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Asus Asus A7N8X-X Motherboard review
Date Posted: Aug 25 2003
Author: pHaestus
Posting Type: Review
Category: Motherboard Reviews
Page: 1 of 1
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Asus A7N8X-X Motherboard review By: pHaestus

Introduction:

I have been holding off on buying any new computer hardware for a long time now. I already have a couple of 1700+ TBredBs (JIUHB stepping) that overclock in the 2200-2400MHz range and frankly nothing out there seemed like it was really worth the price of upgrading.  I had been waiting patiently on Athlon64s and new Intel chips to make a total system upgrade. 

However, it looks like Athlon64 is also going to involve spending a lot of money for very little performance gain over current systems. So I have decided to go ahead and buy one last Socket A motherboard now, pick up a video card whenever the introduction of the ATI 9900 Pro drives prices down on the 9700 Pros, and then sit tight for another year or so. I am cheap when it comes to computer hardware because I have a lot of other things to spend money on nowadays (like waterblock testing equipment).  Anyway, I read a ton of articles and reviews and decided to purchase one of the new NForce2 400 (single channel) motherboards to replace my Epox 8K3A (KT333 chipset) motherboard in my gaming system. The Epox has been flaking out a bit lately and seems to be getting some voltage regulation issues. The board I finally decided upon was the Asus A7N8X-X.  I have really been impressed with my A7V-133 and that influenced my decision to pick up another Asus board.  It was $133CAD (ABOUT $95US) from a local store, which is pretty cheap for a brand new motherboard in Canada. It came with a 3 year warranty, which may or may not be handy. If you want a detailed review of the features of the NForce2 400 chipset, then try www.amdmb.com or www.anandtech.com or any of the other larger hardware sites.  I am sure they have pages of copied features from the NVIDIA press releases and probably multi board roundups. 

I don't have a lot of boards to compare this one too, so instead of a ton of benchmarks I am going to try to discuss the board's features in depth with special attention to temperature monitoring and fan control.  These are honestly the features that I am interested in for motherboards and most other reviews tend to skip over them.


Features:

The A7N8X-X shares the same PCB as the Asus A7N8X Deluxe, and Asus just left off some of the more esoteric chips to save money.  No Lan, no second NIC, no firewire, no SATA, and no RAID. Furthermore, the board does not use the NForce2 Soundstorm sound nor does it have integrated graphics via the NForce2 IGP. What's left is a fairly stripped down NForce2 motherboard at a low price.  The A7N8X-X uses the NForce2 400 northbridge, which is a single channel solution that is certified for 200FSB operation.  I had read a few reviews (notably of the Soltek single channel board) that showed these cheapo single channel motherboards actually performing just as well as their more expensive dual channel big brothers. So to me the price: performance was right, and I have always liked Asus motherboards so the A7N8X-X was the logical choice when I needed a new board.

In terms of general features, the A7N8X-X has 3 DIMM slots, 5 PCI, and 1 AGP slot. Two ATA133 connectors and one floppy connector are also present.  The board has integrated 100MBit LAN and 4 USB 2.0 ports on the backplate along with 2 PS2 for keyboard and mouse, 1 parallel port, 1 serial port, and mic, line in, and line out plugs for the audio.

In the audio properties, you can configure the Mic and Line In plugs for rear speakers and center channel/subwoofer if you have 4:1, 5:1, or 6:1 speakers. Headers for more USB ports and a gameport and a second serial port are included on the motherboard.

One thing that I was pretty unimpressed with was that Asus didn't even include the extra USB ports, the gameport or second COM ports with the motherboard. The headers on the motherboard function properly, but you are expected to buy the PCI slot ports on your own.  I guess it saved a dollar or two, but that's not the way to sell a retail product in my opinion.  In my case this works out ok because I can just plug my Crystalfontz LCD into the motherboard's serial header directly for an even neater setup than if I had to use a passthrough cable. And I suppose it makes doing a www.benchtest.com style Gameport thermistor setup for inside the case neater than if you had to pass the wires through the back of the case as well.

SMBus. One of the reasons my A7V-133 is still in action at the house is that it has a SMBus header on it. These headers come in very handy for plugging in maxim ICs built for temperature monitoring and fan control. This motherboard, for whatever reason, has the solder pads on the motherboard but NO HEADERS.  Again this is probably a cost saving feature but it seems a little misguided. I don't believe there are any extra resistors or parts needed for a SMBus header, so it should be possible to just add in the headers myself later.  I'll update this article when I do and let you know how it went. 


