Mobile on Desktop MSI style - 915GM Speedster-FA4 (now with Overclocking)

Last time it was Core Duo, this time we take a look at MSI's Mobile on Desktop board using the older Pentium M CPU.

Manufacturer: MSI
11 minutes & 13 seconds read time


UPDATED June 19 2006 - We have updated the review with the latest revision BIOS which adds overclocking support.

Normally we wouldn't bother updating every review when a new BIOS is released because this is not practical, however the lack of overclocking in our initial review of this motherboard affected the score a lot.

Intel's new Core Duo mobile processors are the hottest thing currently in mobile computing since the introduction of the Pentium-M processor. With its ability to run two separate cores on a 667MHz FSB with all the latest enhancements in core size reductions, better thermal management and a far better FPU we wonder what is going to happen to Pentium-M? Well for one thing, it's going to get cheaper and that can only benefit HTPC users who are looking for a better deal.

Pentium-M while now being superseded is still one of the best processors you will find for use in a Media Centre or even a desktop. Clock for clock, Pentium-M is capable of slaughtering a Netburst based system and able to keep up with an AMD Athlon 64 based system.

Today we are taking a look at our first desktop motherboard for the Pentium-M processor from MSI. We will also be putting it against a Pentium D 600 series CPU as well as an AMD Athlon 64 system of the same clock rate, just to see how well the Pentium-M is able to keep up with the competition.

UPDATE FROM EDITOR: A friendly reader let us know that MSI has recently released a new BIOS for this motherboard which includes overclocking options. We are currently running the board through some overclocking tests and will add a new page to the review with our findings which may or may not influence the overall rating of the motherboard. Please check back soon!


Specifications of the MSI 915GM Speedster-FA4

Supports Intel Pentium-M Bannis Core
Supports Intel Pentium-M Dothan Core
Supports Intel Celeron-M Bannis and Dothan Cores

Intel i915GM
i915GM Northbridge
i82801ER Southbridge
DMI @ 2Ghz

System Memory
2 DDR SDRAM 186pin DIMM Sockets
2 DDR2 SDRAM 240pin DIMM Sockets
64/128Bit Dual Channel
Supports up to 2GB Total Memory (2x 1GB)

Bus Frequency
100/133MHz Internal
400/533MHz External
Netburst Micro Architecture

Expansion Slots
1 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1

1 Parallel ATA port supporting 2 IDE Drives
4 Serial ATA ports
2 Gigabit Ethernet Port

Expansion Ports
1 PS2 Keyboard Port
1 PS2 Mouse Port
8 USB 2.0 Ports (4 rear accessible, 4 via expansion bracket)
1 Serial Ports
1 Parallel Port
1 VGA Port
5 Stereo Audio Ports
1 SPDIF output Port
2 Firewire Ports (2 via Expansion Bracket)

The Motherboard

The Motherboard in Detail

Normally in our reviews of motherboards we would start out with the package and contents. We weren't able to this time due to the nature of the sample we received. MSI only packed it in a brown box as this board is just out of beta stages and there was no packaging ready for this baby, however, that doesn't stop us getting down and dirty with the board.

MSI bases the 915GM Speedster on a Micro-ATX board measuring 24.5x24.5cm in size. While being small, it does pack in quite a bit of technology on the board. Being based on a new design, there is no set reference pattern for this type of layout but everything seems to be clean.

MSI has placed all of the bulky cables to the right hand side of the board. The 24-pin ATX power and 4-pin AUX power connector are located on the right hand side of the board with the FDD and HDD interface connectors.

Located at the top of the board are 4 memory sockets, however, you can't use them all at once. The green sockets are for DDR-2 and the blue sockets are for DDR. Depending on what memory you want to use you can only install a maximum of 2GB.

MSI has gone a smart way when it comes to the CPU and heatsink mounting. Rather than using a proprietary mounting system, MSI has gone with a Socket 478 heatsink mount. This will allow you to use any Socket 478 heatsink or water cooling unit on the market.

For power, a 3 phase power system is employed to give the CPU the stable voltage it needs to run. While an extra 3 phases would have been nice for extra stability, Dothan and Bannis cores don't need a huge amount of power to operate.

Being a new design, MSI has a new I/O shield layout. You get a standard set of ports but the layout is different than any other board out there.

Expansion slots are very clean and give enough for adding in any extra devices you may want. The PCI Express x16 slot allows you to use a separate graphics card. A single PCI Express and 2 PCI legacy slots make up the rest of the layout.

To power the board, the Intel mobile 915GM chipset with ICH6R Southbridge is used. The mobile Northbridge allows for the use of Speedstep technology as well as the Intel GMA900 graphics system. The ICH6R gives you 4 SATA ports, audio as well as all the other features that we come to know and love.

