iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






MSI RD480 Neo2 — Long-Awaited Production-Line Motherboard on ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire Edition

CrossFire Editions of video cards on ATI Radeon X800 and X850 XT processors have already reached Russian parts; in particular, they can be found in Moscow retail. According to the official ATI announcement, availability of proper motherboards is also a matter of the nearest weeks. Looking through the list of announced Xpress 200 CFE motherboards on the new ATI Chipsets Web Site, we can expect at least 6-7 models for AMD (Socket 939) in our parts. That's not much compared to a deluge of SLI solutions. But in practice, the choice may be sufficient for those, who have already decided in favour of ATI products and are now waiting for an opportunity to buy a CrossFire system.

As we have already noted, this ATI chipset, originally bundled with the SB450 southbridge, possesses worse functionality compared to the NVIDIA nForce4 series, as it does not support Serial ATA II, advanced RAID levels, and cannot boast of firmware firewall (it offers High Definition Audio support "instead"). That's why top motherboards often use southbridges from third-party manufacturers. MSI uses the ULi M1573 bridge — the most popular option.

But in the gaming segment, for which such motherboards are intended, side-functionality of the chipset does not play a pivotal role, two graphics ports are of primary importance. MSI overhauled the reference design just a little here: the slave port (unlike SLI motherboards, that's the first slot from the CPU socket on CrossFire mobos) got a "stub" that enables the x16 mode of the master port. So, when we install the second card, graphics ports switch to the x8+x8 mode. This solution looks a tad better at first sight than a mini-card in the majority of nForce4 SLI motherboards, requiring laboursome flipping in a special connector (except for models, where both ports always operate in x8 mode, and those, where these modes are switched on the software level). In particular, this switching method allowed MSI engineers to save room on the PCB.

On the whole, the layout merits the highest mark — RD480 Neo2 functionality is far from the low end level. Besides, arranging two bridges of the chipset and a couple of graphics ports required much attention. But as a result, memory slot latches are not blocked by a video card, all connectors for storage drives, three fans, and even the chassis intrusion sensor and IrDA are placed along the edges and are easily accessible, when it's installed into a PC case. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about the only jumper for clearing CMOS: it's located behind the PCI slot near an electrolytic capacitor, so that a high expansion card (especially with such bulky elements as heatsinks or a radio unit) installed in this slot in a compact PC case will make it extremely difficult to clear CMOS. Besides, the jumper is far from its usual location — near the battery — and is not properly identified. However, the layout would have merited a prize, if the graphics ports had been divided into master and slave… like in case of SLI. One PCI Express x16 slot (the one, which is closer to the processor) on this motherboard is in a very privileged position: there is much empty space around it, which could have been used, when only one video card with a bulky cooling system is installed. That's obviously a logical way to separate the farther graphics slot on motherboards with CrossFire support.

The motherboard is equipped with a 8-pin CPU power connector of the server standard EPS12V (4 pins +12 V), but stable operation is possible even with a popular 4-pin ATX12V connector, if it can output at least 18 P. There is also a standard 4-pin peripheral connector for very powerful video cards in PCI Express x16 slots. Passive cooling of the chipset has a positive effect on the general noise level, heat release of the northbridge is low, so that it's easily cooled by a CPU cooler. PCB layout provides for this feature — the distance from a CPU socket to the chipset heatsink is small. Fortunately, the heatsink itself is not very high and it shouldn't interfere with the installation of non-standard coolers.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates three field-effect transistors per channel (the layout actually provides for 4 transistors per channel), seven 1500 uF and four 1000 uF capacitors (from an unknown manufacturer.) There is no cooling (for example a heatsink, like on the reference motherboard and nearly on all MSI boards) for the field-effect transistors. Nevertheless, elements of the power converters remained cool during our tests, even though our tests use one of the most power-consuming Athlon 64 processors (4000+, 0.13 micron). The board layout provides for an external Serial ATA controller (with empty seats for two SATA ports) and the second network controller. Thus, MSI can actually launch an extended modification of this motherboard and nearly completely compensate for the functional inferiority of Xpress 200 CFE versus nForce4 SLI due to additional controllers. (The RD480 Neo2 is currently the only ATI Xpress 200 CFE model in this series.) We also found a lot of empty seats for resistors, diodes, and other discrete components for the main chips. Motherboard dimensions — 305×244 mm (full-size ATX), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed.

