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MSI P6N SLI - Motherboard Based on NVIDIA nForce 650i SLI Chipset

October 22, 2007



This motherboard (brief manufacturer's designation is MS-7350) is a classic example of a plain ATX product. While it doesn't have top notch "goodies" like an integrated Wi-Fi adapter, two Gigabit Ethernet ports or a bunch of SATA RAID ports, it can still serve as a good foundation for a powerful and rich computer system. Besides, an additional distinguishing feature is that the board is based on an alternative chipset (for an Intel platform anything that doesn't use Intel chipsets is traditionally considered alternative). Thus, one may say that MSI P6N SLI is a motherboard for those who on one hand can afford buying more expensive products, but on the other hand are not going to pay more for what they do not plan on using.

The fate of such products on the market is often predictable: they are purchased by two kinds of "self-assembly" fans (DIY):

  1. Those who want to fit their chassis with an ATX form-factor motherboard, but don't want to pay more than for a mATX one. Let's call them "poor enthusiasts". Looking "upwards" onto this product they will consider it expensive, but still accessible in terms of price.
  2. Those who only care about functionality and don't want to pay extra for the excessive, from their point of view, high-end board features. Let's call them "thrifty pragmatics". In contrast, they will be looking "downwards" onto this motherboard and consider it a cheap alternative to high-end boards.

Let us then evaluate this product based on the two aforementioned positions.

The motherboard's wiring layout is overall good. The location of the socket for connecting a floppy drive is the only possible flaw. Indeed, many other manufacturers choose the same placement, but that still doesn't make it convenient. On the other hand, if we consider this socket rudimentary (like the LPT port) then it would seem quite logical to put it as far away as possible and out of the way. :) Passive heatsinks are used for cooling chipset's northbridge and southbridge. Northbridge heatsink's design seems adequate: many slim fins should in theory provide more efficient cooling than a few thick ones that are used on standard ordinary heatsinks. Space around the CPU socket is left free to the maximum. There should be no problems with installing even very large coolers. Design of the CPU supply voltage stabilizer (4-channel impulse stabilizer with 3 field transistors per channel) is a copy of the one used in the more expensive MSI P35 Platinum. This fact is an advantage: P6N SLI has borrowed one of the more important parts from the high-end products. In general, the motherboard is indeed a plain ATX with nothing to make it stand out. Conservatives will definitely be happy to see the 3 PCI slots, the maximum possible number nowadays.

System Monitoring (Fintek F71882FG, From BIOS Setup and Windows Utilities' Data)

  • Voltage of CPU, +3.3, +5, +12 V and +5 V Standby;
  • Rotation rate of the three fans (CPU, SYSFAN 1, SYSFAN 2), in addition, in BIOS one can set the temperature at which the Smart FAN function of the CPU cooler will be activated;
  • Temperature of CPU (by built-in CPU sensor) and motherboard (by on-board sensor).

Brand MSI Dual Core Center utility besides the aforementioned abilities allows keeping track of the memory and chipset northbridge voltages, while the universal SpeedFan utility also allows monitoring the voltage of the battery and +3.3 V Standby.

Ports, Connectors and Sockets on Board's Surface

  • Processor socket, Socket 775, supports Core 2 Extreme/Quad/Duo, Pentium Dual Core, Pentium D/EE, Pentium 4/EE, Celeron processors, and bus frequencies from 533 to 1333 MHz, while 1333 MHz is the "standard acceleration" i.e. one has to resort to overclocking, though it is officially allowed by the manufacturer;
  • 4 DDR2 SDRAM DIMM slots (up to 32 GB DDR2-400/533/667/800; supports dual channel mode of operation with symmetric occupation of slots for both channels; compatibility test results are presented in the user's manual);
  • Two PCIEx16 form-factor graphics card slots, one of which can operate in x16 mode (non-SLI) or x8 (SLI), while the other - only in x8 mode and may only be used for installing a second video card that operates in SLI mode;
  • PCIEx1 slot;
  • 3 PCI slots;
  • Power supply connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins, capable of supporting a 20-pin ATX 2.03 connector) and a 8-pin EPS12V for CPU supply, which, however, can be just as well used to connect a standard 4-pin ATX12V;
  • FDD slot;
  • Two IDE (Parallel ATA) slots, functionality provided by chipset with a total support of 4 ATA133 devices;
  • 4 chipset SATA-II slots for 4 SATA300 devices, disks can be combined into a RAID of levels 0, 1, 0+1 and 5;
  • 2 bracket headers for 4 extra USB ports;
  • A header for a D-Bracket with 2 additional USB ports and LED indication of system condition at start-up;
  • A header for an extra FireWire port bracket;
  • A header for a COM port bracket;
  • CD/DVD-drive audio-out header;
  • Block of analog audio-in/out connectors for the computer's front panel;
  • Chassis intrusion detector slot;
  • 4 fan connectors, 4-pin for the CPU fan, the rest are 3-pin, all support rotation rate monitoring, while the CPU one has automatic rotation rate control function.

