- Review Price: £116.00
When nVidia first introduced SLI, supporting motherboards were, initially at least, worryingly unstable. Fortunately, thanks to new BIOS revisions and board updates, this seems to have cleared up. In our tests the Asus A8N-SLI Premium proved to be rock solid, which is more than could be said for the Asus web site, which kept throwing up errors while I was checking facts for this review.
Be that as it may, it wouldn’t put me off recommending this heavyweight board, which comes packed with almost all the performance, features and accessories you could wish for.
This is the third version of this board, which supports all Socket 939 AMD CPUs and offers dual PCI Express slots for SLI, with a standard version and a Deluxe underneath this Premium Edition. This might be the most expensive version, but it’s the most interesting, for two primary reasons. Firstly, on this board Asus has done away with the flip chip PCB that has to be turned round to enable SLI as on other motherboards. Instead, this function is controlled by the BIOS, so that when if you put in a second graphics card, it will just work. For some reason, the BIOS option, labelled AI Selector, has three settings, Auto, Single and Dual, though I’m not sure why you might need the last two settings.
The second reason it earns its Premium status is that instead of there being a fan on the motherboard chipset there’s a heat-pipe, drawing heat away into a heatsink that sits above the Mosfets. Radial Fins help direct the heat away from both of these. This is effective but it means that you need to ensure that your PC case has good airflow to move that heat out of the case, to avoid heat related problems.
Aside from these two headlining features you get a long list of features, as is traditional with Asus. A quick look at the BIOS demonstrates that this motherboard is set-up with overclocking in mind. When enabled, the AI-NOS function automatically overclocks your system depending on system load, with a claimed near instant response time. This can be set in the BIOS or performed in Windows using a supplied utility. Alternatively, you can use AI Overclock which contains presets for overclocking the motherboard by a fixed amount, with the choice between three, five, eight and ten per cent. Alternatively, you can do things automatically, enabling you to increase the FSB and adjust the voltages for the memory, CPU and chipset. Of course you could also leave it as the standard default setting, but that would be really boring and a bit of a waste if your spending money on a board such as this.
Other features are less fundamental. If you so choose you can set the motherboard to talk to you as it boots, informing you what it’s doing at each step in a pre recorded American style voice. It’s gets fantastically irritating, very quickly, but it might be worth enabling if you’re troubleshooting at POST, as it will tell you what isn’t working, such as CPU or memory and is less cryptic than a series of lights.
A feature labelled Instant Music caught my eye and claims that it will enable you to play back audio without booting up the PC. Asus supplies a plastic strip that sits over the F keys of your keyboard to indicate what keys control the feature. However, though I enabled the feature in the BIOS and selected the DVD-ROM drive as the Instant Music Drive it didn’t work for me.
Another feature is the LAN Cable status option which will tell you if an Ethernet cable is live, and even estimate its length, which again could be used for troubleshooting.
As well as supporting Socket 939 Athlon 64 CPUs including dual-core X2s, and offering SLI, the board has a lot of technology going for it. The nForce4 chipset sports nVidia’s NVFirewall and NVActiveArmor. It’s a better option than the Windows Firewall and offloads data packet inspection tasks from the CPU.
The chipset also supports SATA-II, the highlight of which is a data transfer rate of 3GB/s, ready for the latest generation of drives. Another tasty supported feature is Native Command Queuing, which can offer a nice performance boost on compatible drives.
There’s a Dual-RAID option, with the nForce4 SLI chipset providing four SATA connectors with the option for RAID 0, 1, 0+1 and JBOD. Clearly this isn’t good enough and Asus has added a Silicon Image controller that adds another four SATA ports and the option of RAID 0, 1, 5 or 10. That’s more like it.
The dual theme is continued with the networking. There are two Gigabit Ethernet ports, one built into the chipset and a second added via a Marvell Yukon controller. The latter doesn’t use the PCI Express bus however, which could limit performance were you ever to stress the networking sub-system.
Audio is provided via a Realtek ALC850 codec. It provides 8-channel sound and also sports both optical and coaxial digital outputs, which is comprehensive. There are also connectors for front mounted AC97 audio.
The back I/O connectors also offer four USB 2.0 ports and a 6-pin Firewire connector, the latter of which is gratifying to see. There’s also a header on the on the motherboard enabling you to connect a second Firewire port with the supplied bracket. Alternatively, you could use it for front mounted Firewire, if your case supports it.
You’ll also find a header on the board for connecting a bracket with two USB ports and another with two further ports and a Midi/game connector. This brings the total USB 2.0 port count to eight. A Com port header can also be connected to the supplied bracket if you have need for this legacy connection.
An intriguing inclusion is a bracket containing two SATA ports and a molex power connector. This could be useful for connecting an internal drive, without having to open up the machine. The last bit of hardware included is the SLI bridge connector for attaching to the two SLI cards that you have no doubt bought along with the motherboard.
Cable wise, Asus has included a full set of eight SATA cables, though not the posh ones with clips. There are two EIDE cables and one floppy connector.
All in all it’s an extremely comprehensive feature set and accessory bundle. The only thing missing I could think of was integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Layout wise, there’s really very little to complain about with components all sensibly placed. In between the PCI Express slots for graphics is a single x1 slot and a x4 slot. The x1 slot is very close to the top graphics slot but when SLI is enabled the x1 slot would be disabled so you wouldn’t place a card there anyway. The only issue is that it would have been better to have a touch more clearance space between the memory slots and the x16 graphics chip as things are a bit tight when you have longer boards fitted.
Performance wise I was able to compare directly to the DFI Lanparty UT nF4 SLI-D. There wasn’t a lot in it, but the Asus managed to slightly pull ahead of the DFI in all the tests by a couple of frames and quite a few frames in Half-Life 2. The exception was Far Cry, where it is a touch slower. Asus has been known to slightly overclock its boards by default even when reporting standard speeds in order to gain an advantage and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what is happening here. It we had instability issues during testing this might have been a problem, but we didn’t.
Overall then, this board is really very impressive. It’s comprehensively featured, well laid out and it’s fast. It was also well built and solid. The only stumbling block that might stop you from choosing this board then is the price, but with the BIOS controlled auto SLI selection option and the fanless cooling you are getting genuinely useful extras.
I’s actually good value then. The DFI is too flashy, not as fast, inherently nosier and not even cheaper. If you’re going SLI you might as well do it in style. In that regard you can’t do better right now than the Asus A8N-SLI Premium.
If you’re after a well-featured, well made, and great performing SLI motherboard the Asus A8N-SLI Premium delivers. It may be more expensive than some SLI boards but you’ll definitely be able to appreciate the quality.
Score in detail