MSI’s MEGA651 barebones system

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
RAID 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

Externals
Although we all like to pretend personality is the most important trait for a small form factor system, external appearance matters.

The MEGA651 probably isn’t for those with a distain for orange or silver, but I think the two actually look quite good together. Then again, I’ve never had much luck putting together outfits that don’t clash, so I could be way off the mark. At the very least, MSI has managed to create quite a distinct face for the MEGA651.

Instead of building the MEGA651 with a 3.5″ bay suitable for an antiquated floppy or Zip drive, MSI equips the MEGA651 with a six-in-one memory card reader that’s nicely integrated into the front panel. The card reader is optional, so those who need to install 3.5″ floppy drive in its place can remove it. MSI supplies a silver 3.5″ floppy face plate with the MEGA. I can’t imagine many users will opt for a 3.5″ floppy in lieu of MSI’s slick memory card reader.

Now that we’ve covered the MEGA’s 3.5″ drive bay, what about the 5.25″ slot? It’s there; it’s just hiding.

A spring-loaded panel covers up the MEGA651’s 5.25″ drive bay face. The panel pops up and down automatically as the optical drive’s tray slides in and out. This drive bay door preserves the MEGA651’s aluminum aesthetic without the owner having to worry about painting a drive face or hunting around for an orange or silver optical drive; nothing would make the MEGA look worse than an ugly beige DVD drive.

The MEGA’s drive bay cover worked with both the DVD drive MSI sent over with the MEGA and with a spare optical drive I had sitting around the benchmarking sweatshop. That doesn’t mean that every optical drive will be compatible. The drive bay opening is just a hair under an inch tall, which may not be enough clearance for optical drives with larger drive tray faces. Those looking at picking up a MEGA651 should make sure their optical drive has enough clearance for the drive bay door.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a slot-loading optical drive in house to test with the MEGA651’s door mechanism. Based on how the door works, I don’t anticipate that a slot-loading drive will have any problem ejecting disks. However, I do have some concern that the bottom of an ejected or inserted disk could be scratched by two protrusions on the drive door. To be on the safe side, I’d stick with traditional tray-fed optical drives for the MEGA651.

The MEGA’s optical drive bay isn’t the only component to get the slick aluminum door treatment. MSI also covers up the front port cluster with a handy little door that keeps everything neat. The port cover swings down to reveal an optical S/PDIF input port, headphone and microphone ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and 1394-1 and 1394-2 Firewire ports.

Personally, I like having an optical S/PDIF input out front with the companion optical output in the rear. However, I’m not such a big fan of having both Firewire ports at the front of the box. It’s nice to have both types of Firewire connectors offered, but I wish one of the ports were available at the back of the machine.

MSI provides access to the rest of the MEGA651’s ports at the rear of the cube. Unlike some competitors, the MEGA has parallel and modem ports, which, in all honestly. will probably go unused by the vast majority of users.

The MEGA651’s rear port cluster provides access to the box’s on-board video via a standard VGA output port, but no additional video outputs are available. The MEGA651 is practically begging to be used in a home theater system, which makes the omission of TV-friendly video output ports especially disappointing. Those looking to hook the MEGA651 up to a TV will have to add their own graphics card or use MSI’s optional TV tuner card, which includes a video output port.

The port cluster also includes a serial port, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, a couple of USB 2.0 ports, a connector for an included FM antenna, and the analog and digital audio output ports. The MEGA’s complement of four USB 2.0 ports seems a little weak. Anyone looking to mate the MEGA with a stack of peripherals will probably need a USB hub.

Double duty
One of the coolest features of the MEGA is its ability to act as a HiFi audio system independent of its functionality as a PC. Without fully powering on the system, users can play standard audio CDs, play CDs burned with MP3 files, and tune in radio stations—all in an environment almost completely free of system noise. However, the MEGA651’s HiFi capabilities are limited to audio playback, so those looking to watch DVDs or VCDS will have to boot up the system and use a software video player.

