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MSI K9AG Neo2-Digital - Motherboard Based on AMD 690G (Socket AM2) Chipset

September 5, 2007



In general, it is good that the number of motherboards based on chipsets with integrated graphics and appealing not only to the makers of office computers is growing. Actually, the low growth-rate of this segment comes as a surprise, because these boards have characteristics suitable to the needs of a very broad spectrum of users (not of each and every user, of course, but that is true for any product). Perhaps, the reason lies in a deeply-rooted notion that it is illogical to pay more than $80-100 for a motherboard based on integrated chipset.

Well, first of all, is it really illogical? Such motherboards often are built using high-class capacitors in supply circuits and other additional elements on a par with discreet chipset models. At the same time, they have a comparable peripheral interface set (let alone the "bonuses" like a second COM-port, infrared detector port, which are even more likely to be found on compact and inexpensive motherboards). Secondly, today it isn't hard to find a motherboard in the aforementioned price range with a couple of digital video-out ports and a full set of other necessary interfaces including RAID support for up to 4 SATA hard disks. By all means, those, who want to install an outboard video card, can do it just as easy as with any other discreet chipset board.

Clearly, the chipset manufacturers themselves are to be blamed. Most of the time they position such products as low-end. They do it both officially and openly, like VIA and before that - ATI, or based on results of benchmark tests and functionality comparisons as in the case of Intel chipsets. In fact, NVIDIA GeForce 6150 was the first attempt to elevate the status of integrated chipsets. While a built-in hardware firewall isn't really a must-have option even for expensive discreet chipsets, having it certainly served well to draw attention in that case. Unfortunately, due to higher frequency and abundance of functionalities both bridges of the chipset generated much heat, and for chipsets with integrated graphics heat emission is an especially important characteristic. Even on a full-sized motherboard with integrated graphics it is hardly reasonable to use anything more complex than a simple heat-sink for cooling. In addition, many users choose such motherboards in order not only to save money, but also to get a power-saving as well as quiet system.

In view of these requirements AMD 690G chipset is currently the most attractive one. That is probably why MSI in addition to its microATX boards MSI K9AGM2-F and K9AGM2-FIH has decided to release an "expanded" version, which we'll focus our attention on right now.

One can't help but notice the IDE slot that is oriented at a right angle with the board. A bit less rare is the floppy-drive socket's position on the bottom side of the board. Both are equally poor design choices in comparison to the classic placement behind memory slots. The rest draws no criticism. A standard set of heat sinks, typical of many boards with this chipset, is used for chipset cooling. However, this can be considered an enhancement made for the senior model, since the junior models mentioned before had no heat sink at all on the southbridge.

Three-channel impulse CPU voltage stabilizer uses 3 field transistors per channel, 6 capacitors of 1800 microfarad each and 4 - of 1000 microfarad each. Capacitors are produced by Mitsubishi and United Chemi-Con. This model is at the top of MSI's line of products based on AMD 690G chipset, therefore all elements are well soldered. Board size is 305x209 mm ("narrowed" ATX). The unit is mounted to the chassis with six screws, while the right side as far as the SATA-ports remains unsecured.

System monitoring (Fintek F71882FG, from BIOS Setup data)

  • Voltage of processor core, +3.3, +5, +12 V and +3.3 V Stand-by;
  • Rotation frequency of the 2 fans;
  • Temperature of CPU (by built-in CPU sensor) and board (by on-board sensor);
  • Smart Fan - automatic rotation frequency control of CPU fan depending on CPU temperature. Target temperature, which is maintained automatically by gradually adjusting rotation frequency, as well as minimum rotation frequency (starting at 0%), is available for setting. Fans with 3- and 4-pin connectors are supported.

