The P5N-E SLI was the first motherboard based on Nvidia's nForce 650i chipset to hit the market, and with street prices flirting with $120, it's also one of the most affordable LGA775 boards to support SLI. We can't even find LGA775 boards with secondary PCI Express x16 slots—let alone Crossfire-capable competitors based on Intel's P965 chipset—selling for less than the P5N-E SLI.
So the P5N-E SLI does well on price—exceptionally well, in fact. To get the board down to such a reasonable range, however, Asus has understandably had to cut a few corners. We've already had a taste of how those cuts have affected the P5N-E's chipset and its capabilities, but has the penny pinching affected the board itself?
On the aesthetics front, the answer would be yes. We don't mind, though. The P5N-E may not be much to look at, but only those with case windows will actually be able to see the board once it's installed in a system.
Layout is far more important than looks, and Asus has done a good job on that front. They've even got the little things right, such as the location of the auxiliary 12V power connector, which neatly sits along the top edge of the board. This location reduces cable clutter around the CPU socket in traditional ATX cases, although we should note that it can complicate wiring with upside-down cases that put the power supply at the bottom of the chassis.
If one feature dominates the P5N-E's layout, it's mountain range of aluminum that sits atop the board's north bridge chip. This massive cooler is quite possibly the largest heatsink we've seen on a motherboard, and thanks to its expansive surface area, there's no need for a potentially noisy chipset fan.
The north bridge cooler does sit a little close to the CPU socket, so you may run into clearance snags with extremely wide aftermarket coolers. Keep an eye on those tallish capacitors along the top edge (bottom right in the picture) of the board, too.
Disaster strikes the P5N-E's layout as we move to the board's cluster of storage ports. When installed in the board's secondary (lower) PCIe x16 slot, longer graphics cards like Nvidia's GeForce 7900 GTX block access to at least three of the board's SATA ports. You can use right-angle plugs to sneak under a double-wide graphics card cooler, but those plugs will still block some of the SATA ports. Asus doesn't include right-angle plugs in the box, either.
Fortunately, you'll only run into SATA cable clearance issues with SLI configs that use graphics cards with double-width coolers. That kind of high-end setup probably won't be too common on a $120 motherboard like the P5N-E.
In order to get SLI working on the P5N-E, you have to flip an old-school paddle card. It's not the most convenient way to change your PCI Express lane configuration, but then it's not something you'll be doing regularly.
Interestingly, Asus appears to have removed a PCIe x1 slot from below the primary x16 slot. A double-wide graphics card would have blocked access to the slot anyway, and there isn't exactly a wealth of PCIe peripherals to choose from. Fortunately, the board does have a pair of traditional PCI slots.
The P5N-E's port cluster might look sparse, but everything you're likely to need is there, including a coaxial S/PDIF audio output, an eSATA port, and a Firewire jack. The board even has a parallel port, although there are only three analog audio outputs; mic and line-in ports are shared with the center and rear analog outputs.
Budget motherboards aren't usually bundled with elaborate extras, and the P5N-E is no exception. However, Asus does throw in a couple of jumper blocks for the board's front-panel and USB headers. The front-panel block is particularly useful since chassis and motherboard makers still have yet to agree on a single standard pin pattern for these connections.
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