MSI K8N Neo Platinum Edition

Author: Terren Tong
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Friday, May 21st, 2004
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/msi_k8n_neo_pe/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Introduction

Nvidia's corporate strategy in recent months seems to be features, features, features and more features in every area of their business. Let's look at what they have released recently; drivers that enhance desktop and game functionality, the GeForce 6800 series that has arguably leapfrogged the competition in terms of feature set on the graphics front, and the NForce 3 250Gb on the motherboard side. Nvidia demoed a NForce 3 system here for us in Vancouver a few weeks ago and it was impressive. Moving away from strictly a 'hey our board is faster than yours approach', Nvidia has listened to criticisms surrounding the Nforce 150 chipset as well as adding in novel features previously not found in motherboards.

MSI is no stranger to the motherboard industry and traditionally releases strong products. Personally, I have several MSI boards in service at home and with friends and family. Today we take a look at their NForce 3 250Gb based K8N Neo Platinum Edition, which should be one of the first 250Gb boards to make it out of the gate.

Specifications

The major areas of improvement on the NForce 3 250Gb is of course the MCP unit. Specifically it adds, Gigabit Ethernet, 2 SATA controllers, RAID support and a hardware firewall. For more thorough coverage of the the NForce 250Gb features, take a look at our NForce 250 Preview where we go into greater detail regarding everything above.

Socket Type:

Socket 754

Chipset:

NForce 3 250Gb Chipset

South bridge:

NForce 3 250Gb MCP

Processor:

AMD Athlon-64

Max FSB:

800MHz (Hyper-Transport)

Memory:

3 x DDR SDRAM PC2100/2700/3200, 3GB max.

AGP Slot:

AGP 3.0 (8x)

PCI Slot:

5 32-bit Master PCI Bus Slots, one orange slot reserved as communication slot.

IDE:

2 x E/IDE Ultra DMA/133, 4 drives max.

SATA:

4

USB:

8 (4 Rear, 4 through external bracket) USB 2.0

Network:

GbE through NVIDIA MAC (IEEE 802.3)

Audio:

Integrated NForce APU (5.1 ch H/W Audio)
Direct Sound AC97 Audio
8 channel Analog Output
Digital SPDIF out through META I/O

SPDIF:

Yes

BIOS:

Award/Phoenix BIOS v6.0

IEEE1394

3 1394 Ports (Firewire via external bracket)

Onboard Peripherals:

1 floppy, 1 serial port, 1 parallel port, 1 IrDA, 1 Audio jack (5-in-1), coxial/fibre SPDIF out, 1 D-Bracket2 pinheader, 3 IEEE1394a (firewire)

Size:

ATX (304mm x 244mm)

Accessories:

Round IDE Cable, Floppy Cable, SATA Data/Power Cable, Game Port, I/O Shield, CD Driver/Manual

The Package

The contents of the K8N Neo is pretty barebone - a rounded IDE cable, a rounded floppy, two SATA cables, a SATA power converter, a USB PCI bracket, a manual and the accompanying driver/software CD make up the contents of the package. The flip side is most of the connectivity stuff that comes in extra PCI brackets is already on board including a single firewire header, 7.1 sound with a discrete mic input, SPDIF out, and optical out.

The accompanying CD has utilities such as DirectX 9.0b (which is needed before the Nforce 4.12 drivers can be installed), MSI's Live Update Utility, Trendmicro's PC-Cillin 2002, and E-Color's 3Deep color calibration tool.

Layout

The layout of the K8N Neo is very interesting. Instead of taking a straight Nvidia reference design, MSI has taken great strides in re-engineering the board. One of the big changes is the orientation of the memory - instead of being perpendicular to the AGP slot and potentially requiring the removal of the AGP card to access the DIMM slots, MSI has chosen to make the memory banks parallel to the AGP slot at the top of the board. A potential pitfall is that the memory may impede the air flow from the CPU to the power supply. The Nvidia 250Gb reference board that we played around with had the memory banks in the traditional place at the side. Nonetheless, the placement of the memory makes access to the DIMM slots a lot less annoying compared to many other motherboards.

Both the Nvidia reference design and the K8N Neo have SATA ports between the CPU socket and the AGP slot. This is something that I am not particularly fond of as it is located in a pretty awkward position. I do not know it if is possible from an engineering standpoint but having those off to the right side would be a lot better. SATA cables in this position would have to snake around the CPU heatsink or less ideally, over it.

