MSI K8N Diamond (NVIDIA nForce4 SLI) Mainboard Review

A gift from Micro-Star International to all extreme gamers, this new Socket 939 mainboard is ready to amaze you with its support of SLI, integrated Sound Blaster Live!, two Gigabit Ethernet controllers, six Serial ATA II ports and more!

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/27/2005 | 03:40 PM

Soon after the Christmas holidays our test labs were overwhelmed with a surge of Socket 939 mainboards based on NVIDIA nForce4 chipset. This chipset turned out so popular that a lot of mainboard manufacturers expressed their vital desire to introduce products based on this chipset. While only a few companies produce Socket 939 mainboards on the nForce3 Ultra, the nForce4 seems to enjoy a much warmer welcome among the manufacturers.

 

This is natural since NVIDIA is more relied upon as a trusted chipset developer and it has also left VIA behind in implementing the perspective PCI Express bus on the Socket 939 platform.

Among the profusion of nForce4-based mainboards we are primarily interested in products offered by companies who already have experience in designing Socket 939 mainboards on NVIDIA chipsets. Since nForce4 is an evolutionary logical continuation of the nForce3 Ultra, we can expect these companies to offer most advanced, fast and stable solutions.

That’s why we had been looking forward to nForce4 Ultra- and SLI-based mainboards from MSI, who had become famous for its nForce3 Ultra-based K8N Neo2 Platinum. The wait wasn’t that long fortunately, and now we can offer you a review of the K8N Diamond mainboard. Many users fairly considered the K8N Neo2 Platinum to be the best Socket 939 mainboard, so the new K8N Diamond simply has to become another bestseller.

The MSI K8N Diamond is also the first mainboard on the nForce4 SLI chipset we have in our test labs. As you know, this chipset allows using two graphics cards (GeForce 6800 or GeForce 6600) in one computer to parallel the load between them in 3D modes. So, at first sight the MSI K8N Diamond looks like an excellent gift for dedicated gamers that want the maximum possible performance for the highest pleasure in contemporary games. Let’s see if the K8N Diamond can meet their demands as well as those of ordinary PC enthusiasts since the use of the nForce4 SLI inevitably makes this mainboard a costlier purchase than analogous products on the nForce4 Ultra.

Specifications

The MSI K8N Diamond probably has the most imposing looks among all mainboards for the Socket 939 platform:

The number of various connectors this mainboard offers is even frightening at first. MSI stuffed this thing up the way enthusiasts like it. You can clearly see my point not only from the picture, but also from the detailed specification below:

MSI K8N Diamond

CPU

AMD Athlon 64 for Socket 939

Chipset

NVIDIA nForce4 SLI

Hypertransport bus

1 GHz

Clock generator frequencies

190, 200-400MHz (with 1MHz increment)

Overclocking friendly functions

Adjustable Vcore, Vchipset and Vmem;
Independently adjustable PCI/PCI Express bus frequencies.

Memory

4 DDR DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM

PCI Express slots

2 x PCI Express x16

PCI expansion slots

3

USB 2.0 ports

10 (4 – on the rear panel)

IEEE1394 ports

3 (2 – on the rear panel, by VIA VT6306 controller)

ATA-100/133

2 ATA-133 channels

Serial ATA

4 Serial ATA-300 channels (with RAID support in the chipset)
2 Serial ATA-300 channels (with RAID support in the Silicon Image Sil3132 controller)

ATA RAID support

RAID 0, 1, 0+1 in the chipset
RAID 0, 1 in Silicon Image Sil3132 controller

Integrated sound

Creative Sound Blaster Live 24-bit

Integrated LAN

Gigabit Ethernet (via chipset)
Gigabit Ethernet (via Marvell 88E8053 controller)

Additional features

D-LED diagnostic system

BIOS

Phoenix-AwardBIOS v6.00PG

Form-factor

ATX, 304mm x 244mm

The specification needs one comment: the additional Serial ATA RAID controller from Silicon Image is an optional component and is not present on all samples of the K8N Diamond mainboard.

MSI’s product range also includes an analogous mainboard called K8N SLI Platinum which is a little bit less expensive than the K8N Diamond, is based on the nForce4 Ultra and, accordingly, doesn’t support the SLI mode. So, one of the PCI Express x16 slots of the K8N SLI Platinum works as PCI Express x2 on the logical level. Otherwise the two mainboard models are identical.