Ports, connectors and sockets on board surface

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, declared support of all existing AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX, Opteron and Sempron CPUs);
  • 4 DDR2 SDRAM DIMM slots (up to 8 GB DDR2-533/667/800, dual-channel mode);
  • 1 PCIEx16 video accelerator slot;
  • 2 PCIEx1 slots;
  • 3 PCI slots;
  • Power supply connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins, can use a 20-pin connector), 4-pin ATX12V for CPU supply;
  • FDD slot;
  • 1 IDE (Parallel ATA) slot for 2 ATA133 devices (chipset);
  • 4 SATA-II (Serial ATA II) slots for 4 SATA300 devices (chipset), disks can be combined into a RAID-array of level 0, 1 and 0+1;
  • 3 expansion card slots for 6 additional USB ports;
  • CD/DVD-drive audio-out header;
  • TV-out header;
  • S/PDIF Out header;
  • Block of analog audio-in/out connectors for the computer's front panel;
  • 1 slot for COM-port expansion card;
  • 1 socket for open computer case detector;
  • 3 fan sockets with rotation frequency control, the 4-pin CPU fan socket supports automatic rotation frequency regulation through BIOS even if 3-pin connector fan is used.

Board's rear panel (left to right, by blocks)


click to view the board in 3/4 perspective from the rear panel side
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports;
  • HDMI;
  • 1 DVI, 1 VGA;
  • 2 USB and 1 FireWire 400 (6-pin) ports;
  • 2 USB and 1 RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet) ports;
  • 6 analog audio sockets (Line-In, Line-Out, Mic-In, Surround Speaker Out, Rear Speaker Out, Center/Sub Speaker Out).

Package contents

  • Packing: small box originally designed for this model (unfortunately, our unit came without the box and the rest of the package, so we list declared package contents by analogy to K9AGM2-FIH model);
  • Documentation: user's guide;
  • 1 Serial ATA cable;
  • 1 SATA power adapter for 1 device;
  • 1 ATA66 loop, 1 loop for FDD connection;
  • Rear panel plug for corresponding connectors;
  • Compact-disk with drivers and brand MSI utilities including:
    • MSI PC Alert 4 - utility for monitoring system parameters (temperature, voltage, CPU fan rotation frequency - parameters available in the corresponding section of BIOS);
    • MSI Live Update 3 - BIOS rewrite available from Windows with ability to search and download the latest version from the manufacturer's web-site (also possible to rewrite from local disk);
    • MSI Security - set of utilities for convenient password storage, user profile management and hard drive data encryption. Supplemented by Norton Internet Security 2005 antivirus suite and firewall.

Also available is optional supply of additional HDMI-DVI adapter, which is connected directly to sockets on the rear panel in order to increase the number of possible combinations of digital video-out ports.

Integrated controllers

  • Audio controller based on chipset HD Audio support and Realtek ALC888 codec provides ability to connect 7.1-channel audio systems via front audio-in/out connectors, CD-In and S/PDIF-Out;
  • Gigabit Ethernet network controller that supports 10/100/1000 Mbit/s: based on PCI Express Realtek RTL8111B controller;
  • FireWire, based on VIA VT6308P controller that supports 2 FireWire 400 ports, of which only one is soldered (in the block of rear panel connectors).

We have evaluated quality of the integrated audio in 16-bit 44-KHz mode using RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 testing suite and ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 KHz), dB: +0.04, -0.24Very good
Noise level, dB (A): -91.6Very good
Dynamic range, dB (A): 91.7Very good
Harmonic distortion, %: 0.0034Very good
Intermodulation distortion + noise, %: 0.0099Very good
Interosculation of channels, dB: -92.1Excellent
Intermodulation at 10 KHz, %: 0.0094Very good

Overall rating: Very good. This integrated audio support implementation is close to perfect.

Settings

Based on jumpers and switchesCMOS reset jumper 
2 "DVI/HDMI" jumpersSelection of digital video-out between DVI and HDMI ports
Through BIOS based on AMI 2.61 version Ability to turn special CPU functions off + K8 Cool'n'Quiet
Setting memory timings + CAS Latency, Min RAS Active Time, Row Precharge Time, RAS to CAS Delay
Memory clock rate selection + Auto, x1, x1.33, x1.66, x2 (multiplier relative to HTT frequency)
HT bus operational settings -  
Setting frequency of peripheral buses -  
Manual distribution of interrupts by slots +  
Adjusting FSB frequency + 200-500 MHz in 1 MHz increments
Adjusting CPU multiplier + from x4, in x0.5 increments
Adjusting CPU core voltage + 0.800-1.550 V in 0.025 V increments
Adjusting memory voltage + 1.80-2.40 V in 0.05 V increments

For testing we used BIOS 1.B13 04/05/07 version supplied by the manufacturer. The aforementioned BIOS capabilities are available in the specified version of the BIOS. Nonstandard settings were not tested for operability.

