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MSI K9A3 CF - RD780 motherboard - MSI K9A3 CF - RD780 motherboard
Both the Northbridge and Southbridge sport shiny red passive heatsinks that are fractionally larger than the coolers on the Asus with its Radeon Xpress 3200 chipset. During our testing we measured the MSI heatsinks at 44 degrees C, while the Asus was significantly hotter at 55 degrees on both heatsinks.
MSI has lined up the four SATA II connectors next to the Southbridge where they are safely out of the way between the graphics slots and the single IDE connector at the very edge of the board, laid down there to make it as easy as possible to connect your optical drive.
Provided you use CrossFire the dual graphics card slots each have eight lanes of PCIe 2.0, which is plenty of bandwidth but the options for expansion are severely reduced. There's a single PCIe x1 slot above the second graphics slot and two PCI slots down below but you're likely to find that one of the slots is blocked and that might be a pain if you want to install an X-Fi sound card and a TV tuner.
Across the foot of the board there are three USB headers, a Firewire header as well as a set of clearly marked front panel case connectors.
The I/O panel is a strange piece of work as you'll see in our detail photo. We're perfectly happy with the legacy PS/2 ports and the single eSATA and Firewire ports but cannot understand why MSI included a Serial port. The lack of digital audio is a touch disappointing and it's been a while since we considered a mere four USB ports to be acceptable.
During our testing the MSI looked to have an advantage over the Asus as it could run our OCZ Reaper PC2-9200 memory at a full 1,066MHz while the Asus topped out at 800MHz but PCMark05 told a different tale. Memory performance was lower for the MSI to the tune of nearly ten percent, which is odd when you consider that the memory controller is inside the CPU.
We checked this out with SiSoft Sandra and saw that memory bandwidth was much lower on the MSI than the Asus which was the exact opposite of what we expected.
The other short coming was in graphics performance as the MSI was ten percent slower than the Asus in PCMark05 but in 3DMark06 the two motherboards and chipsets were identical.
There are two obvious possibilities here; either the AMD RD780 isn't truly backwards compatible with an AM2 processor or the MSI BIOS needs a bit of work. Hopefully we'll be able to answer that question as soon as we get a Phenom processor but as things stand there's no way we'd recommend an upgrade to RD780.
MSI has used the RD780 chipset in a very basic CrossFire motherboard that is satisfyingly cheap but we have our reservations about the memory and graphics performance of this pre-production sample.