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A look at Asus’ Vista Edition motherboard features

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor Author expertise
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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.

 

A ScreenDuo SideShow
While an onboard ReadyBoost cache is neat, it doesn’t exactly have the same flashy appeal as, oh, Vista’s slick Aero user interface. However, Asus’ Vista Edition motherboards aren’t completely lacking in sex appeal; they also come bundled with a fancy ScreenDuo display designed to work with Vista’s SideShow capabilities.

The ScreenDuo measures roughly 4″ wide, 2.5″ tall, and 0.75″ thick, and features a 2.5″ diagonal QVGA display. It has a four-way directional pad and a couple of buttons up front, in addition to three buttons located along the top edge of the unit.

A handy stand pops out of the back of the unit, making it possible to mount on a desk for easy viewing. Asus also throws in a USB cable to connect the ScreenDuo to your PC, and that’s where the fun begins.

Windows Vista’s SideShow feature was conceived to allow laptops to display information on a secondary display, but that functionality hasn’t been limited to the mobile world. Auxiliary displays are nothing new on the desktop, of course—I’ve been running dual monitors for years. However, SideShow isn’t quite the same as a secondary monitor. Instead, it’s designed to be an interface for what Microsoft calls gadgets—mini applications similar to widgets on the Mac.

Most users will find gadgets on their Windows Vista sidebars, but the ScreenDuo and other SideShow devices provide a secondary display and interface for those kinds of applications. In notebooks, SideShow devices can allow you to access email messages, check your calendar, and use other gadgets while the notebook remains closed. That’s certainly handy if you’re on the go and don’t have time to sit down and crack open your laptop, but the appeal doesn’t really translate to the desktop, where you’re generally always sitting in front of your monitor. Still, gamers should appreciate the ability to access certain applications without disrupting their full-screen fragging, questing, or whatever it is that kids are doing these days.

Oddly, the M2N32-SLI Premium’s ScreenDuo module doesn’t show up in the Windows Vista SideShow control panel. Instead, Asus provides its own ScreenDuo software and a selection of gadgets, including a handy RSS reader and an iTunes control panel that you’re probably not going to get from Microsoft. Users can easily trim this list of gadgets to suit their needs, and configuration is a snap.

When the ScreenDuo module is powered on, the user is greeted with a simple interface that can be used to fire up any of the gadget apps. The screen itself is clear and bright, and the simple interface plays well with the limited number of buttons on the device.

QVGA’s 320×240 resolution isn’t the best way to view pictures or slideshows, but it’s more than adequate for text, as can be seen with our own RSS article feed. There’s even enough room along the bottom edge of the display for a mini taskbar, complete with a clock and mail and calendar notification icons.

If you like gaming to music of your own choosing, the ScreenDuo’s Media Player Controller gadget is pretty slick. Not only can you monitor and control what’s currently playing…

You can also browse your media library and available playlists. I really wasn’t expecting the media player interface to offer much more than basic playback and volume controls, so I was pleasantly surprised here. The ScreenDuo really is much more than a secondary display; it’s a whole secondary interface.

Of course, while the interface is nice, gadgets will ultimately make or break the ScreenDuo—and SideShow as a whole—on the desktop. Asus is off to a good start, offering iTunes control, an RSS reader, and a hardware monitoring app, but the last of these definitely needs some work. The hardware monitoring gadget will display system temperatures, fan speeds, and voltages. However, they’re all on separate pages, and you don’t get any graphing over time. We like graphs. A lot.

SideShow is a new idea, so we’ll cut Asus some slack here. If anything, they’ve provided a very nice foundation for desktop gadgets, and we’d love to see developers take advantage of it. This kind of auxiliary interface seems ideal for instant messaging, hardware monitoring, and system performance tracking gadgets, in particular.

 

TPM-ready
The ASAP and ScreenDuo elements of Asus’ Vista Edition lineup aren’t likely to create controversy, but a rather innocuous-looking 20-pin header located at the bottom of the board might bunch the britches of the tinfoil hat crowd. This header is designed to support a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) capable of generating secure cryptographic keys, verifying software authenticity, enforcing digital rights management schemes, slowly eroding your fair use rights, clubbing baby seals, and contributing to global warming. Ok, maybe not that last one.