Controlling the MEGA651’s HiFi component is a simple affair. Buttons mounted on the face of the system handle all the standard playback features. Users can also control the HiFi component of the MEGA with a provided remote, making music playback from the couch a snap. Heck, the MEGA even includes a front panel display screen that looks more like it belongs in a car stereo than a small form factor system.

As slick as the MEGA’s HiFi implementation is, it has a few limitations to keep in mind. First, the PC system must be turned off before the HiFi component can be used. With a system fully booted into the operating system, users should have full access to a wide variety of audio playback software, so there really shouldn’t be a need for the MEGA651’s HiFi component. MSI even includes a software FM tuner for radio fans. Still, the HiFi component’s preference for a powered-down system isn’t compatible with Windows XP’s “Standby” power saving mode.

Another limitation of the MEGA651’s HiFi component is that it will only work with the system’s on-board audio ports. Fortunately, the MEGA651’s built-in audio can be disabled in the BIOS and still work with the HiFi component, which should make life easier for anyone looking to avoid conflicts with a PCI sound card.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of the MEGA’s HiFi component isn’t so much a limitation as it is a little bit of wishful thinking on my part. The HiFi component’s back-lit screen is probably one of the neatest elements of the system, but it only works when the HiFi component is active. When the system is booted into the operating system, the display screen’s back light goes off and only the time is displayed. That just seems like a waste to me.

If MSI were really creative, I’m sure they could have rigged up the MEGA’s display screen to work in Windows like one of Matrix Orbital’s LCD displays. Heck, I’d even be happy to see the screen displaying system temperatures. At least then the display would be used for something other than a clock when not in HiFi mode.


Oh, how I wish I could play with you in Windows

Underneath the skin
Now that we’ve taken a look at the MEGA651’s external attributes, let’s take a peek inside.

Removing the MEGA’s aluminum skin reveals cramped internals that look a lot more disorganized and messy than they really are.

Unlike Shuttle, MSI has gone with a more traditional AGP/PCI slot orientation in the MEGA651. The system’s AGP slot is “inside” the PCI slot, just like it is with normal ATX and micro-ATX motherboards. That means one could theoretically squeeze a Dustbuster-sporting GeForce FX 5800 Ultra into the MEGA, but why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. With that much blower power in the system, I fear the tiny MEGA might be prone to liftoff.

With its AGP slot buried deeper inside the system than Shuttle’s cubes, installing a graphics card is a little more difficult with the MEGA651 than with an XPC system. By the same token, PCI card installation in the MEGA651 is easier than it is in one of Shuttle’s cubes, which have the PCI slot on the inside.

As Shuttle does with its cubes, MSI covers up any internal metal surfaces that could potentially short an installed graphics card. That might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a nice little touch that could save users some potentially expensive magic blue smoke.

The MEGA’s cramped conditions necessitate a little creativity when it comes to heat sink retention systems. I’ll dive into the MEGA’s unique cooling system in a moment, but for now, take in the minimalist heat sink retention studs. Normally, I’d be wary of a heat sink mount that offered so little support. However, the Pentium 4’s heat spreader should keep the processor core protected through even a clumsy heat sink installation.

Uniquely, the MEGA’s two DIMM slots are situated along the edge of the board, opposite the AGP and PCI slots. This placement makes memory installation quick and painless, and it should also keep the DIMMs cool, since they’re not mounted directly under the system’s hard drive as in an XPC. The MEGA’s external skin even has a few venting holes near the DIMM slots to help keep them cool.

Towering over the DIMM slots are the MEGA’s drive cages, which can be removed individually. The lowest drive bay is occupied by the system’s memory card reader. The other two are available for a hard disk and optical drive, respectively. As I mentioned earlier, the system’s card reader is only an option; it can be removed and replaced with a second hard disk or a floppy drive.

Buried under the drive bays are the majority of the MEGA motherboard’s chips, including the actively cooled SiS 651 north bridge chip. In such cramped conditions, I have to wonder just how much air flow the north bridge is really getting. Still, the MEGA was stable throughout testing in my steamy, air conditioning-less basement suite.

