Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe review
There’s a dilemma facing any Intel fan wanting to upgrade their motherboard: which platform? Now that Intel has invited nVidia into the LGA775 party, there’s more choice than ever before. The nForce4 chipset was a revolution for AMD, bringing not only PCI Express and SLI, but also extras such as a hardware firewall. These features give the nForce4 Intel Edition chipset the edge over Intel’s 915 and 925 chipsets.
But the main highlight is nForce4’s support for dual-core Pentium Ds or Extreme Editions – in terms of Intel chipsets, that’s something you’ll find only on its brand-new 945 and 955 chipsets. We dropped a dual 2.8GHz Pentium D 820 into the MSI board and ran our strenuous 3ds max test against a single-cored 3.8GHz Pentium 4 570. The dual-core completed the task 19 seconds (18 per cent) quicker. In everyday use, the second core won’t be used so dramatically, but it will cope better than a single-core equivalent if you typically run lots of applications at the same time.
Elsewhere, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition offers more bells and whistles than even Intel’s ‘premium’ 925XE chipset. It can cope with memory clocked at 667MHz rather than the 925XE’s 533MHz. Both nForce4 boards also support more RAM – the Asus board up to 8GB and the MSI a whopping 16GB, as opposed to the 4GB maximum previously available through a combination of the 925XE chipset and 32-bit versions of Windows XP. That’s over-the-top for most current applications, but with Windows x64 Edition now shipping, it’s of interest to those working in areas such as CAD and video editing. It’s worth noting that both boards have only four RAM sockets though, and that memory modules holding more than 1GB are currently scarce and expensive.
But this is only one string to the nForce4 bow, with the hardware firewall adding a compelling reason to switch to nVidia. Used in conjunction with the ActiveArmour software, it provides an effective filter to anything that should get through to your network. It also minimises processor overheads on the twin Gigabit Ethernet connections of both boards, while maximising throughput.
Elsewhere, things are more even between nForce4 and 925XE. Both have RAID support for 0, 1, 0+1 and 5. And while nVidia has Serial ATA 2 support, Intel’s AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) allows for Hot Plug – the only part of the SATA 2 specification that’s currently of any demonstrable benefit. There’s NCQ (Native Command Queuing) on both platforms, and a hefty 2GB/sec bus for integrated components. The nVidia MediaShield hard disk controller has some useful tools though, such as morphing. This lets you change your RAID configuration on-the-fly, with no compulsory need to back up your data and reformat the drives.
Performance is similar too, with scores for the MSI and Asus boards only slightly different from the Abit AL8. The MSI completed our benchmarks 2.5 per cent quicker than the Asus, but you won’t see a noticeable difference in use.
There’s one area in which Intel still beats nVidia though, and that’s with the new craze for integrated audio controllers. The High Definition Audio on the 915 and 925 still outstrips either of the nForce4 boards on paper. High Definition Audio states sampling rates of 192kHz at 32-bit resolution over eight channels. Asus sticks with a conventional Realtek ALC850 audio codec, which gives only 48kHz sampling at 16-bit quality over eight channels.
MSI shows more originality in its choice of the Creative Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit, with sampling at 96kHz to eight channels. In practice, these are all fine for general use – if you need dedicated support for high bit rates, then you’ll also need the dedicated sound processor well away from your PC’s electronically noisy internals. However, the Sound Blaster is preferable to the ALC850, as it does at least provide provision for DVD-Audio playback.