I also prefer the 12V and ATX power supply connectors to be located on the same side of the board as it makes for cleaner cabling but unfortunately, it is on opposite sides of the board on the K8N Neo. One final minor gripe is the AGP retention mechanism - the latch approach does not work too well with some cards- in particular, the ATI 9800 and X800 heatsink design prevents access to the little tab that releases the lock. Our favorite mechanism is the slide lock found on AOpen's motheboards and the Gigabyte spring tab is not bad either.


I dont dig the latch - it's hard to manipulate with a lot of graphics cards

The MCP is passively cooled by a prominent gold-colored MSI heatsink. It had a tendency to get quite hot during operation, hot enough to prevent my finger from staying on top of it but not quite so to burn upon contact. It might not be a bad idea to have an active cooling solution on the MCP although we should note that we did not experience any system instability during testing.

Appearance

The board itself looks great. I'm all for functionality over looks but MSI has got both with the K8N Neo. Several times in the past I have commented on how gaudy some boards looked and while it makes things easy to work with they are a little sore on the eyes. MSI has an attractive black PCB and gracefully colored plastics on the board itself. I think the biggest difference is the lack of the purple DIMM slots featured prominently on the boards of several manufacturers. The teal green still is not completely my cup of tea but it is an improvement over the purple. I'm glad to see that MSI has color coded front panel connectors that are also conveniently labeled. In fact, everything on the motherboard is labeled so the novice end user can figure out the difference between a PCI and AGP slot with the mastery of the English alphabet.

Back Panel

For the spring and summer season, I'm guessing that one of the new trends is a more highly integrated back panel. Like the recently reviewed EpoX 8HDA5+, the connectivity of the back panel is much improved over that of previous motherboards that required several PCI brackets for additional functionality. One of the newer trends is the ability to take advantage of analog surround sound and being able to plug in a microphone. Some of the other highlights on the back are the SPDIF, optical out, firewire port, 4 USB2 ports, and the Nvidia GbE port. An additional 2 USB2 ports are available via a provided PCI bracket or through the front panel connectors on some cases. An additional 2 firewire ports are available through motherboard headers but alas, no bracket was included for that.

BIOS

The standard Award Phoenix BIOS makes an appearance here on the K8N Neo. The menu that should interest the enthusiast the most is the CELL menu which is where the overclocking and majority of tweaking options are.

FSB Frequency

200-300 mhz in 1 mhz steppings

CPU Ratio

4-20, integer values only

Memory Frequency

200,266,333,400 (lockable)

DIMM Voltage

2.50 to 2.85 V in 0.05V increments

AGP Voltage

1.50 to 1.85 V in 0.05V increments

CPU Voltage

1.57-1.81 in 0.03 or 0.05 steps (varies)

DRAM Options

The DRAM options are on the basic side when it comes to adjustment. Most of the requisites are covered but the truly hardcore may be pining for more advanced memory options.

CPU

If Athlon 64s are ever unlocked, features like the multiplier adjustment can be taken advantage of. The CPU voltage range on the K8N Neo is quite impressive. The CPU bus can be adjusted from 200-300 in 1 Mhz increments. It would be preferable to go with the type box format seen on some other boards rather than having to scroll through a giant list though. Those looking to underclock (and undervolt) for a HTPC or some sort of quiet application may want to look elsewhere as the the CPU bus speed cannot drop below the stock 200.

The D.O.T overclocking options are kind of neat. It is seperated into 6 levels ranging from a 1% to 11% overclock.

Other

A neat feature that I've seen for the first time in the BIOS is the the ability to adjust the HyperTransport ratio. Overclocking woes with first generation AMD64 motherboards was often blamed on the HyperTransport bus being sensitive to higher frequencies. Note that the default is 4x the CPU ratio which makes for 800 Mhz, bringing the NForce 3 250 up to par with its VIA counterpart. A 5x option is also available. Might be interesting to bump down the HT ratio and see if the FSB can be pushed up a bit.

Note the additional SATA drives supported directly by the MCP unit of the K8N Neo as the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th master.

Installation

Like previously mentioned, colored AND labeled front panel connectors are a god send but installation did not go without mishaps. We had quite the struggle with getting Windows XP up and running on the K8N Neo. Set up would complete and during the Windows boot process, specifically when the Windows XP logo appeared, the system would BSOD. Windows would however boot into safe mode. Installation of the NForce drivers did not rectify the problem however. It was not until SATA1 & 2 were disabled in the BIOS would Windows boot up regularly. Enabling the SATA ports after this resulted in no problems. I'm not sure if this is a BIOS issue but there seems to be something amiss as another 250 board we have exhibited similar installation issues.


