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Asus leads with the M3N-HT Deluxe
Unlike on the Intel side, where Nvidia's recent chipset launches have been accompanied by retail motherboards of its own design, our first look at the nForce 780a SLI comes from Asus. The M3N-HT Deluxe is a decidedly high-end offering with a suggested retail price of $249. That's certainly well within the range we'd expect from a premium mobo, but it's a tricky proposition given the lack of a truly high-end Phenom processor to ride shotgun.

At least the Deluxe lives up to its luxury status. Asus uses solid-state conductive polymer capacitors throughout, which bodes well for the board's longevity. Also, the six-layer PCB design features a "Stack Cool 2" layer of copper plate to aid heat dissipation.

On the layout front, the M3N-HT looks good overall, with power connectors located along the edges of the board right where cables won't impede airflow around the CPU socket. There are no major clearance problems to report elsewhere, either.

Asus lines up a total of ten power phases next to the Deluxe's AM2+ socket—eight phases for the processor and two for its memory and HyperTransport controller. The voltage regulation circuitry gets passive cooling, too, although with not nearly as much copper as we're used to seeing on high-end motherboards.

A pair of heatpipes link the voltage circuitry cooler to a heatsink that sits atop the nForce 200 chip. From there, another heatpipe snakes down to the MCP. All of the heatsinks used are low-profile designs. They leave plenty of room around the CPU socket for larger coolers, but there isn't quite enough clearance for the Scythe Ninja we use to test compatibility with gargantuan CPU coolers.

Asus also throws in a nifty memory heatsink that links right into the chipset cooler. This optional add-on is fully adjustable and easy to install, but it can only be used with two-DIMM configurations.

Moving south, Asus leaves plenty of room for longer graphics cards with a low-profile MCP cooler and edge-mounted IDE and Serial ATA ports. Heck, there's even enough room between the DIMM slot retention tabs and the top PCI Express x16 slot to allow memory modules to be swapped with a graphics card installed.

We should note that edge-mounted SATA ports can conflict with extremely tight ATX enclosures that leave little room around the motherboard tray, but it's a trade-off we're willing to accept for additional graphics card clearance. Besides, if your case is too small to accommodate edge-mounted SATA ports, you probably won't be able to squeeze in longer graphics cards like the GeForce 9800 GTX, which protrudes past the edge of the M3N-HT Deluxe by about an inch.

With Nvidia pushing three-way SLI, it's only fitting that the M3N-HT features a trio of PCI Express x16 slots. The M3N-HT Deluxe also includes a single PCIe x1 slot and a couple of standard PCI slots. SLI threesomes, which are currently only possible with double-wide cards, will block access to all of those other expansion slots, though.

Just below the top PCI slot you can see a little riser card that contains a flash memory chip hooked into an onboard USB header. This chip contains a Linux-based Express Gate embedded operating system that provides web browsing, chat, and Skype applications that can be accessed when the system boots. Express Gate is an interesting little extra, but we're not crazy about it cannibalizing one of the board's USB ports. You can't disable Express Gate and reclaim the lost USB port, either.

The M3N-HT Deluxe only has four USB ports on its outer edge, with internal headers for an additional six. Onboard headers are also available for two Firewire ports powered by an LSI chip, but there's no 1394a connectivity in the port cluster. You do get an external Serial ATA port fed by a Marvell storage controller, though.

As one might expect, the Deluxe sports a full complement of analog and digital audio ports. Asus uses an Analog Devices codec to run the show, with digital S/PDIF outputs in both coaxial and TOS-Link flavors. The board lacks a digital audio input port, though.

Of course, the stars of the Deluxe's port cluster are the VGA and HDMI outputs connected to the nForce 780a SLI's motherboard GPU. The mGPU is capable of dual monitor output split between one analog and one digital display, and Asus provides an adapter to convert the HDMI output to DVI. However, DVI is limited to single link, whose maximum supported resolution is only 1900x1200—well short of the 2560x1600 native resolution of 30" displays.

In addition to the HDMI-to-DVI adapter, the M3N-HT Deluxe comes with an optional chipset fan and a collection of front-panel connector blocks that make case wiring a snap.

If the M3N-HT Deluxe isn't quite flashy enough for your tastes, Asus' stable of nForce 780a SLI boards also includes the Crosshair II Formula. This mobo is even more upscale than the Deluxe, featuring fancy lighting effects, an external POST code display, an audio riser card, onboard power and reset buttons, and an external CMOS reset button in the port cluster.

The Crosshair II has a nice array of additional features and even comes bundled with a copy of Company of Heroes, but it suffers even more than the Deluxe from the lack of high-end Phenom processors. A motherboard may tie all of a system's components together, but performance and core functionality don't vary much between mid-range, high-end, and even ultra-premium products, making it hard to justify spending more on a mobo than a processor or graphics card. With a suggested retail price of $289, the Crosshair II Formula costs more than any Phenom that AMD makes—and more than plenty of potent graphics cards, too.