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MSI P6N Diamond - NV680i with X-Fi Audio
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Date: Nov 21, 2007
Section:Motherboards
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction

Not too far back, there was a time when it was inconceivable that a motherboard had anything other than a green or mustard colored PCB that had a few sockets for the CPU and DIMMs, maybe a hard drive connector or two, and a floppy drive connection.  Keyboards and mice were typically PS/2 based, although a COM port sufficed for those still attached to their serial mice, and the list of input/output options were quite few.  The late 90's brought about the rise of the Universal Serial Bus, a new standard for interfacing with devices intended to retire legacy serial and parallel ports (although that still has yet to fully come about).  Integrated LAN options as well as limited IGPs also began to expand the options of a motherboard, essentially making motherboards almost completely integrated, while taking sales away from third-party AIB vendors.

One final piece of the puzzle came about by adding audio to the mainboard, most often by the way of an audio CODEC chip.  Up until now, a few companies had tried their hand at producing audio cards with mixed success.  The king of add-in audio solutions, Creative Labs, held court by either outperforming or simply outpurchasing the competition, until they were left as the de-facto standard.  The onrush of integrated components, however, lowered the demand for many of Creative's higher-end (and higher priced) audio cards.  It's estimated that the retail sales of their discrete audio cards only accounted for 10% of their total sales number for 2006.  Logically, to stay competitive and keep the Sound Blaster legacy alive, there was really only one direction to turn to; to get "creative" in the motherboard field as well.

On-board solutions from Creative Technology, as they are now known, are not necessarily new.  Onboard versions of their Live! chipset have been around mostly on OEM boards for years, and the 24-bit Sound Blaster Live! has been promoted on some of the upper level boards in the last couple of years as a suitable replacement for gamers with support for 24 bit, 96 kHz surround audio and EAX Advanced HD.  MSI was one of the first manufacturers to adopt it in the K8N SLI Platinum and it is MSI that again pushes the envelope by including an integrated solution based on the Creative X-Fi audio processor.

MSI P6N Diamond Box
MSI P6N Diamond

Features   Back of the box   Accessories  

MSI P6N Diamond Specifications
L 

CPU Support

  • Supports Socket 775 for Intel Core 2 Quad, Core2 Extreme, Core2 Duo, Pentium 4 (Prescott, P4EE), Pentium D, Pentium XE/Celeron D processors in LGA 775 package
  • Supports Intel 05B/05A and 04B/04A processors
  • Supports EIST techonology
  • Supports Intel Hyper-Threading (HT) Technology
  • Supports Intel Dual Core Technology to 1333MHz and up

Chipset
NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI (C55)
 

  • Supports FSB 800MHz, 1066MHz, & 1333MHz* (FSB 1333 requires FSB 1333 CPU and manual adjustment in BIOS)
  • Support Dual channel DDR2 533/667/800 memory interface up to 8GB
  • Supports Dual PCI Express 16x interface with either 1x16 + 1x8 or 2x8 operation

NVIDIA nForce 590i (MCP55XE)

  • Integrated Hi-Speed USB 2.0 controller, 480Mb/sec, 10 ports
  • 5 Serial ATAII ports w/ transfer rate up to 3Gb/s and support RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5
  • 1 channel Ultra ATA 133 bus Master IDE controller for up to two IDE drives 
  • PCI Master v2.3, I/O ACPI 2.0 Compliant

Front Side Bus

  • 1333/1066/800 MHz supported

Memory

  • Supports dual channel DDR2 533/667/800 and up, using four 240-pin DDR2 DIMMs 
  • Supports up to 8GB memory size
  • Supports 1.8v DDR2 SDRAM DIMM

Expansion Slots

  • Four PCI Express X16 slots (supports PCI Express Bus specification v1.0a compliant)
  • Four PCI Express interface operates at either X8+X8+X16+X8 or 16X+16X+8x modes 
  • One PCI Express X1 slot
  • Two PCI 2.3 32-bit Master PCI Bus slots(support 3.3v/5v PCI bus interface)


