Summary: With street prices hovering just over $90, MSI's K7N2 motherboard offers a very high price/performance ratio. In fact, it was quite capable of keeping up with the mighty ASUS A7N8X Deluxe. See how this nForce2-based motherboard stacks up in today's review!
Make no mistake, VIA is a heavy hitter. When AMD unveiled the Slot 1 Athlon, VIA was busy working on the KX133 chipset, the chipset that was designed to replace AMD’s own 750. After that we were treated to KT133, with Socket A support. The platform has since evolved to its current form, KT400. Despite a tightly woven relationship with AMD, VIA isn’t alone manufacturing K7 core logic, though. Both ALi and SiS became involved manufacturing Athlon-compatible chipsets as well, but neither with as much success as VIA. Then, like a jaguar ambushing a herd of cattle, NVIDIA burst onto the scene with talk of dual-channel DDR and real-time Dolby Digital encoding. The eventual release of the chipset, dubbed nForce, was actually more anticlimactic than anything. Initial reviews showed the platform putting down impressive numbers, but delays and unjustifiably high prices kept nForce from taking off as had initially been forecasted.
Then, in July of last year, NVIDIA announced nForce’s successor, aptly named nForce2. Supposedly, it had learned a lesson about announcing a product too early and would be shipping sometime in September. As the story goes, further delays kept nForce2 motherboards off of retail shelves for an additional three months. Once NVIDIA felt comfortable with the chipset, we started seeing pre-production boards floating around, some of which were used to review the Athlon XP 2800+ when it was unveiled by AMD. Months have passed since that announcement and we are finally witnessing widespread availability of nForce2 motherboards from many different manufacturers. Some of the boards, like ASUS’ A7N8X Deluxe, are designed to expose each and every feature of the nForce2 chipset while others, like the MSI K7N2 we are looking at today, are designed to offer a high degree of performance at a more affordable price.
Making Sense of the MSI K7N2
Much of MSI’s current success comes from a consistently accurate assessment of where the industry is headed. For instance, Intel’s i845PE is one of the most flexible, high-performance chipsets currently available to the Pentium 4. MSI anticipated enthusiast demand for the chipset and designed the 845PE Max2-FIR with features that appeal to power users. In approaching nForce2, MSI appears to have exercised a different form of reasoning. Its flagship “gaming” board actually sports the nForce2 IGP with onboard GeForce4 MX graphics. As a gamer looking for a fully featured board, I certainly wouldn’t want to pay extra for an integrated solution that would inevitably be disabled in favor of a more capable graphics core.
The only nForce2 board offered by MSI without integrated graphics is also missing several other features found on competing products. As a result, the K7N2 is less expensive than any other board we’ve tested thus far. But it’s also less feature-complete, so ultimately, the K7N2 is a compromise between the performance of the nForce2 chipset and value in the form of a quasi-stripped down motherboard.
SIDEBAR: MSI’s K7N2 product page
Judging by the layout of the K7N2, it is pretty clear that MSI is using similar designs for its SPP and IGP-based offerings. The K7N2 has space for a serial ATA controller, an IEEE 1394 PHY and even a 15-pin VGA connector where we’d normally expect to find a second serial port. It isn’t completely bare, though. The board’s back panel hosts two PS/2 ports, one parallel port, a single serial port, an RJ-45 connector for 10/100 Ethernet, three 1/8” mini-jacks that interface with the onboard audio and four USB 2.0-compliant ports.
Connectivity is further expounded upon with a pair of included headers that offer two more USB 2.0 ports, MSI’s diagnostic D-LED system, and digital/analog outputs. Additional expandability comes courtesy of a single AGP 8x slot, five PCI slots and one ACR slot at the bottom of the board. Most of the motherboards we test come equipped with three fan headers (processor, power supply and chassis), but the K7N2 only includes a pair of headers, further indicating MSI’s effort to cut costs on the board.
The area traditionally dedicated to power delivery is crowded not only with the ATX power connector, but also a four-pin auxiliary connector that is part of the Pentium 4 motherboard specification. At least the 2200 microfarad capacitors that surround the Socket 462 interface are spaced to accommodate an oversized heat sink, like Thermalright’s SLK-800. Intersil’s HIP6302CB controls the dual-phase power solution. We’d rather see a three-phase solution, but at the very least, MSI has covered the MOSFET transistors with aluminum heat sinks to help dissipate heat and ensure stability under load.
