Supplied by Gigabyte
The Gigabyte GA-K8N Ultra-SLI is a formidable motherboard platform. The list of features is extensive; 8-channel sound, 10 USB ports, 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports, support for up to 8 SATA drives (4 x SATA 150/4 x SATA 300), 4 x EIDE drives and S/P DIF in and out. Gigabyte continues to up the ante by packing more onto a motherboard than was thought possible. The GA-K8N Ultra-SLI won’t disappoint but nothing is ever perfect and there is room for minor improvements.
|Internal I/O Connectors|
|Rear Panel I/O|
What’s in the box
The Gigabyte GA-K8N Ultra-SLI continues the Gigabyte tradition of heavily accessorizing their medium to high-end motherboard products. This is a bit of a contradiction in terms though. The GA-K8N Ultra SLI features most every device on the PCB so the amount of accessories that plug in is rather limited. There’s no need for a PCI mounted sound port and 4 USB ports and 2 Gigabit ethernet ports on the backplane will meet the needs of the majority of PC consumers.
Gigabyte manuals are one of the more extensive manuals included in motherboard packages which is always a helpful addition. The writers could look at improving the amount of information in the BIOS section to include more descriptions of what each of the BIOS settings may affect, both pro and con. The BIOS chapter could be divided into two sections; easy and advanced. The easy would be safe settings and adjustments that most could make without affecting overall stability or operation. The advanced section for fine tuning and overclocking could be prefaced with a disclaimer warning in order to satisfy the Gigabyte corporate lawyers.
RAID is one of the more confusing functions for consumers. The manual provides extensive information but it does require a careful read in order to know how to properly setup and configure a RAID system.
Gigabyte includes a fold-out installation guide for the new user. A person often purchases PC parts separately only to discover that they don’t know what goes where when they get home. This layman’s guide is a helpful inclusion.
The installation disc is simple to use. Its autorun feature brings up the main menu and scans the system for installed drivers. Users may “tick” individual drivers or click a button to have the setup routine install all necessary drivers. Gigabyte includes Norton Internet Security 2005, EasyTune 5 and their @BIOS online BIOS flash utility which does make it easy for the new user to more safely upgrade their BIOS.
There are four more USB slots besides the four USB ports on the backplane. Two are on their own PCI bracket. There is a second bracket for yet another two. That’s 8 USB ports so far.
And two more accompany the 1394 ports. That’s 10 USB ports and 2 1394 ports in total.
The floppy and EIDE cables are included.
Gigabyte includes 4 SATA 150 cables. Motherboard manufacturers used to short everyone in the early days of SATA but Gigabyte learned that lesson early on. If there are four SATA 150 headers then Gigabyte includes a cable for each.
The GA-K8N Ultra-SLI has SATA 300 headers and there’s four of them so four SATA 300 cables are included as well.
Gigabyte includes four 4-pin molex to SATA power connectors as the GA-K8N Ultra-SLI has an ability to support a total of 8 SATA drives.
The SLI bridge and SLI retention bracket are also included.
SLI enables a PC enthusiast to purchase a second PCIE video card to boost system performance. A second video card doesn’t mean a second video output. It would be like dropping a second engine into a tractor. The top end speed may not increase dramatically but the raw horsepower and torque would. The second video card provides the second “engine” or GPU to work in tandem with the first to provide more graphics processing power thus the ability to enable more effects and larger screen resolutions.
Finally there’s the case badge and backplane guard.
Touring the board
It’s amazing to consider how much has to be crowded onto a standard PCB. Gigabyte is depending on consumers to realize that purchasing an additional PCI component for audio, USB or 1394 ports isn’t necessary. This is one reason why only two PCI slots are on the GA-K8N Ultra-SLI. The second is that four of the PCI slots had to move to give room for the SLI PCIE slots.
