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MSI K9A Platinum ATI CrossFire XPress 3200 for AM2
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Date: Aug 04, 2006
Section:Motherboards
Author: Alex Evans
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Overview

ATI's chipset division, talented as they are, seem to have always played second fiddle to rival nVidia. Both nVidia and ATI started originally producing chipsets in 2001/2002 for low-end markets, using their experience in producing graphics processors as leverage to produce chipsets with integrated graphics abilities. Over time, both nVidia and ATI have become more experienced producing chipsets, eventually dropping the integrated graphics elements from their high-end products and targeting the enthusiast / gamer markets, who purchase more expensive add-in graphics cards. While ATI has produced some excellent chipset products over these past few years, nVidia has continued to dominate this market with a potent combination of getting products out first, more solid overall performance, and simple name-brand recognition.

ATI's largest issue is that they've always trailed nVidia in terms of time-to-market, which lets nVidia build up a solid install base before ATI's products have a chance to even hit the streets. For example, nVidia's multi-GPU enabled nForce4 SLI chipset was on the market for roughly a year before ATI's competing Radeon Xpress 200 multi-GPU enabled chipset hit the market. ATI has, however, been able to get their second generation multi-GPU chipset, the Radeon XPress 3200 chipset, out much faster, thereby allowing it to compete against nVidia's rival nForce4 SLI X16 chipset. The Radeon XPress 3200 was able to provide excellent performance and brought good overclockability to the table, in addition to consuming far less power in comparison to nVidia's solutions. The XPress 3200 was our first realization that ATI could, perhaps, one day compete head to head with nVidia in all aspects of performance. Despite its potential, the XPress 3200 never gained much market traction, due to lackluster motherboard manufacturer support and availability/performance issues in regards to their choice of Southbridge controllers.

Now that AMD has moved over to their new Socket-AM2 interface utilizing DDR2 memory modules, chipset makers have produced slightly modified and redesigned versions of their chipset for this new socket. Since AMD keeps their memory controller on the processor and not on the chipset level like Intel platforms, a full chipset-level redesign is not needed when AMD changes their processor design. However, it's clear that some changes need to be made, and it's also a great segue way in order to introduce a new generation of products with updated features. Once again, nVidia was out of the gate first with their new nForce5-series chipsets, whereas ATI's products have yet to fully materialize on the market. It looks as if things are finalizing on this front though and boards should be hitting shelves fairly soon.

We've been able to get our hands on one of the first Socket-AM2 platforms to use an ATI chipset, MSI's K9A Platinum. This board utilizes the ATI Radeon Xpress 3200 Crossfire chipset for Socket-AM2, and also is one of the first platforms on the market to use ATI's new SB600 Southbridge, the long-awaited replacement for their aging SB450 which was featured on several Socket-939 Crossfire motherboards. Let's take a look at what ATI and MSI were able to cook up for AMD's new shiny (and now fairly inexpensive) Socket-AM2 processors.

 

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Specifications

Manufacturer Specifications

Before we get started, let's take a look at a poorly worded tidbit about this motherboard, direct from MSI...

"Based on the ATi RADEON Xpress 3200 (RD580) Crossfire Dual-GPU chipset architecture, the MSI K9A Platinum motherboard delivers unmatched graphics performance and offers gamers tons of advanced features that will help boost up their performance to the next level.

The CrossFire is ATI's alternative to NVIDIA's SLI Dual-GPU system. ATi's CrossFire solution fundamentally does the same thing as SLI. Users can have another choice to have different platform with ATI dual graphics card solution. With the full speed of dual PCI-E x16 bandwidth, the graphic cards while CrossFire uses the PCI Express bus allowing a bit a more flexibility and improving the performance doubled for gamer."  

