MSI XPower: an LGA1366 Mainboard from “Big Bang” Series for Gamers and Computer Enthusiasts

The most remarkable peculiarity of MSI XPower mainboard is the presence of six graphics cards slots. However, it is not only this feature that makes it interesting. It also boasts a lot of various features and supports a number of interesting technologies, which we are going to discuss in detail in our today’s review.

by Doors4ever
02/23/2011 | 11:05 PM

The recently discovered error in Intel’s sixth series chipsets that were releases in the beginning of this year is insignificant for most users. However, the negative resonance it created turned out very severe, having impacted not only Intel, but also numerous other companies and people in the computer industry. Setting up production of new chips revisions takes time and until them most mainboard and system sales have been frozen. Since there are no mainboards, the sales of new LGA1155 processors have also stopped, because there is nowhere to install them into. The “domino effect” has even touched upon the computer reviewers, who had to adjust their review schedules accordingly: it makes absolutely no sense to review mainboards that are being pulled from the channel and will never find their way into users’ computer systems. However, let’s not forget that the new chipsets belong to the mainstream category, while the performance crown still belongs to Intel X58 Express. We are very well familiar with the features and functionality of this core logic set, we have already tested about two dozens of mainboards based on it. However, the manufacturers keep refreshing their lineup of products based on this chipset, so it is always interesting to check out the latest newcomers in this segment.

 

Regular mainboards are universal solutions and computers built on them may be used in a variety of different fields. However, there is a group of users who get special treatment from the mainboard makers, who specifically design mainboards to meet their needs. These are hardcore gamers. For example, Asus has been manufacturing RoG (“Republic of Gamers”) mainboard series targeted for gaming fans and computer enthusiasts for a long time now. Gigabyte doesn’t yet have a special series, but they have an outstanding GA-X58A-UD9 mainboard equipped with seven PCI Express x16 slots, which allows using multiple graphics accelerators at the same time. It turns out that MSI also has a solution for uncompromising gamers who prefer multi-card graphics configurations. The most eye-catching feature of MSI XPower mainboard from the “Big Bang” series is the presence of six graphics card slots. However, this mainboard also boasts other interesting features. It supports a lot of other functions and technologies, which we are going to discuss in our today’s review.

Packaging and Accessories

MSI XPower mainboard comes in a large vertical box with a convenient carry handle:

There are two more boxes inside: one with the mainboard, and another one with an unprecedentedly large accessories bundle including the following items:

This extensive and diverse list of accessories does require a few comments on our part. Namely, we have to explain what the “V-Check cable” adapter set looks like. You can see it in the lower right corner of the photo above – short cable segments with connectors on the end. We have already seen quite a few mainboards that allow to manually control the current voltages. They have special contact spots scattered over the PCB or grouped in a single line. However, the size of these contact spots is usually very small, so it is challenging to keep the multimeter probes in the right place and at the same time to monitor the readings. You won’t have this problem with MSI XPower mainboard, because there are special pins combined into what they called “V-Check Points” panel. You just connect one of the cables in the V-Check Cable block to the corresponding pin and insert the multimeter probe into the other end. It provides very secure contact and keeps your hands free, so you can monitor the readings comfortably.

Moreover, I have to say a few words about the “OC Dashboard” panel. It is a little box with a small screen in the center and three control buttons at the bottom of it. You connect it to the mainboard back panel using enclosed proprietary cable and a standard mini-USB cable.

There are POST codes and their explanation displayed on the screen upon boot-up. Once the OS is loaded you can see the MSI logo, current time, or the rotating monitoring parameters: CPU voltage and temperature, fan rotation speed. However, this panel may serve not only information purposes. You can use the buttons on it to adjust the base clock frequency and voltages, i.e. overclock your system.

PCB Design and Functionality

MSI XPower is a mainboards with extensive functionality and the whole bunch of interesting features. It is very well designed, is very easy to work with and barely sports any drawbacks.

