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MSI Big Bang XPower Review: X58, Military Style
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Date: Aug 16, 2010
Section:Motherboards
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction and Specifications

The MSI XPower series of motherboards is clearly designed to curry favor with overclocking enthusiasts and the high-end gamers Asus has targeted with its Republic of Gamers (ROG) brand. The XPower packs full support for all the latest buzzwords and capabilities, but MSI is also claiming to offer certain unique features that other manufacturers can't match currently. We're always interested in new innovations and ideas when it comes to motherboard design; let's take a look at the oomph behind MSI's Big Bang. 


MSI Big Bang XPower

The XPower is as much a love letter to enthusiasts as it is a motherboard; the company's verbage occasionally dips into phrasing better suited to a trashy romance novel. Allow us to provide a few examples:

"Through long-standing development and with much energy, MSI formed the state-of-the-art gaming line inspired by the mighty Big Bang...[which] will deliver the shock and awe of unprecedented gaming experience and expand into its own collection of galaxies." The board's military-grade components (more on those in a moment) offer "incredible long...potential." QuantumWave Audio processing "delivers the most powerful and realistic performance" and offers "the fullest...experience."

MSI Big Bang XPower
Specifications & Features

Processor Support 
LGA1366 Socket for Intel Core i7 Processors
Supports Intel TurboBoost Technology

Chipset
 Intel X58  Chipset
Intel ICH10R Southbridge
   
Memory 
 6 x DIMM, Max. 24 GB, DDR3 2133(OC) 1600/1333/ 1066MHz Non-ECC, Unbuffered RAM
Triple Channel memory architecture
   
Expansion Slots 
2 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x16 speed)
2 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x8 speed)
2 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x4 speed)
1 x PCIe 1.1 x1
 
Multi-GPU Support:
Supports  NVIDIA Quad-GPU SLI Technology
Suports ATI Quad-GPU CrossFireX Technology

Storage
Intel X58 Chipset
6 xSATA 3 Gb/s ports
Intel Matrix Storage Technology Support RAID 0,1,5,10

JMicron JMB362 eSATA controller
1 x External SATA 3.0 Gb/s port
1 x eSATA/USB 2 Port

Marvell PCIe SATA 6.0Gb/s Controller
2 x SATA 6.0 GB/s ports (gray)
 
Audio
QuantumWave Audio Card
Realtek ALC889

LAN
2 x Realtek 8111DL Gigabit LAN Controller
IEEE-1394
1 x IEEE1394a (VIA VT6315N) Internal
1 x IEEE1394a External

USB
10 USB 2.0 ports (6 ports at back I/O, 4 ports onboard)
2 x USB 3.0 ports (blue)Back Panel I/O

Ports
1 x PS/2 keyboard port (purple)
1 x PS/2 mouse port (green)
1 x Clear CMOS
1 x D-LED2 Panel Connector
1 x 1394 Port
5 x USB 2 Ports
1 x eSATA Ports
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Ports
2 x LAN RJ-45 Ports
2 x USB 3.0 Ports
 
Internal I/O Connectors
2 x USB 2.0 Connectors
1 x 1394a Connector
1 x Chassis Intrusion Detector
1 x TPM Module Connector
1 x Reset Button
1 x Power Button
1 x GreenGenie Connector (Optional)
1 x Over-Voltage Switch
1 x Set Voltage Check Point
1 x OC Genie Button
2 x Base Clock Control Buttons
1 x Set Debug LED Panel

Form Factor
ATX Form Factor
12 inch x 9.6 inch ( 30 cm x 24.4 cm )


There's more. The Hi-c capacitors (used in lieu of solid capacitors) are "specially selected for those who want to bring their mainboard to the next level of...performance." They also ensure that a hardcore gamer's "rig" continues to operate "in extreme condition."

Tongues planted firmly in cheek, we move on to the motherboard's accessory bundle.

   

The XPower serves up a double portion of accessory goodness at a time when most manufacturers have cut back on bundled largesse. Included are six SATA cables, multiple CrossFire bridge cables of varying lengths, eSATA cables, an eSATA PCI bracket that includes external power, cables for the motherboard voltage checks, external overclocking control via breakout box, and an independent sound card designed to fit the board's single PCIe x1 slot.
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Layout and Features


MSI Big Bang XPower: Overview

The Big Bang XPower combines a subdued color scheme and functional design to good effect. There's nothing jutting off the board at the wrong angle and socket areas are clean. The southbridge heatsink is considerably larger than what we've seen on other motherboards, but it neither intrudes nor detracts from the overall design.