Audio
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme HD Audio

  • 24-bit / 96 kHz playback and recording
  • Up to 100db signal to noise ratio
  • X-Fi Crystalizer, CMSS-3D Virtual, CMSS-3D Headphone technology
  • Up to 7.1 channel surround sound, Dolby Digital ready 

Storage
On-board IDE / SATA
 

  • Single IDE controllers on the nForce 430i chipset provides IDE HDD/CD-ROM with PIO, Bus Master, or UDMA 133/100/66
  • Can connect up to 2 IDE drives
  • nForce 590i supports 5 SATA II ports (SATA1-5).  Transfer rate is up to 300 MB/s
  • NV RAID supports RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 JBOD

SiliconImage Sil4723 Hardware RAID

  • SATA 6-7 support RAID 0 or RAID 1 modes

External eSATA

  • One SATAII port by Sil3531 (on back panel)

LAN
Realtek RTL8211B PCI-Express Gb LAN Controller

  • Supports 10/100/1000 Mb/s.

IEEE 1394
VIA 6308P chipset

  • Supports up to two 1394 ports
  • Transfer rate is up to 400Mbps

Back Panel I/O Ports

  • 1 x PS/2 Mouse Port
  • 1 x PS/2 Keyboard Port
  • 1 x eSATA Port
  • 1 x IEEE 1394 port 
  • 2 x LAN jacks 
  • 4 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
  • 5 x Audio ports
  • 1 x Optical SPDIF Jack
  • 1 x Coaxial SPDIF Jack

Internal I/O Connectors

  • ATX 24-Pin power connector
  • 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
  • CPU / 3 x System FAN connectors
  • 1 x CD-in connector
  • Clear CMOS jumper
  • Chassis intrusion switch connector
  • IrDA infrared module header
  • Serial port connector
  • Front panel audio connector
  • Front panel connector
  • 3 x USB 2.0 connector support additional 6 ports
  • 1 x Floppy disk drive connector
  • 7 x Serial ATAII connectors
  • 1 x ATA133 connector
  • 1 x IEEE1394 connector support additional 1 port
  • 1 x D-Bracket 2 pinheader

Accessories

  • 6 x SATA cables
  • 3 x SATA power cable
  • 1 x IEEE 1394a bracket
  • 1 x IDE cable (rounded)
  • 1 x FDD cable (rounded)
  • 1 x I/O Shield
  • 1 x D-Bracket 2
  • 1 x SLI Video link cable 
  • Driver/Utilities CD-ROM
  • X-Fi Drivers CD-ROM 
  • User Guide
  • Quick Installation Guide

Software

  • Drivers 
  • MSI DigiCell
  • MSI Dual Core Center
  • MSI Live Update

Form Factor

  • ATX Form Factor, 11.96"x 9.61" (30.5cm x 24.5cm)

Special Features

MSI DigiCell

  • Extend mainboard network function
  • Support onboard audio
  • Support MEGA Stick MP3 player settings

MSI Dual Core Center

  • Key components status hardware monitor
  • Monitor the Dual Core CPU each unit status
  • D.O.T. Technology up to 12% improvement
  • Optimize System status define
  • Auto speed up with system loading change
  • 5 environment modes and 3 user defined modes

MSI Live Update

  • End-users only have to connect to the download center to receive files automatically

 MSI Dual Core Cell 

  • Integrates and optimizes multiple internal circuits
  • Reduces the signal noise dramatically
  • Delivers perfect and precise data transmission
  • Automatically adjusts the fan speed to maintain the system cooling vs. noise level

Media   Cables   Brackets, etc.


