Articles: Mainboards

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PCB Design

We have been rather skeptical about the design of nForce4-based mainboards we have reviewed so far, mostly because NVIDIA’s reference design is far from perfect from the end-user’s point of view. And we’ve been kind of ready to repeat our boring whining in every other review of a mainboard of that type.

Fortunately, our gloomy forecasts about the mainboard design vanished when we took the MSI K8N Diamond mainboard. The reviewed MSI K8N Diamond can be regarded as a perfect example of how connectors, slots and chips must be placed on the printed circuit board. Although there are a lot of additional devices onboard, MSI engineers managed to find the most practical way of putting them all together on a single PCB.

So, the IDE and FDD connectors are located in front of the memory slots. The extended 24-pin power connector (compatible with the older 20-pin one) is also found there. A majority of pin-connectors for additional ports are moved to the left side of the board. The installation of massive CPU coolers is not hindered by anything. The Clear CMOS jumper is easily accessible. All these minor details contribute to the positive impression left by MSI K8N Diamond. Still, you can find a few things, which could have been done in a better way, and this mainboard is no exception. For example, the additional 12V ATX power connector still remains behind the CPU socket.

However, the main problem of the MSI K8N Diamond is not the placement of the slots and connectors, but a total lack of expansion slots. It’s more or less acceptable when there’s only one graphics card in the system, but if the SLI mode is enabled and a pair of graphics cards is installed, you don’t have any PCI Express slots left at all. Moreover, you’ll have problems with the PCI slots, too. The PCI slot located near the second PCI Express x16 slot will be blocked by the graphics card cooling system, and the last (orange) PCI slot is supposed to be occupied by the wireless network card. So you have only one PCI slot left and that may be insufficient even considering the numerous onboard controllers available on this mainboard.

Taught by our bitter experience with the Chaintech board, we now pay more attention to the chipset cooler. The one on the MSI K8N Diamond looks all right. The manufacturer provided the chipset with an active cooling solution, so we shouldn’t have any more negative experience with that. If we take a closer look, however, this cooler doesn’t look that good. The heatsink used underneath the fan is an aluminum plate with curved-in sides which cooling surface isn’t very large at all. That’s why they had to make the fan rotate at a speed of 6000rpm – and that’s rather noisy.

The CPU voltage regulation module is designed according to a three-channel scheme. Nine small MOSFETs are used in this circuit and they become perceptibly hot at work. They are equipped with an active heat-pipe-based cooler. The cooler even has a proper name – Active MOS 2.

This seemingly efficient design is still questionable from the practical standpoint. Our concerns arise from the strange thermal interface between the MOSFET and the cooler which looks like some old-fashioned insulation tape.

So, to make your K8N Diamond more reliable, you should change the chipset cooler and replace the thermal interface between the MOSFETs and the Active MOS 2.

As for the capacitors used on the PCB, you shouldn’t worry about them at all. MSI took capacitors from Rubycon and Nichicon, which have a reputation of reliable component makers.

The back panel of the MSI K8N Diamond is quite standard and carries two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, one serial and one parallel port, four High-Speed USB ports, a six-pin IEEE1394 port, two RJ-45 network connectors with LED indicators, five audio jacks, optical and coaxial SPDIF outputs.

In conclusion to this section of the review we would like to allow ourselves to complain a little. We found the MSI K8N Diamond incompatible with some of our test hardware components. These problems will probably be solved in the future BIOS updates, but our sample of the mainboard refused to work with a Maxtor MaXLine III 250GB hard disk drive and a Pioneer DVD-120S DVD-ROM drive.

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