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MSI K9N4 SLI — A Motherboard Based on NVIDIA nForce 500 SLI (Socket AM2)

April 2, 2007



NVIDIA caught the chipset renaming virus. Indeed, consumers associate nForce4 chipsets with something ancient. But they are wrong, because this family possesses quite competitive characteristics. For example, variety of RAID modes in the integrated SATA controller, gigabit network adapter with a proprietary hardware firewall, etc. Only the AC’97 support looks anachronic these days. What concerns the number of PCI Express lanes for graphic ports in nForce4 SLI limited to x8, it's a virtual drawback. We have recently proved that even cutting it radically down to x1 has no catastrophic consequences for video performance in games (given a video card has enough on-board memory).

So, NVIDIA decided to prolong the life of the distinguished nForce4 family and renamed it accordingly. "Regular" nForce4 is named nForce 500 (unlike other models, it offers SATA 1.0 and no RAID 5), nForce 4 Ultra is called nForce 500 Ultra (SATA II, a single graphic port works in x16 mode). nForce 4 SLI is renamed into nForce 500 SLI. It differs in the above mentioned pair of graphics ports supporting "x8+x8" mode. Lanes cannot be reallocated, if you use a single video card. Besides, only nForce 500 SLI offers hardware acceleration for unpacking TCP/IP traffic.

Considering that motherboard manufacturers did not wait for NVIDIA's approval to use nForce 4 for Socket AM2 and such motherboards were offered by all manufacturers right from the start, we did not test them for a simple reason - no time. It's much more interesting to review motherboards on fresh chipsets. But it won't hurt to review at least several typical models. No changes on the chipset level do not mean that motherboard manufacturers cannot (or should not) modify designs. Quite on the contrary, it would be good to pay heed to users' comments on similar models for Socket 939. About the noisy cooling system in particular.




What do we see? Unfortunately, the chipset cooler is the only gripe with this motherboard. It's the same design - a small heatsink with purely nominal finning. Considering the fact that this chipset is not notable for being cool, engineers have to use a high-speed fan. As we know, along with noticeable whistling, it will eventually start "rumbling" for several minutes after startup. The noise usually stops as it warms up. But on the whole, such a cooler should be evidently avoided.




Especially as MSI offers an excellent solution for a motherboard on the modern nForce 570 SLI - the new heatsink is enlarged (we can also see that there is still empty space between the graphics ports). However, we don't know the answer as to why it's done this way — the motherboard is intended for the most unpretentious and tight-fisted consumers, while the others have an excellent opportunity to cater to their demands and buy the above mentioned motherboards on nForce 570 SLI - MSI K9N SLI Platinum with passive cooling. So let's proceed to other peculiarities.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates three field-effect transistors per channel, six 1800 uF capacitors and four 1500 uF ones. All capacitors come from the same manufacturer, but not from a first-tier one (we couldn't identify it). The motherboard has a spacious layout, there are no empty seats. MSI offers only one motherboard on nForce 500 SLI. Motherboard dimensions — 305×245 mm (full-size ATX), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed.

System monitoring (Winbond W83627DHG, according to BIOS Setup)

  • CPU voltage, +3.3, +5, +12 V
  • RPM of 3 fans
  • CPU and board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)
  • Smart Fan — automatic CPU fan speed control depending on CPU temperature. You can control only the target temperature to be maintained automatically by adjusting fan speed; the system supports 3-pin and 4-pin fans. When Smart Fan is disabled, you can specify CPU fan speed manually (even stop it) in Dual Core Center. But the latest version of Speed Fan (4.31) does not support fan speed control (even fan speed monitoring) for this motherboard.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket AM2, officially supports all existing AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX, Opteron and Sempron processors)
  • 4 × DDR2 SDRAM DIMM (up to 8 GB DDR2-533/667/800, dual-channel mode)
  • 2 × PCIEx16 for video cards (always work in "x8+x8" mode, SLI is supported)
  • 2 × PCIEx1
  • 2 × PCI
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins, you can also use a 20-pin one), 4-pin ATX12V for a processor, 4-pin peripheral connector for additional power supply to PCI-E video cards
  • 1 × FDD
  • 2 × IDE (Parallel ATA) for four chipset-based ATA133 devices
  • 4 × SATA-II (Serial ATA II) four four chipset-based SATA300 devices, connected drives can form RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, and JBOD
  • 3 connectors for brackets with 6 additional USB ports
  • 1 × CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connector for S/PDIF-Out (HDMI compatible)
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • Connector for a chassis intrusion sensor
  • IrDA connector
  • 3 × fan headers with fan speed control, the 4-pin header for a CPU fan provides automatic adjustment of fan speed from BIOS, including 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 × LPT, 1 × COM
  • 2 × USB
  • 2 × USB and 1 × RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 6 × Analog Audio jacks (Line-In, Line-Out, Mic-In, Surround Speaker Out, Rear Speaker Out, Center/Sub Speaker Out).

