It seems as of late the nForce 790i is finally making its rounds through our labs, most likely because of the GTX 280 performing as well as it does, especially in SLI and Tri SLI configurations.
NVIDIA is the only company to support SLI; there is no licence for SLI on Intel chipsets, which honestly is a real shame as Intel has already got Crossfire working fine - why not SLI? The easy guess is that NVIDIA wants to hold the market to ransom over SLI support.
So far we have had the ZOTAC board cross us; now it's time for MSI, one of the biggest motherboard makers in Taiwan, and one of the biggest presences here in Australia to have its time in the sun.
Today we have been given the P7N2 Diamond motherboard. This baby is aimed at being the top gun of all 790i SLI boards out there. While that's a good aim, does it perform? - Let's see.
Specifications of the MSI P7N2 Diamond
Supports Intel Core 2 Series (Extreme/Quad/Duo)
Supports Intel Pentium Dual Core Series
Supports Intel Pentium D Series
Supports Intel Pentium 4 5xx/6xx Series
Supports Intel Celeron D 3xx/4xx Series
Supports Intel 45nm Series CPU
NVIDIA nForce 790i SLI Ultra
nForce 790i SPP Northbridge
nForce 790i MCP Southbridge
Hyper Transport @ 2GHz
4 DDR3 SDRAM 240pin DIMM Sockets
64/128Bit Dual Channel
Supports up to 8GB Total Memory (4x 2GB)
P4 Bus Architecture
4 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
1 Parallel ATA port supporting 2 IDE Drives
6 Serial ATA ports
2 e.SATA port
2 Gigabit Ethernet Port
1 PS2 Keyboard Port
1 PS2 Mouse Port
10 USB 2.0 Ports (6 rear accessible, 4 via expansion bracket)
2 e.SATA Ports
2 RJ45 Ethernet Ports
2 Firewire ports (1 rear accessible, 1 via expansion bracket)
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
MSI has never disappointed us with their high-end motherboards in the past, which is why we love getting them to test; always a good product. We start off as usual with the package and contents. The box that the board comes shipped in is slightly oversized, but not as large as the ones ASUS ships the ROG in or GIGABYTE ships the DQ6 boards in, but it's enough to know you're going to be getting something good here.
On the back of the box there is quite a bit of marketing information on the board as well as some specs, however MSI has not given us a photo of the board, which we are not too happy about. Today's marketing is a visual one, and a colour photo of the board helps for end users to see what they are getting.
MSI provides a healthy software and document bundle; the user manual is quite long and detailed on the layout of the board and its BIOS setup. The software on the DVD provided contains XP and Vista drivers for both 32-bit and 6-bit; there are no Linux drivers or any Linux support for this board, so alternate OS users will need to go hunting for drivers.
First on our accessories list is the data cables for the mass storage system. Six Serial ATA data cables with locking tabs are included; the 790MCP only supports six SATA ports so you have a full cable set here with this board. The parallel cables included are a single IDE cable with two drive support and a FDD cable with single drive support.
Included for power conversion are three Molex to SATA power adapters; unless you have a high end PSU and want to run six SATA drives, you're going to run out of power connectors. MSI come to the rescue here.
While the board contains two eSATA ports on the rear I/O port towers, MSI hasn't stopped there; if you want extra eSATA ports, a PCI cover bracket with two eSATA ports and a power port are included. The last bracket that comes in the package is a two port USB and single 6-pin FireWire port. For the eSATA ports, you get two eSATA to eSATA data cables measuring 1 meter each.
For the SLI users there are three SLI connectors included; two short and one long. These are used when you want dual, Tri or Quad SLI setups depending on where each card goes.
MSI has followed ASUS when it comes to case connectors. M-Connector is MSI's version with headers that you can plug your case connectors onto without having to put them on the board directly; you can setup the LED and switches as well as the front USB ports and FireWire ports before the board goes in, then you simply plug the headers onto the board and away you go.
Lastly on the list of accessories is the rear I/O shield for the board; since MSI hasn't followed any industry standard port placements (and who does these days), you need the rear I/O shield.
MSI has gone the extra mile when it comes to the sound system. While the onboard HD audio is ok, it doesn't hold a candle to a discrete audio card, and Creative's X-Fi is definitely a card to have. MSI has included a PCI based X-Fi basic audio card with 7.1 channel support as well as a single Toslink S/PDIF out connector. This gives you Creative sound on the board, and if you upgrade later on to a different board that doesn't have a good sound system, being PCI-E based, you can take this card across to the new board.
Now that we have finished with the goodies you get with the board, let's have a look at the board itself. MSI goes for its usual black PCB with a different colour scheme to most 790i SLI boards. MSI has its own style and it's good to see. The PCB measures 24x30cm and is a 6 layer design as specified by the reference design, but that's where MSI finishes with reference specs.
The 24-pin power connector along with the MCP controlled IDE port get placed behind the four DDR3 memory slots that the board is equipped with. The 4/8 pin connector gets located behind the PS/2 towers, just above the Circu-pipe heatsink assembly.
The six SATA ports controlled by the MCP are stacked along the right hand edge of the board in line with the MCP in order to reduce the trace wires for better signal clarity. The FDD port is located right at the bottom of the board along the right and bottom edges, which puts it in a rather silly place if you want to use the FDD port, but how many of us still have 3.5" FDD drives?
The area around the CPU socket is extremely clean; MSI has moved all the larger components away from the socket to allow the install of large heatsinks. Our OCZ Vanquisher test heatsink fits on perfectly and we could remove it without any major obstructions. To supply the CPU with power, MSI has included an 8 phase voltage regulation system to keep even the hungriest of CPUs fed with power, especially when overclocking as stable voltage is the key.
The rear I/O ports are plentiful; the most noteworthy features on the back are the two eSATA ports powered by the JMicron onboard PCI-E SATA chip and the Clear CMOS button. If you need to do a CMOS reset, you don't have to open the case anymore.
Since the board has a bundled PCI-E sound card, there are no sound ports on the board at all, which may confuse some people at first.
Lastly we are down to the expansion slots. MSI has gone for a quad graphics card setup here; that's right, there are four PCI Express x16 slots on the board; two blue, one white and a yellow. The two blue slots are full x16 speed and are PCI-E 2.0 compliant running off the 790i SLI SPP.
The white slot is also full x16, but is only PCI-E 1.1 spec'd since the 790i SLI MCP is actually the 590i SLI MCP NVIDIA used on its AMD 590i SLI chipsets, and continues to use today. The last yellow slot is also run off the 790i SLI MCP, but runs at x8 speed which is intended for PhysX use or a slower quad SLI setup.
The two PCI-E x1 slots also run off the MCP and are 1.1 spec'd. If you want to use the sound card you can place it in one of these, or one of the PCI-E x16 slots. For legacy support, a single PCI slot is included.
BIOS and Overclocking
Moving into the BIOS; MSI uses American Megatrends BIOS which they have used on just about all of their boards for the last five years. AMI's BIOS has picked up so far that it's no different in setup to Awards ver6 BIOS. As usual, MSI has its overclocking settings under the Cell Menu.
FSB Clock: 400 - 2500 in 1MHz Increments
DRAM Clock: 400 - 1400 in 1MHz Increments
Adjust PCI-E Clock: 100Mhz to 200MHz in 1MHz increments
MCP PCI-E Clock: 100Mhz to 200MHz in 1Mhz increments
CPU Voltage: +0.01250v to +0.3875v in 0.01250v increments
DRAM Voltage: 1.5v to 2.5v in 0.05v Increments
SB Voltage: 1.5v to 2.0v in 0.05v Increments
NB Voltage: 1.2v to 1.6v in 0.05v Increments
PCI Expander PLL Voltage: -63 to 80 in Various Increments
DIMM reference Voltage: -63 to 80 in Various Increments
Memory Terminator Voltage: -63 to 80 in Various Increments
CPU GTL Reference Voltage: -63 to 80 in Various Increments
NB GTL Reference Voltage: -63 to 80 in Various Increments
FSB Termination Voltage: -80 to 63 in Various Increments
SB Sleep Mode: -63 to 80 in Various Increments
With all the overclocking options in the BIOS, we managed to hit a healthy 561MHz FSB, which is slightly faster than the ZOTAC board, but we again had to tweak all the voltages since the 790i SLI is a very power hungry unit and generates quite a bit of heat.