There is a 16-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry built with high-quality “military style” components. For even greater efficiency they use APS (Active Phase Switching) system to dynamically adjust the number of active voltage regulator phases depending on the CPU utilization. Here is a row of LEDs in the upper right corner to visually display the number of active phases. The CPU may be powered via two 8-pin ATX 12V power connectors. The chipset North Bridge as well as the voltage regulator components heat up substantially under heavy load and during overclocking, so they are topped with three pretty large heatsinks. All heatsinks use reliable screw-on retention and are connected into a single cooling contour with an 8 mm SuperPipe heatpipe.

The most remarkable peculiarity of MSI XPower mainboard is the presence of six graphics card slots, but the North bridge only has 36 PCI Express 2.0 x16 lanes. Other manufacturers usually install additional controllers, which ensure that all slots work at high speed, but they also boost the system power consumption and heat dissipation. When we use a lot of expansion cards in this case, the free lanes will be distributed between the slots as follows:

There is a single PCI Express 1.1 x1 slot above the graphics card slots and it will be occupied by the discrete QuantumWave sound card. Above that there is a six-pin connector for additional power supply. All manufacturers recommend using additional power when there are multiple graphics cards installed in the system, but the use of a six-pin connector for VGA powering doesn’t seem to be the best choice in this case.  There are several graphics cards, the existing cable from the PSU will most likely be utilized. Moreover, you will most probably need to use additional adapters, and on top of that you will have to give up such a valuable connector.

You can see the famous sensor buttons along the lower edge of the PCB: power on, reset, base clock up and down and OC Genie button for automatic overclocking. Then we notice “Over-Voltage Switch set for additional voltages increase and POST-code indicator. Next we see six black SATA 3Gbps connector implemented via Intel ICH10R South Bridge. To the right of them there are two white SATA 6Gbps connectors supported by Marvell 88SE9128 controller. The blue unit is none other but the “V-Check Points” module for voltage control, which we have already discussed in the previous part of our article.

There are the following connectors and ports on the MSI XPower back panel:

There are no traditional audio connectors on the back panel, because there is a discrete QuantumWave sound card based on Realtek ALC889 controller included with the mainboard. The card has six analogue and two digital – optical and coaxial – outs.

The table below summarizes the technical specifications of the MSI XPower mainboard:

When we reviewed MSI XPower mainboard we discovered only one issue, which is not really a drawback, but more of an arguable solution – the six-pin power connector for additional power to PCI Express x16 slots. For the sake of contemporary and convenient design they had to give up legacy interfaces, such as COM, LPT and IDE, but is it really a drawback these days? I don’t think so. Instead, the mainboard has all the latest connectors, such as SATA 6 Gbps, eSATA and eSATA/USB Combo, IEEE1394, USB 3.0 and two network controllers. Discrete sound card delivers high-quality sound, six graphics card slots allow reaching performance, which would be unattainable for a single graphics accelerator, enhanced power circuitry and cooling system promise good processor overclocking results. Summing it all up, the board made a very good overall first impression.

BIOS Setup

New Click BIOS that first appeared on LGA1155 MSI mainboards is far from perfection as well as its old version that was available a few years ago. Luckily, the first glance at the MSI XPower boot-up screen shows that it is the same good old BIOS based on AMI microcode that has been significantly modified.

We have already discussed the features and functionality of MSI mainboards BIOS numerous times before, so today we will not post all the screenshots here. We would only like to dwell on the “Cell Menu” section, which contains settings and parameters for CPU overclocking and performance optimization.

The number of adjustable parameters is impressive. They have even been split into several sub-sections to make it easier to navigate through the busy main screen. We were very pleased with the informative contents of the section, where we can see all the major frequencies, memory timings, with the only exception of current voltages, which we are going to discuss a little later today. The table below summarizes all the BIOS functions available on MSI XPower:

The abundance of functions calls for some comments, so we would like to note that that mainboard not only reports the rotation speed of all five fans that can be connected to it. In fact, it also allows adjusting the rotation speed of all these fans. Only the rotation speed of the CPU fan will speed up and slow down automatically depending on the CPU utilization at the time. The rotation speed of other fans can be lowered and locked at a desired rate, which is a very rare feature on contemporary mainboards.

