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You can imagine the conversations that went on at MSI as it developed its new budget Athlon 64 motherboard, the MSI K8N Neo3-F.
The Head of Marketing called his people together. "Boys’, he said ‘I’m happy with our products at the high-end of the Socket 939 Athlon 64 market and we’ve also got it covered at the high-end with our K8N Neo4 Platinum (£105) and SLI (£149) models, using the nForce4 Ultra and SLI chipsets respectively. We’ve also catered for the integrated graphics market with the new ATi Radeon XPRESS 200 in the RS480M2-IL. Socket 939 is looking good for MSI.’
‘Hubba hubba’ his Marketing Men cried.
‘But Boys’ he went on, ‘I’m not pleased with our Socket 754 motherboards. We’ve done well coming up with an nVidia nForce3 model which sells for £70 and VIA K8T800/K8M800 models which go for less than £55, but you’ve missed a trick. You’ve forgotten that Socket A will be terminated very soon and that Windows XP 64-bit is about to be launched next month. A number of enthusiasts will be making the move to Athlon 64 so they want the latest chipset, but they also want an easy upgrade where they buy a new processor but keep their original graphics card and memory.
Here’s what I want. I want a budget Socket 754 nForce4 design that sells for less than our nForce3 model, and it has to support AGP graphics. Aim for a UK price of £60. Now get out and close the door behind you.’
The Marketing team had no idea what to do so they took the problem to the Engineers who looked at the nForce4 to try and figure out how you could add AGP graphics to a PCI Express chipset at no cost whatsoever. And you know what, they cracked the problem.
The K8N Neo3-F measures 295mm x 185mm, so it is nearly as long as a regular ATX motherboard but is 60mm narrower than usual, which means that it has ten percent less surface area than a micro-ATX model, which would typically measure 245mm x 245mm. A smaller motherboard is cheaper to produce, but tend to suffer from a lack of space in which to fit the various connectors. Surprisingly the K8N Neo3-F manages to cram in plenty of features, although it only has two memory slots making for a current practical limit of 1GB of system memory. The two ATA133 connectors are arranged along one edge of the motherboard and below them are the four native SATA connectors, which have NV RAID that covers all four ports.
The floppy connector at the foot of the board is in a slightly awkward position, and around it are the various headers although MSI also includes a D-bracket in the package that adds diagnostic LEDs and two USB 2 ports, giving a total of six USB ports. The connectors for the front panel switches and lights are colour coded and labelled just as you would hope, when many motherboard manufacturers don’t bother.