Important Editor Note: Our maximum overclocking result is the best result we managed in our limited time of testing the motherboard. Due to time constraints we weren't able to tweak the motherboard to the absolute maximum and find the highest possible FSB, as this could take days to find properly. We do however spend at least a few hours overclocking every motherboard to try and find the highest possible overclock in that time frame. You may or may not be able to overclock higher if you spend more time tweaking, or as new BIOS updates are released. "Burn-in" time might also come into play if you believe in that.
Test System Setup and Memory Performance
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16Ghz (9.5x333MHz)
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR3-1600XMP OCZ (Supplied by OCZ)
Hard Disk: 500GB Western Digital SE16 (Supplied by Western Digital)
Graphics Card: MSI GeForce 8800GTS 640MB (Supplied by MSI)
Cooling: GIGABYTE 3D Galaxy II (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista SP1
Drivers: nForce Driver 15.17, Forceware 175.16
Now it's on to our testings, and today we have our X48T-DQ6 from GIGABYTE and the ZOTAC 790i SLI motherboard we recently reviewed for comparison. For our stock tests we again ran the memory at 1333MHz thanks to being DDR3, and a 333MHz FSB with a 9.5x multiplier.
Overclocking wise, we used a 6x multiplier with the memory ratio at 1:1 to eliminate the memory and CPU being the bottlenecks. During our overclocking the FSB for the MSI P7N2 Diamond was 561MHz, ZOTAC at 556MHz while our GIGABYTE board ran at 549MHz FSB.
EVEREST Ultimate Edition
Version and / or Patch Used: 2006
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Buy It Here
EVEREST Ultimate Edition is an industry leading system diagnostics and benchmarking solution for enthusiasts PC users, based on the award-winning EVEREST Technology. During system optimizations and tweaking it provides essential system and overclock information, advanced hardware monitoring and diagnostics capabilities to check the effects of the applied settings. CPU, FPU and memory benchmarks are available to measure the actual system performance and compare it to previous states or other systems.
First on the agenda are the memory sub-system tests. At stock speeds the X48T is able to just beat out the two nForce 790i boards, with MSI and ZOTAC at each other's throats. It's when we overclock we see MSI make a slight jump over the pack in the Write test, thanks to a few extra MHz on the FSB.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage
Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage//
Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs.
Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
PCMark manages to put the X48 slightly ahead of the 790i's at stock. At overclocked speeds the MSI board pulls ahead of the ZOTAC by a few marks.
Benchmarks - SYSmark 2007 Preview
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.04
Developer Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/products/sysmark2007preview/>
SYSmark 2007 Preview is the latest version of the premier performance metric that measures and compares PC performance based on real world applications.
SYSmark 2007 Preview extends the SYSmark family, which has been widely accepted by IT Managers, PC OEMs, press and analysts worldwide to support Windows Vista.
SYSmark 2007 Preview allows users to directly compare platforms based on Windows Vista to those based on Windows XP Professional and Home.
The new release also incorporates numerous new features and enhancements such as an improved GUI allowing streamlined start-up and run along with a heads-up-display (HUD) and automated error reporting.
SYSmark 2007 Preview is an application-based benchmark that reflects usage patterns of business users in the areas of Video creation, E-learning, 3D Modeling and Office Productivity. This new release includes a robust and refreshed set of applications.
SYSmark puts both 790i's again right at each others throats, but MSI manages a few points extra on the OC side.
