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The latest Intel platform, Sandy Bridge-E (SNB-E for short), hit the market mid-November last year bringing exciting new features for the overclocking community to play with. In this review, we will be taking a closer look at the MSI XPower II X79 motherboard which launched earlier this week. We will be focusing on its features and also determine what level of overclocking the user can expect before placing the order for the next upgrade. The XPower II is MSI‘s top of the line motherboard and also carries the Big Bang name which we have come to associate with MSI’s Xtreme motherboard design.
As an avid Sandy Bridge overclocker, I was really keen to see how Intel and the board manufacturers can take it up a notch and bring a solution that combines the core/thread strength of the Gulftown X58 platform as well as the phenomenal efficiency we have come to expect with the 2nd generation Sandy Bridge micro architecture. You can read more details about the SNB-E platform and X79 in an article by our lead reviewer in the Intel X3960X review.
MSI X79 Board Lineup and Key Features
The MSI X79 lineup of boards are as follows with the XPower II taking the top spot:
- Military Class III – This means that all main power delivery components have been tested, and passed MIL-STD-810G specification used by the military to test stability and reliability of electronic components
- PCI Express Gen 3 – All boards feature the 32gb/s transfer rate PCI Express slots that ensures compatibility and associated efficiency when using the latest AMD 7000 series video cards and upcoming Nvidia 600 series.
- ClickBIOS II – Boards offer a consistent graphical user interface in the BIOS (UEFI) as well as in Windows allowing full control of all the overclocking and peripheral parameters.
XPower II Box, Board and Contents
The XPower II box certainly reflects quality packing and clearly display the key features that MSI would like to draw attention to. The front of the box displays an abstract shattering golden crystal design on a black background. The back of the box details the specifications of the board and give you a small snapshot of what it looks like. Opening the flap that covers the front of the box reveals the four key Xtreme features of this top end board, more of this later when we take a closer look at the board. There is also a plastic see-through window to give the prospective buyer a sneak peek on what the board looks like without having to open the box. What caught my eye was the row of golden colored bullets covering the PCH chip which serves as the heat sink.
Opening up the retail outer box reveals two smaller black boxes nestled together, the top one contains the board and the bottom the accessories that accompany the board. You will notice that your attention is again drawn to two of the key features of the board highlighted by stickers on the CPU cover (Military Class III) and the other on the PCI-E slots pointing out the Gen 3 feature which is a world first brought to market by MSI.
The accessories in the box include all of the usual goodies and then some. As the contents are not listed anywhere on the outside of the retail packaging I think it would help to inform the prospective buyer what he would actually get when he buys this product.
- Xpower II Mainboard Manual
- Software Application Users Guide
- Quick Installation Guide
- Mainboard Quick Reference Guide
- MSI X79 Overclocking Guide – A very detailed and helpful guide explaining the key parameters that you would encounter when overclocking on the X79 Sandy Bridge-E platform.
- MSI Certificate of Quality and Stability
- IO Backplate
- 6 SATA Cables – One end is 90 degrees and the other flat.
- Rear PCI slot e-SATA (with external cable) and USB 3.0 ports, also a front USB 3.0 port cable that plugs onto the board.
- Voltage quick connectors for measuring key voltages using your multimeter, these connectors plug into the front end of the board at the voltage check points.
- Front panel power/reset/HDD LED/Power LED/Speaker quick connector, a very handy gadget especially if you installing the board into a PC case.
- Two long SLI and one extra long SLI connector. Also included is a long CrossFireX cable.
- MSI Software and driver installation CD
Removing the motherboard from its protective outer box and removing the stickers gives you a much better view of the size and design of this monster. It is packed with no less than 8 RAM slots and 7 PCI-E slots. The heat sink design covering the VRM area simulate the Gatling gun look whereas the heat sink covering the chipset looks like a pack of gold colored bullets, both of these fit in nicely in the military class design feature.
Closer Look and Key Features
The “X” in the XPower signifies Xtreme and can be broken down and four distinctive features that position this board in the class attractive to Xtreme overclockers in the enthusiast community.
