Asus' P6T Deluxe
A little something for everyone
Perhaps more than those of any other motherboard maker, Asus' enthusiast offerings have been the most consistently good over the years. The world's largest mobo maker has been catering to the gaming, overclocking, and do-it-yourself crowd for a very long time, and it shows. It's no surprise, then, that the first X58 board to hit our labs was the P6T Deluxe. Asus also has a Republic of Gamers Rampage II Extreme board ready for Nehalem, but it's a little up-market from the P6T. Since the Deluxe already carries a hefty $309 suggested retail price, we thought it was the best one to tackle today.
The P6T Deluxe is appropriately dressed in orange and black for the season, with a splash of brilliant blue thrown in for good measure. If anything, high-end motherboards have toned down their aesthetics lately, replacing some of the flashier palettes of a few years ago with muted but no less attractive tones. Restraint is a good thing, in this case, because the P6T looks about as sharp as can be expected from a motherboard.
You can tell that Asus' board designers have been at it for a long time because the P6T Deluxe's layout is virtually free of clearance issues. That's not easy to do, particularly when you have to squeeze in all the additional chips and slots associated with Asus' Deluxe offerings.
Power plug placement is the first potential clearance quirk that I look for in a motherboardyou don't want power cabling crowding the CPU socket or interfering with airflow between the processor heatsink and chassis exhaust fan. Asus does well here, placing the auxiliary 12V connector out of the way along the top edge of the board. This layout works well with traditional enclosures that place the power supply above the motherboard, although it's a little less convenient for those new-fangled upside-down enclosures like Antec's P180 series.
As one might expect from a high-end motherboard, the P6T Deluxe surrounds its shiny new LGA1366 socket with heatpipes and cooling fins. The heatsinks are passive, low-profile designs, so they won't make any noise or interfere with larger coolers that fan out from the socket. Somewhat surprisingly, the cooler's north bridge component doesn't have much in the way of actual surface area, at least when compared to the arrays of thin fins that cover the board's voltage circuitry heatsinks. That starts to make sense when you consider that the Deluxe is outfitted with a whopping 18 power phases; there are 16 for the processor core and another two for its memory controller and QPI component.
Next to the socket we find six DDR3 memory slots. The board supports up to 2GB of memory per slot, for 12GB overall. Naturally, Asus hasn't been content to stick with Intel's official 1066MHz memory speed ceiling; DDR3 memory speeds are advertised up to 1600MHz.
While we're talking memory, it's worth pointing out that the P6T's DIMM slots are exactly centered relative to the CPU socket. Asus says this both shortens and equalizes trace lengths to memory, allowing for more stable overclocking.
Moving south brings us to the board's cluster of Serial ATA ports. The six red ports branch off the ICH10R south bridge chip while the remaining two orange ones are tied to a Marvell 88SE6320 Serial Attached SCSI controller. Backwards compatibility built into the SAS standard allows plain old Serial ATA drives to work with the SCSI controller, and it'll do RAID 0 and 1 arrays, too.
Asus arranges the P6T's SATA ports in a tight cluster, with six of them facing the outer edge of the board. Doing so ensures plenty of clearance for longer double-wide graphics cardssomething that surprisingly few high-end motherboards get right. Speaking of clearance, the low-profile south bridge cooler won't interfere with expansion cards, either.
Over to the left of the SATA ports are onboard power and reset buttons. These are incredibly handy if you run an open test bench, but they're largely useless otherwise. At least Asus knows how to make life a little easier for its internal testers (and motherboard reviewers).
The P6T's slot stack packs a little something for everyone. Three physical x16 slots are available for graphics; the top slot gets a full 16 lanes of bandwidth, with the bottom two split in an x16/x1 or dual-x8 config. However, because the bottom two slots are side-by-side, three-way configs can't accommodate a double-wide card in the second slot (or the third, depending on how your case is laid out). That's not likely to be a serious limitation for most, but it's one that could have been avoided.
Additional PCI Express lanes can be found in an x4 slot that's notched to accommodate longer x8 and x16 cards. Asus also throws in a couple of PCI slots, one of which will be blocked by double-wide primary graphics cards.
From here, we can see a little riser card poking out from between the second PCI and PCIe x16 slots. This module stores the board's embedded ExpressGate instant-on Linux distribution, which offers basic functionality like a web browser and Skype. ExpressGate is a nice little touch, but one whose utility would be improved vastly by the addition of a comprehensive system stress testing application for overclockers.
Forward-looking is perhaps the best way to describe the P6T's port cluster. The only concession to old-school connectivity is a single PS/2 port. Otherwise, the board's I/O payload is laden with USB, Firewire, Ethernet, and audio ports. We especially appreciate the inclusion of eSATA connectivity and two flavors of digital S/PDIF output, although it would have been nice to get a digital audio input, as well.
Asus backs the board's Ethernet ports with a pair of GigE chips from Marvell. More intriguingly, the P6T's audio codec is supplied by Analog Devices, which recently announced that it's getting out of the PC audio business. Analog Devices codecs have long been featured on Asus boards, but this one doesn't support real-time DTS or Dolby Digital Live encoding, restricting multi-channel digital audio output to applications that already have pre-encoded audio tracksthat's fine for movie playback, but it doesn't work for games.
In addition to the ports available in the I/O cluster, the P6T also has onboard headers for an additional Firewire port and six more USB ports. That brings the board's USB count up to 14 (15, if you count the USB connection typically used by the ExpressGate module), which is a little higher than the dozen ports offered by the ICH10R. We suspect there's some sharing involved, but Asus has yet to confirm exactly how it's feeding the extra USB ports.
The P6T wouldn't be Deluxe without a little something extra in the box, and Asus obliges with its OC Palm external display module. Introduced as the ScreenDuo with Asus' Vista Edition motherboards last year, this little device hooks into the board via a USB port and offers a 2.5" QVGA display, a four-way directional pad, and four input buttons. OC Palm is designed to interface with Asus' Windows overclocking and hardware monitoring software, allowing users to tweak settings and keep tabs on system variables without consuming screen real estate or interrupting full-screen gaming.
While its interface is fairly simplistic, OC Palm allows users to adjust the board's base clock frequency and voltages for the processor core, memory bus, and QPI link. On the monitoring front, the device tracks motherboard and processor temperatures, fan speeds, and the voltage running to the processor, 3.3V, 5V, and 12V lines. Someone at Asus, it seems, has been reading my blog.
OC Palm looks promising, and it's certainly a unique feature in a market largely devoid of new ideas. I'd like to see its monitoring component expanded to support user-configurable graphs that track a collection of system variables on a single screen, and that may very well happen, since Asus expects to expand OC Palm's functionality through software updates.