MSI NF980-G65 Motherboard Review

Author: Carl Poirier
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, November 5th, 2009
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/nf980-g65/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

 

Approximately four months ago, we took a look at the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe motherboard, featuring NVIDIA's 'new' 980a chipset. I was really excited about it since it would allow me to run NVIDIA graphics solutions in SLI configuration, along with the Phenom IIs. Although it left me wanting more, I had concluded that the 780a is still very strong chipset that allows the Phenom IIs to show all of their horsepower. I did recommend the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe to people wanting to run a Phenom II along with an SLI graphics-card configuration, but I knew it could have been better. The main things I would have liked to see on it were DDR3 memory slots instead of DDR2, a better HT reference clock overclocking and video outputs for the IGP which was pretty much wasted except in the case of an Hybrid SLI setup.

Not so long ago, I heard about the MSI NF980-G65, sporting the same chipset. I was immediately interested in it, to see if it was better than ASUS' solution. In fact, the NF980-G65 and its little brother the NF750-G55 are the first AMD motherboards to sport DDR3 slots and to be officially SLI ready. I say officially, because today, it can be achieved on a big range of motherboards via some hack; I had previously talked about this matter when it made its apparition. However, a few days ago, I learned that this hack is now more documented and thoroughly explained. It can successfully be achieved on a wide range of motherboards and chipsets, including the AMD ones, as I had wished. Although I did not take the time yet to test it myself, this hack somewhat invalidates the excitation I had about the M4N82 running SLI along an AMD Phenom II, since it can now be done using the greatly performing 790FX boards.

So now that I am less enthusiastic toward a new AMD SLI board, the MSI NF980-G65 will need to fare much better than the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe at the time I reviewed it. Let's see if it can impress me!

Also, before taking an in-depth look at the board specifications, let's remind us what is the 980a platform. To do that, I recalled the 780a diagram from the ASUS M3N-HT Deluxe review. Just keep in mind that for the 980a, the processor now becomes a Phenom II or Athlon II.

The MCP chip manages both the northbridge and southbridge functions. In the case of the 750a chipset, this brings the platform down to a two-chip solution, being the processor and the 750a itself. But for the 980a chipset, an extra chip is added, which is the NForce 200. Its only purpose is to act as a PCI-E bridge between the chipset and the graphics solution. It doubles the available PCI-E lanes so that a 3x8 configuration can be run.

 

Specifications

Socket AM3
CPU (Max Support) Phenom II
AM3 CPU Ready Y
FSB / Hyper Transport Bus up to 2.6GHz
Chipset NVIDIA® nForce 980a SLI
DDR2 Memory N/A
DDR3 Memory DDR3 800/1066/1333/1600*/1800*/2133*(OC)
Memory Channel Dual
DIMM Slots 4
Max Memory (GB) 16
PCI-Ex16 3
PCI-E Gen Gen2 (1x16, 1x16, 1x8)
PCI-Ex4 N/A
PCI-Ex1 2
PCI 2
IDE 1
SATA 6
RAID 0/1/0+1/5/JBOD
LAN 10/100/1000*1
TPM 1
USB ports (Rear) 4
Audio ports (Rear) 6
Serial ports (Rear) N/A
Parallel ports (Rear) N/A
1394 ports (Rear) 1
eSATA N/A
VGA 1
DVI 1
HDMI 1
Display Port N/A
DirectX DX10.1
VGA Share Memory (MB) 512
Form Factor ATX
DrMOS N/A
APS Y
Sideport Memory N/A
SLI Y
3-way SLI Y
Hybrid SLI Y
CrossFire N/A
Hybrid CrossFire N/A
D-LED2 N/A
Green Power Genie N/A

Specifications are courtesy of MSI at http://www.msi.com/index.php?func=prodmbspec&maincat_no=1&cat2_no=&cat3_no=&prod_no=1885


 

This motherboard is part of the Gaming series from MSI, hence why it has the same package design as the MSI 790FX-GD70.

I like the looks of the NF980-G65. The PCB is black instead of dark brown like the 790FX-GD70, so it's even better. Except from that, the colors between these boards are similar. The heatsinks covering the voltage regulator modules, the northbridge and southbridge are connected by heatpipes. These will probably be more than enough cooling the board needs; that's what we will see during testing.