Next up we've got the CPU socket and RAM slots. MSI has eschewed the use of traditional 'can chip' electrolytic capacitors in favor of what it calls "Hi-c CAPS." Supplementary information we've dug up generally indicates that these types of capacitors offer improved performance at high temperature and reduce electrical noise compared to standard solid capacitors. MSI claims that Hi-c CAPS improve overclocking potential, are more resistant to extremes of heat and cold, last up to 8x longer than 'average' solid state capacitors, and feature a 'unique self-repair mechanism.'

The DIMM slots sit hard against each other and are single-lever designs--gamers or enthusiasts with DIMM heatsinks even slightly larger than normal may find their modules don't fit particularly well.


The images above highlight some of the board's unique hardware features. On the top left, there's MSI's auxilary plug for providing additional power to the PCI-Express video cards, an x1 slot (for the system's sound card), and then two system fan headers, the FireWire header, and MSI's OC Genie tweaking solution all along the bottom. NEC's USB 3.0 controller is also visible just across from the first PCIe x16 slot.

Continuing along the bottom edge, we've a better angle on the touchpad power buttons, the two USB2 headers, and a box of four switches. Each of these controls a different overvoltage setting. Then there's an LED readout, the front panel connectors, another fan header, MSI's V-Check point, and the assorted SATA headers. The pair of white headers attach to the Marvell SATA 6G controller; the others connect to Intel's ICH10R. Note that if you have the 1.0 version of this board, the two Marvell headers are mounted vertically rather than on edge. 



Finally, there's the back plate. All of the usual suspects are accounted for; from the left there's the standard set of PS/2 ports, a clear CMOS switch, two more USB 2.0 ports, Firewire and eSATA, and USB 2.0 port and eSATA connector, an RJ45 ethernet jack above two more USB 2.0 ports. And finally, the blue ports underneath the furthest RJ-45 ethernet plug are the USB3 connectors. 
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Board Features (Cont): Digging Deeper



When MSI designed the Big Bang product series it also engineered the boards to different (ostensibly higher) standards. The company's PR copy refers to this in numerous ways, from the use of Hi-c CAPS and 'Super Ferrite Chokes' (SFCs) to the additional auxiliary power connectors. The company has also gone to the trouble of using a separate audio card and included additional monitoring hardware and overclocking-friendly capabilities. We've opted to discuss overclocking features independently from overclocking performance; power consumption and audio capabilities have their own dedicated sections.

Hardware Overclocking Features
Several of the XPower's headline options, like its dual EPS12V plugs for CPU power, are only going to matter if you're an extremely rare breed of enthusiast.



Dual EPS12V Plugs:
Modern motherboards include an eight-pin plug that supplies additional power for the CPU. Of the eight wires, the four yellow ones provide 6.5A each. We can therefore calculate the total amount of wattage available to the CPU by multiplying the number of wires (4) times the amperage of each wire (6.5) times the voltage (12V).  The result—26 amps, 312W—is the maximum amount of power provided by a single plug (before VRM efficiency is calculated). 

We spoke to Intel, MSI, and several world-class overclockers about the need for a second plug.  There was general agreement on the topic from all quarters—unless you're planning to overclock using liquid nitrogen, the additional eight-pin plug won't really help your efforts. The reason MSI provided the additional plug is because it's actively courting the record-breakers that presently rely on companies like Asus or Gigabyte in various competitions.*



Base Clock Control Buttons: MSI has included multiple methods of adjusting the XPower's speeds on the fly; this term refers to the touchpads at the bottom of the board. Each press of the button (+ or -) adjusts the base clock frequency by 0.5mHz. Additional touchpads are provided for system reset and power on/off. If you're working with an open case, as we often do, these types of options are fabulous; ditto if you're trying to fine-tune an OC result. Be advised, however, that adjusting the base clock can also shift other system speeds in ways that aren't immediately apparent. Our experience with the XPower leads us to recommend OCing directly within the BIOS, where clockspeed relationships between the Uncore and Core are updated as new values are selected.  

OC Genie: MSI describes the OC Genie as follows:  "This button is used to auto-overclock for the system. Press this button to enable the OC Genie function when the system is in power off state, meanwhile, the button will light and lock. And then the system will automatically detect the optimum values to overclock after booting the system."

In our case, OC Genie simply didn't work. Turning the system on with the button depressed resulted in a brief power-up sequence (no video) after which the motherboard shut back down. We tested multiple sticks of RAM, double-checked to ensure OC Genie was enabled in BIOS, and kept all BIOS voltages and clockspeeds at Auto, all with no effect. As soon as we turned OC Genie off, the system booted normally.

