Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1306

As one of the larger players in the motherboard market, MSI tries very hard to be first to market when a new chipset is launched. Being first is a matter of great pride and market share to MSI, so we were not really surprised when the MSI K8N Neo, based on the new nVidia nForce3-250Gb chipset, showed up for review. The downside of being first is that sometimes there are early issues with a chipset, but in this case, the nF3-250 is based on the already-established nForce3-150 chipset. While MSI never produced a board with the first generation nForce3-150 chipset, the 150 has been available for almost a year, and MSI has clearly done a lot of development work in anticipation of the release of the much updated nForce3-250.

The K8N Neo we received was the top-end Platinum series, a name MSI is now using for their top motherboards. As with past models, MSI will likely offer other members of the K8N Neo family with fewer features and a lower price. K8N Neo motherboards are based on the nForce3-250Gb, which includes on-chip Gigabit LAN. This chipset is not being used on all 250 boards, as some announced boards are based on the more basic nF3-250 chipset. As a top-of-the-line model, the K8N Neo Platinum is loaded with features, including on-chip Gigabit LAN, 8-channel (7.1 Audio), 8-Drive nVidia SATA/IDE RAID, MSI Core Cell for overclocking, and a dedicated Communications slot for WLAN/Bluetooth.

We do want to commend MSI on their diligence in addressing some suggestions that we made after our first look at the K8N Neo. Once we saw what this board could do with a working PCI lock and adjustable ratios, we suggested a wider FSB range and so, MSI had a new BIOS with FSB expanded from 250 to 300 in our hands in 2 days. The boards that you will see in the market will have this enhanced BIOS Version 1.13 or later. Now that we've benchmarked the K8N, we wish we had suggested a FSB range to 350 as the K8N Neo is a board capable of the kinds of incredible overclocks that can only be achieved with a working PCI/AGP lock and adjustable ratios.

With that tantalizing bit of information, let's take a closer look at the MSI K8N Neo Platinum.

Basic Features: MSI K8N Neo Platinum

 Motherboard Specifications
CPU Interface Socket 754 Athlon 64
Chipset nVidia nForce3-250Gb
Bus Speeds 200MHz to 300MHz (in 1MHz increments)
PCI/AGP Speeds Auto, 66MHz to 100MHz (in 1MHz increments)
Core Voltage Default to 1.81V in % increments
(with 1.50V, 1.57V, 1.60V, 1.65V, 1.68V, 1.73V, 1.76V, 1.81V)
DRAM Voltage Auto, 2.5V to 2.85V in 0.05V increments
AGP Voltage 1.5V-1.85V in 0.05V increments
AUTO Overclock D.O.T. Ranger, 1%, 3%, 5%, 7%, 9%, 11%
Memory Slots Three 184-pin DDR DIMM Slots
Unbuffered Non-ECC Memory to 2GB Total
Expansion Slots 1 AGP 8X Slot
5 PCI Slots
Onboard SATA/IDE RAID nVidia 4-Drive SATA Plus 4-Drive IDE
IDE/SATA can be combined in 0, 1, 0+1
Onboard IDE Two Standard nVidia ATA133/100/66
(4 drives)
Onboard USB 2.0/IEEE-1394 8 USB 2.0 ports supported by nF3-250
2 1394A FireWire ports by VIA VT630
Onboard LAN Gigabit Ethernet on-chip by nF3-250GB
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC850
8-Channel with UAJ
BIOS Revision 1.13 (4/15/04)

You should have no trouble finding the black-on-foil K8N Neo package on dealer's shelves. While the package is not as flashy as past MSI boards, the Platinum series still stands out.

Several manufacturers have been paying more attention lately to the internal protection and presentation of motherboards. MSI uses 2 internal packages; one for the accessories and manuals, and one for the motherboard itself.

MSI includes red-wrapped IDE and floppy cables, and orange SATA cables. Against the black K8N Neo, these will certainly stand out. A molex power converter is included for 2 SATA drives. Additional brackets are in the box for 2 additional USB Ports combined with MSI's trademark 4-LED diagnostics, and for standard and mini Firewire.

