Summary: Based on the VIA KT400 chipset, MSI's KT4 Ultra-FISR motherboard supports a wide range of features. Besides AGP 8x and support for AMD's 333MHz Athlon XP processors, the KT4 Ultra-FISR boasts bus speeds up to 280MHz, Gigabit LAN, 5.1 audio, and tons more! See how this motherboard stacks up against KT333 in our review!
Traditionally the memory market has moved at a snail’s pace when it comes to innovation, especially in comparison to graphics cards and CPUs. However, things kicked up a bit in 1999 when VIA Technologies and memory manufacturers joined forces to launch and market PC133 SDRAM devices.
For the first time the memory market made a move without Intel’s blessing, and to some industry observers’ surprise, they flourished. While Intel was busy promoting Pentium III systems with Rambus (via the 820 chipset) VIA’s Pentium III solutions performed faster and thanks to the low cost of PC133 memory, cheaper. As a result, VIA gained roughly half of the chipset market according to some estimates and memory manufacturers were more than happy to kick up the pace of new technology releases, even independent of Intel technology to support it.
Why are memory manufacturers aggressively releasing new products all of a sudden? The reasoning is simple: the higher performing parts come with higher profit margins, so if they can be produced at sufficient yields, they can be a highly effective method of improving a company’s bottom line.
As a result, we’ve seen new memory technologies explode on the scene. While PC1600 and PC2100 modules were state-of-the-art two years ago, today PC2700, PC3200 and just recently, PC3500 modules have hit the market. In fact, a specification hasn’t even been established for the latter two technologies, memory manufacturers are in such a rush to get their products on the market that they’ve moved ahead of JEDEC.
This isn’t too surprising considering the way memory prices have dropped over the past few years, but what’s equally startling is the rate at which new chipsets supporting these memory technologies have also been released. The KT400 chipset the MSI KT4 Ultra-FISRis based on is VIA’s second DDR chipset release this year for the desktop enthusiast segment!
MSI: A motherboard for every market
This brings us to MSI. As one of the world’s largest motherboard manufacturers, chances are you’re probably aware of the company. But for those of you who don’t know, MSI motherboards are well known for their rock-solid stability. As a result, their products are used in many Tier One OEM’s PCs. Chip manufacturers are also well aware of MSI. MSI was one of a handful of motherboard partners chosen by Intel for the Pentium 4 launch in 2000; NVIDIA also selected MSI as one of its launch partners for its nForce chipset last year.
SIDEBAR: MSI KT4 Ultra-FISR Product Webpage
First off, the KT4 Ultra-FISR is loaded with features. You name it chances are the KT4 Ultra-FISR has got it. If you don’t want to take our word for it, the fact that the KT4 Ultra-FISR comes with four separate manuals should be a pretty good indication. When we opened the box to see all the brackets and cables we knew we were in for something special.
One of the first notable features you’ll find on the KT4 Ultra-FISR is its 5.1 channel audio onboard. The C-Media 8738 chip provides this capability. This chip supports up to 256 2D voices in hardware, or up to 64 hardware voices in 3D. We’ve found that the audio quality is also quite good and the performance is within a few percentage points of Creative’s Sound Blaster Live! in games.
Although the KT400 chipset doesn’t natively support it, the KT4 Ultra-FISR supports Serial ATA storage technology via the Promise PDC20376 controller. The 20376 chip is used on quite a few motherboards actually, which shouldn’t be surprising considering Promise’s solid reputation for quality and the chips’ feature set, Ultra/ATA modes of 66/100/133 are supported as are Serial ATA data rates of up to 150MB/sec.
Thanks to the Broadcom 5702 network controller, the KT4 Ultra-FISR supports data transfer rates of up to 1000Mbps, morphing this motherboard into a powerful networking solution. We know what you’re probably thinking, “Do I really need a Gigabit network controller”? With the lack of Gigabit devices out there, the answer today is probably no (unless you purchase two KT4 Ultras that is) but once the devices get out there and multimedia enthusiasts get their hands on them, we’ll sure this will change. The Broadcom controller is backward compatible with traditional 10/100MBps Ethernet as well.
