MSI P6N Diamond - NV680i with X-Fi Audio
Like most of MSI's recent boards, the MSI P6N Diamond is a full-sized, 9 mounting hole, ATX board that sets off the various components in almost neon colors against a blackish PCB. Its most striking feature would have to be the copper heatsinks and piping that connect the North and South Bridges to a radiator placed above the CPU socket area, venting off excess heat directly out the back of the chassis. The positioning of the heatsinks may cause some concern when using a large after-market heatsink, such as some of Zalman's designs. As it is, using the stock Intel cooler, there is almost no clearance between it and the North Bridge heatsink/fan a slight few centimeters from the radiator. The old adage, "measure twice, cut once", will probably hold true here, as you should really double check that your cooler will actually fit into the socket area before attempting to install it.
Other than the heatsinks, the area around the CPU socket is relatively clean, with three neat rows of low-height capacitors. The 8-pin 12V power connector is snookered in here as well, tucked right under the curve of the heatpipes and making it a tight squeeze if plugging this in after installing the other components. Directly under the CPU socket are four DIMM slots colored in green and orange. We know we're beating a dead horse here, but MSI seems to break the convention of just about all other motherboard manufacturers by not coloring the channels the same. It's a minor tifle, but we still find it annoying and/or possibly confusing for new builders.
MSI was a bit slow bringing the P6N Diamond to market, which could hurt its potential shelf life, but the fact of the matter is that the board is one of the most feature-rich available on the market. LAN and FireWire are pretty straightforward, with the VIA VT6308P chipset supporting two FireWire ports and the Realtek RTL8211B phy doing the dual Gigabit Ethernet chores. The real selling point for gamers and audiophiles may just be the integrated SoundBlaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio, replacing the HD audio found on other boards. The chip is small and unassuming, nearly hidden under the edge of the fourth PCI-E X16 slot.
Last, but certainly not least, would be the four PCI-E 16X slots, which allow the P6N Diamond to not only run two cards in SLI mode, but possibly mult-GPU SLI as well by splitting up the total number of lanes into a 16/8/8/8 configuration. However, it's not clear at this time that the 680i chipset will support these future configurations of SLI. The four slots alternate between white and yellow, and although the manual is unusually scant on information regarding SLI, it does mention that single card and normal SLI setups are done using the white slots only. In fact, the board normally operates at a configuration of 16/0/16/8 lanes. Unlike the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal we looked at a while back, the P6N Diamond automatically detects and configures the lane assortment, so no extra steps are necessary to achieve a proper setup - other than having four similar graphic cards, that is.
MSI includes, either on CD or from their website, one of the largest group of applications we've seen lately. Some are rather helpful, such as the Dual Core Center, which allows the user to monitor voltages and temperatures, as well as overclocking the system dynamically, and Live Update which downloads and updates the BIOS from within Windows. Or, at least, it should. Our attempts at using Live Update left us empty-handed, as the application not only told us that the current and online versions were "unknown", but that even in an unknown state our current version was updated and optimized. We were still able to perform this update manually, but we expected better results as this has worked perfectly for other MSI boards in the past.
The Dual Core Center applications offer the user the ability to view not only the motherboard statistics, but the video card as well. Since we had an MSI 7900GT installed, we expected that both devices would show up but we found that in all cases, the VGA card graphs and readouts were blank. It's not a huge loss, but especially since both devices are from the same manufacturer, this should be working properly. One last tidbit: when setting up the P6N Diamond make sure you use the included driver CD-ROM for the X-Fi Xtreme as there are no drivers on Creative's website that will work. Although only a single driver is listed there, which worked for our audio testing of the X-Fi Fatal1ty, if used for the onboard X-Fi, the installation will stop and state that no device can be found.