|Introduction and Specifications|
In mid-Q4 2007, AMD released their 790FX, 790X and 770 chipsets, the final pieces required to complete their Spider platform. As the backbone of the new platform, the 700 series chipsets were designed with new feature sets to take full advantage of the Phenom processor's capabilities. With up to 42 PCI Express lanes, support for four-way graphics, and lower power consumption then previous chipsets, AMD delivered a competitive new chipset to back their new CPUs and graphics cards.
In November, we took a detailed look at the Spider platform coupled with a Phenom processor to see how it compared to its peers. In the end, Intel still had a leg up on AMD in terms of overall performance, but the new platform was impressive.
Today, we're going to take a look at the latest 790FX based motherboard to hit our test bench, namely, the MSI K9A2 Platinum Motherboard. Built around AMD's 790FX chipset, the K9A2 Platinum brings four-way CrossFire capability, support for HyperTransport 3.0 and PCI Express 2.0 while MSI adds additional customizations to help raise the board to "Platinum" status. Whether looking to upgrade the foundation of your current Athlon based system or want to go all out for the full Spider experience, MSI thinks it has a solid candidate for your consideration. Let's find if they're correct in their assumption, shall we?
MSI complements the K9A2 Platinum with a solid collection of extra components to help take full advantage of the mainboard's features. The package include the customary Quick Installation Guide, User's Manual, and a poster sized Quick Guide for a detailed overview of the motherboard main components and layout. There is also a Drivers/Setup CD that includes all necessary drivers needed for proper functionality. The package included four SATA cables, an 80-Pin IDE cable and a single Floppy cable. MSI provided two Molex to SATA power adapters, a two-port USB bracket and a single-port FireWire bracket as well. Lastly, a custom I/O shield is provided (not pictured).
An item that we are seeing more and more of lately are adapters for connecting a case's Power and Reset Switches, and Power and HDD LEDs, as well as custom plugs for the board's additioanl USB, Front Panel Audio, and FireWire headers. These make it much simpler to connect the individual plugs to an adapter outside the case, then plug the whole assembly into the mainboard in a single motion. Rounding out the package are two CrossFire bridge connectors.
|The MSI K9A2 Platinum: Up Close|
Upon first inspection, the K9A2 Platinum grabs your attention with its custom "Circu-Pipe" heat pipe cooler, which straddles the Northbridge, Southbridge and power circuitry. The next items to stand out are the four PCI-E X16 graphics slots. Nestled between the first two PCI-E X16 slots is a PCI-E X1 slot while two standard PCI slots are situated adjacent to the third and fourth PCI-E X16 slot. Naturally, the board has an AM2+ socket to support the new Phenoms, but it's also backward compatible with all AM2 based Athlon 64, Athlon 64 X2 and Athlon 64 FX processors as well. The board supports up to 8GB of memory across four DIMM slots, officially supporting DDR2 800 and 1066 speeds.
For storage needs, the K9A2 Platinum features an ATI SB600 Southbridge that drives one IDE UDMA 133 port for up to two devices and four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1 and 0+1. Additionally, a Promise T3 chips drives two additional SATA II ports and two external eSATA ports, with RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 available across all four ports. A floppy port is also included for those still working with floppy drives. For integrated audio, the K9A2 Platinum is equipped with a Realtek ALC888 audio codec for 8 channel audio. The rear I/I panel also includes one Gigabit LAN connector driven by a Realtek 8111B chip. A VIA VT6308P chip powers two FireWire ports, one on the rear and one through a header and included bracket mentioned on page one. The system also supports 10 USB 2.0 ports, four on the rear and the remainder through headers. Lastly, a serial port is available through a header, but no bracket is included to take advantage of the feature.
From an overall layout and design perspective, there is much to like about the K9A2 Platinum. The ATX power connectors are placed optimally, the board comes with three chassis fan headers on top of the CPU fan header, and component placement was well balanced. However, there was one minor issue that we didn't care for. Note with the first graphics slot how the copper tubing wraps around the rear of the slot before terminating at the Southbridge. With our test bed, this tubing was high enough that our video card hit the tubing before being fully seated in the slot. While pressing firmly on the card seemed to seat it properly, we are concerned that over time a card may slowly rise out of the slot and cause potential video issues. The slot itself doesn't have a definitive locking mechanism, so there is the potential for issues, however, we did not encounter any problems while testing the board. Like we said, we feel this is a minor issue, but were a little surprised by this design oversight and wanted to make you aware of it.
|BIOS Features and Overclocking|
The K9A2 Platinum comes outfitted with an American Megatrends, Inc BIOS that has ample features and offers maximum system control. The thrust of the performance settings are located under the Cell Menu, where CPU, Memory, Voltages and other key items can be manipulated. Atop the menu is the D.O.T. profiles where the system can be set to overclock 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, or 15% automatically. Additionally, this setting can be left disabled and the settings can be manually configured to the user's liking.
