Summary: Since its inception, ASUS' A7N8X Deluxe has been highly regarded by journalists and end users due to its excellent combination of performance, features, and price, not to mention that solid ASUS name. To ring in 2004 ASUS decided to build on this foundation and add a little more flavor with the A7N8X-E Deluxe. In comparison, DFI has been aiming to steal away gamers and enthusiasts from traditional players like ASUS and ABIT, offering features that go beyond both companies’ offerings in many cases. DFI has improved their nForce2 Ultra 400 board to take on the most feature-rich nForce 2 motherboards. This product is the LANPARTY NFII Ultra B.
In today's article we pitch both of these products head-to-head. Both boards offer the standard nForce2 Ultra 400 with MCP-T features like dual-channel DDR400 and Dolby Digital audio, but add to that equation with extras like Gigabit Ethernet and Serial ATA. If you're shopping for a new motherboard to go with your brand new Athlon XP processor this is one article you won't want to miss!
While AMD’s Athlon 64 processors are stealing all the headlines (in particular, the 3000+ and 3400+), AMD’s venerable Athlon XP CPUs still account for the bulk of AMD’s sales. After all, with Athlon XP 2500+ chips selling for $85 or less online, many gamers are finding this processor in particular is a bargain that’s too hard to pass up. And how could you blame them? The Athlon XP 2500+ is based on AMD’s Barton core. It features a 512KB L2 cache, 333MHz front-side bus, and runs at 1.83GHz. In fact, since it utilizes the same 11.0 multiplier setting as the Athlon XP 3200+, a lot of enthusiasts have purchased XP 2500+ chips and cranked up the bus speed to 200MHz, yielding the exact same 2.2GHz clock speed as the Athlon XP 3200+!
Basically, with the Athlon XP 2500+ you’re getting a lot of performance without having to put a huge dent in your bank account. This little chip is definitely a FiringSquad Bull’s Eye product.
But now that you’re sold on the Athlon XP processor, what motherboard do you choose to go with it? NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset is definitely the platform of choice for the Athlon XP, specifically the nForce2 Ultra 400.
This chipset supports AMD’s 400MHz front-side bus, which means it’s capable of supporting AMD’s fastest Athlon XP processor, the 3200+. In addition, its dual-channel memory architecture is capable of pumping up to 6.4GB/sec of memory bandwidth to the processor, ensuring that it’s well fed with data. And to top it all off, NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset is capable of delivering Dolby Digital 5.1 audio to your ears. The nForce2 chipset even supports dual networking capability.
Narrowing down your choices to an individual motherboard is a complicated process though. First and most important is of course price. If you can’t afford a $150+ motherboard upgrade obviously you can weed some products out, but there are still a ton of nForce2 options out there that are relatively inexpensive.
What we’ve done today however is take two of the latest, most feature-packed nForce2 Ultra 400 motherboards on the market: the ASUS A7N8X-E Deluxe Wireless Edition and the DFI LANPARTY NFII Ultra B and compare them. Both of these motherboards are targeted towards the high-end gamer and hardware enthusiast. They support all of the nForce2’s key features, as well as the goodies that are optional for motherboard manufacturers to implement such as the Dolby Digital capable MCP-T and NVIDIA’s DualNet networking. ASUS and DFI also add features unique to their respective boards, taking the nForce2 platform to entirely new levels.
If you’re familiar with the Athlon XP motherboard market, you probably know that both of these boards are second-generation nForce2 Ultra 400 designs. The original variants of both were highly regarded, but ASUS and DFI both felt the need to spice up the equation a little bit more. This means that we should be in for a really fun head-to-head comparison. And while there can only be one winner, neither one of these motherboards should disappoint. In fact, the board that finishes in second place may actually be more ideal for your individual needs. We’ll try to cover both of these boards with enough depth so that you can sort out which board is best for your particular situation/environment.
SIDEBAR: ASUS A7N8X-E Deluxe Product Webpage
To start off this shootout, we’ll start by comparing both boards on the basis of feature set. As we mentioned at the outset, both motherboards do very well here, offering features that aren’t present on many competing nForce2 boards, but there are some differences. Let’s start with the features that both motherboards have in common.
Obviously since both motherboards are based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset we’re dealing with the same features on the North Bridge, both boards also use the MCP-T South Bridge as well. This chip brings the aforementioned Dolby Digital audio to both motherboards, and dual network controllers, dubbed “DualNet” by NVIDIA. Again, this is an optional feature DFI and ASUS have chosen to implement on their high-end products, both companies offer less expensive MCP-T-based motherboards that forego this feature if you don’t need it. The MCP-T also adds FireWire support to the equation.