- The XPower II offers quad channel memory with 8 DIMM slots which can accommodate up to 128 GB od RAM (16 GB per slot). RAM overclocking is rated to be 2400 MHz, but MSI has reported to have achieved 2500 MHz, this obviously depends on the quality and rating of your RAM kit. Inserting the RAM sticks into the slots is made easy by Eazy DIMM design, essentially you only have one set of clips, this feature has been around for a while.
- There are a whopping seven PCI-Express x16 slots on the board which supports 4-way SLI/CrossFireX. It can accommodate up to four dual-slot video cards. This makes this board extra wide, nearly two inches wider than the standard ATX motherboard so be aware when buying your case. Slots 1/3/5 and 7 are PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots offering double the bandwidth than slots 2/4 and 6 which are PCI-E 2.0 x 16 rated. PCI-E_1 and 5 operates at x16 in SLI/CFX if occupied together and will run at x8 if 1, 3, and 5 are occupied.
Xtreme Power Design
- The PWM section boasts with a total of 22 PWM phases of hybrid digital design serving the CPU capable of pushing out a maximum of 770 W of power, enough to take the CPU beyond 5 GHz with the right cooling I’m sure. The hybrid design offers the best of both worlds when it comes to temperature output and power output efficiency. For reference, Intel specifies 9 PWM phases for their X79 boards so the XPower offers 2.4 times more.
- To provide power to the 6 core/12 thread SNB-E and ensure maximum stability when overclocking, the board has two 8-pin power connectors to the left of the Gatling VRM heat sink. This provides 300 W of power to the CPU, double what is specified by Intel for the reference X79 boards.
- There is an on-board PCI-E power connector situated at the bottom left of the board next to the USB 3.0 front panel connector. This provides an additional 150 W of power to video cards in case you feel the need to put more than 2 cards in SLI or CFX.
MSI designers ensured that the components that make up the power delivery to the CPU and memory live up to the Xtreme theme of the XPower II.
All components highlighted in the picture above are certified MIL-STD-810G, this means it has passed the following tests:
- Temperature Shock Test – MIL-STD-810G Method 503.5
- Humidity Test – MIL-STD-810G Method 507.5
- Vibration Test – MIL-STD-810G Method 514.6
- Low Pressure test – MIL-STD-810G Method 500.5
- High Temperature Test – MIL-STD-810G Method 501.5
- Low Temperature Test – MIL-STD-810G Method 502.5
- Shock Test – MIL-STD-810G Method 516.6
As far as overclocking on-board or on the fly, MSI has included some nifty features for us enthusiasts with the XPower II. There are several on-board buttons that is a must for open top benchers and allow you to boot/reset as well as overclock your system at the touch of a button. Let’s take a closer look at these overclocking friendly features.
- The system power button is located on the lower right hand side of the board. The button is a ways from the reset button which is on the left side of the board next to the + and – Direct OC button, that had me scratch my head a bit and does not make all that sense. If you want to hard power down the board in case of a failed OC you just keep the power button down until the board shuts down.
- The board has two on-board BIOS chips and another socket that has a removable BIOS chip, you can also insert your own BIOS chip if you wish. The location of this is between the chipset bullet heat sink and the second set of RAM slots. The two soldered BIOS chips are hard to see and is somewhat underneath the PCH heat sink. To the left you will also find a BIOS switch to move from the primary to secondary BIOS. Two activate the third, removable BIOS the user presses the multi-BIOS switch located to the left of the PCH heatsink, next to the OC Genie button. A bit tricky but quite useful if you run into corrupted BIOS issues.
- In order to make use of the Direct OC feature that allows overclocking on the fly, you must use – and + buttons to the left that increases the base clock in increments of 0.1 MHz. This will take immediate effect and no rebooting is required. This feature is especially useful if you want to squeeze out that last drop of MHz from your CPU to beat your last SPI run.
- Using the overclocking features of the MSI Control center in Windows allows all the control you need including changing the multiplier as well as pertinent voltages. The OC Genie feature on the other hand allows you to apply a modest fixed 4 GHz OC to your CPU by enabling it in the control center, it will then reboot your system to apply it. The OC Genie button on the board can also be used, all you need to do it is to press it and reboot, alternatively you can press it while the board if off and it will apply the 4 GHz OC automatically at next boot-up. The OC Genie also OC’s your RAM to SPD speeds and ratings.
