09/08/2008 | 07:16 PM
Everyone was very much interested in Intel P45 Express based mainboards long before the actual chipset launch. News editors had been warning us that we shouldn’t expect any significant changes compared with the previous core logic sets. Pessimists gave a sign full of regret and decided to wait for the next generation of Intel processors for LGA 1366 and LGA 1160 form-factor with the corresponding mainboards. Optimists did in fact find a lot of good in the current state of things, because it meant that the mainboard makers would have to be creative to make us buy new Intel P45 Express based mainboards. They should most likely acquire some new interesting functionality, useful and purely marketing new technologies with beautiful names. Moreover, some information about new overclocking-friendly features of these boards that leaked from the mainboard developer labs seemed to make computer enthusiasts pretty excited already and they looked forward to checking them out in real life.
However the first mass production mainboards on Intel P45 Express created a very short-term excitement followed by slight disappointment. ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP @n and Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3 mainboards that we have already tested in our labs turned out just OK in terms of performance and functionality, but nothing beyond that. We didn’t feel ready to trade the good old mainboards in our systems for the new one. Today we have the opportunity to meet one more solution on the new Intel chipset from a well-known manufacturer – Micro-Star Company. However, before we start our discussion of the new MSI P45 Platinum, let’s take a quick look at the features and functionality of all solutions in the new MSI series.
MSI P45 Neo is the youngest in the line-up. It is a common entry-level solution without any extras onboard:
Overclocking fans may be disappointed, but this board is not designed for them. It is targeted for office systems or simple home PC and meant to be installed into the system case, configured once and for all. COM and LPT ports on the connectors panel will ensure compatibility with older peripheral devices.
The mere looks of it suggest that MSI P45 Neo3 is more pretentious than the previous model: the chipset cooler uses heatpipes, there is an additional controller bringing additional Serial ATA ports (the board has 8 of them).
There are a few les noticeable changes. For instance, the chipset North Bridge voltage regulator circuitry is now dual-phase, all throttles are screened, only solid-state capacitors are used. A lot of PCI slots and the same connector panel as by the previous model ensure compatibility with old expansion cards and peripherals.
MSI P45 Platinum is one of the most interesting mainboards in the line-up. It is equipped with advanced Circu-Pipe 2 chipset cooling system, a second PCI Express x16 slot, and additional IEEE1394 controller and uses Intel ICH10R South Bridge with RAID support.
Now not only the chipset North Bridge, but also the memory has dual-phase voltage regulator circuitry. There is an additional controller that delivers an eSATA port to the rear panel. There are six USB 2.0 ports, a Clear CMOS button and an optical S/PDIF.
Economical overclockers should be interested in MSI P45 Neo2 mainboard, because it uses the same PCB layout as MSI P45 Platinum.
The chipset cooling system is a little simpler, there is no IEEE1394 and no additional eSATA that is why MSI P45 Neo2 has the funniest connector panel of all mainboards in the family:
MSI P45 Platinum PCB design was used for one more mainboard: MSI P45D3 Platinum. The only difference is the supported memory type: MSI P45D3 Platinum works with DDR3 SDRAM.
MSI P45 Diamond is the top mainboard in the family and it also works with DDR3 SDRAM. Eight-channel sound is not integrated onto the board, there is a separate daughter card called Creative X-FI. The free room on the connector panel was taken by the second Gigabit network card, second eSATA port and additional USB 2.0 ports, so that there are 8 of them now.
MSI P45 Diamond mainboard uses enhanced Hi-CAP solid-state capacitors in the processor voltage regulator circuitry. However, the first thing that will attract your attention is the hybrid chipset cooler that can be part of a liquid-cooling system or be air-cooled.
Six different mainboard models are more than enough to satisfy all users starting with the least demanding ones and finishing with the dedicated enthusiasts. This line-up used to look like this until recently, when MSI announced one more mainboard on Intel P45 Express in the end of August. It is called MSI P45-8D Memory Lover. At this time there is merely the press release. We do not have detailed mainboard specifications yet at our disposal. This is going to be a mainstream solution with two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots for graphics cards and a not very sophisticated chipset cooler using heatpipes technology. The board will support DDR2 as well as DDR3 SDRAM. However, its main peculiarity is the 8 DIMM slots: 4 for each memory type.
