MSI P965 Platinum: Board & Software
First off, when looking at the two boards, there is an obvious size difference. The MSI P965 Platinum is a full size ATX motherboard at 305 x 245mm in size. The black-colored PCB tends to set off the other components, each of which is color coded to help identify and simplify installation. For example, SATA ports are blue, while DIMM slots are green and orange. We believe we've mentioned this with other MSI boards, but the coloring scheme could be considered misleading or confusing, especially to a first-time builder. Our feeling is that to promote the idea of dual channels, there should be both an orange and green set in each bank. This way, a pair of dimms would be installed in both orange slots, denoting one channel.
The P965 uses only passive heatsinks - no active fans and none of the fancier heatpipes that one might expect on a board marked as "Platinum" (NOTE: MSI has revised the P965 Platinum to include just such a cooling solution). The passive cooling is both a quiet option, and also a space-saver. Their smaller stature does not conflict with larger CPU heatsinks or longer graphic cards (especially if using CrossFire). However, passive options come with the expectation that an adequate airflow is maintained within the chassis to keep things running cool. Pairing the P965 with a case such as the Antec Nine Hundred is a great combination, as it has fans placed strategically all around the perimeter, bringing in much needed cooler air.
Placement of the drive and power connectors is just about perfect. Other than the centrally placed 12V power connector, which uses either a 4-pin or 8-pin cable, all of the other components are placed nearly at the edge of the board. This keeps cable clutter at a minimum, as we don't have to weave cable around the board. Even the front panel pins are placed along the front side of the board, color coded to match the various cables. The ICH8R supports the six SATA ports grouped together in the lower left corner, with an additional 7th in light blue placed further up towards the PCI slots coming from the JMicron controller. The JMicron JMB361 controller is both a boon and a headache. It provides the sole means necessary to install IDE based optical devices, which we're sure at least one of which will be installed in the average PC, and requires its own driver. Our original setup, however, would always downgrade the DMA settings of these drives to PIO Mode. We found that only be updating the BIOS to the 1.4 revision would fix this issue.
ATI's CrossFire is officially supported on this P965 board, which is why there are two physical PCI-Express x16 slots, however only the first white slot uses a full 16 PCI Express lanes. The yellow slot uses only 4 lanes, 2 of which come from the PCI-E x1 slots, thus rendering them inoperable when two graphics cards are installed. On the bright side, the two slots are placed far apart from each other which would allow plenty of room for air to pass between dual slot graphics cards. Even with this preferred layout, our take on this is if you want CrossFire, upgrade to a 975X board instead. Installing a video card for additional monitor support is a probably a better use for this extra slot. Two PCI slots complete the lot, the last of which is colored in orange and is meant for use with special daughterboards manufactured by MSI, such as a wireless LAN and Bluetooth card.
Ten USB ports from the ICH8/R SouthBridge and two FireWire ports controlled by the VIA VT6307 chip are spread out amongst the headers on the motherboard. The Realtek RTL8111B LAN Controller provides for a Gigabit Ethernet connection. A High Definition link controller in the ICH8R is used in connection with Realtek's ALC883 codec for the audio output, which is a fair solution, but not as clean as the 24-bit SoundBlaster Live! controllers we've seen on the more expensive boards. At the rear of the board, the I/O panel consists of four USB2.0 headers, five auto-sensing audio jacks, S/PDIF coaxial and optical audio outputs, 2 PS/2 ports and a FireWire port, and a RJ-45 Gigabit LAN port.
There were a few issues that we encountered almost immediately with the stock version of the motherboard. Booting with a non-bootable CD in the drive, even when the RAID was set as the first bootable device, would always say "select proper boot device". We were able to bypass this by hitting the spacebar, but this didn't go away completely until updating the BIOS. Speaking of which, MSI Live Update, a user-friendly utility used to download new files, always dropped to the desktop when searching for files.
There are no advanced audio controls for HD Audio (i.e. Bass or Treble sliders) from within Windows. MSI Controls offer various environments, but they mostly result in simple echo/reverb effect and aren't very usefull. Pre-set equalizers are more useful for optimizing your audio experience. Karaoke settings have a tool-tip for Voice Cancellation, but we toggled this with no effect on the audio playback.
Digicell offers various diagnostics such as network connectivity, Power on Agent, Audio Settings, and the Dual Core Center (which crashes when selected). Once, during MP3 playback, clicking on the Audio Settings actually reset the system. After closing down the Digicell software, running the Dual Core Center allowed us to check VGA and Motherboard temperatures, fan speeds, and voltages. These are expressed as up-to-date information, as well as with a time-elapsed graph.
Finally, the Intel Matrix Storage Controller reported an error with one of the two Western Digital drives in our setup, stating that an "Error Ocurred (0)" with one of our drives. We were able to boot into Windows and "repair" the RAID setup by clicking on Intel Matrix Storage Manager and marking the problematic drive as 'Normal'. After this issue, we were able to continue on with benchmarking and eventually overclocking, without any further interruptions.