MSI K8N Diamond SLI mobo
The gamer's best mobo?
Review PCI Express has changed the world of computer graphics. It has also enabled Nvidia to resurrect an almost legendary graphics technology: SLI. Although Nvidia announced SLI many months ago, it still seems to be one of the most discussed technologies of the moment, writes Lars-Goran Nilsson.
Affordable retail SLI motherboards have only recently surfaced - the first SLI boards were basically dual-Xeon mobos and carried a correspondingly high price tag. Nvidia's nForce 4 SLI chipets has changed that, and you can now purchase SLI boards from most retailers without the need for a second mortgage. One of the firstboards based on the new chipset is MSI's K8N Diamond, and it seems like MSI has pulled out all the stops in order to offer a very impressive SLI product.
Take a close look at the K8N Diamond and you'll notice that there are only two PCI-E slots and three PCI slots, so the board looks limited in terms of expandability. Between the two PCI-E slots sits the trademark switch card used to configure the 16 PCI-E lanes into two 8x lanes for SLI.
The bottom PCI slot is coloured orange to indicate this is where you plug in the supplied 802.11b/g/Bluetooth combo card - otherwise it's no different from the other PCI slots. Bluetooth needs a dedicated slot because it operates over USB 2.0. It's connected via a small cable to one of the USB 2.0 headers on the motherboard so it can't be placed too far away from the USB 2.0 headers. The supplied antenna caters for both wireless interfaces. It is much larger than the typical Wi-Fi or Bluetooth antennae that tend to ship with motherboards and should provide a better signal than the tiny ones you normally get.
What really makes the K8N Diamond stand out from the crowd is the onboard SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit 7.1-channel audio chip. This is the first time since the SoundBlaster PCI 128 that I've seen a Creative chip on a motherboard. It's not a top-of-the-range solution, but no other motherboard manufacturer currently offers a better on-board audio sub-system.
The selection of ports for the onboard audio consists of five 3.5mm audio jacks and one has to be reconfigured from line-in to the second set of surrounds for 7.1-channel functionality. There is also an optical S/PDIF output and a separate coaxial S/PDIF output. Further to these ports the I/O panel sports two PS/2 ports, serial and parallel ports, a Firewire port, four USB 2.0 ports and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports.
MSI also supplies a bracket with a further two USB 2.0 ports as well as MSI's trademark D-Bracket 2 diagnostics lights. You also get a second bracket with six-pin and four-pin Firewire connectors. There are four Serial ATA cables, two Serial ATA power splitters, a rounded IDE cable, a rounded floppy cable and the SLI bridge connector in the box.
The nForce 4 SLI chipset supports Serial ATA II natively, and MSI has fitted a Silicon Image controller that adds a further two SATA II connectors. The K8N Diamond also features MSI's CoreCell technology and the new Active MOS 2 MOSFET cooler. The Active MOS 2 cooler is made up of two parts, a passive heatsink with a heatpipe and an optional 40mm fan.
The cooler on the chipset looks like a glorified graphics card cooler from five years ago - it's not the best design I've come across. It is quiet, however, but that's a moot point considering that an SLI machine will be filled to the brim with high-end, potentially loud components. There are space limitations, but this is a problem from which all SLI boards suffer in one way or another.
Talking about coolers, if you use the extra fan for the Active MOS 2 you're left with only two fan headers, which should suffice, but it's hardly generous.
One final clever feature is a small push button next to the battery. This is used instead of a jumper to clear the CMOS, but it's worth being careful when plugging in the SATA connectors as the switch can be pressed accidentally when the topmost SATA cable is attached.
The K8N Diamond supports all the nForce 4 features such as nVRAID and firewall functionality on the Nvidia Ethernet controller. Just make sure that if you want to use the firewall that you plug the network cable in to the right connector, as the second Gigabit Ethernet controller doesn't work with the Nvidia firewall.
The K8N Diamond was tested with two MSI GeForce 6600GT PCI Express graphics cards, paired with an Athlon 64-FX55 processor.
From the benchmarks it's clear that SLI does have an impact on game performance - in the games that are supported, of course. This is the biggest downside with SLI, as it only works with a limited number of titles, listed on Nvidia's website.
The performance increase that SLI adds is also very dependant on the game. In Far Cry at 1024 x 768 the result was higher using a single card rather than the SLI setup. With Doom 3 SLI gave an increase of 25fps at the same setting. We have compared all the benchmarks in SLI to those of a single 6600GT card so you can see clearly how much of a performance boost you're getting.
With a SYSMark 2004 score of 199 this is a pretty fast board even when you're not using it for playing games and the PCMark 2004 scores back this up.
The MSI K8N Diamond doesn't come cheap, but you wouldn't expect it to with such a wide range of excellent features on offer. The MSI K8N Diamond is an impressive product. The top of the range version comes in at £170. If you want to save some cash, MSI also offers a cheaper option without the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card, but we'd definitely go for the feature-packed model.
This is a great motherboard for the gaming enthusiast - just make sure that you have enough cash left over for those graphics cards.
|MSI K8N Diamond|
|Price||£170 inc. VAT|
|More info||The MSI site|
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