MSI P45 Platinum mainboard is the best-balanced solution. It is not as simple as MSI P45 Neo3, and not as complicated as MSI P45 Diamond. Unlike MSI P45D3 Platinum, it supports more widely spread DDR2 SDRAM. As a result, we selected this particular solution - MSI P45 Platinum – to get acquainted with the entire lineup of Micro-Star mainboards on Intel P45 Express chipset.
MSI P45 Platinum comes in a pretty vertical box with a convenient carry handle. The front of the package is decorated with a cute scary creature, while the back of the box lists the major mainboard specifications and bears a photograph of it.
Among the bundled accessories you will get traditional FDD and IDE cables, Serial ATA cables and SATA power adapters and an I/O Shield for the case rear panel. Moreover, there is a bracket with an IEEE1394 port and two USB ports, a Crossfire bridge and an M-Connectors block making it easy to connect cables to the front panel ports, audio, USB and IEEE1394 connectors.
As usual, MSI includes two CD-disks with drivers and utilities: one for Windows XP operating system and another one for Windows Vista; a poster with brief installation instructions and a user’s manual.
This time we also found an additional CD-disk with HDD Backup utility and a small brochure with instructions to it. The utility allows saving an image of a given HDD partition on a different HDD or in a different partition and restore any data when necessary. The only drawback is the fact that this utility only works with partitions formatted for FAT, FAT32 or NTFS file systems.
MSI P45 Platinum PCB layout looks very smart and well thought through. It features a number of interesting peculiarities and uses several unique technologies.
However, we are going to start our discussion of MSI P45 Platinum features with its futuristic looking Circu-Pipe 2 chipset cooling system that makes an unforgettable impression when you see it for the first time:
The chipset cooling system of MSI P45 Platinum consists of four heatsinks and five heatpipes. The central heatsink turned out pretty big that is why they use screws to fasten it. All other heatsinks use traditional plastic retention clips. Thanks to large heat dissipating surface of the heatsinks and efficient heat transfer by the heatpipes, no additional cooling is necessary and the system is absolutely noiseless.
Two heatpipes come out of the small heatsink on top of the chipset South Bridge. They go to the chipset North Bridge heatsink with a massive trapezoid-shaped base plate. These heatpipes bent in a very sophisticated manner above the North Bridge heatsink and feature blocks of plates on the ends. Three other heatpipes start with the same plate blocks above the chipset North Bridge. Two of them then go to the large heatsink on half of MOSFET transistors, which also has an additional section on the back of the board. The fifth heatpipe goes through this heatsink and ends at the fourth heatsink covering the remaining MOSFET. Although there are a lot of heatsinks around the processor socket, there is enough room for any large processor coolers.
I have to say that transistors of the five-phase processor voltage regulator are MSI’s special pride. They are made with DrMOS technology, i.e. each chip is a combination of three micro-chips: two MOSFET transistors and an Integrated Driver-MOSFET – DrMOS. This technology has a lot of advantages: longer MTBF, more efficient power usage, lower heat dissipation. MSI pays a lot of attention to power-saving technologies and functions combined into GreenPower Features group. The number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry may vary dynamically depending on the workload. The memory and chipset North Bridge have dual-phase circuitry however they may also switch into single-phase mode when necessary.
We only have to mention that 8-pin and 24-pin power connectors as well as the FDD connector are very conveniently located. So now we can move on to the lower part of the mainboard PCB.
Intel ICH10R South Bridge provides a block of six Serial ATA connectors on the right side of the PCB. An IDE connector in front of them and two more SATA connectors nearby are implemented via JMicron JMB363 controller. Numerous USB connectors, front panel button and indicator connectors and IEEE1394 connectors have lined up along the lower side of the PCB. It is interesting that they used a JMicron JMB381 and not a traditional chip from VIA or Texas Instruments as a FireWire controller.
Like most other mainboards on Intel P45 Express chipset, MSI P45 Platinum is equipped with two PCI Express 2.0 x16 graphics card slots. They are spaced out quite significantly. However, there are only two PCI slots, so you should keep it in mind especially when you intend to use two graphics cards at the same time. Between the PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots there is a Clear CMOS jumper and a couple of jumpers switching the FSB frequency to 200, 266, 333 or 400MHz. These jumpers are part of RapidBoost Features group that ensure maximum system performance. Namely, they claim that it may be hard to overclock a processor with 200MHz nominal FSB speed to 400MHz FSB, because it means you will increase the FSB frequency by 100%. However, if you increase the startup frequency in advance, you may be able to achieve the desired goal. It could be true, however, our previous tests of MSI P35 Platinum and MSI P35 Platinum Combo mainboards featuring the same jumpers revealed a FSB Strap, i.e. recurring performance drop with 66MHz increment. Luckily, this time we didn’t detect anything like that.
Clear CMOS jumper function is duplicated by the same button o the mainboard rear panel. Besides, this button, there are also PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse, six USB 2.0 ports, one IEEE1394 port, a network RJ45 (Gigabit network is implemented by Realtek RTL8111C controller), eSATA (an additional JMicron JMB362 controller) and optical S/PDIF and six audio-jacks (8-channel sound is provided by Realtek ALC888 codec).
MSI P45 Platinum has 29 LEDs all over the PCB, most of which are blue. Luckily, they do not light up all at once. There are five LEDs along the top edge of the PCB (LED 21-25) that indicate how many phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry are active. LED 26-27 and LED 28-29 have pretty similar role: they indicate how many voltage regulator phases are active in the memory and chipset North Bridge circuitries respectively. LED 3 indicator lights up when the mainboard receives power, and LED 16 – when the mainboard starts. An LED group a little below the South Bridge replaces the POST indicator. The combinations of green and red lights tell you at what stage the booting stopped. Finally, there is a special personal LED next to each expansion slot that lights up when there is a card installed in it.
The scheme below will give you a better idea of the components location:
Among the indisputable advantages we have to point out six fan connectors (one of them is a four-pin processor connector), Power On and Reset buttons. As for the drawbacks, we have to remind you that the installed graphics card will block the DIMM slot locks and stress once again that there are only two PCI connectors onboard.
All in all, MSI P45 Platinum makes a very good impression.
As usual, we would like to wind up our discussion of the mainboard functionality with the detailed list of its technical specifications:
MSI P45 Platinum uses BIOS based on the code from American Megatrends, Inc. v02.61. However, we can’t say that we are familiar with all its features. There are quite a few new interesting functions there worth discussing.
You may think that there is hardly anything unique about the very first section called Standard CMOS Features, because it normally contains basic info about the current date, time and storage devices:
However, it is for the first time that the Floppy Drive A is “Not Installed” by default. It is actually a very smart decision, because most contemporary computers do not have the FDD any more and I personally am very tired of constantly disabling the useless controller on each new mainboard and after each BIOS update.
System Information section contains basic info about the system CPU, memory and the current BIOS version:
There is nothing new in the Advanced BIOS Features section, the list of available parameters is pretty common:
However, please keep in mind that there are a few processor related options in this section. Moreover, the power-saving technologies support is disabled by default.
Integrated Peripherals section also has nothing new to offer…
… just like the Power Management Setup section:
H/W Monitor section has pretty standard set of options, too. We can adjust the rotation speed of three fans out of six that can be connected to the board. The CPU fan rotation speed will only be adjustable if it is connected to a four-pin connector. Besides, we can monitor basic temperatures, fan rotation speeds and voltages.
The next section is called GreenPower and it is the first time we come across it. as you may have already guessed from the name, there are options for adjusting the power-saving technologies. We have come across similar functions on ASUS and Gigabyte mainboards, however, MSI mainboards boast a unique option. They allow enabling workload dependent dynamic switching of active phases in the processor, memory and chipset North Bridge voltage regulators right from the BIOS and not through any additional utilities.
