Asus – SK8N review

64-bit motherboard for AMD Opteron and Athlon64
Photo of Asus – SK8N
£165

When Asus announced its SK8N motherboard for the AMD Opteron processor, there was a certain amount of confusion. After all, Opteron is a server chip that can run in two-way, four-way or eight-way configurations, yet this is a single Socket-940 processor motherboard, so it would appear to be tailor-made for the 1xx series of Opteron processors.

While it may be the good basis for a workstation, this seemed like a niche application that simply wasn’t as exciting as we might expect, particularly as the SK8N uses the new Nvidia Nforce 3 Pro150 chipset, which is packed with features.

On the face of it, the SK8N seemed like a strange motherboard, but it all became clear in September when AMD launched the Socket-754 Athlon64 3200+ processor, as it also launched the Socket-940 Athlon64 FX-51 at the same time. This is a high performance processor that is aimed at gamers, and if it used the same rating system as AMD’s other processors, we are told it would be named the 3600+ or 3800+.

Suddenly the SK8N made sense, and how. On the one hand you could use the Asus as the heart of an Opteron 1xx workstation that would have a 64-bit upgrade path, or you could build a desktop PC with the FX-51 that would drive the latest games at a ferocious pace.

Of course, the most eye-catching feature on this motherboard is the processor socket. It is slightly smaller than an Athlon, but the 940 pins fill the entire socket with no gap for a heat-sensing diode in the centre. Around the socket is the frame that secures the new Opteron heatsink. This uses a combination of the Athlon securing mechanism and a Pentium 4 type locking arm to tension it correctly.

Next to the socket are the four memory slots, which are of key importance as the memory controller is in the processor core, rather than the Northbridge. You need to use approved memory, and in the case of SK8N that means ECC-registered DDR memory up to PC2700 speed. The board can support up to 8GB of memory, but of course, you’ll need to use a 64-bit operating system for more than 4GB.

In fact that 8GB figure is a bit of a red herring, as you can’t get approved modules larger than 1GB at present, so that is a 4GB limit. We wussed out and spent £500 on 2GB PC2700 for testing purposes, as £1,000 seemed like a lot of money for system memory.

The four slots are arranged in two pairs to give dual-channel memory support, much like an 865/875P Pentium 4 motherboard. The AGP slot supports 8x cards and has a proper retention clip and there are five PCI slots. The backplate has everything you need with one legacy serial port, a legacy parallel port, two PS/2, three mini jacks for the ALC650 audio, four USB 2.0, one Firewire and a port for the Realtek 10/100 LAN.

Although the Firewire is welcome, it all looks very conventional indeed. There are more brackets in the box so you can add a second serial port, two more USB ports, another Firewire, and optical and coaxial SPDIF outputs. The SK8N is neatly laid out, but it would get rather cluttered if you chose to add all four brackets.

That’s plenty of ports, but you also get a decent selection of connectors for hard drives and optical drives. The Nforce3 Pro150 chipset (actually, it’s a single chip) supports two ATA-133 connectors for a total of four drives, and then there’s a Promise PDC20378 chip with another ATA-133 connector, plus two Serial ATA connectors.

Of course, the problem with Opteron and Athlon64 is that there is no 64-bit Windows available at present. This will change in months to come but for now we had the choice of running the Asus using either Linux or 32-bit Windows XP. We chose Windows and we benchmarked with an Opteron 142 processor running at a true 1.6GHz. Our test results were equivalent to a 2.6GHz or 2.8GHz Pentium 4 Northwood which is quite good, but hardly earth-shaking.

Company: Asus

Contact: 01908 217135


Verdict
As the motherboard costs £165 and the processor costs £270 it's hardly a budget option. We have no doubt this system will fly with an FX-51 installed, but that piece of silicon will set you back £675, and then there's the cost of all the ECC memory you're going to need. For a first attempt at 32/64-bit hardware this is deeply impressive, but until we get 64-bit Windows it all seems just a little bit pointless.