CPU
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2, Athlon 64, Athlon FX and Sempron in the Socket AM2 package.
FSB
  • HyperTransport supporting speed up to 1 GHz (2000MT/s)
Chipset
  • ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 and SB600 Chipset
Main Memory
  • Supports Dual DDR II 533/667/800
  • 4 DDRII DIMMs (240pin / 1.8V)
  • Supports a maximum memory size up to 8GB.
Slots
  • 2 PCI Express x16 slots (Support ATI CrossFire Technology)
  • 2 PCI Express x1 slots
  • 2 PCI slots, support 3.3V/ 5V PCI bus Interface.
On-Board IDE
  • One IDE port by ATI SB600
  • Supports Ultra DMA 66/100/133 mode
  • upports PIO, Bus Master operation mode
  • Can connect up to two IDE devices
On-Board SATA
  • 4 SATA II ports by ATI SB600
  • Supports storage and data transfers at up to 300 MB/s
  • SATA II 1~4 supports RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 mode by ATI SB600
LAN
  • Dual LAN jacks
  • Realtek PCI-E GbLAN controller 8111B
  • Integrated Fast Ethernet MAC and PHY in single chip
  • Supports 10Mb/s, 100Mb/s and 1000Mb/s
  • Compliance with PCI-Express Bus specification v1.0a

     

  • Realtek PCI GbLAN controller 8110S
  • Integrated Fast Ethernet MAC and PHY in single chip.
  • Supports 10Mb/s, 100Mb/s and 1000Mb/s.
  • Compliance with PCI 2.3
Audio
  • Chipset integrated by Realtek ALC883
  • Flexible 8-channel audio with jack sensing
  • Compliant with Azalia 1.0 Spec
IEEE1394
  • Chipset integrated by VIA VT6308P
  • Transfer rate is up to 400Mbps
Internal I/O Connectors
  • ATX 24-pin power connector
  • ATX 4-pin 12V CPU power connector
  • ATX 4-pin VGA power connector
  • CPU / System / NB FAN connectors
  • CD-in connector
  • IrDA infrared module header
  • Chassis intrusion switch connector
  • Front panel audio connector
  • Front panel connector
  • D-Bracket2 connector
  • 1 x IEEE1394 connector support additional 1 ports
  • 3 x USB 2.0 connector support additional 6 ports
  • 1 x Floppy disk drive connector
  • 4 x Serial ATA II connectors
  • 1 x ATA133 HD connectors
Back Panel I/O Ports
  • 1 x Parallel port
  • 1 x Serial port (COM 1)
  • 1 x PS/2 keyboard
  • 1 x PS/2 mouse
  • 1 x Coaxial SPDIF out
  • 1 x IEEE1394 Port
  • 1 x 6 in 1 audio jack (S/SPDIF out)
  • 4 x USB 2.0 ports
  • 2 x RJ45 LAN jack
Dimension
  • 30.5cm(L) x 24.5cm(W) ATX Form Factor
Mounting
  • 9 mounting holes

Now that we know the basics of the board, let's check out the real-world implementation of this product. The product we're looking at today is a sample board provided by ATI, but it is using a production BIOS and will perform identically to boards hitting store shelves now. However, the bundled extras may differ from the final retail product.

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Chipset Information

 

Chipset Information
While ATI's Radeon Xpress 3200 Crossfire chipset was originally designed to be a competitor against nVidia's nForce4 SLI X16 chipset, it also holds its own against nVidia's newer nForce 590 SLI chipset. Both ATI and nVidia have left their Northbridge chips fairly similar to their Socket-939 targeted variants with these new Socket-AM2 versions, whereas the real innovations are featured in the updated Southbridge controllers.

 

As mentioned before, the XPress 3200 CrossFire chipset for Socket-AM2 is the first chipset of ATI's to use the new SB600 Southbridge controller, which replaces the aging SB450 controller which was used on some Socket-939 platforms. The SB450 was commonly listed as a "weak spot" on previous generation Crossfire platforms, as it only supported Serial ATA-150 hard disks and did not support NCQ/ACHI, along with suffering from terrible USB performance. While these issues could be worked-around by using third-party controller chips, in this day and age SATA-II/300 and a proper USB implementation are more or less standardized features for the chipset.