The physical layers ASUS and DFI utilize to power these features differ however. While both manufacturers have integrated Realtek’s popular ALC650 to handle audio duties, they go in opposite directions for FireWire and networking. Realtek’s RTL8801B PHY interfaces with the MCP-T to provide FireWire connectivity for the A7N8X-E. This is the same chip ASUS has used for its previous nForce2 motherboards, including the original A7N8X Deluxe that was released over a year ago. In contrast, Agere’s FW803 provides this functionality for the DFI board.
In terms of networking support, both boards take advantage of DualNet, in fact both go beyond NVIDIA’s reference specifications by adding Gigabit Ethernet networking to the package. Even NVIDIA’s top-of-the-line nForce3 Pro 150 chipset doesn’t provide GigE support so this is definitely an eye-catching feature, but keep in mind that both controllers are tied to the PCI bus’ 133MB/sec limitation, so you’ll never see the full potential of either board’s networking capabilities. As far as we know, NVIDIA has no plans to update the MCP-T South Bridge, so this is apparently as good as it gets for the nForce2 platform.
ASUS uses Marvell’s 88E8001 GigE controller for the A7N8X-E while DFI relies on Realtek’s RTL8110S. Besides GigE, both boards also sport S/PDIF out connections, making them NVIDIA Soundstorm compliant.
Another trait they both have in common is Serial ATA support. Like GigE, NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset skipped this feature, so external Serial ATA controllers from Silicon Image are necessary to support this new storage technology. This is where the boards begin to differ however, as DFI one ups ASUS by integrating Silicon Image’s more robust Sil 3114 controller.
This controller supports up to four devices, DFI equips their LANPARTY board with all four ports present. In contrast, ASUS chose to stick with the same Sil 3112 controller used on their previous A7N8X boards. This is an older, first generation Serial ATA controller that is limited to just two ports. The Sil 3114 is also more feature-complete in the fact that it supports RAID Levels 0 (striping), 1 (mirroring), and 0+1 (striping and mirroring). The Sil 3112 only supports RAID Level 0 and RAID Level 1 (as it only supports two ports).
Because of this, we’d have to give the early features edge to DFI, but we’re not finishing discussing the board’s various features just yet.
SIDEBAR: The Sil 3114 controller is actually largely based on the Sil 3112.
DFI has really gone out of their way to make the LANPARTY NFII Ultra easy to use. It all starts with their EZ On and EZ Touch features. These features refer to the power and reset switches which are built on to the bottom of the motherboard. This allows enthusiasts (and hardware testers like us) to power on or reset the system with the touch of a button. This of course can also come in handy when setting up the system (for troubleshooting). The ASUS board doesn’t have this feature.
Building on this feature, DFI also integrates a bank of four LEDs between PCI slots four and five. This is the diagnostic LED.
First introduced by MSI, diagnostic LEDs are used during POST, the LEDs light up in particular combinations which indicate the current status of the motherboard. If for instance, you didn’t install the memory correctly, LEDs one and four would light up. We’ll admit that we don’t know if that’s the correct LED combination for memory failure, as our particular LANPARTY board didn’t ship with a manual for some reason, but you get the general idea. You simply look up the LED combination in the manual to determine exactly why your motherboard didn’t boot up properly. This feature can save end user’s lots of time troubleshooting problems.
In comparison, ASUS’ POST Reporter is designed to bring this functionality to the A7N8X-E Deluxe. Whereas DFI uses LEDs, ASUS uses a female voice -- that’s right, your motherboard talks to you!
Unfortunately, like many women, she can be hard to understand. The voice is quite audible, sound level isn’t the problem, but deciphering what she’s saying is, at least in English. ASUS Post Reporter is capable of speaking many languages, so perhaps you won’t have this problem, but to this editor’s ears it was as if she was speaking in a foreign language. The edge on this aspect again goes to DFI.
ASUS counters back with one unique aspect DFI doesn’t address however, wireless connectivity.
If you’ve followed a lot of ASUS’ more recent motherboards, you’ve probably noticed a svelte black connector beneath the last PCI slot on many motherboards. This black gem is ASUS’ Wi-Fi slot.
Once paired with ASUS’ Wi-Fi card, the system can instantly become a wireless gateway to your home network or the internet. Wi-Fi is one technology that has really been taking off lately (in part thanks to Intel’s Centrino commercials) so it shows ASUS’ foresight to include this feature in particular, they’ve been talking about it for years!