The K8N Diamond amazes not only with its widest functionality, but also with an extremely rich set of accessories, including:

Of course you have to pay for every item on the list. Due to its complexity and its numerous additional controllers and accessories the MSI K8N Diamond is going to cost close to $300. We think the real adepts won’t be set aback by that, though.

Closer Look

There are no surprises as far as the supported CPUs and memory are concerned: the MSI K8N Diamond can work with any Socket 939 processor of the Athlon 64 family (on ClawHammer, NewCastle, and even the new Winchester core). There are four DIMM slots on the mainboard where you can install DDR400/333/266 SDRAM and use it in the dual-channel mode. The memory slots are color-coded, but unlike with many other Socket 939 mainboards the slots belonging to the same channel have the same color. In other words, you must insert pairs of memory modules into DIMM slots of different colors to enjoy the benefits of dual-channel memory access.

Note that the maximum supported memory size is 4 gigabytes, although the Athlon 64 can address much bigger memory capacities. Moreover, if all four DIMM slots are occupied with dual-sided DDR SDRAM modules, the memory cannot be clocked above 333MHz.

The MSI K8N Diamond offers two PCI Express x16 slots for graphics cards. Ordinarily you should put your graphics card into the slot which is closest to the CPU socket. The second PCI Express x16 slot then works as PCI Express x2, since these interfaces are compatible physically and logically. When you install a pair of identical graphics cards of the GeForce family into the system and enable the SLI mode, both PCI Express x16 slots transform into PCI Express x8 ones.

You select the operational mode of the PCI Express slots of the MSI K8N Diamond by installing a SLI Switch card between them at a certain side. When the card is installed one side up, the SLI switch card configures the slots as PCI Express x16 + PCI Express x2, but when rotated by 180 degrees this card makes the slots work as PCI Express x8 + PCI Express x8.

Besides the PCI Express x16 slots there are three ordinary PCI slots on board. The third slot is colored orange and is intended for the installation of a special wireless card enclosed with the mainboard. The card supports Bluetooth and 802.11g protocols.

I would like to say a few more words about this “wireless” card. Besides the lat PCI slot, this expansion card is also connected to one of the onboard USB ports because its Bluetooth controller is implemented as a USB device, while the PCI interface is only used by the wireless WLAN adapter. This expansion card supports the wireless data-transfer IEEE 802.11b/g protocol and provides a transfer rate of up to 54 Mbps. After installing the software you receive with the card, you can use your computer in the Ad Hoc as well as in the Infrastructure mode. The card can serve as a software access point for up to 31 clients. Thus, using the Wi-Fi kit provided with the MSI K8N Diamond you can deploy a new wireless network or connect to existing ones.

Another exclusive feature of the MSI K8N Diamond mainboard is its unique audio solution. While a majority of mainboard makers prefer to use the AC’97 interface integrated into the nForce4, along with NVIDIA’s driver and nvMixer, MSI decided to take a different way. They gave up the AC’97 sound which is of average quality as our earlier tests showed. Instead, MSI K8N Diamond carries a full-featured hardware PCI audio controller – a SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit from Creative!

In fact, do not get too excited about the sound solution we have just mentioned, but at the same time you will not ever complain about the low sound quality or its insufficient features. Of course, this is not the top-end Audigy2, but a low-end chip, yet it ideally suits gamers with its support of the 7.1 sound and EAX 3.0. The other well-balanced characteristics (24bit/96kHz, 100dB SNR, digital output) make it suitable for all other users, too.

Of course, when it comes to actual testing, the integrated AC’97 sound of the nForce4 chipset turns out absolutely no match for it, as you can see from the table below:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:

+0.07, -0.13

Very good

Noise level, dB (A):

-99.2

Excellent

Dynamic range, dB (A):

94.5

Very good

THD, %:

0.0067

Very good

IMD, %:

0.013

Very good

Stereo crosstalk, dB:

-100.0

Excellent

IMD at 10 kHz, %:

0.013

Very good

General performance: Very good

So, MSI’s decision to use a discrete PCI controller from Creative instead of the integrated audio seems absolutely reasonable. A majority of owners of the MSI K8N Diamond should be happy with the sound quality they are getting and shouldn’t worry at all about purchasing an add-on audio card.

The SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit supports seven audio connectors: five audio jacks and optical and coaxial SPDIF outputs.

The MSI K8N Diamond still has surprises aplenty, particularly in terms of hard disk drives support. MSI thought the chipset alone would be not enough and added a Serial ATA RAID controller - SiI3132 from Silicon Image. As a result, the chipset of MSI K8N Diamond supports two Parallel ATA channels (for up to four devices) and four Serial ATA II channels (these drives can be combined into RAID arrays of level 0, 1 and 0+1). Besides that, there are two Serial ATA II channels implemented in the Silicon Image controller (the drives attached to the controller can be combined into RAID arrays of level 0 or 1). So, this mainboard offers you as many as six channels for your Serial ATA II devices.

Note also that the SiI3132 controller used on this board belongs to the new generation of Serial ATA RAID circuitry. Besides complying with the Serial ATA II specification (3GB/s data-transfer rate, “hot swapping”, Native Command Queuing, connection of two devices per channel) it works across the PCI Express x1 rather than PCI interface. Theoretically this should ensure higher transfer rate than the previous generation Serial ATA RAID controllers provided.

In this case, it would be interesting to compare the two SATA controllers available on the MSI K8N Diamond, to find out which one is more efficient. We carried out a brief performance test for a RAID0 array made up of Raptor WD360GD drives from Western Digital, attached first to the chipset controller and then to the SiI3132. We measured the performance of the array in the HDD test set from Futuremark PCMark04:

 

Silicon Image Sil3132

NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra

Overall

5883

7105

XP Startup, KB/sec

10340

12672

Application Loading, KB/sec

7656

9158

File Copying, KB/sec

47959

55155

General HDD Usage, KB/sec

7250

9026

The numbers of the dual-channel Serial ATA II controller integrated in the nForce4 chipset are notably higher in this test than those of the SiI3132, so we recommend that you first use the Serial ATA connectors the chipset is responsible for and leave the external controller’s ones in reserve. Another argument in favor of using the chipset Serial ATA controller is the configuration utility nvRAID that simplifies the management of disk arrays from Windows. There are no analogs of this program for the Silicon Image SiI3132.

Speaking about the peculiarities of this mainboard solution, we should mention that as the specification says, the MSI K8N Diamond is equipped with two Gigabit Ethernet controllers. We already know the capabilities of the one integrated into the nForce4 Ultra/SLI chipset – its key feature is the hardware network protection tool aka ActiveArmor thanks to which NVIDIA’s firewall puts a small load on the processor when filtering network packets. The second controller is an external Marvell Yukon 88E8053 chip and we are familiar with it too, since it is often installed on i925/i915-based mainboards. This controller is connected via the PCI Express x1 bus and is capable of achieving data-transfer speeds close to the theoretical peak of 1Gbit/s in real life.

Let’s then compare the two network controllers, to see which one works faster on MSI K8N Diamond. We used the NTttcp utility from Microsoft Windows NT DDK as a measurement tool. We disabled NVIDIA Firewall 2.0 for this test session.

 

Marvell Yukon 88E8053

NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra/SLI

Data packet size

1500

9000

1500
(AA On)

1500
(AA Off)

9000
(AA On)

9000
(AA Off)

Bandwidth, Mbit/s

953.2

987.0

890.0

947.1

933.1

958.2

CPU utilization (Athlon 64 3800+)

43.9%

17.3%

20.9%

31.9%

12.0%

19.0%

As you see, the Marvell Yukon chip is better in terms of bandwidth, but loads the CPU more, especially if we compare it to the nForce4 with enabled hardware ActiveArmor.

The MSI K8N Diamond also carries three 400 Mbps IEEE1394a ports – courtesy of the VIA VT6306 chip. One of the ports is laid out at the mainboard rear panel, and two more are onboard pin-connectors. To make these pins available to you, you can use the FireWire bracket enclosed with the mainboard. One of the bracket ports is 6-pin, the other is 4-pin.

At last, the MSI K8N Diamond supports ten USB 2.0 ports: four at the rear panel, and six on the PCB. As I have mentioned above, you get a D-Bracket 2 with the mainboard – this bracket for the back panel of the system case carries two additional High-Speed USB ports and a diagnostics D-LED system consisting of four two-color light emitting diode indicators.

