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It's a similar story when you turn to the I/O panel. At first glance, it looks good, as the integrated graphics has HDMI, DVI and VGA outputs, but the Asus also includes Display Port, which doesn't feature on the Zotac. There's also a glaring issue on the USB front as the Zotac only has four ports which are arranged in two closely spaced pairs that are next to the graphics outputs. You may - possibly - be able to use all four ports but we reckon it will take some planning. In fairness there are headers for eight more USB 2.0 ports so you should be fine, provided you have some case mounted USB. What you do get, however, is a Firewire port, courtesy an included bracket along with a header on the board.
The CD installer is very basic and merely offers drivers for the chipset, HD audio and Gigabit Ethernet connection. There is no software on the CD apart from a BIOS flashing utility and the manual makes for grisly reading as it refers to a bootable floppy and DOS commands. This seems quite unnecessary in late 2008 and we would prefer to see either Windows based BIOS updating although or an updater that built into the BIOS. The absolute minimum that we can accept would be instructions to create a bootable USB memory key as this talk of floppy disks is beyond the pale, especially when you recall that we have already written off the use of a floppy drive with this motherboard.
We tested the Zotac with the same Core 2 Duo E8500 CPU and GeForce 8800GT graphics card that we used with the Asus and found that performance at stock speed was identical on the two motherboards, just as you would expect. Surprisingly, however, we found that the Zotac drew 15W less power than the Asus at idle and 10W less under load.
The BIOS appears quite friendly to the overclocker although the memory voltage has a limited range from 1.9V-2.1V and the voltage range is 1.2V-1.55V for the Northbridge. We used the unlinking feature to separate the front side bus and memory speeds and keyed in a memory speed of 1,066MHz however that caused the system to refuse to POST so we kept things simple and worked on the front side bus, to boost CPU speed.
Starting from 333MHz we overclocked the CPU to 3.56GHz on a front side bus of 375MHz which increased system performance but it didn't help graphics performance which demonstrates that the IGP is the bottleneck to performance, just as you would expect. Overclocking to the stable limit of 3.68GHz didn't help performance any further.
In a straight head-to-head with the Asus P5N7A-VM the Zotac puts up a decent fight but it is consistently outclassed. The lack of Display Port is a minor matter but the poor arrangement of the four USB ports is little short of negligent and it is not redeemed by the inclusion of a Firewire port. We feel that the lack of any software is another telling point against the Zotac and really don't fancy the idea performing a BIOS update in DOS.
Zotac has made a decent fist of the GeForce 9300M chipset however the Asus P5N7A-VM is consistently better in almost every department.
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