Now we need to refresh your memory about MSI’s brand name technologies. “O.C. Genie” is a tool for automatic overclocking, which isn’t perfect, like the similar tools and utilities from other mainboard makers. “O.C. Stepping” is an interesting feature that allows the system to start at a lower frequency than the desired one and then, once the operating system has loaded completely, to hit the desired frequency in a few increments. “U-Key” allows you to use a flash drive as an access key. The BIOS provides you all the details about your processor (CPU Spec) and memory (Memory-Z), and “Green Power” section allows you to manage power-saving technologies and turn off the LEDs without any additional utilities involved. The built-in M-Flash utility for BIOS updates is less convenient to work with than similar programs by other manufacturers, but offers you a rare opportunity to check out the new BIOS version without reflashing it into the mainboard, right from the flash-drive.

During the last test session involving MSI mainboards we had some issues with adjusting their memory timings: we had to set them for each channel individually. The BIOS of MSI XPower mainboard has this issue resolved in a very exquisite way. By default all timings are set automatically, you can select the “Link” mode and set the timings for all channels at once, or select the “Unlink” mode and in this case set all timings for each channel individually.

We have listed all the major advantages of the BIOS in MSI XPower, but there are a few drawbacks as well. First of all, it is the way the mainboard works with the voltages. The current numbers hide behind the faceless “Auto”, while it could be nice to know what they are in the nominal mode and how they increase during overclocking. Moreover, it’s been a while since we saw any MSI mainboards that could simply increase the processor voltage above the nominal without losing all the processor power-saving technologies. We may leave the voltage setting at Auto, but in this case it will automatically increase during overclocking, and sometimes even more than necessary. You may set the voltage at a desired level, but in this case it will no longer drop in idle mode. As a result, we can’t overclock our processor at a default voltage setting and all power-saving technologies intact, we will inevitable lose at least some of the efficiency of Intel’s power-saving technologies. All this creates certain obstacles during overclocking, but we are going to discuss it in greater detail in the corresponding part of our today’s review.

Testbed Configuration

All performance tests were run on the following test platform:

We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7600) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 9.2.0.1021, ATI Catalyst 11.1 graphics card driver.

Operational and Overclocking Specifics

When we put together a system based on MSI XPower mainboard we faced only one problem: long chipset pins hanging off the bottom of the PCB wouldn’t let us use the backplate for our Scythe Mugen 2 cooler. Yes, it is a drawback, but it is common for almost all contemporary mainboards from different vendors, so we won’t consider it too critical. As for everything else, the mainboard worked perfectly fine in nominal mode. We were particularly pleased to see all Intel and MSI power-saving technologies up and running full throttle by default without any preliminary setting up. As a result, the mainboard turned out very energy-efficient despite its full-size ATX form-factor, certain design complexity and an abundance of additional onboard controllers. Of course, effective cooling system over the chipset and processor voltage regulator contributed to that as well as high-quality electronic components used across the board.

However, everything we have just said refers to the nominal mode. During overclocking we had to take it easy with praising MSI XPower, because we faced a number of issues and problems. First of all, as soon as you change the base clock frequency, MSI’s feature APS system (Active Phase Switching) shuts down right away and no longer dynamically changes the number of active processor voltage regulator phases. In the “Green Power” section of the mainboard BIOS we can only disable a selected option: there is no way to force the APS technology. And if the settings are at Auto and you do some overclocking, then the power-saving stuff get disabled right away.

Moreover, the higher you set the base clock, the higher gets the CPU Vcore, unless you changed the “Auto” setting to a fixed value. How far will it increase? There is no way to tell, we can only get an idea from the monitoring utilities. In situations like that brand name software may come in handy, such as “MSI Control Center”, for instance. We have already discussed the functionality of this program before, but we discovered numerous errors and unreliable data. At this time the program remained perfectly stable, and we didn’t experience even one failure due to some type of error. As for the correctness of the reported data, things haven’t improved a bit.