Heatsinks grow and shrink in size like the changing of the seasons. Motherboard manufacturers have learned to keep the area around the socket clean in order to accommodate the myriad of heatsink designs available today. The downside is that the surround components may be crowded. This was the case with the four DIMM slots. Many enthusiasts purchase specialty memory that comes standard with heatspreaders. The Gigabyte dual channel memory system has channels A and B side by side. (Channel A is DIMM 1 and 3 and channel B is DIMM 2 and 4.) This results in a very tight space for heatspreader equipped memory.
Atop the socket area is the grave marker for Gigabyte’s DPS (Dual Power System). DPS was originally described as a
“6-phase power circuit design to provide a more solid and durable power supply.” Refer to our Gigabyte 7NNXP NForce2 motherboard review for more on what was DPS. It would appear that this empty area of the PCB may be archeological evidence of what was. It’s also evidence that PCB designs are used in past and future motherboard incarnations until the circuitry changes so drastically that the PCB can no longer support the technology.
The ATX connections sits free and clear at the top end of the motherboard but the 4-pin ATX connectors sits at the top end of the backplane on the opposite side of the board. Optimum would be to place the 4-pin nearest the 24-pin connector.
Note that the ATX connection has a small black cap. PCI-E has brought about a change in power requirements. This change sees a transition from 20-pin ATX connections to 24-pin ATX connectors. The small black cap removes to accommodate those power supplies with 24-pin connectors.
South of the white and green EIDE and floppy headers are, most prominently, the four SATA 300 headers. The nForce4 SLI chipset controls these four SATA II headers. Note that the nForce4 chipset is only covered with a passive heatsink yet there is a fan connection at the lower right of the image. The heatsink was not secure. It was easily rocked back and forth breaking free from the face of the chipset. The PC enthusiast may want to consider re-mounting this heatsink with a fan or a new fan/heatsink combination.
The SATA 300 headers now have clip locks on the cables. A SATA 150 user knows how easy it is to mistakenly bump a SATA cable loose from the motherboard. The new style has a clip lock to prevent this.
Gigabyte continues with the color-coded front panel connectors and also places the USB headers in this location. This seemed odd at first but consider that many users like USB connections on the front panel of their cases. The included PCI slot USB connections have sufficient cable length and the location of the USB headers on the PCB keeps the front panel PC case wires from stretching across the motherboard.
The remaining four of the eight total SATA headers are controlled by the SIL3114 chip. The purple headers provide for two 1394 connections. Note the HOT RUN sticker on the SIL3114 chipset face.
The SIL 3114 chip still works off the PCI bus thus is limited to Serial ATA 150 speeds but SATARAID5 provides for Serial ATA RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, RAID 10 and JBOD functionality.
Two Texas Instruments chips that did not show up in the TI directory. It’s assumed that one or both of these are involved with the 1394 connection.
The RealTek ALC850 supports:
- Eight-channel DA converter (48KHz)
- Stereo AD converter (48KHz)
- Complies with AC’97 Rev 2.3 specifications:
- Jack sensing on Front-Out, Surround-Out, Cen/LFE-Out, Surround-Back-Out, Mic-In, Line-In, and Front-Mic-In
- EAX™ 1.0 & 2.0 compatible
- Direct Sound 3D™ compatible
- A3D™ compatible
- I3DL2 compatible
- HRTF 3D positional audio
- Sensaura™ 3D Enhancement (optional)
- 10-band Software Equalizer
- Voice cancellation and key shifting in Karaoke mode
- AVRack® Media Player
The ITE IT8712F-A chips handles, amongst other things, hardware monitoring, fan speed control, SmartGuardian Control, Smart Card Reader, game ports, floppy, keyboard and IR interfaces.
The manual states that the switch module for SLI mode should come in “normal” setting by default. Note that our sample came with the SLI mode enabled. The following image would be the position for SLI mode…which would be wrong for a single PCIE video card.
Gigabyte continues with DUAL BIOS technology.
