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MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum Series Motherboard
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Date: Dec 14, 2004
Section:Motherboards
Author: Jeff Bouton
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Introduction and Specifications


As Intel's Alderwood and Grantsdale chipsets have brought a whole new platform of technology to the P4, OEMs are now in full swing, bringing their own flavors to the mix.  With support for Intel's new LGA775 processors, DDR and DDR2 and PCI-Express, the playing field has certainly changed.  Granted, while upgrading will require a larger investment, the results can be worth it in the end, especially if you are migrating from a generation or two behind this current Intel architecture.

Recently, we've seen a number of offerings come to market based on the 915G/P chipset.  While each company offers its own combination of features, only a few have truly stood out from the rest. The latest motherboard we've received from MSI has a solid chance to be that one board that stands above others in its class.  The MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum series motherboard brings the best the Intel 915P chipset has to offer and brings a few enhancements to the table to sweeten the deal.  It's obvious that MSI has been hard at work with this board, with the aim clearly being a show stopper type product.  All we can say is when the board arrived, it got our attention and wouldn't let go.  Let's get started by getting aquainted with what the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum has under the hood.

Specifications of the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum
It's Got Everything
CPU
•Supports Intel Pentium 4 Prescott processors in LGA 775 (Socket T) package
•Supports Pentium 4 3XX, 5XX and 7XX Processor or higher speed
•Supports Intel Hyper-Threading (HT) Technology


Chipset
Intel Grantsdale 915P Chipset
•Supports FSB 800MHz
•Support Dual channel DDR2 533+/533/400 memory interface upto 4GB
•Support PCI Express 16X interface


Intel ICH6R Chipset
•Integrated Hi-Speed USB 2.0 controller, 480Mb/sec, 8 ports
•4 Serial ATA/150 ports support RAID (0,1) and Matrix RAID
•1 channel Ultra ATA 100 bus Master IDE controller
•PCI Master v 2.3, I/O ACPI 2.0 Compliant
•Integrated AHCI controller


FSB
•Support 800+/800MHz

Main Memory
•Supports 4 unbuffered DIMM of 1.8 Volt DDR2 SDRAM
•Supports up to 4GB memory size
•Support Dual Channel DDR2 533/400MHz and up(*DDR2 Memory Modules are not the same as DDR Memory Module, please check with your memory vendor for more information)


Slots
•One PCI Express 16X slot
•Two PCI Express 1X slot
•Three PCI 2.2 32-bit Master PCI Bus slots. (support 3.3v/5v PCI bus interface)


On-Board IDE
One Ultra DMA 66/100 IDE controller integrated in ICH6R
•Supports PIO, Bus Master operation modes
•Can connect up to 2 Ultra ATA drives


Serial ATA 150 controller integrated in ICH6R
•Up to 150MB/s transfer speed
•Can connect up to 4 Serial ATA drives
•Supports ACHI controller with SATA RAID (0,1) and Matrix RAID
•Supports SATA hot plug


VIA 6410 IDE RAID Controller
•Integrate two Ultra DMA 66/100/133 IDE controllers
•Support RAID (0,1 and 0+1)
•Connect upto 4 Ultra ATA 133 devices
On-Board Peripherals
•1 floppy port supports 1 FDD with 360K, 720K, 1.2M, 1.44M and 2.88Mbytes•1 Serial port (COM A)
•1 parallel port supports SPP/EPP/ECP mode
•8 USB 2.0 ports (Rear x 4/** Front x 4)(** Front USB ports are supported by pin-out)
•1 Line-In/Line-Out/Mic-In/RS Out/CS Out/SPDIF Out-Optica/Coaxial Audio port
•2 PS/2 connectors
•1 LAN RJ45 connector
•1 IEEE 1394


Audio
8 Channel Azalia controller integrated in Intel ICH6R Chipset
•8-channel audio codec Realtek ALC861
•Compliance with Azalia 1.X spec
•Support Multi-Streaming function
•Support Universal Audio Jack (only Front Audio Jack)


LAN
Broadcom DBM5751 PCI-Express Gb LAN Controller
•PCI Express bus Spec 1.a compliant
•PCI Express 1X interface with 2.5Gb/s bandwidth
•10/100/1000 IEEE 802.3 compliant


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.