The bundle included with the P6N Diamond was nearly identical to what we found with the P965 Platinum, and we can't complain as it covers almost everything we could think of. This includes six SATA data cables (two more than the P965), rounded IDE and floppy cables, three SATA power cables, and the I/O shield.  Two brackets provided in the bundle allow for additional FireWire and USB connections, as well as a means of diagnosing issues with the motherboard via a LED readout.  A Quick Installation Guide, User's manual, registration form and a collection of driver CDs round out the bundle.  The user manual is mostly complete, covering everything from setting up the hardware to fine tuning the BIOS and audio.

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Board Features & Utilities

 


MSI P6N Diamond Motherboard

Like most of MSI's recent boards, the MSI P6N Diamond is a full-sized, 9 mounting hole, ATX board that sets off the various components in almost neon colors against a blackish PCB.  Its most striking feature would have to be the copper heatsinks and piping that connect the North and South Bridges to a radiator placed above the CPU socket area, venting off excess heat directly out the back of the chassis.  The positioning of the heatsinks may cause some concern when using a large after-market heatsink, such as some of Zalman's designs.  As it is, using the stock Intel cooler, there is almost no clearance between it and the North Bridge heatsink/fan a slight few centimeters from the radiator.  The old adage, "measure twice, cut once", will probably hold true here, as you should really double check that your cooler will actually fit into the socket area before attempting to install it.

        

Other than the heatsinks, the area around the CPU socket is relatively clean, with three neat rows of low-height capacitors.  The 8-pin 12V power connector is snookered in here as well, tucked right under the curve of the heatpipes and making it a tight squeeze if plugging this in after installing the other components.  Directly under the CPU socket are four DIMM slots colored in green and orange.  We know we're beating a dead horse here, but MSI seems to break the convention of just about all other motherboard manufacturers by not coloring the channels the same.  It's a minor tifle, but we still find it annoying and/or possibly confusing for new builders.  

        

        

MSI was a bit slow bringing the P6N Diamond to market, which could hurt its potential shelf life, but the fact of the matter is that the board is one of the most feature-rich available on the market.  LAN and FireWire are pretty straightforward, with the VIA VT6308P chipset supporting two FireWire ports and the Realtek RTL8211B phy doing the dual Gigabit Ethernet chores.  The real selling point for gamers and audiophiles may just be the integrated SoundBlaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio, replacing the HD audio found on other boards.  The chip is small and unassuming, nearly hidden under the edge of the fourth PCI-E X16 slot.
 
        

Last, but certainly not least, would be the four PCI-E 16X slots, which allow the P6N Diamond to not only run two cards in SLI mode, but possibly mult-GPU SLI as well by splitting up the total number of lanes into a 16/8/8/8 configuration.  However,  it's not clear at this time that the 680i chipset will support these future configurations of SLI.  The four slots alternate between white and yellow, and although the manual is unusually scant on information regarding SLI, it does mention that single card and normal SLI setups are done using the white slots only.  In fact, the board normally operates at a configuration of 16/0/16/8 lanes.  Unlike the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal we looked at a while back, the P6N Diamond automatically detects and configures the lane assortment, so no extra steps are necessary to achieve a proper setup - other than having four similar graphic cards, that is. 


        

One of the first things we like to do before getting down and dirty with the benchmarking is to take a look at some of the included software and utilities that comes with each board or card.

MSI includes, either on CD or from their website, one of the largest group of applications we've seen lately.  Some are rather helpful, such as the Dual Core Center, which allows the user to monitor voltages and temperatures, as well as overclocking the system dynamically, and Live Update which downloads and updates the BIOS from within Windows.  Or, at least, it should.  Our attempts at using Live Update left us empty-handed, as the application not only told us that the current and online versions were "unknown", but that even in an unknown state our current version was updated and optimized.  We were still able to perform this update manually, but we expected better results as this has worked perfectly for other MSI boards in the past.

          

The Dual Core Center applications offer the user the ability to view not only the motherboard statistics, but the video card as well.  Since we had an MSI 7900GT installed, we expected that both devices would show up but we found that in all cases, the VGA card graphs and readouts were blank.  It's not a huge loss, but especially since both devices are from the same manufacturer, this should be working properly.  One last tidbit: when setting up the P6N Diamond make sure you use the included driver CD-ROM for the X-Fi Xtreme as there are no drivers on Creative's website that will work.  Although only a single driver is listed there, which worked for our audio testing of the X-Fi Fatal1ty, if used for the onboard X-Fi, the installation will stop and state that no device can be found.

