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Socket 939 Motherboard Roundup: ABIT, MSI, Gigabyte
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Date: Sep 09, 2004
Section:Motherboards
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction & Chipsets

With the release of each new processor platform comes the inevitable wait for "enthusiast-class" motherboards to support them.  We've seen the same scenario play out time and again.  When Intel released its Socket 478 Pentium 4 processors, for example, it was a few months before tricked-out motherboards, with a full complement of overclocking tools, made it into the channel.  The same scenario will play out for Intel's Socket T, as it has already for AMD's Socket 939 platform. Sure, some decent motherboards hit the streets immediately, but they almost always have some kinks that need to be worked out, whether it be in the form of a BIOS update, a revision to the chipset, or even a complete revision of the board itself.  Which brings us to where we are today...

It has been about three months since AMD initially released its Socket 939 Athlon 64 processors.  To cover the launch, AMD supplied an early VIA K8T800 Pro-based motherboard from MSI. It worked well, but this prerelease motherboard lacked a few features, namely an AGP/PCI lock and multiplier adjustments, and it wasn't a great overclocker.  Then a few weeks later, we looked at another K8T800 Pro-based motherboard, the ASUS A8V Deluxe.  It turned out to be a very nice product with a slew of features, but it too has already undergone a revision to add support for an AGP/PCI lock.  And now that some time has passed, a few more full-featured Socket 939 motherboards are available that all seem to have gotten it right.  We're going to take a look at four of them today in this roundup: MSI's K8N Neo2 Platinum and K8T Neo2-FIR, Gigabyte's K8NSNXP-939, and ABIT's AV8.  Two of them are powered by VIA' K8T800 Pro chipset; the other two by NVIDIA's nForce 3 Ultra.

Specifications Of The VIA K8T800 Pro
Ready For AMD's Best
Key Features
_Supports full range of AMD Athlon 64 / Athlon 64 FX /Opteron processors
_Hyper8 Technology enables high performance _HyperTransport bus link between processor and chipset
_Asynchronous bus architecture
_Support for AGP 8X/4X
_Ultra V-Link 1066 MBps high bandwidth north/southbridge interconnect
_Support for VIA Vinyl 6-channel & Vinyl Gold 8-channel Audio
_Support for up to eight USB 2.0/USB 1.1 ports, UHCI compliant
_Serial ATA support for up to four devices
_Integrated V-RAID with RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1, and JBOD (SATA) support
_Parallel ATA133/100/66 support for up to four device
_Support for VIA Velocity Gigabit Ethernet companion controller & Integrated 10/100 Fast Ethernet
_Integrated MC'97 Modem
_Advanced power management capabilities including ACPI / On Now
_578-pin BGA northbridge
_539-pin BGA VT8237 southbridge

The VIA K8T800 Pro chipset is essentially an updated version of the very popular K8T800 with a few added features ultimately meant to increase performance and overclockability.  The K8T800 Pro supports a faster bridge link between the north and southbridge chips (1066MBps versus 533MBps), supports a faster maximum HyperTransport link between the CPU and northbrige (up to 1GHz [2.0GHz DDR]), and has the ability to run the AGP and PCI buses asynchronously.  The AGP/PCI lock makes overclocking much easier because all of the other components in the system can be run within specifications, while the bus speed is increased.  This is especially useful with AMD's latest Athlon 64 processors with the "Cool 'n Quiet" feature enabled because lower multipliers can be used in conjunction with a much higher bus speed for peak performance. Getting the AGP/PCI lock functioning properly with this chipset has taken a bit of work, however, which is why ASUS has updated its A8V and most other K8T800 Pro-based motherboards have already gone through multiple BIOS revisions.  To read more about VIA's K8T800 Pro, check out this page on the company's Web site.

Specifications Of The NVIDIA nForce 3 Ultra
Jam-Packed With Goodies
Networking
_NVIDIA IEEE 802.3 Media Access Control (MAC)
_Supports 10/100/1000Base-T _Ethernet/Fast Ethernet/Gigabit Ethernet
_Supports HomePNA 2.0 PHYs
_Advanced Communication Riser (ACR) and Communications and Networking Riser (CNR) interface support
_High-performance networking features
_TCP segmentation offloads
_Jumbo frames
_Checksum offloads
_NVIDIA StreamThru technology
_Isochronous controller paired with _HyperTransport results in fastest networking performance

Security
_NVIDIA Firewall technology
_Industry's only native firewall solution
_Unmatched performance and protection
_Advanced management features
_Remote access, configuration, monitoring
_Command line interface (CLI)
_WMI scripts

Storage
_RAID 0 disk striping support for highest system and application performance
_RAID 1 disk mirroring support for fault tolerance
_RAID 0 +1 disk striping and mirroring support for highest performance with fault tolerance
_Support for both SATA and ATA-133 disk controller standards
_Dual independent SATA controllers
_Supports up to four SATA disk drives simultaneously
_Integrated SATA PHY with support for two drives
_Digital SATA interface for external PHY with support for two drives
_Fast Ultra ATA-133 disk driver controllers
_Each interface supports two devices, for support for up to six devices
_Supports UltraDMA modes 6-0 (UltraDMA 33/66/100/133)
_Industry-standard PCI bus master IDE register set
_Separate independent IDE connections for 5V-tolerant primary and secondary interfaces

Mobility
_Power management
_Full support for AMD PowerNow! technology
_ACPI 2.0 compliant
_Support for ACPI C3 state
_Low power 0.15-micron process
_Maximizing real estate efficiency enabling small form factor designs
_Single chip solution
_Lower latency for higher performance
Connectivity
_AGP interface
_Supports AGP3.0 - 0.8 V signaling for 8× and 4× with Fast Writes data transfers
_Supports AGP2.0 - 1.5 V signaling for 4×, 2×, and 1× modes with 4× and 2× Fast Writes data transfers
_Supports graphics address remapping table (GART) features
_The AGP3.0 8× 533 MT/s (million transfers per second) interface provides the user with the ability to upgrade the external graphics card, thus avoiding obsolescence. An external AGP add-in card achieves higher performance than it would on existing platforms.
_AGP interface is backward compatible with the AGP2.0 specification.
_USB 2.0
_Single USB 2.0 Enhanced Host Controller Interface (EHCI) / Dual USB 1.1 Open Host Controller Interface (OHCI)
_Support for up to eight ports
_Supports transfer rates at high speed (480Mbps), full speed (12Mbps), and low speed (1.2Mbps)
_Dynamically configures slower devices for best utilization of bandwidth
_Allows USB concurrency
_PCI interface
_Integrates a fast PCI-to-PCI bridge running at 33MHz. It includes an arbiter that supports six external master PCI slots. Features of the PCI interface include:
_PCI 2.3-compliant, 5 V tolerant
_Supports six external PCI slots at 33 MHz
_Supports six bus master arbitration
_PCI master and slave interfaces
_Supports both master-initiated and slave-initiated terminations
_Bidirectional write posting support for concurrency
_Flexible routing of all four PCI interrupts
_Supports read ahead: memory read line (MRL) and memory read multiple (MRM)

Performance
_HyperTransport technology
_High throughput (8.0GBps)
_Low voltage
_Differential

Audio
_AC '97 2.1 compliant interface
_7.1 surround sound audio
_Supports 2, 4, 6, or 8-channel audio
_Dual AC-Link – supports up to two codecs
_16-bit or 20-bit stereo output and 16-bit input streams
_Supports input, output, and general purpose input/output (GPIO) _channels for host-based modems
_Separate independent functions for audio and modem
_Supports ACR and CNR interface
_S/PDIF output (stereo or AC-3 output)

Although the nForce 3's list of specifications above seems much more complete than VIA's (thank NVIDIA's Web site for this, or VIA's, depending on how you look at it!), the K8T800 Pro and nForce 3 are actually quite evenly matched in terms of features.  The nForce 3 Ultra chispet, which powers the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum, is the latest revision of the nForce 3.  It supports a 1.0GHz (2.0GHz DDR) HyperTransport link, NVIDIA RAID, NVIDIA Firewall technology, and a native Gigabit Ethernet, which provided better bandwidth than PCI-based solutions.  The nForce 3 also sports NVIDIA's isynchronous StreamThru data transport system, among a host of other features.  For a much more complete list of other features, along with explanations of each, see here.

