Just like clockwork, Intel released its newest addition to the Core architecture family late last year. And while supporting the same basic instruction set as the original Core processors, Core i7 really is a step away from tradition. Since the introduction of the early x86 processor all of the Intel based CPU's have relied on the Northbridge chip to supply the memory controller. This was true up till late 2008 when Intel finally joined AMD who has had the memory controller integrated directly onto the CPU since 2003.
Core i7 is Intel's first CPU to finally integrate a memory controller directly into the CPU and because of this a whole new socket and motherboard architecture needed to be designed. All previous Intel chipsets were now useless to run the brand new CPU since it now has an external FSB but communicates with the chipset through a whole new interface called Quick Path Interconnect (or QPI). Because of this Intel has released its X58 chipset aimed at the top end of the spectrum.
We have already seen both GIGABYTE and ASUS put their offerings on the table; today we have yet another high-end board from a very highly regarded company, MSI. On the chopping blocks today is the MSI X58 Eclipse SLI. This board promises to have it all and then some. But as expected, a board of this calibre certainly comes at a price. You can currently purchase it from Newegg at 349.99 USD. But is it worth every penny? Let's take a look and see.
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
MSI's packaging for the Eclipse board is what we call the over-sized box. It contains inside a plastic blister that houses the board as well as a cardboard box that houses the accessories. On the front of the box is some rather lovely art work that makes it stand out, even though the primary colour scheme is black/orange with just the MSI logo and Eclipse branding on the front.
MSI has not gone with any information on the back apart from some basic marketing hype. For this level of product, we would have liked to have seen at least one colour photo on the back of the box.
When it comes to the user manuals, MSI has gone completely nuts here. There are a total of five; the standard motherboard user manual that explains the board and four pamphlets that cover the RAID functions, audio card, quick installation and green power energy saver that the board uses. MSI also includes four different CD's. There's one with the board drivers, one with drivers for the X-Fi audio card and two with software and updates.
Inside the Box - Continued
If you thought the documentation and CD's were a handful, the cables and additional accessories are enough to make you gag. First off, MSI provides you with a total of six internal SATA data cables along with three molex to SATA power converters, one IDE cable with two-drive support and an FDD cable, all red in colour to make up the internal cables. MSI includes the same PCI expansion cover bracket with two e.SATA ports and a power port in the rear to allow you to have two e.SATA ports by stealing two of the internal headers.
Due to the cross platform GPU support, MSI has included two Crossfire link cables as well as a single SLI link cable. There are no 3-Way SLI link cables included, so if you want to run Tri-SLI you need to get one of the bulky cards somewhere else. However, Quad SLI is possible with the single SLI cable using any of the GX2 line of graphics cards or the new GTX 295. Included as well is a two-port USB expansion bracket that takes up a spare PCI expansion slot.
MSI has made a change to how the new Genie Power unit works. On past boards MSI has just used voltage regulators and software to handle the power saving, but this is now happening on a whole new level. MSI has included a new plug pack that goes between the motherboard and the PSU; this not only monitors in real time the amount of power being used by the system, but it is able to reduce the power flow to help conserve as much power as possible before it reaches the motherboard. But unfortunately this proved to hamper overclocking, which we will explain later.
While onboard audio has gotten a lot better since the original AC'97 audio was introduced, audiophiles will clearly say that even Azalia Audio doesn't produce crystal clear sound, especially when playing back Blu-ray movies. To this end MSI has decided to ditch the Intel audio option and go with an external source. Using the X-Fi audio processor, MSI has included a PCIe x1 based X-Fi audio card.
Now it's time for MSI to put on its Sunday best. While they have impressed us with a very good bundle, if the board is no good then all the trimmings aren't going to mean a thing. The Eclipse SLI is based around a full sized 6 layer ATX layout in the 30x24cm measurements, so there's nothing different here. The board is powered by the X58 Northbridge or IOH and the ICH10R Southbridge or ICH. The colour scheme MSI has chosen is black based with blue overtones and a copper colouring to its cooling systems.
In the past MSI boards have lacked some design style when it came to the placement of connectors. But on a high quality board like this, there are no excuses for bad design and thankfully MSI seems to recognise this. The 24-pin power connector gets placed behind the six DDR 3 memory slots on the right hand side of the board; these slots are colour coded blue for Channel A and black for Channel B. In order to make the board work with only three DIMMs you need to have them installed into the blue slots; if you have them in the black, the board refuses to post. The aux 4/8 pin power connector gets its new home between the Mosfet heatpipe assembly and the PS/2 tower ports, keeping the cables well away from the CPU and other heat generating components which allow for a much better case air flow path.
To keep things as tidy as possible with the cabling, MSI places its cable connectors all on the right hand side of the board and rotates them 90 degrees. There are six black SATA ports, four blue SATA ports and one blue IDE port. The six black SATA ports are connected to the ICH10R's SATA channels and support RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 and JBOD as well as AHCI mode for hot plugging. The four blue SATA ports are controlled by two separate Marvell SATA controllers running off the PCIe x1 bus from the ICH10R and are capable of being routed to e.SATA operations.
For high-end boards designed for the overclockers, stable power is a must; if you can't keep the power up to the CPU at a stable level as well as the rest of the system, it's just not going to happen. MSI uses its DrMOS technology to replace conventional Mosfet and voltage regulators with Driver Mosfets, which allow a much greater range of control over the power distribution. The board has six phases supplying voltage to the CPU as well as two phases supplying the IOH and two phases for the QPI/DRAM controller. The system is designed to help reduce power by supplying each section with its own phases. MSI is certainly pushing for a more stable and less power hungry X58 board here.
MSI's rear I/O section is actually quite bare when you first look at it. There are your standard two PS/2 ports and a plethora of USB ports on the rear. In fact, eight out of the 12 supported by the ICH10 are on the back. The two e.SATA ports need to be activated in the BIOS, but if you activate them you lose two of the blue ports on the board which get routed to the rear I/O e.SATA, but this isn't a huge loss. There are no sound related ports as you need to use the X-Fi audio card to get any sound with this board.
You may note on the back a small press button; this is used to clear the CMOS in the event of a bad overclock. While the board does have a watchdog timer that resets the overclock in the event of a bad boot, sometimes it won't work if the board managed to get so far into the post and freeze. This is where this reset comes in handy; you can simply press and hold the button for 4 seconds and boom, you're back to the CMOS defaults.
Expansion slots on the X58 series of boards comes down to a few different config options; MSI has gone hardcore here. There are a total of three PCIe x16 slots; two black and one blue. The two black slots are capable of full speed x16 operations if using one or two graphics cards. If you want to run a third video card in the blue slot, 8 lanes from the middle black slot are stolen and routed to the blue slot to give you a 16/8/8 arrangement. All three of these ports are routed off the 32 lanes from the I0H and are PCIe 2.0 compliant. Just above and below the top black x16 slot are two PCIe x1 slots. The top slot is recommended for the audio card and if you install a double height graphics card in the top x16 slot, the x1 slot below it is rendered useless. Two blue PCI slots are also included for legacy cards, but we don't' see much use for PCI now, thanks to all devices moving to PCIe.
BIOS and Overclocking
Now we shift our attention to the BIOS. ASUS uses its trademarked Award Tab BIOS as we like to refer to it as. Its appearance and colour scheme is identical to the reference BIOS Intel uses for its own desktop boards, but ASUS has a lot more tweaking options under its hood.
The AI Tweaker tab has all the overclocking options, apart from actual control of the CPU ratio. This has to be done in the Advanced tab under the CPU Control Sub menu. Also from here, you can set the boot-up VID rather than having to rely on the default VID the CPU is set for.
Base Clock (MHz): 133MHz to 400MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe Frequency (MHz): 100MHz to 200MHz in 1MHz Increments
CPU Voltage: -320mV to +630mV in 0.1mv Increments
QPI Voltage: -320mV to +630mV in 0.1mv Increments
CPU PLL Voltage: 1.0v to 2.78v in 0.01v increments
DRAM Voltage: 1.2v to 2.77v in 0.01v increments
IOH Voltage: 0.78v to 1.78v in 0.01v Increments
ICH Voltage: 0.7v to 2.13v in 0.01v Increments
Getting to know Core i7 overclocking is taking some time. While the ASUS P6T motherboard was a dream to overclock and our GIGABYTE X58 UD5 a disaster, the MSI offering fell in the middle. We couldn't get the board to post stable past 155MHz BLCK, however, this was running the memory at 1800MHz and the QPI at over 5GHz with a CPU clock of 3.57GHz on stock voltage, which wasn't too bad at all.
