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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe will be one of the first motherboards to be launched on the market based on the forthcoming nForce 780a chipset – which, by the way, is delaying a lot to be released. But don’t think that nForce 780a is simple the AMD version of the nForce 780i – it isn’t.  One of the main differences between the two is the support for HybridSLI, which features HybridPower, a feature that disables the video cards installed in the system when you are not playing games and generates 2D images – i.e., when you are using Windows, a word processor or a spreadsheet – through the chipset to save a lot of power, and GeForce Boost, which uses the on-board video to increase 3D performance. The problem is that both features require compatible video cards and so far only two video cards support each feature. Other features from this motherboard include three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots supporting 3-way SLI and Quad SLI, a passive cooling solution for the memories, an eSATA port, coaxial and optical SPDIF outputs and more.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 1: ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe motherboard.

This motherboard is a socket AM2+ board. There are two main differences between socket AM2 and socket AM2+: the support for HyperTransport 3.0 and Dual Dynamic Power Management (DDPM) technology, present on AMD CPUs based on K10 core (e.g., Phenom CPUs). You can still install Phenom on socket AM2 motherboards but you won’t have these two technologies available and the CPU will talk to the chipset only up to 2,000 MB/s (HyperTransport 2.0) instead of up to 10,400 MB/s (HyperTransport 3.0) – it is important to notice that current Phenom processors work under the lowest HyperTransport 3.0 transfer rate, 7,200 MB/s. For more information about those technologies we recommend you to read two other articles, Inside AMD K10 Architecture and The HyperTransport Bus Used by AMD Processors.

NForce 780a is, of course, compatible with HyperTransport 3.0, allowing the communications between the chipset and the CPU to be performed at a higher speed – if an HT3-based CPU is installed on the system, of course; otherwise, i.e., if you install a plain socket AM2 Athlon 64, the maximum transfer will be 2,000 MB/s. HyperTransport 3.0 maximum transfer rate is of 10,400 MB/s (this rate is also called 5,200 MT/s) but Phenom CPUs released so far have their HyperTransport bus working at 7,200 MB/s (3,600 MT/s) It is important to remember that since on AMD CPUs the memory controller is embedded on the CPU and not on the chipset this transfer rate is available for I/O transfers only.

The second biggest feature of this new chipset is its support for the PCI Express 2.0 bus, which doubles the bandwidth available for video cards from 2.5 GB/s to 5 GB/s, if they are also based on PCI Express 2.0 (you can see which video cards are based on PCI Express 2.0 on our NVIDIA Chips Comparison Table and on our AMD ATI Chips Comparison Table). This motherboard has three x16 slots and according the motherboard manual the blue slots work at x16 when one or two video cards are installed, but they will go down to x8 if you use three video cards under 3-way SLI.

This motherboard also has one PCI Express x1 slot and two standard PCI slots.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 2: Motherboard slots.

As you can see in Figure 2 this motherboard has two standard PCI slots and one PCI Express x1 slot.

Keep in mind that if you use an AMD CPU that isn’t based on HT3 you will limit the graphics performance of your system. Let’s do some math to explain this better. In our calculations we are assuming you have two video cards installed.

The maximum bandwidth between nForce 780a chipset and the video cards is of 10 GB/s (5 GB/s, which is the x16 transfer rate, times two – if you use three video cards, the required bandwidth will be less, 7.5 GB/s, as each slot will work at x8, not x16), if PCI Express 2.0 video cards are used. If PCI Express 1.0 cards are used, the maximum bandwidth available is of 5 GB/s (2.5 GB/s, which is the x16 transfer rate, times two).

In theory HyperTransport 3.0 offers a maximum transfer rate of 10 GB/s, what would match perfectly the required bandwidth if you use two PCI Express 2.0 video cards. However Phenom processors released so far use a lower 7 GB/s transfer rate, generating a bottleneck. This bottleneck does not exist if you use PCI Express 1.0 video cards, as the maximum required bandwidth will be of 5 GB/s.