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ABIT AV8: Bundle & Specifications

ABIT designed the AV8 in the spirit of the BH6 and BH7:  not a lot of flash, but streamlined with an emphasis on longevity and overclockability. The AV8 is equipped with all high-quality Japanese Rubycon capacitors, ABIT's proprietary "overclocking strips," and its swank uGuru technology. It also has a diagnostic LED readout, lots of USB connectors, and ABIT's signature flush-mounted IDE connectors.  About the only thing missing is a secondary RAID controller and an active northbridge cooler...

      

Specifications Of The Abit AV8
Targeted Squarely At Overclockers
Processor
_Supports AMD Athlon 64 / Athlon 64 FX 939-pin processor
2000MHz system bus using HyperTransport technology

Memory
_CPU Integrated Dual Channel Memory Controller
_Four 184-pin DIMM sockets (Un-buffered Non-ECC DIMM)
_Supports Dual Channel DDR 400/333/266 (Max. 4GB)

Chipset
_Supports Advanced Configuration and Power Management Interface (ACPI)
_Accelerated Graphics Port connector supports AGP 8X/4X

SATA 150 RAID
_Supports SATA 150 MBps RAID 0/1

GbE LAN
_Onboard 10/100/1000M LAN PCI Ethernet Controller
_Operation support ACPI & Wake on LAN

IEEE 1394
_Supports three ports IEEE 1394 at 100/200/400 Mbps transfer rate

Audio
_6-Channel AC'97 CODEC onboard
_Professional digital audio interface supports optical S/PDIF In/Out
Internal I/O Connectors
_1 AGP 8X/4X slot
_5 PCI slots
_Floppy Port supports up to 2.88MB
_2 x Ultra DMA 33/66/100/133 Connectors
_2 x SATA 150 Connectors
_2 x USB headers, 2 x IEEE1394 headers
_1 x FP-Audio header
_1 x CD-IN, 1 x AUX IN

Back Panel I/O
_1 x PS/2 Keyboard, 1 x PS/2 Mouse
_1 x Serial, 1 x Parallel, 1 x S/PDIF Output, 1 x S/P DIF Input
_1 x Audio connector (Center/Subwoofer, Surround Speaker)
_1 x Audio connector (Line Out, Line-in, MIC-in)
_2 x USB, 1 x IEEE1394 Connector
_2 x USB, 1 x RJ-45 LAN Connector

Package
_User's Manual x 1
_Quick Installation Guide x 1
_ABIT uGuru Handbook x 1
_Jumper setting label x 1
_Support CD x 1 / SATA Utility Disk x 1
_USB 2.0 cable x 1 / IEEE 1394 cable x 1
_SATA cable x 2 / SATA power cable x 1
_ATA133 Round cable x 1
_FDD Round cable x 1
_I/O shield x 1

            

The ABIT AV8's bundle was also streamlined.  We didn't find a lot of filler, just the essentials to get the board installed and take advantage of the integrated features.  ABIT included an excellent assortment of manuals detailing the AV8's installation and features and even included a quick reference sticker that makes it easy to quickly identify a jumper or connector.  Just stick it to the inside of your case, and you'll never be scrambling for the manual when it comes time to switch a jumper setting or clear the CMOS.  A Driver / Utility CD and a floppy disk containing SATA drivers were also included with the AV8.  Along with the aforementioned manuals and disks, ABIT also shipped two SATA cables, a single 80-wire IDE cable, a floppy cable, a case bracket with two extra USB and FireWire connectors, and a custom I/O shield.

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ABIT AV8: The Board & Layout

ABIT gives us a lot to talk about with regard to the AV8's layout and general appearance. Like most of the company's new motherboards, the AV8 is built upon ABIT's signature reddish PCB, and it seems their engineers have been paying attention to the enthusiast community because connector placement is very good.  In the right hands, the AV8 could be the base of a very clean system, with the kind of wiring that'll make even the system builders at Voodoo green with envy...

The Board: Abit AV8
She's A Looker

    

     

     

    

Although the AV8 boasts no fancy lights or brightly colored slots, we still think it is fairly attractive and won't seem bland in a windowed case. The placement of the ATX and 12V power connectors just behind the external I/O connectors and CPU socket is good, and the flush-mounted IDE connectors make neatly wiring a case quite easy. When routed properly, the wiring shouldn't hinder airflow around the CPU or slots at all, and IDE cables will lay flush against the motherboard try. The floppy connector is mounted just behind the four color-coded DIMM slots, which allow for a maximum of 4GB of RAM.  The rear I/O connectors are plentiful, with two PS/2 ports (keyboard & mouse), a parallel port, a serial port, four USB ports, a single FireWire connector, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, and analog and digital audio in / out connectors.  Audio duties are handled by Realtek's ALC658 codec, and VIA's VT6122 and VT6306 respectively handle Gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0 functionality.  Down below the CMOS battery, you'll find the diagnostic LEDs along with two SATA connectors powered by the VIA southbridge, which provide the AV8 with its RAID functionality.  The case connectors and other headers in this section of the board are clearly labeled, and in quite a few of the shots, ABIT's "overclocking strips" can be seen strewn about the top and underside of the board.  ABIT's uGuru chip, which is actually a Winbond W83L950D embedded controller, is located below the CMOS battery, as well.  The uGuru chip gives users the ability to monitor and tweak fan speeds, temperatures, and voltages from within the BIOS and Windows.

There are a few slight issues to speak of, however.  Although there is enough clearance behind the AGP slot and DIMM slots to make it possible to swap out RAM without removing the video card, it is very tight.  And we were surprised ABIT opted for a passive northbridge heatsink on a motherboard that's built for overclockers.  In all fairness, the northbridge heatsink didn't get very hot during normal operation, but when overclocked for extended periods, an actively cooled northbridge would be preferable.

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ABIT AV8: BIOS & Overclocking

In typical ABIT fashion, the AV8 is equipped with a Phoenix / Award BIOS that is chock-full of options for tweaking performance and managing all of the AV8's onboard features...