System monitoring (Winbond W83627EHF + MSI Core Cell, according to BIOS Setup)

  • CPU core voltage, +3.3, +5, and +12 V, as well as +5 V Standby
  • RPM of 2 fans
  • CPU and board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)
  • Alarms when a CPU fan stops or the sensor detects chassis intrusion.

The motherboard also offers automatic rpm control for fans, depending on the temperature (it can be fine tuned):

  • SmartFan for CPU — for a CPU cooler, depending on CPU temperature. You can specify a temperature threshold (40°C, 50°C, 60°C). When exceeded, the fan starts increasing (or decreasing) its speed in steps. You can also specify fan tolerance within 1—5°C to prevent speed changes during short-time temperature fluctuations. For example, if you set the threshold to 60°C and Fan Tolerance to 5°C, the fan starts speeding up when a CPU is 60°C, and slows down only when its temperature is below 55°C. That's how it works: after SmartFan is activated, fan speed is reduced until the CPU temperature starts growing — at this very moment the rotational speed grows by several percents and freezes at this level (as well as the CPU temperature). CPU temperature grows under load. When it reaches the value, specified in Smart Fan section, fan speed starts growing and stabilizes at higher values in the same way. This motherboard does not allow to stop a fan on the CPU cooler (minimal potential at CPU_FAN1 is preserved): for example, according to system monitoring data, the minimal speed of our boxed cooler is 1300 rpm.
  • Smart Fan for System — for a system fan, connected to SYS_FAN1, depending on the board temperature. Temperature thresholds: 20, 30 or 40°C.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • CPU socket (Socket 939, officially supports all AMD Athlon 64/X2 processors up to 4000+/4800+ and higher as well as all AMD Athlon 64 FX processors up to FX57 and newer)
  • 4 x DDR SDRAM DIMM (up to 4 GB DDR200/266/333/400, dual-channel mode is available, if slots are filled symmetrically)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 for video accelerators (master slot works in x16 mode, in case the plug is installed into the slave slot; when two video cards are installed, both slots work in x8 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 ATX 2.2 (24 pin, you can also plug a regular 20-pin connector), 8-pin EPS12V for a processor (you can plug the standard 4-pin ATX12V connector), 4-pin peripheral connector for PCIE video cards — you should use all the three connectors for stability
  • 1 x FDD
  • 2 x IDE (Parallel ATA) for 4 ATA133 devices — chipset-based
  • 4 x SATA (Serial ATA) for 4 SATA150 devices — chipset-based, these hard drives can form RAID 0, 1 or 0+1
  • 2 connectors for brackets with 4 additional USB ports
  • Two connectors for brackets with 2 additional FireWire ports
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • 1 x standard IrDA connector
  • Connector for the 4-LED indicator on the D-Bracket
  • Connector for a chassis intrusion sensor
  • 3 x fan headers (with rpm control, two of them offer automatic rpm control).

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
  • 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: a box with standard design for modern MSI motherboards, in this case it's spiced up with red hues (probably boasting of CrossFire)
  • Documentation: User's guide
  • Cables: 1 x SATA (with a power converter), 1 x ATA66, and 1 x FDD cable
  • 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)
  • Rear I/O shield
  • CD with drivers and proprietary MSI utilities.

The set of proprietary 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 and even reboot of your computer here (!) as well as to select applications to be launched at startup.
  • MSI Core Center — this Windows utility monitors system parameters, manages Smart Fan modes and CPU overclocking. Except for user defined clock (200—300 MHz) and voltage on northbridge (1.2—1.5 V), memory (2.5—2.85 V), and PCI Express (1.5—1.85 V), it also allows automatic selection of increased frequency. The last feature is actually of questionable use: the program just raises the frequency in steps without load tests, so you cannot be sure that the mode will work OK. A funny thing happens in case of active Cool'n'Quiet: clock frequency grows freely (Core Center practically does not load the processor, thus its multiplier remains at the minimum), overclocking stops either when the clock exceeds the HyperTransport frequency, or when a heavy application is launched.
  • MSI Live Update 3 — update BIOS under Windows, it allows to search and download the latest version from the official website, convenient search for updated drivers for all motherboard devices via Internet.
  • MSI Security — a set of utilities for storing passwords, managing user profiles, and encrypting HDD contents.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio (HDA), based on the chipset and Realtek ALC880 chip supporting 7.1-channel audio with line-in/out and two (coaxial and optical) S/PDIF-Out jacks
  • Network, based on the Realtek RTL8110SB chip supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • FireWire, based on the VIA VT6306 chip supporting three ports