But if you use an Athlon 64 CPU, for example, you will limit the graphics performance. Since this CPU can talk to the chipset only up to 2 GB/s you won’t be able to achieve the maximum performance video cards are capable of delivering. In fact, even on regular socket AM2 motherboards with PCI Express 1.0 this occurs, as the maximum I/O transfer rate of the CPU is of 2 GB/s and the maximum graphics transfer rate if of 2.5 GB/s if one video card is used or 5 GB/s if two cards are installed.

So HyperTransport 3.0 unlocks the maximum graphics performance of your system, even though for a perfect system we still need to wait for the release of Phenom CPUs based on the 10 GB/s HyperTransport bus.

However the numbers provided above are theoretical and in fact no performance impact may be seen, as video cards transfer data at a rate far below their maximum theoretical transfer rates.

[nextpage title=”Introduction (Cont’d)”]

As we mentioned, nForce 780a supports HybridSLI, which is an umbrella name for two technologies: GeForce Boost and HybridPower.

GeForce Boost is a technology targeted to entry-level PCs with on-board video to increase 3D performance. On motherboards supporting this technology (besides nForce 780a, we have nForce 720a, nForce 730a, GeForce 8100, GeForce 8200 and GeForce 8300) when you install a “real” video card the on-board video can be configured under SLI mode with it, increasing the 3D performance. The problem is that the video card also has to support this feature and so far only GeForce 8400 GS and GeForce 8500 GT support it. Since this technology is targeted to entry-level video cards, it is completely useless on this motherboard, since we don’t think anyone buying this board will ever care to install a low-end video card.

HybridPower, on the other hand, is targeted to very high-end systems. This technology turns off your video cards when you are not playing games, saving energy. Under this situation video is provided by the chipset (i.e., on-board video). This looks like a terrific idea, but the problem is that so far only two video cards are compatible with HybridPower: GeForce 9800 GTX and GeForce 9800 GX2. So unless you have these video cards this technology is useless.

Both HybridSLI modes are available only under Windows Vista.

On the other hand you can use the on-board video provided by this motherboard with any video card to expand the number of simultaneous monitors you have attached to your system. NForce 780a provides two independent video outputs and on this motherboard one is provided through a standard VGA connector and th
e second one is provided through an HDMI connector, which can be converted into a DVI connector through an adapter that comes with the product. So if you have two video cards you can have up to six video monitors displaying different images on your system (keep in mind that multiple monitors only work on 2D environment, i.e., when you are not playing games).

Speaking of compatibility and limitations, it is always good to remind that the 3-way SLI mode is only available on GeForce 8800 GTX and GeForce 8800 Ultra video cards and QuadSLI is only currently available with GeForce 9800 GX2 (each GX2 has two video processors, so when you install two on your system you have four video processors working in parallel).

On the memory side this motherboard brings four DDR2-DIMM sockets, supporting up to 8 GB of RAM. The maximum memory speed will depend on the CPU: regular socket AM2 CPUs accept up to DDR2-800/PC2-6400 while socket AM2+ CPUs accept up to DDR2-1066/PC2-8500. You can install DDR2-1066/PC2-8500 memories with socket AM2 CPUs, but they will work as if they were DDR2-800 modules.

ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe has six SATA-300 ports controlled by the chipset and supporting RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 and JBOD and one eSATA-300 port controlled by a Marvell 88E6111 chip. This board also provides one ATA-133 port controlled by the chipset.

The audio section from this motherboard provides 7.1 audio, produced by the south bridge chip with the aid of an Analog Devices AD1988B codec, which provides a 92 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its inputs and 101 dB SNR for its outputs and a maximum sampling rate of 192 kHz for both inputs and outputs. These specs are terrific for the mainstream user.

This board has one coaxial and one optical SPDIF output soldered directly on the motherboard, which is great as you can easily connect it to your home theater receiver.

This product comes with a Gigabit Ethernet port, which is controlled by the chipset with the aid of an Atheros F1 chip in charge of the interface with the physical layer.

ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe has ten USB 2.0 ports, four soldered on the rear panel and four available through three headers, and this motherboard comes with an I/O bracket with two ports, so four USB 2.0 ports are left over (you will probably use them on the I/O frontal panel provided by your case). This motherboard also has two FireWire ports controlled by an LSI L-FW3227 chip. Both ports are available only through I/O brackets and the bracket that comes with this board has only one FireWire port (you will probably use the port that is left over on the I/O frontal panel provided by your case).