The BIOS: ABIT AV8
Typical ABIT Goodness

    

     

ABIT has built a reputation for configuring its motherboards with some of the most complete BIOSes in the industry.  The initial release of the AV8's BIOS is missing a few features that should be made available shortly, but even in its early stages, it is very good.  The standard BIOS menus listed above offer all of the tools necessary to enable, disable, or tweak all of the AV8's onboard peripherals, but it's in the uGuru Utility menu where things get really interesting.  Although the AV8 does also have an excellent assortment of user-configurable memory timings that should keep inquisitive tweakers busy for a while!

Overclocking Tools: ABIT AV8
Do You Guru?

    

    

     

  

The uGuru Utility menu is home to all of the AV8's overclocking tools, which are quite extensive.  In the uGuru Utility menu, users can manually adjust processor multipliers, bus speeds, and a slew of voltages.  Three ratios are available to tweak the AV8's AGP / PCI buses (8:2:1, 7:2:1, and 6:2:1), and the processor bus can be set to any speed between 200MHz and 336MHz, in 1MHz increments.  A whole host of voltages can be manually altered, as well.  The AV8 has the ability to alter the northbridge, southbridge, HyperTransport, DDR Memory, CPU, and AGP voltages.  CPU voltages between 1.5v and 1.85v in .025v increments are available, along with AGP voltages from 1.5v - 1.65v, DDR voltages from 2.5v - 2.8v, northbridge voltages from 1.5v - 1.65v, southbridge voltages from 2.5v - 2.65v, and HyperTransport voltages from 1.2v - 1.4v, all in .05v increments.  There are a slew of monitoring and shutdown options available, as well, which can be configured to shut the system down should any fan speed, voltage, or temperature reach a predetermined, user-configurable threshold.  This is definitely a BIOS geared to the hardcore overclocker.



CPU-Z
Max OC=258MHz
Armed with an unlocked Athlon 64 FX-53 processor and some Kingston PC3500 RAM, we set out to see just how far we could overclock the ABIT AV8 while keeping the system stable.  We should mention that all of the overclocking tests in this roundup were performed using a stock AMD copper / aluminum heatsink and fan combo in an open air environment.  With more exotic cooling, our overclocking results would likely have been different.  Keep that in mind, as your mileage may vary.  We bumped the CPU voltage to 1.7v and the memory voltage to 2.8v and gave all of the other peripherals a .1v bump, as well.  Then we dropped the multiplier and lowered the speed of the HT link and raised the processor's bus speed until the test system was no longer stable.  In the end, we hit a maximum stable bus speed of 258MHz.  The AV8 booted with higher bus speeds, but we couldn't stabilize Windows until we dropped things back down to 258MHz.  We also focused on overclocking the CPU itself and found that the AV8 had no trouble hitting the same 2.6GHz+ speeds we had attained with this particular CPU when we first reviewed it back in June '04.

 

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Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939: Bundle & Specifications

The Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 is a limited edition motherboard that is part of Gigabyte's "6-Dual Deluxe" line of products.  The "6-Dual" products are equipped with multiple peripherals such as dual BIOS EPROMS, dual RAID controllers, and dual LAN.  Unlike the streamlined ABIT AV8, however, Gigabyte has packed the K8NSNXP-939 with as many bells and whistles as possible.  This is arguably the most feature-rich motherboard in this roundup, but some notable items such as ABIT's diagnostic LEDs or the K8T's bundled wireless network adapter are absent...

      

Specifications Of The Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939
A Fully Loaded nForce 3
Processor
_Socket 939 for AMD Athlon64/ 64 FX

Chipset
_NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra Platform Processor
_Super I/O: ITE IT8712F chip

Integrated peripherals
_Silicon Image sil3512 controller
_T.I. IEEE1394b controller
_Marvell 8001 Gigabit Ethernet controller
_ICS 1883 LAN PHY chip
_Realtek ALC850 Audio AC'97 Codec

Memory
_Type: Dual channel DDR400/ 333/ 266 -184pin
_Max capacity: Up to 4GB by four DIMM slots

Internal I/O Connectors
_4 x Serial ATA connector
_2 x UDMA ATA 133/100/66 Bus Master IDE connectors
_1 x FDD connector
_2 x USB 2.0/1.1 connectors (supports 4 ports)
_2 x IEEE 1394b connectors (supports 3 ports)
_S/PDIF input/output pin header
_3 x cooling fan pin headers
_CD/AUX in
_1 x Game/Midi connector

BIOS
_2 X 4M bit flash ROM, Award BIOS

Audio
_1 x Line-in / 1 x Line-out / 1 x Mic connector
Expansion Slots
_1 x AGP slot (8x/4x-AGP 3.0 compliant), supports 1.5v display card only
_5 x PCI slots (PCI 2.3 compliant)

Rear Panel I/O
_PS/2 Keyboard / Mouse
_4 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
_2 x RJ45 ports
_2 x COM ports
_1 x LPT

CPU/AGP/DIMM setting
_CPU FSB / Multiplier / Vcore Voltage adjustable via BIOS
_AGP Voltage / Clock adjustable via BIOS
_DIMM Voltage / Clock adjustable via BIOS

Power
_ATX power connector and ATX 12V connector
_Power-off by Windows 98/ Me/ 2000/ XP shut down and switch

Form Factor
_ATX form factor
_30.5 x 24.4 cm

H/W Monitoring
_System health status auto-detect and report by BIOS
_Hardware detecting and reporting for case open, CPU voltage, and fan speed

Other Features
_Xpress Installation
_Xpress Recovery
_Q-Flash
_@BIOS

            

            

Bundled in with the K8NSNXP-939, Gigabyte shipped a nice assortment of manuals, cables, and brackets.  Gigabyte included a detailed hardware installation guide and a quick reference pamphlet, along with two decent user's manuals outlining the motherboard's main features and clearly explaining the intricacies of the K8NSNXP-939's RAID functions.  The RAID manual is a welcome addition because this board (and the K8N Neo2 Platinum) has the abilty to set up RAID arrays across both the SATA and PATA controllers.  With this added layer of complexity, having a manual to reference will be quite useful for some users.  There were also three SATA cables, three Molex-to-SATA power adapters, a floppy cable, and an 80-Wire IDE cable included with this board, along with a custom I/O shield and four case brackets.  The case brackets complement the K8NSNXP-939's on-board audio, add an additional four USB connectors, two FireWire connectors, and two external SATA connectors.

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Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939: The Board & Layout

The K8NSNXP-939 is quite a sight.  This motherboard is about as colorful as a peacock, and just about every inch of the PCB's real estate is covered with an IC, connector, heatsink, or header.  Because of all of the goodies incorporated onto this motherboard, pick up a CPU, RAM, video card, and a K8NSNXP-939, and you've got yourself a fully loaded system without the need to purchase a single PCI expansion card.

The Board: Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939
This Baby Is LOADED

    

     

  

Even with all of the K8NSNXP-939's integrated peripherals, Gigabyte still managed to avoid most of the common layout pitfalls some other major OEMs make, save for a couple of questionably placed connectors.  The K8NSNXP-939 is built upon a dark blue PCB with color-coded connectors.  The most prominent aspects of the K8NSNXP-939 have got to be the dual active, gold coolers mounted to the nForce chip and DPS (dual-power system) VRM.  This was a wise move on Gigabyte's part, as the chipset and VRM are the two hottest running components on the motherboard, next to the CPU.  And as we all know by now, heat is the enemy!  The AGP slot is also somewhat unique.  The card retention mechanism is much easier to use than the traditional levels used on most other motherboards because the pin moves parallel to the PCB and is easy to grab.