The single chip nVidia nForce3-250Gb is used for K8N Neo Platinum. For more information on this chipset, you can refer to our launch articles for this new chipset:

nForce3-250 - Part 2: Taking Athlon 64 to the Next Level
nForce3-250 - Part 1: Taking Athlon 64 to the Next Level

MSI used only a passive heatsink on the K8N Neo. We found that the heatsink got very hot after running for a few hours, particularly during overclocking. We would recommend that those planning to overclock or heavily load the K8N Neo replace the passive heatsink with an active heatsink and fan. Fortunately, standard mounting holes are provided and there are spare fan connectors nearby. The K8N Neo never crashed from the heat, but better cooling is likely needed.

This is the first board that we have tested to use the Realtek ALC850 7.1 audio chip. This 8-channel audio codec is fully AC '97 2.3 compliant and features 16-bit 8-channel audio and auto-jack sensing with support for a full range of analog and digital IO. A wide range of sound standards are supported, including:
  • EAXTM 1.0 & 2.0 compatible
  • Direct Sound 3DTM compatible
  • A3DTM compatible
  • I3DL2 compatible
  • HRTF 3D positional audio
  • SensauraTM 3D Enhancement
The ALC850 CODEC provides four pairs of stereo outputs, with 5-Bit volume controls and multiple stereo and mono inputs, along with flexible mixing, and gain and mute functions. Two 50mW/20ohm headset audio amplifiers are integrated at Front-Out and Surround-Out, and both amplifiers are selectable for Front-Out, Line-In and Mic-In as a Universal Audio Jack.

You can find more details on the recently released ALC850 at Realtek product information.

The ALC650 is complemented by 5 audio mini-jacks plus both Optical and coaxial SPDIF connectors on the back IO panel. IO also includes PS2 mouse and keyboard, parallel, 1 serial, 1 standard Firewire (IEEE1394), 4 USB, and a Gigabit Ethernet port. MSI has provided an exceptional array of IO options on the M8N Neo Platinum, and buyers will generally be pleased with the provided options.

The K8N Neo fully supports the innovative nVidia "Any Drive" RAID. Any of the standard 4 IDE drives or an additional 4 SATA drives can be combined in a Raid 0 (striping), Raid 1 (Mirroring), or Raid 0+1 array. This is the most flexible RAID arrangement that we have seen built into any chipset.

On-chip Gigabit LAN is built-in with the nF3-250Gb and runs completely independent of the PCI bus. This ensures that the LAN is always capable of providing the fastest throughput possible with your LAN connections.

Three DIMM slots support up to 2GB of up to DDR400 memory in a Single-Channel memory configuration. The Athlon 64 will support Dual Channel memory with the introduction of Socket 939. However, as we have discussed in other reviews, the Athlon 64 is not as dependent on memory bandwidth as Pentium 4 solutions. The single-channel socket 754 is just as fast as the dual-channel Athlon 64 FX chips in many applications.

Board Layout: MSI K8N Neo Platinum

It is very clear that MSI had their own ideas about the layout of the K8N Neo.

The K8N Neo has a very different layout than the nVidia nF3-250 Reference Board. All-in-all, we find the MSI layout to be excellent. Memory at the top of the board works fine in most case designs, and it does keep the DIMM sockets clear of interference from the AGP slot.

The ATX 20-pin and the 4-pin 12V connector are separated in the K8N Neo, but the locations work well nonetheless. The bulky ATX connector is on the far right edge on the upper half of the board. The 4-Pin connector is on the opposite side of the CPU, at the very top edge of the K8N Neo. Both locations are clear of other connectors and should not interfere with air flow.

The CPU socket is in the center of the board just above midline. PCI slots are below the socket and memory is above it. There is plenty of room around the Socket 754, so just about any Heatsink/Fan should work fine. We had no problems mounting a Zalman 7000 on the K8N Neo.

The IDE connectors are in our preferred upper right edge of the motherboard, where they rarely interfere with other connectors. SATA connectors mirror the nF3-250 Reference Board in that 2 are between the AGP slot and the CPU and 2 are near the lower right edge of the board. The arrangement looks worse than it functions, since the SATA cables are very small. However, SATA connectors are still far too fragile for our liking and anything that gets them away from "high-traffic"" areas of the board is preferred. You need to be extremely careful while changing a video card or replacing a HSF, to avoid pushing and breaking off the SATA connectors between the AGP and CPU. The other 2 SATA connectors are better located near the right edge so that they are out of harm's way.