For the past several months, ASUS has been releasing Wi-Fi editions of many of their popular motherboards. These motherboards include a Wi-Fi-b card supporting the 802.11b standard and a Wi-Fi-b antenna; everything you’ll need to establish a wireless network.
Of course, critics will argue the limitations of 802.11b’s 11Mbps, but keep in mind that 802.11b is still more numerous. We’d still like to see ASUS move up to 802.11g though. Fortunately the Wi-Fi slot supports 802.11g, so as soon as ASUS updates their Wi-Fi card, the A7N8X-E Deluxe is ready.
If you’re not ready to jump on the wireless bandwagon just yet (or at least with ASUS’ implementation) you can also purchase the A7N8X-E Deluxe basic edition. This board ships without the wireless card/antenna and the fancy packaging.
We took the ASUS Wi-Fi for a quick test and found it was seamless to install and operate. Getting onboard the Wi-Fi bandwagon shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
SIDEBAR: DFI LANPARTY NFII Ultra B Product Webpage
SOYO’s DRAGON series have made quite a name for themselves, in part due to the Sigma box SOYO includes with these boards. This value added product brings front panel USB and FireWire ports (among other things) to the SOYO board.
DFI builds on this with their FRONTX panel, provided by the company with the same name. The FRONTX front panel is designed to fit within the 5.25” drive bay on your case, just below your CD/DVD drive if you wish. Unlike previous front panels, FRONTX is completely modular, meaning you can customize the front panel connections on your particular FRONTX panel unit, as well as their location on the FRONTX panel.
The FRONTX panel has eight different bays you can customize, with options varying from extra USB and FireWire ports to audio ports, game ports, and even S-Video and RCA video connectors. These connections can all be purchased from the FRONTX website, FRONTX.com.
To get you started DFI includes a really cool port with a bank of 4 LEDs, this is tied to the diagnostic LEDs on the LANPARTY board. No more looking in your case to know the current status of your motherboard during POST!
Also included are microphone and headphone ports, a FireWire port, and a dual USB port. For added performance, these ports support USB 2.0.
When not in use, the FRONTX panel can be hidden underneath a door. The door folds down, revealing the entire bay. The slot holders can be easily adjusted, simply adjust the ports to your liking.
For those of you who already have front panel USB and FireWire access on your current case, you probably aren’t as impressed with the FRONTX panel. But guess what, since the connections aren’t proprietary, you can adapt FRONTX for use with one of your older systems which may not have front panel ports. This gives end user’s more flexibility.
The only thing FRONTX is really missing is support for different media types like Smart Media, Sony Memory Stick, and Compact Flash. Hopefully they’re hard at work adding these features. In any case, it goes without saying that ASUS offers nothing like this with the A7N8X-E Deluxe, much less any of their motherboards. FRONTX is a standard feature with all DFI LANPARTY boards however.
Besides FRONTX, DFI has another ace up its sleeve, round IDE and floppy cables. While this feature has become more commonplace recently, DFI was one of the first motherboard manufacturers to include these cables with its boards, starting with the LANPARTY PRO875 we reviewed last year. Of course, also keep in mind that ASUS doesn’t include this feature with its motherboards. Both companies are thoughtful enough to include a bag with extra jumpers though, as well as a 2-port USB header and Serial ATA data and power cables (two of each). Shame on DFI for only including two Serial ATA data cables though.
One of the cooler aspects of the LANPARTY NFII Ultra B’s board layout is the added space between the AGP and PCI slots. On your typical motherboard, these slots are usually separated by about half an inch. But on the LANPARTY NFII Ultra B, DFI provides over an inch of clearance between the two.
This is handy for GeForce FX 5950 Ultra and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards that consume two slots. It’s also great for those of you with Sapphire Ultimate Edition cards and those of you with Zalman heat pipes on your AGP graphics card because you can install your graphics card without taking up that first PCI slot like you normally would on many other motherboards. And for those of you with more conventional cards, it’s still good because you’ve got more clearance between your graphics card and the first PCI device in your computer.
Many DX9 graphics cards tend to get pretty hot, so this added bit of clearance ensures better airflow within your case. ASUS’ A7N8X-E Deluxe doesn’t have this feature, which again shows DFI’s commitment to providing a motherboard for the hardcore enthusiasts and gamers.
Both motherboards have enough clearance space between the DIMM sockets and AGP slot to install your memory and graphics card independent of each other. This is particularly impressive for the DFI motherboard due to the space between the AGP and PCI slots, which we just mentioned.
