Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Asus Delivers The Heart Of a 'Green' PC

With the market's growing interest in building greener, less-power consuming IT infrastructure, one logical place to start is the PC. And inside the PC, you'd have to take a look at the motherboard.

The Test Center recently had a chance to evaluate the next generation of Asus' newer, energy-efficient board lineup by looking at the P5Q3 Deluxe WiFi-AP @n.

The P5Q3 Deluxe is an Intel (NSDQ:INTC) LGA775 Socket board with the new Intel P45 chipset. With four slots for DDR3 memory, it has two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots to support ATI CrossFireX at x8 speed, and another PCIe x16 slot at max x4 speed. There are also two PCIe x1 slots and two PCI slots.

In addition to the expected internal and external connections are two Gigabit RJ-45 ports which allow the PC to serve as a network gateway for managing traffic between two separate networks. Another nice touch is the two connectors for the included external WiFi antennas which support the integrated 802.11 b/g/n Wireless LAN.

What first stands out when looking at the P5Q3 is all the copper. With a fanless design, there are heatsinks over all the critical chips, and a heat-pipe that directs the heat to the back IO ports where it can be carried away by existing airflow from the CPU (or other) fan. During our tests, not a single part on the motherboard was hot to the touch, even after the system being on for more than two hours.

While not new, one of our favorite features of this, and other, Asus motherboards is what they call the Asus Q-Connector. Simply designed, the Q-Connector is merely a small, plastic block with a set of jumper pins on it. The block is labeled for easy connection to the case's front panel cables (power switch, reset switch and the like). After all connections are made to the module, it is easily placed on the motherboard -- eliminating the hassle of trying to connect the panel cables one at a time. This doesn't sound like such a big deal but, since the first time we used it, we were hooked.

As the BIOS has an entire screen dedicated to overclocking, a nice touch on the board is the inclusion of backlit power and reset buttons. This allows gamers to fine tune performance without having to short out pins or move jumpers.

The first screen to appear when the board is powered on, even before the BIOS screen, is the menu for the ASUS Express Gate. Express Gate is an embedded, Linux-based, instant-on (approximately five seconds) environment that gives quick access to the Web and Skype, as well as an image viewer and a Chat client that supports AIM, Goggle Talk, MSN, QQ, andYahoo (NSDQ: YHOO). The user can also choose to continue booting, enter the BIOS, or power off. Express Gate will automatically exit and boot to the OS after a preselected amount of time (default is 10 seconds). Since Express Gate is entirely self-contained on the motherboard, it can be used even when a hard drive isn't attached.

The heart of the P5Q3 is the EPU (Energy Processing Unit). This version is called the EPU-6 Engine, because it provides power management for the six critical power-consuming components (CPU, Memory, HDD, System Fan, VGA card, and the Chipset). By detecting current loadings and moderating the power in real-time, the EPU automatically provides the most appropriate power usage.

The newest version (v4) of Asus' AI Gear utility is now simply called Six Engine. Working in conjunction with the EPU, this application allows the user to select among five settings which attempt to balance energy use with performance needs. Besides the Max and Medium Power Saving settings, there are also High Performance and Turbo selections. (The latter two essentially overclock the CPU to squeeze out a little extra processing speed.)

To test the latest EPU, reviewers placed the motherboard in the same exact system as the original "green PC. All other components were unchanged. Our standard benchmarking tool, Primate Labs' GeekBench2 was used for scoring. It is interesting to note at this point that we ran our first series of tests on the motherboard straight out of the box. When this was completed, we updated the BIOS to the latest version and ran all the tests again. After the BIOS update, most of the GeekBench2 scores were about 800 points higher with the same, or in some cases lower, power consumption.

Although we had expectations of seeing a large jump in power savings/performance over the previous model, the P5Q3 showed only a small reduction in power usage with a tiny hit to the GeekBench2 score. That isn't necessarily a negative. On average, it is indeed a step up from Asus' earlier P5E3 board and, like its predecessor, shows a strong improvement when compared to our standard, in-lab test bed.

With a street price of around $230, the P5Q3 Deluxe WiFi-AP @n motherboard has many unique features at a fairly reasonable price. With the world's first 16-phase power design and 100% Japan-made, 5,000 hour, Ultra-long life Solid Capacitors, Asus is able to back this board with a 3-year warranty. Its energy saving elements are icing on the cake.