrosshair" means crosses and circles in the field of a "real" telescopic sight imitating fire-arms in computer games. In the latter case, they excite aesthetic inclinations of users. It has evidently become a decisive factor for giving this name to an exquisite equipped model. ASUS Crosshair is the first model in the series "Republic of Gamers". So we are sure to come across other models in this series.







Of course, such a model cannot do without bells and whistles. The board is equipped with power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons. They are nicely illuminated when a motherboard is connected to a PSU. They are also alight during operation. On the face of it, there are no other illumination elements, like in expensive ECS motherboards. But have a look at the rear panel - it turns out that you can control the illumination! A corresponding button switches the above mentioned mode to illumination with small blue LEDs along the bottom edge of the board. In this mode, the buttons on the motherboard are not backlit anymore and they don't work either. So the second mode is for operation, the first one is for debugging. A tad more practical decoration element — a small LCD display on the rear panel instead of COM and LPT ports (they are not supported by this motherboard) to inform users about POST nuances. When this startup stage is over, it displays time. Rational comments about such devices are useless. You can either be indifferent to them. Or you may want to install them into your computer, like a car owner, who equips it with various bells and whistles that have little (or even negative) effect on speed, but allow to customize the exterior of the favorite car.




PCB layout is generally successful. All connectors are arranged at the edges, SATA cables do not cross full-sized video cards. Peripheral ports concentrated along the last PCI slot can become a formal object for criticism. But on the other hand, three PCI slots allow to arrange PCI cards so that the last port accommodated a much more compact card. Memory modules should be installed in alternate slots.

A group of connectors on the rear panel includes all modern interfaces, such as FireWire, external SATA and S/PDIF Out. It may seem strange at first, because there should be enough room left for the above-mentioned excesses. But ASUS engineers found an original way to free room on the rear panel - they installed analog audio jacks on a separate PCIE card. Of course, the audio codec had to be installed there as well. Theoretically, it might have raised audio quality compared to the integrated layout.

The motherboard uses a cooling system with heat pipes for the chipset and a voltage regulator (it cools all field-effect transistors of the 8-phase voltage regulator, but unfortunately, the contact through a thick thermal layer is not equally good — it's worse for transistors under the center of the heatsink than for those at the ends). Compared to the ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe, the system became more reliable and got the third heatsink for Northbridge. Nevertheless, there is only one fan to be installed on one of the heatsinks in case of water or passive cooling for the CPU. That's justified - the motherboard is stable even without it. Moreover, additional cooling makes sense only for hardcore overclocking.

The 8-phase CPU voltage regulator, which settled in expensive ASUS models, has reached its ideal implementation in this motherboard. As is well known, the point in increasing the number of phases is to make the output signal maximum smooth, which will allow to reduce capacitance of the elements responsible for smoothing surges and to reduce the power dissipation. ASUS Crosshair's voltage regulator does not incorporate capacitors at all! It uses field-effect transistors of the low-profile Infineon OptiMOS 2 series, which are often used in "capacitor-free" converters in notebooks, 2 transistors per channel. On the contrary, chipset and memory voltage regulators are equipped with plenty of capacitors. Besides, they are reinforced with L elements.

The ASUS line already has two models on this chipset. Even the cheaper gaming motherboard (ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe) produces an impression of being rigged to maximum (at least it has no empty seats). The ASUS M2N32 WS is designed for workstations and offers a corresponding set of specific interfaces. Of course, the Crosshair design is also unique and leaves no chances to launch a better equipped model. Motherboard dimensions — standard ATX (305×245 mm), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed.

Even though some innovations are evidently irrational, the motherboard definitely deserves the Original Design award.




System monitoring (ITE IT8716F-S, according to BIOS Setup)

  • Voltages on CPU (core and HT bus separately), memory (power supply voltage and termination voltage), Northbridge and Southbridge (separately for cores, NB 2.5 V and SB PLL), ESATA and LAN PHY controllers, +3.3, +5, and +12 V
  • RPM of 8 fans
  • CPU temperature (onchip sensor) board temperature (onboard sensor), as well as temperature readings from three external sensors connected to the motherboard
  • Fan Speed Control — automatic speed control for fans connected to any (!) of 8 headers depending on CPU temperature (for a CPU cooler), system temperature, or (selected) processor for fans connected to Chassis Fan headers. The speed of other fans depends on temperature readings from corresponding external sensors. The CPU fan is compatible with 3-pin and 4-pin headers. Control logic cannot be changed. You can only specify a desired temperature for the fans connected to the external temperature sensors, which will be maintained by changing their rotational speed. CPU fan speed amounts to 35% of the maximum speed at 30°C, 75% — at 50°C. The maximum rotational speed is reached at 70°C. Full stop is not available.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, officially supports all existing AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX and Sempron processors)
  • 4 x DDR2 SDRAM DIMM (up to 8 GB DDR2-533/667/800, dual-channel mode)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 for video accelerators (both of them always work in x16 mode)
  • 1 x PCIEx4
  • 1 x PCIEx1
  • 3 x PCI
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins), 8-pin EPS12V for a processor (you can use a standard 4-pin ATX12V connector)
  • 1 x FDD
  • IDE (Parallel ATA) for two ATA133 devices — chipset-based
  • 6 x SATA-II (Serial ATA II), chipset-based connectors for six SATA300 devices, which drives can form RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, and JBOD
  • 3 connectors for brackets with 6 additional USB ports
  • Connector for a bracket with an additional FireWire port
  • S/PDIF-Out connector
  • Connector for a chassis intrusion sensor
  • 3 connectors for external temperature sensors
  • 8 fan headers with fan speed control. The CPU header is a 4-pin one with fan speed control. It's back compatible with 3-pin headers.