Dimensions
30.5cm(L) x 24.5cm(W) ATX Form Factor

Mounting
9 mounting holes

1-User's Guide
1-Quick Guide
1-Setup CD
1-RAID Drivers Floppy
1-CPU Mounting Tool
1-I/O Shield
1-Rounded Floppy Cable
1-Rounded IDE Cable
2-SATA Cables
2-SATA Power Adapters
1-D-Bracket 2
1-IEEE 1394 Bracket

    

MSI provided an exceptionally well outfitted retail bundle to compliment the 915P Neo2 Platinum.  They covered the gamut from thorough documentation, to all of the extra hardware and cables needed for a smooth setup.  They provided a nifty plastic CPU mounting tool to help prevent less experienced users from installing the new LGA775 packaged Pentium 4s incorrectly.  D-Brackets were also provided to extend the USB and IEEE 1394 via on-board headers.  A full complement of rounded IDE, Floppy and SATA cabling was included to support a of myriad drive combinations as well.  One thing we immediately noticed was the SATA cables included in the bundle were both narrower and thinner than typical SATA cables.  Note the red cables from a recent ASUS board we reviewed and then the orange cables provided by MSI.  Some may think this is a small thing, but when it comes to cabling, less is always more in our opinion.  Lastly, MSI rounds out the package with a complete Setup CD with MSI's LiveUpdate, Core Center overclocking utility and other programs like Live Update, Live BIOS, Trend PC-Cillin 2004 and XTeq XSetup that expand on the board's robust features.

As we can see, MSI packed the 915P Neo2 Platinum's retail packaging with all the essentials needed to take full advantage of the board's feature set.  Next, we'll take a closer inspection of the board itself and spotlight some of its salient points.

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The 915P Neo2 Platinum - Closer Inspection

A Closer Look at the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum
Eye-Catching Style

The Board:

Once we opened the package and took the 915P Neo2 out of its static free bag, we could see why it's named "Platinum". Clearly, the team at MSI was firing on all cylinders when designing this motherboard.  The layout of the board was clean and well planned and the color scheme contrasted nicely against the black PCB.  As the name implies, the 915P Neo2 Platinum comes with the Intel 915P chipset at its core, backed by the ICH6R Southbridge.  This combination brings all the best features the chipset has to offer, plus MSI adds a few more refinements along the way.

    

The 915P Neo2 Platinum series supports 4GB of DDR2 memory.  Additionally, the board has the ability to set the memory up to 667MHz in the BIOS if the modules are capable.  The Neo2 also comes with a single PCI-E 16X slot as well as two PCI-E 1X and three standard PCI slots.  You might have noticed, the last PCI slot is colored orange to set it apart.  This slot is optimized as a comminications slot to enhance network performance with MSI's Dual-Net WLAN/Bluetooth card (sold separately).  The board also comes with the standard compliment of USB 2.0 ports, eight in total, as well as one IEEE1394 port.  Additionally the 915P Neo2 Platinum comes with four SATA ports capable of Matrix RAID via the ICH6R Southbridge, while two IDE ports support RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 powered by a VIA 6410 IDE RAID Controller.

    

MSI also adds a few special features to the 915P Neo2 to help give it an edge in a very competitive market.  If you look between the CPU socket and rear connections, you'll notice heatsinks mounted on the MOSFETs, as well as the Northbridge and Southbridge.  This added feature aims to keep temperatures in check under all conditions, for improved system stability and longevity.  If all goes as planned, we expect to see some good results in the overclocking segment with such precautions taken to keep heat under control.  We also like MSI's color scheme approach to component identification.  Each item is uniquely colored and clearly labeled, making it very easy to identify the on-board headers and other components.  You'll also find the plug colors on the D-Brackets match the socket color of their respective headers, further reducing any guess work.  And let us not forget to mention the 8-channel audio powered by Realtek's ALC861 CODEC.

The BIOS:

MSI really payed attention to detail when constructing the 915P Neo2 Platinum, and that attention to detail spilled over to the BIOS configuration as well.  The screens are clearly accessible and concise, with MSI keeping their advanced overclocking features under the Cell_Menu screen.

    

In the Advanced Chipset Feature section, we found the memory configuration options.  The DDR2 memory could be set to run by SPD or manual, offering the standard array of CAS-related settings.  In this case, the CAS latency could be set for either 3, 4, or 5, much higher than we're used to seeing with DDR memory.  The RAS-to-CAS and Precharge options were more typical, ranging from 2 to 5 clocks in increments of 1. 

    

From the Advanced Chipset Feature screen, we moved to the Cell Menu, where the remainder of the power user options were located.  Here, we had the option to set the DDR2 memory to run at 400, 533 or Auto.  The system also offered preconfigured overclocking profiles ranging from Private, Sergeant, Captain, Colonel, General and Commander, with the first running the system at 1% overclock and the final stage peaking at a hefty 15% increase.