Overclocking

In order to evaluate the overclocking capabilities of the board and its BIOS, we overclock our testbed CPU to the highest frequency possible that also allows for stable operation. Applying this test procedure, we are able to effectively use all of the test board's supported abilities, including increasing processor core voltage, and if necessary, correcting multipliers and adjusting system and peripheral bus frequencies. However, if lowering Hyper-Transport frequency, for example, doesn't improve overclocking performance, the default multiplier is used instead. RAM is set (by using multiplier correction) to the standard frequency for the modules being used, unless the manufacturer specifies methods for improving memory overclocking, in which case their effectiveness is also explored. In order to evaluate the overclocked system's stability, we load Windows XP and run performance tests built into WinRAR (Tools menu - Benchmark and hardware test) for 10 minutes. It is important to realize that overclocking performance varies by motherboard and is, to some extent, an individual characteristic of each specific unit. For this reason, it is impossible for us, and any other review, to determine the overclocking potential of any board with megahertz precision. The practical goal of our test is to find out if the CPU's high overclocking potential is hindered by the board and to evaluate the board's behavior in non-standard BIOS modes. This test also assesses the board's ability to automatically revert to correct frequencies in the case of system hang-ups, excessive overclocking, etc.

  Clock rate, MHz FSB frequency, MHz Core voltage (according to BIOS system monitoring), V HT bus frequency (multiplier), MHz
Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.0 GHz) 2100 210 1.40 1050 (x5)

The motherboard being examined is absolutely not suited for overclocking. Perhaps, ability to lower HT-bus multiplier could have helped in this situation.

Performance

Testbed configuration:

  • Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+
  • RAM: 2 Kingston KHX7200D2K2/1G (DDR2-800, 5-5-5-15-2T) modules
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Video adapter: ATI Radeon X1900XTX, 512 MB GDDR3
  • PSU: Chieftec CFT-560-A12C
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

For comparison we chose a microATX form factor MSI K9AGM2-FIH motherboard that is also based on AMD 690G chipset.

Test Integrated graphics Discreet graphics
MSI K9AGM2-FIH MSI K9AG Neo2-Digital MSI K9AGM2-FIH MSI K9AG Neo2-Digital
Data compression using 7-Zip, min:sec 6:45 6:29 6:35 6:28
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:08 6:00 6:04 6:00
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 32.1 32.6 59.6 60.4
Unreal Tournament 2004 (High@1024x768), fps 22.4 25.5 56.5 57.6
FarCry (Medium@800x600), fps 32.3 36.9 128.1 123.2
DOOM III (Medium@800x600), fps 14.1 15.1 133.3 137.3

Excellent results! From the looks of it, the day when integrated graphics will not cause any reduction in performance during even such a sensitive test as data compression using 7-Zip is near.

Conclusions

Quite an interesting motherboard and a worth-while addition to the set of models of full-sized design and integrated graphics that we have examined so far (Gigabyte M55plus-S3G and Gigabyte MA69G-S3). In comparison to the direct competitor from Gigabyte based on AMD 690G chipset, this motherboard has 3 PCI slots. This is a fact that should especially please the most active members of the examined board's target audience, as well as FireWire support, ability to completely stop CPU cooler controlled by Smart Fan and the quality of integrated audio. The other users will surely be attracted by the numerous rear panel video-out ports. However, the relative imbalance of overclocking settings and poor overclocking potential won't excite anyone. MSI engineers have work to do in that area, and maybe they'll resolve the issue in the next version of BIOS. Our specific motherboard came not even as an OEM-package, but by itself inside an unmarked box. That is why it is difficult to say, what else the retail version will include (in comparison to K9AGM2-FIH), but it would be nice to find TV-out and S/PDIF headers as part of a standard package, especially since there was no room for them on the rear panel.

Dmitriy Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
September 5, 2007

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