That cooling system is attached using metal screws, as can be seen from the back. This is much better than plastic push-pins and springs we see on many boards. The socket backplate is made out of plastic though, but I have never had solidity problems with these.

Beginning in the top left area, the NF980-G65 sports an 8-pin CPU power connector. Like the 785GM-E65, it is written in big on the heatsink that it supports 140W CPUs.

Awesome. As I said, this board is the first, yes the first to have DDR3 slots while being SLI ready. Between them and the 24-pin ATX power connector is an IDE connector, mind you keeping some old drives. On this picture, one can also see three of the four fan headers. Only the CPU one has the required fourth pin for controlling the speed.

The last fan header is located beside the six angled SATA connectors which are controlled by the MCP___. One might think that the heatsink in the following picture covers a southbridge, but it is not the case. Under it, is the NForce 200 chip, as I explained in the introduction. Above the fan header is a trusted platform module connector and the CMOS clear jumper.

At the bottom left corner are four internal USB headers. At the right of the blue Firewire header are the front panel connectors, which can be used in conjunction with the supplied Q-connectors for a quick and easy connection.

To the left is the floppy disk drive connector, in case you would have some documents from many years before stored on a floppy. The parallel and serial ports can also be found under the last PCI slot, along with the front panel audio header, the CD in and the S/PDIF out connectors.

Beautiful. The NF980-G65 has three PCI-E x16 slots for up to a 3-way SLI setup. They are accompanied by two x1 slots and two legacy PCI slots.

What do I see here? The onboard GeForce 8300 has a VGA, DVI and HDMI output. It's much better than having nothing at all like on the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe!! There is also one Firewire, one Gigabit LAN but only four USB ports. That's not much; what happens if you have a printer, a mouse, a keyboard and a game controller? Too bad, none are left for the scanner. One of the two PS/2 ports should have been traded for another two USB ports. Also let's not forget the six analog audio connectors. There are no optical and coaxial outputs.

The NF980-G65 comes packaged with four standard SATA cables that have a small metal lock. One could not install such cables on the ASUS M4N82; he was obligated to use the supplied cables. There is also an IDE cable and two molex to SATA power connectors. Besides the usual user guide, there is also a quick installation guide, should you need help installing your components. Finally, there is also the HDD Backup feature user guide. Obviously, there is also a driver CD and I/O shield. Lastly, there is also an SLI bridge provided, but what if you wanted to run 3-Way SLI? It would have been great to get the triple bridge required.

Now, let's look at the BIOS.

 

 

MSI normally uses the American Megatrends Inc. BIOS, and this board is no exception.

The Standard CMOS features are nothing but standard.

The Advanced BIOS features contain a few interesting things though. First of all, at the top, there is a BIOS flash protection. Paired with a BIOS password, it will offer a great protection against diverse things. For example, is the computer is housed in a locked case, it can be set to boot only from the primary HDD, where the guest can only login in their account. If not, he could boot from let's say a USB drive and potentially harm the computer. In the Chipset feature sub-menu, the onboard GeForce 9300 can be enabled and its shared memory can be manually set. This is also where Hybrid SLI can be enabled.

In the Integrated Peripherals, the various controllers can be enabled. Notice the typo in "Aduio HDMI".

The Power management setup also contains the standard stuff.

Voltages, temperatures and fan speeds can be monitored in the PC health status. One great thing is that the system fans speed can be set to a certain percentage - even if they are only 3-pins.

Now, let's look at the most interesting part: the overclocking section.

 

 

That's where the fun begins. In the Cell menu, all the required settings are present, and more. The NVIDIA core calibration should allow unlocking the disabled cores, if the processor allows it. At the top, AMD Cool'n'Quiet should be disabled if one plans on overclocking,

In the Advance DRAM configuration, the timings can be set as well as a few other options. What's great is that the extensive list of timings can be set individually for each DCT. The drive strength an also be altered, should it help you gain a few more MHz.

The current settings can be saved and retrieved from the User settings menu. One thing I would like to see though is the possibility to label the saved slots so it's easier to know which is what.

Finally, the M-Flash utility will allow the user to flash the BIOS from a USB key, or simply use a BIOS stored on it.

So will I have all what I need to push the Phenom II X4 965 to its limits! I think so! That's what we will see in the overclocking section.

