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MSI K8N Diamond Plus nForce4 SLI X16 Motherboard
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Date: Jun 07, 2006
Section:Motherboards
Author: Alex Evans
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Introduction

 

It's a shame, really. After nearly one year on the market, Socket-939 Athlon64 motherboards are finally getting to a point where we've always wished they would be. Feature packed, refined, tweakable, and quiet. Why is this a shame? Well, as AMD is transitioning to their new Socket-AM2 interface, interest in Socket-939 platforms will undoubtedly dwindle away. However, there is a huge install base of Socket-939 users on the market already, and new Socket-939 processor sales will likely continue throughout 2006. So, while Socket-AM2 may be getting all the press lately, it's still Socket-939 that's the workhorse, powering the vast majority of AMD desktop and gaming systems on the market today.

nVidia's nForce4 SLI X16 remains the top of the line chipset for Socket-939 processor owners, as its excellent base feature set and dual PCI Express x16 graphics cards slots have fended off all potential competitors. The largest threat has been ATI's Radeon Xpress 3200 chipset, whose feature set was largely similar to nVidia's, but also boasted far lower power consumption levels. While this chipset was an excellent performer, ATI's Southbridge technology remained somewhat lackluster compared to nVidia's, and ATI's backup plan, relying on ULi Southbridge controllers, fell through when nVidia purchased ULi and largely put a halt to that. The end result is that the nForce4 SLI X16 stayed on top, largely due to the fact that it was the well known name to look for, but beyond that, nVidia's feature set simply remains the best on the market.

Motherboard Specifications
Looking over the Diamond Plus
CPU
  • Supports 64-bit AMD Athlon 64 / Athlon 64 FX / Athlon 64 X2 processor (Socket 939)
  • Supports Athlon 64 CPU: 3000+, 3200+, 3400+, 3500+, 3700+, 3800+, 4000+
  • Supports Athlon 64FX CPU: FX-53, FX-55, FX-57, FX-60
  • Supports Athlon 64 X2 CPU: 3800+ (E4 version), 4200 (E4 version), 4600+ (E4 version), 4400 (E6 version), 4800+ (E6 version)

Chipset

  • NVIDIA nForce4 SLI x16 SPP (C51D) Chipset
  • HyperTransport link to the AMD Athlon 64/Athlon 64FX/Athlon 64 X2 CPU
  • HyperTransport supporting speed up to 1GHz (2000MT/s)
  • Supports 1 PCI Express x16 interface

 

  • NVIDIA nForce4 SLI x16 MCP (nForce4 SLI) Chipset
  • Supports 1 PCI Express x16 / 2 PCI Express x1 / 1 PCI Express x2 connection
  • Two independent SATA controllers, for four drives
  • Dual Fast ATA-133 IDE controller

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

Slots

  • Two PCI Express X16 slot (supports PCI Express Bus specification v1.0a compliant)
  • 2nd PCI Express X16 is compatible with PCI Express x 1
  • Two PCI Express X1 slot
  • One PCI Express X4 slot
  • Two 32-bit Master PCI Bus slots, one orange slot reserves as communication slot.
  • Support 3.3V/5V PCI bus Interface.

On-Board Peripherals

  • 1 floppy port
  • 1 serial port
  • 1 parallel port supports SPP/EPP/ECP mode
  • 1 audio jack (5-in-1), coaxial/fibre SPDIF out
  • 10 USB 2.0 ports (Rear x 4 / Front x 6)
  • 2 RJ45 LAN jack
  • 1 D-Bracket 2 pinheader
  • 3 IEEE 1394 a connectors (Rear x 1/ Front x 2)
  • 1 CD-in pinheader
  • 1 IrDA pinheader
On-Board 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 4 IDE devices
  • NV RAID supports 4 SATA II ports (SATA1-4). Transfer rate is up to 300MB/s.
  • NV RAID (Software)
  • Supports up to 4 SATA plus 2 ATA 133 Hard drives
  • RAID 0 or 1, 0+1, JBOD is supported
  • RAID function work w/ ATA 133 + SATA H/D or 2 SATA H/D
  • Silicon Image's SATARAID supports another 2 SATA II ports. Transfer rate is up to 300MB/s
  • RAID 0 or 1 and JBOD groups are supported
  • Support up to 2 SATA devices connected to a single controller

