680i Motherboard Comparison Part 2

MSI P6N Diamond: Baked Alaska

Announced in November for release the middle of December...make that the end of January...uh, perhaps mid March, MSI is looking forward to a revolution in its top 680i entry.

Feature Overview

MSI is behind a startling concept in performance motherboards: Ultimate features combined with ultimate value. The company starts off with a Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio sound processor which supports front panel audio connection typically found on motherboards. This bit of brilliance could be the reason for so many delays, as bus timing issues in Creative's higher-end audio processors have traditionally required extra tweaking prior to release. Add full-version X-Fi Vista driver delays to MSI's list of worries, and the company might just have its product ready in a few weeks.

The first thing that stands out about MSI's design is the use of four PCI-Express x16 graphics card slots. Electronic switching automatically selects 16/x16/x8 modes or x16/x8/x8/x8 modes depending on which slots are filled, and the board functions well with four graphics cards. Nvidia's drivers unfortunately didn't allow combining an 8800GTX and two 7900 series cards, but two 7900GS's and two 6600GT's worked perfectly. Later benchmarking using the 8800GTX without the older cards went smoothly, at least from the driver compatibility standpoint.

MSI sticks with the familiar 24-pin ATX power connector placement in the easy-to-reach upper front edge location but also places its Ultra ATA connector where the floppy connector was previously found, moving the floppy connector behind the ATX header for easy reach to mid-mounted drives. This arrangement combines with perpendicular-facing Serial ATA connectors to eliminate any clearance problems with a case's lower drive bays, but floppy users will have to route that cable around the ATX power lead.

Tight spots include PCI-Express x16 first-slot to DIMM clearance barely wide enough to wiggle RAM loose with a card installed, an eight-pin ATX12V connector that's too close to both the CPU cooler and chipset heatpipes to allow removal easy cable removal, a CPU fan header that's sandwiched tightly between the chipset fan header and heatpipe and three Serial ATA ports that are crowded by the cooler of long graphics cards such as the 8800GTX.

Front panel cable connections may also hit a few snags as the audio header is located near the rear of the bottom edge. Things get somewhat better with the IEEE-1394 FireWire port centrally located along the bottom edge, and a final bit of cheer comes from the discovery of three USB 2.0 headers in the lower front corner.

MSI P6N Diamond (Revision 0A)
Northbridge Nvidia 680i SLI (C55XE)
Southbridge MCP55XE
Voltage Regulator Twelve Phases
BIOS 021407 (02/14/2007)
266.6 MHz (FSB1066) 266.6MHz (+0.0%)
Connectors and Interfaces
Onboard 4x PCIe x16 (1 with x8 pathways)
1x PCIe x1
2x PCI
3x USB 2.0 (2 ports per connector)
1x IEEE-1394 FireWire
1x Floppy
1x Ultra ATA
7x Serial ATA 3.0Gb/s
1x Serial Port Header
1x Chassis Intrusion Connector
1x Fan 4 pins (CPU)
3x Fan 3 pins (System)
IO panel 2x PS2 (keyboard + mouse)
2x RJ-45 Network
4x USB 2.0
1x IEEE-1394 FireWire
2x Digital Audio Out (S/P-DIF optical, coaxial)
5x Analogue Audio (7.1 Channel, Mic-In/Line-In)
1x eSATA (External Serial ATA) interface
Mass Storage Controllers
MCP55XE 6x SATA 3.0Gb/s (RAID 0,1,5,10 capable)
1x Ultra ATA-133 (2-drives)
SIL4723CBHU 2x SATA/1x eSATA 3.0Gb/s (H/W RAID 0, 1)
Dual NVIDIA Gigabit Network 2x Realtek RTL8211BL PHY
HDA (Azalia) Controller Interface Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio DSP
VIA VT6308P 2x IEEE-1394a (400 Mb/s)

The P6N Diamond features a Silicon Image hardware RAID controller in addition to the X-Fi Extreme Audio DSP, both helping to offload processing cycles from the CPU.

MSI loses antique serial and parallel ports but gains external Serial ATA (eSATA), Firewire and digital optical audio connectors in this location, along with some added room for heatpipe cooling. Also lost is one of the six analogue audio ports, replaced with digital optical output where the remaining analogue ports can be configured as needed for 7.1 or 5.1 channel sound, microphone and/or line input.

PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, four USB ports and two Gigabit Network ports complete the P6N Diamond's external connections.

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