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MSI Mega mPC 945 SFF PC
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Date: Jul 07, 2006
Section:Systems
Author: Jeff Bouton
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Introduction and Product Specifications

It's hard to believe that the first time we set eyes on a Small Form Factor PC was back in December of 2001.  Back then, Shuttle was breaking new ground with several new products that helped give birth to a whole new sector in the PC industry.  As Shuttle's successes mounted with each new release, other manufacturers took notice and also started jumping into the Small Form Factor foray.  One such company to deliver their own mini-barebones units was MSI.  Their Mega mPC Series of SFF systems is comprised of various solutions that cater many different applications.  Whether your loyalties lie with Intel, AMD, VIA, NVIDIA or ATI, MSI has an mPC to fit your needs, some of which deliver unique designs that are both elegant and innovative.

With the mini PC industry going into its fifth year, it's hard to believe that we are just now writing our first review of an MSI Small Form Factor PC here at HotHardware.com.  Dubbed the Mega mPC 945, MSI is offering a robust little unit which is built around Intel's 945G chipset, and loaded up with integrated features that help it standout from the pack.  We'll run the Mega mPC 945 through its paces and size it up to see just what this Small Form Factor PC brings to the game.  From design, ease of assembly to performance and features, we'll try to give you clear picture as to just how "Mega" the Mega mPC 945 stacks up. 

MSI Mega mPC 945
Features & Specifications

CPU
Supports Intel LGA775 Pentium4, Celeron D, and Pentium D

FSB
1066/800/533 MHz

Chipset
Intel 945G+ICH7

Main Memory
2 240-pin (Dual channel DDR2 667/533) DIMM, Max memory size at 2GB(1GB/Channel).

On-Board VGA
On Board Controller GMA950 integrated in North Bridge

HDD Interface
IDE/SATA

On-Board Audio
HD Audio CODEC: Realtek ALC880
8 Channels

On-Board Communication
Realtek 8110SB(10/100/1000MB Controller)
802.11 b/g Wireless LAN

On-Board IEEE 1394
VIA VT6307(IEEE 2 port Controller)

Storage Subsystem
7-in-1 Card Reader

Expansion Slots
PCI 2.3 x 1
PCI-E 16 x 1

On-Board Headers & Connectors Rear Panel
COM x 1
VGA x 1
PS/2 x 2
7.1 Output x 1 (Mic-in/Line-in/ Line-out, RS-Out/CS-Out/SS-Out, SPDIF-out x 1 (optical))
LAN (RJ45) x 1
USB2.0 x4
Wireless LAN antenna (optional) x 1

Front Panel
Mic-in x 1
Headphone-out x 1
SPDIF/In x 1
USB2.0 x 2
1394 x 1 (4- pin)
1394 x 1 (6-pin)

Power Supply
260W Full Range

Chassis
210(W) x 330(D) x 175(H) mm


When assessing the specifications of the Mega mPC 945 above, it is evident that MSI packed a lot of features into a very small box.  With integrated graphics, dual-core CPU support and integrated WiFi, the Mega mPC 945 has an impressive spec sheet. 

When we looked at the retail bundle that accompanied the Mega mPC 945, we found the basics covered nicely, with no extras dressing up the packaging.  A comprehensive installation manual and driver CD was included as well as a power cord, a WiFi antenna and a custom CPU Heatsink.

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A Closer Look: External Features

MSI Mega mPC 945 - External Features
Big and Beautiful

The outer shell of the Mega mPC 945 is a neutral white that is clean and unassuming. The Optical Drive bay is masked by a spring loaded door that quietly opens when the drive is ejected and retracts smoothly when the drive door closes.  You might have also noticed that MSI relocated the eject button to the center left of the unit, not in-line with the drive's eject mechanism.  Instead, the button has a proprietary circuit board mounted on the rear of the bezel that connects to a header on the mainboard, signaling to eject the drive.