We would not be complaining about this if SATA connectors were more durable. We have never broken a big, bulky IDE connector, but with board testing, we have broken SATA connectors off 2 drives and 2 boards. Whoever came up with this fragile design for connecting hard drives should be forced to review motherboards or test memory and CPUs. They would then learn quickly that the SATA connector needs to be stengthened.

Unfortunately, the floppy connector is located on the lower right of the board. This will work fine in some case designs, but it will be a difficult reach in tower cases. It is also a location that makes neat cabling difficult in most cases.

The K8N Neo has 5 PCI slots. The bottom PCI is configured as a dedicated communications slot and is identified by a different color. The AGP slot uses the common "push to release" lever that works fine with most cards, but can be a real pain with very large top end cards like the nVidia 5950U. MSI placed all the headers along the lower edge of the board, which really helps when you are trying to do a neat cable arrangement in a window case. The downside is that if you use audio cables with optical drives in a tower case, they probably won't reach the 4-pin connectors in the lower left corner of the board. Like the disappearing floppy, audio cables are rarely required any more, but if you need them, this location can be a challenge in some case designs.

While there are improvements that could be made to the K8N Neo layout, it is clear that a lot of thought went into the MSI layout. Overall, the board was a joy to set up, with the exception of the SATA 1/2 and Audio connectors.

BIOS: MSI K8N Neo Platinum

The K8N Neo uses Phoenix-Award BIOS, so navigation will be familiar for most users. The last few generations of MSI's top boards have promoted Core Cell overclocking, and their BIOS has sported a complete range of overclocking options.

Most of the options of interest to overclockers are contained in the Cell Menu. Two easily overlooked options here are worth mentioning. "Aggressive Timings" can be enabled or disabled, and if your memory can handle it, the aggressive timings do improve performance. The other item is AMD "Cool'n'Quiet", which can be enabled or disabled here. Cool'n'Quiet is designed to protect the CPU and system from damage due to overheating and also to run the fans at the lowest and quietest speeds needed for proper operation.

Most of the commonly used adjustments are submenus under the Cell Menu.

This includes a decent selection of memory timing adjustments.

MSI has the option of using an automatic overclocking system called D.O.T. for those who are intimidated by manual adjustments. The help in the BIOS and in the manual explains how it is used to provide optimized overclocks from 1% to 11%. The industry seems to think that everyone who overclocks is a gamer and 14 years old with all the cute names they use, like Sergeant and Commander on MSI and Street Racer from Abit. We personally don't like this trend, but clearly some do. The most important thing to us was that D.O.T. worked very well, and will be useful for those intimidated by the whole idea of BIOS settings. You can still reach higher overclocks with manual settings, but the D.O.T settings are well-balanced tweaks.

FSB can now be adjusted to 300 in the BIOS. After testing the board, a range to 350 would actually be useful on the K8N Neo - something we are finally pleased to be talking about on an Athlon 64 motherboard.

Yes, the AGP locks on the MSI K8N Neo, confirming nVidia's claim that we would see working locks on this generation. With a 300 FSB range instead of the 250 on the nVidia Reference Board, we can also confirm that the lock also works in the 250 to 300 range.

MSI uses the nF3-250Gb chipset, and therefore, offers HyperTransport adjustments to 5X (1000 HT). This is a much wider and more useful range than what we saw on the nF3-150 boards, but we do wish half multipliers had also been included. The 0.5X adjustments are very useful for getting the best performance in overclocking.

Memory Voltage can be adjusted to 2.85V, which is a useful range. Abit and Epox have provided ranges to 3.0V to 3.2V and that would be welcomed for use with the high-speed, higher-voltage memory currently on the market.

The other part of high FSB clocking is CPU ratios or multipliers. The K8N Neo provides a full range from the CPU default down to 4. We confirmed that the lower ratios do work on the MSI. Some recent boards did not work at ratios below 9, but the MSI worked at every ratio that we could select.

Instead of Core Voltage, MSI calls the CPU voltage adjustment "CPU Voltage Trimming". The adjustments appear to be based on percentages instead of absolute values, so they will likely shift with lower voltage CPUs. For a stock 1.5V 3400+ adjustments were available to 1.81V. This is a useful range and extends a bit beyond AMD's recommended maximum of 1.7V.