We will definitely dwell on the power-saving abilities of MSI P45 Platinum mainboard during our practical test session, and now let’s move on to the next section called Cell Menu. It contains all overclocking related functionality in a very convenient and illustrative form:
The first two parameters are informational, they report the current CPU and memory frequencies. The new parameter for us is Multi-step OC Booster that also belongs to the RapidBoost Features group. Multi-step overclocking can be performed in two different ways: Mode 1 and Mode 2. In the first case the board starts in nominal mode and speeds up to the set values only when the OS is booting. In the second case the mainboard overclocks only partially during initial boot-up and hits maximum speeds only when OS boots. This way overclockers may avoid any problems caused by over-overclocking at the initial boot-up. As you understand, this multi-step overclocking procedure will not add any stability to the system, but you will still be able to boot the OS and set a few records if the system is destined to fail during POST or a little later.
The next two parameters control processor power-saving technologies. If you disable Intel EIST, you will be able to adjust the CPU clock frequency multiplier and for 45nm CPUs you will also get half-multipliers. Frankly speaking, it is not very convenient that C1E support still has to be enabled/disabled from the CPU Feature sub-section. Adjust CPU FSB Frequency allows increasing the FSB frequency up to 800MHz. The expected CPU frequency resulting from the FSB and multiplier changes will be reported by Adjusted CPU FSB Frequency parameter.
The next group deals with the memory modules operation. Unfortunately, we uncovered the first mistake even before the test session: from the Cell Menu screenshot. FSB/DRAM Ratio parameter is set to Auto, and the informational Adjusted DRAM Frequency parameter reports 1067MHz memory speed. However, in reality the memory works at 800MHz, as you can see from the other informational parameter called Current DRAM Frequency and from Windows diagnostic utilities. At the same time, the board can handle 1067MHz memory frequency, if you select the corresponding memory divider from the list manually:
Enhance Setting parameter appeared only in the last BIOS version 1.3. It is at Auto by default, however you may change it to Enabled or Disabled. According to the explanatory commentary, it will be useful during memory overclocking, especially if it works in dual-channel mode. However, we didn’t detect any visible effect from enabling or disabling this parameter during our practical experiments.
Advance DRAM Configuration leads you to a separate page where you can change the major memory timings:
If you switch Advance Memory Setting to Manual, you will get access to additional timings, separately for each of the channels:
It is very convenient that each parameter may be set to Auto, i.e. we can only change selected timings and leave all others at defaults. It is only a pity there are no current values anywhere to be found. However, the nominal timing settings recorded in the modules SPD can now be viewed with MEMORY-Z parameter.
The board allows reading extensive information on EPP memory modules functionality. However, the modules we used this time do not support this feature, so we won’t be able to learn anything useful here.
By the way, you can check the default timings for all the memory modules at any time and from any BIOS section. Just press F5:
The next group of parameters deals with chipset fine tuning. Auto Disable DRAM/PCI Frequency disables the vacant memory DIMM and PCI slots to reduce the EMI. Adjust PCI Frequency parameter maintains the PCI frequency at its default speed of 33.3MHz. ClockGen Tuner parameter opens an additional menu:
The next parameter group is assigned to processor, memory and chipset voltages. These can be adjusted with variable increments. I wish they also reported the current voltage settings, however, it is good to have high values highlighted in warning red. The supported value intervals are pretty wide:
The very last parameter from the Cell Menu section is Enabled by default. It should eliminate EMI distortions, however, you’d better disable it for the sake of stability during overclocking.
User Settings section allows saving and loading the BIOS settings profiles. Starting with version 1.1 the number of available profiles increased from 2 to 4, although it is still impossible to name them or give a brief description.
So, the BIOS of MSI P45 Platinum can offer us not only basic system configuration options, not only all necessary parameters for successful overclocking, but also a number of unique and rare functions. Among them are the ability to enable/disable power-saving technologies right from the BIOS, multi-step overclocking and ability to check immediately the default timings. There are also a few drawbacks, such as pretty modest monitoring functionality and absence of current default values for the timings and voltages.
Now it is time to check out this board’s potential during our practical experiments.
