Conclusions

Performance

The performance that we are judging here is not of SLI setups possible on the A8N-SLI motherboard, but of the overall system performance and standard motherboard usage performance.  Without ever looking at the SLI numbers, the Asus A8N-SLI motherboard is a good, but not outstanding performer in our normal suite of benchmarks.  Synthetic tests such as SiSoft, AIDA32 and Cachemem showed the A8N-SLI to offer the same memory and basic system performance that we expect from all Athlon 64-based motherboards. 

In our older gaming tests, including Quake III and UT2003, the A8N-SLI has typical results that we have seen from our other chipset previews for AMD-based PCI Express platforms.  This is expected as well, as the performance from these tests is usually indicative of the memory subsystem performance.  The newer games we tested showed similar results, with the A8N-SLI having results equal to or slightly better than the other chipsets tested in both Doom 3 and Far Cry 1.3 low res benchmarks. 

The suite of application tests again show the A8N-SLI as a good, but not great performer.  The board did come in a behind a few of the other boards in some benchmarks, but almost always by minute performance differences that can be easily played off on a beta BIOS and early testing sample.  The Winstone tests showed that Asus has implemented the NVIDIA SATA controller effectively and that the chipset and driver combination is really what is at play in our tests most of the time.

Performance Update (11-30-04)

Through the night on 11/29/04, we worked on new BIOS revisions with Asus to come up with the best performing one we could find.  As a result, the Asus scores stabilized to just slightly higher than we saw in our benchmark pages; it wasn’t much, about 1%, maybe 2%.  It’s true that this isn’t a big difference in performance, but when we are talking about the advantage between a motherboard in first place and in last place in some of our benchmarks being around 2%, that 1-2% does matter.  More on this further on in our conclusion.

Features

Asus is well revered for their inclusion of a solid feature set on their motherboards, and the A8N-SLI Deluxe follows that mindset.  The feature list of this motherboard reads like a checklist for the latest in PC technology, starting with the first retail motherboard for AMD sporting PCI Express graphics technology.  Not only that, but NF4 SLI support as well! 

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Moving on past the graphical aspects, we see that Asus has stacked the A8N-SLI Deluxe quite well with a lot of storage options.  How does eight SATA channels and two IDE channels sound?  That should satiate just about anyone with a fetish for large hard drives.  Only users upgrading from lots of IDE drives will have to look for new SATA hard drives.  The NVIDIA SATA controller also supports the new SATA 3.0Gb/s standard, so when those drives become available you’ll be ready.  RAID support is very nice: NVIDIA’s controller supports RAID 0, 1, 0+1 and JBOD that can span across both the SATA and PATA channels; the Silicon Image contoller supports RAID 0, 1, 10 and RAID 5.  Did I mention the external SATA power and cable connectors Asus includes to allow for you to hot swap SATA drives without opening your case? SATA connectivity is king on this board.

Asus included two Gigabit network connections, one courtesy of NVIDIA and the other on a seperate Marvell PCI controller chip.  Using the NVIDIA LAN you also get support for NVIDIA software like ActiveArmor and Firewall for a more secure system.  The on-board audio uses an 8-channel codec from Realtek (their ALC850) with optical and SPDIF output support.  And don’t forget the USB 2.0, Firewire and included headers and cables to take advantage of all of these features that come right in the box.  Truly a great feature set. 

Price

Since the board isn’t quite available in the retail channels yet, pricing on the motherboard is going to have be based on the assumptions I am getting from both Asus and NVIDIA.  It would seem you should be able to buy this board within two weeks at online retailers for under $200.  Asus is claiming to have an MSRP on it of $180, but I would suspect that initially the board prices are going to be a bit higher than the MSRP until more SLI boards hit the market, then it will drop like other component prices.  So, let’s assume you can get it for $180 by Christmas.  Current Intel PCI Express boards, such as the P5DA2 Premium from Asus, are going for over $225, and the majority of other 925X can be found for around $170.  That puts the SLI boards on the same level as the current PCIe pricing.  This is good news.

Keeping the price low is going to be one of the key points in getting users to adopt the upgrade path option that SLI provides them. 

SLI

Speaking of which, though we didn’t look at the performance of an SLI setup in this article (check back in a couple days), the SLI feature is a very important one when looking at buying this motherboard.  Besides the pure performance gain you get out of having two graphics cards in your system, its the upgrade path that it offers that is really going to sell it, I think. 