The D-LED works in a very simple way: different combinations of the indicators correspond to different phases of the POST procedure. If there is a problem during the boot-up process, the user can diagnose the cause (looking up the meaning of the indicator combination in the manual). That’s not a very serious diagnostics system, but it definitely better than nothing. It can’t match full-featured POST controllers, but at least shows the main phases of the POST.

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.

BIOS and Overclocking

The BIOS of MSI K8N Diamond is based on the microcode from Award-Phoenix and differs but slightly from the BIOSes of similar products. There are all the necessary options in the BIOS Setup to configure the mainboard and its integrated controllers. We’d like to note that there are no options to set the SLI mode: everything is set on the hardware level (by the SLI Switch card) with the help of the driver.

Let’s get right to the overclocking-related options which are located on a separate page in the BIOS Setup (its name, Cell Menu, must have been called in honor of the CoreCell chip that’s responsible for overclocking and monitoring on the mainboard).

Here you can do the following:

This is overall a sufficient menu of options. The mainboard even permits to considerably lift up the voltage on the memory and the chipset, which can be useful during extreme overclocking. The CPU voltage range is somewhat narrow, however. The maximum core voltage you can set is 1.68V – overclockers might think it is too low.

We should also note that the BIOS Setup of the MSI K8N Diamond, as well as BIOSes of other mainboards of this manufacturer, features Dynamic Overclocking Technology (D.O.T.). The point of this D.O.T. is in increasing the frequency of the clock generator above the default when the CPU load is 100 percent. The user can set up the value of this overclocking to 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11% of the default frequency of the clock generator (200MHz).

As for the memory timings, there is hardly any board out there to compete with MSI K8N Diamond in this respect. The BIOS Setup allows configuring the basic timings Tcl, Trcd, Tras, Trp, but also controlling the 1T/2T Memory Timings mode and adjusting a number of secondary parameters of the memory subsystem. The memory-related settings are found on a separate page in the BIOS Setup where you can also select the memory frequency from a wide range of values: 100, 120, 133, 140, 150, 166, 180 and 200MHz.

Now let’s see what you can achieve with an MSI K8N Diamond at practical overclocking. We will try to determine the maximum frequency of the clock generator at which the mainboard keeps stable. We took an Athlon 64 3800+ (2.4GHz default frequency) for our tests and reduced its frequency multiplier to 8x. For the memory not to limit the results, we dropped its clock rate to what it was sure to support.

As usual we first tried to find the maximum of the clock generator frequency at which the mainboard would be stable. The frequency multiplier of the HyperTransport bus was equal to x5 in this case. We found this value pretty soon as it was close to the same value with the earlier-tested nForce4 Ultra-based mainboards. The maximum clock generator frequency when our MSI K8N Diamond remained stable was 235MHz.

To continue our overclocking experiments we reduced the HyperTransport multiplier to 4x. This helped us raise the clock generator frequency to 291MHz. The system was stable at that frequency, but couldn’t pass the POST or would hang up altogether if we added just one more megahertz to that value.

Unfortunately, that was the best result we got with the MSI K8N Diamond. We couldn’t go on overclocking even after we had dropped the HyperTransport multiplier to x3. Even with this multiplier the system refused to boot up at the clock generator frequencies exceeding 291MHz. Tweaking other parameters like the width of the HyperTransport bus, the chipset voltage and others didn’t help us, either.

It is possible that the relatively low overclockability of the MSI K8N Diamond should be cured in the BIOS. We have some hope for the better with new BIOS versions, because we did manage to boot the mainboard up at more than 291MHz of the clock generator frequency once, but the board was very unstable and besides, we couldn’t repeat this result again.

So, the outcome of our overclocking experiments is put down in the following table:

MSI K8N Diamond

HyperTransport frequency multiplier

5x

4x

3x

2x

Max. clock generator frequency

235 MHz

291 MHz

-

-

HyperTransport frequency

1175 MHz

1164 MHz

-

-

Although we found the MSI K8N Diamond capable of overclocking, it currently performs worse than the two nForce4 Ultra-based mainboards we have already tested earlier. This may be caused by higher complexity of the nForce4 SLI chipset in comparison to the nForce4 Ultra. We will check out this supposition later, in reviews of other mainboards based on these chipsets which are already waiting for their turn to be tested.