Of course, you can’t miss the sharp looks of DFI’s black PCB. The neon green PCI slots and DIMM sockets also look pretty good. Both boards use passive cooling on the Ultra 400’s North Bridge, this keeps temps in check without creating noise and it can be argued that active cooling solutions on North Bridge’s are more prone to fail. Obviously DFI and ASUS must both have data that supports this assertion, as they both use large heatsinks of similar designs.
If you look closely, you’ll also see a heatsink on the LANPARTY’s South Bridge. This is probably a little bit of overkill, as the MCP-T isn’t known for excessive heat ouput.
Other than those differences, there really aren’t any gotchas with either board design. ASUS basically adapted the A7N8X Deluxe Rev 2.0 board design to the A7N8X-E, with the biggest change being the location of the CD headers, which had to be moved to the bottom of the motherboard to make room for the Marvell chip. DFI made some subtle changes to the LANPARTY NFII as well. We do prefer the fan header locations on the ASUS board. DFI places the secondary fan header and chassis fan header on the bottom of the board, beneath the last PCI slot, while ASUS places both of theirs towards the middle of the board, right above the AGP slot.
This makes the ASUS board more ideal for those of you with case fans right next to your motherboard’s backplate, behind the CPU, which is a popular location for exhaust fans in many cases. DFI’s fan headers are practically in the middle of nowhere in comparison.
Still, we give the board design edge to DFI, mainly because of their flawless execution of spacing between AGP, PCI, and DIMM sockets. And don’t forget DFI’s slick-looking black PCB.
SIDEBAR: To make installation a little easier, DFI should probably color code the pins for the case connectors, ASUS has implemented this on the A7N8X-E Deluxe
On the BIOS front, we have two wildly different interfaces. From DFI, we have the familiar Award interface that has been seen on motherboards from practically every motherboard manufacturer at one time or another. ASUS’ A7N8X-E Deluxe is also based on Phoenix’s Award BIOS, but it uses a very different interface.
BIOS navigation is a breeze on the DFI board, as we’ve seen one variation or another of it practically millions of times by now. The menus are all well laid out and aren’t cluttered like the ASUS board. It’s not that the ASUS interface is bad, just different. And in this case, different isn’t better. Getting around to those crucial settings like memory timings and voltages just takes a little bit longer with the A7N8X-E board.
In terms of the BIOS settings themselves, both boards are filled with goodies.
DFI adds its CMOS Reloaded feature to the LANPARTY NFII Ultra B’s repertoire. With CMOS Reloaded, you can save the BIOS settings used to profiles. Say for instance you want to overclock your system and dial your memory timings to their minimums for faster performance, even if it may compromise system stability a little bit. You can save this configuration under any name you choose. Then, for those situations when you want to play it safe, you can crank up the settings a bit, lower the bus speed back to normal (or even underclock), and save those settings under a different profile. This is a pretty cool feature for those of you who like to tweak your system BIOS a lot.
ASUS has a pretty handy feature of its own in the form of Q-Fan, which can dynamically adjust the speed of the fans within your system based on temperature. This feature is helpful for those of you who may not want your fans running at full speed all the time, saving your ears, and if you’ve got a really loud cooling setup, your patience. One feature both BIOS’ do have in common (fortunately) is heat protection. This is standard fare nowadays though, thanks to the features of the Athlon XP processor and today’s modern chipsets.
As far as the settings themselves are concerned though, DFI’s got the more powerful implementation. While both motherboards provide bus speeds up to 300MHz in 1MHz increments, the ASUS board limits voltages to 1.85V. In comparison, the LANPARTY board is capable of hitting up to 2.0V with the latest BIOS available to the public (both boards offer voltages in 0.025V increments). The hardcore crowd will probably drool over the prospects of 2.0V capability, we however would like to remind this crowd in particular of one word: electromigration. Remember, we’re now dealing with a 0.13-micron processor, which requires less juice to operate. By cranking up the voltage, you could theoretically be shortening the life of your processor.
DFI also outdoes ASUS by providing more voltages for the memory (up to 2.8V with ASUS whereas DFI offers voltages up to 3.3V) and AGP (1.7V on the A7N8X-E versus 1.8V on the LANPARTY). DFI also offers chipset voltage adjustment, whereas this setting isn’t present on the ASUS board.
Because of all this, many of you would probably give the edge to DFI, at least from a settings perspective; we still like ASUS Q-Fan though.