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BIOS Options & Overclocking

 

MSI P6N Diamond : Exploring the BIOS
Let's start with the basics 

           

The AMI BIOS that the P6N Diamond is equipped with at first looks almost exactly like the earlier P965 Platinum, with the sole exception of an apparently missing Advanced Chipset Features option. As we entered the first section, we saw the typical options to set time and date, a list of our drives, and an overview of some basic information such as BIOS version, CPU Frequency, and amount of memory installed.  The Advanced BIOS Features vary slightly regarding what features are available based on the chipset - Toggling Intel SpeedStep technology on the P965 vs. Setting the Frequency between the C55 NB to NVIDIA SB on the 680i, while still giving us standard items such as setting up the Boot Sequence or displaying a logo during POST.

Having a feature-rich board requires an area in the BIOS to turn or off each of these components, and that's what the Integrated Peripherals section is used for.  Running quickly through the list, there's the USB controller, dual LAN controllers, FireWire, and the external SATA.  The BIOS also lists an HD Audio controller, which is actually the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio chipset, and must be enabled or disabled depending on whether or not you want to install your own audio card.

        

Going deeper into the On-Chip ATA Devices is where you'll need to go to set up your drives, including both IDE and SATA, and whether or not you want to use a RAID configuration.  Note that there are two different controllers for the SATA ports: SATA ports 1-5 are controlled by the nForce 590i SB, which supports RAID 0,1, 0+1, 5 or JBOD.  SATA ports numbered 6 and 7 are separate from the group, and are used for dedicated Hardware RAID supporting modes 0 and 1.  This is provided for by the SiliconImage Sil4723 chip placed just next to the 590i, closest to SATA6-7.  The benefits of Hardware RAID is that is a "true" RAID, not subject to any software or operating system constraints, and as such doesn't use any of your CPU's processing power.

        

MSI has long set aside a section for tweaking and overclocking called the Cell Menu, and at first glance it seems underwhelming.  D.O.T. Control is MSI's built-in overclocking method, with preset overclocks ranging from 1% up to 15%.  Directly underneath this are where the current FSB, Memory, and PCI-E clock speeds are shown, as well as the Voltages.  Under Advance DRAM Configuration are the individual memory timings with ten different options shown. 

MSI P6N Diamond : Overclocking
Over the speed limit, and loving it

To go about overclocking the P6N Diamond, we needed to switch over from an Automatic System Clock Mode to Manual, which now allowed us to input the FSB and Memory clocks directly, and separate from one another.  Although the memory clock appears to be set, there still dividers being used.  We noticed that even though we set the memory speed in at 800MHz, the actual speed shown varied a few MHz here and there.

        

Knowing the results of our past attempts at overclocking our E6300, we knew it was possible to get into the range of around 450MHz (1800 QDR) on the front side bus using nothing more than some voltage tweaks and a stock Intel cooler.  Still, we started out somewhat cautiously, bumping the board up to 1100, then 1150, 1200, and so on.  At each point, we entered Windows and ran a few applications including a SANDRA CPU performance module to see how stable the system was.


SANDRA CPU Performance

CPU-Z Motherboard Info

 

Core 2 Duo E6300 @ 2.73GHz

Core 2 Duo E6300 @ 2.73GHz


Eventually, we managed to move all the way up to a 375MHz FSB (1500 QDR), which surpassed the MSI P965 Platinum.  This was accomplished with no voltage tweaks or other modifications.  Buoyed by this, we continued on and immediately headed into a roadblock.  We found that at any speed higher than 388MHz (1550 QDR) Windows would not POST.  More disturbing was the realization that no amount of extra voltage applied to the NB or VCore would get us any higher.  Thus, we settled for running some benchmarks at 388MHz and calling it a day.  Yes, we got further than the other MSI board, but we were far shy of other 680i boards.