The floppy connector, two IDE connectors, and ATX power connector are situated just behind the four color-coded DIMM slots along the front edge of the board.  Follow the same line down the front edge of the board and along the bottom edge of the board, and you'll find most of the other connectors and headers and the dual-BIOS EPROMS.  The K8NSNXP-939 has extra headers for additional USB and FireWire connectors and a total of four SATA connectors, two powered by a Silicon Image controller and the other two by the nForce3.  Also notice the color-coded header for the case connectors.  We especially like this feature, as it makes installing the K8NSNXP-939 into a case very easy for even a novice.  The external I/O connectors are made up of two PS2 ports, two serial ports, a parallel port, four USB connectors and three audio connectors, and dual RJ-45 Ethernet ports.  The RJ-45 ports are powered by a Marvell 8001 Gigabit controller (PCI bound) and by the nForce3 itself.  Strangely, Gigabyte uses an ICS 1883 PHY that only operated at 10/100 though.  Audio comes by way of Realtek's high-end ALC850 codec. The K8NSNXP-939 is also equipped with a Texas Instruments IEEE 1394b controller, which offers the highest FireWire transfer speeds currently available.

About the only negative aspect of the K8NSNXP-939's layout is the placement of two SATA connectors just behind the AGP slot.  In some cases, with some right-angle SATA cables and a couple of strategically placed wire ties, these SATA connectors may not pose a problem, but we don't think it's a great idea to have data cables lying between two virtual furnaces, a video card and CPU.

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Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939: BIOS & Overclocking

Gigabyte's K8NSNXP-939 is equipped with a Phoenix / Award BIOS derivative, that's been customized to support all of the K8NSNXP-939's onboard features and peripherals.  And thanks to the Dual-BIOS feature, flashing to new versions is safe and easy.  A flash utility is built right into the BIOS, and because a backup is always available, recovery from a bad flash is only a few keystrokes away.

The BIOS: Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939
Pretty Complete

    

     

The standard BIOS screens will look similar to most other enthusiast-class motherboards. The Integrated Peripherals menu, however, has more options than most because each individual peripheral can be manually enabled or disabled, and this board has a lot of them! You may notice that the Advanced Chipset Features menu is missing from the main menu. To reveal the Advanced Chipset Features menu and a host of memory timing options, users have to press "CTRL-F1."  This can be somewhat annoying for veteran tweakers, but it'll probably help to keep some newbies out of trouble.

Overclocking Tools: Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939
Very Good - Not Great - But Very Good

    

     

The MB Intelligent Tweaker menu, or M.I.T, is where users will find all of the K8NSNXP-939's overclocking tools.  Using the M.I.T. menu, users can alter their processor's multiplier and select any processor bus speed between 200MHz and 455MHz, in 1MHz increments.  The AGP bus speed can also be dialed in manually, in 1MHz increments, which points to the fact that this board - like all other nForce3 Ultra-powered motherboards - has a fully functional AGP / PCI lock.  Processor, AGP, memory and HyperTransport voltages are also user configurable.  CPU voltages up to 1.7v are available in .05v increments, and +.1v, +.2, and +.3v options are available for AGP and the HyperTransport link.  Memory voltages can be increased by +.1v or +.2v.



CPU-Z
Max OC=255MHz
Overclocking with the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 yielded some very good results.  As we did with the ABIT AV8 and the rest of the boards in this roundup, for that matter, we cranked our CPU voltage up to 1.7v, dropped the multiplier, and lowered the speed of the HT link.  Then we raised the memory voltage by the maximum .2v on this board and set out to find the highest stable processor bus speed.  The K8NSNXP-939 fared well, hitting a maximum stable bus speed of 255MHz.  Windows XP would actually boot at speeds in excess of 270MHz, but some applications would crash to the desktop until we brought the speed back down to 255MHz.

When we focused on overclocking the CPU alone, the K8NSNXP-939 was also able to take our CPU well over 2.6GHz.  Which, as we mentioned earlier, is the limit for our particular Athlon 64 FX-53 processor.

 

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MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum: Bundle & Specifications

The K8N Neo2 Platinum Edition is currently MSI's flagship Socket 939 motherboard for the Athlon 64.  This board, like the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 we spoke of on the three previous pages, is powered by NVIDIA's single-chip nForce3 Ultra.  As such, the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum has many of the same features and capabilities, plus a few more courtesy of MSI's "Core Cell" chip and a few additional integrated controllers...

      

Specifications Of The MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum
MSI's Flagship Athlon 64 Motherboard
CPU
_Supports Socket 939 for AMD Athlon 64 FX/64 processor
_Supports 3500+, 3800+ Athlon 64 FX 53, or higher CPU

Chipset
_nVIDIA nForce3 Ultra Chipset
_HyperTransport link to the AMD Athlon 64/Athlon 64 FX CPU
_HyperTransport supporting speed up to 1GHz (2000MT/s)
_AGP3.0 8X interface at 533MT/s (million transfers per second)
_Two independent SATA controllers, for four drives
_IEEE 802.3 NVIDIA MAC for 1000BASE-T
_Dual Fast ATA-133 IDE controllers

Main Memory
_Supports dual channel DDR 266/333/400, using four 184-pin DDR DIMMs.
_Supports the memory size up to 4GB
_Supports 2.5v DDR SDRAM DIMM
_Due to the High Performance Memory design, motherboards or system configurations may or may not operate smoothly at the JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) standard settings (BIOS Default on the motherboard) such as DDR voltage, memory speeds and memory timing. Please confirm and adjust your memory setting in the BIOS accordingly for better system stability.

Slots
_One AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) 1.5V 4X/8X slot
_Five 32-bit v2.3 Master PCI bus slots (support 3.3v/5v PCI bus interface).

Onboard IDE/SATA
_An IDE controller on the NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra chipset provides IDE HDD/CD-ROM with PIO, Bus Master and Ultra DMA133/100/66 operation modes.
_Can connect up to four IDE devices
_Supports four SATA ports. Transfer rate is up to 150MBps
_NV RAID (Software)
_Support for up to four SATA & four ATA 133 Hard drives
_RAID 0 or 1, 0+1, JBOD is supported
_RAID function work w/ATA133 + SATA H/D
BIOS
_The mainboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS that detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
_The mainboard provides a Desktop Management Interface (DMI) function that records your mainboard specifications.

Audio
_7.1 channel audio codec RealTek ALC850.
_Compliance with AC97 v2.3 Spec.
_Meet PC2001 audio performance requirement.

