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With three chips to control MSI has employed a Circu-pipe cooling system that is more extensive than the system we saw on theX48 Platinum and X38 Diamond. The heatpipes link coolers on the power regulation hardware, Northbridge and Southbridge in the usual way but there's also an extra heatpipe that connects to a fourth cooler on the PCIe Expander chip that is located between the two graphics slots.
Unusually for a modern motherboard, the P7N SLI has two IDE connectors and we can't for the life of us think why - one's plenty enough. Not only this but for some reason MSI has located them at the foot of the board next to the floppy connector, which guarantees you'll have to trail the ribbon cables across the top of your graphics cards. There's enough space next to the main power connector for at least one connector but presumably the storage controllers need to be located near the Southbridge. The four SATA connectors are laid down so they don't interfere with larger graphics cards and the rest of the layout passes without comment.
Moving to the I/O panel, we see a bit of a mixed bag as the array of ports and connectors has some welcome extras but also lacks a few basics. We like the two eSATA ports and the CMOS reset switch but the limited number of USB ports makes you realise what has been sacrificed to add these extras. Also, the inclusion of PS/2 ports for both mouse and keyboard is unnecessary as most peripherals now use USB. Including the old PS/2 keyboard connection can be useful for accessing the BIOS if, as is often the case, the motherboard decides to not recognise USB but not so the mouse. The rest of the ports are standard fare with one Firewire port, six mini jacks, an optical output for the Realtek audio, and Gigabit Realtek LAN rounding things off. There is a bracket that carries two extra USB ports and a mini Firewire, which partly makes up for the limited number of these connections on the I/O panel but we'd prefer not to sacrifice a whole expansion slot just for the privilege.
Before I started testing the P7N SLI I had to update the BIOS from v1.0 to Beta P04 which is something of a pain. The MSI Live Update utility hasn't noticeably improved in the past year and cannot be used to select a BIOS file for an update so you're limited to whatever is on the MSI server and that's not much good with early hardware. Instead we had to boot into DOS to update the BIOS with a flashing utility, which was thankfully fairly painless.
I used two processors for testing; the first is a Core 2 Duo E6750 as I've got some comparable figures on an Asus P5N-T Deluxe with 780i SLI chipset and I also used a QX9650 Penryn. For graphics I used a single 8800GT and then plugged in a second 8800GT to run SLI. The MSI delivered the same performance as the Asus which rather suggests that you only need to consider the 780i SLI chipset if you're intent on running Tri-SLI.
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