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Testing Setup & SANDRA Benchmarks

 

How we configured our test systems: When configuring our test systems for the following set of benchmarks, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults." Next, we saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS a second time, and manually set memory timings for DDR2-800 at 4-4-4-12 1T latency.  The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional SP2 was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the drivers necessary for our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were then disabled, and we set up a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.

HotHardware's Test System
Intel Inside

Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 (1.86 GHz)

MSI P6N Diamond (NVIDIA 680i Chipset)
ASUS P5B-E 
(Intel P965 Chipset)
MSI P965 Platinum  (Intel P965 Chipset)

2 x 512MB Corsair PC2-6400
CL 4-4-4-12-1T - DDR2-800

MSI GeForce 7900 GT

On-Board X-Fi Xtreme Audio
Creative Labs X-Fi Fatal1ty Audio Card

2 x 250GB Western Digital SE16
7,200 RPM SATA 3.0 GB/s in RAID 0

Windows XP Pro SP2
Intel INF 8.1.1.1010
Intel Matrix Storage Manager 6.2.1
DirectX 9.0c
NVIDIA nForce 9.53
NVIDIA Forceware 163.71

 



P6N Diamond
MSI P6N Diamond

Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA XII
Synthetic Benchmarks

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the latest SANDRA suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory) with the MSI P6N Diamond, using our Core 2 Duo E6300 processor and 1GB of DDR2-800 DDR2 set at 4-4-4-12 timings. All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed of 1.86 GHz.


MSI P6N Diamond
CPU Module


MSI P6N Diamond

Multi-Media Module


MSI P6N Diamond
Memory Module


The latest version of SiSoft's synthetic suite, SANDRA XII, had a completely overhauled database of components to choose from.  We selected a grouping of hardware for each module that we wanted to compare against.  As you can see from the screen captures, the methodology has changed somewhat in the graphing of the scores; dots are used to place the currently being tested component and the four samples.  For easier comparisons, the red dot signifies the MSI P6N Diamond's performance, and the blue dot is a similarly capable CPU or pair of DIMMs.  We used purple for older or weaker components and orange for more advanced. 

When it came to CPU performance (CPU and Multi-media modules), the P6N Diamond scored just a bit higher than the 1.83 GHz Core 2 Duo used for comparison, which is exactly as expected.  Memory performance, on the other hand, suffered somewhat.  The bandwidth results were the lowest of all the chipset/memory combos chosen for this test, even scoring lower that the NV650i. 

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Futuremark Testing: 3DMark06 & PCMark05

 

Futuremark 3DMark06 - CPU Test
Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance.  This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central processor. The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.

 

In the second of our suite of synthetic tests, we found that the MSI boards trumped the Asus P5B-E, with the P6N Diamond leading the pack overall.  The two boards based on the Intel P965 architecture were much more closely paired together, with the nForce 680i powered P6N besting them both by 50-70 points.   

Futuremark PCMark05
More Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05.  For those interested in more than just the graphs, however, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work.

"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.

 

PCMark's CPU performance scores, however, didn't paint as lovely as a picture.  Here, the P6N Diamond placed smack dab in the middle of the two P965 boards.  As a consolation, we still see the two MSI boards leading the way over the Asus P5B-E. 


"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing."  - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.

 

The memory performance scores similarly placed the P6N Diamond directly between the P965 Platinum (trailing by 36 points) and the Asus P5B-E (leading by 19 points).  It's possible we could have tinkered around in the BIOS of the P6N Diamond and possibly tweaked some of the memory timings, of which there were plenty, to gain an even better score, but we're satisfied in the performance we've seen so far.