The VSC8201 is a low power single port Gigabit Ethernet PHY. It is for Gigabit LAN-on-
Motherboard (GLOM) and Gigabit Ethernet Switch applications that require a GMII/MII, RGMII, TBI, or
RTBI MAC / Switch interface. This provides for one of the two Gigabit Ethernet ports. The Marvell chip covers the second via PCI Express.
The power mofsets are naked again. Previous Gigabyte models had these buried under heatsinks.
The backplane supports PS/2 mouse and keyboard, S/PDIF in and out, parallel, 1 x comm port, 2 x Gigabit Ethernet connections, 4 x USB ports and 8-channel audio
The first screen of the GA-K8N Ultra-SLI BIOS is standard.
Press CTRL-F1 and the BIOS will enter the advanced menu.
Note that the EIDE drives are located on CHANNEL 0.
The PEG stands for PCI Express Graphics.
The ADVANCED CHIPSET FEATURES allows for control over the HyperTransport link and extensive memory settings.
The IDE/SATA RAID FUNCTION is on the SIL3114 chipset while the SERIAL ATA 1 and 2 functions are controlled by the nVIDIA nForce4 SLI chipset.
Further down the INTEGRATED PERIPHERALS menu is the SATA RAID-5 FUNCTION which is part of the SIL3114 chipset. Note that if the user requires JBOD or non-raid settings then JBOD mode must be selected in RAID BIOS at boot once this setting has been enabled. If using JBOD on the SATA 150 headers then IDE/SATA RAID FUNCTION and SERIAL-ATA 1 and 2 can remain disabled. If using any type of RAID other than JBOD then one or a combination of these must be enabled.
POWER MANAGEMENT SETUP is much the same as most other new motherboards.
M.I.T. is Gigabyte’s Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker for overclocking. An interesting feature is M.I.B.Z which can dial in specific settings for a particular module of RAM as pictured in the closeup image following the main screen.
The nVidia Firewall protection can be as simple as turning it on. It can also be as complex as a user would want. Any user can drill extremely deep into the settings to configure defenses for a particular situation or hardware setup. The configuration files are also transportable allowing for the settings to be copied/moved from PC to PC by an administrator. What follows are the expanded menus to give a brief overview of the capabilities of nVidia’s firewall defense system.
nVidia have brought easy to follow wizards into the menu system to help new users If this appears overly daunting.
The NVIDIA firewall provides an inbound and outbound shield between the PC and the outside world that is at the driver level. This shield can be configured from a minimal level of protection right up to a total and complete lockdown. A firewall means that users outside of your PC may see your PC in the form of a locked door or, if you change the level of protection, don’t see you at all. What can’t be seen can’t be readily hacked. Software firewalls, or personal firewalls, kick in after the operating system is loaded. There is a level of vulnerability there. A firewall that loads immediately after the BIOS offers a superior form of security and the minds at NVIDIA know that the consumer wants that level of security. NVIDIA also realized that most may not know a thing about how a firewall works never mind how to set one up. So NVIDIA came up with a clever idea that I wonder why no one else has thought of before in a motherboard.
Considering a new video card or an upgrade is a question of performance versus price. This question is a balance between the desire to have the best and what “best” the pocketbook can afford.
The test systems.
- AMD Athlon 64 4000+ Processor (32-bit mode)
- MSI K8T Neo2 MS-6702E ver 1 ATX mainboard
- Gigabyte GA-K8N Ultra SLI motherboard
- ATI 9800 PRO 256 MB Video Card Catalyst 4.9 drivers (Default settings)
- Gigabyte ATI X800 AGP Video Card Catalyst 4.9 drivers
- Sapphire Radeon X800 PCI-Express Video Card
- 2 x 512 MB Corsair CM512-3200XL TwinX DDR RAM
- LG 8x DVD+/-RW.