AGP voltage adjustment covers a very broad range from 1.5V to 1.85V in fine 0.05V increments. This adjustment usually makes very little difference in overclocking, but sometimes it is also the adjustment for chipset voltage, where a wide range and fine adjustments are very useful.

All of these settings are in Cell Menu, but there are many other options in the K8N Neo BIOS.

Advanced BIOS features allow control of boot devices and boot order.

With so many of the most used adjustments under Cell Menu, the Advanced Chipset menu is mainly AGP aperture size, timings, and shadowing control.

The nForce3-250Gb supports many integrated features. Most of these are controlled in the Integrated Peripherals menu.

This includes a Device submenu where setup and adjustments are made to the flexible nVidia RAID for SATA and IDE drives.

BIOS monitoring of Temperatures and Fan Speeds can be adjusted in the PC Health Menu.

Tech Support and RMA: MSI K8N Neo Platinum

Our support evaluation procedure tries to determine the responsiveness of manufacturers to Technical Support problems. Our procedure is as follows:

The way our Tech Support evaluation works is first, we anonymously email the manufacturer's tech support address(es), obviously not using our AnandTech mail server to avoid any sort of preferential treatment. Our emails (we can and will send more than one just to make sure we're not getting the staff on an "off" day) all contain fixable problems that we've had with our motherboard. We allow the manufacturer up to 72 (business) hours to respond, and then we will report whether or not they responded within the time allotted, and if they were successful in fixing our problems. In case we don't receive a response before the review is published, any future responses will be added to the review, including the total time it took for the manufacturer to respond to our requests.

The idea here is to encourage manufacturers to improve their technical support as well as provide new criteria upon which to base your motherboard purchasing decisions. As motherboards become more similar everyday, we have to help separate the boys from the men in as many ways as possible. As usual, we're interested in your feedback on this and other parts of our reviews, so please do email us with your comments.

MSI's RMA policy lists some steps for you to take before filling out their RMA form, which you can access by clicking on the "contact us" link on their web site. Once you've done that, click on one of the U.S. locations, where you will find their U.S. RMA policy. For other countries, follow the same procedure.

Here are some of the things that MSI asks of you in order to make your RMA experience easier:
  1. First contact the retailer from which you purchased the motherboard before contacting MSI.
  2. Contact information is required: name, address, telephone, city, state, zip code, etc.
  3. Provide item and serial number, and e-mail your RMA form to msirma@msicomputer.com.
  4. You must mark the RMA number outside of the shipping box or MSI will decline your request.
  5. RMA number will be valid for only 30 days.
There is little point in trying to measure Technical Support response time on a board that is not yet shipping. Clearly, it is all too easy to be very responsive to requests on pre-release boards, no matter how veiled the request, since the manufacturer would be aware that only reviewers would have the board. Therefore, we reserve our tests of response time to boards that are actually available in the market. MSI's tech support response has improved in recent reviews, and we have seen similar improvements where we have needed technical help form MSI. We will test the response time of MSI with a production board in the near future and let you know if the Tech Support has continued at those improved levels.

MSI's office hours are Monday through Thursday, from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM (Pacific Time); Friday's hours are from 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM. You can reach their tech support line by calling (626) 581-3001 or faxing them your questions at (626) 581-7221. Due to their busy schedule and the high volume of questions received, MSI strongly suggests that you start the process by filling out their "technical support request form".

MSI also provides tech support to countries in addition to the U.S. and Taiwan, such as Australia, Brazil, China, Czech, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, Russia, and others. MSI has improved their RMA and tech support in recent months, which we have been happy to see. Far too many motherboard manufacturers still lack quality service in the RMA and tech support department, and unfortunately, it often appears that the larger the company, the worse the service you will normally receive. MSI is a top 5 manufacturer, so we are particularly happy to see MSI improving in the area of Technical Support and the handling of Customer returns.

Overclocking and Stress Testing: MSI K8N Neo Platinum

FSB Overclocking Results

With all the excellent options for overclocking, the MSI K8N Neo should be capable of excellent overclocking. Given the great overclocking results that we found in the review of the nForce3-250 Reference Board, we expected the K8N Neo would do even better with the expanded ranges on the K8N Neo. We weren't disappointed.