The KT4 Ultra-FISR also supports IEEE-1394 (Firewire) for connecting devices such as camcorders. And MSI includes software utilities such as Fuzzy Logic 4 (Windows-based utility for adjusting overclocking parameters such as the system bus), PC Alert 4 (essentially a hardware monitoring utility), Live Update 2 for upgrading your BIOS within a Windows environment and MSI’s own 5.1 channel DVD software.
As you may or may not know, the KT400 chipset is a drop-in replacement for KT333. This makes things easy for motherboard manufacturers, as existing motherboard designs can be used, cutting development costs to a minimum.
One other common layout concern that you’ll find with most motherboards is the location of the AGP interface in relation to the memory sockets. Quite simply, they’re located too close to each other, which means you’ll have to install your system memory before installing your graphics card.
Three fan headers are provided on the KT4 Ultra-FISR, although one of them is for the chipset’s North Bridge. We would like to see MSI re-implement a power LED on its motherboards, so we have confirmation that the motherboard is receiving power. We also would have liked to see an additional audio input for connecting to devices such as CD-ROM drives.
MSI provides one audio input that is located on the bottom of the motherboard; this is a very undesirable location, as you’ll have to run the audio cable from the CD-ROM drive to the very bottom of the motherboard. Those of you with full-size towers may run into problems. And by only implementing one input, those of you with CD-ROM/CD-RW drive combinations will have to choose which device to connect to the KT4 Ultra motherboard. MSI should have implemented two inputs located higher; a popular location is near the 2nd PCI slot.
Overall the board layout of the KT4 Ultra-FISR is fairly average. Hopefully none of the shortcomings we’ve addressed will significantly impact you if you choose to build a system based around the KT4 Utra.
SIDEBAR: MSI’s KT4 Ultra-FISR is one of a few KT400 motherboards that have already been approved by AMD for use with the Athlon XP 2700+.
The KT4 Ultra-FISR BIOS offers everything we’ve come to expect from a modern BIOS: we’ve got a help menu on the right side of the screen that offers an explanation of many BIOS settings, as well as recommendations, bus speeds in 1MHz increments, CPU and memory voltage adjustment, and much, much more. We’ve also got a BIOS interface that is also very well laid out, you won’t find many obscure settings hidden underneath pages and pages of submenus, a situation that used to exist only a few years ago.
But first lets discuss the settings related to overclocking the KT4 Ultra-FISR. As we mentioned before, bus speed adjustments in 1MHz increments are offered, speeds range from 100MHz all the way up to 280MHz! Therefore end users will have quite an extensive array of bus settings to choose from when overclocking their processor.
Unfortunately, CPU voltage adjustment isn’t as robust. At this time MSI is only offering voltages up to 1.75V (in 0.025V increments) on 0.13-micron Thoroughbred processors. Experienced Athlon XP overclockers will realize this isn’t much at all, many motherboards support voltages up to 1.85V or more. The KT4 Ultra supports memory voltage adjustment up to 2.8V and even AGP voltages up to 1.8V, so it’s a bit surprising to see the KT4 Ultra-FISR lacking the in the CPU voltage adjustment department.
Fortunately MSI offers a wealth of memory timing adjustments within the KT4 Ultra’s BIOS, including a 400MHz memory setting. We noticed CAS Latency settings as low as 1.5, but we’re not 100% certain if the setting is working properly. With DDR400 memory it appeared that the KT4 Ultra locked the latency setting at 2.5, even if we used a lower setting. We used a beta BIOS release for most of our testing so it’s possible that we ran into a bug that MSI is currently working on fixing.
Overall we were quite pleased with the BIOS implementation on the KT4 Ultra. The only feature we’d really like to see is some form of safe BIOS setting mode. Some motherboard manufacturers provide for this feature by pressing a key on the keyboard during POST while others simply require a system reboot, but whatever the case we’d like to see MSI implement this on future motherboards. Right now you’re only solution after an unsuccessful overclock is removing the system battery or clearing CMOS via an onboard jumper.
