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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

P35 Neo Combo from MSI – which is also known as MS-7365 – is based on the latest Intel mainstream chipset, P35, being a motherboard targeted to the average user that wants support for DDR3 memories but keeping DDR2 compatibility, as this motherboard provides sockets for both DDR2 and DDR3 memories, plus support for the forthcoming Core 2 Duo CPUs based on the new 1,333 MHz external bus. Let’s see the features and performance from his new release from MSI.

MSI P35 Neo ComboFigure 1: MSI P35 Neo Combo motherboard.

Intel P35 succeeds Intel P965 chipset, being targeted to mainstream motherboards. The difference between these two chipsets is the support for DDR3 memories and the new 1,333 MHz bus on P35. Please note that DDR3 support does not mean that all motherboards based on P35 accept DDR3 memories: since DDR2 and DDR3 sockets are different, is up to the manufacturer to decide which kind of memories the motherboard will accept. In the case of P35 Neo Combo it has two DDR2 sockets and two DDR3 sockets, so that is why it can accept DDR2 or DDR3 memories. Also, you cannot use both memory technologies at the same time. You have to choose between one of the two to use.

Another difference between P35 and P965 is the south bridge chip. Intel P965 uses ICH8 chip, while P35 uses the new ICH9 chip. The difference between the two is very small, with ICH9 supporting 12 USB 2.0 ports instead of 10. The ICH9R variant (P35 Neo Combo is based on the plain ICH9) supports RAID, six SATA-300 ports (the plain ICH9 support only four) and the new “Intel Turbo Memory” technology, codenamed Robson Technology, which is a disk cache technology using flash memories, available through the installation of a x1 PCI Express card. Click here to learn more about this technology.

Officially Intel P35 chipset supports DDR2 memories up to DDR2-800 and DDR3 memories up to DDR3-1066. However, just like it happens with Intel P965 chipset, P35 unofficially supports DDR2-1066. On this motherboard, however, we had a problem setting up our DDR2-1066 memories to run at 1,066 MHz. Even though on the motherboard setup there is an option to set our memories at 1,066 MHz (actually a FSB/memory clock ratio option) our memories were always running at 800 MHz. This is probably a bug with the BIOS we were using, which was the first release (1.0), because on another P35-based motherboard (MSI P35 Platinum) we could set our memories at 1,066 MHz without a problem. We complained with MSI about this bug and we got no answer from them before we posted this review (at a later date they wrote us saying that a new BIOS is available solving this problem).

Another problem we had was that leaving our memory set to “auto” on the motherboard setup made it to be configured as DDR2-667, even though we were using DDR2-1066 modules (which are usually recognized as DDR2-800).

As mentioned this motherboard has two DDR2 sockets, supporting up to 4 GB total, and two DDR3 sockets, also supporting up to 4 GB total. Since you cannot use DDR2 and DDR3 at the same time the maximum memory capacity of this motherboard is 4 GB.

This motherboard supports dual channel, but MSI made a carnival, with each memory socket using a different color. DDR2 sockets are green and orange, while DDR3 sockets are blue and pink. In order to enable dual channel on this motherboard just install two DDR2 modules or two DDR3 modules.

MSI P35 Neo ComboFigure 2: MSI P35 Neo Combo memory sockets.

Unfortunately we don’t have DDR3 modules, so we will benchmark this motherboard using only DDR2 modules.

On the storage side, this motherboard has a total of five SATA-300 ports, four controlled by the ICH9 south bridge (not supporting RAID, as mentioned) and one controlled by a Marvell 88SE6111 chip. This chip also controls a parallel ATA (ATA/133) port, since Intel P35 chipset does not support parallel IDE devices.

This motherboard has one Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by the south bridge using one Realtek RTL8111S chip to make the physical layer interface.

This motherboard has 12 USB 2.0 ports (four soldered on the motherboard and eight available through I/O brackets, which don’t come with the motherboard) and two FireWire ports controlled by VIA VT6308 chip (one soldered on the motherboard rear panel and another available through an I/O bracket that doesn’t come with the motherboard).

[nextpage title=”Introduction (Cont’d)”]

The audio section from this motherboard provides 7.1 audio, produced by the south bridge chip with the aid of a Realtek ALC888 codec. This codec provides fair specs for the average user, with a 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its inputs and a 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its outputs. The maximum sampling rate of its inputs is of 96 kHz, while its outputs supports up to 192 kHz. While these specs are enough for the average user someone thinking of working professionally with analog audio editing and capturing should look for a motherboard with at least 95 dB SNR and 192 kHz sampling rate for its inputs.