And in the meanwhile let’s continue our discussion of the BIOS features supported by MSI K8N Diamond mainboard. As for the remaining features of the BIOS Setup, the MSI K8N Diamond supports Cool’n’Quiet technology which reduces the CPU frequency when its load is low. D.O.T. and Cool’n’Quiet can work simultaneously, by the way. So if the CPU load is low, its frequency and voltage are reduced, but when the CPU load is close to maximum, it is overclocked above its default frequency.

The CoreCell chip of the MSI K8N Diamond mainboard features another interesting function: it can control the speed of the CPU cooler depending on the CPU temperature. You can set the optimal temperature in the BIOS Setup of the mainboard and the fan speed will be adjusted to keep the CPU at that particular temperature.

Software

The configuring and monitoring software shipped with the MSI K8N Diamond consists of programs developed by NVIDIA for its nForce4 SLI chipset and of utilities developed by MSI.

We already discussed NVIDIA’s part of the software bundle (nTune, nvMixer, nvRAID, and Network Access Manager). However, I have to stress that nTune works almost without any problems with the MSI K8N Diamond mainboard, unlike other mainboards, but this utility is a beta version so far and some of its promised functions are yet unavailable.

MSI supplies quite a number of its own utilities, among which:

Testbed and Methods

Finishing our review of the MSI K8N Diamond mainboard we would like to offer you the results of our performance tests. We will compare the speed of this mainboard with that of the earlier tested EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra and Chaintech VNF4 Ultra VE (both based on the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset), and to the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum which is based on NVIDIA’s previous generation chipset, the nForce3 Ultra. For the tests to be correct we had to use two analogous graphics cards on the RADEON X800 XT GPU with AGP 8x and PCI Express x16 interfaces. Otherwise the test systems were identical.

So, we used the following hardware in our performance tests:

We performed our tests in Windows XP SP2.

Performance

The results of the tests indicate that the MSI K8N Diamond is faster than the competing solutions on the nForce4 Ultra in a number of applications. The curious thing about it is the fact that these applications are also the ones where MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum based in the nForce3 Ultra is very fast. Two mainboards on different chipsets just can’t behave so similarly! So, we decided it is worth taking a closer look at this suspicious situation.

It was easy to find the explanation, actually: the MSI engineers just give a good fine-tuning to the memory controller integrated into the Athlon 64 processor. Optimizing auxiliary memory timings of the memory controller, mainboards from MSI can show higher performance than usual in some cases.

You can use the A64 Tweaker utility to see the difference in the memory controller settings on MSI mainboards and other makers’ mainboards. This useful utility can display and correct all the parameters of the Athlon 64 memory controller.


The memory controller settings on the MSI K8N Diamond


The memory controller settings on the EPoX 9NPA+ Ultra

Thus, high speed of MSI mainboards in certain applications can be very easily explained. It is possible due to the tweaking of the memory controller timings, which theoretically can be made on any mainboard for the Athlon 64. Note, though, that MSI’s optimization sometimes has an opposite effect: there are applications where MSI mainboards lose significantly to the competing solutions. So, it’s hard to say definitely if these optimizations are good or bad.

But now we can objectively compare the speed of the new PCI Express NVIDIA nForce4 chipset with the speed of the nForce3 Ultra as we have two MSI mainboards that identically configure the memory controllers. And the comparison shows that these two chipsets are really very close in their speeds.

Conclusion

MSI K8N Diamond is the first mainboard based on the nForce4 SLI chipset we have tested. Besides the SLI mode (we will examine this particular technology in more detail in our upcoming articles), this chipset has brought no other surprises and performs almost like the nForce4 Ultra. Well, we have some suppositions about its worse overclockability, but we need to check them out first before making any statements.

As for the particular mainboard, the K8N Diamond from MSI, it is a good choice for an extreme gamer’s computer. However, you shouldn’t forget that the price of top-end mainboards, thanks to NVIDIA and MSI, has closely approached the $300 mark. Are you ready to pay this money for an excellent mainboard with SLI and integrated SoundBlaster Live!?

Highs:

Lows: