nForce 4 SLI Motherboard Round-Up
MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI: The Board & Layout
MSI's entrant into this round-up, the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI, has a lot in common with the Gigabyte K8NXP-SLI with regard to its layout, but the similarities are only "skin deep". Under the surface, MSI's board sports some powerful integrated peripherals that neither DFI or Gigabyte offer.
The first aspect that sets the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI apart from the other boards in this round-up is its slot configuration. Notice that the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI doesn't have any PCI Express x1 expansion slots. It obviously has the requisite pair of x16 PEG slots, but instead of incorporating some x1 expansion slots, MSI out three standard PCI slots on the board. We should mention that not all of the nForce 4's PCI Express lanes are dedicated to graphics on the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI, however. This board is the only one in our round-up to incorporate a discreet PCI Express SATAII capable RAID controller, namely the Silicon Image 3132. Coupled to this controller is a pair of SATA connectors located at the bottom of the board, next to an array of additional USB and Firewire headers. We liked the idea of a PCI Express SATA RAID controller, but had an annoying issue with the Sil3132. If there was no drive connected to the controller, the system wouldn't complete the POST. It would just hang while the Sil3132 tried to detect a drive. With a drive connected, the system worked fine, however.
To configure the PEG slots for operation in SLI mode, the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI uses a card similar to the one found on the Gigabyte K8NXP-SLI, but the retention mechanism MSI chose is inferior. There is a simple, rotating plastic clip that holds the card in place. We found this clip way to easy to move, and think there is a chance it could jostle out of place should a system equipped with this board be moved, say from home to a LAN party.
Another unique aspect to the K8N Neo 4 Platinum/SLI is MSI's choice of audio CODEC. Unlike DFI's and Gigabyte's offerings, the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI is equipped with a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit / 96KHz hardware audio CODEC, with a 100db signal-to-noise ratio, with support for up to 7.1 channel, Dolby Digital Ready, Surround Sound.
In general, the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI's layout is very good. The DIMM slots are situated in a similar manner to the K8NXP-SLI, but there is a bit more space between each slot to accommodate memory modules with larger hear spreaders. The ATX power, PATA (2x), floppy, and NF4 powered SATA II connectors (4x) are all located along the front edge of the board, just above a group of color-coded headers for USB, Firewire, and audio. Adjacent to the headers is the crystal orb-like active chipset cooler, which is just behind the second PEG slot. MSI's cooler offered a bit more clearance than either of the other two board we've looked at, but it's still a snug fit. Additional cooling can be found in the VRM, where there is a large, one-piece aluminum heatsink affixed to the FETs in the VRM.
The I/O backplane houses a pair of PS/2 connectors, a single serial port, a parallel port, 7 audio outputs including S/PDIF, a single Firewire port, four USB 2.0 ports, and a pair of RJ45 jacks. The RJ45 jacks are both coupled to Gigabit LAN controllers, one from Marvell (the 8053) and the other is powered by the NF4 chipset.