Firewire is a must have of the 21st century. To give the MSI 915Gm Speedster this feature, the VIA VT6307 2 port Firewire chip is added. This chip is connected though the PCI bus.

Lastly on the list are 2 PCI Express x1 controlled Marvell Gigabit Ethernet controllers. These are what give the board its dual gigabit compliance.

BIOS and Overclocking

Important Update

We have managed to get a new BIOS from MSI that allows for FSB changes within the BIOS.

From here you can adjust the CPU frequency from 100MHz up to a max of 300MHz in 1MHz increments. With these settings we managed to get our 1.8GHz Clocked Dothan based Pentium-M CPU up to 2.01GHz.

MSI uses an Award BIOS design similar to what we have seen from ASUS and Intel's own reference boards. This is one of the most useful BIOS layouts we have seen. Unfortunately MSI has given no overclocking features on the board as it is designed for stock use in a HTPC setup.

Under the Advanced menu are the options for tweaking the board's memory systems as well as some of the CPU features.

Under the Advanced Chipset Features sub-menu is a limited amount of memory tweaking options for your convenience. Depending on what memory you use (DDR or DDR2) are the amount of options and different settings.

Lastly is the CPU Feature sub-menu. Here you can adjust the Thermal Monitor used (either 1 or 2) as well as enabling or disabling the Execution Bit function on the CPU. There is no control over the FSB, FID, VID or any other voltages so we weren't able to do any overclocking tests here.

Benchmarks - Test Systems and Sandra

Dothan Test System

Processor: Intel Pentium M 1.8GHz (Supplied by Intel)
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2-1000 Super Talent
Hard Disk: 2x Seagate 7200.9 (Supplied by Seagate)
Graphics Card: ASUS GeForce 7800GT (Supplied by ASUS)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP SP2

Netburst Test System

Processor: Intel Pentium 4 621 2.8GHz (800MHz FSB) (Supplied by Intel)
Motherboard: ASUS P5WD2-E Premium (Supplied by ASUS)
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2-1000 Super Talent
Hard Disk: 2x Seagate 7200.9 (Supplied by Seagate)
Graphics Card: ASUS GeForce 7800GT (Supplied by ASUS)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP SP2

AMD K8 Test System

Processor: AMD Athlon 64 3000+ 1.8GHz
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR-533 Corsair
Hard Disk: 2x Seagate 7200.9 (Supplied by Seagate)
Motherboard: ASUS A8R32-MVP (Supplied by ASUS)
Graphics Card: ASUS GeForce 7800GT (Supplied by ASUS)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP SP2

For this test we wanted to get tests systems as close as possible to each other. Both the Dothan and the AMD systems used 1.8GHz clocked processors with the Pentium 4 system using a 2.8GHz CPU. Since the Dothan is single core based we used all single core CPU's. We also overclocked the CPU on the MSI motherboard in this update of the review.

All test systems used the most up-to-date drivers found on company websites from Intel, nVidia and ATI along with DX9c. Let's get started with the testing!

SiSoft Sandra

Version and / or Patch Used: 2007
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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.

In the synthetic tests we can see that the Dothan has more raw CPU power than the Netburst system but falls behind in the multimedia and memory tests.

Benchmarks - PCMark05


Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1.0
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

PCMark is a multipurpose benchmark, suited for benchmarking all kinds of PCs, from laptops to workstations, as well as across multiple Windows operating systems. This easy-to-use benchmark makes professional strength benchmarking software available even to novice users. PCMark consists of a series of tests that represent common tasks in home and office programs. PCMark also covers many additional areas outside the scope of other benchmarks.

Again the CPU performance is better than Netburst and the AMD but memory falls behind. Overall the AMD just manages to edge over the Dothan setup.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING Even with the CPU overclocked, the memory still isn't able to match the Netburst or K8 Speeds, however, we see a improvement in raw CPU performance.

Benchmarks - Video Encoding

Media Encoding

For this test we used Cyberlink Power Producer in conjunction with DIVX 6.0 Pro to encode "The Matrix" MPEG2 down to a MPEG-4 high resolution video file.

The Cyberlink software comes with its own time clock to indicate the time taken to encode the movie as well as average CPU usage and average FPS during the encode. We used DIVX 6.0 due to its support for Dual Core CPUs as well as Intel SSE3 and Hyper Threading.

Here we see that the Dothan's core is behind both the AMD K8 and the Netburst systems when it comes to media encoding.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING Overclocking the CPU makes quite a bit of improvement to the media encoding results.