The utility reported that our CPU Vcore was 0.031 V, while in reality the mainboard had automatically increased it approximately to 1.4 V. Sometimes we even saw negative values, although the voltage was in fact increased. Besides, the QPI and CPU PLL voltages were displayed incorrectly, but compared with the processor voltage discrepancy, this was a “trifle” we could disregard. Unfortunately, MSI Control Center utility is still practically useless.

When we overclock by raising the base frequency we can avoid excessive automatic increase in the processor core voltage by setting a necessary value in the mainboard BIOS. However, in this case this voltage will remain constant and will no longer drop in idle mode, because the mainboard can only add the voltage to the nominal value and at the same time keep all processor power-saving technologies intact. As a result we were forced to give up power-saving during our overclocking experiments and use this simpler and easier overclocking approach. We tried to push our CPU to 4 GHz, which turned out to be too much for our CPU sample and cooling system. We had to stop at 3.9 GHz, like on other similar mainboards.

However, unlike other mainboards, Intel processor power-saving technologies were only partially active on MSI XPower: they only lowered the clock frequency multiplier in idle mode, but not the CPU core voltage. The slight difference in voltages can be attributed to Vdroop function, which slightly increases the processor Vcore under heavy load. Had the power-saving technologies been working, the voltage would have dropped to about 0.9-1 V.

Besides, as you can see, the mainboard couldn’t get the memory to work at 1770 MHz. We had to lower the frequency to 1416 MHz and lower the memory timings accordingly, which also wasn’t very exciting.

Performance Comparison

As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. In our today’s test session MSI XPower will compete against Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD5 (rev. 2.0) mainboard that was tested in the same conditions as the MSI board. The results of MSI XPower are marked with darker color on the diagrams below.

We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.

We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.

A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 3.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:

We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.

In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.

Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.

There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. The diagram below shows the average results after three test runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:

Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score.

We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1280x1024 resolution with medium and high image quality settings in DirectX 10.

Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1280x1024 resolution with medium image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:

Now let’s see what we can get during overclocking by raising the clock generator frequency.

Everyone knows that the performance of similar systems working in similar operational modes is usually almost the same. Therefore, in our cases even when there is a difference between the two mainboards, it is never more than 1%. It looks like both mainboards are the same when it comes to performance, but let’s check out their power consumption readings, before making any definitive decisions, because in this aspect the difference turned out to be dramatic.

Power Consumption

We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the Intel Core i7-930 CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer’s power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX. We performed the test in four modes: idle mode, single-thread load, four-thread and eight-thread load. The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.

It is hard to believe the results on the diagram above, but we rechecked every single number several times, so they are indeed what they are. Just like with performance, power consumption of systems with similar configuration is usually similar, too, especially in the nominal mode, when all the settings are identical. However, the testing participants turned out more or less close only during single-threaded load, when Intel Turbo Boost technology increases the processor clock frequency multiplier and Vcore. And even in this case MSI mainboard proved to be considerably more energy-efficient, but as for all other test modes, MSI XPower is usually 20 W ahead of its competitor, and sometimes even more than that! This is a truly phenomenal result! No doubt that not only MSI’s brand name power-saving technologies are responsible for this success. Efficient chipset and voltage regulator cooling has obviously had its positive input as well as high-quality electronic components used to build this product.

Since the launch of LGA1366 platform we have already tested a few dozen mainboards, but we cannot compare their power consumption across the board, because the system configuration has changed over time. There was a time when the overall system power consumption was 150 W in nominal mode. We replaced the graphics card, hard drive and power supply unit and drove the overall system power consumption significantly down, so that it is currently just a little above 100 W. However, MSI XPower mainboard consumes only 83 W in idle mode! I wouldn’t state definitively, but looks like in nominal mode MSI XPower is the most energy-efficient LGA1366 mainboard of all products we tested. Moreover, you have to keep two more things in mind. First, we tested the mainboard with all onboard controllers enabled and with the external OC Dashboard up and running. So, you may lower its power consumption even more if you disable everything you do not need. Second, we have been often complaining that almost all contemporary mainboards do not fully enable Intel power-saving technologies by default. Of course, things are starting to change in this respect, but we had to manually allow Gigabyte mainboard to switch to deeper power-saving modes in order to lower its power consumption during idling, and to fully activate Intel Turbo Boost technology at the same time. However, everything works right from the start on MSI XPower mainboard and the user doesn’t need to worry about anything.

