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EPoX 8NPA SLI — a combination of two PCI Express x16 slots and one... Socket 754

November 28, 2005



NVIDIA consistently expands the limits of its SLI, both upwards, by launching nForce4 SLI X16 chipset, and downwards (first of all by adding video cards to the SLI compatible list of models on 6600 and 6600LE GPUs). It goes without saying that there is no point in buying initially two low-end cards instead of one, on a par to their joined performance. No one is going to persuade you to do it. But if your budget is limited to only one inexpensive video card, reserving an option to reinforce the video system in future by adding another such card may be a good idea. But only under condition that you won't have to pay the sum, sufficient for a solo video card of the latest generation. This condition requires an inexpensive SLI motherboard, supporting budget processors, which are usually installed on such computers.

EPoX published another advantage of the 8NPA SLI motherboard (Socket 754) in the ad, included into the bundle — maximum ratio between gaming performance and price for a limited budget gamer. The company offers to reach this ratio by assembling a computer on this motherboard with a couple of 6600GT/6800LE video cards. Indeed, you can get a bonus in games that load mostly video cards by reinforcing the graphics system at the cost of the platform. Especially as the top Socket 754 processor (Sempron 3400+) and still available Athlon 64 processors with a single-channel memory controller can certainly manage any modern game. But let's drop the immense issue of assembling a balanced configuration and proceed to the review of this EPoX motherboard.




The motherboard is based on the full-featured version of nForce4 SLI chipset (HyperTransport is limited to 800 MHz only to conform to Socket 754 processors), and so the choice of peripheral interfaces surpasses the budget level. At the same time, despite the narrow PCB, it does not look overcrowded with additional controllers, all the functions are provided by the chipset. Both PCI Express x16 slots always work in 8x mode irregardless of the number of installed video accelerators, the number of lines cannot be changed. You just have to activate SLI in drivers to enable this mode (if you unite low end cards, which do not support SLI Bridge, you'll need Detonator 77.77 or higher). Interestingly, a single card can be installed to the first as well as to the second slot. It will have no effect on the performance, though the documentation states otherwise. An only shortcoming of the motherboard is its two memory slots. But considering the lack of dual-channel mode, you don't have to buy two modules at once. So the majority of users will be satisfied, even if they plan to upgrade the memory capacity in future.

On the whole, the PCB layout is good. We can find fault only with the power connectors, located in the center: it's a technically good solution (it reduces the distance between these power connectors and CPU voltage regulators, PCI Express lines, etc), but power cables impede air cooling of the processor and power unit components. Besides, the only jumper (clear CMOS) is covered by the cooling system of the second video card. Brief description of this jumper is provided on the PCB.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates two filed-effect transistors per channel, six 3300 uF and three 1500 uF capacitors. The memory voltage regulator is reinforced with L-elements. All capacitors are from respectable Rubycon. There are no empty seats on the motherboard. So far, it's the only model from EPoX with this combination of a chipset and a processor socket, so its PCB layout is unique. Motherboard dimensions — 305×225 mm (narrow ATX), seven-screw mount, the nearest edge is "poised in the air" on the level of storage drive connectors.

System monitoring (Fintek F71872F LPC, according to BIOS Setup)

  • Processor, memory, chipset, battery voltages, +5 V and +12 V, as well as +5 V and +3 V Standby
  • RPM of 3 fans
  • CPU and board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)
  • SmartFan Function — automatic CPU fan speed control depending on CPU temperature.

Developed SmartFan menu allows to set up advanced control of the CPU cooler activity. It offers three temperature thresholds, each with its own configurable rotational speed (percents of the maximum speed):

  • intensive cooling (in case of heavy operation or a CPU temperature rise due to other reasons, for example, because of the increased temperature inside the PC case) — 75—100% of the maximum fan speed;
  • low-noise (working under load), in this mode you'd better configure the CPU fan speed so that it's barely audible in a closed PC case on the background of the overall humming — 50—75%;
  • idle fan (idle operation, when the clock and voltage of the processor are constantly at the minimum due to Cool’n’Quiet); here you specify a CPU temperature threshold, which, when exceeded, starts the fan in the low-noise mode. In practice, you can keep the box cooler stopped, until the core temperature exceeds 45—50°C. But the best way is to determine the temperature experimentally and specify a lower value, in order to minimize "false fan operation", but so that the cooler had time to spin up and to cool the CPU after starting heavy applications, avoiding emergency shutdown.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket 754, supports AMD Sempron/Athlon 64 up to 3700+)
  • 2 x DDR SDRAM DIMM (up to 2 GB of DDR200/266/333/400, single-channel mode)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 for video accelerators (both of them always work in x8 mode)
  • 2 x PCIEx1
  • 2 x PCI
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins) and 4-pin ATX12V to power a processor
  • 1 x FDD
  • 2 x IDE (Parallel ATA) for 4 ATA133 devices — chipset-based
  • 4 x SATA-II (Serial ATA II) for 4 SATA300 devices — chipset-based, these hard drives can form RAID 0, 1 or 0+1
  • 3 connectors for brackets with 6 additional USB ports
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • AUX-In connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • 1 x standard IrDA connector
  • 3 fan headers (two of them offer rpm control, CPU fan header supports "advanced" automatic rpm control).

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 S/PDIF-Out, 1 x LPT, 1 x COM
  • 2 x USB
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 3 x Analog Audio (Line-in, Line-out, MIC-in; they switch to Rear, Front and Center/Sub in 5.1 mode).