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WorldBench 5 - Office XP & Photoshop Performance

 

PC World's Worldbench 5.0: Office XP SP2 & Photoshop 7 Performance
More Real-World Application Performance

PC World Magazine's Worldbench 5.0 is a Business and Professional application benchmark, that has replaced the aging and no-longer-supported Content Creation and Business Winstone tests in our suite. Worldbench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance.  Below we have the results from each module, recorded in seconds.  Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.

 


 

As we have seen in the Futuremark benchmarks, the MSI P6N Diamond sort of flip-flops around in our testing, leading here and losing there.  Whereas the two P965-based boards basically ran neck-and-neck with each other in both the Office and Photoshop performance runs, the P6N Diamond was two seconds faster on the average when running Office applications, yet 10 seconds slower when working with images in Photoshop.

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Rendering & Encoding Times

 

Cinebench 9.5 Performance Tests
3D Modeling & Rendering Tests

The Cinebench benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application.  This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in seconds). 

 

While we might have expected the trend to continue, Cinebench showed no differences in the time spent on rendering the image, in single or multi-threaded testing.  All three boards posted identical times throughout.

LAME MT MP3 Encoding Test
Converting a Large WAV To MP3

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.

 

There isn't much more to say about encoding times either; again we saw the exact same times during single-threaded and multi-threaded performance runs.  Suffice it to say that either chipset seems to handle rendering or encoding tasks on par with each the competition.

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Gaming Benchmarks

 

For our first gaming test, we benchmarked the test systems using a custom single-player Quake 4 timedemo, then we set them loose on F.E.A.R. Normally, for motherboard reviews, we like to see how the boards run at very low resolutions with all the bells and whistles turned off, to make the game runs as CPU dependent as possible.

Performance Comparisons w ith Quake 4
Details: http://www.quake4game.com/

Quake 4
id Software, in conjunction with developer Raven, recently released the latest addition to the wildly popular Quake franchise, Quake 4. Quake 4 is based upon an updated and slightly modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Quake 4 is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a ton of dynamic lighting and shadows, but unlike Doom3, Quake 4 features some outdoor environments as well. 

 

It's in the gaming benchmarks that we saw the greatest variety in performance, typically with the MSI P6N Diamond leading the way, and then by a decent margin.  In Quake 4, for example, the fastest average frame rate was 155.1 frames per second, 4 frames faster than the P965 Platinum, and nearly 8 frames faster than the Asus P5B-E resulting in a 5% increase in gaming performance.

Performance Comparisons with F.E.A.R
More Info: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/

F.E.A.R
One of the most highly anticipated titles of 2005 was Monolith's paranormal thriller F.E.A.R. Taking a look at the minimum system requirements, we see that you will need at least a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of system memory and a 64MB graphics card, that is a Radeon 9000 or GeForce4 Ti-class or better, to adequately run the game. Using the full retail release of the game patched to v1.08, we put the graphics cards in this review through their paces to see how they fared with this popular title.

 

After the good showing in Quake 4, we anticipated another victory for the P6N Diamond in F.E.A.R. performance testing.  What we didn't expect, however, was that the difference would once again be as vast; again nearly posting a 5% delta over both the P965 boards.

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Audio Comparisons



In testing the performance of the X-Fi Xtreme audio, we've taken a couple of approaches.  First, we ran RightMark's Audio Analyzer 6.0.6 to gauge the card's vital statistics, configuring the card as outlined in the instructions provided on RightMark's website specifically for the X-Fi.  We were forced to limit testing to a maximum of 24bit/96kHz instead of 24bit/192kHz. Although the X-Fi can effectively output at these levels, it is unable to record signals beyond 24bit/96kHz. For CPU performance testing, we ran F.E.A.R. with minimum video settings with no audio at all and measured the frame rates.  We then compared these to two more runs, one each with the X-Fi Xtreme (onboard) and X-Fi Fatal1ty (add-on card).


Rightmark Audio Analyzer  

The RMAA suite is designed for testing quality of analog and digital paths of any audio devices, be it a sound card, an MP3 player, a consumer CD/DVD player or an acoustic set. The results are obtained by playing and recording test signals passed through the tested audio path by means of frequency analysis algorithms. A more common mark is also provided for those unfamiliar with measured technical parameters.

