MSI Big Bang XPOWER Reviewccokeman -
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The MSI Xpower is an ATX form factor motherboard. The first thing that reaches out and grabs you are the looks of the board, with the black chrome on top of the black and blue color scheme. The black chrome "fits" much better than the raw-copper-look so familiar just a short while ago. Another item that screams attention are the the six -- yes count them, six -- 16x PCIe slots and the large OC Genie button on the bottom of the board. The back side of the PCB is a bit less interesting, but it's nice to see the black chrome theme continued on the socket backing plate. A pleasant surprise is that the heatsinks are not held on with spring loaded nylon pins but are actually held on with screws. These details do make the difference.
Starting on the left side of the board, let's take a trip around the board and see what it offers. The IO panel has plenty of connectivity options. Still in use on this board are PS/2 ports for both a keyboard and mouse. Next down the line, you have the Clear CMOS button, data connection for the OC Dashboard, the first stack that includes the IEEE 1394 port, two USB 2.0 ports, a combination USB/eSATA port, four more USB 2.0 ports for a total of six, two RJ-45 LAN ports and three blue-colored USB 3.0 ports. Eight USB ports should provide enough connectivity for the avid gamer. With 3D Vision Surround, a joystick, game pad, keyboard, mouse, pedals, and a wheel, you still have one left over on the back before adding in the additional expansion slot bracket. The Xpower features a total of six 16x PCIe slots and a single 1x slot for the Quantum Wave sound solution. Multi-GPU solutions from both ATI and NVIDIA are supported. With that many full size slots, the sky would seem to be the limit as far as multi-GPU solutions would go. However, even with six full length slots they are not all electrically 16x. Depending on the graphics solution you use, the slots electrically can run the gamut from 16x + 16x for slots number two and five in a dual card solution to x8+ x8 + x8 + x8 when four are populated, all of this depending on the slots populated. From left to right in front of the PCIe slots are the NEC USB 3.0 chip, the two Realtek LAN chips, the VIA FireWire controller, and the Jmicron JMB363 controller for the eSATA ports.
Along the bottom of the Xpower there is plenty to look at and connect to. Starting at the bottom left, there are two system fan headers, the 1394 connectivity and TPM module header, on-board bclock up and down buttons, OC Genie switch, on-board reset and power buttons, two USB 2.0 headers, V-switch, POST code LED, and a third system fan header. At first glance it looks like the bclock adjustment and power/reset buttons are missing. That is just an illusion. The contacts for these switches appear to be right above the silk screened location on the PCB with an LED above the contacts to show activity at that switch point as confirmation of the contact closure. The V-Switch dip switches are used to enable higher voltage levels in the BIOS for the CPU/QPI/DDR and IOH (from left to right) allowing the end user the voltages necessary to reach for higher stable overclocks.
Moving around to the right hand side of the PCB, there are the V-Check points and SATA connections. The V-check points allow you to test the voltages applied to the CPU, QPI, Memory, X58 and ICH10R chipsets, and compare the readings to the voltages applied in the BIOS. A meter will be more accurate than a software utility. The two white connections facing upwards are the SATA 6GB/s connections controlled by a Marvell 88SE9128 controller, which support RAID 0/1. The concern I have with the orientation of these two ports are when multiple video cards are used as they may prevent the use of slot number 5, depending on the cards configuration. The six black right angle SATA 3GB/s ports are controlled by the Intel ICH10R chipset that supports RAID 0/1/5/10. Further up is the 24-pin ATX power connection and six DIMM slots. The MSI Xpower as an X58 based motherboard, which supports three channels of DDR3 memory at speeds up to DDR3 2133(OC), with a total of 24GB supported. MSI has made an improvement in the method which with the memory modules are retained with their EZ DIMM design. This means no more close calls when it comes time to swap out the memory and you can't because the retention lever is blocked by a video card.
The top right corner of the Xpower has a series of LEDs that represent the 16-phase power design of the board. By monitoring this set of LEDs, one can see how many phases are in operation from a light load to full power overclocked loads. The Xpower makes use of Active Phase switching that dynamically balances the power phases to more efficiently deliver power to the on board components. The rest of the items on this side of the PCB include one part of the SuperPipe cooling system as well as the CPU fan header.
Power is supplied to the Xpower motherboard through three separate points. There is the 24-pin ATX power connection point on the right hand side of the board. This one is expected and is place where it is usually found. Behind the CPU socket area, there is, not one, but two 8-pin auxiliary power connections so that the CPU and power circuity can get the amount of juice needed for maximum clock speeds. With the demands of highly overclocked Gulftown processors, the additional power circuitry should keep the the Xpower from throttling the CPU due to current demand. Last but not least is a 6-pin PCIe power connection right above the first 16x PCIe slot. This connection is used when multiple graphics cards are used.
Cooling on this board is handled via some pretty beefy heatsinks, as well as with the massive 8mm SuperPipe that connects the heatsink over the X58 chipset to the VRM heatsinks. Over the ICH10R chipset is a huge flat finned aluminum heatsink to easily keep the ICH cool. There are even small heatsinks to cool components up and around the VRM heatsinks.
One clear theme is that MSI has chosen to use "Military Class" components for this motherboard. What that means is components with tighter tolerances and increased operating temperature capabilities. This design is most evident around the CPU socket where the lack of traditional capacitors is quite obvious. In place of these capacitors are Hi-c (Highly Conductive polymerized Capacitors) caps that boast an 8x increase in usable life and can handle higher operating temperatures. MSI claims they also have the ability to self-repair. Around these are MSI's Super Ferrite chokes that run 35 degrees Celsius cooler, have a 30% increase in current capacity, and have a 20% improvement in efficiency. Outside this area you see solid capacitors with a solid aluminum core and "Icy Chokes" that boast a 20 degree Celsius reduction in operating temperature. All said and done this should equate to better power regulation and higher stable overclocks. The black chromed socket complements the look of the board and is made by LOTES in lieu of one made by Foxconn.
Once the board is dissected it has to be installed and tested, so here it is all dressed up and ready to rock and roll!