|Introduction and Product Specifications|
DDR3 is the future of desktop PC memory in the near term, no question about it. Nonetheless, the transition to the next level of memory technology will be a gradual one, much like we saw when we advanced from DDR to DDR2. With higher latencies and higher price tags, the argument for migrating to DDR3 in its current state isn't a strong one, but as the technology matures, that argument will become increasingly strong as the benefits and costs of DDR3 become more tangilble and affordable.
One issue facing system builders today is how to approach a new build if they want to future-proof it as much as possible. Does one go with a DDR3 board and pay a premium for minimal performance gains, but ensure that the memory can be upgraded in the future? Or do you stick with the proven DDR2 memory, which will surely be around for a while, and tackle the DDR3 issue at a later date? MSI hopes to make that decision process a little easier by offering the best of both worlds in a single motherboard.
Today, we're evaluating the MSI P35 Platinum Combo which is virtually identical to the original P35 Platinum, with the added capability of supporting both DDR2 and DDR3 memory. In the pages ahead, we will revisit the board's main features, then focus on performance with both DDR2 and DDR3 memory installed. With the ability to support current and future memory technology, MSI aims to offer a flexible motherboard solution for current system builders, making memory considerations simple.
MSI typically provides a decent retail complement with their hardware and this holds true with the P35 Platinum Combo. Our sample came with the requisite User's Manual, Drivers CD and an oversized Quick Guide for easy component identification. MSI also included four SATA cables, an IDE cable and one floppy cable for those still using floppy drives. MSI also provides Molex-to-SATA power adapters and a FireWire bracket that connects to a header on the mainboard. M-Connectors are provided for simpler case connections while DDR2/DDR3 Turbo Cards are used for proper memory configuration, as we will cover in the pages ahead.
|The MSI P35 Platinum Combo: Close Up|
At first glance, the MSI P35 Platinum Combo is eye-catching with its elaborate looking Circu-Pipe heat-pipe assembly. The Circu-Pipe spans the power circuitry, Northbridge and Southbridge, utilizing residual CPU cooler airflow for cooling, but seems a bit over the top with its rollercoaster style appearance. When comparing the P35 Platinum to the original Platinum we evaluated back in July, both board's remain nearly identical save for the addition of DDR3 support with the 'Combo' model. The board is built with an Intel P35 Northbridge and ICH9R Southbridge at its core, supporting all Core 2 Quad, Core 2 Duo, Pentium and Celeron processors using LGA775 packaging.
Again, not much has changed with the 'Combo' aside from the addition of two DDR3 DIMM slots while four DDR2 DIMM slots are offered as well. In both cases, there is a maximum support of 8GB and only one type of memory can be used at a time, never both. To help the board discern between the two memory types, MSI utilizes what they call DDR2/DDR3 Turbo Cards, which need to be used in conjunction with either type of memory. Essentially, the Turbo Cards occupy the two DDR3 DIMMs when DDR2 is used and conversely, when DDR3 is used, the Turbo Cards occupy the second and fourth DDR2 DIMMs for proper operation. To help confirm everything is set up properly, the Turbo Cars illuminate, signifying which state the system is in. As seen below, each card reports "MSI DDR III" in DDR3 mode whereas when in DDR2 mode the cards report "MSI DDR II". While we had no issues with the Turbo Card design, we have to be concerned somewhat that this is one more component to consider when trouble arises. By adding another link in the chain, so to speak, that is one more link that can break.
