MSI 7093 review
With its enthusiasm for the PCI Express interface and native ability of its graphics cards to talk PCI Express directly, it makes perfect sense for ATi to use its knowledge in this field for a motherboard chipset: the result is the new Radeon Xpress 200. The amusing part of all this is that, at this point in time, nVidia and ATi have the only two PCI Express chipsets for AMD processor-based systems; the battle lines are moving on from the graphics arena. It’s not quite such a two-horse race as it is in the graphics market, with VIA waiting in the wings with its K8T890 chipset, but it’s an interesting swing.
Hold on to your hat for another round of naming conventions. There are two new AMD-compatible chipset configurations. Radeon Xpress 200 incorporates a Radeon X300-based integrated graphics chipset; ATi has stolen a march on nVidia in this respect since it’s the only company with an integrated-graphics, PCI Express AMD platform, which should see it doing well with system integrators at the budget end of the market. The Radeon Xpress 200P removes the integrated graphics; it’s this variant that’s fitted to the MSI board on review.
The major new component of the Express 200 chipset is the RX480 north bridge chip (see below), partnered by an SB400 south bridge, which brings with it support for four SATA channels, two parallel IDE channels, eight USB 2 ports and AC97 audio. The RX480 keeps up with the competition by sporting one 16x PCI Express connection for graphics and four single-lane pathways for peripherals.
As with all Athlon 64 chipsets, the only communication with the processor is via a 1.6GHz or 2GHz 16-bit HyperTransport link. The particular flavour of HyperTransport at this juncture doesn’t really matter, since our own testing has shown that it’s practically impossible to saturate the HyperTransport link, even when it’s running at half these speeds.
The bulk of bandwidth-heavy interdevice communication happens between the CPU and main memory, and this is handled separately by the Athlon 64’s extremely efficient direct-connection integrated memory controller, making HyperTransport purely a conduit for peripheral communication. However, the MSI, for what it’s worth, does boast a 2GHz link.
The board itself uses a compact micro-ATX form factor, measuring just 245 x 245mm, but will still fit any properly designed ATX case. ATi’s expertise in keeping power consumption to a minimum shows through in the use of a small, passive north bridge heatsink.
Despite the size of the board, it doesn’t lack much in the way of interfaces or connectors. A multicoloured row of four SATA sockets ensures you’ll have enough for a RAID0 array, an extra backup drive and a SATA optical drive should you so wish. Legacy optical drives are catered for with two parallel ATA headers, and there are four DDR RAM sockets too. You only lose out slightly on the backplane: two PS/2 connectors, parallel, digital coaxial audio out, four USB 2, FireWire, Ethernet, analog audio in/out and mic.
The Ethernet adaptor is only 100Mb as opposed to gigabit though, and if you want to take advantage of the onboard 5.1-channel audio then you’ll need to use the digital audio output since there’s only the single stereo analog jack. The lack of optical audio out is a slight drawback too, and there’s still an argument for a serial port – after all, many older peripherals and specialised equipment still use it, even though it’s an extremely old technology. Finally, its expansion potential is slightly limited by the presence of only three conventional PCI slots, and no additional PCI Express peripheral slots at all.