One of the distinguishing factors on this board is its built in Creative SoundBlaster Live! audio chip, which provides the best audio capabilities of all the boards we have heard. It supports up to 7.1 speakers, has analog as well as digital ports on its rear port cluster and boasts of a signal to noise ratio (SNR) greater than 100dB.
Two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a FireWire port, along with USB 2.0 and Serial, PS/2 and parallel ports also adorn the rear port cluster. MSI supplies expansion brackets for further USB 2.0 and FireWire ports as well one for an external SATA port. The board has RAID support through its four integrated SATA ports and MSI also adds a further two ports using a Silicon Image controller. We had a bit of difficulty locating the correct RAID drivers for our Windows XP installation, as our package did not include retail driver discs, and the drivers that worked were the ones directly off NVIDIA's Web site.
The board's performance was as expected and it was stable during application testing and I/O (input/output) transfers. It's worth pointing out that MSI uses a VIA-based FireWire controller, whereas the other vendors rely on Texas Instrument controllers.
One area MSI does a lot of work in is in providing utilities that allow you to monitor your system conveniently. DigiCell software allows you to view information, such as fan speeds and temperatures through Windows.
Physically, the board has all its ports and slots located in a logical manner, although there was one capacitor near the release lever of the first graphics slot. To enable SLI functionality the board requires that a selector board be manipulated physically. This solution is very fiddly, at best, as the clip that hols the selector in place is not secured to the motherboard. Newer SLI boards now omit this selector as the decision to enable SLI can be made through the BIOS.
Extra cooling has been placed on the transistors that surround the CPU socket area. An aluminium heat sink with a heat pipe and a small fan cool these transistors, of which this fan may get in the way of some third-party CPU coolers. We were able to run Gigabyte's G-Power cooler without any physical interference.
Another area that sets this board apart from most is the Communication Slot, which acts as an interface for MSI-specific expansion cards. Currently, MSI offers an expansion card that has both Bluetooth and 802.11g transceivers.
VERDICT: All things considered, this board impressed us with its features, especially its on-board Creative audio, but locating drivers on MSI's Website can be a tad difficult. We do think the price of this board is too high for what is offered.
CHIPSET: NVIDIA nForce4 SLI