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A look at Asus' Vista Edition motherboard features

More than just a fancy name

WINDOWS VISTA IS upon us, and hardware vendors are already taking advantage of the buzz surrounding Microsoft's latest operating system. There's no shortage of products claiming to be "Built for Vista," "Ready for Vista," or "Vista-Ready," but in most cases those labels denote little more than driver availability and support for core Vista features and functionality. Asus' new "Vista Edition" motherboards are different, though.

Rather than simply bringing its motherboards up to code for Vista certification and bundling a few extra drivers, Asus has gone out of its way to exploit some of the operating system's more exotic capabilities. Vista Edition boards brim with buzzwords, packing auxiliary SideShow displays, Media Center-friendly remotes, onboard flash memory for ReadyBoost, and even support for the Trusted Platform Modules necessary for BitLocker encryption. Join us as we explore each of these intriguing extras and the underlying Vista functionality behind them.

The M2N32-SLI gets premium
Asus is rolling out four Vista Edition motherboards, including the P5B-Plus, M2N-Plus, P5B Premium, and M2N32-SLI Premium. We've had the latter up and running in the Benchmarking Sweatshop for about a week now, but all four boards share the same Vista Edition extras.

At first glance, the M2N32-SLI Premium keeps its, er, Vistaness close to its chest. "Vista Edition" isn't even silkscreened on the board, which apart from a little layout juggling, looks nearly identical to the M2N32-SLI Deluxe. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Asus has been selling versions of the M2N32-SLI for over eight months now, and a board that started its life as a solid Socket AM2 offering has only become more refined over time.

The refinement continues with this latest Premium revision, which rotates the position of the CPU socket and DIMM slots and fiddles with the heatpipe-based chipset cooler. Little else has changed; you still get the same nForce 590 SLI chipset, tweak-friendly BIOS, Analog Devices integrated audio, and FireWire and eSATA connectivity. Only upon closer inspection do the board's Vista Edition features start to come into focus.

ReadyBoost onboard
We find our first taste of Vista just above the board's auxiliary 12V connector. There, perched atop a short riser, sits a Hynix HY27UF084G2M 512MB NAND flash memory chip.

Onboard risers are nothing new for the M2N32-SLI—Deluxe versions of the board are equipped with an 802.11g Wi-Fi riser. However, this is the first time we've seen a flash memory chip on a riser card. In fact, it's the first time we've seen flash memory on a motherboard, period.

Looking at the riser from another angle reveals a Phison PS2135 storage controller similar to what you'd find on a USB thumb drive. The riser itself is connected to one of the board's USB headers, as well (monopolizing two of the chipset's USB ports in the process, we should add). Asus calls this setup the Asus Accelerated Propeller, or ASAP, but it's really just an onboard USB flash drive.

So what does a USB flash drive have to do with accelerating, er, propellers?

Absolutely nothing. However, it actually has quite a lot to do with Windows Vista's ReadyBoost feature. To understand ReadyBoost, we must first tackle Vista's SuperFetch memory management system. SuperFetch runs as a Vista service, tracking application usage patterns so that it may intelligently cache data to improve performance. Improved performance, in this case, comes mostly in the form of quicker application load times.

In traditional systems, SuperFetch moves data from comparatively slow hard drives to much faster main memory. That caching consumes main memory, though, so it's less ideal for systems surfing the edge of Vista's minimum memory requirements. And that's where ReadyBoost comes in.

ReadyBoost enables USB flash memory to be used as a SuperFetch cache, allowing users to easily add caching capacity to their systems without even cracking the case. Flash memory isn't nearly as fast as system memory, of course, and it's slower than most hard drives when sequential transfers are involved. However, because it's not bound by mechanical latency, flash memory offers much quicker access times than even the fastest 15K-RPM SCSI drives. In fact, ReadyBoost's performance requirements only demand that a flash drive be capable of pushing 4K random reads at 2.5MB/s and 512K random writes at just 1.75MB/s.

Getting ReadyBoost working on the M2N32-SLI Premium is as easy as installing the ASAP driver that comes with the board. ReadyBoost defaults to using 431MB of the onboard flash drive's available capacity, but since this isn't a removable drive, you might as well let ReadyBoost use the whole thing. (Those using ReadyBoost with USB thumbdrives will no doubt appreciate not having to sacrifice the entire drive to SuperFetch caching, though.)

Since ReadyBoost was designed primarily for systems with limited system memory, it's perhaps not entirely appropriate for the kinds of systems you might find using a high-end motherboard like the M2N32-SLI Premium. Indeed, we didn't observe any noticeable difference in load times when we enabled ReadyBoost on our test system. That system was equipped with 2GB of memory, so it wasn't exactly hurting for cache-friendly RAM.

If you're not particularly interested in ReadyBoost, the ASAP module can be used for traditional storage—you know, if you want all the convenience of a USB flash drive without the convenience of actually being able to take it with you. We were also able to format the drive with a standard DOS boot image; you can select the ASAP as a boot device in the M2N32-SLI Premium's BIOS, and we were able to boot to DOS without issue. However, my *nix mojo wasn't nearly strong enough to get a lightweight Linux distro booting from the ASAP module.