The Phenom II has arrived, and in some respects, it's better than expected. The X4 940 won't give a Core i7-965 Extreme a run for its money, of course, but we enthusiasts tend to shy away from the high end of the market anyway. We'd rather take a less expensive CPU, pair it with an equally affordable motherboard, and overclock and tweak the snot out of both to deliver the best performance per dollar with the smug satisfaction of knowing we pulled one over on The Man. Or something.
At less than $300, even the flagship Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition qualifies as inexpensive. And unlike with Intel's latest batch of Nehalem-derived Core i7 processors, motherboards compatible with Phenom II chips are both plentiful and affordable. Boards like MSI's new DKA790GX Platinum, for example, are easily found for under $150.
Armed with AMD's jack-of-all-trades 790GX chipset, the DKA790GX offers a unique combination of potent integrated graphics with dual PCI Express x16 slots for CrossFire. Pile on DVI and HDMI output options, six Serial ATA ports, the usual mix of integrated peripherals, and a BIOS primed for overclocking, and we have what looks to be a great companion for AMD's latest 45nm processors. Read on to see how the DKA790GX fares with Phenom II onboard.
We've already covered AMD's 790GX chipset in great depth, so we won't dwell on it here. If you're unfamiliar with this core logic Swiss army knife, I suggest checking out our initial review of the chipset.
Perhaps lying in waiting for Phenom's second coming, motherboard makers haven't pimped the 790GX quite as aggressively as they have other chipsets. Asus and Gigabyte are known for releasing a multitude of motherboard flavors based on a single chipset, yet both offer only one option based on the 790GX. MSI at least serves up two models, although they're essentially different versions of the same board. Today we'll be looking at the Platinum version of the DK790GX, which adds a black color scheme and Firewire support at about a $23 premium over its vanilla cousin.
The Platinum's layout is quite roomy, but then that's to be expected given that the board isn't loaded down with superfluous auxiliary peripherals and exotic accessories. At first glance, you'll notice that the layout itself is a little unconventional, too. The south bridge chip sits a little higher on the board than usual, and so does the north bridge chip, which is more next to the CPU socket than below it.
MSI optimizes the DKA790GX's power plug placement for traditional enclosures that put the PSU above the motherboard. The auxiliary 12V connector is located along the top edge of the board where cabling won't interfere with the CPU socket in a standard case. However, if you're using an upside-down enclosure that puts the PSU below the motherboard, you'll likely need an extension cable for the 12V line. Despite only offering a four-pin auxiliary 12V connector, the Platinum still supports processors with TDP ratings up to 140W.
If you're planning on plunking in a power-hungry processor, you'll probably want to pair it with a larger aftermarket cooler. The Platinum's socket area should be able to accommodate most oversized heatsinks. Although the north bridge cooler and DIMM slots are a little close to the socket for my liking, the board has just enough clearance for Scythe's gargantuan Ninja tower.
Despite its hopped-up integrated graphics core, the 790GX runs pretty cool. The Platinum gets by with only modest heatsinks on its north and south bridge components, although the two are linked by a couple of long heatpipes. MSI also equips the board's voltage circuitry with a passive heatsink that lies separate from the chipset heatpipe network.
After reviewing a wave of high-end X58 motherboards loaded down with all sorts of auxiliary storage options, the DKA790GX's Serial ATA cluster looks almost barren. And yet it still offers five SATA ports hanging off AMD's latest SB750 south bridge, with a sixth port routed to an eSATA plug in the rear port cluster. Four of the five internal SATA ports are mounted along the edge of the board and the fifth is strategically placed to ensure that none are obscured by double-wide CrossFire configs.
To the left, notice that MSI has equipped the Platinum with power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons. The convenience of onboard power and reset buttons is great when working on an open test bench, but I have to admit that the utility of these extras will likely be lost on most end users. MSI would do well to move the clear CMOS button into the rear port cluster where it can easily be accessed without the user having to remove a case panel.
The DKA790GX's slot stack sports pairs of PCI Express x16, x1, and standard PCI slots. Of course, the 790GX chipset doesn't have enough PCIe lanes for a true dual-x16 implementation, so the x16 slots get eight lanes of bandwidth each. Since they're second-generation PCI Express, though, the x8 links deliver equivalent bandwidth to x16 gen-one links.
MSI has arranged the slots so that a double-wide CrossFire config still leaves you with available PCIe x1 and standard PCI slots, which is a nice touch. From here we also get a good look at the board's capacitors, which are of the solid-state variety. I haven't burst a cap in years, but I lost a few motherboards to faulty electrolytic capacitors back in the day, so I can appreciate the industry's recent fixation on higher-quality electrical components in enthusiast-oriented motherboards.
You get a little bit of everything in the Platinum's port clusterwell, a little of everything except a PS/2 mouse connector. That omission will likely flummox those with older KVM switches, but those with old-school clickety-clack keyboards should appreciate the inclusion of a PS/2 keyboard port. At least the DKA790GX is loaded on the video front, with VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs all stemming from the chipset's integrated Radeon HD 3300 graphics core. Since the Radeon HD 3300's video decode block is capable of full Blu-ray decode acceleration, the HDMI output is particularly appropriate. It's also worth noting that MSI pairs the 790GX's integrated Radeon with 128MB of dedicated DDR3-1333 memory.
Six USB, one Firewire, and one eSATA port fill out the Platinum's cluster of peripheral connectivity options. Realtek provides the silicon behind the board's Ethernet and audio ports, although MSI settles on the relatively pedestrian ALC888 codec, as opposed to the Soundstorm-esque ALC889A. The ALC889A's ability to encode Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the fly would have nicely complemented the Platinum's digital audio output.