    

For fine tuning overclocking stability, there were a fair collection of voltage settings among other options.  The CPU voltage was adjustable from 1.3875v to a maximum 1.550v.  The DDR voltage ranged from 1.8 to 2.4v in increments of .1v where as the NB voltage ranged from 1.5 to 1.7v.  Overall, these options give the overclocker a fair amount of leverage, most important with aggressive overclocking settings. 

Next, we'll fire up the HH test bed and see just how high we can get this motherboard before entering the benchmarking arena.

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HH Test Bed, Overclocking and SANDRA

HotHardware Test Bed
Riding High

Hardware

MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum (i915P)
ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe (i915G)
Pentium 4 530 @ 3.0GHz
MSI
GeForce PCX 5750
1GB PQI
Integrated Audio
Western Digital ATA100
30GB - 7200RPM
Artec DVD+/-R/RW

Software

Windows XP Professional SP-2
DirectX 9.0c
NVIDIA Forceware - Graphics v61.77
SiSoft SANDRA 2004 Pro
Content Creation Winstone 2004
Business Winstone 2004
Unreal Tournament 2004
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
XMPEG
Windows Media Encoder 9


Overclocking the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum
What Else can We Say?  WOW!

When it came to overclocking, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum continued to impress.  We took a pretty aggressive stance from the start and hit 245MHz right from the get go without any errors whatsoever.  Not satisfied, we wanted more.  Knowing that we had to change memory divisors to go any higher, we set the memory frequency to run at 400MHz and continued our quest for more speed.  With a few gentle increases in CPU and Memory voltages, we managed to hit a top speed of an impressive 262MHz FSB with no special cooling.  This resulted in a 23% increase, pushing our CPU from 3GHz to 3.93GHz.  We tried to hit that 4GHz mark, but the CPU itself just wasn't up to the task.  At this FSB, we came close to bringing our memory back to its default speed, coming in at 524MHz.  So what does this kind of increase bring to the performance arena.  Well, we managed to push Wolfenstein: ET from 115 to 142.5 FPS, while 3DMark05's CPU tests jumped from 3007 to 3325 3DMarks.  This kind of performance is outstanding with nothing more than a small voltage boost and stock Intel cooler.  Naturally, we're hitting the absolute peak for this board, but there is no reason to believe, with quality hardware and ample cooling, users couldn't be running very close to these speeds or even faster.

SiSoftware's SANDRA 04
Starting with the Synthetics

As always, we like to use SANDRA to get a quick assessment of how a particular motherboard fits among its peers.  By comparing the performance of the 915P Neo2 Platinum with the systems in SANDRA's internal database, we can get an idea of how the board stacks up.

    

    

At stock speeds, our Pentium 4-E 530 fell in line with what we would expect from this CPU.  When we switched to memory performance, the MSI 915P Neo2 topped both the 915G and 925X reference systems.  The real fun started when we increased the bus to 262MHz, pushing our CPU to 3.93GHz and memory to 524MHz DDR.  Here, the test bed topped all three tests, with the most significant gains shown in the CPU tests.  With memory performance, we saw an average gain of 1300MB/s in memory performance when overclocked, while CPU performance topped that of a Pentium 4-E 560.

Next, we'll turn our attention to FutureMark's 3DMark05 and PCMark04 and see how the MSI 915P Neo2 faired.

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3DMark05 and PCMark04 - FutureMark's Finest
3DMark05 & PCMark04
Synthetics Continued

We like to use 3DMark05 in motherboard tests because of its ability to run CPU intensive tests exclusive of the video modules.  Here, we ran the CPU 1 and 2 tests and recorded the overall score that was issued.  As a frame of reference, we included the results from an ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe, configured with the same exact hardware.  We will use the P5GDC-V as a comparison throughout the remainder of the review.

 

When we first reviewed the P5GDC-V, it put up a strong showing against the Soltek SL-915GPro-FGR we compared it to.  Here, we see the same strong showing, with the 915P Neo2 lagging by 250 3DMarks.  But, as we saw with the ASUS review, this trend can swing in the other direction just as quickly with PCMark04.

PCMark04 is an excellent tool for gauging a system's overall performance.  In this test, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum topped the ASUS P5GDC-V in both CPU and Memory modules, slipping only in the graphics component.  When averaged out, the MSI model came out on top, beating the impressive ASUS board by 50 PCMarks in total.

Next, we'll see how things go when we turn our attention to more real-world performance tests.  The next phase of tests will focus on CPU intensive video encoding benchmarking.

