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Penryn Motherboard Recommendation: MSI P35 Neo2-FR

February 13, 2008

Need a new, best-value motherboard for a new Penryn system? The selection is huge, as is the range in prices. How to choose?

Our priorities - which we believe reflect those of many of our readers - are very high performance at very reasonable cost. Not ultimate performance: the cost premium for this is extreme, often for a few percentage points. Besides, ultimate performance is a transient target, eclipsed almost immediately by something better.

Components should work great out of the box. Following the mantra of very high performance at very reasonable cost, they should also lend themselves well to overclocking, if you're so inclined.

Finally, most of us in the real world want our systems to be quiet. We like them silent.

Building such a system is absolutely achievable.

Our new favorite motherboard for the newest Intel CPUs, including the new Penryn, is the MSI P35 Neo2-FR. It is also compatible with Intel Core2 Quad, Core2 Extreme, Core2 Duo, Socket 775 Pentium 4, Pentium D, and Pentium XE and Celeron D processors. Cost is around $120 U.S.

Recommended Penryn motherboard: MSI P35 Neo2-FR motherboard

Compare this to $300 or more for most X38 and X48 motherboards. Excepting some multiple-graphics cards setups, the performance differences between chipsets are negligible. More on this below.

The MSI Neo2 features a very sweet heatpipe cooling Northbridge, Southbridge, and Voltage Regulation Modules - these get hot! especially when overclocking. Heatpipes rely on surface area and circulating air to cool, not fans, and so are silent. The Neo2 heatpipe is very substantial, but unobtrusive; the board is an excellent overclocker.

Four SATA ports support RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10 allow mirrored or striped disk arrays, or both. Two eSATA ports allow for easy, 3Gbps connections to external drives. Up to 12 USB ports are supported.

All-solid capacitors outlast electrolyte capacitors, and are expected on an overclocking-friendly board. For overclockers, the CMOS reset button is quite nice (no prying out the battery); the CMOS also retains last settings on an already-tweaked system. Nice touches. The FIR version of this board incorporates FireWire for another $10, but can be harder to find.

Realtek's ALC888 on-board sound chip actually provides decent HD audio - though not as good as the ASUS Xonar D2 on-board audio codecs, or that of a dedicated Audigy card. Because latter also offloads audio decoding from the CPU to a dedicated card, it makes for a faster system, by a few percent.

The MSI Neo2 motherboard takes up to 8 GB of dual-channel DDR2 memory, spread over 4 slots. DDR2 does not make this an inferior choice. While DDR2 officially operates at 400-800 Mbps (though goes as high as 1200 Mbps), and DDR3 at 800-1600 Mbps, this does not always translate into better performance. DDR2 is as good as, or better than, DDR3 at the same clock speeds and latencies. What's more, DDR2 at the lowest latencies available smokes DDR3 at higher clock speeds but with higher latencies.

Don't believe me? Check out one fairly representative review at AnandTech.com. A small sample of their results:

MemoryBandwidth
BufferedUnbuffered
DDR2-1067, timings of 4-4-3-11
6811
4926
DDR3-1333, timings of 9-9-9-25
6757
4702

In a second analysis, running DDR2-800 at 3-3-3-9 timings and with an 8x333 FSB speed netted the same timings as DDR3-1333 at 9-9-9-25!

DDR2 is about a quarter the cost of DDR3, and is available with much lower latencies. If you want fantastic performance at the lowest cost, a DDR2-based board is (still) an excellent choice. 4 GB of low-latency, 800 Mbps DDR2-RAM can be had for under $100.

Note that the only version of Windows that supports more than 4 GB of memory is 64-bit Vista. Unless you're going right to that platform, buy two 2 GB sticks, and leave the other two slots open for future use.

The board fits two of the most massive, high-performance, very quiet CPU coolers available: the Tuniq 120 and my personal favorite, the Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme.

Intel's P35 chipset allows for two physical x16 PCI-E connectors, though one only operates at x4: only one video card can run with full bandwidth to that card. That said, you can still run two ATI cards in CrossFire - it works, and well. And the more limited bandwidth on the x4 channel rarely proves rate-limiting: consider that a Radeon HD 3870 X2 dual-GPU graphics card uses only one x16 channel, and is essentially comparable to two 3870s in CrossFire on separate x16 channels.

The MSI P35 Neo2-FR isn't bad with dual graphics cards: it's good but not great. Bit-tech.net compared the MSI P35 Platinum (same actual board, few more features, significantly more expensive) against the ASUS P5E3 Deluxe, an X38 motherboard, produces almost identical frame rates in FEAR, mixed results in Supreme Commander and World in Conflict, and inferior results in Call of Duty 2. Interestingly, results were often closest at the highest frame rates ...

That said, if you still need or want to take advantage of two full x16 lanes for two graphics cards, you'll want a board based on the X38 or X48 chipsets. These also use the newer PCI-E 2 specification - though current cards have yet to reach the limits of the PCI-E 1.1 spec.

If you intend to run only one graphics card, there is no advantage to the X38 chipset.

A comprehensive review of P35 motherboards is beyond the scope of this article. AnandTech.com compared the Neo2 against its immediate competitors, including the ASUS P5K Deluxe, Foxconn MARS P35, abit IP-35 Pro, Gigabyte P35-DQ6. Where it did not have the top scores, it fell consistently within 1% of the scores - a difference that is no difference at all.

Tom's Hardware has an excellent review of the near-identical P35 Platinum and its P35 competitors, and endorsed the P35 Neo2 as their mobo of choice for a dual or quad-core overclocking system.

For what it's worth, the MSI P35 Platinum uses the exact same silicon as the P35 Neo2 - peel off the Neo2 sticker and you'll find a Platinum board beneath. The Neo2 replaces the funky heatsink for one that is less obtrusive and just as good, and drops the FireWire and S/PDIF Optical out. That's it. This won't be a problem for most.

For raw performance, this board is as good as or better than P35 boards costing three or four times as much.
 

Final Recommendations

For a budget, quiet, high-performance, superb plain-vanilla or overclocking motherboard, the MSI P35 Neo2-FR gets our nod for top dual-core or quad-core system - recommended over any X38 or X48 board.

Two provisos apply: so long as you don't need a dual-graphics card system, or intend to run low-latency DDR3-1600 or faster. Note that the second graphics card or DDR3 memory, plus X38 or better motherboard, will set you back a minimum of an additional $600-1000, and often much more.

A second recommendation: partner this board with 4 GB of the lowest-latency DDR2-800 or DDR2-1066 RAM you can afford. You will not regret it.
 

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