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





Click the image to open the rear view of this motherboard
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard
  • 1 x coaxial and 1 x optical S/PDIF-Out
  • 1 x FireWire 400 (6-pin), 2 x external Serial ATA II
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)

Connectors on the additional audio card




  • 6 x Analog Audio (Line-In, Front-Out, Mic-In, Center/Sub, Side-Out, Rear-Out)
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector.

Package Contents




  • Package: a tall box with a flip page describing brand features of the motherboard and with windows that show off the motherboard and accessories in a plastic envelope
  • Documentation: User's Manual
  • 6 x Serial ATA cables
  • 3 x SATA power converters for 6 devices
  • 1 x ATA66, 1 x ATA33 for an optical drive, 1 x FDD
  • Rear panel bracket with 2 x USB
  • Rear panel bracket with one FireWire 400 port (6-pin)
  • SLI Bridge
  • ASUS Array Mic — a mike for voice recognition systems (it supports noise filtering and echo suppression)
  • Fan for the heatsink in the cooling system of the chipset and the voltage regulator
  • Seven cable clips
  • Two external temperature sensors



  • The Q-Connector allows you to connect or disconnect chassis front panel cables in one easy step with one complete module. (This unique adapter makes connection quick and accurate.)
  • Leather breloque "Republic of Gamers"



  • Rear panel bracket for connectors with backlit (!) labels
  • CD with drivers and proprietary ASUS utilities
  • InterVideo Media Launcher CD (a suite of programs for creating video and photo DVD, etc; it includes Media One Gallery, InterVideo PhotoAlbum, WinDVD Creator 2 Platinum, DVD Copy 2.5 Platinum, Disc Master 2.5 Platinum).

The set of proprietary utilities includes: ASUS EZ-Flash and ASUS Update (flashing BIOS under Windows, checking for the latest versions from the official web site), PC Probe II and AI Booster (monitoring system parameters, smart fan control, changing CPU clock and multiplier, and configuring most voltages, available from BIOS), Kaspersky Anti-Virus Personal 5.0.527, and Futuremark 3DMark06.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on HDA codec Analog Devices AD1988B, supporting 7.1-ch audio, front line-ins/outs and three S/PDIF-Out jacks, hardware encoding of the outbound stream into DTS format to be played back by home theatres and other consumer electronics that support digital connections
  • 2 x Gigabit Ethernet supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s based on the chipset (supporting hardware firewall, prioritizing traffic, and other proprietary options (read the details in the chipset description) and built-in high-speed interface) and 2 x PHY-controllers Marvell 88E1118-MNC1
  • SATA-II RAID controller, based on Silicon Image SiI3132CNU chip, supporting 2 external ESATA300 devices that can form RAID 0 and 1
  • FireWire, based on the Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A chip, supporting 2 x FireWire.

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0.15, -2.65
Average
Noise level, dB (A):
-92.5
Very good
Dynamic range, dB (A):
90.4
Very good
THD, %:
0.0046
Very good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.015
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-89.6
Excellent
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.011
Very good

General performance: Very good (details). Our impressions of the worthy test results that depend on the level of noise and distortions, are spoilt by the frequency response roll-off at low frequencies. We can only establish a fact that placing the codec on a separate card is good per se, but this design has a significant drawback. We always repeat that a built-in (or bundled) audio controller is not a relevant option for elite models. A sterling audio card "looks" much better in a computer with this expensive motherboard. But as the motherboard is still equipped with audio support (in this case, a user has to pay for it more than for a traditional integrated solution), we'd like to avoid such mishaps.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • Fanless Design — a common cooling system for the chipset and the voltage regulator; it uses heat pipes to get rid of fans on the motherboard operating in the standard mode
  • The 8-phase voltage regulator for the processor without capacitors
  • PEG Link Mode — automatic overclocking of PCI-Express bus depending on video card's requirements to the additional bandwidth (4 modes are available), this feature can be used with any card. This motherboard also features LinkBoost mode supported by the chipset (only for video cards with NVIDIA GPUs)
  • AI NOS (Non-Delay Overclocking System) — dynamic overclocking of a processor depending on its load. The clock grows only under maximum CPU load, the rest of the time it operates at its standard clock (or at the clock, reduced by the Cool’n’Quiet driver)
  • AI Skew adaptively skews the memory clock signal timing, thus improving memory overclocking capability
  • AI Net 2 — both network controllers automatically detect a damaged cable - LAN Cable Status option in BIOS
  • CPU Parameter Recall — when the system hangs due to overclocking failure, it automatically rolls back to default frequency settings in BIOS
  • EZ-Flash 2 and CrashFree BIOS 3 — flashing BIOS without booting into OS and updating BIOS automatically from a flash-drive after a flash failure
  • BIOS Profile — you can store BIOS settings in CMOS memory or in a separate file so that you can easily restore a good profile or exchange settings with other users
  • Music Alarm — a computer can be used as an alarm-clock; you can use any musical track from a CD as a signal
  • LCD Poster — built-in POST indicator