We are going to test MSI P45 Platinum mainboard in an open testbed built with the following components:
Let’s start with the good things first: power-saving technologies of MSI P45 Platinum. If you enable GreenPower in the mainboard BIOS, you will see the effect right away: the number of lit LEDs indicating the number of active phases in the CPU voltage regulator circuitry will go from 5 to 1 or 2. If the workload increases, so will the number of active phases, but it will not usually exceed 4. I could only see five lit LEDs when running IntelBurnTest on the overclocked system. Memory will also switch to single-phase power supply using the second phase occasionally. As for the chipset North Bridge, it seems to be always using both phases of its voltage regulator, because the two LEDs are always on.
LEDs are great, but what are the real numbers of this power-saving effect? ASUS and Gigabyte mainboards use similar technologies, however the relative estimates we have come across so far were around 50% or even 80%. Seems pretty impressive at first glance, but if the power consumption is only 1W then the savings will be 0.8W, which you will barely notice. However, it is for the first time that we in fact saw a real value of 7W mentioned in MSI marketing materials. A saving like that will be really hard to overlook especially with a device we use in our labs for that matter: Extech Power Analyzer 380803.
The measuring technique is fairly simple. As you already know, Extech Power Analyzer measures the power consumption of the entire system without the monitor. At first we booted Microsoft Windows Vista SP1 OS, waited for all the activity to stop and then took the idle reading. After that we launched FPU test from S&M utility and took the reading in burn mode. The tests were performed with GreenPower disabled and then enabled in the MSI P45 Platinum mainboard BIOS. All the results are summed up in the table below:
The results prove that the power-saving technologies on MSI P45 Platinum allow saving about 5-6W of power in idle more as well as under workload. GreenPower technology from MSI has a few significant advantages compared with the similar technologies from ASUS and Gigabyte. First of all, GreenPower doesn’t require any additional utilities, just enable it in the mainboard BIOS. Secondly, all power-saving technologies will work on MSI mainboards even if the CPU has been overclocked.
MSI P45 Platinum can adjust the system power consumption automatically depending on the workload. If you want to be in control and participate in the process, you may install GreenPower Center utility. Unfortunately, there is no separate installer for it, so it will be installed together with MSI CoreCenter utility.
We are already familiar with MSI CoreCenter from the previous reviews. Just check out our article called DDR2 or DDR3: MSI P35 Platinum Combo Mainboard Review. The utility will launch automatically at start-up. After that you will see a new button with a logo looking like an apple and a power-on button at the same time right beneath the D.O.T. This button launches the GreenPower Center:
This utility controls different aspects of CPU, memory and chipset North Bridge functioning, such as temperatures, number of active voltage regulator phases and, of course, power consumption. You may optimize the parameters automatically, or set them manually, you may even switch to extreme savings mode by settings the voltages below their nominal values. You can save the settings profile and the utility will keep pleasing your sight with the power savings in watts and percentage.
Before starting our overclocking experiments, both – MSI CoreCenter and GreenPower Center – were removed to avoid any additional interference. However, unfortunately, he results turned out not very good. We lowered the clock frequency multiplier of our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor to the minimal value of 6x and reduced the memory frequency in order to determine the maximum FSB frequency when MSI P45 Platinum could remain stable. However, we couldn’t get the system to run stably even at 500MHz FSB. There was one time when almost all BIOS settings were left at Auto and the board worked at 520MHz FSB for a while, but we couldn’t repeat this success again. We checked out multi-step overclocking option after we had increased the starting frequency to 400MHz with the corresponding jumpers and raised the voltages, but all in vain. In the end we managed to overclock the CPU to its maximum frequency, but only with the default multiplier so that the FSB frequency didn’t have to be increased too much.
The tests performed with a quad-core Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 processor also turned out pretty disappointing. We had to stop at 445MHz FSB, which is a little below average and is way lower than what this CPU is capable of, as we saw on other mainboards.