The M2N32-SLI Premium supports version 1.2 TPM modules, although Asus doesn’t bundle one with the board. At least you won’t be sacrificed on the altar of draconian DRM by default. Those looking to take advantage of the BitLocker drive encryption scheme available in Enterprise and Ultimate flavors of Windows Vista will need a TPM module, though. Through BitLocker, Vista can secure the entire contents of a drive using 128-bit AES encryption; it can also verify the integrity of early boot files and lock a hard drive to a single system.

BitLocker is going to be overkill for the vast majority of users, so it’s probably a good idea that Asus isn’t actually bundling a TPM unit with its Vista Edition motherboards. No one wants to pay extra for a feature they’ll never use. Still, in the interest of supporting all of Vista’s new bells and whistles, it’s nice to see that Asus’ Vista Edition mobos do have TPM support.

Raise the remote
Asus’ AI Remote isn’t technically limited to the company’s Vista Edition motherboards, and it isn’t actually tied to any Vista-specific features. Still, with a couple of minutes of fiddling, it does complement Vista’s Media Center functionality very nicely.

The AI Remote is relatively small, with just a handful of buttons and a basic USB IR dongle. Things get considerably more interesting when we fire up the AI Remote software, which reveals support for multiple profiles and custom button mapping.

All but a few of the remote’s buttons are open to some form of remapping, and users can bind six of them to just about any key they desire. This capability allows one to create a custom profile that’s just good enough to muddle through the Media Center interface included with Home Premium and Ultimate versions of Vista. Sure, you don’t get all the functionality of an official Media Center remote, but there’s only so much you can ask from a motherboard freebie. We would like to see Asus create an official profile for Windows Media Center in its AI Remote software so users don’t have to roll their own, though. That would only be appropriate for a Vista Edition motherboard.

 

Conclusions
Asus’ Vista Edition motherboard extras do a good job of highlighting some of the new functionality offered by Microsoft’s latest operating system. More importantly, they add unique capabilities you won’t find bundled with any other motherboard. In a market populated with largely cookie-cutter designs that don’t vary much from manufacturer to manufacturer, that’s a very good thing.

But novel capabilities aren’t as valuable as useful ones, and some of Asus’ Vista Edition extras are more flash than function. Take the horribly-named Asus Accelerated Propeller, for example. We love the idea of having onboard flash memory to take advantage of Vista’s ReadyBoost feature, but you’re not likely to notice much of a performance difference on systems with ample system memory. Microsoft also recommends at least a 1:1 ratio of flash to system memory for ReadyBoost, and since the ASAP module only makes 480MB available to Windows, you’re not going to get anywhere close to 1:1 with the 2GB of system memory you’re probably going to want to be running with Vista.

Still, the fact that we were able to use the ASAP flash drive as a DOS boot disk makes me all tingly. There should be plenty of room on that flash chip for a lean Linux distribution, system recovery utilities, or stress-testing apps for overclockers—it need not be a Vista-only perk.

You probably won’t be able to use the ScreenDuo SideShow module without Vista, though. Thankfully, there are plenty of useful gadgets bundled with the unit and even more potential just waiting to be exploited. Enthusiasts looking to take advantage of Vista’s Media Center functionality should also appreciate Asus’ AI Remote.

The Vista Edition motherboards’ support for Trusted Computing Modules is the only feature likely to be ignored by most enthusiasts. But that’s OK, because the TPM header is at least there for those who want to experiment with BitLocker or surrender their souls to invasive digital rights management. Really, it’s all about having options, and Asus’ Vista Edition motherboard extras give you plenty. 

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Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior, a seasoned tech marketing expert with over 20 years of experience, specializes in crafting engaging narratives that connect people with technology. At Tech Report, he excelled in editorial management, covering all aspects of computer hardware and software and much more.

Gasior's deep expertise in this field allows him to effectively communicate complex concepts to a wide range of audiences, making technology accessible and engaging for everyone

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