- To the left of the Direct OC buttons is a set of 4 white dip-switches labeled PCI-E Ceasefire that allows you to disable the PCI-E slots. This comes in very handy when doing benchmarks with multiple video cards and would like to maybe disable one or two without removing and disconnecting the cards from your board.
- Another very useful feature is the ability to read onboard voltages while the system is running for the CPU, IO, RAM, SA and PCH using set of ports located between the SATA ports and 24-pin power connector. It is as simple as plugging in two of the voltage connectors in the port you want to measure, the other in the ground port on the far right, then connect it to your favorite digital multimeter to get a voltage reading.
- Last, but not least, there is a debug LED below the chipset heatsink, albeit smaller than what I’m used to it is still very useful when troubleshooting boot related issues.
- Integrated on the board is a Sound Blaster X-Fi MB2 chip on the upper left side of the board. This offers the gamer advanced EAX HD 5.0 rich for richer sound effects while chasing the bad guys on the battlefield. THX TrueStudio Pro offers intuitive control to enhance your audio playback. Both of these features are an added bonus addition to a board that is really designed for the extreme overclocker out there.
- From a cooling perspective this board has a 8mm extra thick heat-pipe connecting the two chipset heat sinks. MSI calls this the SuperPipe and is around some of the the thickest heat-pipes found on modern enthusiast motherboards.
- There are two USB 2.0 ports on the lower left side of the board. The one to the right that has a red inlay is super charged, in other words it offers you the ability to charge your smartphone or tablet using a USB/micro USB port to charge your device. The port offers 1.5 A which is 3x the current provided by regular USB ports. It evens stays live under shut down to keep on charging your device, a nice feature to have when your smartphone is running low on juice.
- As far as SATA ports are concerned, the XPower II has no shortage of that. It has 10 SATA ports of which 6 are SATA III offering 6 GB/s transfer rate and 4 are SATA II. The two SATA III ports on the right are optimized for SSD’s. To the left is a USB 3.0 socket for your front panel, it connects with a cable that is included with the accessories.
- A keyboard/mouse combo PS/2 port
- 4x USB 3.0 which is recognized by the blue inner connector
- 6x USB 2.0
- A single FireWire connector
- Dual gigabit LAN ports
- 8-channel audio (powered by the Creative X-Fi MB2 chip) with optical and coaxial S/PDIF-out
- A clear CMOS button located between the PS/2 port and optical sound port.
It is always good to know what you get and how it compares to the competition so I thought I’d throw in the board comparison (courtesy of MSI) below of the top end X79 boards out on the market, food for thought before pulling the trigger on your next super computer build.
BIOS and Software Overclocking Tools
MSI brings us the worlds first unified EFI (BIOS) and Software (Windows) graphical user interface, they both look very similar and are essentially the same as far as functionality. These interfaces also supports touch screen technology for those that can afford it. The UEFI BIOS feels as smooth as the Windows interface with no lag on the mouse at all. Both these interfaces also give you full control over overclocking settings, voltages, security and peripheral settings. Another great feature is the ability to save your OC profiles on a USB stick which you could share or just keep for backup in case your BIOS goes belly up.
There are essentially four ways using three sets of tools you can use to overclock your system. First using the UEFI BIOS which is straight forward and the traditional way, booting into the BIOS and changing the OC parameters and voltages, then save and reset to go into Windows. Let’s take a closer look at what features are embedded into the UEFI BIOS.
After you power your system up from stock and hit the ‘del’ button a couple of times your will enter the fully loaded MSI UEFI BIOS and main screen. This screen in itself contain all the info you need on date, time, board and CPU temps as well as your CPU specs. You also have a set of icons at the top with all the boot drives from which you can prioritize the boot sequence. As mentioned before, your mouse is fully functional and it is real easy to navigate around, the GUI has very much a Windows look and feel.
Clicking on the Mainboard Settings area in the upper left opens up a small menu from where you can enter the system status giving you information on your system such as actives allocated to SATA ports, BIOS version, amount of RAM on board and CPU information, pretty much a summary of your system excluding your GPU info.
Entering the 2nd screen to the Advanced menu gives you access to seven different sub-menus including settings for peripheral settings, hardware monitoring and power management.