Strangely enough, the system does POST if OC Genie is activated while the OC Dashboard is connected. It then shuts down just after the Marvell controller detects attached devices. We don't consider this a major problem, mostly because we take a dim view of automated motherboard overclocking. If you don't understand overclocking enough to do it yourself, you probably shouldn't be doing it at all.



OC Dashboard: MSI also includes the OC Dashboard with the Big Bang XPower. The diminutive breakout box connects to the motherboard via proprietary data cable or USB (your choice—the Big Bang contains both). The Dashboard decodes the various POST codes, offers information on what system BIOS is installed, and can be used to adjust a variety of system voltages. The OC Dashboard isn't very useful for early overclocking, when you're still focused on determining a CPU's general operating range, but it's handy for ultra-fine-tuning for adjusting voltage or operating clock by a few hundredths without completely rebooting.

The Dashboard's plastic shell, unfortunately, feels bargain basement. The various buttons are stiff and must be pressed in specific places in order to reliably pick up input and the enclosure is brittle. If you intend to use the device, we recommend anchoring it to a point up and largely out of the way.



V-Check: The rectangular blue box in the lower-right-hand corner of the motherboard has multiple sensor pads that allow any user with a multimeter to read the actual voltage being supplied to various components on a hardware level. This isn't something most of you will ever need, but it could be useful when attempting to troubleshoot board stability issues or for extreme overclocking. It's rare for a motherboard to consistently self-report a given voltage in BIOS while supplying an entirely different amount, but we've had it happen.

*Note: We've seen it erroneously report that the second 8-pin plug is necessary because the Core i7-980X is capable of drawing up to 480W. This is flatly incorrect, for two reasons. First, the second plug is important because it provides smoother amperage, not voltage. Second, the LGA1366 interface isn't physically capable of tolerating that kind of power draw, regardless of temperature.
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BIOS Options

MSI has gone out of its way to outfit the XPower's hardware--let's see how well the BIOS matches.

MSI's main BIOS page, integrated peripherals, and advanced BIOS features are all bog standard. AHCI modes, USB 3.0, and SATA 6G are all controlled from here.

 



MSI's hardware monitor, CPU feature set, and DIMM SPD information are all well-executed. We particularly like the inclusion of the detailed SPD data--it's easy to retrieve information if you're fine-tuning OC settings or have forgotten exactly what sort of RAM you have installed.



The various CPU adjustable features. VDroop can have a significant impact on motherboard power consumption, as we'll discuss a bit later. Also, be wary of the [Link] option--even unlinked, the Uncore's clockspeed needs to be at least twice as fast as main memory.

 

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Video Card Power & Configuration

The XPower includes an auxiliary PCIe power connector, but the circumstances in which this ends up being useful are downright esoteric. We contacted MSI for clarification, but the company didn't comment.



Modern video cards draw power from 2-3 rails—motherboard, 12V1, and 12V2. Based on the PCI-Express specification, the motherboard can provide up to 75W of power per individual PCIe x16 slot. The reason, however, that a number of video cards that draw significantly less than 75W still use external power connectors is because the motherboard is only allocated 156W of power at most, assuming two 6.5 amp lines (120W using 5 amp lines).

We didn't include this feature in the overclocking section because it does nothing to improve overclocking performance. The PCIe spec can only provide up to 75W of power per physical slot, no matter how many additional cables are plugged into the motherboard. The entire point of putting a six-pin plug on a lower-end card is to prevent a hungry video card from causing a brownout.


That's a Lot of PCIe x16 Slots...

The real reason MSI added an auxiliary PCIe plug is because the motherboard is capable of running as many as six video cards simultaneously. Even if each card drew just 20W each, they'd suck down 120W in aggregate. We're not sure why anyone would need to run 12-18 displays off a single system, but the additional plug gives the board significantly more power to work with.

If our theory is correct, MSI's port inclusion is a very good thing—but it's not going to boost anyone's overclocking.

SLI Configuration:
One of the most confusing 'features' of modern motherboard design is the total lack of consistency when it comes to which PCI-E slots should be used in multi-GPU configurations. MSI's own diagram is fairly clear:



Dual GPUs are paired in PCIe x16 slots 1&4, triple-head configurations are 1, 4, and 5 (or 1, 3, 5). Quad-cards are 1, 3, 4, and 5, etc, etc.
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Test Systems, SiSoft Sandra

How we configured our test systems: 

How we configured our test systems:  When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and activated AHCI. Memory timings, voltages, and CPU speeds were set to Auto; the RAM was run at 1333MHz, with default timings enabled. Windows 7 64-bit was installed and fully patched on both systems.