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 17 965 @ 3.2GHz (24x 133MHz)
Memory: 3x 2GB DDR3-1600 Corsair Dominator (Supplied by Corsair)
Hard Disk: Intel X25-M 80GB SSD (Supplied by Intel)
Graphics Card: GIGABYTE 9800GX2 1GB (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Cooling: Stock Intel cooling
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista X64 SP1
Drivers: Intel INF 184.108.40.2068, Forceware 180.24
Now we get to the fun part and that's benchmarking. Today we have our ASUS P6T Deluxe OC Palm Edition and the ASUS Rampage II Extreme for reference, just to see who has the most impressive X58 board to date.
For our stock clock settings we set the DDR3 mode to 1333MHz and the CPU to its default 24x133MHz to give us 3.2GHz. For overclocking we pushed the CPU and FSB as high as we possibly could which gave us 3.56GHz using 209MHz BLCK on the ASUS Rampage II, 3.4GHz on a 200MHz BLK for the ASUS P6T Deluxe and 3.57GHz on a 155MHz BCLK for the MSI Eclipse SLI.
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 off, EVEREST gives us a preview of things to come. With all three boards at stock we see there is little difference between the platforms. When overclocking, MSI falls to the back; this is due to a slower BLCK and memory clock compared to the ASUS setups.
Benchmarks - Sisoft Sandra
Version and / or Patch Used: 2009
Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.co.uk
Product Homepage: http://sisoftware.jaggedonline.com/index.php?location=home&a=TTA&lang=en
Buy It Here
SiSoft Sandra (System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is a synthetic Windows benchmark that features different tests used to evaluate different PC subsystems.
Again in Sandra we see that the memory performance of MSI's motherboard isn't able to compete at OC levels.
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.
Our first system test is synthetic through PCMark and we see that despite the slower memory clock, keeping the CPU clock up high compensates with the Core i7 and makes the MSI board quite competitive.
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.
A similar trend is seen in SYSmark 2007, but this is based in the real world application field. MSI manages to keep right on ASUS' tail here, despite lacking around 50MHz in the BLCK.
Benchmarks - Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0
Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.adobe.com
Product Homepage: http://www.adobe.com/products/premiereel/
Buy It Here
Our test with Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 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 really likes high clocks and memory bandwidth. But it seems that the MSI board is able to keep up here. It looks like Premiere Elements can't even use up all of the stock bandwidth let alone giving it any more when overclocked; the CPU speed plays the big part here and all three are pretty close in that regard.
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.
Under synthetic gaming we see that there is little difference between all three boards. MSI manages a good result in overclocked tests, despite the lower BCLK.
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.
Real Word gaming through Crysis shows that when you overclock the Core i7 you do get a better result. Here we see that the MSI board comes in second right behind the Rampage II Extreme.
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.
Using the piggyback power adapter, MSI's X58 Eclipse is able to reduce its power more than ASUS is capable of with its EPU setup, giving it a win here for the greenies.
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.
Using DrMOS, this has allowed MSI to cool the board down quite a bit. In fact, it is the coolest running X58 we've tested so far.
MSI has definitely brought a winner to the table with the X58 Eclipse SLI. The design of MSI's board is extremely clean; the board's features are extremely plentiful and its performance is right up there as a top contender.
While the boards overclocking lacked compared to that of the ASUS offerings, MSI has managed to keep up with the other boards thanks to keeping its clock speeds up there. It's not all about bus speeds, but a more balanced setup.
At 349.99 USD from Newegg, you get a pretty solid package for your money and we have no hesitation in recommending the board to any Core i7 user who is looking for a good feature packed offering, especially if power saving is an important factor. So far MSI is on the top of the list as the best all round choice.