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790i Ultra SLI Motherboards Compared

At the beginning of this story, we said that we contacted all major motherboard brands and got a sample of every available motherboard. Both statements are true, but how can that be? Don’t other graphics card brands also carry Nvidia’s reference motherboards? The simple answer is yes, and we contacted them as well.

XFX was the only vendor to submit one of the reference models. Fortunately, all 790i Ultra SLI reference motherboards are identical, regardless of brand. Nvidia has all of them manufactured by the same company, on the same production line, and simply sells them to its graphics partners. Nvidia even supplies the BIOS and the graphics partner adds its BIOS logo and stickers. The only real differences then are the cable and accessory kit, service and support, and warranty policy.

Layout and Features

The XFX nForce 790i Ultra features that same basic layout as the Asus Striker II Extreme and the 790i mystery motherboard, but Nvidia’s specified green and black color scheme didn’t allow for the one “different” x16 slot to have its own color.

Just like all other 790i Ultra SLI motherboards, only two of the x16 slots feature PCI Express 2.0 transfer mode, while the southbridge-fed third slot uses the previous standard. All three have full x16 pathways, and everything else we said about the Striker II Extreme’s slot layout applies to both the reference design seen here and the mystery board we couldn’t show you.

An enormous sink assembly that completely surrounds the CPU socket appears to be cut specifically to fit round and perpendicular coolers like our Zalman CNPS9700. Nvidia’s design provides relief at three of the corners to ease access to cooler attachment hardware, but there’s certainly not enough space to insert a normal-sized finger and thumb. Still, we’re confident that most oversized cooler designs will fit, but remember that the word most only implies more than half. On a more positive note, Nvidia’s reference design motherboards are so popular that it should be easy to find someone who’s tried your favorite cooler on an identical product.

The XFX nForce 790i Ultra makes a few bold moves with regard to cable management. The Ultra ATA connector is found above the center line at the motherboard’s front edge for easy cable routing to the upper drive bays of large cases, and the floppy header beneath it is still adequately close to the typical location of a case’s 3.5” external bay. Four of the chipset’s six Serial ATA ports face outward, found between the Ultra ATA connector and DIMM slots, with just enough clearance to avoid conflict with long graphics cards. Two of the chipset’s SATA ports are found at the bottom of the board’s front edge, facing forward to avoid conflict with a long graphics card cooler — even though pointing them this way could cause a conflict with the case’s lower drive cage.

A lonely seventh SATA port is found above the top PCI Express x1 slot, standing out in bold red. It connects to the 2-port eSATA controller, which leaves the board with only one actual eSATA port. Though some users will miss the second eSATA port, others may see this design as a stroke of genius: the internal connection is perfect for adding a “docking external enclosure”, such as Vantec’s EZ-Swap EX or Eagle Tech’s iNEO I-NA303US.

The front corner features a replaceable BIOS ROM and a POST diagnostics display.

Like the 790i mystery motherboard, the XFX nForce 790i Ultra has moved its USB 2.0 and IEEE-1394 FireWire headers as far forward as possible along the bottom edge, leaving the front-panel audio connector in the dreaded bottom rear corner where cables sometimes won’t reach. Forward of this position, reset and power buttons are perfect for bench testing, though they won’t be accessible in most finished systems.

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