Fatal1ty is the closest thing the enthusiast community has to a celebrity endorsement, but there isn't much a motherboard can do for your gaming skills—I've used numerous Fatal1ty boards over the years, and not once has one kept me from getting owned. Still, the Fatal1ty AN9 32X represents the pinnacle of Abit's lineup for Socket AM2, and the board packs a handful of extras you won't find on the vanilla AN9 32X.
Of course, Fatal1ty branding does come with a price premium. In this case, it's about $20, which isn't bad considering the board's relatively affordable street price. To start, that $20 buys you a unique black-and-red color scheme that's maintained nearly throughout the board. Abit really should have completed the aesthetic by swapping out the blue USB headers, though.
Colors aside, Abit does a good job with the Fatal1ty board's power plug placement. Primary and auxiliary 12V connectors are located along the edges of the board where cable clutter won't impede airflow around the CPU. The auxiliary 12V connector is only a four-pin plug, but there's also an additional Molex power connector on the board for SLI configurations that require a little extra juice.
Abit keeps tall capacitors away from the CPU socket, but the board's north bridge and VRM heatsinks might interfere with extremely large coolers that fan out beyond the retention bracket. The DIMM slots are also very close to the CPU socket, which could create clearance problems with taller DIMMs like Corsair's XMS PRO series.
Everyone seems to be doing passive chipset cooling these days, so it's no surprise to see a series of heatpipes and bare heatsinks on the AN9. However, rather than relying solely on ambient airflow, the board features a pair of fans in the port cluster area. These fans move air over the VRM heatsink, which is also connected to the south bridge cooler via a single heatpipe. Interestingly, the north bridge chip's passive heatsink isn't connected to the others.
Moving south, Abit stacks all of the AN9's Serial ATA ports in a single cluster along the edge of the board. Longer double-wide graphics cards shouldn't interfere with the AN9's Serial ATA plugs. However, the GeForce 8800 is longer than some motherboards are wide, and I haven't tried it with this board. Your mileage may vary.
That said, we have to commend Abit for offering plenty of clearance between the top PCI Express x16 slot and the board's DIMM slot retention tabs. Motherboards rarely leave enough clearance for swapping memory modules when a graphics card is installed, but there's plenty of room on the Fatal1ty.
Unfortunately, there's plenty of room because Abit's a little stingy with expansion ports. Discounting the backward PCI Express x1-looking expansion slot over on the right (we'll get to that in a moment), the AN9 is stuck with only one PCI and two PCIe x1 slots to complement its dual x16 slots. What's worse, SLI configurations made of double-wide graphics cards will cannibalize one x1 and one standard PCI slot, leaving users with just a single PCIe x1. The AN9 would be much better off with an additional PCI slot, or at the very least, a PCI slot that won't be compromised by double-wide SLI configs.
So what about that backwards PCIe x1 slot? That's a dedicated slot for the board's AudioMAX riser, which packs all the board's audio input and output ports onto a single riser card. Abit also places the audio codec chip on the riser to help isolate it from board-level noise, although we'll see whether that really makes much of a difference in our audio quality tests a little later on.
Overall, the AN9 has a decent array of audio input and output options. However, due to limited real estate, the digital S/PDIF input has to share a port with the blue analog line in. That means you'll need a 3.5mm TOS-Link jack adapter, too.
With audio relegated to a riser, the rest of the AN9's port cluster looks pretty barewell, bare if you ignore the dual OTES cooling fans, that is. PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports make an appearance alongside the usual array of USB and Ethernet ports. Users can get at an additional six USB ports and both of the AN9's Firewire ports via onboard headers.
Presumably with an eye towards adding value to its Fatal1ty package, Abit throws an auxiliary graphics card cooler into the box. The cooler's fan can be run off an onboard fan header—where it can be governed by the Fatal1ty's excellent temperature-based fan speed control—or with a standard Molex plug.
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