MSI's X58 Eclipse
X-Fi comes to X58
We didn't expect to see X58-based motherboards dip below the $300 mark, but Newegg is already selling MSI's X58 Platinum for just $221. That's quite reasonable for a high-end motherboard, particularly since the next-cheapest Core i7 board runs about $280. Unfortunately, we don't have an X58 Platinum in-house. Instead, MSI sent us its flagship X58 Eclipse, which sells for closer to $350—nearly 60% more than the entry-level model.
With such a commanding price premium, one might expect a lot from the Eclipse. This is MSI's halo Core i7 board, after all, and one whose box boldly suggests that you "Behold the future of computing." The board itself doesn't look all that imposing, although you could chalk that up to the subdued black and blue color scheme. MSI used to dress its boards in brilliant, fire engine red, which at least made them easy to pick out of a crowd. This latest color scheme looks like it could have just as easily come from Asus or Intel.
Of course, the aesthetic appeal of a motherboard should really only matter to the case window crowd. That segment of the enthusiast community seems to be shrinking, too, as cases designed to show off a system's internals give way to ones focused on lowering noise levels. A motherboard's layout is ultimately much more important than its looks, and MSI has managed to keep the Eclipse's generous array of slots, ports, and other onboard hardware away from potential clearance conflicts.
Since it's a pet peeve of mine, I should note that MSI puts the auxiliary 12V connector along the top edge of the motherboard, where associating cabling won't interfere with airflow between the CPU socket and rear chassis exhaust. This position works well for traditional enclosures, although it can require an extension cable when paired with upside-down enclosures like Antec's P180, depending on the length of your PSU's 12V line.
Speaking of power cabling, MSI includes a GreenPower Genie pass-through connector for the primary 24-pin power connector. This pass-through also plugs directly into the motherboard through an included two-pin connector, and it works in conjunction with GreenPower Genie software to monitor and reduce system power consumption. Unlike Gigabyte's DES app, GreenPower Genie actually works with the X58 Eclipse, and it's capable of monitoring 3.3, 5, and 12V power consumption in addition to dynamically scaling the number of power phases used to feed the processor, memory, and north bridge chip. When configured in auto power saving mode, GreenPower Genie also lowers system voltages very slightly (usually by only a few millivolts). We'll look at its impact on system power consumption in a moment.
While the X58 Eclipse is capable of dynamically scaling power phases, it has fewer of them to work with than the Gigabyte board. The Eclipse dedicates two power phases to its north bridge chip and another two to memory, but there are only six phases available to the processor—half as many as you get on X58 boards from Asus and Gigabyte. We've yet to see six-phase power solutions limit system performance or stability, even with overclocked configs, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.
MSI may not have a fancy Ultra Durable brand that denotes the use of higher quality electrical components, but it's worth noting that the Eclipse is littered with solid-state capacitors and ferrite core chokes. We'd expect nothing less on a $350 motherboard.
What we didn't expect, however, was the relatively sedate heatsinks MSI uses on the board. Gone is my favorite obnoxious motherboard heatsink of all time—the infamous double loop—and in its place a collection of short VRM and chipset heatsinks that aren't even linked with an elaborate heatpipe network. Isolating voltage circuitry cooling from the chipset isn't a bad idea, although MSI does link its north and south bridge heatsinks with a couple of heatpipes. Either way, there's plenty of room around the Eclipse's socket for larger aftermarket coolers.
Turning our attention southward, note that all six of the Eclipse's ICH10R-backed SATA ports are edge-mounted to ensure plenty of clearance for longer graphics cards. The board also comes with an additional four Serial ATA ports tied up in a similar combination of JMicron chips as on the EX58-UD5. There's certainly an elegance to the use of driver-free hardware RAID chips, but it's not like configuring arrays on the ICH10R is all that difficult, nor is installing RAID drivers when doing a Vista setup.
A small jumper block sits right next to the SATA ports and plays host to MSI's D-LED 2 display module. This little OLED screen displays descriptive post progress messages like "CPU Ini" rather than cryptic hex codes, making troubleshooting easier than with a typical two-digit post code display. D-LED displays other information, too, like the voltage of the processor and north bridge chip, and a system temperature fed by a separate probe with a 20" reach.
This apparent second coming of the D-LED certainly has potential, but I can't help but think it's been squandered here. The device would be much more useful if it were capable of cycling through a more extensive suite of hardware monitoring variables, such as processor and chipset temperatures, fan speeds, and other voltages. I'd also like to see the D-LED linked to the motherboard by a longer cable to allow the display to be run outside of a case.
There are no surprises in the Eclipse's slot stack, which features three PCI Express x16 slots, two x1s, and a couple of standard PCI slots. CrossFire and SLI are both supported, and the slots are spaced such that you can run three double-wide cards without issue.
Below the slot stack you'll find onboard buttons for power, reset, and the D-LED display. MSI even provides a little love for old-school overclockers with a set of "Easy OC" dip switches that control the board's base clock. Of course, the switches only provide options for 133, 166, and 200MHz; you're much better off overclocking through the motherboard's BIOS, which offers base clock steps in 1MHz increments.
Like the EX58-UD5, the X58 Eclipse features a handy CMOS reset button right in the port cluster. Eight USB ports are also provided alongside Firewire and Ethernet jacks, and a couple of eSATA ports backed by a JMicron JMB362 SATA controller. There's more eSATA love, too, thanks to a PCI back plate that allows an additional two external Serial ATA ports to be connected to any of the board's internal SATA ports.
As you've no doubt noticed, the Eclipse's port cluster is entirely devoid of audio jacks. Rather than putting an audio chip on the board, MSI has gone with an external riser card based on Creative's X-Fi Xtreme Audio.
This riser sits in a PCIe x1 slot and provides a collection of analog audio jacks in addition to a digital S/PDIF output. Don't get too excited, though; this isn't a real X-Fi with hardware audio processing capabilities. The card features a CA0110-IBG audio chip and performs all of its EAX 5.0 magic in software. Drivers shipped with the card also lack much of the functionality present in drivers for full-fledged X-Fi cards, although you do have access to Creative's 24-bit Crystalizer and speaker virtualization features. What really hurts the Xtreme Audio is its lack of support for real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding. This essentially limits multi-channel digital audio output to source material with pre-encoded audio tracks, which games lack.
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