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.
  • Supports boot from LAN, USB Device 1.1 & 2.0 and SATA HDD

Audio

  • Creative sound Bluster Audigy SE H/W audio
  • 24-bit / 96KHz audio quality
  • 100db SNR clarity
  • Up to 7.1 CH Surround Sound, Dolby Digital ready

LAN

  • Supports dual LAN jacks
  • 1st LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by nForce4 SLI
  • 2nd PCI Express LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Marvell 88E8053

IEEE1394

  • VIA 6306 chipset
  • Supports up to 3 x 1394 ports
  • Transfer rate is up to 400Mbps

Dimension

  • 11.96 in (L) x 9.61 in(W) ATX Form Factor

With the chipset battle largely won by nVidia, and the Socket-939 interface packing up its bags for a long retirement from the spotlight, one might think there is little room or desire to create innovative Socket-939 platforms. Well, you'd be right. Most of the tricks which motherboard makers had up their sleeves have already been utilized on shipping motherboards, but we're still seeing some interesting additions to what will likely be the major last push for Socket-939. One company still adding some interesting features to their Socket-939 motherboards is MSI, whose K8N Diamond Plus motherboard (which we'll be looking at today) is still a top of the line platform in every sense. MSI was pretty late to the party in regards to making an nForce4 SLI X16 platform, but now that they finally have one on the market, we see that its feature set stands out from the competition in several ways worth noting. Can a platform such as this help stir up some interest in Socket-939 once again? Perhaps.

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Board Design

 

When first looking at the overall design of the MSI K8N Diamond Plus platform, we actually considered the design to be quite cluttered, as the board's oddly colored ports and slots stood out from the platform's jet black PCB. Upon closer inspection, however, we've come to realize that the K8N Diamond Plus is meticulously designed for the needs of the high-end gamer / enthusiast. In fact, it's one of the most well designed Socket-939 SLI platforms we've seen to date.

Starting up north we have a standard Socket-939 CPU socket with AMD's required plastic heatsink retention clips. The board fully supports Athlon 64/X2/FX processors, as expected, and supports 1000 MHz Hypertransport link speeds, on par with other nForce4 SLI X16 platforms. The processor socket is surrounded by a three-phase VRM component system, whose low-profile keeps the area around the CPU socket quite clean. Oversized heatsinks should not be an issue on this motherboard, as MSI has left plenty of room for airflow around the socket itself. MSI has an 8-pin +12V ATX power connector near the CPU socket, although an 8-pin connector is not specifically required (a 4-pin works fine too). However, the power supply must have a full-sized 24-pin primary ATX connector (located between the memory and IDE slots)

AMD Socket-939 processors can support up to 4 GB of DDR-400 memory. The board has four 184-pin DDR DIMM memory slots, colored in such way to separate the DDR memory channels (green channel one, purple channel two - easy enough). As with all Socket-939 platforms, dual channel DDR-400 memory provides up to 6.4 GB/s of peak memory bandwidth, which doesn't seem like a lot today as Intel platforms can push theoretical bandwidth levels of 10+ GB/s, although AMD's memory controller design isn't as dependant on memory clock speeds and bandwidth like Intel's are. 

The nForce4 SLI X16 chipset itself is split up into two actual chips, the nVidia C51D and the nVidia CK804. It's a little different compared to a traditional Northbridge/Southbridge setup, as each of these chips controls one of the PCI Express x16 graphics card slots (among other things). The nForce4 Ultra and SLI chipset products only have 20 PCI Express lanes to utilize, which makes true 16 x 16 SLI impossible. The dual-chip nForce4 SLI X16 chipset supports 38 PCI Express lanes, which allows each graphics card slot a full set of PCI Express lanes to utilize for zero performance slowdowns. While it's never been proven that the extra PCI Express bandwidth truly helps (even with the most high-end cards on the market today still run at 95-99% of their speed on PCI Express x8), top of the line gamers want to know that there are no potential performance bottlenecks in their way.

While the dual-chipset is design is good for performance, it's not so good in terms of heat. Each nForce4 chip creates quite a lot of heat and sucks down a lot of power, so motherboard makers have been forced to come up with some innovative methods in order to get this heat away from the system while still maintaining a quiet operating environment. MSI's method of dealing with this heat is an interesting contraption, featuring two copper-base chipset coolers which are connected via a copper heatpipe. The primary chip is attached to a set of tall copper thin-fins, which has an embedded 40mm cooling fan. MSI claims that this cooler not only cools the chipset, but the excess airflow also will help cool down the back of the primary graphics card installed in the system.