Like its predecessor, the P35 Platinum Combo offers a PCI Express x16 PEG slot while the other PEG slot has only an x4 electrical connection. There are also two PCI Express x1 slots and 2 standard PCI slots which provide a wide range of expansion options. The ICH9R Southbridge drives 4 SATA II ports as well 2 eSATA ports mounted on the rear of the board and it supports Intel Matrix RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 as well as AHCI. There is an additional SATA II port powered by a Marvell 88SE6111 controller which also drives the single IDE connection. The back panel also offers an IEEE1394 port, 6 USB Ports, one Gigabit Ethernet port, six auto-sensing audio jacks, one Optical S/PDIF Out and PS/2 Mouse and Keyboard inputs. The onboard audio is driven by a Realtek ALC888 CODEC providing full 8-Channel audio.
|BIOS Features and Overclocking|
The MSI P35 Platinum Combo came outfitted with an American Megatrends BIOS with all the trimmings, as is expected of an enthusiast class motherboard. The Main Menu, Advanced BIOS Features and other common menus yielded all the expected settings for initial configuration of the mainboard. The Cell Menu was the one-stop section for all of the board's performance options, which is where we'll be focusing our attention. The system comes with D.O.T. Control which automatically overclocks the system from 1, 3 and 5% and can be targeted at the CPU, PCIE or both. In our tests we opted to focus on the manual settings for maximum control. The FSB was adjustable from 200-800MHz and could be keyed in directly. The CPU Ratio was also adjustable, with our processor offering the option of x6 or the default x7.
For memory control, the board has several divider options including 1:1.50, 1:2.00, 1:1.20 and 1:1.60 which translated to 999, 1332, 800 and 1067MHz respectively with our CPU. PCIE Frequency could be keyed in from 100 to 200MHz while PCIEx4 control could be set for x2 or x4. CPU Voltage ranged from 1.3000v to 2.0875v and Memory Voltage ranged from 1.80 to 3.30v DDR2 and 1.5v to 2.75v DDR3. With DDR3 installed, CAS Latency could be set for 5-10 while RAS to CAS delay and RAS Precharge both ranged from 3-10 Clocks. Active Precharge bottomed out at 9 Clocks with a maximum setting of 31 Clocks.
When it came to overclocking the P35 Platinum Combo, we were thoroughly impressed. To find a board's peak FSB, we like to drop the memory and CPU to their lowest setting to ensure they do not have an effect on the results. In this case, we had to be aware of our processors, because its multiplier could only be lowered from x7 to x6. This meant we should have had no issues hitting 388 FSB as this would bring the chip back to its rated speed. Anything beyond that, however, and the CPU would be pushed beyond spec. Nonetheless, we moved forward to see just how high we could go. While we wouldn't be able to definitively state the cause of a failed overclock was the board or the CPU, we still wanted to see what we could come up with and we were surely pleased with the outcome.
When all was said and done, this configuration topped out at a stable 500MHz FSB, pushing our CPU from a default 2.3GHz to a peak of 3GHz with no voltage adjustment whatsoever and stock cooling. This is a 28% increase that equates to over 660MHz of bonus horsepower. Naturally, each configuration will respond differently, but this was a great sign for the P35 Platinum Combo, which proved to be an easy overclocker with minimal fuss.
|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 or DDR3-1300 with 6-6-6-15 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 relatively 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."
In overall performance, the P35 Platinum Combo offered slightly higher results with DDR2 memory installed. The Athlon X2 5200+ comparison systems trailed both configurations overall, but competed well in several individual tests as you'll moving ahead.
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
The DDR2 and DDR3 configurations offered near identical performance while the nForce 590SLI based system competed well, trailing by just shy of 100 points.
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, performance was very close with all configurations, with the P35 Platinum Combo putting up the best showing overall.
|PCMark Vantage Continued|
Gaming 1 - GPU game test
Gaming 2 - HDD: game HDD
Gaming 3 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU game test, Data decompression: level loading
Gaming 4 - Three simultaneous threads, GPU game test, CPU game test, HDD: game HDD
PCMark Vantage's 'Gaming' Test posted a bit wider results between the DDR2 and DDR3 configurations, with the DDR3 holding a 1.3% advantage over the DDR2 setup. The 790FX based K9A2 Platinum and nForce 590SLI based GA-M59SLI-S5 both trailed quite a bit compared to the P35 Platinum Combo, due to the slower CPU.
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
The 'Music' test proved to be a strong point for the elder 590 SLI based board, topping the P35 Platinum Combo by 94 points with DDR2 and 117 points with DDR3.