Board's Rear Panel (Left to Right, by Blocks)


Click for the 3/4 view
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports;
  • LPT port and FireWire port;
  • 2 USB 2.0 ports;
  • 2 USB 2.0 ports and 1 RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet) port;
  • 5 analog audio sockets and 1 digital (optical) one.

Package Contents

  • Packing: a standard box for ATX form-factor boards;
  • Documentation: English language user's guide, with a warning in 12 various languages to not throw away this motherboard with regular garbage according to EU regulations;
  • Cables: 1 SATA with a power supply adapter, 1 ATA66 cable and 1 for connecting a floppy drive;
  • A rear panel plug for corresponding connectors;
  • Multi-GPU SLI Video Link Card for interconnecting graphics cards while working in SLI mode.
  • A CD with necessary drivers and brand utilities including Dual Core Center and DOT Express (for monitoring, controlling rotation rate of coolers, overclocking etc.) and Live Update (for searching and updating drivers, utilities and BIOS thorough the Internet).
  • The motherboard package also may include (according to the user's manual) 2 additional USB port brackets, FireWire port bracket, and a D-Bracket with 2 USB ports and 4 LEDs indicating the system condition at startup. In our case, however, the brackets were not included.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio controller based on the 10-channel (7.1+2) Realtek ALC888 HDA codec has an ability to connect 7.1 audio systems. It also has a connector for front audio-ins/outs and optical S/PDIF-Out port;
  • Network controller based on the Realtek RTL8211BL microchip (PCIEx1 interface) supports speeds of 10/100/1000 Mbit/s (Gigabit Ethernet);
  • FireWire controller based on VIA VT6308P microchip supports 2 devices (PCI interface).

We have evaluated quality of the integrated audio in 16-bit 44-KHz mode using RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.0 testing suite and ESI Juli@ sound card:

Frequency response (40 Hz - 15 KHz range), dB
+0.03, -0.06
Excellent
Noise level, dB (A)
-87.0
Good
Dynamic range, dB (A)
87.0
Good
THD, %
0.0022
Excellent
THD + N, dB(A)
-79.9
Average
IMD + N, %
0.013
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB
-85.2
Excellent
IMD at 10 KHz, %
0.012
Very good
Overall rating  
Very good

Overall rating: Very good - according to our test results the quality of analog audio output is on a very good level even for HDA codecs.

Brand Technologies and Features

  • LED indication of system startup problems - four LEDs on a special bracket together with description of combinations in the user's guide allows to quickly identify the problem preventing a normal boot up. Once again, note that this bracket is optional.

Settings

Based on jumpers CMOS reset button in this case a jumper was replaced with a button, reset is performed by simply pressing it
Through BIOS based on AMI's version 02.61Ability to turn specific CPU functions off+ Execute bit support, Set Limit CPUID to 3, EIST
Memory timing settings+ Auto or CAS Latency, tRCD, tRP, tRAS, tRRD, tRC, tWR, tWTR, tREF, Command per clock (CMD)
Memory clock rate selection+ Auto (frequencies of FSB and memory are set automatically) or Linked (only FSB frequency is adjusted, memory frequency is set automatically) or Manual (frequencies of FSB and memory are adjusted separately, FSB 400-2500 MHz, memory 400-1400 MHz)
Ability to set frequencies of peripheral buses+ PCI-E: 100-200 MHz in 1 MHz increments
Manual distribution of interrupts by slots+ for PCI slots 1 through 3
Adjusting FSB frequency+ see "memory clock rate selection"
Adjusting CPU multiplier- We haven't observed this option. However, according to User Manual it is implemented, yet is only visible when the CPU being used supports multiplier adjustment
Adjusting CPU core voltage+ In reality nominal voltage can only be increased. The range is from +0.0125 V to +0.3875 V, with increment of 0.0125 V
Adjusting memory voltage+ Auto or ranging from 1.8 V to 2.8 V in 0.05 V increments
Adjusting chipset voltage+ For the northbridge: from 1.25 V to 1.5 V in 0.025 V increments, for the southbridge from 1.5 V to 1.7 V in 0.05 V increments
Adjusting FSB voltage+ FSB VTT Voltage 0-20%

