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With the introduction of PCI Express enabled motherboards the world of computer graphics has changed once again. PCI Express has also enabled nVidia to resurrect an almost legendary graphics technology – SLi. Although nVidia announced SLi many months ago, it still seems to be one of the most talked about technologies of the moment.
However, it’s only recently that affordable retail SLi motherboards have surfaced - the first SLi boards were basically dual Xeon processor motherboards which carried a correspondingly high price tag. With the introduction of the nForce 4 SLi chipset from nVidia, that has all changed and you can now purchase SLi boards from most retailers without the need for a second mortgage. One of the first motherboards based on the nForce 4 SLi chipset is the MSI K8N Diamond, and it seems like MSI has pulled out all the stops in order to offer a very impressive SLi base.
Taking a closer look at the K8N Diamond, you’ll notice that there are only two x16 PCI Express slots and three PCI slots, so the board looks quite limited in terms of expandability at first glance. The two x16 slots have the trademark SLi switch card between them - this is used to configure the 16 PCI Express lanes into two by eight lanes for SLi.
The bottom PCI slot is coloured orange and although this is the only difference between it and the other slots, this is where you plug in the supplied 802.11b/g/Bluetooth combo card. The reason for a dedicated slot is that the Bluetooth part of the card operates over USB 2.0 and is connected via a small cable to one of the USB 2.0 headers on the motherboard. This means that the card can’t be placed too far away from the USB 2.0 headers. The supplied antenna caters for both wireless interfaces. It is much larger than the typical WiFi or Bluetooth antennas that tend to ship with motherboards. The larger antenna should hopefully provide a better signal than the tiny ones you normally get.
But what really makes the K8N Diamond stand out from the crowd is the onboard SoundBlaster Live! 24bit 7.1-channel audio chip. This is the first time since the SoundBlaster PCI 128 that I have seen a Creative chip on a motherboard. Buying a SoundBlaster Live! 24bit 7.1 card would set you back in the region of £30, so this is not a top of the range solution. However, no other motherboard manufacturer can currently offer a better onboard audio solution.
The selection of ports for the onboard audio consists of five 3.5mm audio jacks and one has to be reconfigured from line in to the second set of surrounds for 7.1-channel functionality. There is also an optical S/PDIF output and a separate coaxial S/PDIF output. Further to these ports the I/O panel sports two PS/2 ports, a single serial and parallel port, a FireWire port, four USB 2.0 ports and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports.
MSI also supplies a bracket with a further two USB 2.0 ports as well as MSI’s trademark D-Bracket 2 diagnostics lights. You also get a second bracket with six-pin and four-pin FireWire connectors. There are four SATA cables, two SATA power splitters, a rounded IDE cable, a rounded floppy cable and the all so important SLi bridge connector in the box.
The nForce 4 SLi chipset supports SATA II natively and MSI has fitted a Silicon Image controller that adds a further two SATA II connectors making a total of six. The K8N Diamond also features MSI’s CoreCell technology and the new Active MOS 2 MOSFET cooler. The Active MOS 2 cooler is made up of two parts, a passive heatsink with a heatpipe and an optional 40mm fan.
MSI’s latest high-end motherboard has a black and dark brown finish, which in my opinion looks much better than the usual MSI red. However, the randomly coloured connectors don’t quite do it for me, with purple, green, orange and yellow spread across the board.