- 120 GB Seagate SATA Hard Drive
- Samsung 950p 19″ Monitors
- USB Keyboard and MX700 Optical Mouse
- Retail HSF
- AMK PC67 PC case (window, fans, cables, loom)
- FSP Blue Storm PSU
- Windows XP Professional Service Pack SP1 & 2 slipstreamed updated
- Sisoft Sandra 2004
- FutureMark 3DMark 03*
- FutureMark 3DMark 05*
- Quake III Arena*
- GL Excess
- SpecviewPerf 8.1 *
- Serious Sam SE
- Splinter Cell (Chinese Embassy timedemo)
- Unreal Tournament 2003 flyby benchmarks*
- Unreal Tournament 2004 UMARK ver. 1.2 (16 bots, high-quality, br-colossus)*
- X2 Demo
- Wolfenstein Enemy Territory (Railgun demo)
- Adobe After Effects 6.0
- N-Bench 3
- PC Mark 04
- DOOM III timedemo*
- Half-Life 2 demo*
*benchmarked using Benchemall.
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 and 2 slipstreamed used for installation. Catalyst settings: let application decide for Anti-Aliasing/Anisotropic filtering, quality texture preference, quality midimap detail level, no smartshader or truform. AGP aperture was set to 256 MB. Windows visual effects was set to ADJUST FOR BEST PERFORMANCE and system restore set to disabled. Pagefile set to 1024 MB fixed on a separate partition.
Individual performance will vary with any particular or specific timings or tweaks enabled by you. All programs were benchmarked with initial monitor settings at 1024×768@75Hz. Your own mileage may very.
3D Mark 2003 was originally designed to measure performance specifically in shader-heavy titles.
3D Mark 2005 takes advantage of more DirectX 9 functionality that many new game titles are using.
GL Excess is an OPENGL benchmark that is optimized for DX8.1.
Quake III high quality
Quake III still continues to hang around. This benchmark is one that most can’t just let go of and it retains grandfather rights in the community. Many of today’s games are based upon the Quake engine. The accuracy of this benchmark is becoming questionable with frame rates consistently around or over 300.
Serious Sam uses OPENGL.
X2 Rolling Demo
X2 – The Threat is a teaser with a benchmark option for Egosoft’s upcoming release. It does not use pixel shaders.
SplinterCell (Chinese Embassy Timedemo)
Splinter Cell is a DirectX 8.1 based game that is involves very GPU-intensive texture rendering.
Sisoft Sandra 2004
SpecviewPerf measures the rendering performance of systems running under OPENGL incorporating eight standard SPECopc applications viewsets:
- 3dsmax-03 , based on SPECapc for 3ds max 3.1 configured with the Open GL driver; includes three models containing an average of 1.5 million vertices each, and tests performance of scenes with different levels of lighting.
- catia-01, based on Dassault’s CATIA, with models containing up to two million vertices.
- ensight-01 , based on CEI’s EnSight engineering and scientific visualization application, covers both display-list and immediate-mode workloads.
- light-07 , based on traces of Discreet’s Lightscape radiosity application.
- maya-01 , based on traces of Alias’ Maya 5.
- proe-03 , based on SPECapc for Pro/ENGINEER 2001, measures two models in three modes — shaded, wireframe and hidden-line removal (HLR).
- sw-01 , based traces of the Solidworks 2004 application from Dassault Systemes.
- ugs-04 , based on SPECapc for Unigraphics V17, tests performance based on an engine model containing 4.1 million vertices.
Adobe After Effects 6.0
Adobe After Effects is a tool to produce motion graphics and visual effects for film, video, multimedia and the web. It is primarily a 2D application using imported graphics or digital footage or self generated effects. A test project was created combining many video footage files, resizing and rasterizing effects, text animations and multiple layer effects. This “average” combination was felt to best demonstrate advantages and/or disadvantages that a real world user may experience rather than isolating and benchmarking a particular effect.
There is no official benchmark for After Effects but render tasks can be timed to show specific results. Rendering, or the task of building and compiling frames, is primarily CPU intensive and After Effects generally bypasses the video card to rely solely upon the processor for speed. The time taken to a render 900 frame Quicktime 720×486 movie file (animation codec, millions of colors, best quality) shows how fast the processor is working on the given task.