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the Terratec DMX 6fire sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0,14, -0,17
Very good
Noise level, dB (A):
Dynamic range, dB (A):
THD, %:
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
Very good

General performance: Very good (details). Excellent results for integrated audio, HDA at that.

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • D.O.T. Express — this motherboard automatically raises the CPU clock by 1—15% depending on the aggressiveness level specified in BIOS (this levels are traditionally ranked from Private to Commander), but only under maximum CPU load. The rest of the time the CPU works at the standard frequency (or reduced by Cool'n'Quiet). Determining the maximum clock dynamically, taking into account the CPU temperature, is an innovation. Thus, if you don't provide sufficient cooling, but set the high aggressiveness level, the motherboard will try to protect the processor from overheating;
  • Separate chipset and memory voltage regulators as well as the hardware CPU protection from high current with a fast-acting (one microsecond) detector.


Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper  
In BIOS based on AMIBIOS 2.58 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, Row Refresh Cycle, Read-To-Write Time, Bank Interleaving
Memory frequency selection + Auto, 100, 133, 166, 200 MHz (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + frequency (Auto, 200 MHz)
Peripheral bus frequency control + PCI-E(PCI×3) = 100—200 MHz at 1 MHz steps
PCI IRQ manual assignment -  
FSB frequency setup + 200—350 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from x4, at integer steps
CPU core voltage control + +0.025—0.750 V at 0.025 V steps
Memory voltage control + 2.5—2.85 V at 0.05V steps
Chipset voltage control + 1.2—1.5 V at 0.1 V steps
PCI Express voltage control + 1.8—2.22 V at 0.06 V steps

We used BIOS 3.00 dated 28.10.05, 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. Note that voltage settings were inactive in our motherboard — MSI representatives assured us that it's a bug of this very preproduction sample. Everything will work fine in production-line models. That's why you shouldn't take the ranges and voltage steps published in this table as anything final.

The motherboard detected memory timings correctly (by SPD), except for the 1T/2T setting - we had to set it manually to the minimal value.


Testbed configurations:

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

We have also taken results of the recently reviewed ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe on nForce4 SLI X16 (its review will be published in the nearest future). We can expect maximum performance from this motherboard, attainable on a "two-headed" platform from NVIDIA.

Test ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe (NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16) MSI RD480 Neo2 (ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire Edition)
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 7:32 7:32
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 5:06 5:02
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 85.7 86.1
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 78.1 77.5
Doom3 (Low@640x480), fps 116.9 116.9
Doom3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 58.5 62.3

MSI RD480 Neo2 on ATI Xpress 200 CFE expectedly demonstrated nearly model performance in memory operations. There is nothing surprising about this motherboard fairing on a par with its competitor in games with a single video card. What concerns testing the relative efficiency of SLI modes (including SLI X16) versus CrossFire (just two cards in X8 mode so far), this issue is dwelled upon in our 3D Video section. The difference between video cards' performance has always been a governing factor here. As for now, we cannot evaluate CrossFire performance on a motherboard with a chipset from NVIDIA (and vice versa).

Bottom line: the motherboard as such is certainly a success, it's worthy of being a motherboard in your computer, especially if the choice between CrossFire and SLI is already made for the former — for reasons that have to do with the graphics components of these technologies. But this motherboard can hardly persuade a customer to give preference to the ATI solution: for example, MSI offers no less attractive products for SLI. Of course, as Xpress 200 CFE motherboards from other manufacturers appear in our test lab (and most importantly in retail stores!), we shall be able to speak of the best choice among models with similar functionality.

This model on the manufacturer's web site (Russian mirror)

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer

Dmitry Vladimirovich (lpt@ixbt.com)
December 20, 2005.

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