In Figure 3, you can see the motherboard rear panel with PS/2 keyboard connector, four USB 2.0 ports, coaxial and optical digital audio (SPDIF) outputs, VGA and HDMI connectors (for the on-board video feature, to be used if you use HybridPower feature), one Gigabit Ethernet port, one eSATA-300 port and complete set of 7.1 audio jacks.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 3: Motherboard rear panel.

As you can see, this motherboard does not have a PS/2 mouse connector, so you have to use a USB mouse with this motherboard. This board also doesn’t have parallel and serial ports, although one serial port is available through an I/O bracket that doesn’t come with the product.

[nextpage title=”More Features”]

As you could see in Figure 1, this motherboard uses a passive heatsink solution, which is particularly indicated to users that are annoyed with the amount of noise produced by a typical PC (since this motherboard doesn’t have a fan on top of the chipset heatsink, less noise is produced by the PC).

But what is unique about this board is that it comes with a passive heatsink solution for up two memory modules, allowing you to connect this module to the passive cooling solution already present on the motherboard. According to ASUS this solution lowers the memory temperature in 10° C. This feature is also present on M3A32-MVP DeLuxe/WiFi-AP, which is another high-end socket AM2+ motherboard from ASUS but based on AMD 790FX chipset.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 4: Passive heatsinks for the memory modules.

This solution is more indicated to memory modules that don’t have heatsinks attached, even though you can install modules with attached heatsinks without any problem.

In Figure 5, you can see where the heatsink fits on the motherboard. After installing it on the memory modules you need to screw its body to the motherboard passive cooling solution.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 5: Aspect of the memory heatsink on the motherboard.

This motherboard uses only solid aluminum capacitors, which is great in order to prevent the infamous capacitor leakage problem. This motherboard uses ferrite coils on the voltage regulator circuit, which is also great, since they provide a lower power loss.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 6: Passive heatsink, solid aluminum capacitors and ferrite coils.

This motherboard also implements features available on all current high-end motherboards from ASUS, in particular Express Gate, which is a Linux version with Internet browser and Skype embedded on the motherboard ROM memory allowing you to access the Internet without loading the operating system and even without a hard disk drive installed.

In Figure 7, you can see all accessories that come with this motherboard. As you can see, it comes with a fan to be installed on the motherboard passive heatsink if you think that it is generating too much heat. Another interesting small feature is that the I/O panel finishing doesn’t have any cutting edges, so you probably won’t cut yourself while installing it. This motherboard also comes with Q-Connectors, a solution created by ASUS that facilitates the installation of the wires coming from the case frontal panel, SLI bridges for both 2- and 3-way modes and an HDMI-to-DVI adapter.

nForce 780a ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe MotherboardFigure 7: Motherboard accessories.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe/Mempipe main features are:

  • Socket: AM2+.
  • Chipset: NVIDIA nForce 780a.
  • Super I/O: ITE 8716F
  • Parallel IDE: One ATA-133 port controlled by the south bridge chip.
  • Serial IDE: Six SATA-300 ports, controlled by the south bridge chip, supporting RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 and JBOD and two one eSATA-300 port controlled by a Marvell 88SE6111 chip.
  • USB: Ten USB 2.0 ports (four soldered on the motherboard and six available through I/O brackets; this board comes with an I/O bracket containing two ports, thus four ports are left over and should be used by the case frontal USB ports).
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394a): Two ports controlled by an LSI L-FW3227 chip, available through I/O brackets. The I/O bracket that comes with the motherboard has only one port, so one port is left over and should be used by the case frontal FireWire port.
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with Analog Devices AD1988B codec (eight channels, 24-bit resolution, up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs, 92 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the inputs and 101 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs).
  • On-board video: Yes, with two independent outputs, one VGA and the other HDMI.
  • On-board LAN: One Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by the chipset with an Atheros Attansic F1 chip making the physical layer interface.
  • Buzzer: No.
  • Power supply required: ATX12V 2.x (24-pin), EPS12V optional.
  • Slots: Three x16 PCI Express 2.0 slots supporting SLI (working at x16 if one or two cards are installed; at x8 if three cards are installed), one PCI Express x1 slot and two PCI slots.
  • Memory: Four DDR-DIMM sockets (up to 8 GB up to DDR2-800/PC2-6400 or DDR2-1066/PC2-8500, depending on the CPU).
  • Number of CDs that come with this motherboard: One DVD-ROM.
  • Programs included: Motherboard drivers and utilities.
  • Extra features: Passive cooling for the memories, passive cooling for the motherboard, aluminum solid capacitors, Q-Connectors for the case frontal connectors and Express Gate (web browsing and Skype without entering the operating system or even without a hard disk drive attached).
  • More Information: https://www.asus.com
  • Average price in the US: This product wasn’t released yet on the day we published this First Look article.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

