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MSI's P4N Diamond motherboard

Diamond in the rough

ModelP4N Diamond
Price (Street)

WE RECENTLY COMPARED seven dual-core-capable Pentium motherboards, but MSI's P4N Diamond didn't make it to our labs in time for the round-up. That's really a shame, because this board has quite a lot to offer, including NVIDIA's feature-rich nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset, auxiliary Serial ATA and Gigabit Ethernet controllers, onboard SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit audio, and an overclocking-ready BIOS. But can it run with the best mobos that Abit, Asus, Gigabyte, and Shuttle have to offer? Read on to find out.

The specs
To get things started, let's have a look at the board's specifications.

CPU supportLGA775-based Pentium 4, Pentium D, Pentium XE, and Celeron D processors (Pentium D 820 in single-core mode only)
North bridgeNVIDIA nForce4 SLI Intel Edition SPP
South bridgeNVIDIA nForce4 SLI Intel Edition MCP
InterconnectHyperTransport (1.6GB/sec)
Expansion slots2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 240-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 4GB of DDR2 400/533/667 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
with RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via Silicon Image 3132
Audio8-channel HD audio via Creative P17
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 serial
1 parallel
USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8053
1 Firewire via VIA VT6306 with headers for 2 more

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog surround out
1 analog rear out
1 analog line in
1 Coaxial digital S/PDIF output
1 TOS-Link digital S/PDIF input
Bus speedsFSB: 100-350MHz in 0.25MHz increments
DRAM: 200-450MHz
PCI-E: 100-148MHz in 1MHz increments
VoltagesCPU: auto, +0.0125-0.4V in 0.0125V increments
DDR: 1.8-2.4V in 0.05V increments
NB: 1.475-1.7 in 0.025V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlCPU fan

The P4N Diamond is anchored by an nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset, and the board owes much of its functionality to the NVIDIA core logic. At the north bridge, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition serves up a dual-channel DDR2 memory controller, 19 PCI Express lanes, and SLI support. CPU support is a little problematic, though. NVIDIA hasn't validated the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition for use with the Pentium D 820, and nForce4 boards only recognize one of the processor's two cores.

NVIDIA's official line on the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition's lack of Pentium D 820 support is that there is little point to validating a high-end chipset for a budget processor. However, with NVIDIA now pimping a new nForce4 SLI X16 chipset to high-end customers, the vanilla nForce4 SLI has become more of a mainstream chipset—a mainstream chipset that lacks support for Intel's most attractive mainstream processor. Now more than ever, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition needs to support the Pentium D 820.

But I digress.

Returning to the chipset, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition's north bridge connects to the south bridge with a HyperTransport link that offers 1.6GB/sec of bandwidth. With all of the chipset's PCI Express lanes up in the north bridge, that should be plenty of pipe for the south bridge's bandwidth-intensive network and storage controllers. On the networking front, the south bridge sports a hardware-accelerated Gigabit Ethernet controller with a built-in firewall, while storage buffs are treated to a pair of ATA/133 channels and four Serial ATA ports capable of 300MB/sec transfer rates. RAID enthusiasts should also be impressed with the fact that NVIDIA's RAID software can span multiple arrays across both ATA and SATA drives.

The nForce4 SLI Intel Edition's integrated networking and storage controllers are arguably the most impressive around, but they're apparently not enough for the P4N Diamond. MSI also packs the board with PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet and Serial ATA RAID chips from Marvell and Silicon Image, respectively. Both chips sit on their own PCI Express connections, so they won't be constrained by limited PCI or interconnect bandwidth.

Some may consider the P4N Diamond's extra GigE and SATA chips a little excessive, but few should argue with MSI's decision to forgo the nForce4 chipset's dated AC'97 audio controller in favor of an on-board Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit. The Live! doesn't promise wondrous hardware acceleration for 3D audio, but it does support high-definition sampling rates and resolutions.