To the right is the Mega mPC 945's power button while the 7-in-1 card reader is masked by another door at the lower portion of the system.  The 7-in-1 card reader offers good versatility, with the ability to read virtually every common memory card format available.  Additionally, MSI included a 4-Pin and 6-Pin IEEE 1394 port, two USB ports as well as SPDIF, Headphone and Microphone jacks.  The door that covers these components is on a press and release mechanism that requires pressing the upper right corner to release.  Ideally, the user should be able to press anywhere on the door to release it, but the plastic flexes too much.  Additionally, a fair amount of force is required to release and close the door, where a light-touch mechanism would be preferred.

  

When we switch focus to the rear of the Mega mPC 945, a host of additional outputs and inputs are revealed.  The upper left is where the 260w power supply is situated along with its integrated exhaust fan.  The center of the chassis also has a separate exhaust fan as well.  At the upper right is the Mega mPC 945's WiFi antenna that can be adjusted a full 360 degrees for proper orientation in any environment.

 

Along the bottom of the mPC 945 we find the 7.1 channel audio ports, along with an SPDIF output, which are driven by a Realtek ALC880 HD Audio CODEC.  Two PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports are provided for legacy support as well as a single Serial Port.  An on-board VGA port supplies integrated graphics via Intel's GMA950 Graphics processor, although, oddly, no TV-out option is provided.  MSI also includes an additional 4 USB 2.0 ports in addition to an RJ45 LAN jack for Gigabit LAN connectivity, powered by Realtek's 8110SB (1000/100/10) controller.  

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A Closer Look: Internal Part 1

MSI Mega mPC 945 - Internal Features
Virtually Tool-less Design

Removing the Mega mPC 945's outer shell is a simple task, all users have to do is loosen three thumbscrews and slide the cover off.  The inner design has a clean organized layout, with the drive cage being the main removable component.  Once removed, user gain access to the inner workings of the chassis.  Removal of the drive cage is an obvious matter of lifting the integrated handle, which pivots the cage to a vertical position.  Once fully extended, a small kickstand is located at the lower right to keep the cage in position.  Underneath we find the hard drive and optical drive data and power cables, aligned perfectly in a plastic frame.  Whether using the IDE or SATA II options, with the drives in place, the cabling falls into proper position without any effort.

  

When it comes to installing the drives, however, the function of the drive cage becomes a little less obvious, requiring a number of steps to disassemble properly.  First, the plastic guide that keeps the data and power cables organized must be detached from the cage.  Next, a locking mechanism above the hard drive frame must be slid to the left which unlocks the hard drive frame for removal, which is necessary to mount the optical drive.  Once the hard drive frame is removed from the main cage, the underside of the optical drive frame is exposed, revealing the tool-less mechanism required to lock the drive in place. 

  

Unfortunately, the cage still must be removed as the optical drive can only be mounted from the front of the cage assembly.  At this point, two white locks on the hinge portion of the drive assembly need to be lifted which release the drive cage assembly completely from the Mega mPC 945's chassis.  Once removed, the optical drive can be slid into place and locked in.  Next, the hard drive must be mounted in its own frame, locked into place, then reattached to the main cage.  Next, the cage needs to be reattached to the chassis and locked into place followed by remounting the plastic cable guide.

  

Granted, the procedure of removing the drive cage and assembling the drives is clearly outlined in the user's manual, but nonetheless, the process was a bit more involved than we would have hoped.  If the optical drive could be inserted from the rear, removal of the cage would not be required.  Additionally, if nubs were provided on the edge of each respective drive assembly, the locking mechanisms would be accessible without needing to take the entire cage apart piece by piece.  On the plus side, this was a completely tool-less design that didn't leave us scrambling for our handy four-way screwdriver.

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A Closer Look: Internal Part 2 and the BIOS

MSI Mega mPC 945 - Internal Features Part 2
Virtually Tool-Less Design

With the drive cage removed, the inner components of the Mega mPC 945 are revealed and easily accessible.  The main board, built with Intel's 945G chipset at its core, is a proprietary form factor that has a small footprint with an impressive, organized layout.  The unit supports all Pentium 4 and Pentium D processors as well as the budget class Celeron line.  Memory capacity tops out at 2GB DDR2 (1GB max per slot) in 533 and 667MHz flavors. 

