Summary: Based on the SiS 648 chipset, MSI's 648 MAX-F boasts AGP 8X support, 5.1 audio, Gigabit LAN, and is quite a performer in our benchmarks. Read on to see how this motherboard rates in today's review!
2002: Year of the Pentium 4?The Pentium 4 processor has gained a considerable amount of ground among hardware enthusiasts this year. While Intel's aggressive price cuts have definitely had a positive impact on Pentium 4 sales, two other factors have played a significant role in the Pentium 4's newfound acceptance. The first (but not necessarily foremost) would be the architectural changes Intel has implemented in the Pentium 4 this year. Intel kicked the year off with its "Northwood" Pentium 4 core. By doubling the size of the L2 cache to 512K, we witnessed a 9% performance improvement at 2.0GHz. To increase system performance even further, Intel bumped the clock frequency of the Pentium 4's system bus to 533MHz.
As a result of both of these changes, and Intel's unrelenting stream of processor releases this year, Intel has arguably regained the performance crown from AMD.
Of course, having a high performance part means nothing if the platform it's built around isn't affordable. With the Athlon XP historically bringing very competitive performance at a lower cost than the Pentium 4, lowering platform costs has been an important point for Intel. In order to accomplish this last point, Intel has introduced the 845 platform for the Pentium 4 processor with multiple variants offering support for SDRAM, DDR SDRAM and integrated graphics. This has significantly improved the situation for the Pentium 4 but these Intel chipsets don't offer support for the latest memory technologies or AGP 8X.
This is where SiS steps in. SiS's chipset platforms support the latest technologies and sell for a lower price than 845 in many cases. As a result, SiS's market share has increased significantly over the past year. The SiS 648 chipset that MSI's 648 MAX series is built around supports Intel's new 533MHz system bus, AGP 8X, and DDR333 memory. From a features perspective, the 845 chipset doesn't even come close. And as you'll soon see in our performance benchmarks, this gives the 648 MAX a significant performance advantage over motherboards built on Intel's DDR266 chipset. Besides offering an incredible price/performance ratio, MSI has added a few goodies of its own to the 648 Max.
Lets take a closer look at what MSI brings to the table with this motherboard.
SIDEBAR: MSI 648 MAX Product Info Page
First off, there are three variants of the MSI 648 Max. The 648 MAX is MSI's plain, no-frills model in the 648 MAX line. Second, is the 648 MAX-L. The 648 MAX-L adds onboard LAN to the 648 MAX packaging. And finally, there is the model we're reviewing today, the 648 MAX-F. This is the flagship of the 648 MAX line and offers quite a few interesting features.
Gigabit LAN SupportThe first facet that really stands out on the MSI 648 MAX-F is its support for Gigabit LAN. Yes, that's right MSI's 648 MAX-F supports network transfer rates up to 1000MB/sec! This is a feature that probably won't see much use for the immediate future, but it will certainly come in handy later down the road. Broadcom's 5702 chip is used to support this technology, which is unique to the 648 MAX-F. The Broadcom controller is backward compatible with traditional 10/100 networking so compatibility won't be an issue with your existing network.
To be honest, we were quite surprised to see MSI go in this direction. The SiS 648 chipset natively supports 10/100 networking via its SiS 963 South Bridge, which is the traditional networking implementation used on most SiS 648-based motherboards. Essentially, MSI has gone the extra mile by integrating the Broadcom 5702 chip onboard. But for those of you who are wondering, no, the 648 MAX-F does not support dual networking.
5.1 AudioFor audio duties, MSI has chosen Realtek's ALC650 chip. This chip supports 5.1 channel audio, a signal-to-noise ratio of greater than 90 dB (in comparison to Audigy's 100) and up to 256 2D voices and 64 3D voices (matching the specs of today's discrete audio solutions). Normally when you think of onboard audio, you typically cringe in anticipation of crackling audio or solutions that sap precious clock cycles from the host processor. But we've found that the onboard audio solutions offered by Realtek and others doesn't disappoint at all. In fact, those of you with budget speakers would probably be hard-pressed to hear any difference between the Realtek ALC650 or an Audigy or Live card from Creative. MSI bundles an external bracket with two S/PDIF jacks and two audio output connectors. MSI refers to this as the S-Bracket.