The Boot Menu allows you to change the sequence of your boot drives and enable/disable your boot logo, nothing exciting here.
Lastly, you will visit the save and exit menu to save your profile, discard it or set to defaults before you reset your system into booting again.
Entering the ‘Overclocking Setting’ section you will find yourself in the heart of the BIOS and this is where you unleash the power of your motherboard.
Looking at the first screenshot above you will recognize all the overclocking parameters you have come to familiarize yourself after the X79 Sandy Bridge-E platform was introduced end of last year. In the top section, you can make changes to the CPU base clock (bclk), bclk ratio or also know as CPU strap and then the CPU ratio or multiplier. Keeping in mind that your CPU frequency (CPU speed) is the result of your base clock times your ratio (multiplier) and for the X79 platform Intel introduced a sub ratio into your base clock where your base clock is the result of your DMI Clock times your base clock ratio. This allow for greater flexibility but in my opinion also brings more complexity and to be honest it makes no sense as I could not find any benefit overclocking with the X79 platform.
Below the ratio setting section you will find the usual settings that include EIST, turbo, RAM frequency and RAM timing submenu. You will also notice this is where you enable/disable the OC Genie and Direct OC features of this board. V-Droop is towards the bottom and comes in 7 levels, I left mine on auto to start with.
Scrolling down to the lower section of this menu and you will find the settings for all the critical voltages including CPU core voltage, SA, IO or PCH, PLL and RAM voltages for each RAM pair of channels. You also have control over VRef voltages for each individual channel.
At the bottom of the scroll are four sub-menus which include:
- Overclocking Profiles where you can save up to 6 profiles to the BIOS chip, you also have the option to save it load or save it to a USB drive. Once you save the profile to the BIOS you have a concise summary with the details as well as the date and BIOS version.
- The next sub-menu names ‘CPU Spec’ show all the detail of the particular CPU you have in your system.
- MEMORY-Z gives you the detail specs on the RAM that is on your system in case you forgot, saves you pulling out a stick and looking at the sticker.
- Lastly, ‘CPU Features’ list all the important features you can enable/disable such at Hyper Threading, C1E, C-state and some other features we normally disable when attempting higher levels of overclocking. You can also set the short and long term power limits, I normally just set these to the max and leave it like that.
From within Windows you can enter the MSI Control Center and have the same functionality you have in the BIOS to overclock your CPU and RAM. You have full control over your base clock, CPU ratio (multiplier) as well as all voltages and energy savings settings. Once you apply the new settings no re-boot is required, that really makes it quite a powerful tool and I had no lock-up issues as far as using the tool other that when I pushed my luck not feeding enough voltage and trying to apply a higher CPU overclock. The Control Center also gives you full control over RAM timings as well as sub-timings, for that you have to re-boot for it to take affect.
You also have access to the LED map to see viewing all the various LED placed throughout the board, this is where you will see Dr MOSII throw up a red flag (LED) if you cross the temperature limit for the MOSFET stack. OC Genie can also be enabled or disabled from within the Control Center at the click of your mouse, once activated your system will boot up at a very modest but stable 4 GHz on the CPU. Under advanced CPU configuration you are able to change the ratio (multi) of individual cores on the CPU, a very useful feature when playing with 2D benchmarks such as SuperPi where you only need one active core.
Once you are satisfied with your OC profile you can save it to your hard drive and load the next time you need it, a very useful feature when running various benchmarks.
I have to say the Control Center by far exceeded my expectations as far as not only functionality but stability, a lot of fancy overclocking software that come with motherboards look great but turn out to be very flaky and unstable. This software allows you absolute full control over every OC feature and voltage and does it instantly, any overclockers dream.
Big Bang Overclocking Results
- CPU – Intel i7 3930K
- DRAM – G.Skill Sniper 4×4 GB DDR3-1866 MHz 9-10-9-28 1.50v
- Motherboard – MSI Big Bang-XPower II X79
- Drive – 120 GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD
- GPU – MSI R6970 Lightning
- PSU – Antec TPQ-1200W
- Cooling – Swiftech Apogee XT with Thermochill TA120.3 rad and 6 fans (push/pull)
- Operating System – Windows 7 Ultimate 64bit
Evaluating the XPower II was best done on an open bench platform to make use of the onboard buttons and to appreciate the LED display system. Also cooling a 6-core beast and driving it to a decent OC could not be done on traditional air cooling, so I opted for custom water cooling with 6 beefy fans.