The mainboard is equipped with one PCI Express x16 slot and one PCI 2.3 slot for expansion.  Surprisingly, plenty of room is available for double-wide video cards as we see below.  While it does sacrifice the PCI 2.3 slot, a video card with an oversized cooler can fit into the frame nicely.  In this case, we fit MSI's own 7600GT into the Mega mPC 945's chassis with little fuss, leaving the option open for serious gaming potential with a full sized graphics card, which is only limited by the 260w power supplies capacity.  We should also note that no additional power connectors are offered, so a video card that does not require supplemental power is the best candidate for this particular system. 

   

Note in the center image above, the Mega mPC 945's wireless 802.11G Mini-PCI adapter is mounted, much like what you would find in a laptop design.  This addition is low-profile, having minimal impact on the limited space within the Mega mPC 945's frame, yet it adds major functionality to the unit.  For CPU cooling, a custom heat-pipe cooler is provided that lines up directly with the rear exhaust fan of the chassis.    

  

The copper based cooler sports thermal material pre-applied and is held in place by four spring loaded screws that cannot be over tightened.  This, along with the add-on card retention mechanism, are the only components that will require the use of a screwdriver.  Once in place, simply plug in the CPU coolers power to the mainboard and installation is complete. 

MSI Mega mPC 945 - BIOS
Keeping it Simple

Because this is a Small Form Factor design, it wasn't surprising to find that the Mega mPC 945 was not equipped with any advanced overclocking options to push the hardware beyond its limits.  With its small size, heat build up and airflow can be a major factor, making overclocking an impractical venture.  What was surprising though is the total lack of performance settings aimed at tuning the system to its best potential.  MSI did not include any voltage adjustments for memory or CPU, nor were there any performance settings for the memory such as various CAS latency options.  About the only thing we found was memory configuration options for the shared integrated graphics memory which could be set to either 64 or 128MB. 

 

  

Essentially, the only features this BIOS has to speak of are the ability to enable/disable integrated components, monitor system temperature and voltages and set the PCI Express payload size.  In the end, while overclocking features were not expected with this type of product, leaving out memory performance options is a fairly large omission with the Mega mPC 945's BIOS. 

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HotHardware Test System and Sandra 2007

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEMS: When configuring the test system, we entered the BIOS and loaded the "High Performance Defaults."  The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional with SP2 was installed. When the installation was complete, we installed the latest chipset drivers, installed all of the other necessary drivers for the rest of our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were also disabled, the hard drive was defragmented, and a 768MB permanent page file was created on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of the benchmarking software, and ran the tests.  For all comparisons, an Abit AL8 945P as a performance reference point.

The HotHardware Test System
Pentium D 820 Powered
Hardware Used Relevant Software
Processor - Pentium D 820 (2.8GHz) Operating System - Windows XP Pro SP2
Motherboard - MSI Mega mPC 945 Chipset Drivers - Intel Drivers v8.0.1.1002
  Intel 945G Chipset DirectX - DirectX 9.0c (March Redist)
  Abit AL8 Video Drivers - NVIDIA Forceware v84.21
  Intel 945P chipset Benchmarks Used
Video Cards - MSI NX7600GT-VT2D256E PCMark2005 Pro 3DMark06 v1.0.2
Memory - 1024MB PQI 24200-1GDB WorldBench 5 SiSoftware Sandra 2007 Business
Audio - Integrated on board LameMT Cinebench R9.5
Hard Drive - Western Digital KribiBench
F.E.A.R.
  80GB - 7,200RPM - PATA Quake 4*  
* - Custom Test (HH Exclusive demo)
Synthetic Tests with SiSoftware's SANDRA Pro 2007 Business Edition
CPU and Memory Assessments

 

 

 

When comparing the MSI Mega mPC 945 to a full-sized 945P based system, powered by Abit's AL8, we found the Mega mPC 945 performed on par with the larger system.  Whether we look at the Arithmetic, Multimedia or Memory Bandwidth results, the Mega mPC 945 trailed the AL8 by the slightest of margins.  While hardly conclusive, this does show that there are no obvious performance issues when comparing performance to a similarly equipped, full-sized test bed.