Settings

Jumpers and switches CMOS Write Protect jumper  
Four buttons: power, reboot, clear CMOS, and backlight options  
AWARD BIOS v6.00PG Controlling specific functions of the platform + K8 Cool’n’Quiet
AMD Live!
SLI-Ready Memory
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, RAS to CAS Delay, Row Precharge Time, Min RAS Active Time, AI Clock Skew, Row to Row Delay, Row Cycle Time, Row Refresh Cycle, Read-To-Write Time, and a great choice of additional memory settings
Memory frequency selection + 400, 533, 667, 800 (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + Multiplier for both buses (forward and backward directions are configures separately for the Northbridge-Southbridge bus) CPU-Northbridge (x1—x5 at integer steps) and capacity (8 bit or 16 bit) for the CPU-Northbridge bus and 4, 8, 16 bit for the Northbridge-Southbridge bus and accurate control of the clock frequency of the Northbridge-Southbridge bus (200—400 MHz at 1 MHz steps)
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCIEx16 = 100—200 MHz at 1 MHz steps (for both graphics ports separately)
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 200—400 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from x5, at integer steps
CPU core voltage control + There is an option to raise voltage for each intermediate VID value, used by a Cool’n’Quiet-controlled processor — from 0.85V—0.95V to 1.75V—1.85V at 0.1V steps (voltage within each interval can be changed at 0.00625V steps)
Memory voltage control + 1.850V—3.425V at 0.025V steps, voltages at the controller and memory terminators are configured separately (-0.050V—+0.150V at 0.050V steps) and a clock frequency of the controller (-0.100V, +0.050V, +0.100V, +0.150V) for both memory channels separately (relative to the memory clock divided by two). There is also a separate section with Drive Strength settings to configure signals that run along the memory bus
Chipset voltage control + 1.200—1.575V at 0.025V steps for Northbridge
1.500—1.875V at 0.025V steps and PLL voltage (1.50V—1.85V at 0.05V steps) for Southbridge
HT bus voltage control + 1.200V—1.575V at 0.025V steps for the CPU-Northbridge bus

We used BIOS 0121 dated 24.07.06, the latest release at the time of our tests. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested.

This deluxe model from ASUS again offers mediocre options for raising CPU voltages — you cannot raise it above 1.85V. To be more exact, voltage settings for each VID value are unique. They help resolve the problem of computer freezes (due to insufficient idle CPU voltage) in case of insignificant overclocking accompanied by activating Cool’n’Quiet. But you'd better use AI N.O.S. mode in this case. It allows to raise the frequency only under maximum CPU load (sort of anti-throttling). When idle, the frequency gets back to normal and to reduced values at the driver's command. This mode still allows users to overclock by 3, 5, 7 and 10%. But there has appeared a new parameter - Sensitivity (normal or reduced) to increase operating stability and to eliminate CPU micro-overclocking in case of short-term loads.

But hardcore overclockers (there will certainly be many of them among buyers of this card) prefer to overclock their processors manually. And it cannot be done without raising the nominal voltage much higher than the standard value. It should also be noted that the abundance of minor parameters looks impressive. But from the practical point of view, they will help only people well grounded in computers. Cycling through the parameters experimentally, or especially setting all options to maximum will not lead to good results.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+
  • Memory: 2 x 1 GB Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 (standard mode: DDR2-1066, 5-5-5-15; the mode we used in our tests: DDR2-800, 5-5-5-15-1T)
  • Discrete video: ATI Radeon X1900 XTX, 512 MB GDDR3
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec CFT-560-A12C
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We decided to compare the model under review with a simple elite model on the same chipset - ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe.

Test ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe ASUS Crosshair
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 6:34 6:35
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:04 5:58
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 77.7 79.1
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 73.5 75.0
FarCry (Low@640x480), fps 174 180
FarCry (Highest@1600x1200), fps 130 134

ASUS engineers managed to give an insignificant advantage to this elite model. But you shouldn't really expect deviations in its performance that will make you prefer this motherboard to another from the practical point of view. The only point in testing motherboard performance of the AMD64 platform today is to determine possible flaws in a given motherboard and its BIOS, which may result in performance deviations from the standard level that depends only on a given CPU and memory.

Bottom line

ASUS engineers did a great job, if their objective was to amaze users and to attract their attention to the brand. Despite the high price, limited make quantity, and several unfortunate mistakes (in the implementation of the audio support and CPU voltage settings in BIOS), the motherboard will find its buyers among ASUS fans as well as among those who are crazy about their computers and are ready to indulge themselves with luxurious components from time to time. Besides, ASUS can use this model as a prize during its marketing events.

This model on the manufacturer's web site

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer





Dmitry Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
September 4, 2006.


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