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Design Continued

 

The board has an interesting expansion layout, as the board has slots of all different sizes and colors. The board has two PCI Express x16 slots, two PCI Express x1 slots, one PCI Express x4 slot (yellow), and two 32-bit PCI slots (white and orange). The PCI Express x16 slots don't explicitly have to be used for graphics cards, although they certainly can be used for a dual-card SLI graphics card setup. nForce4 SLI X16 motherboards are also popular with workstation users, who populate the first PCI Express x16 slot with a graphics card, the second PCI Express x16 slot with a high-speed PCI Express RAID controller card. However, SLI users should be pleased that the PCI Express x16 slots are placed far enough apart on the PCB to allow for airflow between the two graphics cards. MSI also includes a back-panel bracket for SLI users which allows for additional airflow to reach the graphics cards from the rear of the system.

We like MSI's design of the PCI Express x4 slot, which is an open-ended slot. This means you can install larger PCI Express x8 and x16 cards in this slot, however, they will run at lower speeds. With the open-ended PCIe x4 slot and two PCIe x16 slots, you could (in theory) install three graphics cards in here for six-screen multi-monitor (or 12 screen with today's quad-monitor Quadro NVS and FireMV products). Heck, why not just throw some PCI Express x1 Matrox graphics cards in there as well for 14 screens? The possibilities are nearly endless with a flexible board such as this.

So, what's with the orange PCI slot? We were curious, so we opened up the manual to find this "helpful" tidbit. "The orange PCI Slot also acts as a communication slot, which allows you to insert the communication card". Thanks for clearing that up, MSI. For the record, this slot functions perfectly as a standard 32-bit PCI slot. It may support some other feature with a proprietary "communication card", but whatever it is, we doubt its of very much importance.

To the right of the expansion slots is an array of Serial ATA connectors, four of them purple and two of them blue. The purple connectors are connected to the nForce4 Serial ATA-II/300 controller, meaning they are higher-performance "native" SATA ports. These ports support RAID levels 0, 1, 10, and 5, along with all of the other basic Serial ATA-II features like NCQ, Hot-Plug, and Hot-Swap. The blue Serial ATA ports are connected to a Silicon Image 3132 Serial ATA controller, a small black controller chip which runs off of a PCI Express x1 interface. These two SATA ports also support Serial ATA-II/300 speeds along with RAID 0 and 1, but RAID 10 and 5 support are not there as more than two hard disks are needed for these RAID modes. For performance and ease-of-use when it comes to installation, we would recommend using the nForce4 SATA ports before moving to the Silicon Image ports.

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Back Panel

 

The back panel for this motherboard is fairly standard for a high-end platform of this nature, mixing legacy and modern I/O ports to meet virtually everyone's needs. The board is still equipped with PS/2, serial, and parallel ports, while also sporting a 6-pin Firewire 400 connector and four USB 2.0 ports. The board also comes with expansion cards which allow for two more USB 2.0 ports (another set of USB 2.0 ports are available via color-coded pins on the motherboard) and two more Firewire 400 ports to be added to the rear of the chassis. In total, this board supports ten USB 2.0 devices and three Firewire 400 devices. 

The motherboard also sports dual Ethernet ports, both supporting Gigabit Ethernet transfer speeds. The GigE port to the left is powered by a PCI Express x1-based Marvell 88E8053 controller, while the port on the right is a native nVidia Gigabit Ethernet port. As always, the native nVidia port supports such features as TCP offload and an integrated Firewall, although the real-world performance benefits of both have been questionable at best.

As you can see above, a good portion of the motherboard's I/O panel is dedicated to the onboard audio abilities of the motherboard. The panel supports eight channel analog audio output, along with both optical (right) and coaxial (center) S/PDIF digital outputs. These connectors aren't too unusual for a high-end platform such as this, but what they are connected to on the motherboard /is/ quite unusual, as this ends up being truly one of the stand-out features of this motherboard. 