Front Side Bus Overclocking Testbed
Default Voltage
Processor: Athlon 64 3200+
CPU Voltage: 1.5V (default)
Cooling: AMD Stock Athlon 64 Heatsink/Fan
Power Supply: Antec TruePower 430W
Maximum OC:
(Standard Ratio)
246FSB x10
2460MHz (+23%)
Maximum FSB:
(Lower Ratio)
300FSB x 8 (BIOS Limited, Asynch Memory)
270FSB x 9 at 1:1 Memory

This late 3200+ achieved a new overclocking record on the K8N Neo Platinum at 246FSB, at the stock 10X multiplier and default voltage. This 23% overclock at stock multiplier is more like those that we are accustomed to seeing on Pentium 4. Dropping the multiplier, the highest FSB overclock that we could achieve was the BIOS limit of 300. We fully expect that the K8N can go much higher on FSB, but Clock Gen for the nForce3-150 from www.cpuid.com only partially works on the 250 chipset. The FSB portion of Clock Gen does not function correctly yet on the updated 250, so the BIOS limit is the current FSB limit.

We were also able to run OCZ DDR4400EL at a 1:1 ratio at a FSB of 270x9, or DDR540, which is near the limit of this CPU on this board. We tried to lower the ratio to 8, but we still could not achieve 1:1 memory performance at any speed higher than DDR540, as the board would automatically reset to stock speed if we selected a 1:1 setting above 270. Perhaps the overclock protection on this board needs to be a little less aggressive, because this memory is capable of performance at even higher speeds.

HyperTransport could be maintained at the 4X (800) setting up to a 260 to 265 FSB. Above this point to the BIOS maximum of 300FSB, we needed a 3X HT setting. There is clearly additional headroom with the higher HT of the 250 chipset, and it is likely that we can reach much higher FSB settings with a greater range of BIOS settings or a Clock Gen that fully supports the nF3-250 chipset.

Front Side Bus Stress Test Results:

As part of normal overclocking tests, a full range of stress tests and benchmarks were run to ensure the K8N Neo was stable at each overclocked FSB speed. This included Prime95 torture tests, and the addition of other tasks - data compression, various DX8 and DX9 games, and apps like Word and Excel - while Prime95 was running in the background. Finally, we ran our benchmark suite, which includes Veritest Winstone 2004 suite, Unreal Tournament 2003, SPECviewperf 7.1, and Aquamark 3. 246MHz was the highest overclock that we were able to achieve with the MSI while running these tests at default voltage, an astonishing performance with the Athlon 64.

Memory Stress Test Results:

The memory stress test is very basic, as it simply tests the ability of the K8N Neo Platinum to operate at its officially supported memory frequency (400MHz DDR) at the lowest supported memory timings that our Mushkin PC3500 Level 2 or OCZ PC3500 Platinum Ltd Modules will support. Memory stress testing was conducted by running RAM at 400MHz with 2 DIMM slots filled.

Stable DDR400 Timings - 2 DIMMs
(2/3 DIMMs populated)
Clock Speed: 200MHz
Timing Mode: N/A
CAS Latency: 2.0
Bank Interleave: N/A
RAS to CAS Delay: 2T
RAS Precharge: 5T
(10T for Best Performance)*
Precharge Delay: 2T
Command Rate: N/A

*Several memory tests have shown that memory performs fastest on the nVidia nForce chipsets at a TRas (RAS Precharge) settings in the 9 to 13 range. We ran our own Memory Bandwidth tests with memtest86 with TRas settings from 5 to 15 at a wide range of different memory speeds. The best bandwidth was consistently at 9 to 11 at every speed, with TRas 10 always in the best range at every speed. The performance improvement at TRas 10 was only 2% to 4% over TRas 5 and 6 depending on the speed, but the performance advantage was consistent across all tests. This will be shown in more detail in an upcoming Memory review. While benchmarks here were run at 2-2-2-5 for consistency with past results, future nForce benchmarks will be run at a TRas setting of 10.

The MSI K8N Neo was completely stable with 2 DIMMs at the most aggressive settings of 2-2-2-5 at default speed. Higher overclocks could be achieved with 1 DIMM compared to 2 DIMMs, but at default speed, 1 or 2 DIMMs were reliable at the same aggressive 2-2-2-5 timings.

