Dual-PCIe mobo: ASUS A8N SLI Deluxe

If you want the absolute latest technology you can muster, then look no further than ASUS's new Socket-939-based motherboard - the A8N SLI Deluxe. It has an unprecedented amount of connectivity and should offer great performance for a few years. It's based on the NVIDIA nForce4 SLI MCP chipset, which finally brings PCI Express (PCIe) graphics to the AMD platform, and not only that, it actually has two PCIe graphics slots that support the much anticipated SLI (Scalable Link Interface) function.

Taking advantage of the SLI function requires the installation of two identical (make and model) SLI-capable NVIDIA-based graphics cards (either 6600GT or 6800 chipset-based cards), that are then connected together using the supplied connector. The A8N SLI Deluxe must also be physically set up to accept dual video cards, and the SLI setting in the BIOS must be enabled. As we found out - installing two different cards in SLI mode will prevent the machine from booting.

SLI is implemented by NVIDIA using different techniques. One technique is called Split Frame Rendering (SFR), where each of the installed graphics cards render pixels in an assigned segment on the screen for each frame. For example, the first card renders the top half of the frame and the second card renders the second half. Another technique is called Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR), whereby each graphics card takes a turn in rendering a full frame. These techniques are automatically implemented by the driver and theoretically allow games to run more smoothly at higher resolutions with image enhancing technologies such as anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled at high levels.

SLI performance

We tested the A8N-SLI Deluxe with an AMD Athlon 64 3500+ CPU, two 256MB KingMax DDR 400 memory modules and two 128MB ASUS Extreme n6600GT graphics cards in SLI mode, using 3D Mark 2005, Doom 3 and Unreal Tournament 2003 (UT2003) benchmarks. In Doom 3 we achieved a 24-frame boost while playing at a resolution of 1280x1024 with 4x anti-aliasing (refer to the table).

Unfortunately, we couldn't get hold of a high-end GeForce 6800 chipset-based PCIe graphics card to compare our results in time, so it's unclear whether two mid-range 6600GT cards combined can outperform a single high-end (GeForce 6800) card, but the score of 66 frames per second (fps) is comparable to a single ATI Radeon X800 XT-based card running on a high-end (3.46GHz Pentium 4 EE) Intel platform.

Installation of the A8N-SLI Deluxe went smoothly and although we had compatibility issues with Corsair memory modules, our KingMax modules worked fine.

Four monitors, one PC

Boosted gaming performance is not the only advantage of having two graphics slots, as the A8N SLI Deluxe also allows for up to four monitor outputs to be used in a multi-monitor configuration in non-SLI mode (assuming the graphics cards have dual outputs). This is beneficial for those of us who require massive screen real estate for tasks such as music making and video editing. In this type of setting the cards don't have to be identical (as they won't be connected to each other) and they don't even have to be from the same graphics chipset manufacturer! NVIDIA-based cards can be used in conjunction with ATI-based cards, but each card's own multi-monitor management software will be disabled; instead, Windows XP's own multi-monitor configuration options need to be used.

Ports for all

Although all the hype for this board is being focused primarily on its graphics capabilities, it should not go unnoticed that this board has no less than eight Serial ATA ports (four of them are Serial ATA II ports), 10 USB 2.0 ports, two FireWire ports, two Gigabit network ports, eight-channel digital audio and four memory slots. It will accept the latest AMD Athlon 64 processors, which support dual-channel memory configurations, and value-added features are plentiful. In particular, Q-Fan is for automatic fan speed adjustment, Instant Music for listening to CDs without loading into Windows and EZFlash for updating the BIOS without having to load into an operating system.

The A8N SLI Deluxe is squarely targeted at enthusiast users and has a price tag of $329. In our opinion - it's worth every cent.

In brief: ASUS A8N SLI Deluxe

This board provided excellent stability during testing and has a vast array of connectivity and next generation features to play with. Its dual PCIe graphics slots can be used for SLI operation or for connecting up to four monitors at the same time.

Vendor: ASUS Price:$329 Phone: (02) 9683 3488 URL: http://au.asus.com

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