 

 HotHardware's Test System
 Intel Inside

Motherboards:
MSI Big Bang XPower
Gigabyte X58A-UD3R
EVGA X58 SLI Classified

Processor:
Intel Core i7-920
(2.66GHz - Quad-Core, HT Enabled)
RAM:
Corsair Dominator 6GB (3x2GB)
DDR3-1600 CAS 9-9-9-24

Graphics Card:
ATI Radeon 5970

Hard Drive:
Western Digital Caviar Black (1TB)

Software:
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Intel Chipset 8.9.0.1023 (5/4/2010)
ATI Catalyst 10.5

SiSoft Sandra 2010 SP1
Synthetic Benchmark Performance

We began testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, which stands for System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We examine a CPU's multimedia and arithmetic performance using Sandra, as well as the motherboard's peak memory bandwidth. The difference between the two platforms should be minor given their identical configurations.




 

Nothing surprising here--not that there should be. Benchmarks should be identical across all three boards, and Sandra shows everything on track.
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LAME MT, PCMark Vantage

 

LAME MT MP3 Encoding Test
Single and Multiple threaded Audio Encoding
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.  W
e created our own 223MB WAV file and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in both single and multi-threaded modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.

 We don't often see much of a difference when it comes to encoding MP3s with LAME and we saw nothing here to change that. All three motherboards were within seconds of each other.

 

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

We then ran our motherboards through PCMark Vantage, Futuremark’s latest system performance metric built especially for Windows Vista and Windows 7. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads, including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so they can exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core CPUs. We used the 64-bit version of the benchmark, with patch 1.02 installed.
 

Our three LGA1366 boards all deliver solid results here and essentially tie with each other once we allow for a marginal margin of error.

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Cinebench R11.5, Low-Res Crysis

Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Rendering Performance


Cinebench R11.5

Cinebench 11.5 is the latest update to Maxon's 3D rendering benchmark suite and the third major iteration of the Cinebench series. As with R10, CB11.5 includes a single-threaded, multi-threaded, and OpenGL test. We've focused on the first two tests as part of our processor comparison; the OpenGL test is a GPU-specific benchmark and is meant to represent professional graphics performance. Scores between the two benchmarks are not directly comparable, although it is possible to render R10's workload using 11.5, should you feel inclined.

 


The EVGA's slightly higher results, in this case, are probably provided courtesy of slight differences in how Turbo Boost functioned during the test runs.

Low-Resolution Gaming: Crysis
Taking the GPU out of the Equation

For our next set of tests, we moved on to some low-resolution in-game benchmarking with Crysis. When testing processors and motherboards in these games, we drop the resolution to 800x600 and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, any in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.

 



Nothing much to see here. When it comes to choosing an X58 board, identical performance is a given, save in instances of misconfiguration or malfunction.

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Overclocking & Stability

Overclocking the Big Bang
Getting out what you put into it

Overclocking is not an exact science. For example, every processor is different and just because your friend's Core i5/i7 processor hit 4GHz on air doesn't mean that yours will, even if using the same settings and hardware. Many factors can influence what a processor is capable of. These factors include complementary components like the motherboard, memory, power supply and cooling. In addition, user experience definitely comes into play as there is an abundance of modifiable settings within the BIOS. Overclocking is, by its very nature, unpredictable. Even if you buy a CPU according to make, model, and week of production, there's no telling how much additional overclocked performance you might or might not get.

Since the MSI Big Bang XPower is so clearly aimed at high-end overclockers we decided to swap to a CPU and cooling system we'd seen in action before. We borrowed the Core i7-920 (and its Koolance cooler) from inside the Origin Genesis rig we've reviewed previously, swapped them into the XPower, and set out to see if the Big Bang could push the chip as far as EVGA's X58 Classified SLI.

The answer is yes. We were able to duplicate the other motherboard's settings with no detriment to system stability. For those of you who might not recall, that's a base clock of 192MHz, a CPU base speed of 3.84GHz, RAM at ~1540Hz, and an Uncore clock of 3.08GHz.