It’s all about the best bang for the lowest buck. Remember that this is a motherboard review and not a video card review. The comparisons are subjective. Aquamark was one benchmark that would consistently reset audio and video settings to defaults at the end of each round of tests. This was a repeatable error with both a Sapphire X800 and Gigabyte GE Force 6600 video card.
SpecviewPerf 8.0 also presented problems with sw-01 Weighted Geometric Mean which also errored out and was repeatable.
Overclocking the Gigabyte GA-K8N Ultra-SLI motherboard also presented some challenges. AMD have done their best to make it an art form to overclock their processors. Gigabyte’s EasyTune5 was met with mixed results. The onscreen GUI does make the process easier than through BIOS but the EasyTune software has never really been consistently successful in our reviews.
Some reviews have shown good overclocking with the GA-K8N Ultra-SLI motherboard but our attempts produced poor results even after underclocking both the processor and HyperTransport link.
Nothing is perfect
Designers must pull their hair out at times simply because of the layout constraints of a product. The consumer might prefer a location of a connection to be in a specific area but if it is then it bumps five others out of their preferred spot. Such must be the challenge with motherboards. The 4-pin ATX connection ended up buried in the corner on the opposite side of the motherboard from the 24-pin connection.
One PCI-E slot is near useless when a PCI Express video card is installed.
The DIMM slots could be just a few millimeters further apart for some memory modules with heat spreaders. While the Corsair test modules were tight they did not physically touch. Though the point of heat spreaders may not be as effective due to proximity to each other.
The video card lock pin is difficult to reach but be it a lifter or a pin…they’ve always been in a tight space.
The bottom line is that the Gigbayte GA-K8N Ultra-SLI motherboard is impressive; 8-channel sound, 10 USB ports, 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports, support for up to 8 SATA drives (4 x SATA 150/4 x SATA 300), 4 x EIDE drives and S/P DIF in and out. This amounts to half the major features of this motherboard.
It is, however, a SLI motherboard with PCI-Express. Upgrading to this motherboard requires a PCI-E video card and most current PC users own AGP versions. SLI has the ability to “double the horsepower” by doubling the video cards. Of course double the video cards means double the price and high performance PCI-E video cards are not cheap. The GA-K8N Ultra SLI may present some users minor areas of concern. First there is the space concern between the DIMM slots. Second is a blocked PCI-E slot by the video card.
This motherboard would serve the mutlimedia enthusiast nicely. It may not be a speed demon for overclocking but multimedia enthusiasts are looking for much more. It’s just a matter of finding a PC case that will hold 8 SATA drives that may be a challenge.
Gigabyte couples the many features of the nForce4 chipset with a myriad of other options to bring a motherboard to market that will serve the needs of any user many times over and does it at a competitive price in a very tight margin between product lines.
Our thanks to Gigabyte for
their support of this and many other sites.
- SATA, SATA and more SATA
- S/P DIF in and out
- USB ports galore
- Not many want to afford 2 x PCI E video cards to get the full advantage
|Bonus items & software||10||There just isn’t anything missing.|
|Design & layout||8.5||1/2 point off for DIMM spacing, 1/2 point off for 4-PIN ATX location and a 1/2 point off for a blocked PCI-E slot.|
|Documentation||8.5||Gigabyte produces a good manual but could look at adding to the BIOS section.|
|Features & options||9||Read the review as this motherboard is loaded.|
|Fine-tuning features||8.5||Extensive BIOS|
|Overclocking features||8||M.I.T. option, while delivering a lot of control, produced disappointing overclocking results.|
|Performance & stability||9||Stable with only one benchmark error but normal operation was completely stable.|
|Presentation||8.5||Gigabyte has been “splashier” with other packaging but sometimes a fold out flap on a box is never seen by the consumer until after they purchase.|
|Price / value||9||Aggressively priced against the competition in a very narrow space between product lines.|