LAN
_Supports dual LAN jacks
_1 LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Marvell 88E1111 PHY
_1 LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Realtek 8110S (1000Mbps)

IEEE 1394
_VIA 6306 chipset
_Supports up to 3 x 1394 ports
_Transfer rate is up to 400Mbps

On-Board Peripherals
_1 floppy port supports 1 FDD with 360K, 720K, 1.2M, 1.44M and 2.88Mbytes
_1 serial port
_1 parallel port supports SPP/EPP/ECP mode
_1 audio jack (5-in-1), coaxial/fibre SPDIF out
_8 USB 2.0 ports (Rear x 4 / Front x 4)
_2 RJ45 LAN jack
_3 IEEE 1394 connectors (Rear x 1/ Front x 2)

Dimension
_30.5cm(L) x 24.5cm(W) ATX Form Factor

Accessories
_D Bracket 2
_Serial ATA Power Adapter
_2 x Serial ATA Cables
_Round Cable

            

When compared to the other motherboards in this roundup, the K8N Neo2 Platinum's bundle seems a bit hollow, but all of the necessities are there.  Think along the lines of the ABIT AV8, minus a couple of well-written user's manuals.  MSI does include a single manual, however, along with a driver / utility CD and a floppy disk that contains RAID drivers.  MSI also included two SATA cables, a single Molex-to-SATA power adapter, a rounded floppy cable, a rounded 80-wire IDE cable, a custom I/O shield, and a custom case bracket MSI calls a "D-Bracket."  The custom bracket houses two USB connectors, along with four LEDs.  The "D" in "D-Bracket" stands for "Diagnostic."  The LEDs blinks in certain combinations should a problem with the motherboard arise.  Look up the lighting combination, and the underlying problem becomes much easier to diagnose.

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MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum: The Board & Layout

When placed side by side with all of the other motherboards we're looking at in this article, the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum looks somewhat alien. The K8N's layout is dramatically different than the other boards, with its DIMM slots and CPU socket rotated 90 degrees counter clockwise and the nForce3 chipset located about three-quarters of the way down the board behind the PCI slots.

The Board: MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum
Ready To Rock!

    

    

  

The K8N Neo2 Platinum is built upon a black PCB with color-coded slots, connectors, and headers.  The four DIMM slots are located parallel to the top edge of the board, with the CPU socket located just below them. Flanking the CPU socket on one side is a row of filtering capacitors; on the other side are the IDE and floppy connectors and the ATX power connector.  The 12V power connector, however, is located clear across the motherboard, just behind the connectors on the back panel.  If you direct your eyes further down the front edge of the board, two of the four onboard SATA connectors are visible, along with headers for additional USB and FireWire connectors and the case connector header.  We'd also like to commend MSI on color-coding and clearly labeling the case connectors, as this makes mounting the board in a case and connecting the switches and LEDs a breeze.  Just behind the five PCI slots, you'll find the VIA VT6306 IEEE 1394 (FireWire) controller and the orb-style active chipset cooler.

The I/O connectors on the back panel consist of two PS2 ports, a single serial port, a parallel port, a FireWire port, four USB ports, seven various audio inputs and outputs (including S/PDIF), and dual RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet connectors.  The K8N's 8-channel audio capabilities are powered by a Realtek ALC850 codec, and the Ethernet ports are powered by a Marvell 88E1111 PHY and a Realtek 8110S.

Like the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939, the K8N Neo2 Platinum also has two of its four SATA connectors situated between the CPU socket and AGP slot.  Considering both the K8N and K8NSNXP-939 have these connectors placed in this location, it's probably a design decision gleaned from NVIDIA's nForce3 Ultra reference motherboard.  But it's definitely not an ideal spot, from an aesthetic standpoint.  Who wants SATA cables draped in between a hot CPU and video card?

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MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum: BIOS & Overclocking

Like the ABIT AV8 and Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939, the K8N Neo2's BIOS is a Phoenix / Award derivative that's been customized for the particular application.  The standard menus look very much like the others we've already shown you in this review...

The BIOS: MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum
Good Stuff

    

    

    

Browsing through the standard BIOS menus doesn't reveal anything revolutionary, but all of the common options for tweaking / enabling / disabling the K8N integrated peripherals are there.  The K8N Neo2 Platinum's BIOS is very complete and easy to navigate.  And MSI also does a good job of explaining some of the more obscure options in the right margin.  It's in the Cell Menu where the real fun begins...

Overclocking Tools: MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum
Lots Of Tinkering!

    

    

The Cell Menu is home to all of the K8N Neo2 Platinum's overclocking and memory configuration options.  Like ABIT's uGuru processor, MSI's Core Cell chip monitors fan speeds, voltages, and temperatures.  Using the data being monitors by the Core Cell chip, the K8N can dynamically overclock a processor, but we left that option disabled in the name of fair play.  Obviously, users can also overclock their processors manually using some of the other options available in the Cell Menu.  Processor bus speeds can be set to any speed up to 300MHz, in 1MHz increments (the latest BIOS increases this number to 350MHz), and the AGP clock can be configured to operate at any speed between 66MHz and 100MHz, also in 1MHz increments.  CPU, memory, and AGP voltage adjustments are available, as well.  CPU voltages range from 1.55v -1.85v, memory voltages range from 2.5v - 2.85v, and AGP voltages range from 1.5v - 1.85v, all in .05v increments.  Noticeably absent are chipset and HyperTransport voltage options, but we suspect they're dialed in at optimal levels by MSI at the company's manufacturing facility, as this board had no trouble in the overclocking department.



CPU-Z
Max OC=263MHz
To overclock with the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum, we followed the same procedure that we outlined earlier.  We increased the CPU core voltage to 1.7v, dropped the multiplier, dialed down the HT speed, increased the memory voltage to 2.8v, and slowly raised the bus speed until the system was no longer stable.  The MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum ended up hitting the highest bus speed of the bunch.  The maximum stable bus speed we were able to attain was an impressive 263MHz.

And, like the other motherboards in this round-up, the K8N Neo2 Platinum didn't have any trouble overclocking our CPU to over 2.6GHz.

 

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MSI K8T Neo2-FIR: Bundle & Specifications

The K8T Neo2-FIR has a bit of a history behind it.  When AMD launches a new processor, it generally ships a kit to the press and other anaysts designed to showcase its new product in the best light.  When the first Socket 939 processors, the Athlon 64 FX-53 and 3800+, arrived in the HotHardware labs, they were accompanied by a prerelease version of the K8T Neo2.  For AMD to choose this board to showcase its new processors, the company must have really liked something about it.  That prerelease board seemed really nice, so we were eager to see what the retail version had to offer, as motherboards tend to only get better with a little age...

      

Specifications Of t=The MSI K8T Neo2-FIR
There's A Reason AMD Likes This Board
CPU
_Supports 64-bit AMD K8 Athlon 64/Athlon 64 FX Processor (Socket 939)
_Supports 64-bit AMD K8 Athlon 64 3500+ and higher CPU
_Supports 64-bit AMD K8 Athlon 64 FX processor FX-53 and up

Chipset
_VIA K8T800 Pro Chipset
_HyperTransport connection to AMD K8 Athlon 64/Athlon 64 FX processor
8 or 16 bit control / address data transfer both directions
_1000/800/600/400/200MHz "Double Data Rate" operation both directions
_AGP v3.0 compliant with 8X transfer mode

VIA VT8237 Chipset
_Ultra DMA 66/100/133 master mode EIDE controller
_Integrated dual channel native Serial ATA/RAID controller that will supply 150MB/s and support RAID 0, RAID 1
_ACPI & PC2001 compliant enhanced power management
_Supports 8 USB 2.0 ports. (Rear x4/ Front x4)

Main Memory
_Supports four 184-pin DDR SDRAMs up to 4GB memory size
_Supports DDR400*/DDR333/DDR266 DDR SDRAM
*Note: PC3200 (DDR400) - Due to the High Performance Memory design, motherboards or system configurations may or may not operate smoothly at the JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) standard settings (BIOS Default on the motherboard) such as DDR voltage, memory speeds and memory timing. Please confirm and adjust your memory setting in the BIOS accordingly for better system stability.

