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MSI K9N Diamond — a Motherboard Based on NVIDIA nForce 590 SLI (Socket AM2)

March 1, 2007



Being a top model in a series means (at least as manufacturers put it) not only a top chipset and lots of cables in a bundle, but also some proprietary features. They should be more or less useful. But most importantly, they are used as highlights in press releases, news, and reviews to mutual delight of manufacturers and reviewers. MSI already impressed us with its diamond model for Socket 939 (MSI K8N Diamond Plus), equipped with a vacuum tube audio filter. But this time the company decided to let ASUS with its Crosshair play the role of an entertainer. It launched a practical model with Creative Sound Blaster Audigy SE as a proprietary option. Like the K8N Diamond Plus, it uses the same CA0106DAT chip and the same converters (ADC — Wolfson WM8775, DAC — Cirrus Logic CS4382) as in the external Audigy SE card. Of course, it offers the same functionality (analog 7.1-output, 24 bit 96 kHz, high-quality software support for EAX 3.0 in games).




The layout of the K9N Diamond might have been ideal, but for a single minor drawback that we found when we tried to install the ESI Juli@ card into the first PCI slot. A capacitor for the integrated audio processor abuts against the bottom connector of the sound card. It did not let the card sink into the slot. So it symbolically resisted its competitor in the configuration. We had to reinsert it into the second slot and also to formulate the second (traditional) wish to engineers — to increase the number of PCI slots at least at the cost of the useless PCI Express x1. Both bridges of the chipset are cooled by a common system consisting of two heatsinks connected with a heat pipe - an exact copy of the system used in K8N Diamond Plus.




But as dimensions of this system are relatively moderate compared to similar systems from ASUS and Gigabyte (on motherboards with nForce 590 SLI), these heatsinks get quite hot despite the fast (up to 5000 rpm) fan. This is definitely not a strong point of the model from MSI. Frankly speaking, this fan can be removed in case of a proper cooler on a processor, which can also cool the heatsink on this chipset. Chipset temperature may even go down a little. In other words, if you like MSI K9N Diamond, you should carefully choose a CPU cooler. Besides, when you configure Smart Fan modes, don't try to get minimum rotational speed. Choose average speed (you can adjust it taking into account the subjective lack of noise against the background of other system components).

The voltage regulator has suffered serious modifications (reinforced) versus the model for Socket 939. It's four phases now, four field-effect transistors per phase, nine 1800 uF capacitors and four 1000 uF ones from United Chemi-Con. There are no empty seats on the board — MSI offers only one motherboard on the nForce 590 SLI chipset, it has a unique design. Motherboard dimensions — standard ATX (305×245 mm), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed.

System monitoring (Winbond W83627EHF, according to BIOS Setup)

  • CPU voltage, +3.3 V, +5 V, and +12 V
  • RPM of 3 fans
  • CPU and board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)
  • SmartFan — automatic CPU fan speed control. The algorithm is very simple. You can specify only the target temperature to be maintained by gradually raising/reducing fan speed. It works for 3-pin as well as 4-pin fans. You can choose a more complex algorithm using Dual Core Cell or SpeedFan - depending on a typical load and your preferences.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, officially supports all AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX and Sempron processors for this socket)
  • 4 x DDR2 SDRAM DIMM (up to 8 GB DDR2-400/533/667/800, dual-channel mode)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 for video accelerators (both of them always work in x16 mode)
  • 2 x PCIEx1
  • 2 x PCI (the orange slot has a separate power circuit, it's intended for MSI Dual Net Card, but it can also be used as a regular PCI slot)
  • Power connectors: standard 24-pin ATX 2.2, 4-pin ATX12V to power a processor, 4-pin peripheral connector for PCIE video cards, recommended for a video tandem without on-board power connectors
  • 1 x FDD
  • 1 x IDE (Parallel ATA) for two ATA133 devices — "chipset-based"
  • 6 x chipset-based SATA-II (Serial ATA II), connected disks can form RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, and JBOD
  • 3 connectors for brackets with 6 additional USB ports
  • 2 connectors for brackets with two FireWire ports
  • Connector for the 4-LED indicator on the D-Bracket
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • Connector for a chassis intrusion sensor
  • IrDA connector
  • 4 x fan headers; three of them offer fan speed control; CPU and system fan headers have four pins to allow smart fan control (this feature is implemented in a given BIOS version only for the CPU fan) and to provide compatibility with 3-pin fans.