Unfortunately, as soon as we get to power consumption during overclocking, our excitement disappears.

The board proves energy-efficient only when the processor is not fully loaded. If the CPU utilization is 100%, then MSI mainboard consumes even a little more power than Gigabyte, although the difference is not very serious in this case. The comparison in idle mod is the one that matters more. Gigabyte mainboard has all power-saving technologies up and running even during overclocking, which lower the processor clock multiplier as well as core voltage in idle mode, so the overall system power consumption is just a little over 120 W. With MSI mainboard, most power-saving technologies get disabled during overclocking, the CPU core voltage doesn’t drop, and even in idle mode the system power consumption approaches 140 W, which is a very sad result.

Conclusion

MSI XPower mainboard turned out too complex to be given a definite characterization. This is a many-sided product, but not all of its sides are brilliant, unfortunately. To cut the long story short, the board comes in high-quality packaging, is accompanied by an outstanding set of accessories, has very smart and convenient layout and extensive functionality, MSI Control Center utility is useless, the board is extraordinarily energy-efficient in nominal mode and inexcusably wasteful during overclocking. Since these characteristics are the opposites of one another, it is very difficult to determine the proper positioning for this mainboard. We would really like to recommend this mainboard to all users who do not wish to overclock, because its power consumption in nominal mode is significantly lower than that of other LGA1366 mainboards. Unfortunately, very few will actually follow this recommendation, because it is a flagship product with a pretty high price point, and it should be fairly easy to find a decent board for half the price, if you do not have any special requirements. Then we should focus more on its most remarkable feature – six slots for graphics cards. However, 20 W in power savings provided by MSI XPower compared with other mainboards will be totally lost against all the power consumed by a couple of contemporary graphics accelerators.

You can use this mainboard for overclocking, but it will suit best for one-time overclocking demonstrations and setting overclocking records with further return to nominal mode. This board is not fit for permanent use in overclocked mode, because in this case its power-saving technologies get disabled, it loses all its advantages and will even consume more than other mainboards in idle mode. It is a known fact that our computers can perform most of their everyday tasks in power-saving mode at a lower processor core voltage and lower frequency, but MSI XPower mainboard will be wasting power instead. And it is not that much about the money ($50 more a year is not a big deal after all), but mostly about the environment. Since there is an enormous number of computers out there, every wasted or saved watt of power adds up to a gigantic loss or gain, which inevitable affects the environment.

Speaking about the mainboards power consumption in general, we can conclude that things start improving. It is no secret that mainboard makers watch one another very closely and introduce their own versions of handy functions and technologies. MSI XPower has all power-saving technologies working by default without any user interference necessary. Buy we have already seen new Asus boards, too, which have all advanced power-saving technologies in place and Intel Turbo Boost enabled to the full extent.

MSI has been making mainboards with DrMOS technology for years, but Gigabyte mainboards have also recently started sporting similar chips (when a pair of transistors and a control chip are combined within the same packaging) in their processor voltage regulator circuitries. So, it is highly likely that other manufacturers’ mainboards may soon start offering the same excellent power consumption as MSI XPower in does in the nominal mode today. However, it’s been over a year since we last saw an MSI mainboard that allowed adding more voltage to the nominal without affecting processor power-saving technologies. All other mainboards, including the latest ones based on Intel’s sixth generation chipset series, do not support this feature. Just like MSI XPower, they can’t maintain the nominal processor Vcore and set it excessively high during automatic overclocking. And if we lock the core voltage at a certain value, it will remain constant all the time and won’t get lower in idle mode. As a result, MSI mainboards won’t be a reasonable choice for CPU overclocking, because they are less economical and waste power. Will they ever fix that? We’ll see…