MSI P965 Neo-F For Core 2 Duo

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Product: MSI P965 Neo-F
Provided By: Memory Express
Price: $129.95CDN @ MemoryExpress.com

Introduction:

A month or so ago MemoryExpress set us up with an Intel DG965WH motherboard and a sweet Intel Core 2 Duo E6600.  This system blew us away in terms of sheer performance, but the motherboard had a few issues.  The truth is, the motherboard they graciously provided was a pre-production motherboard that was still in Beta.  Today we are looking at the MSI P965 Neo-F motherboard in all it's final goodness and are going to compare it to the pre-production board we used in our Core 2 Duo vs. Pentium D article we posted up in August.  Please stick around as some of the performance numbers are quite interesting as you'll see on the following pages.

P965 Goodness
P965 Goodness

The P965 Neo-F motherboard comes in a pretty classy box, but with very few extras as you can see below.  Not included in the picture are the driver CD and manual.  This motherboard bundle is quite different from MSI graphics card bundles that come with a ton of software, games and applications.  This unit is very lean.

Very Lean Bundle
 Very Lean Bundle

Motherboard View
 Motherboard View

As you can see by the pictures above, the motherboard is traditional MSI Fire Engine red and has a fairly clean layout.  Before we take a closer look at the layout, we'll take a look at the specifications as listed by MSI.

MSI Reminds you:
Because of the limitations of chipset, this MB does not support Win98/ME. 

CPU

  • Supports Socket 775 for Intel Core2 Duo, Pentium 4 (Prescott, P4EE), Pentium D, Pentium XE/Celeron D processors in LGA 775 package
  • Supports FSB 533/800/1066 MHz
  • Supoprts Intel 05B/05A and 04B/04A processors
  • Supoprts EIST techonology
  • Supports Intel Hyper-Threading (HT) Technology
  • Supports Intel Dual Core Technology to 1066MHz


Chipset
Intel® P965 Chipset

  • Supports FSB 533MHz, 800MHz & 1066MHz
  • Support Dual channel DDR2 533/667/800 memory interface up to 8GB (with DDR2 800, memory only up to 2GB)
  • Support PCI Express 16X interface

Intel® ICH8 Chipset

  • Integrated Hi-Speed USB 2.0 controller, 480Mb/sec, 8 ports
  • 4 Serial ATAII ports w/ transfer rate up to 300MB/s
  • PCI Master v 2.3, I/O ACPI 2.0 Compliant
  • Integrated AHCI controller

FSB

  • Support FSB 533 MHz, 800MHz & 1066MHz

Main Memory

  • Supports 4 unbuffered DIMM of 1.8 Volt DDR2 SDRAM
  • Supports up to 8GB memory size (with DDR2 800, memory only up to 2GB)
  • Support Dual Channel DDR2 533/677/800MHz and up


Due to the High Performance Memory design, motherboards or system configurations may or may not operate smoothly at the JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) standard settings (BIOS Default on the motherboard) such as DDR2 voltage, memory speeds and memory timing. Please confirm and adjust your memory setting in the BIOS accordingly for better system stability.
Example: Kingston HyperX DDR2-800 PC6400 operates at 2.0V, 4-4-4-12.
For more information about specification of high performance memory modules, please check with your Memory Manufactures for more details.

Slots

  • One PCI Express 16X slots (PCI Express Bus SPEC V1.0a compliant)
  • Two PCI Express 1X slot (PCI Express Bus SPEC V1.0a compliant)
  • Three PCI 2.3 32-bit Master PCI Bus slots. (support 3.3v/5v PCI bus interface)

On-Board IDE

  • One Ultra DMA 66/100/133 IDE controller integrated in JMicron JMB361
  • Supports PIO, Bus Master operation modes
  • Can connect up to 2 Ultra ATA 133 drives
  • Serial ATAII controller integrated in ICH8 and JMicron JMB361
  • Up to 300MB/s transfer speed
  • Can connect up to 5 Serial ATA II drives (4 drives from ICH8R, 1 drive from JMB361)
  • Supports SATAII hot plug