 

 

Easy OC Switch

The NF980-G65 has one unique feature we don't find on competitor's motherboards. It has a quick overclock switch soldered directly onto the motherboard.

That switch has two levers that can be either in the ON or OFF position. That makes for a total of four different possibilities. There is a small table printed on the board that shows it, but unfortunately it's being hidden by the NForce 200 heatsink. Therefore I'll report the table here:

 
Default
Add 10%
Add 15%
Add 20%
ON
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
OFF
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
1
2
1
2
1
2
1
2

 What this switch essentially does is set the minimum HT link reference clock to 220, 230 or 240MHz. Nothing else is changed, so if the voltages are not high enough or the multipliers not lowered, the board will simply not boot. We'll see in the overclocking section how this thing fares.

 

Active Power Phase

The other unique feature this board has is the Active Power Phase Switching. This technology allows the power circuitry to downscale to a lower number of phases for energy savings. There are four LEDs on the top right corner of the motherboard that indicate the number of active power phases. In this picture, all four are active:

In the Green power menu, this function can be activated in the BIOS, as well as the LEDs turned off.

Will it significantly reduce the power consumption? We'll find out later!

 

 

Popping the supplied CD into the drive and executing the autorun brings you to the following menu. The drivers can be installed from the first tab.  They include everything you need to get started. Strangely enough the VGA and LAN drivers are available under the "Chip" category, and their own icon is greyed. In the Utilities tab, MSI's Overclocking center, Green Power center as well as Live Update can be installed by clicking on the toolbox. NVIDIA nTune is also available under the System Tool category.

 

 

 

 

Live Update allows your computer to automatically check for BIOS, driver or utility updates, and download them.

The Green Power Center is all about energy savings. Not much can be done in there, except activating or deactivating the Active Power Phase switching. The LEDs can also be turned off if they become annoying.

The Overclocking Center has the same System Information page as the Green Power Center so I won't show it twice. In the D.O.T./Advance tab, the voltages can be adjusted on the go, but changing the multipliers is not possible. For some reason, the HT link reference clock is greyed and cannot be changed.

Now, it's time to put the NF980-G65 to the test!

 

 

Test Setup

I was previously talking of the ASUS M4N82, saying that I was a bit deceived it did not sport DDR3 slots. I will therefore put the NF980-G65 in direct comparison with it to see if it will really make a difference. I will also include our standard AMD test platform motherboard: the Gigabyte MA790FXT-UD5P.

  • Processor : AMD Phenom II X4 965
  • Motherboard : MSI NF980-G65
  • Motherboard : ASUS M4N82 Deluxe
  • Motherboard : Gigabyte MA790FXT-UD5P
  • Memory : Mushkin HP3-12800 2x 2GB 9-9-9-24
  • Memory: Mushkin XP2-8000 2x 2GB 5-5-5-12
  • Video Card : nVidia GTX 260 Core 216
  • Hard Drive : Seagate 7200.11 750GB
  • Power Supply : Mushkin XP-800AP
  • Operating System : Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate 64 bit

Benchmarks used

There is be a set of system benchmarks and the other half is gaming oriented. Bioshock requires a custom run since it does not have a benchmarking tool. For this one, Fraps will be used to record the framerates, while for all the other gaming tests, the built-in benchmarking tool will be used. For all of these, the tests will be ran at three different resolutions : 1280x1024, 1680x1050 and 1920x1200.

  • SiSoftware Sandra 2009
  • HandBrake
  • POV-Ray
  • WinRAR
  • Cinebench
  • HD Tune
  • Futuremark PCMark Vantage
  • Crysis Warhead
  • Bioshock
  • Far Cry 2
  • Left 4 Dead

 

 

First of all, I looked at what I could get from the Easy OC Switch. After having loaded the Optimized default settings in the BIOS, in other words the current settings when you first turn on the board, I set the switch to the second position, boosting the HT link reference clock by 10%. This allowed me to run the Phenom II X4 at 3741MHz with the IMC and HT link at 2200MHz - simply by turning on a switch. That's great, however  it would not go anywhere with the 15% and 20% overclock without a bump in voltage.