This motherboard has independent jacks for all analog inputs and outputs on the rear panel, so you can easily install a 5.1 or 7.1 analog speaker system without “killing” your line in and mic in jacks. On the other hand, it doesn’t bring SPDIF outputs, which is a shame.
 
On the rear panel (Figure 3) you can find the Gigabit Ethernet port, four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port, analog audio inputs and outputs, one parallel port, one serial port, PS/2 mouse and PS/2 keyboard connectors.

MSI P35 Neo ComboFigure 3: Motherboard rear connectors.

Some of the capacitors from the voltage regulator circuit are solid, which is great. On this circuit the ones that are not solid are from a Japanese vendor, Matsushita (a.k.a. Panasonic). Outside the voltage regulator circuit we found capacitors from Matsushita and Chemi-Con, both Japanese, but some from Teapo (especially near the USB headers), which is a Taiwanese company (Japanese capacitors have a better quality). We think MSI should have used all-Japanese caps.

Another good thing about this motherboard is that MSI is using ferrite coils instead of iron coils on the voltage regulator circuit, which have 25% lower power loss compared to iron coils.

MSI P35 Neo ComboFigure 4: Solid aluminum capacitors, Japanese electrolytic capacitors and ferrite coils on the voltage regulator circuit.

In Figure 5, you can see all accessories that come with this motherboard. As you can see, this motherboard does not come with a lot of stuff.

MSI P35 Neo ComboFigure 5: Motherboard accessories.

This motherboard comes with one CD, containing its drivers and utilities.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

MSI P35 Neo Combo main features are:

  • Socket: 775.
  • Chipset: Intel P35 Express.
  • Super I/O: Fintek F71882FG
  • Parallel IDE: One ATA-133 port controlled by a Marvell 88SE6111 chip.
  • Serial IDE: Four SATA-300 ports controlled by the south bridge chip and one SATA-300 port controlled by a Marvell 88SE6111 chip.
  • USB: 12 USB 2.0 ports (four soldered on the motherboard and eight available through I/O brackets, which don’t come with the motherboard).
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394a): Yes, two ports controlled by VIA VT6308 chip (one soldered on the motherboard and another available through an I/O bracket, which doesn’t come with the motherboard).
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with Realtek ALC888 codec (eight channels, 24-bit resolution, up to 96 kHz sampling rate for the inputs and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for the outputs, 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the inputs and 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs).
  • On-board video: No.
  • On-board LAN: One Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by the chipset together with one Realtek RTL8111S chip.
  • Buzzer: No.
  • Power supply: ATX12V 2.x (24-pin).
  • Slots: One x16 PCI Express slot, three x1 PCI Express slots and two PCI slots.
  • Memory: Two DDR2-DIMM sockets (up to 4 GB up to DDR2-1066/PC2-8500) and two DDR3-DIMM sockets (up to 4 GB up to DDR3-1066/PC3-8500).
  • Number of CDs that come with this motherboard: One.
  • Programs included: Drivers and utilities.
  • Extra features: None.
  • More Information: https://www.msi.com.tw
  • Average price in the US*: This product wasn’t being sold yet on the day we published this review.

[nextpage title=”How We Tested”]

During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the motherboard being tested.
 
Hardware Configuration

Software Configuration

  • Windows XP Professional installed using NTFS
  • Service Pack 2
  • DirectX 9.0c

Driver Versions

  • NVIDIA video driver version : 158.22
  • NVIDIA nForce driver version: 9.53
  • Intel Inf chipset driver version: 8.3.1.1013
  • Realtek Audio driver: R1.41

Used Software

We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.

[nextpage title=”Overall Performance”]

We measured the overall performance of this motherboard using SYSmark2004, which is a program that simulates the use of real-world applications. Thus, we consider this the best software to measure, in practical terms, the system performance.

The benchmarks are divided into two groups:

  • Internet Content Creation: Simulates the authoring of a website containing text, images, videos and animations. The following programs are used: Adobe After Effects 5.5, Adobe Photoshop 7.01, Adobe Premiere 6.5, Discreet 3ds Max 5.1, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX, Macromedia Flash MX, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9, McAfee VirusScan 7.0 and Winzip 8.1.
  • Office Productivity: Simulates the use of an office suite, i.e., simulates sending e-mails, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. The following programs are used: Adobe Acrobat 5.05, Microsoft Office XP SP2, Internet Explorer 6.0 SP1, NaturallySpeaking 6, McAfee VirusScan 7.0 and Winzip 8.1.