Benchmarks - Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0
Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0
Version and / or Patch Used: 3.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.adobe.com
Product Homepage: http://www.adobe.com/products/premiereel/
Buy It Here
Our test with Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 is performed with a raw two hour AVI file. It is then compressed into DivX format using the latest version codec. We measure the time it takes to encode and then record CPU usage.
Premiere Elements puts all three boards on par at stock speeds. With an OC setup we get the MSI just nudging ahead of the rest.
Benchmarks - HDD Performance
Version and / or Patch Used: 22.214.171.124
Developer Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.com/Public/index.php?request=HdTachBuy It Here
HD Tach has been around for a long time and is excellent when it comes to testing hard drive performance. It is also a very handy program when it comes to testing the controller used on particular motherboards. Tests such as Read, CPU Utilization and Burst are available at a click of the button and give you a good idea of how the hard drive can perform from system to system.
The nForce 790i SLI chipsets' mass storage controller is slightly better than the X48's ICH9R chipset.
Benchmarks - 3DMark Vantage
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.01
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmarkvantage/
Buy It Here
3DMark Vantage is the new industry standard PC gaming performance benchmark from Futuremark, newly designed for Windows Vista and DirectX10. It includes two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, and support for the latest hardware.
3DMark Vantage is based on a completely new rendering engine, developed specifically to take full advantage of DirectX10, the new graphics API from Microsoft.
3DMark Vantage shows us that the X48T is able to keep up even at the overclocked level; not a huge difference here between the three setups.
Benchmarks - Crysis
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.crytek.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.ea.com/crysis/
Buy It Here
From the makers of Far Cry, Crysis offers FPS fans the best-looking, most highly-evolving gameplay, requiring the player to use adaptive tactics and total customization of weapons and armor to survive in dynamic, hostile environments including Zero-G.
Real time editing, bump mapping, dynamic lights, network system, integrated physics system, shaders, shadows and a dynamic music system are just some of the state of-the-art features the CryENGINE 2 offers. The CryENGINE 2 comes complete with all of its internal tools and also includes the CryENGINE 2 Sandbox world editing system.
With Crysis, a lot of stress goes on the system no matter how low you run the settings at. But it's still a good test; here we see that the MSI board only gains some ground when overclocked.
Power Usage and Heat Tests
We are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into an AC wall socket).
There are a few important notes to remember though; while our maximum power is taken in 3DMark06 at the same exact point, we have seen in particular tests the power being drawn as much as 10% more. We test at the exact same stage every time; therefore tests should be very consistent and accurate.
The other thing to remember is that our test system is bare minimum - only a 7,200RPM SATA-II single hard drive is used without CD-ROM or many cooling fans.
So while the system might draw 400 watts in our test system, placing it into your own PC with a number of other items, the draw is going to be higher.
MSI and ZOTAC tie it up on power usage, however both are still more power hungry than the X48T chipset.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboards, this being the Northbridge, Southbridge (if it contains one) as well as the Mosfets around the CPU. The results are recorded at idle and load during the power consumption tests.
Since the 790i draws more power, this means it makes more heat, and the biggest heat plant is the 790i SLI Northbridge. In fact, it was hot enough to make the glue holding down the MSI logos on the Heatpipe at both the Mosfets and Southbridge lift off.
790i is now set to really make a name for itself, since it's the only chipset for Intel to really support the Core 2 range with any SLI support. NVIDIA has been very greedy with its SLI licensing to other chipset manufacturers. Since the GTX 200 series has finally landed, and its performance in SLI has proven to be good, 790i will go up in stock now.
MSI's version of the 790i differs from the reference design, which is nice. After all, if all the boards are going to be reference clones, there's no point in choosing a brand, just a board. The P7N2 Diamond is extremely powerful; its overclocking is impressive compared to the X48 chipset, but will it compare to a P45 chipset? - That we will have to see soon.
Overall, MSI has done a fantastic job, and the inclusion of a hardware sound controller is the best option ever for a high-end board.
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