We benchmarked the Big Bang at 2.67GHz and 3.84GHz, as shown below:

 


 

Stability Testing:

In addition to the overclocking tests discussed above, we stress tested the Big Bang XPower by loading it with six DIMMs of Elpida DDR3-1333 RAM, with 16 ICs (RAM modules) per DIMM. The more DIMMs that are present in a motherboard, the harder it becomes for the memory controller to cleanly differentiate electrical signals. Loading all six DIMM slots with dual-bank RAM let's us see if the board is stable under stressful conditions. We looped PCMark and 3DMark Vantage several times each to ensure system stability.

We tested the Elpida DDR3-1333, our Corsair Dominator at its rated 1600MHz, and the Elpida RAM at 1600MHz (said DIMMs having proven stable at that speed in past reviews). The Big Bang passed all three checks with flying colors.
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Onboard Audio: QuantumWave Weighs In

Big Bang Board's Big Boom Audio (Performance)
Rightmark Audio Analyzer

We don't normally spend much time on motherboard audio, but MSI has put a fair push behind its QuantumWave Audio. The XPower's advertising claims that QuantumWave's support for THX TruStudio PC and EAX 5 (licensed from Creative) gives it the "most powerful and realistic gaming audio performance available from any motherboard."

The actual chip behind all the lights and magic is a thoroughly pedestrian Realtek ALC889. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but one normally doesn't think of Realtek when envisioning awesome audio solutions. Has MSI's special software sauce sparked sensational sounds?

Let's have a look. We tested the EVGA's Realtek ALC889 chip against the MSI board's and tossed in a Creative X-Fi ($49.99 at NewEgg) for comparison. Testing was conducted by looping an audio cable from the speaker output to the line-in jack in all three cases. Prior to testing, audio levels were adjusted to produce the cleanest test signal possible.

We tested sound quality at both 44KHz / 16-bit and 96KHz / 24-bit. RMAA runs a variety of tests, ranking each test on a scale of 1-6, where 1 = Very Poor and 6 = Excellent. The test than gives a "General Performance" statistic, which we've reproduced here.

All software-side adjustments and dB tweaks were disabled.


We weren't able to hear much of a difference between the EVGA and MSI boards when we compared their audio output, although the Creative's overall sound was sharper, with better response when playing high and low frequencies. The difference was noticeable, but not enormous—motherboard audio has come a very long way in the past 6-7 years.



When we increased audio quality, the EVGA solution dropped back a notch, while the Creative X-Fi kept its position. The features of the Big Bang's QuantumWave—specifically its EAX and THX goodies—may be reason enough for HTPC fans to buy the board, but the card's audio doesn't sound any better (or, to be fair, any worse) than the other major solutions on the market.
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Power Consumption

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

One of the Big Bang XPower's most attractive (theoretical) features is its reduced power consumption and lower temperatures. We tested the Big Bang against the EVGA X58 Classified in stock and overclocked configurations.

Our first test was conducted with all power saving features turned on and High Vdroop—meaning that the CPU's voltage is allowed to vary according to Intel's specifications. With these settings enabled, the Big Bang XPower drew 16W less power at idle and 26W less under load.

26W isn't a lot—we're talking about maybe three cents of power a day—but if you leave your computer on 24/7, you can at least feel comfortable that you're a little greener about it. Or you could just turn it off. Even if the gap isn't all that large, we're impressed to see it--MSI's "military grade" design is more than marketing fluff.

So what happens when we overclock?

 


With all power-saving features off and Vdroop set low, the gap between the two motherboards all but vanishes. This isn't all that surprising, however—when we start setting voltages and clockspeeds to predetermined levels we're also limiting the motherboard's ability to adjust these settings on the fly.
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Performance Summary, Conclusion

Performance Summary: There's not a ton to say about the Big Bang's benchmark results—it performs exactly like an X58 motherboard should. If we widen this to include its power consumption, integrated audio, and additional features, this motherboard stands out more clearly. The XPower delivers on its promises, as long as you remember that some of its features are only useful to a small niche' of enthusiasts.

The Big Bang is competitively priced against other high-end boards, offers equivalent or superior features, and overclocks like gangbusters. Readers who aren't in the market for a $300 motherboard, however, shouldn't feel like they're settling for second-rate products if they opt for something cheaper.

Assuming that you aren't planning to play with LN2, there's nothing to suggest that lower-cost boards from any manufacturer are less reliable, durable, or failure-prone than their $300+ luxury counterparts. If you are looking for a luxury board though, the MSI Big Bang XPower should be on your short list of considerations.

 

 

  • Excellent overclocking
  • Competitive Price
  • Lower Power Consumption
  • Some features only benefit tiny fringe of enthusiasts
  • OC Dashboard Breakout Box Feels Cheap


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