Of the three motherboards we'll be looking at today, MSI's K8T Master2 undoubtedly has the most panache. Much of the Master2's flair radiates from its brilliant red board and brightly-colored expansion slots, which look especially wild next to Tyan's more conservative offerings. However, the K8T Master2 also has the subtle swagger of a returning champion. MSI's K7D Master-L dual Athlon board came out on top in our dual Athlon motherboard comparison, which means MSI has a title to defend.
The first thing that jumps out about the Master2's layout is just how little board space is available with a standard ATX form factor. Sticking with an ATX form factor means that the Master2 can easily fit into smaller mid-tower cases like Antec's gorgeous Sonata, but ATX doesn't leave a lot of room for two CPU sockets.
Despite the ATX platform's limited real estate, MSI's engineers managed to squeeze everything onto the board without making the layout completely unworkable. Heck, they even managed to put the main power connector at the top of the board where it will create the least amount of cable clutter. However, the board's secondary power connector isn't as well-placed. Because the connector is located along the back edge of the board, it will take careful routing to ensure that secondary power cables don't interfere with air flow around a typical case's main exhaust fan.
While we're on the subject of power, I should point out that the K8T Master2 will work with standard ATX power supplies in addition to EPS12V Server System Infrastructure (SSI) PSUs. SSI power connectors have more pins than standard ATX connectors, but the Master2's manual clearly illustrates how to connect ATX power supplies properly to the board.
The K8T Master2's ability to work with standard ATX power supplies isn't unique in the dual Opteron world, but the board's CPU socket layout certainly is. Because the Master2's CPU sockets are so close to each other and to the board's AGP slot, there's not enough room for standard Opteron heat sink retention brackets and coolers. Since standard parts won't fit, MSI ships the board with a couple of custom coolers that better suit the tight socket layout.
One of the Master2's CPU coolers uses a Pentium 4-like retention bracket while the other screws directly onto the board. Both coolers are copper, but the screw-on heat sink for CPU2 has less surface area and a smaller fan than its companion. In testing, I found that CPU2 tended to run a couple of degrees warmer than CPU1, but not enough to cause any concern.
Although CPU2's smaller cooler undoubtedly contributes to the processor's slightly warmer operating temperatures, the socket's close proximity to the AGP slot is at least partially to blame. There's only 0.75" of clearance between the CPU2 cooler and graphics cards installed in the board's AGP slot, and we all know how toasty the back of a GeForce FX can get.
Speaking of cooling, MSI uses tall aluminum heat sinks to dissipate heat from the Master2's MOSFETs. The passive cooling solution isn't quite as aggressive as Abit or Chaintech's active MOSFET cooling systems, but it should do the trick.
There might not be much clearance between the Master2's CPU2 heat sink and an installed graphics card, but there's loads of room to stretch out behind the board's AGP Pro slot. The board even comes with a four-pin auxiliary power connector for AGP Pro cards, though there's no retention mechanism for standard AGP cards.
The Master2's AGP Pro slot is far enough from the board's memory slots to eliminate any potential for DIMM tab clearance issues. Users can easily swap memory modules without having to remove other system components, which is surprisingly rare for motherboards these days.
In total, the Master2 supports up to 8GB of registered DDR memory spread across its four DIMM slots. Because it's a dual-channel design, DIMMs must be added in pairs for optimal performance. Registered DIMMs are required, and the board also supports ECC.
On the storage front, MSI clusters the Master2's IDE and Serial ATA ports in the bottom corner of the board along with the floppy port. Having IDE ports so low on the board could make reaching optical storage ports tough.
Because of limited board real estate, the K8T Master2 only has room for four PCI slots. Four slots should be enough given the board's integrated peripherals, but I can't help but wish MSI had included a little PCI-X love instead of only 32-bit/33MHz PCI slots. Granted, I don't think there's any way MSI could have squeezed longer PCI-X slots onto the board—here's where PCI Express's low pin count will come in really handy.
Around the rear, the Master2's port cluster is actually pretty sparse. The cluster yields a couple of USB 2.0 ports, PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, an Ethernet jack, parallel port, and a couple of serial ports. To get at the rest of the board's USB ports and its audio jacks, you'll need to install a PCI back plate module.
The Master2's PCI back plate module holds a couple of USB ports and the board's analog audio jacks. Two more USB ports are also available via an on-board header.
It's not worth a picture, but I should mention that MSI ships the K8T Master2 with a rounded IDE cable. In the enthusiast world, that's certainly nothing special. However, since both Tyan boards come with standard IDE ribbons, MSI deserves a little extra credit.