The I845PE Motherboard Shootout
Clash of the Titans!

By Robert Maloney
December 11,  2002


Quality and Setup of the MSI 845PE Max2-FIR
A board that meets all of your needs

With typical MSI flair, the 845PE Max2 sports a red PCB and comes stocked with features.  Two yellow ports in the first corner provide the means for setting up a RAID 0/1/0+1 array.  This is controlled by the nearby Promise 20276 chip, a common RAID controller found on many boards.  Each channel can support two ATA/133 drives, when not using the RAID functionality, providing the means for connecting up to 8 IDE drives in total (including the two Intel powered IDE channels).  Unfortunately, we did not find any Serial ATA connectors on-board, but it's hard to knock manufacturers for not including these when Serial ATA drives are not yet available.


Near the RAID ports, MSI included an extra USB 2.0 header providing another two USB ports when using the optional S-Bracket.  The three green headers next to the USB header provide FireWire support.  This was the only board of the three to provide these extra connections, powered by VIA's VT6306 FireWire controller.  An optional bracket was provided for connecting to devices such as external hard drives and cameras.  In total, the MSI 845PE Mac2-FIR has 6 USB 2.0 ports and 3 FireWire ports, more than enough for the average user.

Another feature found solely on the 845PE Max2 was the Gigabit LAN.  MSI uses Intel's 82450EM Gigabit LAN chip which supports up to 1000 Mb/s of bandwidth.  As we have stated before, it's great to see newer technology integrated, although few networks will be completely setup for Gigabit support.  Rounding out the on-board devices, MSI has chosen C-Media's CMI8738 PCI audio controller for audio.  This chip allows for 5.1 channel support and doesn't use as many CPU cycles as basic AC' 97 codec driven chips.


The layout of the board was far from ideal, however.  The 20-pin ATX connector was placed away from the edge of the board (preferred) and instead was placed too close to the CPU socket.  As a result, it created problems when installing a stock heatsink, and made it impossible for us to install a larger Zalman heatsink, which required the bracket to be removed.  There simply was no room to install the large fan type heatsink that Zalman provides between the ATX connection and the capacitors on the other side.  The CPU fan header is also located in a hard to reach spot, placed amongst the DIMM slots and too close to a capacitor.  Another minor complaint was the spacing, or lack thereof, between the end of the DIMM slots and the AGP slot.  As you may have heard many times before, longer cards such as the GeForce 4 Ti 4600 end up right next to the DIMM retention clips, making it almost impossible to remove RAM without uninstalling the video card first.

There were some nice touches as well.  As seen in the pictures above, there is a nice heatsink placed over the Northbridge, cooled by a fan embossed with MSI's logo.  Unfortunately, it uses up one of the three fan headers found on the board.  Most of the ports were color coded, making it easy to setup the board even without a user's manual.  Yellow appears to be the color of choice for RAID ports, but they have also colored the USB ports blue and FireWire ports green to distinguish them from one other.




Call it coincidence, but all of the boxes of the 845PE boards we received had a blue theme to them. MSI included all of the optional brackets for additional USB and Firewire ports, but the Bluetooth transceiver we have seen with previous MSI boards was absent.  We found three manuals in total, one was the user's guide with a complete listing of the board and components, as well as its BIOS settings.  There was also a quick installation guide with large diagrams that should be very useful for first time system builders.  The last manual covers configuring a RAID array in detail.  We also found a driver CD, which is standard, and a RAID driver floppy, which we prefer to see.  It never made much sense to me not to include this disk, especially when a fresh installation of Windows 2000 or XP asks for said drivers.  There was only one ATA100 cable and one floppy cable included.  Since I don't know of anyone with only one IDE drive, I think that MSI should throw in an extra IDE cable or two.  Now, with all of those connections on the board, there has to be something to connect to, right?  Well, MSI provided three different brackets, one for extra audio connections such as center or back speakers and S/PDIF, one with two extra USB 2.0 ports, and finally one with FireWire ports.  All in all, a very thorough set of additions.


The AMI BIOS was a familiar sight, and had no MSI only customizations that I could notice.  The Advanced BIOS section provided the typical fare, used to enable or disable caching of the system or video BIOS.  Nothing much to note here.  Moving on to the Advanced Chipset Features, we found a minimal set of options for defining the RAM timings.  We were only able to adjust the CAS Latency, RAS Precharge, RAS to CAS delay, Precharge Delay as well as Burst length.  Also, the RAM settings were limited to speeds of 200MHz, 266MHz, 333MHz, or it can be set to auto.  What this meant, was that regardless of the FSB setting, the RAM was left at its chosen speed.



The Health section showed us the CPU and System fan speeds, and relative temperatures, but did not have any safety settings for automatic shutdown should a component fail or overheat.  Individual voltages from both the power supply unit and even the battery could also be checked here.  The Frequency/Voltage control section gave us some options for overclocking.  The CPU front side bus is entered in manually, and the AGP/PCI speeds can be locked in at 66.67/33.33, a boon to overclockers, as running these types of devices out of spec can cause instability, and sometimes even damage them.  The CPU VCore is adjustable in .025V increments from default voltages up to a max of 1.8V.  The voltages for the RAM and AGP cards can also be raised in .1V steps, with the DDR getting as high as 2.8V and the AGP up to 1.8V.

We had a great experience when overclocking using this setup.  Without the need to change any DRAM timings since the speed was locked in at 333MHz, we simply raised the FSB of the CPU a few MHz at a time until we started to experience some instability.  Unfortunately, locking the speed of the RAM meant we would not get the same kind of performance gains when overclocking with other boards where the RAM speed scales with the FSB. Whenever the system started to get a bit flaky, we tried bumping up the CPU VCore to stabilize the system.  We eventually reached an FSB as high as 169MHz with the VCore at 1.7V, but could not complete any of the benchmarks and could not reboot the system reliably.  We moved back down a few MHz and settled for a 166MHz FSB.  For the mathematically challenged, that comes out to a 25% increase in the speed of the FSB, for a top speed of 2.82GHz, up from 2.26GHz.

Abit's BE7 RAID takes the stand