Slots
_One AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) 1.5V 4x/8x slot
_Five PCI 2.2 32-bit Master PCI Bus slots. (support 3.3v / 5v PCI bus interface)

Dimension
_30.5 cm(L) x 24.5 cm(W) ATX Form Factor

BIOS
_The mainboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
_The mainboard provides a Desktop Management Interface (DMI) function which records your mainboard specifications.

Serial ATA/150 controller integrated in VT8237
_Up to 150MB/s transfer speed
_Can connect up to two Serial ATA drives
_Support RAID 0, RAID 1
On-Board IDE
_An IDE controller on the VT8237 chipset provides IDE HDD/CD-ROM with PIO, Bus Master, and Ultra DMA 66/100/133 operation modes. It can connect 4 Ultra ATA drives.

Promise 20579 Onboard
_Supports ultra ATA, Serial ATA, Ultra ATA RAID 0 or 1, Serial ATA RAID 0 or 1, Ultra/ Serial ATA RAID 0+1
_Connect up to two Serial ATA devices and two Ultra ATA 133 devices

IEEE 1394a
_VIA VT6306 IEEE 1394 controller
_Provides onboard one 6-pin port and one 4-pin port
Transfer rate up to 400Mbps

Audio
_8-channel software audio codec Realtek ALC850
_Compliance with AC97' v2.3 Spec
_Meet PC2001 audio performance requirement
_Provide onboard SPDIF out

Network
_Realtek 8110S Dual layout
_Integrated Gigabit Ethernet MAC and PHY transceiver, auto-negotiation operation.
_Supports single-port 10MB/s, 100MB/s, 1000MB/s Base-T application.
_Compliance with PCIv2.2 and LAN on Motherboard (LOM) standard.

On-Board Peripherals
_1 floppy port supports 2 FDDs with 360K, 720K, 1.2M, 1.44M and 2.88Mbytes
_1 serial ports COM1
_1 parallel port supports SPP/EPP/ECP mode
_8 USB 2.0 ports (Rear x 4 / Front x 4)
_5 audio ports in vertical (Left, Center, Right, Line-in, MIC)
_1 SPDIF out
_2 IEEE 1394 connectors
_1 RJ-45 jack
_1 IrDA connector for SIR/ASKIR/HPSIR

Accessories
_D Bracket 2
_Serial ATA Power Adapter
_2 x Serial ATA Cables
_Round Cable

  

  

The MSI K8T Neo2-FIR shipped with a rather unique bundle.  Along with the board itself, we found three driver and utility CDs, two floppy disks containing drivers for the VIA and Promise RAID controllers, a custom I/O shield, and two user's manuals.  The same D-Bracket that accompanied the K8N Neo2 Platinum was also included with the K8T, in addition to a rounded floppy cable, a rounded 80-wire IDE cable, a single SATA cable, and one Molex-to-SATA power adapter. The last piece of hardware included with the K8T Neo2-FIR was an 802.11g wireless network adapter with an external antenna.  MSI also included a half-height mounting bracket with the card, but we doubt this board will be used in many applications where the smaller bracket will be useful.  We tested the 802.11g adapter with a Linksys WRT54GS and a D-Link DI-624 wireless router and encountered no compatibility or performance issues.  A wired network connection is always preferable, but if that's not an option for you, the K8T Neo2-FIR's included wireless network adatper will come in handy.

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MSI K8T Neo2-FIR: The Board & Layout

The K8T Neo2-FIR is built using MSI's signature red PCB, with its typical color-coded sockets and connectors. The pre-release version we used to test the initial batch of Socket 939 Athlon 64 processors used a much darker PCB, but a closer look reveals that all of the components are identical, with the only different being the size of the passive heatsink mounted to the K8T800 Pro northbridge.

The Board: MSI K8T Neo2-FIR
Look Familiar?

    

    

    

The K8T Neo2-FIR is a versatile motherboard that's equipped with a host of useful features. This is the only motherboard in the roundup to sport a secondary Promise PDC20579 SATA/PATA hybrid controller, which offers an additional two SATA ports, along with a third PATA channel. With a total of four SATA connectors and three IDE connectors, the K8T Neo2-FIR can support more drives than any of the other Socket 939 motherboards we've looked at thus far.

For the most part, the K8T Neo2-FIR's layout was good. There is plenty of room between the DIMM slots and the AGP slot to swap out RAM without having to remove the video card, and the ATX, main IDE, and floppy connectors are ideally located just behind the DIMM slots along the front edge of the board.  The 12v power connectors aren't in a great spot, though.  They're situated alongside the northbridge, adjacent to the VRM.  If the 12v lead coming from your PSU is short, you'll have to drape it right over the processor.  Other than that, though, the rest of the layout is good.  All of the headers along the bottom edge of the board are color coded, and the case connectors are clearly labeled.  The underside of the CPU socket has a hefty, metal reinforcement in place that may actually help dissipate some heat, and there is plenty of room around the CPU socket for an oversized cooler.  The northbridge could have used a larger heatsink or preferably an active cooler, but we didn't experience any heat-related instability, so we won't ding MSI for going the passive route with the K8T.  MSI made a wise choice and installed large heatsinks on the transistors in the VRM, which should ensure reliable operation for a prolonged period of time.

The back panel I/O connectors include PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, a serial port, a parallel port, two FireWire connectors (one mini), four USB ports, seven various audio ins and outs (including S/PDIF), and an RJ-45 Ethernet jack.  A VIA VT6306 controller provided the FireWire functionality, while a Realtek ALC850 and 8110S handle audio and Gigabit network duties, respectively.

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MSI K8T Neo2-FIR: BIOS & Overclocking

Although the BIOS screen shots below may look similar to the other one featured in this roundup, there is one notable difference.  The MSI K8T Neo2-FIR is equipped with an AMIBIOS (American Megatrends Inc.), rather than the much more popular Phoenix / Award BIOS powering most of the motherboards available today.

The BIOS: MSI K8T Neo2-FIR
A Top-Notch BIOS

    

    

  

As expected, the standard BIOS menus don't have any new and exciting features to speak of.  The options and toggles to control all of the K8T's integrated peripherals are available, but there was nothing to get too excited about until we accessed the Cell Menu.  Just like the K8N Neo2 Platinum, all of the K8T Neo2-FIR's overclocking tools are listed in the Cell Menu.

Overclocking Tools: MSI K8T Neo2-FIR
It's Got What You Need

    

    

  

The Cell Menu is where users will find all of the K8T's various overclocking options. Using the Cell Menu, users can alter their processor's multiplier and select any processor bus speed between 200MHz and 280MHz, in 1MHz increments. The AGP bus speed can be set to "Auto" or locked at 66MHz or 75.4MHz.  The HT link speed can be set to 200MHz, 400MHz, 600MHz, 800MHz, or 1GHz. Processor, AGP, memory and HyperTransport voltages are also user configurable. The CPU voltage can be increased by up to 15% (1.725v), AGP voltages range from 1.55v to 1.85v (.05v increments), and the HyperTransport voltage can be increased to a maximum of 1.38v. Memory voltages can also be altered, with a range of 2.55v to 2.85v available.