 

Next, I tested up to what HT link reference clock the NF980-G65 would go. I was really eager to know, as the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe did not do very well on that. I was hoping to reach 300MHz as many motherboards with ATI chipsets are capable. Unfortunately the testing ended at a stable 262MHz. Anything over would cause a BSOD at Windows startup, or would simply not POST. Obviously, to reach that I had decreased the various multipliers. Also, increasing the HT link or northbridge voltage did not allow me to go further. Also, notice that in fact the HT link reference clock is at 263.6MHz, while I had it set at 262MHz.

 

Finally was the time to get a real overclock. Knowing that that new revision Phenom II X4 965 did 4048MHz on the Gigabyte MA790FXT-UD5P, I immediately went for the 4GHz mark at the beginning. At 1.506V, that frequency was stable. I then slowly worked my way up using different reference clock and multipliers combinations to get the clocks I wanted, since the steps in frequency caused by the even-only reference clock are too large. I finally settled for a 4022MHz overclock:

 

Overall, the NF980-G65 is a good overclocker. 262MHz on the reference clock is decent, however not as good as I had hoped. Also, its inaccuracy on the reference clock is not always fun to work with; a 1.6MHz offset represents 27.2MHz when used in conjunction with the stock multiplier. It did reach a decent overclock though; only 26MHz short of the MA790FXT-UD5P on the cores, but at these settings I could overclock the IMC a little further. Finally, the Easy OC switch is a great tool for people who are afraid of BIOS tuning.

 

 

This program includes benchmarks for most hardware. The CPU arithmetic and multi-core efficiency benchmark will be run as well as memory bandwidth and latency.

If we average the GIPS and Gflops measurement for each board, the MSI NF980-G65 gets last. The Gigabyte MA790FXT-UD5P gets first, with the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe being in the middle. As for multi-core efficiency, our subject was almost on par with the CrossfireX enabled board, while the DDR2 board was far behind. The memory bandwidth benchmark gave the advantage to the DDR3-equipped NVIDIA board, and obviously the M4N82 finished last. Surprisingly, all boards tied for a 78ns memory latency, except obviously the overclocked NF980-G65, which beat everything by a big margin.

 

 

HandBrake is an application that converts sound and video files to other formats. Compared to TMPG we used in previous reviews, this one is multi-threaded so it can use the processor to its full potential.

POV-Ray, for Persistence of Vision Raytracer, is a 3D rendering software that has impressive photorealistic capabilities.

Both of these benchmarks showed the same results. The MSI board looks to be a tad better than the ASUS one based on the same chipset, but it is behind the Gigabyte MA790FXT-UD5P. These two benchmarks also showed the great power added by overclocking.

 

 

Everyone knows WinRAR, so no need to explain what it is. I will compress our custom 10MB, 100MB and 500MB using the greatest compression setting, in the ZIP format.

Cinebench 10 is another rendering program. I will run both the single-threaded benchmark as well as the multi-threaded.

WinRAR put both NVIDIA boards at the same level, whereas the ATI one score a mere one second lower in the 1GB test. Cinebench showed the same trend as HandBrake and POV-Ray on the previous page. Overclocking once again greatly reduced the completion time of both benchmarks.

 

 

HDTune is a benchmarking program for hard drives. Their speed also depends on the chipset so this is why I run such a benchmark.

In case PCMark is unknown to you, it is pretty much the same as the 3DMark suite except the fact that it includes many other tests like hard drive speed, memory and processor power, so we consider it as a system benchmark and not just a gaming benchmark.

HDTune showed the three boards to be very close in terms of average speed, with the MSI board first. When it came down to burst time, the ASUS flew miles away from the competition. The NF980-G65 is still ahead of the ATI board though. PCMark put the NF980-G65 in first place, followed by the MA790FXT-UD5P. Overclocking allowed it to get closer to the M4N82 Deluxe in terms of burst speed, and also increased its PCMark score a tad.

 

 

Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack of the original Crysis. It uses an enhanced version of the same engine.

Bioshock is a creepy first person shooter. It is the oldest of the games in our benchmarking suite, hence the high FPS.

The NVIDIA-based boards scored the same in Crysis, however they were 1 FPS lower than the Gigabyte board at 1280x1024 and 1920x1200. Bioshock put the MSI in second position, behind the same top performer. The overclocking had weird effects on that game; our subject got 4 more FPS at the highest resolution, but lost 4 at the lowest. In Crysis, it allowed it to gain an extra 2 FPS.