Benchmarks - 3DMark03


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 360
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

By combining full DX8 and partial DX9 support with completely new tests and graphics over the previous version, 3DMark03 continues the legacy of being the industry standard 3D benchmark.

Please Note: Due to recent events with the 3DMark03 series, we are adding results purely for those who are still in favour of 3DMark03. These results should not be taken too seriously and are only added for interest sakes.

Gaming shows the Dothan is able to match clock for clock the AMD Athlon 64 in our first synthetic test and is able to beat out Netburst based systems clocked 1GHz higher.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING With the overclocking online, we get even better results.

Benchmarks - 3DMark05


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 120
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

3DMark05 is now the second latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and higher.

For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here.

As the requirements go up the AMD K8 manages to just better the Dothan system.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING But when overclocked, we see Dothan manages to get a grip on the K8 system.

Benchmarks - 3DMark06


Version and / or Patch Used: Build 102
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

3DMark06 is the very latest version of the "Gamers Benchmark" from FutureMark. The newest version of 3DMark expands on the tests in 3DMark05 by adding graphical effects using Shader Model 3.0 and HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) which will push even the best DX9 graphics cards to the extremes.

3DMark06 also focuses on not just the GPU but the CPU using the AGEIA PhysX software physics library to effectively test single and Dual Core processors.

With 3DMark06 being more intensive than 3DMark05, the Dothan falls behind the K8 again but not a huge drop in performance.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING Overclocked Dothan is a powerful weapon.

Benchmarks - Doom 3

Doom 3

Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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Doom 3 is the latest game to hit our test lab and is one of the most intensive games to dates. With our own custom time demo we are able to give a realistic rating on what kind of FPS you will be achieving.

For more information on benchmarking Doom 3 we recommend you check out our extensive article regarding it here.

Doom 3 is where the Dothan sines. It's rather odd that a mobile CPU that you would think would be less inclined to top out in games actually manages to massacre the Pentium 4 (the Gaming CPU from Intel) - strange, huh?

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING When overclocking again, we see Netburst falling behind even more - wonder why Dothan Architecture wasn't used instead of Netburst?

Benchmarks - Quake 4

Quake 4

Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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Quake 4 is one of the latest new games to be added to our benchmark suite. It is based off the popular Doom 3 engine and as a result uses many of the features seen in Doom. However, Quake 4 graphics are more intensive than Doom 3 and should put more strain on different parts of the system.

Again the Dothan manages to get some impressive scores in gaming results as Quake 4 is based off the same game engine as Doom 3, especially when overclocked.

Benchmarks - F.E.A.R.


Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is an intense combat experience with rich atmosphere and a deeply intense paranormal storyline presented entirely in first person. Be the hero in your own spine-tingling epic of action, tension, and terror...and discover the true meaning of F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. puts a lot of stress on the systems components and here the Dothan comes in behind the K8 CPU.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING F.E.A.R. needs to have some extra power, overclocking helped quite a bit.

Benchmarks - Far Cry

Far Cry

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.3
Timedemo or Level Used: Benchemall Demo
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Buy It Here

There is no denying that Far Cry is currently one of the most graphic intensive games on the market, utilizing PS2.0 technology (the latest versions support Shader Model 3.0 with DX9c) and offering an exceptional visual experience there is no denying that even some of the faster graphics cards struggle.

In our last test we see the Dothan and K8 on almost level grounds.

UPDATE ON OVERCLOCKING Overclocking didn't improve the scores here too much.

Final Thoughts

While not as powerful as the new Core Duo CPU, Dothan based systems have proven to give better clock for clock performance than Netburst based CPU and with the ability to run at a far lower heat profile, it's a wonder why Dothan isn't a real desktop contender.

With the releases of the Core Duo, the price of Dothan based CPU's will start to fall, making them a desktop and even a HTPC contender to really consider.

While the Pentium M CPU is a good quality at stock, the MSI 915GM Speedster does have a few holes in the works - for instance, it lacks any overclocking features which tend to rule it out for the hardcore desktop user.

While you can do better for a desktop board especially for the enthusiast and gaming user, for a HTPC or a small quiet PC you will struggle to find something this good. With Firewire, Dual Gigabit LAN and the option of onboard or discrete graphics systems, you won't find much better for the Home Consumer.

- Pros
Supports Dothan and Bannis Cores (Pentium-M or Celeron-M)
Good value as Pentium M CPU's decrease in price
Good performance
DDR and DDR-2 memory support
Dual Gigabit LAN
4 SATA ports supporting RAID
UPDATED - Overclocking support added in latest BIOS
Optical SPDIF-Out audio port

- Cons
If you stick to stock BIOS you will end up without overclocking
Slightly aged technology (such as no SATA-2 support)

Updated Rating - 8.5 out of 10

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