For testing we used BIOS version 2.3 dated 07/12/2007, which was the latest available at the time. The aforementioned BIOS capabilities are available in the specified version of the BIOS. Non-standard settings were not tested for operability. The motherboard supports accessing boot device selection menu by pressing F11 key during POST procedure. This conveniently allows performing a one-time boot, for example using a CD drive, without having to change corresponding settings in BIOS Setup.

In addition, BIOS Setup includes the MSI D.O.T. (Dynamic Overclocking Technology) option. According to the manufacturer dynamic overclocking is initiated only when there is a real need in increased performance. The following settings are available: Disabled, Private (increasing FSB frequency by 1%), Sergeant (3%), Captain (5%), Colonel (7%), General (10%) and Commander (15%).

Performance

Testbed configuration:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz)
  • RAM: 2 1 GB Corsair CM2X1024-9136C5D modules (tested in DDR2-800 mode with timings of 4-4-4)
  • Graphics card: ATI Radeon X1900 XTX 512 MB
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • PSU: GlacialTech GP-PS450AP
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We have compared P6N SLI in speed characteristics to two other motherboards based on Intel P35 chipset - fast (P35 Platinum) and not so fast (P35 Neo), as well as to the only motherboard based on equivalent chipset tested up to date - ECS NF650iSLIT-A.

Test MSI P6N SLI ECS NF650iSLIT-A MSI P35 Platinum MSI P35 Neo
Data compression using 7-Zip, min:sec 4:20 4:11 4:14 4:17
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 3:40 3:38 3:36 3:37
Doom 3 (Low@640x480), fps 214 214 216 215
Doom 3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 121 121 121 121
FarCry (Low@640x480), fps 355 361 357 353
FarCry (Highest@1600x1200), fps 151 149 151 152

As you can see the motherboard is overall not the fastest one. Despite that, in the most critical applications and modes the loss to the other boards is minimal. That is why we shall not recommend MSI P6N SLI to those, who really love speed and high fps. And to the rest we can say: performance characteristics are acceptable. Of course, the motherboard hasn't demonstrated extraordinary results, but neither have the tests uncovered anything fatal.

Compatibility Problems

Unfortunately, in the process of testing we have found an incompatibility of this board with our standard Promise SATA 300 TX2Plus PCI SATA-II controller. The motherboard failed to detect the controller itself and, naturally, the disks connected to it. In principle, there is nothing terrible about that. Every board is most likely incompatible with something. Besides, one can't call SATA 300 TX2Plus a wide-spread device. However, this is a fact that we have no right to leave undeclared.

Conclusion

As we have promised our conclusions will be based on presumable demand for the products that are similar in characteristics to the one being examined.

Thus, consider the first potential user category: "not so rich enthusiasts". They will get an adequate product, which implements everything that was announced. An almost perfect case: one can get a clear picture of the board's capabilities by looking at the specifications. Everything that is listed is, in fact, present. According to our tests everything works as it should. Device conforms to specifications. As to the problems with expansion cards, no one can promise universal compatibility. Moreover, users from this category usually look for a motherboard with built-in capabilities that fully satisfy their needs. That is what they will get - within the board's own limitations.

The "thrifty pragmatic" users of the second category don't like to change fundamental components and use them to the last degree. They prefer to replace or add components to the computer without reassembling it completely. In contrast to the first category, the incompatibility that we have uncovered will be critical for them because of the mere fact of its existence, which may theoretically cause trouble in the future. In this case, the manufacturer has a good reason to make efforts and find the cause of this vexing glitch. Besides, it can most likely be fixed by releasing a new version of BIOS without having to redesign the board.

In addition to that, one can suppose that this product can appeal to one more group of users. We shall nickname them "antiquity lovers" due to the fact that this motherboard includes three PCI slots with native support of two Parallel ATA IDE channels for four devices. A real refuge, so to speak, for the old expansion cards, hard disks and optical drives. :)

This model on the manufacturer's website

The board provided for testing by the manufacturer

We thank the Corsair for testbed memory modules

Stanislav Garmatyuk (nawhi@ixbt.com)
October 22, 2007

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