A new take on cooling
Speaking of cooling, check out the MEGA’s processor heat sink:


Fins ‘o plenty

The MEGA651’s unique cooler is designed to work with the minimalist retention clips we saw earlier. Instead of being mounted on top of the heat sink, the CPU fan is mounted on its side at the end of a plastic duct. The fan draws outside air into the case through side vents, then over a stack of cooling fins. In my testing, this cooler kept a fully loaded Pentium 4 2.4GHz processor running smoothly in a room with ambient temperatures over 25 degrees Celsius. Honestly, I’m surprised by how well the MEGA651’s cooling system works. The MEGA affords only a few centimeters of clearance between the processor fan and graphics card. The fan draws air in over the heat sink’s cooling fins, then funnels it directly into the rear of the AGP card through the duct in the air intake. Such direct, hot airflow could raise GPU temperatures enough to cause problems.

Oh, and did I mention that the space between the graphics card and cooling fan isn’t totally clear, either? The system’s power supply and CD audio cables must be routed through the gap, as must the cooling fan’s own power cord. What little cooling clearance there is between the heat sink and an AGP graphics card is further compromised by cable clutter.

Think I’m joking? Check it out:


In the gap between the graphics card (top) and cooling fan (bottom), you can
just make out the edge of the motherboard’s power connector

As little room as there is between the AGP card and processor cooling, I didn’t notice any visual artifacts after looping 3DMark03 for hours on end while [email protected] ran in the background. Remember, this was with the case on in a warm room. The MEGA651’s cooling implementation isn’t pretty, but I have no doubt that it can get the job done.

Extra goodies
MSI differentiates its MEGA from the competition with a full range of extra features. These features are augmented by a few extras included in the box, plus a couple of optional components.

An FM antenna and HiFi remote are included in the MEGA651’s box, as are a couple of aluminum faces for the system’s 3.5″ drive bay. As far as I can tell, the remote only works with the HiFi component, though it may work with MSI’s home theater software, which is an option for the MEGA but wasn’t included with our review sample.

As good as the MEGA’s remote is for controlling the system’s HiFi component, it doesn’t appear to have enough functionality or buttons to compete with something like ATI’s Remote Wonder. Even if a robust software suite were available for MSI’s remote, the remote doesn’t offer a good way to control mouse movement.

The MEGA651 we’re looking at came with MSI’s six-in-one card reader, which is actually an option for the system. Also optional is a PCI TV tuner card, which could turn the system into a TiVo-like personal video recorder. I’d personally prefer to reserve the MEGA651’s expansion slots for a 24-bit audio card and more capable graphics card.

What about that audio?
Though they don’t come with the MEGA651, MSI also sent over a pair of its M3122 amplified speakers, which nicely match the MEGA.

The M3122 speakers are the exact same height as the MEGA651, which makes pairing them with the system a snap. Lining them up next to the MEGA651 will, however, block two of the system’s air vents, which probably isn’t good. The controls for the speakers are mounted at the rear, which can be frustrating for those who prefer to manipulate speaker volume, bass, or treble controls with regularity. The speakers are only rated for 3W RMS each, which doesn’t set expectations high, anyway.

Overall, the M3122s sound OK, but they only support analog inputs and seem a little beneath the MEGA651. Without a subwoofer, the speakers don’t have much punch at the low end. The mid-range and high-end range of the M3122s was also a little weak, even when paired with my Terratec DMX 6fire 24/96 audio card, which produces the best sound I’ve heard from PC audio to date.

Speaking of audio, it’s only fitting that I make a few comments on the MEGA651’s integrated audio. Honestly, I found the system’s HiFi component playback to be superior to its Windows audio playback. Maybe it’s RealTek’s drivers for the ALC650 codec, but CDs sounded cleaner, at least to my ears, when using the HiFi component for playback. Of all the south bridge/ALC650 duets I’ve heard over the past year, the MEGA651’s audio playback quality is only average. It feels like there’s just not enough dynamic range to deliver clean sound with more complex music. Of course, those listening to low-bitrate MP3s of either static-filled, range-less, or generally uninteresting pop music may never notice any deficiencies.