Layout:

I always look at the motherboard pictures of reviews first to see if Socket A boards have the 4 mounting holes and plenty of room around the socket for big waterblocks and heatsinks.  The A7N8X-X passes these tests with flying colors, and I am currently using an Alpha PAL8045 on this motherboard with no trouble.

There is also a ton of real estate around the northbridge, so pretty much any heatsink or northbridge waterblock you can think of using there should fit just fine.

Asus chose to use a tall passive northbridge cooler rather than the smaller units with 40mm fans that are more common. The fewer fans the better as far as I am concerned.  I pulled it off and noticed that there was a thermal pad underneath that covers the entire northbridge. I just left that on for now. Running at 100% load the heatsink is barely warm to the touch so I think it should be ok.

Asus still uses 2 phase power on their motherboards, and the Mosfets are arranged 2x2 in a position that shouldn't be a big deal to add a heatsink to if needed.  In my testing, the mosfets are barely warm to the touch and so I don't think cooling them is much of an issue. On the other hand I'm not running at 2+V VCore or 3GHz and pulling an insane amount of current through them either…yet.

I liked the placement of the ATX power connector right next to the (useless) floppy connector. In fact, I couldn't find too much to complain about as far as the placement of parts on this motherboard goes.  My picture of the full board had quite a bit of glare in it, so here is one stolen shamelessly from www.asus.com 's product page:

A final item worth mentioning is that the clear CMOS jumper (they actually put a jumper on this one unlike my A7V-133) is to the right of the CMOS battery near the 3rd PCI slot. I can reach it even with the system fully loaded without trouble.  I still will probably wire up a switch before I install water though; makes things much simpler.  Cabling and routing is just about perfect when the board is in the case. The ATX connector is up next to floppy and then the IDE channels are below that. The IDE cables won't mess up the airflow at all in most cases because you can just fold them to the mobo tray and out of the way.  You MIGHT have a bit of an issue with gameport and serial port headers since they are far from the PCI slots, but I think you'd just route them between PCI cards if you decide to use them.


Temperature Monitoring and control:

Ok I am a huge nerd. I admit it freely. To me, one of the most important things to learn about a motherboard are: (a) Does it read from the internal diode? And (b) Can it adjust fan voltage based upon temperature automatically? I had high hopes for both these issues with the A7N8X-X.

Asus prominently advertised that this motherboard had Q-Fan technology.  In their words:

"Constant, high-pitched noise generated from heatsink fans are a thing of the past thanks to ASUS Q-Fan™. The ASUS A7N8X with Q-Fan™ technology intelligently adjusts fan speeds according to system loading to ensure quiet, cool and efficient operation." 

To me this is a major selling feature of the Aopen motherboard that Joe recently reviewed, so I was interested in whether the Asus implementation would be similar. 

Was it?  In a word, no.  In principle, temperature-controlled fan PWM is built into the Winbond ICs that almost all motherboard makers use. Diode readings are also built into this IC.  In practice, not everyone gets it right. Asus includes NO software with the motherboard to access the fan control and instead just has a setting in the bios with rather arcane settings:

That's not optimal, but if it worked well then all would be forgiven.  To make matters much much worse though, Asus has apparently opted to use a surface mount thermistor to monitor CPU temps and control the fan PWM. In fact, there is no way to even see the diode reading with the included Asus Probe software (which quite honestly is inferior to MBM and Speedfan).  If you do fire up speedfan or Motherboard Monitor, then you'll be able to see two temperature readings off channel 1 of the Winbond IC: one varies very little with CPU load and is very slow to change and respond, while the other one is very sensitive to changes in load and reports higher temperatures under load. My money's on the latter one being the diode reading from the AMD CPU.  Unfortunately, the former one is the temp Asus chose to use to control the CPU fan. With Speedfan I could watch the system boot up with the CPU fan at 15% power, and when I fired up CPUBurn then one of the winbond channel 1 temps would stay around 40-45C and the fan would stay at 15%. The other winbond temp, however, would soar to around 60C! If I used speedfan to manually set the CPU fan to 100% then that temp would drop quickly from 60C to 52C or so. There was no change in the other 45C temperature. This reinforced my opinion that the motherboard was capable of properly reading the diode but that Asus wasn't using the diode temperature for anything useful.