D-Bracket 2One other optional feature MSI bundles with the 648 MAX-F is its D-Bracket 2. The D-Bracket 2 takes MSI's traditional diagnostic LEDs off the motherboard itself and onto an external bracket. The LEDs will shine in a pattern, which indicates which stage of boot up the motherboard is currently in. Also on the D-Bracket 2 are two additional USB ports, bringing the grand total of USB ports provided to six (four ports are directly on the back panel of the 648 MAX-F motherboard).
SIDEBAR: Rather than offering so many external brackets, we'd prefer to see MSI implement some of these features on the 648 MAX-F motherboard itself.
Board LayoutMSI has packed quite a few features on its 648 MAX-F motherboard. Typically feature-packed motherboards are fairly large, making them a bit more difficult to mount inside your system chassis, but this is not the case for the 648 MAX-F. In comparison to some of the other motherboards we've seen recently (including the ABIT IT7-MAX2 we reviewed last week), the 648 MAX-F is quite a small motherboard. We also see that MSI has implemented its traditional red printed circuit board (PCB) with the 648 MAX-F. MSI is really trying to pound that red PCB into consumers' heads -- when you think of red motherboards, think of MSI! Or at least that's what they want us to think.
The ATX12V power connector is located next to the Socket 478 interface, while the bulky ATX 20-pin connector is placed on the right upper edge of the motherboard. Perfect power placement in our opinion.
Located just beneath the CPU socket is the North Bridge of the SiS 648 chipset, which is covered by a green MSI heatsink. Some of you may be disappointed that the 648 Max doesn't feature an active cooling solution on the North Bridge, but to be honest, the chip doesn't need it. In fact, we've found that SiS 648 operates perfectly sans heatsink. Just below that we see a universal AGP slot, with AGP retention mechanism. MSI has implemented a convenient lever for holding the AGP card in place.
As the SiS 648 chipset supports six PCI bus mastered slots, MSI has implemented six PCI slots on their 648 MAX motherboards. When you consider the level of integration offered by the 648 MAX, the addition of having six PCI slots is an added bonus. Technically, you've already got networking and audio onboard, therefore one of the most popular peripheral we see consumers implementing will be PCI RAID cards. Of course, that's assuming you're willing to stick with the integrated Realtek 5.1 audio.
Regarding the rest of the 648 MAX's layout, we would have liked to have seen the CD-input located a bit higher on the 648 MAX board, perhaps somewhere near the first PCI slot. In its current location (between PCI slots five and six) end users will have to run the audio cable from their CD-ROM drive all the way down to the lower half of the motherboard. Also, we would have liked to see MSI implement multiple inputs. Other motherboards we've seen with integrated audio have two inputs. That way, end users with multiple optical storage devices (say one DVD-ROM drive and a CD-RW drive) can connect audio cables to both units, allowing for the ultimate in flexibility. Unfortunately, you won't get that with the 648 MAX-F.
In addition, the location of the IDE and floppy connectors isn't exactly ideal. Located across from PCI slots four and five, we normally like to see these connectors tucked away to the right of the DIMM sockets. That way, consumers with large PCI or AGP cards (GeForce4 Titanium 4400/4600) don't have to hassle too much with bulky IDE cables near these devices. Again, it isn't a huge issue, just something we like to see in a perfect motherboard design.
BIOS ImplementationWe're very familiar with the AMI BIOS setup used on the 648 MAX. There are a few omissions this time around (we would have liked to have seen more ability to adjust the memory timings), but for the most part everything we're used to seeing in today's modern BIOS's is there.
For instance, bus speeds from 100-200MHz are available in 1MHz increments. This is pretty much a standard feature you'll find on all of today's Pentium 4 motherboards, provided they aren't manufactured by Intel (whose motherboards don't allow for any overclocking). However, CPU voltages offered by the 648 MAX-F top out at 1.625V. This doesn't leave much room for enthusiasts who plan on overclocking their processor, but at the same time it keeps the host CPU safer from electro migration or consumers who push the voltage of their processors too far. The voltages are offered in 0.025V increments, which is good.
Besides the CPU voltage, end users can also adjust the memory voltage. In its case, voltages available are 2.5V, 2.6V, 2.7V, and 2.8V. We found that some memory modules ran best at 2.7V for some reason, while others were stable at 2.5V or 2.6V. This is something we haven't encountered on other DDR motherboards.