The software delivers specific results for each batch and also an overall performance result, all in a specific SYSmark2004 unit.

We compared the reviewed board to ECS PN2 SLI2+ (nForce 680i), ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i), MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35), ASUS P5B (Intel P965), ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) and Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X). On the graphs present on this and on the following pages you will see the clock rate we configured our memories. Since we had DDR2-1066 memory modules installed, we ran our tests two times, first with our memories configured at 800 MHz and then configured at 1,066 MHz, whenever possible. Some motherboards (like the ones based on nForce 650i and Intel 975X chipsets), however, do not support DDR2-1066 and that is why you won’t find DDR2-1066 results for them.

You can see the results on the charts below.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

MSI P35 Neo Combo achieved an overall performance on the same level as ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965), ASUS P5B (Intel P965) and MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) – even comparing the results achieved by these boards with their memories running at 1,066 MHz with our MSI P35 Neo Combo accessing its memories at 800 MHz.

MSI P35 Neo Combo was 4.17% faster than ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), 5.11% faster than Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X), 5.74% faster than ECS PN2 SLI2+ (nForce 680i) and 6.06% faster than ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i). We are comparing here the results with all memories running at 800 MHz.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

On Internet Content Creation the same thing happened: the reviewed motherboard achieved the same performance level as ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965), ASUS P5B (Intel P965) and MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) – even comparing the results achieved by these boards with their memories running at 1,066 MHz with our MSI P35 Neo Combo accessing its memories at 800 MHz.

Here it was 3.46% faster than ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), 3.70% faster than Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X) and ECS PN2 SLI2+ (nForce 680i) and 4.19% faster than ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i). We are comparing here the results with all memories running at 800 MHz.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

On Office Productivity P35 Neo Combo achieved the same performance level of MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) and ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965), being 4.18% faster than ASUS P5B (Intel P965), 5.38% faster than ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), 7.03% faster than Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X) and 7.87% than ECS PN2 SLI2+ (nForce 680i) and ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i). We are comparing here the results with all memories running at 800 MHz.

[nextpage title=”Processing Performance”]

We measured processing performance using PCMark05 Professional program. PCMark05 Professional measures the system performance by running several tests. The System batch, which was the one we used, performs the following tests: HDD XP Startup, Physics and 3D, 2D Transparent Window, 3D Pixel Shader, Web Page Rendering, File Decryption, 2D Graphics Memory – 64 lines, HDD General Usage and three multithreading tests. The results are given in a PCMark05 specific unit.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

Here all motherboards achieved the same performance level with the exception of Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X), which was 4.53% slower than the reviewed board.

[nextpage title=”3D Performance: Quake 4″]

We upgraded Quake 4 to version 1.3 and ran its multiplayer demo id_demo001 at 1024x768x32 with image quality settings configured at “low” four times. The first result was always discarded, and from the other three values, we discarded the highest and the lowest score, i.e., we used the middle value for our comparison. You can see the results below.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680i

On Quake 4 MSI P35 Neo Combo achieved the same performance level as Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X), ECS PN2 SLI2+ (nForce 680i), ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i) and ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i). MSI P35 Platinum was 5.33% faster, ASUS P5B (Intel P965) was 5.54% faster and ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) was 5.71% faster. We are comparing here the results with all memories running at 800 MHz.

[nextpage title=”Overclocking”]

On MSI P35 Neo Combo we could find some overclocking options (1.0 BIOS):

  • FSB clock: Can be adjusted from 200 to 500 MHz in 1 MHz steps.
  • PCI Express clock: Can be adjusted as auto or from 100 MHz to 200 MHz in 1 MHz steps.
  • CPU voltage: up to +1.5500 V in 0.0125 V increments.
  • Memory voltage (DDR2): 1.80 V to 2.10 V in 0.05 V increments and 2.10 V to 2.70 V in 0.10 V increments.
  • Memory voltage (DDR3): 1.50 V to 3.00 V.
  • North bridge voltage: 1.250 V to 1.600 V in 0.025 V increments and 1.650 V.
  • South bridge I/O voltage: 1.5 V to 1.8 V in 0.1 V increments.
  • South bridge voltage: 1.05 V or 1.15 V.
  • External bus voltage (FSB voltage): 1.200 V to 1.550 V in 0.025 V increments and 1.600 V.