Package Contents




  • Package: a box in red-and-white colors, a common design for "nForce4 SLI for AMD Athlon 64" motherboards
  • Documentation: User's manual and an insert with the scheme of motherboard connectors
  • Cables: 2 x SATA (with a power converter), 1 x ATA66, and 1 x FDD cable
  • Rear panel bracket with 2 x USB
  • SLI Bridge
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with EPoX drivers and utilities.

The standard set of utilities includes: EPoX Thunder Probe (monitoring system parameters and SmartFan mode settings), MagicScreen (personal bootup screen design), and Magic Flash (BIOS update under Windows, capable of searching and downloading the latest version from the official web site).

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on the AC'97 codec Realtek ALC655, supporting 5.1 surround sound audio with front line-in/out and S/PDIF-Out jacks
  • Network, based on the chipset and PHY controller Vitesse VSC8201RX, supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s and ActiveArmor (see the details in the chipset description).

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the Terratec DMX 6fire sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0,22, -0,38
Good
Noise level, dB (A):
-82,4
Good
Dynamic range, dB (A):
83.8
Good
THD, %:
0.045
Good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.132
Average
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-81,9
Very good
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.189
Average

General performance: Good (Details).

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities




  • Onboard Post-Port LED display — the motherboard shows POST codes (the manual contains a detailed description of each code) helping determine startup problems
  • EZ-Button — there are two buttons on the board (power and reset) to turn the system on/off easily, when the motherboard is not installed into a PC case (special thanks to EPoX from testers).

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper  
In AwardBIOS v6.00PG from Phoenix Allows to disable specific CPU functions + K8 Cool'n'Quiet
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, RAS to CAS Delay, Min RAS Active Time, Row Precharge Time, Row to Row Delay, Write Recovery Time, Write to Read Delay, Row Cycle Time, Row Refresh Cycle, Read-To-Write Time, Refresh Rate, Read Preamble Value, Async Latency Value, Idle Cycle Limit, Dynamic Idle Cycle Counter, R/W Queue Bypass Count, Bypass Max, DQS Skew Control
Memory frequency selection + Auto, DDR200, DDR266, DDR333, DDR400, DDR433, DDR466, DDR500 (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + frequency (Auto, 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000 MHz) and capacity (8 bit or 16 bit)
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCI-E(PCI×3) = 100—145 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 200 — 450 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from x4, at integer steps
CPU core voltage control + +0.025—0.15 V at 0.025V steps
Memory voltage control + 2.5—3.2 V at 0.1V steps
Chipset voltage control + 1.5—1.8 V at 0.1V steps

We used BIOS dated 14.09.05, the latest available BIOS version 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.

There is a load menu function, which allows to choose a boot device to startup a system without modifying BIOS Setup, if you press Esc at startup. Interestingly, the system prompts at startup whether the order of boot devices in BIOS was modified and asks for a confirmation. Timings and memory frequency are conveniently highlighted on the bootup screen, Magic Health window is also located there (at the bottom of the screen), which displays temperatures, rpms, voltages — everything offered by system monitoring.

Any memory modules were set to 333 MHz 2T mode by default, while the other timings were detected correctly (by SPD)! Fortunately, 8NPA SLI allowed to correct this mistake by switching to 1T and 400 MHz manually. Besides our elite Corsair modules, the motherboard detected standard timings and passed tests with ValueRAM from Kingston (2 x 512 MB DDR400 2.5-3-3-7). We should note that BIOS supports additional memory multipliers, introduced by AMD in the latest generation of 90-nm cores (San Diego, Venice, and Palermo). Thus, we can "legally" use our Sempron 3400+ with DDR500 memory modules, retaining other standard parameters.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: AMD Sempron 3400+ (64-bit, Socket 754)
  • Memory: 2 x Corsair XMS3200 TwinX (DDR400, 2-2-2-5)
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Video card: ATI Radeon X800 XT, 256 MB DDR
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec GPS-400AA
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We have taken for comparison a motherboard on nForce4-4x chipset with Socket 754 from Elitegroup (ECS), as the "formally" closest model in our stock.

Test ECS NFORCE4-A754 (NVIDIA nForce4-4x) EPoX 8NPA SLI (NVIDIA nForce4 SLI)
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 9:08 9:04
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:05 6:03
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 56.6 55.8
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 52.2 52.0
Doom3 (Low@640x480), fps 86.3 86.1
Doom3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 49.0 50.7

Obviously, we cannot say anything original about EPoX 8NPA SLI performance. Thanks to the option to specify minimum memory timings (and not least the 1T/2T Command Rate parameter), it takes the highest possible level for this configuration (processor/memory/video card).

Bottom line: it's definitely an original and interesting model due to the combination of a budget CPU socket and SLI support. But how large will the "Value SLI" niche be (according to the official EPoX segmentation of its models, a system unit based on this motherboard must be below $389)? We should also note the rich functionality, support for the "proprietary" option of the nForce4 SLI chipset — firmware firewall for the gigabit network adapter, as well as SATA-II and developed RAID modes. In fact, this model lacks only FireWire to get to the high-end level. BIOS settings will please fans of manual configuration of frequencies and timings.

This model on the manufacturer's web site

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer





Dmitry Vladimirovich (lpt@inbox.ru)
November 25, 2005.



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