Filling all three available memory slots is more strenuous on the memory subsystem than testing 2 DIMMs on a motherboard. We were very pleased to find that 3 DS DIMMs (1.5GB) of memory worked fine at timings almost the same as the aggressive timings we used for 2 DIMMs. This is the first Athlon 64 board we have tested that was completely stable with 3 DIMMs at DDR400.

Stable DDR400 Timings - 3 DIMMs
(3/3 DIMMs populated)
Clock Speed: 200MHz
Timing Mode: N/A
CAS Latency: 2.0
Bank Interleave: N/A
RAS to CAS Delay: 3T
RAS Precharge: 5T
Precharge Delay: 2T
Command Rate: N/A

Three DIMMs required 2-2-3-5 timings for stable operation, which is remarkably close to the most aggressive 2-2-2-5 timings available on the K8N Neo. You do need to be aware of one quirk in the MSI memory setup. If 3 DIMMs are installed with the memory speed set to AUTO, the board will down-clock the memory to DDR333 speed. To achieve DDR400 with 3 DIMMs, we had to move off Auto and specify DDR400 speed. However, DDR400 with 3 DIMMs worked very well in our tests, and was very stable, which is certainly a first for the Athlon 64.

Standard Performance Test Configuration: 3200+ with ATI 9800 PRO

We first tested the MSI K8N Neo using the same 3200+ and ATI 9800 PRO, which has been the standard for past motherboard tests. In this series of tests, we compared the performance of the MSI K8N Neo to other Athlon 64 boards that we have tested. We also included performance results from a 3200+ Athlon XP for comparison.

We have dropped P4 comparisons from our A64 test results. Since the Athlon 64 is single-channel and we have tested Socket 754 boards with a 3200+ (2.0GHz), we have also removed test results with the Dual-Channel 2.2GHz FX51. This should make charts comparing Socket 754 motherboards much easier to understand.

If you are interested in more information comparing the Athlon 64, Athlon 64 FX, Prescott, P4, and P4EE, please see our in-depth comparisons in the recent Prescott/3400+/3000+ launch reviews:

Intel's Pentium 4 E: Prescott Arrives with Luggage
Athlon64 3400+: Part 2
AMD's Athlon 64 3400+: Death of the FX-51
Athlon64 3000+: 64-bit at Half the Price

 Performance Test Configuration
Processor(s): AMD Athlon 64 3200+ (2.0GHz)
AMD Athlon XP 3200+ (2.2GHz, 400MHz FSB)
RAM: 2 x 512MB Mushkin PC3500 Level II OR
2 x 512MB OCZ PC3500 Platinum Ltd
Hard Drive(s): Seagate 80GB or 120GB 7200 RPM (8MB Buffer)
Video AGP & IDE Bus Master Drivers: SiS AGP 1.17 (10-07-2003)
VIA 4in1 Hyperion 4.51 (12-02-2003)
NVIDIA nForce version 4.12 Beta
Video Card(s): ATI Radeon 9800 PRO 128MB (AGP 8X)
Video Drivers: ATI Catalyst 4.4
Operating System(s): Windows XP Professional SP1
Motherboards: MSI K8N Neo (nVidia nForce3-250Gb)
AOpen AK89 Max (nVidia nForce3-150)
nVidia nForce3-250 Reference Board
AOpen AK86-L (VIA K8T800 3200+)
ECS 755-A2 (SiS 755 A64 3200+)
SiS 755 Reference Board (A64 3200+)
Abit KV8-MAX3 (VIA K8T800 A64 3200+)
Chaintech ZNF3-150 (nForce3-150 A64 3200+)
MSI K8T Neo (VIA K8T800 A64 3200+)
DFI NFII Ultra (nForce2 U400 Athlon XP 3200+)

Tests on Socket 754 Athlon 64 motherboards and Socket A Athlon XP used either Mushkin PC3500 Level II or OCZ PC3500 Platinum Ltd memory modules. Both memories use Winbond BH5 chips and perform virtually the same in our benchmarks.

All performance tests were run with the ATI 9800 PRO 128MB video card with AGP Aperture set to 128MB with Fast Write enabled. Resolution in all benchmarks is 1024x768x32 unless otherwise noted.