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Futuremark's PCMark05

FutureMark's PCMark05
http://www.futuremark.com/

Our next synthetic benchmark was FutureMark's PCMark05 Professional.  Here we continued to compare performance to the Abit AL8 based on the Intel 945P chipset.  In this round of tests, we focused on CPU and Memory performance.

 

 

 

 

When comparing these results, once again we find a very close delta between the two test beds.  With regards to CPU performance, the MSI Mega mPC 945 trailed by 27 points overall, while its memory results trailed by 70 points.  These difference equated to .5% in CPU and 1.9% with memory performance, which are very small differences.

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World Bench 5.0 - Photoshop 7 & Office XP

PC World's World Bench 5.0: Photoshop 7 & Office XP Modules
http://www.pcworld.com/pcwtools/worldbench.asp

With our World Bench 5 testing, we ran each iteration with a GeForce 7600GT installed into the PC, as well as with the integrated graphics.  It goes without saying that with the integrated graphics, gaming is not going to be an exciting experience.  However, for those looking to focus on daily tasks, this could be an important factor, so results with both graphics solutions were included.

 

 

 

 

When we compare the Photoshop 7 and Office XP SP2 results using the integrated graphics vs add-on graphics, the scores were marginally better with the add-in graphics card installed.  In both cases, these differences equated to a 1.7% variation.  When comparing the Mega mPC 945 with the Abit AL8, the AL8 still managed the best scores, but its leads were very small.

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World Bench 5.0 - WME 9 & LameMT

World Bench 5.0 - Windows Media Encoder 9
Digital Video Encoding

The next World Bench 5 module we ran focused on Windows Media Encoder 9 encoding performance.

 

 

 

Once again, when comparing integrated graphics to the results recorded with the GeForce 7600GT installed, we see a delta of approximately 2.2%.  Looking at the Abit AL8's results, this was the closest test we've recorded thus far, with virtually identical results.

LameMT Encoding Tests
Breaking the Sound Barrier

For our next benchmark, we ran a custom Lame MT encoding test where we convert a large digital audio file to the MP3 format.  In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application.

 

 

 

With Lame MT encoding, both systems were equally efficient at completing this processor intensive test.  In both single and multi-threaded tests, each test bed returned identical results.

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Kribibench v1.1

 

Kribibench v1.1
http:// www.adeptdevelopment.com

Our next test was with Kribibench; a SSE aware software renderer. A 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU, and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: an "Exploding Sponge" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and then its enormous "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polygons.

 

 

 

Like our Lame MT testing, each scenario returned the same results regardless of the platform. The Mega mPC 945 proved that it can perform on the same level as similarly equipped full-sized hardware in this benchmark. 

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Cinebench R9.5 & 3DMark06 - CPU Tests

Cinebench R9.5 Performance Tests
3D Modeling & Rendering Tests

CINEBENCH R9.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in minutes:seconds).

 

Like our LAME MT and Kribibench testing, the results with Cinebench R9.5 were a near dead-heat.  Interestingly, in the single thread test, the AL8 managed to complete the task two seconds faster than the Mega mPC 945.  However, with multi-threaded testing, both test beds completed the script in the same amount of time. 

Futuremark 3DMark06 - CPU Test
Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependent 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 is used to determine the final score.

 

Using 3DMark06 to assess pure CPU performance, once again we give the edge to the Abit AL8 by a small margin.  However, beating the Mega mPC 945 by 18 points equated to a mere 1.3% lead overall.

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Gaming Tests with Quake 4 and F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. and Quake 4
DirectX and OpenGL Gaming Performance

To start our in-game testing, we ran low resolution and low quality benchmarks with F.E.A.R. and Quake 4. With low quality graphical settings employed along with a low screen resolution, performance can be isolated more to the CPU and system memory.  By reducing image quality to the bare minimum, the video card is virtually removed from the equation.

 

 

 

 

With F.E.A.R. set to its lowest settings, MSI's Mega mPC 945 managed to squeeze out a win over the full-sized Abit AL8, leading by 2 FPS.  With Quake 4, the Abit AL8 bounced back, nudging past the Mega mPC 945 by 2.3 FPS.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

To make it easier to digest all of the information in our summary and conclusion, we've opted to break our conclusion into relevant categories to help clarify the various points that need to be conveyed.

Construction:  The construction of the Mega mPC 945 was solid. However, the hard drive cage assembly did feel a bit too involved. Hopefully MSI's engineering staff will revisit the drive cage's construction and attempt to streamline the process in future products.  Additionally, the door that masks the front ports was stiff and needed a fair amount of pressure to release and re-engage the mechanism.  Furthermore, the label "Push" printed on the panel is offset from the actual clasp by nearly an inch, compounding the matter.  If the label was placed directly over the release button, this would be less of an issue.  On the up side, the overall appearance of the unit was clean and elegant and the reorientation of the Optical Drive's eject button was seamless and worked perfectly every time, including during the POST process.

Setup:  Aside from the aforementioned drive cage issues, building up the system was easy.  The tool-less design was a joy to work with, with the only exception being to mount the custom CPU cooler.  It was nice to see that a full-sized graphics card with oversized cooler easily fit into such a small package.  The cable mechanism for the drive power and data cables was also a plus, helping to keep cable clutter at bay.

Features:  There is no arguing that the Mega mPC 945 is packed to the gills with features.  From an integrated 7-in-1 card reader, HD Audio CODEC, VGA Graphics and a multitude of USB, FireWire and other inputs and outputs, the Mega mPC delivers.  Top those features off with integrated WiFi 802.11G and the system become that much more appealing.  However, there was one component that was left out that would really broaden the Mega mPC 945's appeal and that is integrated TV-Out.  Clearly, a major use for a mini PC is in Home Theater PC applications and, in most cases, that PC would be integrated with other home entertainment components, making TV-Out a bare necessity.  Unfortunately, to achieve this with the Mega mPC 945, add-on graphics would be required unless used with a television that has VGA inputs.  Lastly, MSI doesn't officially endorse this product as Windows XP Media Center capable which would be another key component to a product of this type.

Performance:  While the Mega mPC 945's BIOS was devoid of any real performance settings, this didn't hinder the unit from competing with a full-sized motherboard that did have these options.  In several tests the Mega mPC 945 matched the performance of our reference test bed with an Abit AL8 at its core.  In the remainder of the tests, the AL8 held a slight advantage at most, in many cases this edge was 2% or less, which would not be noticeable in daily use.  From an overall hardware performance standpoint, the fan system was essentially dead quite during low-load periods, however, under load, the unit's fan noise increased significantly and was compounded by constant throttling.

Summary:  In summary, the MSI Mega mPC 945 was an impressive product overall with only a few shortcomings.  Clearly there were construction issues that could be refined, but the entire package as a whole was impressive.  Setting up the hardware was essentially painless and the feature set is impressive. Performance was on par with a similarly equipped full-sized ATX test bed.  With a clean, modern appearance and robust feature set, the MSI Mega mPC 945 will surely appeal to a broad range of PC enthusiasts, but some HTPC users may find the Mega mPC 945 limiting.

We give the MSI Mega mPC 945 a HotHardware Heat Meter Rating of 8.

  • Great Looks
  • Competitive Performance
  • Smart Cable Management
  • Integrated WiFi
  • Loads of Integrated Features
  • Fans Loud Under Load
  • No TV-Out

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