On-Board Peripherals

  • 1 floppy port supports 1 FDD with 360K, 720K, 1.2M, 1.44M and 2.88Mbytes
  • 2 Serial port (COM A & pin-out)
  • 1 parallel port supports SPP/EPP/ECP mode
  • 8 USB 2.0 ports (Rear x 4/** Front x 4)(** Front USB ports are supported by pin-out)
  • 1 6-in-1 audio jack (S/SPDIF out)
  • 2 PS/2 connectors
  • 1 LAN RJ45 connector

Audio

  • High Definition link controller integrated in Intel ICH8R chip
  • Audio codec Realtek 883
  • Compliance with Azalia 1.0 spec
  • Flexible 8 Ch. audio with jack sensing

LAN

  • Realtek RTL8110SC PCI 2.2 Gb LAN Controller

BIOS

  • The mainboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
  • The mainboard provides a Desktop Management Interface(DMI) function which records your mainboard specifications.

Dimensions
      12in.(L) x 8.7in.(W) ATX Form Factor
       
Mounting
      6 mounting holes

___________________________

On the next page we are going to get a little more personal with this motherboard.


Layout - Up Close:

This board has a pretty decent layout and follows along with Intel's fanless chipset cooling philosophy.  I'm in agreement with this school of thought - if your chipset remains cool enough in a situation where there is not a lot of airflow.  Click any of the thumbnails below to enlarge the picture for a better view of this motherboard.

Top Board Layout
 Top Board Layout

PCI Area
 PCI Area



DDR2 Area
 DDR2 Area

SATA Area
 SATA Area

For the most part the board layout is pretty good.  I like to see both the 24-pin power connector and the 4-pin power connector close together.  This keeps the bulk of your power cables together instead of spread to different parts of the board.  The power connector could be positioned higher on the board to help prevent the cables from crossing over top of the HSF however.  There should be enough room around the CPU socket for many aftermarket HSF solutions.  We have mounted a couple of large Zalman coolers with no trouble.

The PCI slot area is pretty standard.  Thankfully there are not Firewire or USB headers in between the slots as there are on other motherboards.  The ICH8 chipset is located behind the top PCI slot and it passively cooled.  If you wanted to add aftermarket cooling to this chipset, you'd be out of luck.  Fortunately, it really shouldn't be an issue as this chipset runs quite cool - even when overclocking.  You'll notice that MSI threw the Floppy connector below the bottom PCI slot.  This location makes it tough to plug in a Floppy cable if you have the board installed in a case where the motherboard sits on the bottom of the case.  Personally, I don't care as I haven't plugged in a floppy drive for a couple of years.

MSI has put the DDR2 slots close together, but not touching like Gigabyte does on some of their boards.  The more room you have between the RAM, the better cooling you're going to get.  When you're running some toasty PC2-8000, you want decent cooling.

This board has 5 SATA ports and a single IDE port.  The IDE port and the dark blue SATA connector are provided courtesy of the JMicron controller you can see in the picture above (bottom right).  Because the Intel P965 chipset doesn't provide any IDE support, MSI has decided to include the JMicron controller.  That is a good thing because not everyone runs all SATA Hard Drives and a SATA DVDRW.  The Intel chipset supports 6 SATA devices, but the Neo-F only includes 4.

I/O Connections
I/O Connections

The backplane of the P965 Neo-F motherboard is quite plain.  MSI supports legacy keyboard, mouse, Printer and Serial ports with this board.  On the back are 4 USB2.0 ports, a GB Ethernet jack, and 6 Auto-Sensing 1/8" Audio Jacks.  Compared to some motherboards with firewire, 6 USB2.0, 2 GB Ethernet and Optical Audio In/Out, this board looks fairly bare.

Below we've posted up some pictures of the Realtek HD Audio Chip, Realtek GB Ethernet chip and the Winbond PLL Generator for your viewing pleasure.

Realtek HD Audio
 Realtek HD Audio

Realtek GB Ethernet
 Realtek GB Ethernet

Windbond Generator
 Windbond Generator

Carry on as we fire up this board and take a look at the BIOS settings and features that are available.


