MSI P35 Neo2-FR: Platinum performance for under $100by Gary Key on December 5, 2007 11:00 PM EST
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We have not heard that much from MSI lately. Yes, they always seem to launch product at the same time as ASUS and Gigabyte, but their product launches always seem subdued. Their marketing program does not usually have the all-out blitz we typically see from ASUS or Gigabyte, or their product lineup may lack a killer feature. We know MSI is there - in fact, not a day goes by without us discussing products or technology with them - so what's the problem? It comes down to having a product design or feature that differentiates MSI from the other suppliers. No, we are not talking about roller coaster designed heatpipes; we are talking about product that outperforms the competition at launch or can make a difference in how you use or perceive the value of the product.
We have seen a great deal of improvement in MSI's motherboard products over the course of the last year. Their layouts have improved and in fact, we absolutely love the layout on the new K9A2 Platinum board that uses AMD's new 790FX chipset. MSI also offers the Creative Lab's X-Fi audio codecs on their high-end boards as a nod to the gaming community. In addition to unique layouts or features, their overall product quality and commitment to performance has been steadily improving. Our problem with MSI the past few product launches has not centered on them being late to market or not having compelling product alternatives. It has come down to basic performance, compatibility, and BIOS features that leave a lot to be desired when comparing them to the likes of ASUS or Gigabyte. We witnessed this with the P35 launch last spring and again with the 790FX a couple of weeks ago. Their boards are solid and perform well at launch; only the BIOS releases have been weak. The difference we are seeing now is that MSI is quickly resolving problems, and they continue to provide support and updates over the lifespan of the product.
Identical or Fraternal Twins?
The other difference is that MSI is starting to offer a compelling value in certain market segments. One such market segment is the quickly growing budget performance sector, which is now moving to Intel's P35 chipset. The initial launch of the P35 chipset featured boards in the $200 and up price grouping from ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI. MSI's offering, the P35 Platinum, was at the low end of this sector but did not offer a very good price to performance ratio when compared to the other boards. This changed greatly a few weeks after its release with the P3 performance-oriented BIOS. However, there was an eerie silence at the time as abit had just introduced the similarly priced and very impressive IP35-Pro to a thunderous roar from the user community.
With the introduction of the X38 chipset and the widespread adoption of P35 across a variety of products, we are now seeing incredible competition in the budget to midrange markets. As competition has increased, prices have decreased and the selection of performance-oriented motherboards for under a $130 is incredible. We say this considering the typical prices that usually accompany Intel chipsets. What is even more amazing is the level of performance and features that a user can purchase for under $100 now. We are not talking about the P965 or 945P based boards, but boards designed around the P35 chipset.
MSI offers a base P35 board for around $72, but that board like other budget designs is suited for SOHO users. What excites us in the under $100 performance market are boards like the abit IP35-E and Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L. Recognizing this trend, MSI developed the Neo2 series. In actuality, they did not have to do too much development; the Neo2-FR/FIR is just a rebadged P35 Platinum with a couple of features missing. MSI is not really hiding this fact; the user can easily remove the Neo2 label to see the Platinum silk screen. The features missing are not extensive either; the FR board drops FireWire and an S/PDIF Optical out port while the FIR is only missing the Optical out port.
Fortunately, for us the performance remains the same, as does the support, features, and quality. The only difference is the almost $40 reduction in price, something we can all use. Let's look at the MSI Neo2-FR feature set and performance results. Our findings might just make you sit up and take notice of MSI again.