To MSI’s credit, most integrated audio solutions are blown away by today’s discrete sound card offerings when it comes to audio fidelity. I’ve been spoiled by true 24-bit audio cards like M-Audio’s Revolution 7.1, so I’m accustomed to better sound. I wish MSI had integrated a 24-bit audio chip like VIA’s Envy24PT into the MEGA, but those less picky about audio clarity will probably get along just fine with the system’s integrated audio.

The BIOS
There’s very little to cover in the MEGA’s BIOS, but let’s take a quick tour just to be thorough.

The memory timings and AGP options provided by the MEGA651’s BIOS are particularly sparse, which is a little disappointing. I was able to run our test system with a couple of Corsair XMS3200 DIMMs with the “Ultra” system performance mode and a CAS latency of 2 without issue, but it’s unclear what the various individual timings are when running in the “Ultra” performance mode.

Anyone looking to overclock the MEGA should, well, stop looking. The only way the MEGA can be overclocked is by putting in a 400MHz front-side bus Pentium 4 processor and setting the system’s front-side bus to 533MHz. That’s it. There are no incremental front-side bus options between 100 and 133MHz, nor is there any way to manipulate the processor, memory, or other system voltages.

The BIOS gives users the option of setting a system shutdown temperature threshold that should help ease the minds of those paranoid about the system’s cramped cooling.

Other than its 200W PSU, which has its own cooling fan, the entire MEGA651 is cooled by a single processor fan. Because of that single point of fan failure, I would have liked to see a BIOS option to set a fan failure shutdown condition. At the very least, such an option could power down a system before a fan failure could cause CPU temperatures to climb dramatically. In the end, though, it’s probably unlikely a fan failure would cause any permanent damage. The Pentium 4’s thermal clock throttling should kick in if temperatures get too high, even if the BIOS isn’t able to shut down the system immediately.

Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.

System
Processor Pentium 4 2.4B Pentium 4 2.4C
Front-side bus 533MHz (4x133MHz) 800MHz (2x400MHz)
Motherboard MEGA651 IT7 MAX2 V2 PX865PE ProII
North bridge SiS 651 Intel 845E Intel 865PE
South bridge SiS 962 Intel ICH4 Intel ICH5R
Chipset driver IDE: 2.03
AGP: 1.16a
Chipset: 5.0
IAA: 2.3
Chipset: 5.0
Memory size 512MB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair XMS3200 PC2700 DDR SDRAM
Graphics ATI Radeon 9700 Pro
Graphics driver CATALYST 3.4
Storage

Maxtor 740X-6L 40GB 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive

Operating System Windows XP Professional SP1 w/ Direct 9.0a

Today I’ve cobbled together a couple of test systems that have the same chipsets as what’s available in Shuttle’s latest cubes for the Pentium 4 processor. Abit’s IT7 MAX2 Version 2.0 will be filling in for the SB51G, which also uses the 845PE chipset, and Albatron’s new PX865PE ProII will be filling in for Shuttle’s latest SB61G2 barebones system, which also uses a Springdale chipset.

Using a Springdale board for comparison highlights the MEGA651’s biggest handicap: its lack of support for Intel’s latest Pentium 4 “C” processors. To make things interesting, I’ve tested the Springdale system with Hyper-Threading both enabled and disabled with a Pentium 4 2.4C processor running on an 800MHz front side bus.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get Intel’s Application Accelerator drivers working with Albatron’s Springdale board; keep in mind that their absence may influence the benchmark results.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the high detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Memory performance

The MEGA’s memory bandwidth is competitive with Intel’s 845PE chipset, which is expected since they both offer a single channel of DDR333 memory. The MEGA loses about 300MB/second of memory bandwidth if on-board video is used.