The CPU Frequency could be keyed in from 200 up to an unrealistic 600MHz. The HyperTransport link offered multiplier settings from 1x-13x with a frequency range of 200-2600MHz with our CPU. The CPU ratio was typical, bottoming out at 4.5x and topping out at the CPU maximum, in this case 13x.
Memory Timings could be left on Auto or configured manually as well. CAS Latency ranged from 3-7 while TRCD and TRP both ranged from 3-6 CLK. tRTP could be set for 2-4 CLK or 3-5 CLK and TRAS offered options from 5-18 CLK in 1 CLK increments. There is also a Memory divider which ranged from 1:1 (400MHz), 1:1.33 (533MHz), 1:1.66 (667MHz) or 1:2 (800MHz).
Rounding out the advanced settings are voltage controls for CPU and Memory. CPU voltages can be set from a minimum of 1.334v to a maximum of 1.607v. Memory also offered decent voltage options, ranging from 1.8v to a top setting of 3.10v.
Next, we put some of these settings to the test to see how well the system could overclock. To eliminate our CPU or memory as a weak point, the CPU multiplier was dropped to 5x and the memory set to a ratio of 1:1 (400MHz). We then raised the CPU frequency until instability was detected. We managed to hit 330MHz and boot into Windows without issue. However, when we exceeded 330MHz the system would not boot into Windows and 340MHz caused the system to not post at all. When this occurred, we rebooted the system while holding down the insert key in an attempt to recover the failed overclock. Upon booting, we received a warning message stating that the previous performance of overclocking failed and the system was restored to the defaults and to press any key other than delete to enter Setup. Apparantly, when the defaults are restored, USB support stops, so our USB keyboard would not respond and pressing a key did nothing. The only way we could circumvent this message was to remove power and manually reset the bios. This proved rather annoying and we hope a future BIOS update will correct this issue so overclockers will be able to recover their system without having to open up their case to do so.
|Test System and PCMark Vantage|
How we configured our test systems: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for either DDR2-800 with 5,6,6,15 timings. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows Vista Ultimate was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
For our first round of benchmarks, we ran all of the modules built into Futuremark's PCMark Vantage test suite. Vantage is a new benchmarking tool that we've incorporated into our arsenal of tests here at HotHardware. Here's how Futuremark positions their new benchmarking tool:
"The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD test sets with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Vista Consumer scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes CPU, Graphics, Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and a subset of Consumer Suite tests."
Overall, the tried and true nForce 590 chipset posted a better result than the AMD 790FX. Naturally, we would expect the tables to be reversed when tested with a Phenom processor since the 790FX would have an advantage over the 590 in that area. As we proceed to break down the overall score, we'll get a clearer picture as to what areas of the the tests favor one chipset vs. the other.
Memories 1 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU image manipulation and HDD picture import
Memories 2 - Two simultaneous threads, GPU image manipulation and HDD video editing
Memories 3 - Video Transcoding: DV to portable device
Memories 4 - Video Transcoding: media server archive to portable device
With our Athlon X2 5200+, the Gigabute GA-M59SLI-55 posted more efficient memory scores than the K9A2 Platinum. We logged a variance of 155 points, which equates to a lead of 5.3% for the Gigabyte board.
Vantage TV and Movies suite includes the following tests:
TV and Movies 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback: HD DVD w/ additional lower bitrate HD content from HDD, as downloaded from the net
TV and Movies 2 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback, HD MPEG-2: 19.39 Mbps terrestrial HDTV playback
TV and Movies 3 - HDD Media Center
TV and Movies 4 - Video transcoding: media server archive to portable device, Video playback, HD MPEG-2: 48 Mbps Blu-ray playback
With Vantage's 'TV and Movies' test, the Gigabyte board managed a small lead over the K9A2 Platinum, topping it by 16 points, or 1.5% overall.
|PCMark Vantage Continued|
We continue our test coverage with a few more modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks, specifically Gaming, Music and Communications.
Gaming 1 - GPU game test
PCMark Vantage's 'Gaming' test also reported the nforce 590 based Gigabyte board to have a higher score than the MSI K9A2 Platinum. The margins favored the GA-M59SLI-S5 by 1.5%, which is very close in the overall scheme of things.