The new SB600 Southbridge brings the XPress 3200 Crossfire chipset up to date (mostly) with modern standards. The Southbridge now supports four ports of Serial ATA-II/300 connectivity with full NCQ/ACHI support, including support for RAID 0, 1, 0+1, although RAID-5 support appears to be missing in action. The chipset also includes support for an increased number of USB 2.0 devices (10 vs. 8), but still does not support native Gigabit Ethernet connectivity like nVidia's product lines. The Southbridge has support for High Definition (Azalia) 8-channel audio configurations, although this feature was also available in their previous generation SB450 chipset. Like most modern chipsets, ATI is also cutting back support for Ultra ATA devices, as the new SB600 only supports 2 devices (i.e, one Ultra ATA connector), whereas the previous generation supported 4 devices (two Ultra ATA connectors).

The XPress 3200 Crossfire chipset supports a full 40 PCI Express lanes natively, allowing for dual full-speed PCI Express x16 graphics card slots. Both this chipset and nVidia's nForce 590 SLI chipset support 16 x 16 PCI Express configurations, although obviously each chipset is limited in that they can only run their particular variant of multi-GPU graphics. Thus, this chipset and motherboard are capable of supporting dual ATI graphics cards in a Crossfire multi-GPU configuration, but not nVidia SLI. If you don't use Crossfire, you can use the secondary PCI Express slot to support a second (independent) graphics card for quad-monitor output, or you can stick a high-end PCIe SATA/SAS RAID card in this slot, or any other high-bandwidth PCI Express device, and not have it affect the speed of your PCI Express graphics card slot. ATI will also be producing a Radeon XPress 1600 chipset for Socket-AM2, which has support for 8 x 8 PCI Express Crossfire configurations, which will rival nVidia's less expensive nForce 570 SLI chipset. Let's see how these new chipsets stack up on paper.

 

  ATI Radeon XPress 3200 for AM2 ATI Radeon XPress 1600 for AM2 nVidia nForce 590 SLI nVidia nForce 570 SLI
CPU Support Athlon64 / X2 / FX Socket-AM2 Athlon64 / X2 / FX Socket-AM2 Athlon64 / X2 / FX Socket-AM2 Athlon64 / X2 / FX Socket-AM2
HyperTransport Support 800 MHz / 1 GHz HTT 800 MHz / 1 GHz HTT 800 MHz / 1 GHz HTT 800 MHz / 1 GHz HTT
Multi-GPU Support Crossfire
PCIe 16 x 16
Crossfire
PCIe 8 x 8
SLI
PCIe 16 x 16
SLI
PCIe 8 x 8
PCI Express Lanes 40 Lanes 20 Lanes 46 Lanes 28 Lanes
32-bit PCI Slots 6 6 5 5
Serial ATA 4 x Serial ATA-II/300 Ports 4 x Serial ATA-II/300 Ports 6 x Serial ATA-II/300 Ports 6 x Serial ATA-II/300 Ports
SATA RAID RAID 0, 1, 0+1 RAID 0, 1, 0+1 RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5
Parallel ATA 2 Devices 2 Devices 2 Devices 2 Devices
Audio Interface High-Definition (Azalia) 8-Channel High-Definition (Azalia) 8-Channel High-Definition (Azalia) 8-Channel High-Definition (Azalia) 8-Channel
USB 2.0 Ports 10 10 10 10
Ethernet Interface N/A N/A 2 x Native Gigabit Ethernet 2 x Native Gigabit Ethernet
Ethernet TCP Offload N/A N/A Yes Yes
ATI XPress Route * Yes No N/A N/A
nVidia LinkBoost ** N/A N/A Yes No
* (only available on ATI platforms) ** (only available on nVidia platforms)

Like their previous generation variants, the Radeon XPress 3200 Crossfire chipset remains a fairly low power, low-heat component. MSI is able to cool these two chipset components with simple aluminum alloy heatsinks, and do not have to rely on chipset fans and/or expensive copper heatpipe cooling solutions, which are seen commonly on new, high-end nForce 570/590 series platforms. In this age of performance per watt, ATI's lower power consumption levels are certainly a feature which should be noted.

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Design And Layout

 

Design and Layout
The MSI K9A Platinum board certainly has a sleek, no-frills enthusiast appeal to it, featuring an all-black PCB and minimal eye-catching extras. No fancy chipset cooling solutions, no bright colored LED's, just a clean, organized layout based on a standard ATX form factor design.
 