One feature that we really like is the ability to lock the frequency of the AGP and PCI devices. This really comes in handy for overclockers who are running their system bus at high clock frequencies.
OverclockingWith limited Vcore options for adjusting the CPU voltage, our overclocking exploits with our 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor were rather limited. In fact, we were only able to get the processor up to 2.87GHz (21.0x137) before the 1.625V we were limited too got in the way.
DDR400Although the SiS 648 chipset doesn't officially support DDR400 memory, we went ahead and gave it a try with our TwinMos module. Unfortunately, regardless of the settings we used, we couldn't get the 648 MAX-F system to run completely reliable, even at the safest memory settings. So therefore we decided to omit those scores from the benchmarks. It appears that DDR400 will never officially make its way onto the SiS 648 platform. Based on reports, SiS' 648DX chipset will never see the light of day, relegating DDR400 solely to overclockers.
SIDEBAR: MSI's Fuzzy Logic 4 utility can be used to safely overclock your system within Windows
Intel Pentium 4 2.8GHz
MSI 648 MAX (SiS 648 chipset) ABIT IT7-MAX2
256MB CAS2 DDR333 SDRAM (running at 266MHz for the IT7-MAX2)
NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4600
Driver version Detonator 40.41
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA/100 Hard Drive
AFREEY 12X DVD-ROM
Windows XP Professional
Desktop Resolution: 1024x768x32
3DMark 2001 Second Edition - 32-bit color, 32-bit textures
3DMark 2001 - DirectX 8
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
Quake III - High Quality
Jedi Knight II - High Quality
Content Creation Winstone 2002/Business Winstone 2001
SiS 648 chipset: SiS's 648 chipset is the most feature-packed DDR chipset on the market right now for the Pentium 4 processor. And while it's incredibly advanced, it's also a very good performer. We've found its memory controller is slightly faster than its predecessor, the SiS 645DX. Finally, the SiS 648 chipset is also reliable. We haven't run into any stability issues with our SiS 648 reference board or the MSI 648 MAX-F we're reviewing today. SiS has really got an excellent product on its hands with the SiS 648 chipset and its ridiculously inexpensive considering everything it brings to the table.
5.1 audio: Traditionally the thought of onboard audio would be regarded as a hindrance to the 648 MAX-F, a feature we'd never use and should be immediately disabled. However, the Realtek ALC650 chip it uses is actually pretty robust, supporting 5.1 audio among its feature set. Likewise, audio quality is quite good. We have a strong feeling that quite a few of you would be pleasantly surprised by just how good the audio implementation on the 648 MAX-F sounds.
Gigabit LAN: While Gigabit LAN technology isn't exactly mainstream today, we have no doubt that this will become more popular further down the road. As home networking increases in popularity we believe that the Gigabit network controller integrated on the 648 MAX-F will also become more popular. In the meantime consumers can enjoy the 10/100 networking support it already provides.
Stability: Over the years, MSI has earned a reputation for building highly reliable motherboards. In fact, we've seen that MSI doesn't hesitate to put motherboard stability ahead of factors such as performance. The 648 MAX-F continues to offer this same level of reliability we've come to expect from an MSI product. Once it's properly setup in BIOS the 648 MAX-F can run for countless miles with nary a hiccup.
Performance: Being based on the SiS 648 chipset has another benefit for the 648 MAX-F: high performance. As you saw in our benchmark results, the 648 MAX-F really outperforms competing motherboards based on Intel's 845E chipset.
Lack of RAID: In today's hardware environment, it's pretty surprising to see a high-end motherboard ship without some form of IDE RAID support. MSI's 648 MAX-F supports such forward-looking technologies as Gigabit Ethernet today, so it's a bit surprising to not see an onboard RAID controller. Fortunately, the SiS 648 chipset supports the latest disk storage technologies, so this isn't a huge issue for those of you who don't see yourself needing more storage than the chipset already allows.
Overclocking: The lack of CPU voltage settings in the current 648 MAX-F BIOS really limits the potential for overclocking with this motherboard. Limited to just 1.625V, we weren't able to come anywhere close to the maximum clock speed we've hit with our 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor.
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