Further Observations on the MSI 970 Gaming
Audio is further enhanced by the plethora of high quality audio capacitors populating the area. MSI utilizes Nichicon caps that are low ESR and low leakage units. These do cost more than standard polymer caps, but the difference in price is measured in dollars instead of tens of dollars. MSI has implemented a dual amplifier design which detects when a higher resistance (up to 600 ohm) playback device is used. Speakers typically feature around 8 ohms of resistance, but high end headphones can go from 35 ohms up to 600 ohms. One amplifier is connected to the front audio output while the other is attached to the red output on the back panel. Unfortunately for the back panel, it utilizes that lower spec’d 96 dB SNR output from the CODEC. For most users with PC grade speakers, this is not a big deal. For users that do have high end headphones, just make sure to use the front audio panel headphone connection.
The SB950 still offers six SATA6G ports for users, and MSI wisely does not waste a port on eSATA on the back panel.
MSI includes the Sound Blaster Cinema 2 software suite with this board. No Sound Blaster silicon is used in this design, but it does utilize many of the same effects of the higher end standalone Sound Blaster audio solutions. It is software based, so it utilizes CPU cycles to perform this work. If a user has an eight core CPU with this board, then the hit on the CPU will be pretty minimal. In this situation we would see upwards of 4% to 6% CPU usage with multiple effects being applied to an audio application (be it MP3 playback, gaming, or watching a HD movie with higher bitrate audio). Purists will likely disable many of the effects such as Crystalizer and SBX Surround, but those options are there for users to experiment with.
The rear audio ports are all gold plated to ensure that the connection between the motherboard and the playback device is as robust as possible. The gold plating will wear less than a port with just aluminum connections. Gold also does not oxidize, unlike aluminum. In theory this will give you a longer lasting port which has superior electrical properties.
The second big feature is that of the Killer Ethernet product from Qualcomm. This is comprised of a pretty solid Atheros Ethernet controller combined with a fairly robust software solution that helps to shape network traffic. This solution does not have the QoS and networking features offloaded onto the networking chip like the original K1 did before Qualcomm bought them up. It is however a good solution that matches up well with the more expensive Intel networking chips and software stack. If a user does a lot of streaming or torrenting while playing games, this is certainly a good tool to help keep latency down in online gaming.
The rear outputs are pretty tame as compared to other offerings out there. Plenty of USB 2.0 ports as well as the two USB 3.0 units.
The board is comprised of Military Class 4 components. This means the usual suspects of high quality polymer caps and super ferrite chokes. In this particular design there are no Hi-C caps which have become popular in high end boards and their CPU power phases. These higher quality components give users some peace of mind due to the extremely low probability of an exploding cap. Given MSI’s history and the trouble they had in the early 2000s with knock-off capacitors, it is good that they are including these higher end components in even their value boards.
MSI’s UEFI implementation is nicely laid out and very efficient. It has the features and tools that one would expect from a modern firmware implementation. All of the settings are laid out in a very logical manner, depending on what the user wants to do. The Click BIOS 4 also includes a very intuitive and handy fan control system. Users can tweak the fans speeds according to their personal preferences. Want a quiet machine but do not mind higher temperatures? Not a problem. Going full out on maximum cooling where noise is not an issue? MSI can accommodate that as well. Also included is the OC Genie 4, which allows users to automatically overclock the system with a push of a button.
The “Gaming Port” optimizations that MSI has implemented for the USB 2.0 and PS/2 port on the back of the board are debatable in how effective they are. These ports have a thicker layer of gold in them than usual to improve connectivity and reduce potential wear when plugging/unplugging components. It is a nice touch that likely is not too much trouble to implement, but measurable results of such a feature are tenuous at best.
A closer look at the audio portion of this board. MSI looks to have spent a lot of time and effort to make this a quality selling point for this particular model.
MSI piles on the extras with their Command Center and Live Update 6 software bundles. Command Center is the overclocking and monitoring solution developed by MSI. This is a feature rich software suite that allows users to further tweak their setups from within Windows. Finer grained fan control, overclocking, and hardware monitoring are all wrapped into an attractive black/red motif that matches the colors of the board. MSI also includes an unlimited RAMDisk that allows users to partition of a portion of their main memory to use as a disk drive. Enabling this typically causes for longer bootups, but once the image is in main memory, then starting programs that are located on the RAMDisk is nearly instantaneous. I would only recommend using this for configurations with 16 GB and higher of main memory, but that is merely my personal preference talking.
The price point of this board is the strength of the board. It is available from $89 US to $99 US, depending on where it is purchased. This is very much a value board that looks an awful lot like a higher end enthusiast board. Multi-GPU? Check. High quality audio? Check. Powerful firmware that allows near infinite tweaking of system performance? It is all there. So where did MSI cut corners to get this product to the price point it is at?
The northbridge cooler is not massive, but it does the job. Note as well the chips that detect and route the appropriate PCI-E lanes when two GPUs are installed.
The answer to that one comes in two pieces. Using the AMD 970 and being able to split the PEG connection to support 2 x8 slots is a big one. The 970 is not supposed to support CrossFire and SLI, but MSI was able to skirt around that issue. The second big cut is that of the power delivery system. This is a 6+2 power phase setup, rather than the more common 8+2 that higher end boards utilize for AMD CPUs on AM3+. MSI also does not use higher end components like the above mentioned Hi-C caps. The combination of these two factors has allowed MSI to offer this board at a much lower price than expected considering its rich featureset.
Something else to consider is that the 970 Gaming does not officially support the FX-9000 series of CPUs. This is due to the less-than-robust 6+2 setup that is more common for AMD’s 100 watt TDP APUs than the 220 watt monsters that are the FX-9000 series. The caveat to this is that I tested this board with the FX-9590 with no problems.