This motherboard also provides several memory timings adjustments, as you can see in Figure 6.

MSI P35 Neo ComboFigure 6: Memory timings settings.

This motherboard also features D.O.T. (Dynamic Overclocking Technology) where through a simple adjustment the motherboard can automatically overclock itself. Six pre-defined overclocking levels are available: Private (1%), Sergeant (3%), Captain (5%), Colonel (7%), General (10%) and Commander (15%).

On this motherboard there is no way to lock the memory clock at a specific clock rate, so overclocking the CPU you will automatically overclock the memory as well. This may be a problem as the maximum clock your memories can achieve may limit your overclocking. On the other hand, you can configure the FSB/memory clock ratio, so you may decrease this when you think your memories are running at a too high clock.

The PCI Express clock configuration is also very important, as you can lock the PCI Express clock at a given value (100 MHz, for example). Usually when you increase the FSB clock you will automatically increase the PCI Express clock as well, and sometimes your overclocking will be limited not by the CPU but by the devices connected to the PCI Express bus. Thus with this option you can increase the probability of setting a higher overclocking.

The maximum external clock rate we could configure on this motherboard was 314 MHz, what made our memories to run at 942.6 MHz (FSB/memory ratio of 1:1.5). With this overclocking our Core 2 Duo E6700, which normally runs at 2.66 MHz, was running at 3.14 GHz, 18% increase on its internal clock rate. With this overclocking our system performance increased 25.70% on Quake 4 and 10.48% on PCMark05.

We could configure our external clock above that but the system was unstable. We only consider our overclocking to be successful after we can run at least four times Quake 4 and PCMark05 with no errors.

Just for reference, on ASUS P5N-E SLU we could set our CPU running at 327 MHz, on ASUS P5B Premium we could set our CPU running at 323 MHz, on ASUS P5B we could set our CPU running at 316 MHz and on ECS PN2 SLI2+ we could set our CPU running at 306 MHz.

We, however, didn’t play with voltage settings or any other fancy adjustments, so you may achieve a better overclocking than we did with more time and patience – on this motherboard and also on the other motherboards we reviewed.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

This motherboard isn’t available on the market yet, but we think that its “correct” price should be USD 120, in order to compete with mainstream motherboards based on the nForce 650i chipset. MSI P35 Neo Combo has two advantages over motherboards based on this chipset from NVIDIA, first it provides a better performance, and secondly it supports DDR3 memories. On the other hand, nForce 650i-based motherboards support SLI.

Unfortunately P35-based motherboards that are arriving at the market today are still too expensive, above USD 175. We sincerely hope that the price of these motherboards drop soon – what should happen as soon as there are simpler products based on P35 available.

MSI P35 Neo Combo has everything to please the average user, with 12 USB 2.0 ports, two FireWire ports, a good overclocking capability and a decent on-board audio quality. The only thing we missed on this motherboard was on-board SPDIF connectors.

However, its support for DDR3 memories is, in fact, a limiting factor, because you can only have two memory modules from either DDR2 or DDR3 technologies on this motherboard, thus limiting your expansion capability – for instance for installing more memory you need to replace your old modules, instead of simply adding more modules as it would happen on mainstream motherboards featuring four DDR2 modules.

Also, DDR3 is more expensive than DDR2 and we think it will continue to be for at least one year.

We don’t think DDR3 will bring a higher performance gain over DDR2 and also P35 unofficially supports DDR2-1066, so if you are thinking of buying this motherboard to have DDR3-1066 you can buy any DDR2-based P35 motherboard and install DDR2-1066 modules, which are cheaper than DDR3-1066 ones.

We must remind, however, that the model we reviewed had a bug that prevented us to run our DDR2-1066 memories at 1,066 MHz and a week after we posted this review MSI said they had a new BIOS that fixed this issue.

DDR3 will probably make more sense with the next Intel chipset, X38, which will support DDR3 up to 1,333 MHz.

Given these facts if you are interested on the new Intel P35 chipset we recommend you to buy a motherboard solely based on DDR2 memories, as they provide a more flexible memory upgrade capability. Also, even though nForce 650i-based motherboards provides a lower performance on some applications, we recommend them if you are thinking of having SLI or even just two video cards in order to have up to four monitors installed.

MSI P35 Neo Combo is a good motherboard, don’t get us wrong. But we think that for the market it is targeted – average users – P35 motherboards using only DDR2 memories make much more sense.