SIDEBAR: The A7N8X-E actually borrows its interface from previous A7N8X motherboards.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
Nascar 2003: OpenGL
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB: OpenGL
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – OpenGL
Hopefully based on what you’ve seen so far, you’ve already got an idea of which motherboard is best for your particular needs. Both motherboards are very high-end products, with high-end features such as DualNet, Serial ATA, and Gigabit networking functionality, so you’ll definitely be served well by either product. But there are a few subtle differences.
From a features perspective, DFI’s LANPARTY NFII Ultra B has a few good things going for it. For starters, DFI’s use of the newer Silicon Image Sil 3114 controller allows the LANPARTY board to support four Serial ATA hard drives versus the A7N8X-E Deluxe’s two. While Serial ATA is still in its infancy (relatively speaking at least), motherboards tend to be long-term purchases, we wouldn’t be surprised if many of you reading this article are still using the KT266A/KT333 and SiS 735 motherboards you purchased a few years ago. In other words, DFI’s LANPARTY board is more future-proof than the A7N8X-E in this regard. Multimedia buffs in particular will appreciate this feature.
DFI also has added extras such as the FRONTX panel and their diagnostic LED display, which is helpful for troubleshooting boot up problems with your motherboard.
ASUS’ A7N8X-E Deluxe counters with Wi-Fi@Home. Our Wireless Edition board ships with an 802.11b card and antenna. Wi-Fi is quickly taking off thanks to convenience and rapidly falling prices. By including it with the motherboard, ASUS takes Wi-Fi’s adoption to the next level, much like ABIT did with IDE RAID a few years ago. It also doesn’t hurt that it gives them a unique edge in the process (although Intel is rumored to be integrating Wi-Fi into its next generation South Bridge). However, it is a little disappointing that we’re only dealing with 802.11b, which is limited to 11Mbps, but the Wi-Fi slot is compatible with the faster 802.11g standard.
We gave the features edge to DFI.
In regards to the layout of both motherboards, first keep in mind that this area is highly subjective: what may be flawless design execution to one person may be completely unacceptable for someone else. DFI’s LANPARTY NFII Ultra B is designed for GeForce FX 5900 Ultra and 5950 Ultra users thanks to the huge empty area DFI leaves between the first PCI and AGP slots. This design feature improves airflow, which is good for anyone, including those of you with cards which feature less aggressive coolers such as the RADEON 8500/9600. We’re still questioning the location of the fan headers on the LANPARTY board, and while the heatsink on the MCP-T South Bridge looks cool, it is by no means necessary.
In contrast ASUS played it safe with the design of the A7N8X-E Deluxe, largely borrowing the A7N8X Deluxe Rev 2.0’s layout, with a few changes here and there. Once again we gave the nod to the DFI board, but your tastes and preferences may prefer the A7N8X-E Deluxe.
As far as the BIOS implementation is concerned, we do prefer DFI’s BIOS layout over the ASUS. The Award interface used by DFI is just more familiar to our eyes, making navigation effortless. Meanwhile, DFI’s CMOS Reloaded BIOS utility allows end users to save BIOS parameters. This can be perfect for those of you who want to setup your system to perform for a particular task, say for instance gaming. However, ASUS’ BIOS is no slouch either, it’s quite powerful and offers more than enough settings to satisfy the enthusiast market. In addition, ASUS includes features like Q-Fan, which can dynamically adjust the speed of the fans within your system based on temperature. This way your case fans and CPU fan aren’t running at full speed all the time.
Overall DFI offers more flexible settings, and for some that’s a positive. On the other hand, there are many more that may find a few of those extra settings too dangerous for use. We’ll leave this for you to decide.
Likewise, performance and reliability are practically negligible. Finding differences in this regard on any motherboard based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset is very hard.
Based on all this, we have to give the edge to DFI’s LANPARTY NFII Ultra B, as well as our Editor’s Choice Award. DFI has really gone out of their way to deliver an excellent nForce2 Ultra 400 board and it shows. Congratulations DFI, you’ve just taken down the successor to what many regard as the best first (and second) generation nForce2 motherboard. We highly look forward to seeing what you have in store for the Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 FX processors!
And for those of you who are still looking for overclocking results, keep looking. Overclocking results can literally vary from board to board, even from the same manufacturer, so it isn’t fair to compare them directly. And besides, if you plan on pairing either of these boards with an Athlon XP 2500+, you can be rest assured that both of these boards are good for 200MHz and beyond. That should be enough to keep those XP 3200+ users off your back for a little while…
Based on what you’ve just seen, which nForce2 Ultra 400 motherboard won the competition for you? Share your feelings in the FS forums!
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