BIOS:

The BIOS is based on the popular Award BIOS which I much rather prefer over other BIOS formats.  The BIOS is pretty bare compared to a DFI motherboard, but there still are a few mentionable notes as you'll see below.  Click any of the thumbnails to get a larger image.

Main BIOS Menu
Main BIOS Menu

The BIOS is broken down into areas of interest below.  At the end, we'll touch on MSI's Cell Menu which is where the majority of this boards tweaking features are located.

Advanced BIOS Features
 Advanced BIOS Features

CPU Features
 CPU Features

Memory Timings
 Memory Timings

CPU Specific features are located in the Advanced BIOS Features section and you've the ability to adjust C1E Support, Execute Bit, Speedstep and Virtualization Technology.  RAM Timing adjustments are located in the Advanced Chipset Features section, and while this seems like a logical place, I think they should actually be located in Cell Menu as you'll see if a few moments.

The Integrated Peripherals section is really not that exciting, but to be thorough I included some pictures as well.  Take a look at them below to see if anything is different.

Integrated Peripherals
 Integrated Peripherals

ATA Devices
 ATA Devices

PnP/PCI Configurations
 PnP/PCI Configurations

The MSI P965 Neo-F motherboard comes with the JMicron controller for IDE and an extra SATA and this is why we've got real control over UDMA on our IDE connector.  Other early 965 based motherboards that don't include a additional controller for IDE have issues with DMA mode when running the SATA connectors in RAID or AHCI mode.  When ran in these modes, the IDE seems to be stuck in PIO only mode - and that sucks.  Ask Nicao.

Hardware Monitor
Hardware Monitor

MSI has included the popular Hardware monitoring features such as CPU Smart Fan, Temperature Control, Chassis Intrusion and of course PC Health.  In the PC Health section you can monitor CPU and chipset temperature as well as popular voltage rails.

We wrap up our look at the BIOS now with a look at the Cell Menu.  The Cell Menu is MSI's answer to the enthusiast's need to tweak, overclock and push things to the Max.  What I find interesting is that the Cell Menu changes greatly from the P965 Neo-F to the K9N Platinum.  The P965 Neo-F Cell Menu is quite bare compared to the nForce 570 SLI based K9N Platinum.  For instance, on the Neo-F you don't have any options for boosting CPU or chipset voltage.

Cell Menu
 Cell Menu

CPU Ratio
 CPU Ratio



CPU FSB
 CPU FSB

DDR2 Voltage
 DDR2 Voltage

As I mentioned above, you don't have the ability to adjust CPU or chipset voltage, but you do have a wide range of voltage adjustment for your DDR2 memory.  You can push things up to 2.4v which should more than suffice for virtually any DDR2 overclocking.  Also notice that you can adjust your CPU multiplier downward.  This feature should allow for higher FSB overclocks and allow you to push your system faster and farther than you could otherwise.  Unfortunately, FSB frequency can only be adjusted up to 333FSB, which is a little weak compared to some 975X motherboards where they are pulling over 400FSB when overclocking.

On the next page we'll take a look at our test setup and start the benchmarking!


Test Setup & Info:

To compare performance with this board and its CPU prowess, we compared directly to the Intel DG965WH motherboard we had on hand.  The Intel board is a pre-production board, so performance may not be as good as a final version.  We used the board regardless so we had something to compare to MSI P965 Neo-F.

We ran a series of real world tests to see how the MSI P965 Neo-F compares to the Intel DG965WH.  We ran some application and timed them using a stopwatch and when it came to gaming - we lowered the resolution to see how well the motherboard handles CPU intensive tasks while gaming.  We played through actual game levels using FRAPS to log our framerates.  These game runs were performed many times to get a good average run through a particular sequence in the game.  We charted the FPS using OpenOffice and have a frame-by-frame comparison.

Some of the results in the application benchmarks puzzled us, but we made sure that they were correct as we ran through the benchmarks a minimum of 3 times.  We believe the results following to be complete and accurate.  Let's take a look.

Network & Audio:

As we will be taking a look at more motherboards in the future, we will continue to evolve our testing methods.  One thing that we will be taking a look at is network performance and audio quality.  We use iperf for testing network bandwidth and monitor CPU load while performing these transfers.  We test both 100Mbit and 1000Mbit (1Gb) throughput.  Below are the iperf results.

Net Speed
Throughput
Efficiency
CPU Load
100Mb/Sec
94.5
94.5%
13%
1000Mb/Sec
450.3
45%
31%

As you can see a Gb network does not transfer data anywhere near 1000Mbits/sec.  In reality you get less than half and at the expense of 31% CPU load on an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600.  That is pretty hefty CPU requirements for the Realtek GB ethernet.

Audio quality was measured with RightMark Audio Analyzer and these results will be compared to other motherboard results as we take a look at more motherboards.

RightMark Audio Analyzer
RightMark Audio Analyzer

You can see that the "High Definition" audio is not as high quality as an Audigy 2 ZS or X-Fi, but the sound quality will be as good as a $100 pair of 5.1 speakers for sure.

Application Benchmarks:

First up is some Audio Conversion compliments of dbPowerAMP.  We converted WAV to OGG and then OGG to MP3.  Finally we converted the MP3 files back to WAV.

dbPowerAMP Conversion
dbPowerAMP Conversion


 

DivX is a very popular codec and many people convert video into DivX for distribution across the web or playback on a DivX certified DVD Player.  We used DivX 6.2.0 and used the included DivX encoder tool to encode our test video.  The video sample is a 2:01 second WMV file that we converted using the Home Theatre Profile.  This test doesn't use any fancy optimizations or adjustments.  This was a simple drag and drop conversion that didn't require any setup or tweaking.  This test shows raw performance on both machines.

DivX Encoding
DivX Encoding

We used QuickTime Pro and fired up a similar test using a different video clip.  This clip is a short AVI clip that is 16,491KB and 1:19 long.  It was taken from a digital camera and then dropped into QuickTime Pro for a little high compression H.264 encoding.  This is a very bandwidth friendly format that uses a lot of CPU power to compress quickly.

QuickTime Pro Encoding
QuickTime Pro Encoding

For some reason the MSI P965 Neo-F scores much lower on the QuickTime Pro encoding benchmark.  We re-ran the test using the same file and compression settings, but the Intel board finished the test much quicker.

We'll continue the application benchmarks on the next page.


Application Benchmarks (continued):

This next benchmark shows how these two processors handle the task of real world Photoshop usage.  We used the file and set of actions from DriverHeaven.  This benchmark is a little involved to set up because it is a set of PhotoShop tasks that are timed using the built-in timer.  Click the chart below for a full-sized chart to see how these processors scale.

PhotoShop CS2 Benchmark
PhotoShop CS2 Benchmark

This next test was brought to me by JayMo and was quite interesting to see.  This test is an Ultima Online Server script that parses over 200MB of XML files and loads the Ultima Online server.  This test is purely mathematical and shows how well each CPU can handle raw data.  This server script is generally used on hefty Dual Opteron servers as each server can host 2000+ players.  We'll see how a desktop chip can handle the task.

UO Server Load
UO Server Load

This test shows how well both CPU's handle file compression and extraction.  Our test file is a 74.4MB Zip file that contains 10,092 files and folders.  It is mostly HTML, XML and MySQL databases so there is a lot of compression possible as these files are basically text files.  When the archive is uncompressed it occupies 398MB.  The compression ratio is a little better than 5.3:1.

File Compression/Decompression
File Compression/Decompression

Overall, the MSI motherboard runs a little faster, harder and longer than the Intel motherboard in applications.  Next up we'll run through a bunch of games to see if the trend continues.


Game Benchmarking:

We have started to get performance numbers for game much differently that we have in the past.  We used to use time demos and a lot of synthetic benchmarks to get our performance numbers.  While these do have a place in inter-platform testing, they do leave a great big hole in the CPU performance of a game.  Canned benchmarks don't typically take into account CPU load due to AI and Sound that we experience in real-world game play. 