Vantage Music suite includes the following tests:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Web page rendering – w/ music shop content, Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
Music 2 - Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless
Music 3 - Audio transcoding: MP3 -> WMA
Music 4 - Two simultaneous threads, Audio transcoding: WMA -> WMA, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
PCMark Vantage's Music benchmark leaned heavily in favor of the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5.
Communications 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Data compression, Web page rendering: graphics content, 1024x768, windowed
With the Communications test, the scores were more in-line with one another, with the Gigabyte model topping the MSI K9A2 Platinum by 1.6%.
|PCMark Vantage Continued & 3DMark06|
Vantage Productivity suite includes the following tests:
Productivity 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Text editing, HDD: application loading
The Productivity test was the first that the K9A2 Platinum took the lead in, and it was a strong lead at that. Here the K9A2 managed to top the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5 by 198 points, which measures up to 5.6%.
HDD 1 - HDD: Windows Defender
When it comes to raw CPU performance, the K9A2 Platinum took a small lead over the elder 590 chipset, bordering on negligible. In this test we saw a 14 point lead overall, which is three quarters of a percentage point.
|Cinebench R10 and Kribibench v1.1|
Rendering tests are an excellent tool for measuring processor performance since they are inherently CPU dependent. In the end, neither test bed showed a strong advantage over the other, with the K9A2 Platinum having a 1 second edge in dual-core rendering while single-core rendering favored the GA-M59SLI-S5 by 2 seconds.
With Kribibench, we saw slightly broader results than with Cinebench R10, with the K9A2 topping the GA-M59SLI-S5 by .39FPS in the Sponge Explode Model. This may seem like a small lead, but when you measure it percentage wise, it equals 5.6%, which is a respectable difference. When we ratcheted up the workload with the Ultra Model, both boards were virtually tied in performance.
|Gaming Tests with Crysis and Company of Heroes|
Our final two tests are gaming benchmarks configured to test CPU and memory performance rather than graphics performance. This is done by reducing the image quality and resolution so the graphics subsystem is no longer the performance bottleneck, virtually eliminating the graphics card from the equation. The first test we used was Crysis followed by Company of Heroes.
The Crysis test tracked closely to the 3DMark06 CPU testing, showing a very small lead for the K9A2 Platinum equalling less than 1 % overall. With Company of Heroes v1.71, the differences were almost the same, falling just shy of 1%. In both cases, neither variation would be detectable by the user in real world usage.
|Performance Analysis & Final Thoughts|
Performance Summary: Our benchmark results were somewhat of a see-saw battle between the nForce 590 SLI and AMD 790FX chipsets. With respect to the PCMark Vantage test suite, the Gigabyte motherboard we tested won all but the Productivity test. When we shifted our attention to more real-world tests, however, the K9A2 Platinum topped the Gigabyte GA-M590SLI-S5 in each test, but not by the same type of margins we recorded with PCMark Vantage. 3DMark06's CPU test results can be considered a tie, as they were so close, while the K9A2 Platinum pulled out in front in the Cinebench, Crysis and Company of Heroes tests by less than a percentage point. The biggest lead we recorded was with the Kribibench Sponge Explode test, where the K9A2 Platinum took a 5.6% lead, which incidentally was identical to the Vantage Productivity test delta.
We were pleased with the features and performance of the MSI K9A2 Platinum motherboard. For those users looking to take advantage of AMD's Spider platform, that don't have the budget for a new motherboard, CPU and graphics card in a single purchase, this 790FX based board proved to be a solid performer with an Athlon X2 processor installed in its socket. Some features of the 790FX can't be taken advantage of without a Phenom processor and Radeon 3xx0 series graphics card, but the board will be ready when it comes time to upgrade. For those running an Athlon 64 X2 processor, it's unlikely you would notice much of a performance difference compared to a system powered by an older chipset, such as a nForce 590 SLI. In our benchmarks for example, we saw the nForce 590 SLI and 790FX go back and forth, but in real world usage, we believe it's doubtful anyone would actually perceive the performance differences. In the end, those looking to take advantage of the Spider platform have little to fear from running legacy hardware with the new board.
Furthermore, as we demonstrated in our original introduction to Spider, there is a nice gain to be realized by dropping in a quad core Phenom or Radeon 3xx0 graphics card into a 790FX board. The K9A2 Platinum is well equipped, offering four PCI-E X16 slots, a host of integrated components, dual eSATA ports with RAID capability, and more. Aside from having to hard reset the BIOS after a failed overclock and the chipset heat-pipe potentially touching a graphics card, we were quite pleased with the K9A2 Platinum and feel comfortable recommending this motherboard to anyone planning to make the move to AMD's Spider platform.