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 leaned heavily in favor of the MSI P35 Platinum Combo, with the DDR2 configuration leading the DDR3 setup by 4.7% or 165 points. The Athlon X2 5200+ comparison systems both trailed significantly, averaging a 12.7% minimum and 20% maximum.
|PCMark Vantage Continued & 3DMark06|
Vantage Productivity suite includes the following tests:
Productivity 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Text editing, HDD: application loading
In the productivity test, we recorded the largest margins between the DD2 and DDR3 configurations thus far. The scores were near 10% less running with DDR2, coming close to the performance of the nForce 590 SLI Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5. The MSI K9A2 Platinum managed to top the P35 Platinum Combo with DDR2, but the best overall performance was achieved with the P35 Platinum Combo and DDR3 memory.
HDD 1 - HDD: Windows Defender
PCMark Vantage's HDD test tended to favor the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5 by a fair margin, while the two MSI motherboards were nearly tied across all three configurations.
This test shows that the raw CPU performance of the MSI P35 Platinum Combo is not affected by running either DDR2 or DDR3. The Athlon based systems trailed by approximately 160 points in this test.
|Cinebench R10 and Kribibench v1.1|
Our next test will focus on Rendering with Cinebench R10. 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 minute:seconds.
With respect to Single-Core and Dual-Core 3D rendering, the MSI P35 Platinum Combo was slightly faster in its Single-Core test with DDR2 compared to DDR3 while the reverse was true with Dual-Core testing. Overall, the P35 Platinum held an average of a 30 second advantage over the Athlon based systems in Single-Core testing while closer to a 20 second advantage was realized with Dual-Core testing.
For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, another 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where a 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU and the average frame rate is reported.
With Kribibench, we continued to see narrow variations with the P35 Platinum Combo when comparing DDR2 and DDR3 results. In both models tested, the P35 Platinum held a fair advantage over both the MSI K9A2 Platinum and Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5.
|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 Company of Heroes followed by Crysis.
With all settings at their lowest, Company of Heroes was able to churn out very high framerates. When comparing the P35 Platinum Combo to itself, there was no variation when switching between memory types. With regards to the Athlon based comparison systems, the scores trailed roughly 33% overall.
With Crysis, we saw more nominal variations, believing at even low frame rates, the scores may be influenced by the video card somewhat. With this test, we recorded a 15FPS difference on average, favoring the P35 Platinum Combo. Once again, the differences in scores with DDR2 and DDR3 were negligible.
|Performance Analysis & Final Thoughts|
Performance Summary: In the bulk of our tests, we saw only small differences in performance when using the MSI P35 Platinum Combo with DDR2 or DDR3 memory. In most cases there were no measurable differences whatsoever, with only PCMark Vantage's Productivity and Communications test showing a favor toward DDR3. In virtually every other test, the P35 Platinum Combo performed similarly, regardless of the memory used. When compared to a comparably equipped Athlon based system, the P35 Platinum Combo maintained a solid advantage except for the Hard Drive test in PCMark Vantage, which was a strong point for the tried and true nForce 590 SLI chipset.
The MSI P35 Platinum Combo makes building an affordable, more "future proof", Intel-based system easier with its flexible memory configuration. With support for DDR2 and DDR3 and a solid balance of integrated features, there is a lot to like with this motherboard. The required use of DDR2 / DDR3 Turbo Cards is an interesting approach that appeared to work well. Although, we are mildly hesitant in that they are more items to consider should something go wrong with a system built around this board, but this us just being cautious more than anything else.
These items aside, however, the roughly $145 MSI P35 Platinum Combo proved to be a solid option for those looking for a relatively affordable Intel-based motherboard, with the added benefit of support for DDR2 and DDR3 memory. In the end, we think MSI offers a good balance of features in the P35 Platinum Combo. With excellent overclocking potential and room to grow with future memory technology, the Platinum Combo should be on your short list if you're in the market for a motherboard for the Intel platform.