For our performance numbers in the following game tests we used FRAPS to gather frame rate data, then we charted the CSV files in OpenOffice 2.0.3 to get our chart information.  We ran each of the benchmarks a minimum of three times, averaged the results and charted the averaged numbers.  Some games lend themselves to easy repetition of a map and others are more difficult due to the AI involved.  In a real world scenario, Battlefield 2 was impossible to keep consistent as the AI chose different numbers of bots to travel to the same flag every time we loaded the map.  Below are the games that we felt were repetitive and interesting enough to be included in our head-to-head.

All of the games were ran at 800x600 with medium to low detail so that the graphics system would not be the bottleneck.

Age Of Empires 3:

Age Of Empires is a very CPU intensive game as it requires a lot of cycles to run the AI of the enemy.  I really expected the results to be fairly even as they were very comparable when running the Pentium D against the Core 2 Duo in a previous article.  Things ran a little different when we swapped motherboards however.  I was a little surprised at the results.

Age Of Empires 3
Age Of Empires 3

This test blew me away.  When we were comparing Core 2 Duo vs Pentium D performance on the Intel board, the results looked very similar.  When comparing board to board we can see that the MSI motherboard pounds the PCB out of the Intel board.

Call Of Duty 2:

Call of Duty 2 is a very impressive game to play.  It is very immersive as the story plays out well.  The audio and video of this game are very demanding and it can bring most mid-range systems to their knees when playing at larger resolutions.  We kept everything in check at 800x600 so we could see the impact that the motherboard has on this game.

Call Of Duty 2
Call Of Duty 2

Half-Life 2: Episode 1:

I've enjoyed the Half-Life series from the beginning and I remember playing the original on a Voodoo 3.  Half-Life 2 has a bit higher requirements, and Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is even more demanding on a system.  We turned down the resolution to 800x600 and left everything else medium to see how the CPU affected this game.

Half-Life 2: Episode 1
Half-Life 2: Episode 1

These first game tests are quite interesting.  While we saw very little difference between CPU's on the Intel board in the past, the MSI P965 Neo-F shows greater improvement over the Intel board.  There is a huge performance improvement in both Age Of Empires 3 and Call of Duty 2 as you can see above.  Half-Life 2:Episode 1 shows somewhat slower performance on the MSI board and I can't explain why.  We ran these tests many times and came up with the same results.

We'll continue our game tests on the next page.


Oblivion:

We continue our head-to-head with a game that has been making headlines as far as world environments go.  The game of course is Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  This game renders graphics on the fly and trees, grass and other objects are generated real-time as you run though the game.  This is incredibly demanding on both the graphics processor and the CPU.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Quake 4:

We continue our quest as we take a look at Quake 4.  I enjoyed this game much more than Doom3 and have spent quite a few hours in the past fragging on Quake 4 maps.  Quake 4 is locked at 60 FPS, so to let things run loose and wild, we had open the console and fix the tic rate by typing the command " seta com_fixedtic "1" ".  This allowed the game to run at the highest FPS that the system could generate.  The problem with this is that when you run faster processors, the game speeds up and the map run-though is not perfectly consistent.  We ran though many times to get very comparable results as you can see below.

Quake 4
Quake 4

Tomb Raider: Legend:

The last game we are taking a look at today is the latest Tomb Raider installment.  This game is a total rework of everything we've previously come to hate about Tomb Raider and it has actually impressed a whole bunch of people.  The truth is this game looks good and runs pretty well on mid-range hardware - until you turn Next-Generation Content on.  For these test we are running default graphics settings with Next Gen off at 800x600.

Tomb Raider: Legend
Tomb Raider: Legend

In this series of tests, we really see the MSI P965 Neo-F motherboard shine.  Oblivion was fairly close, but when it comes to Quake 4 and Tomb Raider: Legend there is no comparison.  While our Intel test board average over 140FBS in Tomb Raider: Legend, the MSI board pulled an amazing 200FPS at the same settings.  Incredible!!

We've now ran through our applications and games and there is only one thing left to do - overclock the board and see how well it runs above spec.  We'll carry on to some faster numbers on the next page.