I should probably feel guilty for pitting the MEGA651 against a Springdale board that offers over 2GB/second more of memory bandwidth, but really I don’t. Already, Shuttle has an XPC system based on the Springdale chipset. Nothing is stopping MSI from doing the same.

Disk controller performance

Despite its older chipset, the MEGA651 shows off some pretty impressive disk controller performance in Winbench 99’s Disk Playback tests. Even taking into account that the PX865PE ProII isn’t using Intel’s Application Accelerator IDE drivers, the performance of SiS’s 962 south bridge is impressive.

Business and Content Creation Winstone

The MEGA can’t quite catch the IT7 MAX2 Version 2.0 in the Business Winstone test, but it hangs right in there as long as the on-board video isn’t in use.

In the Content Creation Winstone, Springdale’s 800MHz front-side bus surges to the front of the pack, bumping the MEGA into third place. Still, it’s a respectable showing for the MEGA.

3DMark03

3DMark03 is largely graphics card-bound, which suits the MEGA651 just fine. It’s quite capable of saturating the AGP bus with all sorts of triangles, shader programs, and textures while the GPU does all the work.

The MEGA651’s integrated video, which doesn’t have pixel or vertex shaders, can’t run any of 3DMark03’s tests.

Unreal Tournament 2003

The MEGA is at the back of the class in Unreal Tournament 2003, but it’s at least competitive with the IT7 MAX2. The PX865PE Pro II clearly benefits from an 800MHz front-side bus here, making the MEGA651’s lack of much of a processor upgrade path sting just a little bit more.

Serious Sam SE

In Serious Sam SE, things line up according to front-side bus speeds again.

Noise levels
The MEGA651’s fans are temperature-controlled, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, the system’s HiFi component requires that the optical drive and power supply be on at all times, which means the MEGA isn’t totally silent unless it’s unplugged.

Overall, I’d peg the MEGA as quiet, but not silent. In my steamy basement suite, the MEGA’s fans are usually powered up, especially with an auxiliary graphics card installed and [email protected] cranking in the background. Even then, the MEGA is quieter than an average PC, with noise levels comparable to Shuttle’s SS51G barebones system. The MEGA is nearly silent in HiFi mode, despite the fact that the optical drive and power supply are both running.


The MEGA651 in its element

Conclusions
If it seems like I’m harping on the MEGA651’s dated chipset, I am. The SiS 651 doesn’t have the features or performance to compete with Intel’s latest Pentium 4 chipsets. As a result, the MEGA’s likely CPU upgrade path ends at 2.8GHz. How much of an inconvenience that would be for you entirely depends on what you might want to use the MEGA651 for. Support for dual-channel DDR400 memory, AGP 8X, Serial ATA, an 800MHz front-side bus, and Hyper-Threading are key features for enthusiasts looking for the best possible performance. Thus, the MEGA651 is a rather unsuitable desktop replacement for power users. However, the latest and greatest features aren’t really needed for home theater PCs and desktop systems for most mainstream users.

At just under $300 online (including the six-in-one card reader), the MEGA651 isn’t a cheap home theater PC or desktop PC, but its price is competitive with comparable small form factor systems. However, saying that other cubes are comparable is a bit inaccurate. Nothing can touch the MEGA651 when it comes to innovative and thoughtful features like the drive and port covers, HiFi functionality, the integrated memory card reader, and the included remote control. The MEGA651 serves up just the kind of innovation the small form factor world has needed.

In a perfect world, the MEGA would have been released last year when its chipset was competitive, or it would be arriving now with a Springdale chipset. In the end, the MEGA651’s dated chipset knocks it out of contention for performance-hungry power users aiming to build a new primary PC. However, I’d be more than happy to hook the MEGA651 up to my TV to be used as a home theater system. I’d even put it in the bedroom so I could surf TR in the wee hours a little more comfortably and have near-silent CD or MP3 player available. (Really, I just want an excuse to admire the MEGA’s sweet backlit display.)

Take heed, small form factor system manufacturers: MSI has packed a healthy bunch of innovative, useful, and stylish features into its first cube, and you have some catching up to do.

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