When the AMD Athlon 64 (A64) was released, the VIA K8T800 was the only viable option for home users. The chipset allowed for plenty of features, with plenty of performance behind it. Soon after, the nForce 3 Pro 150 was released, but it didn't generate the same interest as the nForce 2 did for the Athlon XP community. It didn't offer much in the ways of next-gen technology, and the 600MHz Hypertransport interface paled when compared to VIA's 800MHz.
With the MSI K8N Neo Platinum, sporting the new nForce 3 250Gb chipset, MSI and NVIDIA have an enthusiast level A64 motherboard that supports a number of features such as SATA RAID, Gigabit Ethernet and the NVIDIA Firewall. The Firewall is perhaps the most interesting addition, given the network security issues all users face on a daily basis. Of course, this wouldn't be an enthusiast motherboard if it didn't include 8-channel sound, support for the latest Socket 754 CPUs, USB 2.0 and an overclocking friendly environment, which in the case of the K8N Neo Platinum, all those features are present. Finally, the new chipset bumped the Hypertransport interface up to 800MHz, putting it on par with VIA's best. For more information of the specifications of K8N Neo2 Platinum, please click here.
The box art is flashy. Inside, we have rounded IDE and floppy cables, SATA cables, SATA power splitter, and the D-Bracket2 which has two USB 2.0 ports and 4 diagnostic LEDs for troubleshooting motherboard problems. We received a CD-R with drivers, and a product sheet.
The layout of the K8N Neo Platinum is different from what we're familiar with, but in a good way. For one thing, there is absolutely no worries about large video cards interfering with ram installation as with some other motherboards. There is plenty of clearance around the CPU 754 socket, and we had no problems installing our monstrous Cooler Master Hyper 6.
The nForce 3 250Gb (nF3-250) is a single chip solution. Traditionally, motherboards had a North Bridge and South Bridge, but NVIDIA did away with that with the new MCP. The immediate benefit is improved latency, as data would only have to travel from one side of the chip to the other, rather than from one chip to another. During testing, the MCP did get fairly warm, though under normal conditions, this shouldn't be a problem. For those of you planning to overclock, it may be wise to consider an active cooling solution, or at the very least, a larger heatsink than the one MSI provides.
There are three DIMM slots, which support up to a total of 2GB of PC3200 (or lower) memory. Like the initial nForce 3, the nF3-250 only supports Single Memory Channels. For those of you who are confused, yes, Dual Channel memory will work, but only in Single Channel Mode.
The MSI CoreCell is situated right by the ram, and it offers a number of "intelligent" features for the board. The CoreCell is a proprietary MSI chip that has the following four features: Speedster (Maximum overclocking), PowerPro (powersaving), LifePro (constant temp control, smart FAN ) and BuzzFree (noise management). Basically, the chip allows for dynamic overclocking, and keeps your system running at peak efficiency at all times.
For your expansion needs, there are five PCI slots and one AGP. There are also a couple FireWire connections next to PCI slot #5, and the onboard sound's connections between the PCI slots and the rear edge of the motherboard.
Rounding things out are the rear IO connections. Here we have the mouse and keyboard PS/2 connections, a serial and parallel connection, one FireWire, four USB 2.0, one Gigabit Ethernet, and 5 audio ports with a RCA and S/PDIF output port.
The MSI K8N Neo's BIOS is based off of the Pheonix AwardBIOS. All the usual suspects are present, such as Standard CMOS and Power Management features, but MSI did make several changes in favour of the enthusiast, most of which are accessible in the Cell menu page.
In the Cell menu, all your CPU and memory adjustments can be made here. For those of you who don't wish to dig through the BIOS, setting the System Performance to High Performance and enabling the Aggressive Timing option will optimize the system chipset's timing. Depending on how conservative (or aggressive) the rest of your tweaks are, you can gain a performance boost although stability may be suspect.
In the DRAM Configuration page, you can configure the maximum memory speed depending on the ram you have. Setting it to Auto will default to to the CPU's FSB. If you have anything slower than PC3200, such as PC2700, you can hard lock it to 166MHz and so forth. Other than the memory speed, you can adjust the CAS latency (Tcl), RAS to CAS delay (Trcd), Min RAS active time (Tras) and the RAS precharge Time (Trp). Lower numbers will result in better memory performance at the expense of stability, depending on your ram's willingness to be tweaked.
For the overclocking newbies, the D.O.T. Ranger option is the CoreCell's dynamic overclocking function. There are six options available, with the Private giving a 1% boost and the Commander providing a boost of up 11% over the set FSB.
The CPU Overclock option allows you to make adjustments to the FSB. The current shipping BIOS caps at 250FSB, but there will be a future BIOS that caps at 300FSB. We received this BIOS, which we'll outline in more detail in our overclocking discussion, but whether or not you can attain a 300FSB overclock will depend on your cooling and ability to unlock the CPU (all retail CPUs are locked) via the CPU Ratio option.
Speaking of overclocking, the great thing about the K8N Neo is the ability to lock down the speeds of several peripherals. We already talked about the memory, but I should add that once you push the FSB past 200, you can manually set the memory speed to 200 (a number not present unless you overclock). The AGP Overclock allows AGP adjustments to be made (up to 100MHz), and keeping it in spec (66MHz) will also keep the PCI in spec at 33MHz.
The HT Frequency configures the speed of the HyperTransport link between the CPU and the system memory. The equation is FSB x HT Freq, and the default is 4x. The maximum is 5x.
Your voltage options are decent, though nothing over the top. For DRAM, it caps at 2.85v, which should be enough for all brands of PC3200 ram. Unless you're dropping PC4400 in, this should be all you'll need. For your AGP, you can move up to 1.85v, which is quite a bit and it's unlikely you'll need anymore than this for current and upcoming AGP cards. CPU voltage caps at 1.81v, which for Socket 754 A64s, should be plenty.
MSI scored a winner with their implementation of the nForce 3 250Gb as we've seen here today. Although we received a late production sample of the board, it was very polished and rock solid throughout testing. Certainly, from an enthusiast standpoint, the K8N Neo Platinum is more suited for the tweaking we wished we were able to do with pretty much all K8T800 boards.
The BIOS leaves little to be desired, as the most important options are available for end users to adjust. As mentioned earlier, a new BIOS provided by MSI may allow you to push the board up to 300FSB. Granted, we used a decent water cooling setup, and were not able to reach that high, but the board has proven willing to hit overclocks we have never seen with the Athlon 64 until now. The PCI/AGP locks were obviously contributing factors, as was the ability to lock down memory speeds in case your ram is unable to handle the speed boost.
Performance was excellent, besting the VIA K8T800 in almost every application benchmark. We have also seen that in many cases, there were large gaps in performance, rather than a percentage point here and there. This is quite an accomplishment for a new chipset.
Regarding the onboard peripherals, all of the components included with the K8N Neo are what I would categorize as acceptable. I was very impressed with the networking aspect of the board.
Pros: Excellent stability, great performance, NVIDIA Firewall, PCI/AGP locks.
Bottom Line: If you've been holding out on the Athlon 64, particularly the more consumer based Socket 754 version, the K8N Neo Platinum is as good a reason as any to jump on board now. With the great performance, stability and system level firewall, you won't be disappointed with it.