The board supports Socket-AM2 based Athlon64, Athlon64 X2, Athlon64 FX, and Sempron processors, and fully supports AMD's Energy Efficient (EE) models as well. The board supports processors at 1000 MHz HyperTransport speed natively, and can support much higher HT speeds through overclocking. The VRM's which are used to provide power to the processor are cooled by a series of aluminum alloy heatsinks, which are conveniently located in order to pick up leftover airflow between the CPU cooler and the case's fan exhaust slot.

The board features a standard Socket-AM2 heatsink mounting system, which is secured through four screws on the motherboard. The CPU socket positioning is fine in our eyes, although MSI unfortunately decided to route the required +12V ATX secondary power connector to an odd spot near the CPU socket, which may interrupt airflow patterns from the processor to the outside of the chassis. The primary power connector is located near the edge of the motherboard, where one would expect. This connector is also uncomfortably close to the Ultra ATA/100 connector, which makes it difficult to plug in devices. 

The processor and motherboard support dual-channel DDR2-800 memory through four 240-pin DDR2 sockets, which are implemented with orange and lime green connectors. The board supports up to 8 GB of memory (up to 2 GB capacity per slot), and supports peak memory bandwidth levels of 12.8 GB/s when two or more memory modules are installed. DDR2-667, 533, and 400 modules are also supported if you have these older modules and want to use them in this new platform. For setting up a dual-channel configuration, you'll want to use at least one stick in the orange slots, and one stick in the green slots.

The board's dual PCI Express x16 slots are spaced far enough apart so that if dual graphics cards are used, each will receive ample airflow and room. As we've noted before, this chipset provides each PCIe x16 slot with a full 16 PCI Express lanes, so there is no lane speed degradation when using multiple graphics cards. The motherboard's Southbridge chipset and Serial ATA ports are positioned in such a way that they will not interfere with a dual graphics card setup, even with dual-slot cards like the Radeon X1900 XT series. If you are using multiple graphics card, it's recommended that you make use of the secondary 4-pin Molex power connector located near the primary (top) PCI express x16 slot in order to give the board a little extra juice where it needs it. The board also features two PCI Express x1 slots and two 32-bit PCI slots. 

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Third Party Components and Bundled Extras

 

Third Party Components and Bundled Extras
The motherboard supports four Serial ATA-II/300 ports, bringing ATI's platform up to date with modern storage standards. These ports support NCQ and AHCI modes, allowing for the highest levels of storage performance on drives which allow it. These ports also support RAID 0 (striping), RAID-1 (mirroring), RAID 0+1 (striping + mirroring), but unfortunately do not support RAID-5 out of the box, which is a standardized feature on nVidia's competing platforms. While RAID-5 penetration is still fairly low in the market, it's a potent selling point for those who require data redundancy and constant up-times.
 

The board supports dual Gigabit Ethernet ports through a pair of Realtek Gigabit Ethernet controllers. Interestingly enough, MSI decided to use one PCI Express x1 connected controller along with one 32-bit PCI connected controller for their "DualLAN" feature. Obviously, the PCIe x1 connected controller will allow for faster performance and dedicated chipset bandwidth, whereas the 32-bit PCI controller must share bandwidth with other PCI devices. The chipset has several free open PCIe lanes, so we're wondering why MSI didn't go all out and connect both via PCIe.

The XPress 3200 Crossfire for AM2 chipset gets a boost in the amount of USB 2.0 devices supported, up to 10 at maximum, and MSI makes use out of all of them. Four USB 2.0 devices can be accessed on the rear I/O panel, whereas six more can be added via pins on the motherboard. MSI includes a bracket with their motherboard which immediately allows extension of a set of pins for an additional two USB 2.0 ports in the rear of the chassis. The new SB600 chipset also has improved USB 2.0 throughput as well, a common complaint with their prior SB450 chipset. While the chipset does not support Firewire natively, MSI brings Firewire 400 support to the board through the addict of a VIA PCI Firewire controller. This allows for one 6-pin Firewire 400 port on the I/O panel, in addition to an secondary pin set on the motherboard for connecting another Firewire device.

