Even though the nForce 680a chipset has been launched already, nForce 590 SLI is still the leading chipset for Socket AM2 — in other words, motherboards based on this chipset are the most rigged retail offers (for early March, 2007). Active promotion of nForce 680a and its competitor-to-be from AMD with similar functions, as well as Quad FX on the whole, generally depends on the launch of AMD quad-core processors. They will certainly be more interesting to the target audience of such systems, who is keen on breaking records, than modern dual-core Athlon 64 FX processors of the 70th series. Prices are not important, because the radical philosophy rarely takes into account such a boring factor as the price/performance ratio.
At the same time, nForce 590 SLI-based motherboards are getting more and more practical: initially high prices are going down, and the cost of these functional motherboards has become quite attractive. It goes without saying that there is a point in buying a motherboard with SLI support (especially based on the top chipset) only if you are interested in modern 3D games or if you build a graphical station and need expanded peripheral functionality of this chipset. Otherwise, you may have cheaper options. What concerns performance, no matter how hard marketing guys try to prove otherwise, a video card still remains the true bottleneck of modern games (to be more exact, capacity of the GPU to process pixel shaders).
If you have a High-End video card (or even a SLI system), you can play games no matter whether you have a processor for $250 or $500. The inverse is also true — if you save on a video card, you'll have to reduce video settings accordingly, regardless of your CPU. Now what concerns the comparison of competing platforms. Equally-priced Core 2 Duo and Athlon 64 X2 processors demonstrate similar performance. But if you compare platforms in general, you'll find out that motherboards with nForce 590 SLI-like functions for AMD are always cheaper than those for Intel.
However, we are not going to persuade our readers, we'll test motherboards and draw conclusions. We have tested many nForce 590 SLI-based motherboards. So this article will sum our reviews up.
Brief comparative characteristics of all motherboards under review are provided in a summary table below:
On the face of it, these motherboards are similar in terms of main interfaces. But there are some nuances: for example, as AMD upgraded to DDR2, the maximum memory capacity supported by motherboards differs much — from 8 GB to 32 GB in our contenders. Strange as it may seem, the maximum value is supported by the ECS KN3 SLI2 (mediocre model in other parameters), but not by the ASUS M2N32 WS Professional, although it's intended for workstations.
Along with the mandatory couple of PCI Express x16 slots, Gigabyte M59SLI-S5 also has one more full-size slot. According to specs, it's PCI Express x8. But in reality, it has only four PCI Express lanes. The additional slot can be used for the third video card in a multi-monitor configuration. It may also come in handy in future for asymmetric SLI configurations, where the third video card will be used for computing physics in games. The ascetic model from Foxconn is nevertheless equipped with an interesting FireWire controller compatible with IEEE1394a and IEEE1394b specifications. The port with doubled throughput is installed on the rear panel, and the standard ports can be installed on bundled brackets.
Even though the chipset allows to connect up to six SATA and two PATA devices, most motherboards are equipped with an additional controller. Along with the traditional addition, the most rigged-up motherboards ASUS M2N32 WS Professional and ECS KN3 SLI2 have an additional PATA connector in the line of SATA connectors. It makes them more attractive to owners of good IDE devices, which should be preserved after upgrade.
While the ASUS Crosshair motherboard for enthusiasts is not equipped with such legacy components as LPT- and COM-ports, the other motherboards still have them. And the TPM connector (for a hardware storage of passwords and other IDs) is not widely spread so far. If you like to watch the status of hot components (HDD, video card, converters in a PSU), you'll like external thermal sensors, which can be used with ASUS Crosshair.
CPU overclocking options, including voltage control and other tweaks, are available in all our motherboards. But the best choice is certainly offered by BIOS in ASUS Crosshair. All contenders support both brand features of the chipset — choosing optimal memory timings from the extended EPP in Corsair modules for overclockers (this technology may also spread to products from other companies) and NVIDIA LinkBoost. The second technology automatically raises frequencies of graphical buses and the HT bus, when you install a couple of video cards based on top GPUs from NVIDIA. However, most motherboards allow manual control of these bus frequencies, so you can use this feature for any video card.
Our leaders in gaming performance are ASUS Crosshair and Gigabyte M59SLI-S5. MSI K9N Diamond shoots forward in computational tests (if this word is appropriate for several percents of difference). Differences between graphical interfaces are evident (of course, they are insignificant, even hardly noticeable in practice). But what concerns detecting minor timings (the main timings are fixed in our tests), all motherboards are in a similar position. This fact is also confirmed by results in Unreal Tournament 2004 — this game is critical to memory settings.
Testing the integrated audio quality
The best analog audio section is used in the MSI motherboard. The advantage is illustrative (including subjective audition). Another interesting fact: motherboards with relatively narrower dynamic range (Foxconn and Gigabyte) demonstrate flatter frequency response than the others (among HDA codecs). We were surprised by the ragged results of the ASUS Crosshair and by the differences in results of three motherboards with Analog Devices AD1988B. If you like to connect a computer to consumer electronics via a digital channel, you'll be pleased to have on-the-fly encoding of a multi-channel stream into DTS and Dolby Digital formats. This feature is supported by motherboards with Analog Devices AD1988B, Realtek ALC882D and ALC888D decoders.
Roundups of motherboards on top chipsets rarely reveal explicit leaders and outsiders. But marketing specialists from each company still manage to single out their products. If we consider prices, the following models fight for the title of the most economic choice - ECS and Foxconn motherboards (the latter is a reference motherboard for nForce 590 SLI; you can come across the same motherboards from BFG, EVGA, and some other companies). The ECS model attracts users with its luxurious bundle and an additional IDE channel. Foxconn's bundle is not as good, but this motherboard supports FireWire 800 and digital output of multichannel audio to Dolby Digital.
Gigabyte's model is positioned higher. It's equipped with a passive chipset cooling system with heat pipes and an additional graphics port. ASUS and MSI compete in High-End class. Along with an offer to save on an external sound card (even some hard-driving users will be pleased with it), MSI highlights the elite nature of its product (the Diamond model comes with a "club card", which can be used to register on the official web site and get a special BIOS with extended overclocking options and enhanced performance). And ASUS offers three models for different target audiences. All the three come with passive cooling systems of different configurations. But they need practically no additional ventilation even in overclocked mode under load - that's what differs them from more compact designs from Gigabyte and MSI. The latter require at least indirect ventilation from a CPU fan even in the standard operating mode. Nevertheless, to get excellent overclocking results, you should get a CPU cooler, which can also blow at chipset heatsinks in all cases (fortunately, they are rather close to each other). M2N32-SLI Deluxe and M2N32 WS Professional are equipped with a 8-ch power converter for a processor. The idea of stable power supply is perfected in Crosshair (there are no capacitors at all). There are some interesting brand options - PCI-ports in the professional model, Wi-Fi adapter in the Deluxe model. And you should really see the Crosshair "in flesh", a brief description is useless.
Dmitry Laptev (firstname.lastname@example.org)
April 17, 2007
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