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





Click the image to open the rear view of this motherboard
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard
  • 1 x LPT, 1 x COM, 1 x FireWire, 1 x coaxial S/PDIF-Out
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 5 x Analog Audio (Line-In, Line-Out, Mic-In, Rear Speaker Out, Center/Sub Speaker Out), 1 x Optical (Toslink) S/PDIF-Out.

Package Contents




  • Package: quite a big box of a typical MSI design for top motherboards with a flip page describing proprietary features of the motherboard
  • Documentation: User Manual and a poster with a quick installation guide
  • 4 x Serial ATA
  • 3 x SATA power converters
  • 1 x ATA66 cables, 1 x FDD cable (round cables with MSI logo)
  • D-Bracket for the real panel with 2 x USB and a diagnostic display with 4 LEDs (LED codes for various startup stages are published in User's Guide)
  • A rear panel bracket with two FireWire 400 ports (6-pin and 4-pin)
  • SLI Bridge
  • Rear panel bracket to hold the SLI Bridge
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with drivers and proprietary MSI utilities
  • CD with drivers and utilities for integrated audio (MSI Audigy SE)

The set of proprietary MSI utilities includes:

  • MSI DigiCell — a manager to access other utilities, configure integrated audio, and access files in a MEGA Stick MP3 player. You can also schedule automatic shut down/start up, reboot of your computer here as well as to select applications to be launched at startup
  • MSI Dual Core Center — system monitoring utility (including the real CPU clock controlled by Cool’n’Quiet) that can also manage Smart Fan and overclock CPU under Windows. Its settings are similar to BIOS options, except for the option to control multiplier for HT buses
  • MSI Live Update 3 — update BIOS under Windows, it allows to search and download the latest version from the official web site (but you cannot flash a BIOS version stored on a local drive)
  • MSI Security — a set of utilities for storing passwords, managing user profiles, and encrypting HDD contents. It's supplemented with an antivirus and firewall - Norton Internet Security 2005.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on Creative CA0106-DAT processor supporting 7.1 channel audio, 24 bit/96 kHz, EAX 3.0, front line-in/out jacks and two S/PDIF-Outs
  • 2 x Gigabit Ethernet supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s: based on the chipset (hardware firewall, traffic shaping, and other proprietary options (see the chipset description) and a high-speed interface) and PHY controllers Vitesse VSC8601
  • FireWire, based on the VIA VT6306 chip, supports three FireWire 400 ports (IEEE 1394a).

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0.07, -0.13
Very good
Noise level, dB (A):
-117.6
Excellent
Dynamic range, dB (A):
92.9
Very good
THD, %:
0.0070
Very good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.014
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-118.6
Excellent
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.013
Very good

General performance: Very good (details). Results are predictably high. It's the best integrated solution among those in modern motherboards. The difference in quality is subjectively audible.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • Heatpipe Design — a common quiet cooling system with heat pipes for a chipset with a heatsink consisting of copper plates
  • DOT express — dynamic CPU overclocking, you can raise the clock in BIOS by 0-15%; Dual Core Center can raise it by 25%. The system is overclocked only under maximum load The system operates at standard frequencies/voltages the rest of the time (or reduced by Cool’n’Quiet). They also say that overclocking takes into account CPU temperature in order to avoid negative consequences due to overheating
  • Creative Audigy SE — integrated audio with hardware support for EAX 3.0.