Default K8N Neo Post Screen

Benchmark Setup

AMD Athlon64 3400+
AOpen AK86-L
Gigabyte K8NNXP
MSI K8N Neo
Seagate Barracuda SATA V 120 GB 7200 Hard Drive
2 X 256 XMS3202v1.1 Corsair PC3200 DDR
GeforceFX 5950 Ultra Forceware 56.73
NForce Platform 4.12 Drivers
VIA Hyperion 4.51
WinXP SP1

The K8N Neo faces some stiff competition against the fast (and aggressively priced) AOpen AK86-L and the NForce 150 based K8NNXP, the first Athlon 64 motherboard we took a look at.

Synthetic Benchmarks

The K8N Neo is generally an improvement over the NForce 150 based K8NNXP but the Gigabyte board takes the lead surprisingly in the Winstone Multimedia Creation Test. A slight edge still goes to the AOpen AK-86L in PCMark04

I/O

There seems to be a bug with HDTach and the K8N Neo with regards to the IDE throughput. This took place on both IDE1 and IDE2. Application and Windows boot times were normal so the low burst rate there is not indicative of the performance of the IDE channels. (Yes the Nvidia IDE driver was used). Good news on the SATA front though - great through put and significantly lower CPU usage.

Audio Benchmarks

Something that we've noticed during our rabid motherboard testing during the past 10 days - installing the 4.12 NForce drivers make the system recognize the AC97 codec on NForce systems as the NForce APU. This enables NVMixer a nice little app. The bad news is that the NForce APU does not support DirectSound 3D or EAX even with the OpenAL library installed. The solution is instaling Realtek's AC97 codec which in turns disables NVMixer. We have contacted Nvidia about this situation and are waiting to hear back about it. That said, we recommend installing the Realtek codec as CPU usage is significantly lower on Directsound 2D streams and the lack of hardware 3D audio will not please many gamers.

The NForce 3 solution seems the most efficient with the audio streams.

Same trend with Call of Duty.

MP3 Encoding

Times are fairly close with our LAME encode of a 700MB file. The K8NNXP manages to scoot ahead again while both the K8N Neo and AK-86L come in at the same time.

Gaming Benchmarks

On the gaming side there is little to differentiate between the NForce 150 and the K8N Neo. The improvements to the GART driver on the Nvidia side is evident especially in Call of Duty where there is a pretty big gap between the NForce based boards and the K8T800. The rest of the numbers pretty much fall into line as to the strenghts/weaknesses of the K8T00/NForce chipsets with the K8N Neo always falling next to the K8NNXP. It is somewhat disappointing to not see a bigger performance improvement in a second generation chipset however.

Conclusions

The K8N Neo and the NForce 3 250Gb are important for the evolution of the desktop and motherboard. The NForce3 brings improvements to both the OEM and consumer; Nvidia has alleviated some of the concerns of the OEMs by integrating a lot of features directly into the southbridge that negates the need for a bevy of external chips (like on the K8NNXP). Other features such as RAID and the hardware firewall add a lot of value into the pacakge. The RAID option which we have not touched on yet is robust allowing the user to define a RAID partition over both SATA and IDE drives in RAID0, RAID1, RAID1+0 and JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks) mode. A demonstration I saw down at Editor's Day was extremely impressive - the Nvidia RAID setup was playing 9 full DVD streams without slowdown. Killing one of the drives resulted in about a second of delay time before a backup drive kicked in. The K8N Neo and the NForce 3 platform will be excellent for the workstation duties.

The onboard firewall is quite extensive and we will be following up on how it performs in an upcoming article. That said, there should be no reason why anyone who is looking to upgrade to the K8N Neo should not be running it as firewalls are as necessary as system patches nowadays.

The NForce 3 250Gb is not perfect however. We did not see a lot of improvements on the benchmark side over either the 150 or the K8T800. I think the performance difference between the K8T800 and the NForce 3 chipsets were a bit overstated as both platforms have their strengths as well as areas that could use improvement. However the NForce 3 250Gb and the K8N Neo bring features that VIA will be hard pressed to match in the near future.

The K8N Neo should be available soon and is the board to get if one is in the market for a socket 754 solution despite a couple minor issues. The GbE, RAID features and firewall are things that should not be overlooked easily especially when they should come at little to no additional expense.

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