My expectations overclocking with this board were pretty high coming from a Asus Rampage IV Extreme which is a beast of a board and which I still thoroughly enjoy. I set my sights at around 4.8-4.9 GHz at the high end, given the cooling, and 4.5 GHz at the minimum.
As a side note, you will not find any Prime 95 or Intel Burn Test runs in this review, stability for me as a bencher is relative so I ran SPI 32M for RAM and WPrime for CPU stability.
My first port of call was trying out the OC Genie, it works as expected, I enabled it in Control Center, re-booted and it gave me a nice stable 4 GHz and matched the RAM rated speeds and timings.
Next up was getting to the 4.5 GHz minimum target I expected. I set this up in the UEFI BIOS changing only the CPU ratio to 45, v-core to 1.40 V, disabled all the energy saving CPU features and adjusted the RAM speed and timings to match the sticker. As you can see from the above screen shots 4.5 GHz was no problem at all.
Due to RAM restriction I did not venture to far above 1000 MHz with the set of G.Skill Snipers, I plan to acquire a higher end set to run on this board later this month.
From the 4.5 GHz base point I slowly increased the CPU ratio (multi) up to 4.9 GHz using the MSI Control Center software, not changing any voltages. I was quite impressed to reach 4.9 GHz in a matter of minutes with no voltage change.
I then went back to the BIOS and set the ratio at 49, added some v-core only and got back into Windows where I gave the Direct OC feature and go. I raised the base clock 0.1 MHz at a time until 103 bclk yielding a nice solid 5.047 GHz which passed SPI32M as well as both wPrime 32M and 1024M. Running wPrime 1024 broke 60 °C only on the one core, not too bad for water cooling.
I also set the CPU up at 5 GHz from the BIOS and ran it passed my tests as well. The board has achieved the target I set from the beginning…but wait there is more.
Pushing the envelope I decided to see what this board can really do feeding some extra v-juice to the CPU. I disabled HT to lessen the heat load and set the v-core at 1.55 V, yes I know it is a lot, but no guts, no glory we say in the benching room. Booting up at a CPU ratio of 51 was no issue, using the Direct OC button I could reach 5.25 GHz which really impressed me.
As I mentioned I benched on the RIVE and I could not achieve this level of oveclocking with the same CPU and cooling, especially not at such low voltages, that alone is a great comparison and is testimony to the power of this board.
Summary and Conclusions
The MSI Big Bang-XPower II offers a very solid platform which will enhance your overclocking experience using military quality components, 22 phase PWM design with hybrid digital power for a maximum output of 700 W. This all will provide stability and consistency each time you boot your board with your preferred OC profile.
For the avid overclocker it brings you a mature UEFI BIOS, ability to OC on the fly with Direct OC, powerful software (Control Center) , multi BIOS option, debug LED and OC Genie for the more modest overclocker.
MSI’s flagship board is loaded with rich features including 7 PCI-E slots supporting qaud-SLI/CFX, 10 SATA ports, XFi-MB2 sound chip, the capacity to host 128 GB of quad channel DRAM and 6 USB 3.0 ports.
There are really only minor things I might want to change such as the reset button belongs with the power button. The board is also much wider than the standard board but that is just due to the fact that you have 7 PCI-E slots which does give you quad SLI/CFX so that is the compromise. Lastly, maybe the OC Genie can be tiered to have more than one pre-set OC level to help the beginners off the ground.
I have benched a few boards in my seven years as bencher and have come across few boards that drives your CPU as solid as the Big Bang-XPower II. It certainly has exceeded my expectations on all fronts and I am excited to include this board in my arsenal to take to the next benching event.
Note : Our sources at MSI informed us the Big Bang-XPower II will be available for retail 3rd week in January at a MSRP between $450 and $499 (nothing is set yet from MSI) which is very comparable to other boards in the same class.
– Edmund Meyer (Brolloks)