Overclocking and DDR400
We were able to run the KT4 Ultra-FISR at bus speeds up to 175MHz in our Athlon XP 2700+ review, and at this point we feel the CPU rather than the motherboard itself likely held us back. Of course, you’ll likely need one of AMD’s newer 333MHz chips to hit these bus speeds.
AMD Athlon XP 2600+
MSI KT4 Ultra-FISR (KT400)
Epox EP-8K3A+ (KT333)
256MB Mushkin PC3200 DDR400 CAS2 SDRAM
NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4600 reference board
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
NotesThis may be surprising to you, but the KT4 Ultra-FISR actually runs slower with DDR400 memory than it does with DDR333. In 3DMark 2001, the margin between both memory types is 4% at 800x600. The KT4 Ultra outperforms the KT333 system by 3% at the same resolution.
SIDEBAR: KT400 motherboards like the KT4 Ultra-FISR ship with CPU thermal protection technology.
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
NotesIn Serious Sam 2, we again see DDR400 finish behind DDR333 on the KT4 Ultra. Get used to it. We've seen this same surprising result on every KT400 motherboard we've tested, this is in no way unique to MSI. The KT4 Ultra outperforms the Epox motherboard by 2% at 800x600.
SIDEBAR: We tested the KT4 Ultra-FISR with DDR400 memory modules from Corsair and Mushkin and encountered no problems.
Quake III - High Quality
NotesWe see the margin between the KT400-based KT4 Ultra motherboard closes to within 2% of KT333 in Quake 3, while the MSI system equipped with DDR400 memory finishes 4% behind the same MSI setup yet with the memory bus running at 333MHz.
SIDEBAR: MSI also offers a KT400 variant without Serial ATA or Gigabit LAN, the KT4VL.
Jedi Knight II
NotesAgain, the margin between KT333 and KT400 is 2%, this isn't much of a performance improvement so if you already own a KT333 motherboard, you may want to stick with it for the time being.
SIDEBAR: Besides being one of the world’s largest motherboard manufacturers, MSI is also among the largest of graphics card manufacturers.
Unreal Tournament 2003 demo - flyby
NotesThe trends we've seen in previous game tests hold true in Unreal Tournament 2003 for the most part, we see that the KT400 chipset outperforms KT333, although the margin of victory is very slim. And if you do purchase a KT400 motherboard, you're better off leaving the memory bus at 333MHz and cranking the memory timings as low as they can go!
SIDEBAR: MSI’s Taiwan website actually utilizes a different web design than the US site. We actually like the Taiwan site better.
Content Creation Winstone 2002
Business Winstone 2001
NotesDDR400 performs better than DDR333 in Business Winstone 2001, although we would have expected it to show its prowess in Content Creation Winstone 2002 instead. In any case, the margin between all three platforms is about 2%.
SIDEBAR: We’re eagerly awaiting MSI’s nForce2 motherboard now. Hopefully we should see it in the next few weeks.
Performance: On average, the KT400 chipset performs about 2% faster than KT333 in the majority of our tests. This makes it the fastest platform currently available for the Athlon market, although the margin is pretty slim. Therefore, if you already own a KT333 motherboard, you may want to wait for KT400's successor before upgrading your motherboard.
Lack of voltages: The KT4 Ultra-FISR supports CPU voltages up to 1.75V, at least in the latest BIOS. We would like to see MSI offer voltages up to 1.85V, as 1.75V really limits the overclocking headroom of the KT4 Ultra.
With so much going for them, it’s no surprise why MSI is one of the world’s largest motherboard manufacturers. The KT4 Ultra-FISR is another excellent product from the company, and while the KT400 chipset it’s based on is definitely an incremental upgrade over KT333, it’s still the fastest solution currently available on the market. We’ll see how MSI’s nForce2 motherboard shapes up, but for right now the KT4 Ultra-FISR is the king of the hill from MSI.
SIDEBAR: Is the KT4 Ultra-FISR for you, or are you looking forward to another motherboard? Speak with others in the news comments section!
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