The onboard audio abilities of this platform are quite nice, making use of the new High-Definition Audio (HDA) features of the SB600 Southbridge in conjunction with a Realtek ALC883 CODEC to provide true 8-channel audio output abilities. MSI includes a cluster of analog jacks which can be customized for your specific speaker configuration, in addition to two dedicated S/PDIF audio output ports. MSI includes both optical and coaxial S/PDIF outputs for 7.1 digital surround sound audio.

 

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Tweaking And Overclocking

 

Tweaking and Overclocking
The low-power, low-heat nature of the Radeon Xpress 3200 chipset also is a great feature for the those potentially looking to overclock their boards. Both ATI and MSI have claimed that the K9A Platinum is a terrific platform for overclocking, and given how overclockable previous generation Socket-939 Xpress 3200 platforms were, we weren't surprised when hearing these claims. One of ATI's big features is that it can typically run at very high HyperTransport link speeds, supporting levels far higher than the Athlon64's advertised stock HTT link speed of 1000 MHz. The platform is very comfortable when being pushed past its advertised speeds.

MSI gives potential overclockers plenty of tools to use in conjunction with the motherboard's AMI BIOS. Overclockers have full control of the processor's multiplier (on FX models only, Athlon64 and Athlon64 FX models can control the multiplier downwards), and can adjust processor vCore from 1.2V to 1.4V, actually fairly tame in today's market of overclocker-targeted platforms. Full control over the system's DDR2 memory is provided too, with full support for timing tweaks on every setting to voltage support from 1.8V to 2.3V. MSI also provides you with the ability to push the voltage of the ATI RD580 Northbridge (1.8V to 2.15V) and HyperTransport link speed and voltage levels.

Our overclocking results were somewhat varied. With the MSI K9A Platinum, we were able to crank up our FSB speed from 200 MHz to 260 MHz and keep system reliability perfectly solid. Moving past this, however, was completely useless, no matter how much cooling or voltage we applied. The particular chip we used for overclocking, which runs at 2.2 GHz by default, was only able to clock up to around 2.5 GHz using this platform. Certainly a nice bonus, but nothing which will dramatically sway the benchmarks in favor of this board. One of the issues we found quite troublesome is that there is no overclocking safeguards, in that if you overclock too far, you have to manually clear the CMOS by hand. In today's market, most new platforms will automatically boot back up with fail-safe defaults if you overclock by too-great of an amount. Sadly, for MSI and ATI, we found that the Asus nForce 590 SLI platform was a far smoother overclocker for us, making the process much easier and user-friendly.

In addition, MSI's bundled CoreCenter software for Windows, which allows (or should allow, one could say) for on-the-fly thermal monitoring and overclocking, simply doesn't work on this platform. Every time we started up the software, the system would reboot. This left us with no way to monitor CPU temperatures within Windows, as ATI does not have an nTune-like fallback utility if the motherboard's native utility isn't working.

We took some quick power readings on our two identically configured platforms to see how the two systems we tested stacked up in terms of power consumption. As you can see, across the board, we see our MSI K9A Platinum system pulling 20-30 watts less compared to the Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe platform, showcasing the efficiency of the Radeon XPress 3200 CF chipset.

 

 

 

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SiSoft Sandra 2007

 

 

Test System Specifications
nForce590 SLI vs. Crossfire Radeon XPress 3200 CF for AM2
  • AMD Athlon64 FX-62 (2.8 GHz) Processor
  • 2 GB Kingston HyperX DDR2-800 Memory
  • 1 x nVidia GeForce 7950 GX2 1 GB (91.31 Forceware Driver)
  • 2 x Western Digital Raptor 74 GB
  • 1 x Sony DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Antec 460W Power Supply
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  • MSI K9A Platinum, ATI Radeon XPress 3200 Crossfire Chipset
  • (MSI 1.1 BIOS, ATI 31005 Chipset Drivers)
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  • Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe, nVidia nForce 590 SLI Chipset
  • (Asus 0603 BIOS, nVidia Forceware 9.35 Driver)
SiSoft Sandra 2007
Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

 

 

 

At the same clock speeds with the same memory timings, it's not surprising that our first round of synthetic tests match up on par with each other. All three tests show the Asus platform very marginally outperforming the MSI K9A Platinum, but the difference is so small that it certainly would not be noticeable in any real world scenarios.