Instead of connecting to a software-based AC'97 or HD audio CODEC, MSI's design allows these ports to connect directly to a Creative Labs hardware audio chip. MSI has ripped the soul of an Audigy SE audio card, taking the hardware audio controller and DAC chips and implanting them directly on the motherboard. This means that the onboard audio of the MSI K8N Diamond Plus is a hardware audio solution, as the audio processor can process audio streams without reliance on the system's CPU. This is the first onboard audio solution which should be up to par with what gamers have been demanding all along. A true, high-quality hardware audio processor which won't slow down their games when processing 3D positional audio. This is a nice addition, as it allows you to ditch expensive Creative add-in audio cards for something that's more compact and (surprisingly) more flexible. Creative's add-in cards never provide optical/coaxial digital outputs by default, and none support the pin-set for connecting the front panel audio ports of your chassis. MSI's implementation does just that.

However, it's a bit confusing to us as to what this chip actually is. The labeling on the chip calls it the Creative CA0106-DAT, which is sold both as a SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit controller, but is also the chip of choice on some Creative Audigy LS/SE (value) boards. Whatever the name is, this hardware controller supports 7.1 audio, supports 24-bit / 96 KHz high-quality digital audio, and supports EAX Advanced HD positioning technologies. Creative calls this chip an "Audigy SE", whereas installing the card in Windows XP x64 Edition called the chip a Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit. In any case, we tested this audio processor and found audio quality to be excellent. In fact, after using a Creative X-Fi card and moving back to a this onboard Creative APU, we heard very little difference between the two. 

MSI is also selling variants of this motherboard as a "Hi-Fi" version which includes a audio vacuum tube which is installed in a 5.25" drive bay, but connects to the same Creative onboard controller chip. Most who have tested this vacuum tube solution claim no difference in audio quality, although the tube "looks neat" installed in your drive bay. MSI has largely backed off of advertising the Hi-Fi solution, and it looks like most all of the boards on the market today are the standard solution without the tube.

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BIOS and Overclocking

 

The K8N Diamond Plus uses an AMI BIOS, which has been organized in such a manner that all of the necessary options are laid out in a clean and easy to navigate system. The BIOS is incredibly tweakable, as expected from a high-end enthusiast board of this nature. Even so, with all the options available, we're happy that MSI was able to keep everything in such an organized manner.

Some of the more interesting BIOS options lay in the "PC Health Status" and "Cell Menu" sections. PC Health Status includes all of the motherboard's thermal sensors and the smart fan speed controls. From here, we can see that the nForce4 Northbridge fan runs at a default RPM of ~5,500 RPM. However, unlike most motherboards, the fan speed of the chipset fan can be controlled in the BIOS, along with the CPU fan, using MSI's smart fan technologies. In particular, we were fond of the "Thermal Cruise" mode, which will gradually slowdown or spin-up fans depending on the thermal sensor levels. In a cool environment, we were able to see our CPU fan spin down from its default speed of 4000 RPM to a low point of 900 RPM, whereas our Northbridge fan was able to spin down from 5500 RPM to roughly 2000 RPM. The fan speed changes are so gradual that it's very easy to tune out the noise level changes. At its lowest level, the Northbridge fan is nearly inaudible, while it's slightly noticeable when running at full speed. If you use this board, we would certainly recommend enabling Thermal Cruise mode, as it does make the board much more enjoyable to be around.

The Cell Menu contains all the fun stuff in regards to overclocking. The BIOS lets the user set the front side bus speed from 200 MHz to 450 MHz in 1 MHz increments, whereas the CPU voltage levels can be set up to 1.475V. The motherboard supports DDR memory voltage alteration from 2.65V to 3.2V (and up to 4.10V in boost mode), but does not have the necessary divisors for DDR-433/466/500 memory, like most new enthusiast platforms do. One can also adjust PCI Express clock speeds/voltages and HyperTransport link speeds/voltages, although in most scenarios these should be left to their defaults. The motherboard also supports dynamic overclocking, from 1-15%, and also can auto-overclock your GeForce GPU/memory clock speeds if enabled in the BIOS. This didn't work too well for us, as even setting the dynamic overclocking mode to 5%, our system became unstable and programs started crashing. Manual overclocking is certainly the way to go if you want to get the most out of your components on this motherboard. 

