The motherboard PCB is based on that of the more expensive Striker Extreme, but just misses out the frilly extras like eSATA, onboard LEDs and switches, the rear I/O LCD display and the extreme heatpipe array. In its place are just two simple, singular heatpipe arrangements. Obviously this impacts on the cooling ability and heat distribution of the system. The heatpipes surrounding the CPU socket cause a bit of crowding, but as long as your choice of heatsink is elevated above them (many of the heatsinks on the market have heatpipes that elevate the cooling fins from around the CPU socket) you have plenty of free space.
What's left after Asus stripped the Striker down are the two PCI-Express Gigabit Ethernet controllers, IEEE1394a Firewire, ten USB 2.0 and six SATA ports. Also the three PCI-Express x16 ports are included, two of which are the full x16 bandwidth, coloured blue and used for SLI and the third has an x8 electrical interface. Along with these is a single PCI-Express x1 slot and two PCI slots.
The bottom PCI-Express x16 port is positioned so that if you use it with a dual slot card you not only lose the second PCI slot, but also vacuum the bottom of your case of dust. If enterprising modders cut a hole in their ATX case then you end up vacuuming the carpet. It's not all bad though, because the large gap between graphics cards is a positive design feature, as is the guaranteed availability of at least one PCI slot.
The northbridge is based on the nForce 650i unlike the 680i found on the Striker Extreme, however the southbridge is an AMD NF590 southbridge providing ten USB 2.0 ports and another PCI-Express x16 slot. The 650i is still regarded as a great overclocker considering the success people have been getting with the vanilla P5N-E SLI board, and the chipset still supports future 1333MHz FSB CPUs.
Asus has been smart in adapting the standard two x8 PCI-Express channels in the nForce 650i northbridge into a single x16 channel, and then letting the other x16 channel on the southbridge take up the second graphics card slot for SLI. The northbridge and southbridge communicate through a standard hyper transport link of 2000MT/s so has plenty of bandwidth to cope and the southbridge contains all the features of the corresponding Intel version.
Sound comes via the same daughterboard used on the Striker, so no value is lost there. The ADI SoundMAX1988B codec supports High-Definition sound with up to 7.1 channels, EAX 2.0 for games and DTS connect, which includes DTS NEO:PC. From experience the NEO:PC is somewhat poorer than the Dolby Virtual Speaker or Virtual Surround alternative found on the Realtek ALC882M/D varieties, but at least EAX works on the SoundMAX codecs. The daughterboard has six 3.5mm audio jacks which provide analogue out through four of them for eight channel support, leaving two still available for line-in and microphone, so no need to remove plugs to switch ports when using a microphone.
The solid state capacitors that came on the Striker Extreme are still present on the board; these provide better life and power delivery than the cheaper electrolytic alternative. The older Asus P5N32-E SLI (non Plus) contains a mixture of both but has a 680i northbridge making it around the same price.
The six SATA ports are right angled which allows plugging in adjacent hard drives more convenient with less cable mess. There’s also a single IDE port and floppy still for CD drives, although with Vista recently arriving the use of the floppy port should be all but outdated now, given that BIOS updates can also be performed from within Windows. All the ports are placed around the edges of the board, providing reasonably easy access when everything is plugged in.
Probably the only exception to that rule is the IDE port, which has the same less-than-optimal orientation as the one on the Striker. The 24-pin ATX socket and 8-pin 12V additional power plug are backward compatible with the older 20-pin and 4-pin types, although upgrading is strongly recommended since Asus don’t include any other additional power plugs for the board.
Additional Firewire and USB 2.0 ports are given plastic shrouds which are keyed in order to only allow the provided PCI backplate ports installation in only one orientation. Frustratingly, two of the USB pin outs are put in the middle of the board, instead of at the base. The front panel pins are not colour coded either, and although Asus lists a Q-connector as an inclusion on its home page, but we didn't receive one in the package.