Package Contents




  • Package: a small box of the traditional MSI design for inexpensive motherboards
  • Documentation: User's Manual (English) is available on the manufacturer's web site, we found no printed manual in the bundle
  • 1 × Serial ATA
  • 1 × SATA power converter
  • 1 × ATA66
  • SLI Bridge
  • Rear panel bracket to hold the SLI Bridge
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with drivers and proprietary MSI utilities.

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 the chipset-based support for AC'97 and Realtek ALC850 codec, 7.1 channel audio, front line-ins/outs, CD-In, and S/PDIF-Out jacks
  • Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps: chipset-based (with an integrated high-speed interface and hardware firewall) and PHY controller Vitesse VSC8601.

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:
+0.10, -0.90
Good
Noise level, dB (A):
-82.5
Good
Dynamic range, dB (A):
82.4
Good
THD, %:
0.033
Good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.053
Good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-82.8
Very good
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.170
Average

General performance: Good (Details). What we have here is the standard (and forgotten) audio quality level of AC’97 codecs. However, we have seen better IMD results.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • DOT express — dynamic CPU overclocking, you can raise the clock in BIOS by 0-15%; Dual Core Center can raise it by 7%. This system is overclocked only under maximum load and 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 of overheating.

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS button  
In BIOS v2.61 from AMI Allows to disable specific CPU functions + K8 Cool’n’Quiet
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, Min RAS Active Time, Row Precharge Time, RAS to CAS Delay, Row to Row Delay, Row Cycle Time
Memory frequency selection + Auto, 400, 533, 667, 800 MHz (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + frequency (200, 400, 600, 800, 1000 MHz) and capacity (8 bit or 16 bit)
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCI-E = 100—145 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI IRQ manual assignment +  
FSB frequency setup + 200—425 MHz at 1 MHz steps and Dynamic Overclocking mode (it raises frequency by 1—15% only under maximum CPU load)
CPU multiplier + from ×5, at integer steps
CPU core voltage control + +0.05—0.35 V at 0.05 V steps
Memory voltage control + 1.80—2.45 V at 0.05 V steps
Chipset voltage control + 1.50—1.80 V at 0.10 V steps

We used BIOS v1.21 dated 05.01.07, provided by the manufacturer. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested.

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)
2840
284
1.64
852 (x3)

This result is typical of inexpensive motherboards, which have advanced BIOS settings, including options to raise CPU, memory, and chipset voltages. In other words, you can squeeze a significant share of your processor's overclocking potential, if you provide efficient cooling for a processor and good ventilation inside your PC case, because the chipset does not have a wide safety margin for heat removal.

Performance

Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+
  • Memory: 2 × Kingston KHX7200D2K2/1G (DDR2-800, 5-5-5-15-2T)
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Video card: ATI Radeon X1900XTX, 512 MB GDDR3
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec CFT-560-A12C
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We decided to compare our motherboard under review with ASRock AM2XLI-eSATA2 on ULi M1697, which also caters for entry-level SLI systems.

Test ASRock AM2XLI-eSATA2 MSI K9N4 SLI
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 6:35 6:27
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 6:00 5:59
DOOM III (Low@640×480), fps 139.6 142.2
DOOM III (High@1024×768), fps 139.2 140.5
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640×480), fps 61.1 61.2
Unreal Tournament 2004 (High@1024×768), fps 57.9 58.0

The motherboard demonstrates model performance.

Bottom line

Inexpensive motherboards with functions of the nForce4 SLI chipset are definitely an advantage of Socket AM2 in general. MSI K9N4 SLI is a good example, although it has some drawbacks (to be more exact, a single drawback — it inherited a bad chipset cooler from similar motherboards for Socket 939). However, this cooler has a standard retention module. So it'll be easy to find an efficient replacement, especially if you like to perfect cheap models.


MSI K9N4 SLI on the manufacturer's web site




Dmitry Laptev (lpt@ixbt.com)
April 2, 2007

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