I could pretty easily get around Asus' Q Fan by disabling it in the BIOS and then using Speedfan to automatically shift fan speed as the diode temperature changed.  This worked perfectly, and so I keep Speedfan running minimized at all times just for this purpose. Unfortunately, neither of the case fan headers seem to be affected at all by changing fan speed settings with Speedfan. I guess that either only the CPU channel is properly wired up and working or else Speedfan doesn't fully support the A7N8X-X yet.

Speedfan supports a lot of different motherboards, and it's free (although Alfredo accepts donations for those satisfied).  You can get speedfan at http://www.almico.com/speedfan.php . I highly recommend it.

CPU Overheat Protection is another added feature of the Asus motherboards, and I have to concede that I didn't have the balls to test it out.  I assume that it is working though since Speedfan and MBM picked up a diode temperature. I couldn't find any settings for COP n the bios or I would have tried setting it to 60C so I could verify that it worked.  Oh well.

I tried out MBM 5.3.00 and Speedfan 4.08, and I was able to get a diode reading from both programs.  So that's good news, right? And I HIGHLY recommend speedfan to everyone with this board since you can truly get PWM based on the diode temp using that program. 

One feature that the Asus motherboard has that not many others do today is a header for a thermistor.  One can easily plug in a thermistor that is monitoring water temp to the header and it will get picked up right away by MBM or Speedfan. Strangely, Asus Probe doesn't detect this sensor either. Asus didn't include a thermistor with the motherboard unfortunately.


Overclocking:

Asus provides reasonably good overclocking features on the A7N8X-X.  CPU voltage can be adjusted to 1.85V on my TBredB, VDIMM can also be adjusted to either 2.6, 2.7, or 2.8V while VAGP can be boosted from 1.5 to either 1.6 or 1.7V.  I found voltage regulation to be pretty tight on this board, with no weird dips or sag under load and no instability when overclocked.

I found the Phoenix bios used on the A7N8X-X to be more difficult to overclock with than the AMI Bios I have been using on most of my other boards. I easily found the 133/166/200 fsb settings, but strangely (to me) I had to set the RAM timings to "User" to get 1MHz FSB adjustment on the CPU.  Once I did this though I could get 1MHz adjustment over a huge range. For RAM timings, Asus is going the way of Starbucks and labeling their "compatibility" mode as "Optimal" while they have another high performance mode called "aggressive".  Both CPU and Memory can be set to "aggressive" to presumably get the best performance out of the system possible.  I am getting a little old and lazy, and so I played around with the timings and settings for about 10 minutes (long enough to reset the bios a bunch of times) and then just set the system to 11x200 "aggressive" and let it be.  2.2GHz of air cooled TBredB is good enough for me, and I'll hopefully get another couple hundred MHz with a voltage mod and watercooling shortly.  I did get the system to boot and run fine at 210FSB, but 11x210 wasn't stable.

The board will adjust multipliers for any CPU, but only the TBredBs (and maybe some of the newer As) come unlocked from the factory. If not using one of these chips then you still have to close the L1 bridges to unlock them. The board had no issues with 5-12.5X multis on my 1700+ TBredB (11x default). Higher multipliers (13 and up) I think you have to wire mod it still unless your CPU is 2100+ or higher and has the "8x" bridge set to "hi" already. I base this on not seeing a way to set "High" or "low" in bios for getting 13 and up.


Conclusions:

I have only had this board for a week, so I can't fully comment on its long term stability.  However, I have so far had no crashes or issues running at 11x200 with my 1700+ TbredB on relatively quiet air cooling. I was a little disappointed that Q-Fan turned out to be marketing rather than a really powerful feature, but Speedfan saved the day and gave me full temp-controlled PWM fan control for the CPU fan. My educated opinion is that MBM and Speedfan are finding the diode temps as well on a Winbond channel not used by Asus for monitoring or Q-Fan.  The system is fast and responsive, and I certainly feel like I got my money's worth out of the purchase. I am hoping to get the board volt modded and the system water cooled in the next few weeks and squeeze another 100-200MHz out of it. I'll test out the SMBus headers at that time too and see if they are active.

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