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS button(!)  
In BIOS v2.59 from AMI Controlling specific functions of the platform + K8 Cool’n’Quiet;
SLI-Ready Memory
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, RAS to CAS Delay, Row to Row Delay, Min RAS Active Time, RAS Precharge Time, Row Cycle Time
Memory frequency selection + Auto, 400, 533, 667, 800 MHz (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + For both buses - frequency (Auto, 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000 MHz) and capacity: 8 bit or 16 bit
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCI-E (Northbridge) = 100—149 MHz at 1.5625 MHz steps
PCI-E (Southbridge) = 100—200 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 200—500 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from ×5, at integer steps
CPU core voltage control + +0.05—0.30 V at 0.05 V steps
Memory voltage control + 1.70—2.30 V at 0.05 V steps
PCI Express x16 voltage control + 1.5—1.85 V at 0.05 V steps (Southbridge)
1.23—1.35 V at 0.04 V steps (Northbridge)
HT bus voltage control + 1.20—1.50 V at 0.05 V steps for Northbridge
1.30—1.43 V at 0.04 V steps for Southbridge

We used BIOS 1.2 dated 16.11.06, the latest available BIOS version at the time of our tests. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested. Overclocking capacities are on a typical level for such motherboards.

Overclocking

In order to evaluate the motherboard and its BIOS, we overclock our testbed processor to a maximum stable level. We use all features of the motherboard in this test, including raising CPU voltage and adjusting multipliers and frequencies of system and peripheral buses, if necessary (but if, for example, reducing Hyper-Transport frequency does not improve overclocking, we leave the default multiplier). Memory is set to the standard frequency for a given memory module (multiplier correction), if a manufacturer does not publish any ways to improve memory overclocking. Otherwise, we analyze their efficiency as well. In order to evaluate stability of the overclocked system, we load Windows XP and run WinRAR performance test for 10 minutes (Tools — Benchmark and hardware test). As overclocking potential is an individual property of a given motherboard sample to some degree, we don't set the task to determine overclocking potential to within a single MHz. In practice, we are to find out whether CPU overclocking will be limited by a motherboard as well as to evaluate its behavior in non-standard modes, including automatic restoration of a correct frequency after a failed overclocking attempt, etc.

  Clock, MHz FSB Clock, MHz Core voltage (according to system monitoring in BIOS), V HT bus frequency (multiplier), MHz
Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.0 GHz)
2900
290
1.60
1160 (x4)

Quite a decent result, we managed to start up the system at 2950 MHz, but it wasn't stable. Automatic restoration of the previous frequency when the system freezes works almost perfectly — the system resets its frequency after restart; in most cases, BIOS automatically detects when the system freezes and reboots the motherboard. But the default frequency is not just used for startup, it's written to BIOS (so you should remember at what frequency you failed). You can read about overclocking and configuring BIOS of this motherboard in this article on MSI's web site.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 4000+
  • Memory: 2 x 512 MB Corsair XMS3200 TwinX (DDR400, 2-2-2-5)
  • Discrete video: ATI Radeon X800 XT, 256 MB DDR
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec GPS-400AA
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We've compared the model under review with the previously reviewed ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe on the same chipset.

Test ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe MSI K9N Diamond
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 6:34 6:26
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:04 5:58
DOOM III (High@1024×768), fps 133.2 136.9
DOOM III (Highest@1600×1200), fps 133.2 135.1
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640×480), fps 60.6 61.2
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600×1200), fps 57.2 57.9

While the difference within 1% in game tests hardly allows to draw any practical conclusions, results of computational tests let us say that the MSI model offers slightly higher performance. That is it chooses more aggressive secondary memory timings. Interestingly, the preceding model (MSI K8N Diamond Plus) was a tad slower than the standard performance level. It's nice to see such minor problems fixed.

Bottom line

This time MSI didn't equip its top model with such an original lure as a valve audio filter that was used in the MSI K8N Diamond Plus. In fact, this motherboard is close to the reference Foxconn C51XEM2AA-8EKRS2H in design and overclocking capacities. Only its chipset cooling system is different. Plus the traditionally rich bundle of a Diamond product. However, it should be noted that it's not expedient to integrate additional controllers just to consolidate the top status of the motherboard. And it's not an easy task to "invent" anything really useful, which is not yet implemented here.

This model on the manufacturer's web site (Russian mirror), the list of components tested for compatibility is published here.

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer





Dmitry Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
February 22, 2007



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