The MSI i850 Pro5

By Joel Hruska

Date: December 3rd, 2001



The MSI i850 Pro 5 is the latest i850 Socket-478 motherboard from MSI, and, like the other MSI boards we've examined, it proves itself as a very stable, well-rounded, P4 solution. The Pro 5 also comes in about ten to fifteen dollars cheaper than some of the other available i850 solutions. The board still manages to provide a full feature set even at a lower price point, however, and includes the following:

●    Support for up to 2 GB of RDRAM
●   Onboard CMI 8738 Audio (superior to the standard AC97 Codec)
●    4 PCI / 1 CNR slot
●    Support for Socket-478 P4's from 1.3 to above 2 Ghz.


Fun With Heatsinks

One place where AMD has taken a fair amount of heat [ed: punny, Joel] since the Thunderbird debuted has been their heatsink design and placement. Most AMD heatsinks require a great deal of force to clip properly to a motherboard and although its rare, its not unheard of for a CPU core to get damaged during the attachment process. Its also possible to kill a motherboard with a slip of a screwdriver during mounting or unmounting a heatsink-and I speak from experience on this one.

I'd heard about the new Intel method of mounting P4 heatsinks and was curious to see what they'd developed. As you can see in the above picture, the CPU (which is tiny-Socket 478 P4's are in a MUCH smaller overall package than an Athlon, though the P4's Willamette die, at 217 square millimeters, remains much larger) is surrounded by a huge plastic mount. That entire mount is for the heatsink-which is massive enough to put any AMD heatsink + fan to shame.

The good news is that the entire affair is easy to attach. I had no problems clamping the heatsink on and it locking it into place smoothly.

The bad news is, that clamp exerts enough force to physically bend the motherboard upwards several degrees. It's not an extreme tilt, but its easily visible to the naked eye, and it's a development I definitely don't like. While I realize fiberglass is a reasonably flexible material, I'm also aware that there are a number of very small traces running through that fiberglass-and if the board manufacturer had intended them to be bent, I'm sure he'd have designed the motherboard that way. [ed: Motherboards sound like Rice Krispys with all the snapping, crackling and popping when the P4 heat sink lever is engaged.]

As far as I'm concerned, both Intel and AMD have a ways to go with their cooling designs. I don't think its too much to ask for AMD cooling solutions that don't require me to put the same amount of torque on a heatsink as I normally would to loosen a lug nut. Similarly, I'd prefer my Intel solutions to not bend my motherboard upwards. MSI built the thing straight-we can assume they did it for a reason. So how about it guys?


Board Stability and BIOS features

The board itself was completely stable during our installation of WindowsXP and subsequent rounds of benchmarking, with only one odd flaw: Whenever we entered the "PC HEALTH" section of the BIOS the machine would freeze after a few seconds. This always occurred and a BIOS flash failed to fix the issue. CPU temps were well within limits at all times and we were unable to explain this error. It occurred even after numerous CMOS resets.

Apart from this odd flake, the board was stable. The AWARD BIOS offers the usual range of features and switches, including separate options for raising the FSB and CPU voltage. I was disappointed that no options to adjust RDRAM timing or I/O voltage were available, although the board does support RDRAM frequencies of 300 or 400 Mhz. Our board proved capable of running a 133 MHz FSB (533 quad-pumped) though our RDRAM wasn't stable past 105 MHz (x4).


The i850's Odd Positioning

Although the MSI Pro 5 is an excellent board, the i850 chipset itself is in a bit of an odd position. When it debuted, the i850 was the only P4 solution available, making it the default choice. The SDR version of the i845 never challenged the i850 in terms of performance. Up until recently, an i850-based motherboard was the only choice for a customer that wanted a high-performance P4 platform with a large variety of motherboard types to choose from.

This is no longer true, however. The VIA P4X266 performs similarly to the i850 and offers DDR support. The somewhat scarcer SiS 645 chipset features DDR333 support and actually surpasses the i850 board, while both ALi and Intel have their own upcoming P4 DDR solutions. Intel's i845 DDR solution is widely expected to offer excellent performance and it's doubtful that ALI's own product will be far behind. With VIA supposedly in talks with Intel to gain access to an official P4 chipset license, the P4 chipset market has both moved decisively towards DDR and gotten very crowded very fast.

Now that Intel has cancelled the advanced RDRAM "Tulloch" chipset the future of RDRAM for the P4 looks questionable [ed: and the rumors of an Athlon chipset simply make no sense given the AMD chip's line size and architecture]. SiS has licensed RDRAM from Rambus which some are now claiming was part of their licensing agreement with Intel . Given the fact that RDRAM continues to command a substantial price premium over DDR-RAM, offers little to negative performance advantages and carries the black history of Rambus, there are precious few reasons to invest in an i850 motherboard today.

None of this, however, is MSI's fault. They have taken the Intel i850 chipset and built a low-priced, stable, and high-performance motherboard from it. If you already own RDRAM and are looking to re-use it-or, if you only trust Intel chipsets, want high performance, and refuse to wait for i845 DDR-the MSI Pro 5 i850 is an excellent choice.



Testbed Configuration

Pentium 4 2 GHz
MSI Pro 5 i850 Motherboard
256 Meg RDRAM
Seagate Barracuda ATA IV
Gainward GeForce3 Ti 500


Sysmark 2000: 1024x768x32

Our P4 2 GHz turns in a score of 258 in Sysmark 2000, which is within expected values for a P4 2 GHz in general. Sysmark 2000 is less bandwidth dependent and more processor-dependent than its younger brother, Sysmark 2001, but many of the apps used in Sysmark 2000 are still generally used in many businesses, making it a pertinent package to evaluate with.

Unfortunately our P4 refused to complete a run of Sysmark 2001, always bombing out in the same spot in the Office Productivity benchmark after all patches were installed. The benchmark's homepage, however, states that it is not to be run with WindowsXP, and as we've used it without incident in 2K we believe this may be an XP glitch-not a motherboard fault.


3DMark 2001: 1024x768x32

The P4 performs excellently in 3DMark 2001 with a score of 7554, but this is to be expected. 3DMark 2001 is a very bandwidth-sensitive benchmark (and the P4's 400 MHz bus provides a high-bandwidth solution) and when combined with a top-of-the-line GeForce3 Ti 500, it'd be difficult for any high-performance system to turn in a bad score.


3DMark 2000: 1024x768x32

3DMark 2000 is getting a bit long in the tooth, but is still worth looking at. None of the game engines or situations modeled in 3DMark2000 are going to take advantage of the P4's specialized SSE2 instruction sets or are optimized for high bandwidth. By that same token, however, all of the game engines and scenarios modeled here were designed for older hardware and even without its optimized code, the P4 turns in a score of 9,557.


Quake 3: Arena 1024x768x32

In Quake 3 the P4 again performs typically on the MSI platform and within expectations. It is rather funny, however, to note that 168 fps in Q3A in 1024x768x32, all detailed maxed is "within expectations." It was only about 18 months ago that a video card that broke 60 fps in Quake 3 under these settings was amazing.






The test results of the MSI i850-based motherboard are solid. The board performs at the top of its class and represents a reliable and powerful P4 solution that costs a few dollars less than the average RDRAM motherboard. Given that MSI is a first-tier company with an excellent record in stability, service, and support we feel comfortable recommending the Pro 5 for those looking for an RDRAM-based Intel Pentium 4 Socket 478 motherboard.


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