Anyway, we didn’t pay too much attention to the obtained results. The thing is that MSI P45 Platinum mainboard sample we got had a few physical defects, so we couldn’t be absolutely certain that they had no effect on the results. Therefore, we didn’t rush to draw any hasty conclusions and waited for a replacement sample that was kindly provided to us by MSI.
This time we got a mainboard revision 1.1 instead of 1.0. We didn’t notice any exterior differences from the previous revision, both boards looks identical, even resistor nominals were the same. The only difference that we noticed immediately is that the new board uses much more convenient jumper caps with long tails. Of course, I doubt that anyone will introduce a new mainboard revision for the sake of different jumpers. The differences have to be internal.
Unfortunately, we didn’t notice any improvements during our overclocking experiments. We still couldn’t get even close to 500MHz, however, the system booted at 510MHz with the voltages set at Auto in the mainboard BIOS. In this case the smart BIOS of MSI P45 Platinum mainboard increases the voltages. So what voltage settings do we need for stability? The limited functionality of the H/W Monitor section allows us only to check the CU Vcore, which you can also get from any other utilities, such as CPU-Z or HWMonitor. To get ore details we had to install MSI CoreCenter, which once again disappointed us. When the memory and chipset NB voltages increased, the utility reported them being at close to nominal values. And the other way around: when the voltages remained nominal and the CPU was not overclocked, the utility scared us with twice the voltage on the chipset North Bridge.
Moreover, when we worked with this utility, the system froze twice so that we had to use Reset button. However, GreenPower Center proved unexpectedly great. MSI CoreCenter can only tell us the memory voltage and chipset NB voltage, while GreenPower Center also reports South Bridge voltage, VTT FSB Voltage, CPU GTL REF Voltage, DDR VREF Voltage and MCH GTL REF Voltage. And most importantly, it shows the correct value for all these voltages. At least they were very close to what was actually set in the BIOS.
You can’t get rid that easily of MSI CoreCenter that boots every time you load the OS. However, MSCONFIG utility came to rescue. As a result, we managed to use the advantages of GreenPower Center monitoring tool. As we found out, at 510MHz FSB the mainboard sets the chipset NB voltage at 1.436V, which is just a little lower than what we set manually at first. However, the VTT FSB Voltage increased to 1.32V, which is way lower than our manual setting of 1.45V. Could we have set the FSB bus voltage too high by mistake?
Let’s check it out by setting the VTT FSB Voltage to 1.45V without changing anything else. The OS boots, but Prime95 utility reports an error immediately. The same result with 1.4V and 1.35V settings. It seems that VTT FSB Voltage cannot be raised too much for successful overclocking. And what about the chipset North Bridge voltage? We increased it only to 1.46V and got an error message in Prime95 in less than a minute. Well, what if we return these voltages to their “correct” values of 1.32V and 1.436V that the board used in Auto mode? No, no Fatal Error this time: the OS simply didn’t boot at all having displayed the dramatic blue BSOD.
Unfortunately, there are no “correct” or “incorrect” voltages. The problem is that MSI P45 Platinum mainboard is unstable at FSB frequencies approaching 500MHz. We were also upset that the board set a pretty high Performance Level. The lower this setting is, the higher is the performance. But with Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 in its nominal mode Performance Level equals 7, while during overclocking when the memory divider is set as 1:1 – it rises to 10.
MSI P45 Platinum mainboard makes a very good first impression. It boasts excellent technical specifications and the futuristic chipset cooler is a true work of art. The board boasts a number of unique features such as the power-saving technologies that can work without any special utilities and even during CPU overclocking. Later on it should acquire even more unique functions. Namely, in the fall they should release ClickBIOS for this board that will use UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) principles, i.e. a BIOS with graphics interface.
However, the mainboard’s overclocking potential is not that impressive. We can’t say that this board is no good for overclockers, it can in fact overclock CPUs to pretty high speeds, although you’d better give us low-frequency processor models in this case. So far the board proved functional only at FSB frequencies below 450MHz.
The good news is that processors nominal frequencies keep growing and their prices keep dropping. Even today you can find a lot of models that will overclock to their maximum on MSI P45 Platinum mainboard and tomorrow there will be even more CPUs like that available.