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Gaming Benchmarks

 

Gaming Benchmarks
Prey, FEAR, and Half-Life 2 : Episode One

 

 

 

 

Our gaming tests show a slight gap between these two high-end platforms, leaning towards the new nForce 590 SLI chipset. It's not entirely surprising to see nVidia's flagship GeForce 7950 GX2 card running slightly better on an nForce 590 SLI chipset compared to ATI's product, but we would have hoped for near identical performance between the two. In this case, with a high-end nVidia graphics card, it looks like the nForce 590 SLI has a slight performance edge over ATI's new chipset.

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3D Rendering Benchmarks

 

3D Rendering Benchmarks
Cinebench and 3D Studio Max

 

 

 

Our two 3D render tests show absolutely zero difference between the two platforms in terms of performance. Zero, zilch, nada. Both platforms posted Identical scores in each test.

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Storage

 

Storage Benchmarks
HDTach Burst / Sustained Transfer Rate, CPU Utilization

 

 

 

 

True to their word, ATI's new SB600 Southbridge can deliver excellent Serial ATA performance, right on par with nVidia's highly refined Serial ATA controllers. Our WD Raptor drives we used for testing are still Serial ATA-150 based, which is why we see burst transfer rates peak out at about 125 MB/s. Sustained rates are identical between the platforms, and MSI's SATA controller even uses a bit less CPU power. If only ATI had included RAID-5 support, we would have absolutely nothing to complain about.

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Conclusion

 

Our Conclusion
While ATI is quicker on the draw this time around, their Socket-AM2 chipset is still hitting the market at least a couple of months behind nVidia's. While writing, ATI Radeon Xpress 3200 chipset-based motherboards for Socket-AM2 are still nowhere to be found, and our test board still had some quirky issues which should not be present in a production-class motherboard. By our estimation, it will take at least a few more weeks for BIOS revisions to be finalized and for these motherboards to get on the market. Unfortunately, by that time, Intel's Core 2 Duo processor should be more widely available which will steal a lot of attention away from AMD's Socket-AM2 platform. One can only hope that with ATI's new partnership with AMD that their chipset solutions will be able to make it to market far quicker than they do today.

Relatively little has changed with the Radeon XPress 3200 Crossfire Northbridge, however ATI's new SB600 Southbridge does finally put an end to ATI's Southbridge performance issues, delivering solid Serial ATA-II/300 and USB 2.0 performance which its predecessor could not. However, the Southbridge still doesn't quite match up to nVidia's latest offerings, which offer more Serial ATA ports, RAID-5 support, and native Gigabit Ethernet. Nevertheless, for the time being, Southbridge issues should no longer be a stumbling point for those looking to purchase an ATI based platform, as third party controller chips can easily make up what ATI left behind.

Overall, MSI's K9A Platform is a high-class enthusiast platform, capable of delivering solid performance. The board supports AMD's latest high-end dual-core processors, up to 8 GB of DDR2 memory, dual PCI Express graphics with Crossfire support, and quad Serial ATA-II/300 ports with RAID, not a bad platform to build a high-end gaming system off of. Unfortunately, it's got some stiff competition in the form of nVidia's nForce 570 and 590 series chipset motherboards, which are already starting to drop in price. Unfortunately, we don't know what MSRPs for this platform will be quite yet, but we feel that MSI will need to position the price of this board between nVidia's 570 SLI and 590 SLI in order to get any kind of market penetration. We feel that once the BIOS issues get ironed out, this will be a great platform for those wanting to set up a Radeon X1900/X1950 series Crossfire setup. It's almost there, but not quite yet.

  • Low Power Consumption, Low Heat
  • Passive Cooling, Zero Noise
  • Overclockable
  • Improved SATA / USB Performance Over Socket-939 Variants
  • No Major Standout Feature Compared to nVidia
  • Availability Issues
  • Lacks RAID-5, Native Gigabit LAN

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