The first batches of AMD Athlon 64 based chipsets had their fair share of problems. The VIA K8T800 was really the only choice for consumer level chipsets, and although it performed admirably, there were problems with overclocking. NVIDIA didn't fare much better, as the nForce 3 150 chipset also had overclocking issues and lacked several next-gen type features. This was corrected with the nForce 3 250Gb chipset, which brought together a more impressive package by including SATA RAID, Gigabit Ethernet and the NVIDIA Firewall.
With the introduction of the Socket-939 variant of the Athlon 64 recently, both VIA and NVIDIA have released updated chipsets for the new package. The nForce 3 Ultra shares many of the features found in the nForce 3 250GB, except now the HyperTransport speed has been bumped from 800MHz to 1GHz. The MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum Edition we'll be looking at today features this new version of the nForce 3.
" Supports Socket 939 for AMD® Athlon" 64FX/64 processor
" Supports 3500+, 3800+ Athlon 64FX 53, or higher CPU
" nVIDIA® nForce3 Ultra Chipset
- HyperTransport link to the AMD Athlon 64/Athlon 64FX CPU
- HyperTransport supporting speed up to 1GHz (2000MT/s)
- AGP3.0 8X interface at 533MT/s (million transfers per second)
- Two independent SATA controllers, for four drives
- IEEE 802.3 NVIDIA MAC for 1000BASE-T
- Dual Fast ATA-133 IDE controllers
" Supports dual channel DDR 266/333/400, using four 184-pin DDR DIMMs.
" Supports the memory size up to 4GB
" Supports 2.5v DDR SDRAM DIMM
" One AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) 1.5V 4X/8X slot
" Five 32-bit v2.3 Master PCI bus slots (support 3.3v/5v PCI bus interface).
" An IDE controller on the nVIDIA nForce3 Ultra chipset provides IDE HDD/CD-ROM with PIO, Bus Master and Ultra DMA133/100/66 operation modes.
- Can connect up to 4 IDE devices
" Supports 4 SATA ports. Transfer rate is up to 150MB/s
" NV RAID (Software)
" Support up to 4 SATA & 4 ATA133 Hard drives
- RAID 0 or 1, 0+1, JBOD is supported
- RAID function work w/ATA133 + SATA H/D
" The mainboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
" The mainboard provides a Desktop Management Interface (DMI) function which records your mainboard specifications.
" 7.1 channel audio codec RealTek ALC850.
- Compliance with AC97 v2.3 Spec.
- Meet PC2001 audio performance requirement.
" Supports dual LAN jacks
- 1 LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Marvell 88E1111 PHY
- 1 LAN supports 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Realtek 8110S (1000Mbps)
" VIA 6306 chipset
- Supports up to 3 x 1394 ports
- Transfer rate is up to 400Mbps
The MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum
The retail sample we received has a box (complete with a plastic handle), with a slip cover outlining the product specifications and features. Inside, everything is neatly packed and secured, with a smaller box holding the "loose" contents. Outside of the motherboard, we have a couple SATA cables with one SATA power splitter, a mesh-rounded floppy cable, a rounded IDE cable, driver CD and floppy (for the RAID), a quick installation guide, and a custom back I/O panel for your case.
The layout of the K8N Neo2 Platinum is different from what we're familiar with, both in a good way and possibly bad depending on your setup.
Given the layout, there will be absolutely no worries about large video cards interfering with ram installation as with some other motherboards. The ram is aligned to the right edge (based on the above image) of the board, clearing the bottom part of the board for large video cards. There are four DIMM slots, which support up to a total of 4GB of PC3200 (or lower) memory. If you mate the K8N Neo2 with an Athlon FX (Socket-939), there is no need to use registered modules and Dual Channel is supported.
There is plenty of clearance around the CPU socket, and we had no problems installing our monstrous Cooler Master Hyper 6. Now, this isn't an accurate image on the above right, but it's to illustrate a potential issue depending on the heatsink orientation, and large ram sticks. Now it happens we did not have these problems with our Hyper 6 and Corsair TWINX XL, but it's impossible to say if there will be no issues with future coolers.
The nForce 3 250Gb (nF3-250) is a single chip solution. Traditionally, motherboards had a North Bridge and South Bridge, but NVIDIA did away with that with the new MCP. The immediate benefit is improved latency, as data would only have to travel from one side of the chip to the other, rather than from one chip to another.
The MCP is cooled by a round heatsink and fan combination. Noise conscious users may take issue with an active cooling solution, but we think it's a wise move on MSI's part as the MCP does get fairly warm, especially when overclocking.
The MSI CoreCell is situated right by the ram, and it offers a number of "intelligent" features for the board. The is a proprietary MSI chip that has the following four features: Speedster (Maximum overclocking), PowerPro (powersaving), LifePro (constant temp control, smart FAN ) and BuzzFree (noise management). Basically, the chip allows for dynamic overclocking, and keeps your system running at peak efficiency at all times.
Located below the CPU socket are the IDE, floppy and power connections. Putting these connections along the edge of the board was a wise decision as it keeps the cables away from the main working areas of the motherboard.
Between the CPU socket and the rear IO are the capacitors and mosfets to regulate the power throughout the board. The majority of the capacitors are from Japanese manufacturers Rubycon and Sanyo, though there are a few made by a manufacturer (RLX) who I am not familiar with. In this area, you'll also find the ATX12V power connector.
Towards the center of the board, near the CPU socket corner are a couple of SATA (SATA3 and SATA4) connections, as well as a fan header for your heatsink's fan.
Along with the previously mentioned SATA connections, we have a couple more (SATA1 and SATA2) located right by the MCP.
The connections for LEDs, case speaker, power and reset are located in this area along the edge of the motherboard. Right next to it are the external USB connection for the D-Bracket2.
For your expansion needs, there are five PCI slots and one AGP. Next to PCI slot #5, at the edge of the motherboard, is the CMOS reset jumper. This location is far from ideal, as in most cases, the jumper will be very close to the bottom of the case. If you have a card installed in that slot, you'll almost certainly have to remove it to reset the jumper if needed.
While the nF3-250 chipset handles a lot of features, there are still a number of 3rd party chips that handle a variety of tasks. Although the chipset supports Gigabit Ethernet, the Alaska 88E1111 by Marvell, as well as the Realtek 8110S handle the physical layers of the networking (PHY).
The VIA VT6306 controller handles the IEEE 1394 (FireWire) chores for the motherboard. Realtek's ALC850 is a AC'97 Rev 2.3 Audio CODEC with support of up to 8-channels of sound.
Missing is a 3rd party RAID chip. The NVRAID capabilities are pretty extensive, supporting up to 4 SATA and 4 ATA133 Hard drives. RAID 0 or 1, 0+1, JBOD is also supported, and a nice feature is the controller's ability to setup RAID with an ATA133 and SATA HDD. An extra controller would have been nice, but the price stays a bit lower due to its omission.
Rounding things out are the rear IO connections. Here we have the mouse and keyboard PS/2 connections, a serial and parallel connection, one FireWire, four USB 2.0, two Gigabit Ethernet, and 5 audio ports with a RCA and S/PDIF output port.