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Asus P4PE Black Pearl - getting acquainted
The original P4PE which was launched late last year was one of the most popular Intel 845PE motherboards on the market due to it's mix of high performance and features. Many websites used it as their "benchmark" board and one can always use that as a yard stick to measure how good a board is. Asus realised they were onto something good here and in the first few weeks of this year, they launched the P4PE Black Pearl.


The Black Pearl is a limited edition board which is aimed for hardware junkies and collectors. In nature black pearls are rare and very expensive and this motherboard tries to retain some of those qualities. It was made clear to us that Asus aren't looking to make a huge amount of cash on this product, since they have a limited production run and the amount of detail that has gone into this product meant that production costs soared relative to other products. No real problem for a company that has annual turnover of $2 billion US Dollars you might say.

The aim of a Black Pearl motherboard is to offer something special. From the packaging, to the contents they want to instil a sense of quality coupled to a feeling of hand-picked goodness. Asus also offer a number of toys to persuade you. So how well did they translate what they want into a product? We find out.

  

Staying with the pearl theme, Asus make the box look like a treasure chest. Packaging like this costs a lot of money, not just because of what is printed but Asus have decided to make glossy embossed print of their logo to contrast against the matt finish of the printed parts of the box. We think they have managed to pull it off without looking too tacky, but no doubt you too have your own thoughts about that. Inside they continue with their extravagant styling.


The two tier box has the motherboard placed at the top with two layers of thin sponge cushioning the motherboard against knocks and bumps. Underneath you will find the usual compliment of cables and manuals. Asus have also included a USB "key" drive, a solid state storage device which has 32Mb of capacity. Spread out the whole Package and it looks fairly substantial.


Inside the little box that holds the USB drive, the drive is bundled with a cord to attach it to your belt (or neck if you are fashion conscious) and a USB cable should you not have easy access to your USB port.


The themed motif is continued on the manuals and the cardboard CD slip case. It's all very intricate and finished off to a high standard, as any collector will expect. Asus have also included two rounded cables, one is a ATA 100/133 cable with the other being a floppy drive cable. Both are black and feature "Black Pearl" slips on their connector heads.

Being called Black Pearl, the PCB is black in colour. Black PCBs are probably the rarest of the coloured PCBs out there and it gives you a sense of being individual. However the black doesn't work very well with neon lights all the time due to producing low reflection. Still, most will argue it looks better than a green PCB and PCB colours are really down to personal taste.


Physically the board is middle of the road when it comes to size, and shouldn't pose any major problems during installation. The first thing that strikes you, apart from the highly unusual cooler on the Intel 845PE chipset is the lack of certain components. One would expect the Black Pearl to have all the on board features that you find in the standard, top-of-the-range edition of the Asus P4PE, however Serial ATA, Firewire, IDE RAID and Gigabit Ethernet are all missing. All of this is easily visible from the solder pads that left bare.

  

Taking a closer look at this new style of heatsink on the 845PE chipset, Asus claim this to be the first heatsink in the world to move 360 degrees. Sadly this is not quite true since it might be able to move 360 degrees in one plane, fans also move 360 degrees, just in a different plane. The roller at the top has the Asus logo and the words "Black Pearl" inscribed on it. The roller doesn't rotate during operation, however you can manually rotate it, should you be so inclined.

The 845PE is passively cooled and this isn't surprising as Asus' original P4PE was also passively cooled. The vast majority of 845PE motherboard we've seen are passively cooled which is a good thing, since it lowers the probability of mechanical failures within your computer. It also decreases the amount of noise produced by your computer which is always a welcome attribute.


When it comes to motherboard layout we see very few problems on the Black Pearl. At the top, the power connector is kept beside the IDE connectors and Asus's Ez-Plug technology (which allows you to use a 4-pin power connector as opposed to a 12V power connector) is placed just to the left of the ATX power connector. The location of the 12V connector isn't ideal, but should you have problems then you will be able to use the Ez-Plug connector.

The three DIMM slots are positioned so there are gaps between each slot, which is of increased importance due to many modules coming with heat spreaders. Asus have implemented the new style of AGP card retention which doesn't feature a flimsy latch at the end of the slot. This new method employs the use of a plastic retainer which runs along one side of the AGP slot and slides left to lock the card. This solution isn't the simplest thing in the world, however it works better than it's former which was almost impossible to use when you had a full size Geforce 4 Titanium card whose heatsink meant that you weren't able to touch any part of the latch.


At the bottom it's less crowded mainly due to not having many of the on board features this board was intended to service. On the left you see Broadcom's fast Ethernet chip and the SoundMAX sound codec. We'll look at them again a little later.

The overall layout of this board is nothing spectacular. One generally associates poor layout with difficulty to install components or easy reach to connections, but since there isn't much on board connections to be made on this particular model it was fairly easy to install. If you have problems with the 12V power connector, the 4 pin power plug is well situated to relive you of your troubles.
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