Temperatures can be monitored within the BIOs or through one of two Windows interfaces. The MSI board not only supports nVidia's (excellent) nTune monitoring and tweaking software suite, but MSI bundles their own CoreCenter software which interfaces directly with their CoreCell chip onboard. CoreCenter is a big, rather complicated looking application which has a busy interface and is somewhat difficult to use. However, as a thermal monitoring suite, it does work, although nTune is far cleaner. CoreCenter also allows for on-the-fly clock speed and voltage alteration, which is good for minor tweaks, but for serious overclocking we would recommend doing so from the relative safety of the system BIOS.

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Sandra Benchmarks

 

Test System Specifications
"AMD Powered."
  • Athlon64 X2 4400+ Processor
  • 2 GB Infineon DDR-400 Memory
  • 2 x nVidia GeForce 7800 GTX 256 MB (81.94 Driver)
  • 1 x Western Digital Raptor 74 GB
  • 1 x Sony DVDRW Drive
  • 1 x Antec 460W Power Supply
  • Abit A8N 32X nForce4 SLI X16
  • Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe nForce4 SLI X16
  • Asus A8N-SLI Premium nForce4 SLI
  • MSI K8N Diamond Plus nForce4 SLI X16
SiSoft Sandra 2005 SP3
Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

 

 

Our first round of synthetic tests show very little difference between the K8N Diamond motherboard and our other high-end Athlon64 / nForce4 SLI platforms, which is to be expected due to the closeness of the components used on these motherboards.

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3DMark and PCMark

 

Synthetic Benchmarks
Futuremark 3DMark06 and PCMark05

3DMark and PCMark also show very little difference between our platforms, although the MSI platform appears to trail competing platforms by a very small amount in these synthetic tests.

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FEAR, Splinter Cell

 

Gaming Benchmarks
FEAR and Splinter Cell : Chaos Theory

 

The Diamond Plus can hold its own in a gaming environment, delivering top notch performance, although it can't deliver better stock performance compared to our other motherboards. The MSI board does snag a win in Splinter Cell, but the difference is so small that this board would not be noticeably faster in a real-world environment.

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Windows Media Encoder, Oggdrop

 

Encoding Benchmarks
Windows Media Encoder and Oggdrop

 

Our CPU intensive media encoding tests show zero, zilch, nada differences between our nForce4 SLI platforms. Not surprising or interesting in the least, but we have to be thorough, don't we?

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Conclusion

Our Conclusion
While MSI got a late start to the nForce4 SLI X16 game, the board they've created is likely our favorite that we've tested thus far. The board is feature packed, has an excellent layout, and a useful bundle of add-ons and extras.

The key element here is cleanliness. MSI's designers have succeeded in creating a board which is both feature packed and still manages to maintain a clean, easy to work with layout. Not only in terms of hardware, but in terms of the BIOS as well, which is chock full of tweaking and overclocking features, yet doesn't overwhelm the user with options, tucking un-necessary options away in their own private menus. The board is overclocker friendly, but also caters to those looking to maintain a silent PC system with their Thermal Cruise modes, which allow for low-noise fan operation without sacrificing high component temperatures.

We applaud MSI's use of a Creative hardware audio controller on this board, even if it may shoot up the board's cost slightly (dedicated Creative cards using this chip cost anywhere from $30-$50). Hardware audio is necessary for discerning gamers, and we love that MSI has expanded upon Creative's original designs, providing front panel audio connectors and native optical/coaxial S/PDIF outputs. We also like the fact that MSI uses PCI Express x1 connectors for their add-on Gigabit Ethernet and RAID controllers, as this allows for better performance and keeps the PCI bus clear for other peripherals.

While we prefer passive cooled chipset components for the silence, MSI's solution doesn't offend us greatly, as the cooling fan allows for a bit more airflow to the graphics card and the noise level is very tolerable. Also, it would have been nice if MSI had utilized one of the Silicon Image SATA ports for eSATA support like other high-end platforms are moving towards. Beyond these two minor issues, not to mention price which hovers around $200 - $220, we're really struggling to find issues with MSI's K8N Diamond Plus motherboard. That's certainly the sign of a solid platform. We're giving the MSI K8N Diamond Plus a strong 9 on the Heat Meter.

  • Superbly Clean Layout and BIOS

  • Dedicated Creative Hardware Audio
  • Dual GigE and Dual SATA-II/300 RAID
  • Effective Fan Control Options
  • Expensive
  • Needs More 3-pin Fan Connectors

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