So, in Februrary, let’s assume you are looking for a system upgrade.  Maybe your taxes are coming in right?  You can get the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard for $180 and a GeForce 6800 GT card for $400 and have a killer gaming system ready to go.  But the SLI feature enables you to upgrade your gaming performance one step further when you feel the need, by buying another 6800 GT card.  If you are waiting 5-6 months, let’s also assume the price goes down to $350 on those cards.  You are then able to get a significant performance increase in your gaming for $350 as opposed to buying the then next-released graphics card from each vendor for $500+.  While I can’t say for sure that the next generation of single GPU cards isn’t going to be much faster than an SLI setup of today’s cards, it seems to be a fairly reasonable bet. 

Of course, there is the even less expensive route, buying a single 6600GT card now for under $200 and then upgrading it to SLI 6600GTs whenever your birthday comes around or any other holiday.  It’s much easier to get someone to buy you a $200 card than a $400 card right? 

Again, I’ll have my look at the SLI technology within a few days, so keep checking back here as I think you’ll find my experiences with it to be a bit different than most other’s you might have seen.

Issues

With the first board of its kind, not mention getting one of the first boards sent over from Taiwan, there are bound to be a few issues to be dealt with.  Our’s included an imcompatibility with ATI graphics cards and some stubborn SATA controllers.  With our initial BIOS’s, the A8N-SLI didn’t allow a copy of Windows to be installed when using an ATI GPU – we were consistently greeted with a frozen screen at the “Setup is starting Windows…” during setup.  I was not the only the editor to have this issue, so I knew the cards weren’t the problem.  The other issue was raised while using new BIOS’ to try to fix the ATI issue — our SATA drives were intermittently being detected, making testing quite a hassle.  It seems to be mainly a BIOS issue, and I am sure it can be resolved as our reference board from NVIDIA didn’t have these issues. 

Update (11-30-04)

I am happy to report that by working with Asus’ US and Taiwan branches well into the night last night, I was able to have them produce a BIOS that fixes both the ATI card and the SATA drive problems.  The last beta BIOS they got for me at after 2AM was able to install Windows with my various ATI cards and my SATA drives were working once again.  That means that any boards that will eventually reach the retail channel in the next two weeks will have these fixes that we worked on already installed, and we can be reasonably assured that the kinks have been worked out for a solid BIOS.

I would really like to thank Asus’ US branch for working with me long into the night to talk to the Taiwan BIOS engineers and get a fix made for the problems I was having.  It made my review possible today and also assured that any products Asus is sending out for purchase meet the standards that my review placed upon them.

Final Thoughts

It would seem that all the problems and complaints we had against the board initially have been taken care of.  No more GPU issues, SATA issues, and performance has been bumped just enough to put it in the top AMD ranks, if not THE top.  There are always a few snags when we get a first release motherboard, but we don’t usually get the same kind of service from the vendor to try and fix them as quickly as Asus did yesterday.  They are very eager for the A8N-SLI motherboard to hit the market and they want to make sure the press finds the products to be up to the standards that NVIDIA has placed upon them.  I’d say Asus has done a fine job there.

My initial feelings on this motherboard were a bit scattered at first, but with the updates, I’d say the A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard lives up to the name that Asus has grown to have in the PC community.  My internal debate with some of the staff and myself has been whether or not the motherboard deserved to be awarded an Editor’s Choice from PC Perspective.  In many ways, I would say yes: it has a great feature set, solid overclocking options, the latest in features include the coveted SLI technology.  But in all honesty this is the first in a line of SLI motherboards and I think before we hand out any awards, we need to see what the competition is going to throw it a “best of the best” honor. 

However, I decided to start something new with this product — a Gold and Silver award status that is given to the product in terms of its overall quality and user friendliness.  This has been something other editor’s and I have debated for some time now.  A “Gold” winner is a product that we would highly recommend to someone for a particular platform, and it may turn out we have a couple of “Gold” winners for a platform like our SLI boards.  A “Silver” winner is a product that may have a slight fault that keeps it from getting our unconditional recommendation, but still has a solid line up of features and performance.  This little system allows us to congratulate products that do well, and save the “Editor’s Choice” award for the best of the “Gold” winners, and our ultimate seal of approval. 

With that in mind, I’d like to award the PC Perspective “Gold Award” to the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard, because of their outstanding feature set, technology, performance, and willingness to support us and hence their customers.

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