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Video Encoding Tests with Windows Media Encoder and XMPEG
Windows Media Encoder and XMPEG
Video Encoding Tests

Video encoding tests are a great way to gauge processing throughput since encoding is an extremely CPU-dependant task.  First, we used Window Media Encoder to convert an AVI to WMV.  Then we used XMPEG to convert an MPEG to DivX AVI.

The Windows Media Encoder test was a virtual dead-heat between the two motherboards.  We're looking at a mere one second difference in favor of the MSI 915P Neo2.

The same trend continued with the XMPEG test, with each board completing the conversion in 1:12 flat.  There's not much else to say at this point.  When it comes to video encoding, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum and ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe are on the same level, period.

Next, we'll turn our attention to some gaming benchmarks.

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Gaming Tests with Wolfenstein:ET and UT2004
Gaming Tests with Wolfenstein:ET and UT2004
Trusty Favorites

Another way we like to test motherboard performance is by enlisting a few gaming benchmarks.  By running these test with reduced image quality, we can minimize the impact the graphics subsystem has on the test, focusing more on CPU and memory performance.  Our first test was a canned timedemo in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory followed by our custom UT2004 benchmark.

 

Like the video encoding test, it was a tight race, but the MSI Neo2 Platinum came out on top by 1.1FPS.

With UT2004, the results were even closer.  This time the ASUS board slipped by less than a half FPS to the MSI Neo2.  Again, no one board has been dominant to this point so far, but when you break it down, the MSI Neo2 Platinum has the edge, albeit a very slight one.

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Desktop Application Testing - Winstones
Content Creation and Business Winstone 2004
Real-World Testing

PC Magazine's Winstone Test Suite is an excellent benchmarking tool for testing the CPU, memory, and overall system performance.  Content Creation Winstone focuses on common media intensive tasks, while Business Winstone assesses general workstation application performance.  Below is a breakdown of each package's software complement that is used to issue an overall score when complete.

       Content Creation 2004 v1.0.1        Business Winstone 2004 v1.0.1
  • 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
  • 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

In our final bout, the ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe managed to gain some ground on the MSI Neo2 Platinum.  This time the scales were tipped in favor of the ASUS board, but again, we are talking about fractions of a point in both cases.  When all is said and done, these two boards competed quite well throughout the benchmarking phase, with neither truly yielding to the other by very much.

 

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Performance Analysis and Conclusion

 
Peformance Analysis:  When we go over each area of testing, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum was right on top, running test for test along side our comparison system from ASUS.  In 3DMark05, the 915P Neo2 lost ground to the ASUS P5GDC-V, but regained that ground in PCMark04.  With both the video encoding and game related tests, the MSI board managed to either top or tie the ASUS P5GDC-V, while the Winstones tests were given to the ASUS model.  As we've stated several times, however, we are really splitting hairs when we say one board beat the other.  When it comes to breaking it down, the differences were minescule and insignificant most of the time.  The MSI 915P Neo 2 has best of class type performance metrics, plain and simple.

Now that Intel's Grantdale and Alderwood chipset have brought PCI-Express to the mainstream, we've started seeing some nice offerings from a number of OEMs as of late.  From what we've seen so far, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum is riding pretty high on the list of top i915G/P-based motherboards.  MSI went all out with this board, putting every feature the chipset is capable of to use, while adding features and options along the way.  The board itself is a gem to look at, with a quality design and impressive color scheme.  We were also impressed with the attention paid to heat dissipation, with heatsinks mounted on the North and Southbridges as well as the MOSFETs.  The only thing that would make it better would be active cooling on some of these components.  However, as we saw in the benchmarking phase, the heat precautions appeared to be quite adequate.

On the whole we've had good experiences with MSI products over the years, but the 915P Neo2 Platinum seems to stand out above the others.  The feature set, retail package, attention to detail and performance were all top class, leaving us with very little to take issue with in this board.  Overclocking the 915P Neo2 yielded outstanding results, pushing our Pentium 4 530 @ 3GHz just shy of the 4GHz mark.  If you're an overclocker, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platnium will not disappoint.

If you're waiting for the right time to move to the latest Intel platform, with DDR2, LGA775 and PCI-Express, that time is now and the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum is great place to start.  Weighing in with a retail price of around $155, the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum is priced to sell, and is a real bargain with all that you get.

We're giving the MSI 915P Neo2 Platinum Series Motherboard our Editor's Choice Award for being one of the best in its class, along with a Hot Hardware Heat Meter Rating of a 9.5.

Best In Class i915 Based Motherboard

 

 



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