Overclocking:

This board has a few overclocking features, but it's nothing earth shattering.  We were only able to run the Motherboard up to a FSB of 296MHz which brought our CPU speed up to 2.66GHz.  This is really a disappointing overclock and at this point I believe that is the motherboard that is holding us back.  MSI gives you the option of turning down the multiplier on the CPU.  In theory, this could help you raise the FSB higher, but all we could reach is the aforementioned 296MHz.  Even though the overclock is minor, it still raises the performance bar from this little CPU quite a bit in some cases.  Let's take a look at these numbers below.

SiSoft Performance
SiSoft Performance

Super Pi
Super Pi

Right off the top we see that overclocking noticeable increases both CPU and Memory performance in a couple of tests.  SiSoft Sandra shows a nice improvement and we can get a SuperPi calculation of 1M in less than 20 seconds.  We'll now carry on to the application benchmarks we ran previously and compare our overclocked speed with the original stock speed.

Next up we'll take a look at some encoding.  We've got Audio and DivX encoding.

Overclocked - Audio Encode
Overclocked - Audio Encode

Overclocked - DivX Encode
Overclocked - DivX Encode

There is some extra performance to be had when you clock up to the E6600 speed as you can see above.  We'll carry on with a look next at QuickTime Encoding and PhotoShop CS2 performance.

Overclocked - QuickTime Encode
Overclocked - QuickTime Encode

Overclocked - PhotoShop CS2
Overclocked - PhotoShop CS2

With a fast run of 133 seconds for the entire PhotoShop benchmark, this puts our test system in 21st place in the DriverHeaven benchmark list.  That's not bad for a $400 processor and a $130 motherboard.

Lastly we'll take a look at the Ultima Online Server Test which requires XML and database parsing and some Zip compression.

Overclocked - Server Load
Overclocked - Server Load

Overclocked - File Compression
Overclocked - File Compression

There is noticeable improvement in zipping our test file package, but not much difference in extracting them.  The Ultima Online Server loads a bit faster as well as it shaves about 3 seconds off the stock speed.

We'll wrap things up on the last page with our conclusion.


Conclusion:

The MSI P965 Neo-F motherboard is a very solid motherboard for the price.  It packs the latest features and some pretty solid performance without breaking the bank.  It appears that this board will even support the upcoming Core 2 Quad "Kentsfield" processor with a BIOS flash.  That's pretty cool stuff for a $130 motherboard.

Things that stand out about this board are the nice layout, add-on JMicron IDE/SATA controller as well as some High Definition Audio.  While the High Definition Audio doesn't spec as good as an Audigy X-Fi, most users won't be able to hear a difference with their $99 pair of Logitech X-530 speakers.  The board has plenty of options for overclocking your memory, including voltage of up to 2.4v, but unfortunately, the tweaking pretty much stops there.

Overall, the only thing that stands out that I'd change about this board is the ability to tweak and overclock more.  That being said, as it stands the board is 100% stable at stock and overclocked settings that we used.  It has ran for over 2 weeks at full load with zero issues.  If MSI tweaked out the board to the max, they would probably have to sacrifice some stability for the extra performance and at the end of the day I'd rather have a system that ran a little slower and remain stable over a system that ran a wee bit faster, but crashed occasionally.

We'll break it down into the good and the bad below.

Pros:

  • Nice board layout.
  • Supports UDMA on IDE with the JMicron controller.
  • HD Audio & GB Ethernet.
  • Very Stable throughout testing.
  • Supports Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad through a BIOS flash.

Cons:

  • Poor overclocking ability.
  • CPU load a little high on GB ethernet transfers.

 

 

BCCHardware.com Rating
Quality:
10/10
Performance:
8/10
Software Pack:
9/10
Stability:
10/10
Features:
8/10
Value:
10/10
Total Score 9.1

 

 

This motherboard is a nice little package that will get you up and running with your brand-new Core 2 Duo system.  It may not have the best tweaking features, but with the liberal voltage adjustment on the memory, you should be able to run pretty much any memory that you like.  Overall, it is rock solid and a recommended pick from BCCHardware.

I'd like to thank MemoryExpress for firing this board over for a review and also for their patience while we got some harvesting done on the farm.

If you have any questions, comments or other feedback regarding this review, please feel free to post it in the forum at the comments link below.