One of the primary features of the nForce2 chipset is its DualDDR memory architecture, effectively combining two, 64-bit DDR memory channels. MSI’s K7N2, like all other nForce2 boards we’ve seen, utilizes three 184-pin memory slots with a capacity for 3GB of DDR RAM – two of the slots comprise one channel and another slot makes up the second. Both channels need to be populated in order to realize the maximum bandwidth potential for the chipset, but as we illustrated in our ASUS A7N8X review, there isn’t a major performance discrepancy unless you employ integrated graphics. The slots themselves are situated in such a way that upgrades can be performed without having to remove the AGP video card.
The Media and Communications Processor (MCP) used on the K7N2 is a step up from the original nForce in that it supports the ATA-133 protocol and USB 2.0. It is a far cry from the more advanced MCP-T used by other manufacturers, though. True, the K7N2 is less costly as a result, but this savings comes at the expense of IEEE 1394 support, DualNet, and most important, the advanced Audio Processing Unit popularized by the original nForce chipset. Realtek’s ALC650 codec adds six-channel audio to the K7N2, but this is a software solution and doesn’t even come close to the functionality of the NVIDIA DSP.
MSI has its own suite of support software consisting of Live BIOS, Live Driver, and the Live Monitor. Between the three applications, BIOS and driver updates can be scheduled and downloaded, keeping the platform up to date. PC Alert 4 monitors temperatures, fan speeds, and voltages across the system
SIDEBAR: PC Alert 4 includes a feature called Cooler XP that uses the processor’s thermal monitor to prevent an Athlon XP from overheating.
At first glance it would appear that the K7N2 is an ideal overclocking platform. It supports multiplier adjustments, front side bus frequency modifications, and customizable voltages. A closer look reveals somewhat conservative settings though. The front side bus can be set between 100 and 200MHz, in 1MHz increments. Many enthusiasts have hit 200MHz by lowering their processor’s multiplier, so the 200MHz ceiling may be a limitation to some. Processor voltage adjustments are available between 1.55 and 1.8V, AGP voltages are between 1.5 and 1.7V, and memory bus adjustments fall between 2.5 and 2.7V.
The nForce2 chipset is designed to run a synchronous front side and memory bus. While it supports DDR400 speeds, we’ve confirmed that the timing advantages of DDR333 far outweigh the theoretical benefits of the faster memory grade. MSI includes several options for tuning the memory bus within the synchronous operation, be it DDR333 or DDR266. If you’d rather fiddle with asynchronous settings, there are predefined, selectable FSB/DRAM ratio combinations. In order to avoid overclocking the AGP bus alongside the front side bus, MSI has decoupled the two pipelines, allowing the AGP bus to be set between 66 and 120MHz.
3D Mark 2001 SE v.330 – DirectX 8
3DMark 2001 - Car Chase
3DMark 2001 - Dragothic
3DMark 2001 - Lobby
3DMark 2001 - Nature
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
Nevertheless, we found the K7N2 to perform right on par with the more expensive board from ASUS and even though we couldn’t unlock the multiplier on our pre-production Athlon XP 2800, we were still able to reach 2.32GHz by simply bumping the front side bus up to 173MHz. Take note that board’s front side bus is limited to 200MHz, so if you unlock your processor’s multiplier, you still won’t have much headroom to experiment with front side bus settings.
Then again, if tweaking isn’t a top priority, you may even want to check out MSI’s K7N2G. That particular model offers the same feature set as the K7N2, but also includes an integrated GeForce4 MX core and can effectively take advantage of the memory bandwidth afforded by NVIDIA’s dual channel DDR memory bus. And at roughly $130, the K7N2G is a much better value if a high-end 3D card is out of the question.
The next couple of months are bound to be exciting for AMD enthusiasts. ‘Barton’ is right around the corner and Athlon 64 won’t be far behind. VIA’s KT400A chipset should be nearly ready, SiS’ 746FX chipset has already been announced, and once K8 hits the scenes, expect a whole new generation of core logic. nForce2 is only the beginning of what we hope will be an exciting year for AMD and its partners.
SIDEBAR: The K7N2 is simple, but effective. Would you rather buy a decked-out board that cost more are would you be content with a cost-effective model like the K7N2? Let us know!
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