To clear things up in the above picture, the "Sound Blaster X-Fi" results on the left refer to the onboard solution, while the "SB X-Fi Audio" columns on the right are for the Fatal1ty card.  We can see that the Frequency response was tightest with the X-Fi Xtreme at 16-bit/48kHz, but that range nearly doubles at 24-bit/96kHz.  From that point on, just about every comparison went in the X-Fi Fatal1ty's favor with a lower reported Noise Level, higher Dynamic Range, and lower distortion and crosstalk values.  With that being said, though, taking a closer look at each set of comparisons shows that the differences between the onboard audio and the add-on card are very slight.  Typically we don't expect the values seen in the X-Fi Xtreme columns for integrated audio solutions.  Take a look at Jeff's results with the integrated HD Audio on a Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5 to see what we mean.


Looking at the results, we see that there is no real performance advantage for spending the money on the carded version of the X-Fi Fatal1ty (or other variants) when compared to the integrated X-Fi Xtreme Audio solution.  A mere two frames separates the two performance runs, impossible to notice during the demo.  When comparing the X-Fi test runs to running the same game without audio enabled, the CPU utilization loss only amounts to about a four percent delta.  MSI plans to continue using the X-Fi Xtreme chipset in their motherboards to come, which means external solutions could start going the way of the Dodo.

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Performance Summary & Conclusion


 

Performance Summary:  The nForce 680i SLI-based P6N Diamond performed on par with two Intel P965 boards, one from Asus and the other from MSI itself.  While synthetic testing was a bit scattered, with scores falling on all sides of the spectrum, real-world tests especially in regards to gaming frame rates really showed off the P6N Diamond's potential.  Gamers will also appreciate the onboard X-Fi Xtreme audio, as it has a negligible impact on performance while providing all of the goodies such as EAX support and 7.1 channel output.  

As we noted earlier, the late release date of the MSI P6N Diamond could have a dampening effect on its overall sales.  The architecture of the nForce 680i SLI is centered around PCI Express 1.1 and DDR2, which are still the norm, but enthusiasts looking towards the future with PCI Express 2.0 and DDR3 memory on their mind may look into some of Intel's recent forays instead.  Additionally, if overclocking your system is a must, then the P6N Diamond might come across as a bit of a disappointment.  We were able to get past the weak overclock we achieved on MSI's P965 Platinum, but hit a brick wall in the upper 300's on the FSB, where additional voltages and tweaking seemed to have no effect and we fell short of our goal set earlier on the Asus P5B-E.

On the other hand, this board is so chock full of added extras, it's really hard to overlook it as a prime candidate for anyone looking to build a system today.  It has all of the basics we've come to expect, such as onboard LAN, multiple USB ports, and support for Intel's industry-leading Core 2 Duo and Quad CPUs.  What pushes this board to the lead of the pack is the inclusion of a Creative X-Fi based audio solution as well as RAID and the potential for quad-card SLI configurations.  The integrated X-Fi Xtreme audio was nearly as good as an after market card, delivering quality playback and recording at levels just under that of the X-Fi Fatal1ty (which, by the way, cost us over $200 just a year and a half ago).

Factoring everything built into the P6N Diamond, one might expect to find a hefty price tag attached to it.  It does command a price of nearly $240, but that's actually less than some of the competition, including the ASUS Striker Extreme and DFI NF-680iLT.  If you consider the price of an additional X-Fi card, it makes the P6N Diamond's price seem even better.  If MSI can tweak the BIOS further to improve overclocking, we just might be looking at one of the best 680i boards out there.

 

  • Creative Labs X-Fi Audio
  • Four PEG Slots
  • Hardware RAID
  • Great Gaming Performance 
  • Overclocking
  • Aging nForce 680i chipset 
  • Tight clearance around CPU socket

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