We simply couldn’t find any negative point on this motherboard. If you are looking for a high-end motherboard for your AMD system supporting SLI including 3-way SLI this is definitely the motherboard you should buy.

This board features only the cutting-edge technology: socket AM2+ (i.e., HyperTransport 3.0), three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, six SATA-300 ports, one eSATA port, two FireWire ports, Gigabit Ethernet, on-board optical and coaxial SPDIF connectors. With this board you won’t need to upgrade your PC for several years. In fact, the only reason you may want to think about upgrading your system based on this motherboard is when socket AM3 CPUs are released, which will support DDR3 memories. Since in practical terms DDR3 does not bring higher performance compared to DDR2, even this upgrade is questionable if you think of it only for the memory reason (maybe for having a CPU with a higher clock rate it will make sense).

Even though this motherboard supports HybridPower, which allows the system to turn off your video cards when you are not playing games and make 2D video to be produced by the motherboard on-board video card, only rich ultra enthusiasts will have access to it, as only GeForce 9800 GTX and GeForce 9800 GX2 support this technology (and it only work under Vista).

On the other hand, the on-board video from this motherboard allows you to expand the number of simultaneous video monitors you can have attached to your system. Of course we don’t see anyone buying a high-end motherboard to use only the on-board video, but in fact it can be a handy feature while you are waiting for your video card to arrive or if your video card burned and you are waiting for its replacement.

The highlight of this motherboard is its memory passive cooling system that according to ASUS reduces memory temperature in 10° C, which should help you achieving a higher overclocking.

The quality of the on-board audio of this motherboard is also something we need to say: with over 100 dB signal-to-noise ratio on its output you get the same quality of good add-on sound cards. Its input signal-to-noise ratio, however, is low for today’s standards, with only 92 dB while it should have at least 95 dB. Even though this is enough for the regular user, if you are looking for a motherboard for professionally capturing and editing analog audio (converting LPs, VHS tapes, etc) you should look for a different motherboard or install a better add-on sound card on this board.

Also on the good side is the manufacturing quality of the board, with passive heatsinks that eliminate the noise produced by the motherboard, solid aluminum capacitors, which provides a higher life span compared to traditional electrolytic capacitors plus you won’t face the infamous capacitor leakage problem, and ferrite coils on the voltage regulator circuit, which provide a lower power loss.

As we mentioned this board also has features found on other high-end motherboards from ASUS, like Express Gate, which allows you to browse the Internet and access Skype without entering the operating system and even without a hard disk drive attached. It is done by incorporating a small Linux version with web browsing and Skype on the motherboard ROM memory. This feature would be really interesting if added to entry-level motherboards, because then you could assemble really cheap medialess PCs for Internet browsing.

The only problem is that NVIDIA is very delayed with the nForce 780a release. Motherboards based on the competing AMD 790FX are out there since the end of last year and the second series of NVIDIA chipsets for the Intel platform supporting 3-way SLI, nForce 790i, was already launched – before the first generation for the AMD platform – causing frustration for high-end users willing to upgrade their PCs to a Phenon-based system with an NVIDIA-based motherboard.

We also don’t have any idea of the price this board will reach the market, so we can’t say whether it provides a good cost/benefit ratio or not.