Additions to Performance Tests

We have updated to Veritest Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 and Veritest Business Winstone 200 for system benchmarking. Some earlier board tests used the earlier Winstones 2003/2002, which are not results comparable to Winstone 2004. We have, therefore, dropped those results from our graphs.

Game Benchmarks

We have added several benchmarks to our standard Gaming tests. These include Halo, Microsoft's Direct X 9.0b game; Splinter Cell, a DX9 game; X2 Benchmark, a DX 8.1 game that includes Transform and Lighting effects; the DX9 Aquamark 3; and the DX 8.1 Comanche 4 benchmark using the 4X anti-aliasing setting to differentiate system performance better using our standard ATI Radeon 9800 PRO video card. We will be reporting more results at 1280 x 1024 resolution in future system and motherboard benchmarking where that resolution provides useful performance data. We have included results of these tests wherever they were available. Older benchmarks did not include some of the newer tests.

Standard Content Creation, General Usage and Encoding

Content Creation Performance

General Usage Performance

MPEG-4 Encoding Performance

Performance of the K8N Neo in the Veritest Winstones is virtually the same as the nForce3-250Gb Reference Board. Encoding results are exactly the same. MSI performance mirrors the excellent results that we achieved with the nF3-250 Reference. The 250 chipset performs about the same at stock speed in this area as the 150 and K8T800 chipsets.

Standard Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance

With our stock 3200+ and ATI Radeon 9800 Pro, the K8N is competitive with other Athlon 64 boards, but it does not stand out to quite the extent we saw with the 250 Reference board. It appears that a bit more tweaking by MSI in the gaming area could glean more performance from the K8N Neo.

Standard Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance

The Specviewperf suite yielded some very interesting results. It appears that the MSI K8N Neo has been tweaked for more balanced performance with ATI graphics. Where the 250 Reference was often near the bottom in ATI workstation performance, the MSI just as often claims the top, or a spot near the top. As you will see in our later graphs using the GeForce 5950U, the opposite is true with that card. It appears that MSI sacrificed a bit of the nVidia graphics advantage on nF3-250 for better ATI performance.

3400+ Performance Tests With nVidia 5950U

Since we also ran tests of the nF3-250 Reference Board with a 3400+ processor and an nVidia GeForce FX5950U, we ran additional performance tests of the MSI K8N Neo Platinum with a 3400+ and 5950U video. This allows direct comparison of the K8N Neo to the best test results from the nF3-250 Reference Board.

 Performance Test Configuration
Processor(s): AMD Athlon 64 3400+ (2.2GHz)
RAM: 2 x 512MB OCZ PC3500 Platinum Ltd
Hard Drive(s): Seagate 80GB or 120GB 7200 RPM (8MB Buffer)
Video AGP & IDE Bus Master Drivers: NVIDIA nForce version 4.12 Beta
Video Card(s): Albatron GeForce FX5950U
Video Drivers: nVidia Forceware Graphics Driver 56.72
Operating System(s): Windows XP Professional SP1
Motherboards: MSI K8N Neo (nVidia nForce3-250Gb)
nVidia nForce3-250 Reference Board

3400+/5950U: Content Creation, General Usage and Encoding

Content Creation Performance - 5950U 3400+

General Usage Performance - 5950U 3400+

MPEG-4 Encoding Performance - 5950U 3400+

PCMark 2004 - 5950U 3400+

Comparing nVidia 5950 graphics on a 3400+, the Content and General Usage are again about the same. It is interesting that the K8N enjoys a slight lead in PCMark2004, but there is nothing in these results that would indicate anything but par performance between the 250 Reference Board and the K8N. Encoding results are also all but the same.

3400+/5950U: Gaming Performance

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

Gaming Performance - 5950U 3400+

It is very interesting in the Gaming area that the nVidia Reference Board seems to enjoy an advantage over the MSI K8N when running high-end nVidia graphics cards. This is particularly true in Aquamark, UT2003 flyby, and X2. It appears that nVidia spent a great deal of effort tweaking their own Reference board to perform best with nVidia graphics. This is certainly understandable.

Perhaps this will mean even better performance of the K8N Neo with nVidia graphics with future BIOS revisions, or it may be that the performance we are seeing with the production MSI K8N Neo Platinum is more representative of the balance that we will see in shipping nF3-250 motherboards.

