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MSI's MEGA651 barebones system

Real innovation comes to SFF systems

Manufacturer MSI
Model MEGA651
Price (street) US$297
Availability Now

SINCE SHUTTLE brought an AGP slot to its infectious little barebones systems back in July of last year, the XPC line hasn't seen much in the way of innovation. Shuttle has updated its cubes to support newer chipsets as they have become available. nForce2 and Springdale-based XPCs are the most current as far as chipset support goes. With those new chipsets has come support for exciting new features like Serial ATA, real time Dolby Digital encoding, and dual-channel memory, but the cube itself hasn't changed much.

The success of Shuttle's XPC line has spawned a number of knockoffs from manufacturers like IWill, Jetway, ECS, and even Creative. These cubes have closely followed Shuttle's lead, but they haven't managed to innovate much. Honestly, I think I started getting a little bored of small form factor systems for a while there. Simply adding support for the latest and greatest chipset is progress, but it's nothing much more exciting than the new chipset itself.

Fortunately, MSI has renewed my interest in the small form factor world with the MEGA651, a barebones system that may be a little late to the party, but makes up for it with innovative new features and functionality. Why has the MEGA651 had me practically giggling with glee since it arrived at my door? Read on to find out.

The specs
As is customary, we'll get the spec sheet out of the way first. What's the MEGA651 packing under its shiny aluminum skin?

CPU support Socket 478-based Intel Pentium 4 processors up to 2.8GHz
(400 or 533MHz bus only)
Chipset SiS 651
North bridge SiS 651
South bridge SiS 962
Interconnect SiS MuTIOL (1GB/s)
PCI slots 1 32-bit/33MHz
AGP slots 1, 2X/4X AGP (1.5V only)
AMR/CNR slots None
Memory 2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of DDR333/266/200 SDRAM
Storage I/O Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
Serial ATA None
Legacy ports 1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse, Serial and Parallel ports
USB 4 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
Firewire 2 IEEE 1394 ports via integrated south bridge Firewire controller
Audio 6-channel audio via SiS 962/ALC650 south bridge/codec
front, rear, and center output, mic and line in inputs
Video SiS 651 integrated
Ethernet 10/100 Fast Ethernet via RealTek RTL8101L
BIOS Award
Bus speeds FSB: 100 or 133MHz
Bus dividers None
Voltages None
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

The MEGA651 is based on SiS's 651 chipset, which is getting a little long in the tooth. To give you an idea how long the chipset has been around, Shuttle actually used the 651 in its SS51G small form factor system, which was released nearly a year ago. The 651 chipset only supports a single channel of DDR333 memory and a 533MHz front-side bus. As far as I'm aware, there's no support for Hyper-Threading, and MSI only lists the MEGA651 as compatible with Pentium 4 processors up to 2.8GHz. Because it only supports a 533MHz front-side bus, the MEGA651 is also incompatible with Intel's latest Pentium 4 "C" processors, which prefer an 800MHz front-side bus.

To its credit, the 651 chipset does offer a much higher bandwidth interconnect between its north and south bridge than even Intel's latest 865 and 875P chipsets. However, unlike Intel's ICH5 south bridge, SiS's 962 doesn't have native support for Serial ATA devices. Serial ATA drives are only starting to hit the market, but for small form factor systems whose cramped internals could really use thinner cables, Serial ATA is perfect.

Because MSI has chosen to differentiate the MEGA651 with features rather than a brand-spanking-new chipset, let's get a quick peek at a system profile:

MSI's MEGA651: It even looks different