CPU-Z
Max OC=249MHz
When we set out to overclock with the MSI K8T Neo2-FIR, we had some interesting results. After dropping the multiplier and HT link speed and raising the CPU and Memory voltage, we found that the peak bus speed we could hit was 249MHz, the lowest speed of any motherboard in this roundup.  What we found strange was that some lower bus speeds wouldn't work.  From 200MHz to about 212MHz, the K8T seemed to function normally.  But at speeds from 212MHz through 230MHz, the board occasionally wouldn't POST. Speeds above 230MHz consistently worked, but we weren't very confident in our particular board's overclocking ability.  Ultimately, a bus speed of 249MHz is nothing to sneeze at, but we had higher hopes for the K8T.

CPU overclocking yielded the same results we had seen previously.  The K8T Neo2-FIR, like the other motherboard we've looked at here, had no problem bringing our particular Athlon 64 FX-53 up over 2.6GHz.

 

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Test System Setup & SiSoft SANDRA

How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered the system BIOS and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults."  We then manually configured our RAM to run at 200MHz (DDR400), with the timings set by the SPD.  The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP1) was installed. When the installation was complete, we hit the Windows Update site and downloaded all of the available updates, with the exception of the ones related to Windows Messenger. Then we installed all of the necessary drivers and removed Windows Messenger from the system altogether. Auto-Updating, drive indexing, and System Restore were also disabled, and we set up a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests...

Test System Specifications
"AMD Inside!"
SYSTEM 1:
S939 - AMD Athlon FX-53 (2.4GHz)

ABIT A8V
VIA K8T800 Pro

2x512MB Corsair PC3200
CL2

Radeon 9800 Pro
Onboard 10/100 Ethernet
Onboard Audio

WD "Raptor" 36GB Hard Drive
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP1
ATi Catalyst 4.8
VIA Hyperion 4.53
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 2:
S939 - AMD Athlon FX-53 (2.4GHz)

Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939
NVIDIA nForce3 250GB

2x512MB Corsair PC3200
CL2

Radeon 9800 Pro
Onboard 10/100 Ethernet
Onboard Audio

WD "Raptor" 36GB Hard Drive
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP1
nForce Driver 4.27
ATi Catalyst 4.8
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 3:
S939 - AMD Athlon FX-53 (2.4GHz)

MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum
NVIDIA nForce3 250GB

2x512MB Corsair PC3200
CL2

Radeon 9800 Pro
Onboard 10/100 Ethernet
Onboard Audio

WD "Raptor" 36GB Hard Drive
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP1

nForce Driver 4.27
ATi Catalyst 4.8
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 4:
S939 - AMD Athlon FX-53 (2.4GHz)

MSI K8T Neo2-FIR
VIA K8T800 Pro

2x512MB Corsair PC3200
CL2

Radeon 9800 Pro
Onboard 10/100 Ethernet
Onboard Audio

WD "Raptor" 36GB Hard Drive
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP1

VIA Hyperion 4.53
ATi Catalyst 4.8
DirectX 9.0c
Preliminary Benchmarks With SiSoft SANDRA 2004
Synthetic Testing

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2004 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory).  All of these tests were run with our processor set to its default clock speed of 2.4GHz (12x200MHz).  (Note: Some of these boards ran the processor with an FSB higher than 200MHz. Where necessary, we manually set the FSB to 200MHz to keep the playing field level.)

All four of the motherboards tested here performed similarly in SiSoft's Processor and Multimedia benchmarks.  In these two tests, neither the K8T800 Pro-powered boards (ABIT AV8 & MSI K8T Neo2-FIR) nor the nForce3-powered boards (Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 & MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum) had any real advantage.  SANDRA's Memory Bandwidth Benchmark tells a bit of a different story, however.  In the Memory Bandwidth Benchmark, the nForce3-based Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum had a slight but measurable advantage of about 100MBps.  The K8T800 Pros came close but never quite broke the 6GBps barrier, while the nForce3s consistently broke 6GBps.

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PCMark04: Processor & Memory

For our next round of benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark04.  For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work...

Futuremark PCMark04
More Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. There are nine tests in all. Two pairs of tests are run multithreaded - each test in the pair is run in its own thread.  The remaining five tests are run single threaded. These tests include such functions as file encryption, decryption, compression and decompression, grammar check, audio conversion, WMV and DivX video compression."

As expected, all four of the boards performed at similar levels in PCMark04's CPU performance module.  In this test, the ABIT AV8 finished in first place, followed by the MSI K8T, the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939, and the MSI K8N.  But only 53 points separated the first and last place finishers in this test, so we can hardly say one is any faster than the other. 53 points falls well within the margin of error in this test.


"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."

We saw more of the same when testing with PCMark04's memory performance module. Once again, the four motherboards in this roundup performed at very similar levels, with only a few percentage points separating the "fastest" and "slowest" boards. In stark contrast to SiSoft's Memory Bandwidth Benchmark, though, PCMark04 asserts that the K8T800 Pro-based boards have an advantage over the nForce3s.  You've got to love synthetic tests...

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Windows Media Encoder 9 & 3DMark03

We continued our testing with another application from Futuremark, 3DMark03, and with a video encoding benchmark, Windows Media Encoder 9.  In the WME9 test, we took a 416MB Digital Video file and encoded to WMV9 format.  Times were recorded in minutes:seconds, with lower times indicating better performance.

Windows Media Encoder 9
More Digital Video Encoding

Gigabyte's K8NSNXP-939 and MSI's K8N Neo2 Platinum, the two nForce3-powered boards in this roundup, tied for first place in the Windows Media Encoder 9 benchmark with a time of two minutes and 37 seconds.  The ABIT AV8 followed closely behind, with the K8T Neo2-FIR right on its heels.  With only two seconds separating the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum from the K8T Neo2-FIR, however, it's impossible to say any one board was truly faster than another.  2 seconds equates to only a 1.2% difference.

3DMark03
DirectX Gaming Performance - Sort Of

It's not an actual game, but 3DMark03's built-in CPU test is a "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance among 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.

The ABIT AV8 took top honors in 3DMark03's CPU benchmark with the only score over 860 points, followed by the MSI K8T Neo2-FIR, the K8N, and the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939. There's only a 1.8% performance delta separating the AV8 from the K8NSNXP-939, however.  Which, as you can probably guess, falls within the margin of error in this benchmark.

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Wolfenstein: ET & Unreal Tournament 2004

To start our in-game testing, we ran through a batch of time demos with the OpenGL game Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.  Wolfenstein: ET is a free, standalone multiplayer game that is based on the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein that was released a few years back. It uses a heavily modified version of the Quake III engine, which makes it a very easy-to-use benchmarking tool.  We ran the test using the "Fastest" setting at a low resolution of 640 X 480, using 16-bit color and textures.  Running this test with a high-end graphics card, at these minimal settings, isolates processor and memory performance without being limited by the graphics subsystem.

Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
OpenGL Quake Engine Gaming

Using our custom demo, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory had all four of the boards we tested finished within a couple of frames per second of each other.  Here, the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum posted the fastest frame rate of 144.6 FPS, followed by the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939, the K8T Neo2-FIR, and the ABIT AV8.  There's only 1.7 frames per second separating the K8N from the AV8, though - hardly a large enough delta for a decisive victory.

Unreal Tournament 2004
DirectX Gaming Performance

Lastly, we did some benchmarking with Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004.  When we tested these systems with UT 2004, we ensured that all of them were being benchmarked with the exact same in-game settings and graphical options and we dropped the resolution and detail levels to isolate CPU and memory performance.

In yet another complete reversal, the ABIT AV8 pulled ahead of the pack when testing Unreal Tournament 2004 with our custom demo.  The ABIT board posted a frame rate of 146.43, followed by MSI K8T Neo2-FIR, the MSI K8N, and the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939.  The 4.76 frames per second difference separating the AV8 and K8NSNXP-939 equates to about a 3.4% advantage for the K8T800 Pro-powered AV8.  Also notice that the other K8T800-powered board, the MSI K8T Neo2-FIR, came in just behind the ABIT board and ahead of the nForce3s.

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Business & Content Creation Winstones

Synthetic benchmarks and games only tell part of the performance story, so we took all four of these Socket 939 boards to task in some "real-world" scenarios, as well.  For our first set of real-world tests, we did some benchmarking with Ziff Davis' Business Winstone 2004 suite, followed by the more demanding Content Creation Winstone 2004 suite.

Business & Content Creation Winstones
Real-World Application Performance

The PC Magazine Business Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark.

  • Microsoft Access 2002
  • Microsoft Excel 2002
  • Microsoft FrontPage 2002
  • Microsoft Outlook 2002
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2002
  • Microsoft Project 2002
  • Microsoft Word 2002
  • Norton Antivirus Professional Edition 2003
  • WinZip 8.1

Unlike all of the other benchmarks we ran, Business Winstone 2004 indicates the nForce3-based motherboards are clearly faster than the K8T800 Pros.  The Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum finished within a fraction of a point of one another, followed by the K8T and ABIT AV8.  In this test, the nForce3s were about 7.3% faster than K8T800 Pros.


The PC Magazine Content Creation Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark.

  • Adobe Photoshop 7.0.1
  • Adobe Premiere 6.50
  • Macromedia Director MX 9.0
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 6.1
  • Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9 Version 9.00.00.2980
  • NewTek's LightWave 3D 7.5b
  • Steinberg WaveLab 4.0f

The Content Creation Winstone 2004 tests also show the nForce3-powered motherboards having a clear performance lead over the K8T800 Pro-based boards.  In this benchmark, the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum came out on top followed very closely by the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939.  Those two boards posted scores about 1.4 points higher than the K8T800 Pro-powered MSI K8T Neo2-FIR and ABIT AV8; about a 4.1% lead for the nForce3s.

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Summary & Conclusions

Benchmark Summary: Throughout the synthetic, gaming, and encoding tests, all four of the motherboards we've looked at in this article performed at near identical levels.  In the "real-world" testing with the Business and Content Creation Winstones benchmarks, however, the two NVIDIA nForce3-powered motherboards - the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 and the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum - had a distinct performance advantage.  And now for our picks...

MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum:
Looking at the benchmarks, no single board had any real advantage over another in the majority of benchmarks, but the nForce3 boards really pulled ahead of the pack once we ran the Business and Content Creation Winstone tests.  This put the nForce3s in a favorable light when it came time to pick a winner in this roundup, which brings us to our top pick: the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum.  This motherboard is well equipped; it overclocked very well; its performance was top-notch and consistent; and, at about $140, the MSI K8N is also competitively priced.  We have been using this board for a few weeks with nary a problem and will be using this board for future Socket 939 processor testing. When we took all these aspects into consideration, the K8N Neo2 Platinum seemed to be the best all-around choice, in our opinion.  It's strong in every category and would be an excellent choice for anyone looking to build a high-end Athlon 64 based system.  We're giving the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum a solid 9.5 on the Heat Meter and declare it HotHardware's Editor's Choice...


 

ABIT AV8:
Yet again, ABIT has delivered a solid motherboard targeted squarely at enthusiasts looking for stability and performance without a lot of "fluff."  The ABIT AV8 was the only board we tested to feature a diagnostic LED readout incorporated right onto the PCB, it was one of the better overclockers, and it was the fastest of the bunch in the gaming benchmarks.  The AV8 was rock-solid stable throughout all of our testing (and then some), and it was one huge advantage over the other boards we've tested: price.  The AV8 is available for under $100 at multiple online resellers, which is about 30%-40% less expensive than the other boards in this roundup.  With Socket 939 Athlon 64 processors still selling for a hefty premium, we're sure saving a few bucks on a first-class motherboard will make many potential buyers happy.  The ABIT AV8 was a strong performer, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better value in this market segment. We're giving it a 9 on the Heat Meter; had the K8T800 Pro not faltered in the Winstone tests, the AV8 could very well have been our top choice...


 

Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939:
We were very impressed by Gigabyte's K8NSNXP-939.  It's the most feature-rich motherboard in this group, the bundle was spot-on, and performance was consistently very good.  Gigabyte also scores some points for actively cooling both the nForce3 chipset and the VRM and by building in some redundancy with the Dual-BIOS feature.  Anyone who has ever killed a motherboard because a BIOS flash went awry will definitely appreciate the Dual-BIOS feature!  The K8NSNXP-939 also did well in our overclocking tests, and even some of the simpler items such as the AGP locking mechanism and clearly labeled headers gave us the impression that Gigabyte really paid attention to the details. Unfortunately, the K8NSNXP-939 was the most expensive motherboard in this group, and by a significant margin.  The lowest price we found for the K8NSNXP-939 was $180USD, but most retailers had it priced right around $200.  That makes the K8NSNXP-939 roughly $50-$100 more expensive than any of the other motherboards represented here.  And although Gigabyte has a heck of a motherboard in its lineup in the K8NSNXP-939, we feel it's a bit expensive. We're giving the Gigabyte K8NSNXP-939 an 8.5 on the Heat Meter...


 

MSI K8T Neo2-FIR:
The MSI K8T Neo2-FIR struck us as a "Jack of all trades, but a master of none."  This board does a lot of things well and has a lot going for it, considering it's the second-least-expensive board in this roundup.  But each of the other boards just seems slightly better in a few different categories.  The K8T Neo2-FIR was a decent overclocker, but the K8N was better.  The VIA K8T800 Pro chipset powering this board is fast, but the nForce3 was slightly faster.  The K8T has a great feature set, but Gigabyte's was a bit better.  And the K8T Neo2-FIR is cheap, but the AV8 is cheaper.  The K8T Neo2-FIR, however, did arguably have the best bundle, and it was the only board to include a wireless NIC. Ultimately, we don't think anyone would be disappointed if they purchased a K8T Neo2-FIR, and AMD themselves took a liking to this board, as evidenced by the company choosing it to showcase the first batch of Socket 939 processors sent to technical editors.  The MSI K8T Neo2-FIR is a very good motherboard that just happened to get overshadowed by some worthy competition in this roundup.  We're giving the K8T Neo2-FIR an 8 on the Heat Meter.

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