3400+/5950U: Workstation Performance

High End Workstation Performance - 5950U 3400+

High End Workstation Performance - 5950U 3400+

High End Workstation Performance - 5950U 3400+

High End Workstation Performance - 5950U 3400+

High End Workstation Performance - 5950U 3400+

High End Workstation Performance - 5950U 3400+

It is pretty amazing that the 250 Reference Board stands out so clearly in Workstation Performance. Here, you will see the flip-flop that we talked about in our tests with the ATI 9800 Pro on the K8N. The Reference Board favors nVidia graphics heavily in Workstation benchmarks, yet the 250 Reference was rather below average when Workstation benchmarks were run using an ATI 9800 Pro. The MSI is competitive with other Athlon 64 boards running nVidia graphics, but it is not the standout that we saw with the 250 Reference Board.

Conversely, the K8N performs very well running an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro compared to other Athlon 64 boards. These comparisons just point out some of the performance differences that can be achieved in tweaking for certain tasks or benchmark tests. One method is no more correct than the other here; they just represent different approaches to tweaking the chipset.

Final Words

Since the MSI K8N Neo is the first shipping board with the nVidia nForce3 chipset, we don't know whether it is the harbinger of the great things to come, or whether the K8N Neo Platinum is just a unique and stunning motherboard. There are many other nF3-250 boards on the way, and we should be able to answer that question more definitively in the near future.

What we do know is that MSI chose to use the top nForce3-250Gb chipset on an extremely well-conceived motherboard. MSI included all the breakthrough features of nF3-250, like on-chip Gigabit LAN, 8 "any-drive" RAID, and nVidia Firewall. MSI then added 3 firewire ports driven by a VIA chip, 7.1 channel audio with the newest Realtek ALC850 codec, and a complete set of audio IO for both analog and digital audio. Even additional brackets for extra rear USB ports, diagnostic LEDs, and a bracket for 2 more rear Firewire ports are included. With all these ports and options, there are still a couple of spare USB for those with front USB ports on the case. Nothing seems to be missing from this board, unless you really expect built-in Audigy 2 sound.

On top of that, the K8N Neo positively has a working AGP lock. It reaches the highest overclock at default settings that we have ever achieved with the Athlon 64. It has been very frustrating in the early A64 chipsets to see such mediocre overclocks when so much more could be done in overclocking with a Pentium 4 still hampered by locked ratios, or even a Socket A Athlon XP. The frustration was the incredible, but unrealized, promise of pushing the Athlon 64. It looks as if those days are finally starting to end, as chips and boards are both making giant leaps. This is only likely to accelerate even more with the pending introduction of Socket 939 and Dual-Channel unbuffered memory with the Athlon 64. The upcoming 64-bit Operating Systems just sweeten that pie even further.

As much as we are impressed with the MSI K8N Neo Platinum, there is still room for improvement. The location of the floppy and SATA 1/2 connectors could definitely be improved. As much as the option to 300FSB improved the board, we now see 350 or even more would be even better. We might wish for a higher range of memory voltages to get the best performance from recent high-speed memory that are warranted to 3.0 volts or more. The overclocking watch-dog functions are also a bit too aggressive on the K8N and it is likely that even higher overclocks, particularly with memory at 1:1, could be achieved with a little rework of a future BIOS. We would also strongly suggest that MSI replace the small passive nF3-250 cooler with a much larger passive heatsink or an active cooling solution. The current chipset sink gets far too hot for our liking. Consider these suggestions for improvements only because all-in-all, the K8N Neo is quite an impressive board.

Some will argue that with Socket 939 near, the K8N Neo will have a short life. We doubt that, simply because the K8N Neo is so good and Socket 754 will be around as a high-end socket now (and a value socket later) for at least another year. It also appears that MSI will have a very easy transition to a 939 design, since the Engineering is already done, and done very well, on the K8N Neo Platinum.

One thing is for sure, and that is you will not be disappointed with the MSI K8N Neo Platinum. If all the upcoming nForce3-250GB boards are this good, then it's a very good time to be running an Athlon 64 processor. It is not that the MSI stands out in performance in any one area; it is just that the overall balance, flexibility, and features of the K8N Neo are sure to please.

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