 

 

Far Cry 2 is another first person shooter. It has been developed by Ubisoft compared to the first one who has been made by Crytek. The story takes place in Africa, where the ultimate goal is to assassinate an arms dealer.

Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter developed by Valve. It uses the Source Engine. Four survivors must fight against infected people in order to reach a safe area.

The MSI board pulled ahead of the ASUS one in the two smallest resolutions tested in Far Cry 2, however it was owned by a solid 2 FPS at each resolution by the MA790FXT-UD5P. In Left 4 Dead, it's a tie between the NF980-G65 and the ATI-based board, which has one more FPS at 1280x1024 but one less at 1920x1200. The ASUS pulled ahead of them. Far Cry 2 got 3 more FPS in total when overclocked, and Left 4 Dead got a whopping 4 FPS at the lowest resolution.

 

 

Since this board has an integrated GeForce 8300 - and video outputs -, I will compare it to the last competitor's IGP I tested. The shared video memory size is set on default, which is Auto. Here are some quick benchmarks against the HD 4200 with a 128MB sideport memory, and without.

As can be seen, the GeForce 8300 is clearly inferior to AMD's IGP. The difference is not that big against the HD 4200 alone, but if this one is paired with a sideport memory, what the GeForce 8300 cannot do, it just gets owned.

 

 

Power Usage

To measure power usage, I used a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter. Note that the above numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, I took the average reading during the first few minutes of the OCCT power supply test.

The MSI NF980-G65 is not the greenest board, but it is not too bad either. It is a bit better than the M4N82 Deluxe, but still far from the MA790FXT-UD5P. Also, the Active Phase Switching decreased the power consumption by 4W at idle. At ful load, all power phases were active so there was no gain.

 

Conclusion

As expected, the MSI NF980-G65 performed better on average than the ASUS M4N82 Deluxe. It won in two games, lost in Left 4 Dead only, and tied for Crysis. Furthermore, it won in the big majority of the system benchmarks. However, it could not match the top of the line MA790FXT-UD5P based on the high-end 790FX chipset from AMD. It did beat it in a few instances, for example in PCMark Vantage or HDTune. In gaming, it lost in three out of four benchmarks against it. The NForce 200 might add some extra latency in the PCI-E communication, resulting in slightly lower FPS, however I can't really confirm that. What this chip does though is allow the user to run a 3-Way SLI configuration - without any hacking, as I mentioned in the introduction.

One thing I disliked about the NF980-G65 is that it has only four USB ports at the back. Yes it has four internal headers, but that means a USB bracket must be used to get more USB ports at the back. Many motherboards have six or even eight of them already, so four is not much; they can quickly become occupied by different peripherals. The optical and coaxial outputs are not present either, and an eSATA would have been great. The IGP output is a big plus though. Running on the IGP can always prove useful, especially for troubleshooting. It can also work well as an HTPC; the GeForce 8300 is able of 1080P decoding and the Blu-Ray audio can be output via the HDMI port. However, at $160, it is a bit pricey for that particular use; a 785G motherboard is much more affordable, and as we have seen, the HD4200 is more powerful, especially when paired with a sideport memory.

As for overclocking, the NF980-G65 did not deceive me. Although it is not a top notch overclocker, it yielded a good 4022MHz. Its HT link reference clock overclocking performance is on the average, but it suffers from a bit of inaccuracy on it. The Easy OC Switch is a great tool for a quick overclock without going in the BIOS, however it has its limitations; the voltages are not adjusted automatically and in some cases, some multipliers need to be decreased.

Overall, MSI did much better using the NForce 980a chipset than ASUS with the M4N82 Deluxe. If one shops for an SLI-licensed AMD board, I have no choice but to recommend the NF980-G65. I have also noticed recently that DDR2 prices actually went up, since DDR3 has now taken a good chunk of the market. So why not switch to DDR3? The NF980-G65, along with its little brother based on the 750a chipset, are the only boards sporting DDR3 slots along an NVIDIA chipset. If one feels confident enough about enabling SLI on an AMD motherboard, that could also be a solution. That's something I will soon have to test myself though.

Update: I have tested an SLI configuration on the NF980-G65. The article can be found here.

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