MSI X99S SLI Plus Motherboard Review

Introduction

Defining value is difficult when it comes to Intel's X99 platform, in part because the company designed it for professionals and performance enthusiasts. Compared to Intel’s highest-end mainstream processors, Haswell-E offers more cores at lower clock rates. That sounds like a recipe for reduced value in most applications, but there’s a catch. Haswell-E also has a 40-lane PCIe 3.0 controller.

Or does it? Of the available LGA 2011-v3 processors, the Core i7-5820K comes closest to the cost of Intel's Core i7-4790K, the highest-end Haswell part you can buy. The -5820K's frequency is 25% slower and it has 12 of its PCIe 3.0 lanes disabled. Yet, even with its lower clock rate and reduced PCIe lane count, this entry-level Haswell-E chip keeps its high-end label by wielding six potent cores. Oh, and then there’s the native support for three-way SLI.

Technical Specifications

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Yes, even the cheapest of Intel’s high-end processors gives us support for three-way SLI, though other boards in the sub-$240 class don’t enable it. While every X99 motherboard can use all 16 lanes from the -5820K on the uppermost slot, MSI is the only company that chooses to untether eight of them for use by the third slot across its entire X99 motherboard series. Even the cheap ones.

We can also see that the X99S SLI Plus is capable of distributing a higher-end processor’s 40 lanes across all four slots, facilitating four-way SLI. MSI has good reason not to mention this, though. GeForce cards supporting four-way SLI all have double-slot brackets, and the X99S SLI Plus’ third and fourth slots are single-spaced.

The rather clever use of pathway switches even allows the X99S SLI Plus to support three-way SLI and an M.2-interface PCIe 3.0 x4 SSD simultaneously, which I probably only think is clever because it’s the first configuration I thought of when Intel revealed that the Core i7-5820K has 28 lanes. We’ll let you decide whether MSI is brilliant, whether its competitors are a little daft or whether these companies just have slightly different priorities.

MSI X99S SLI Plus, In Detail

The X99S SLI Plus' feature set is extensive enough to actually confuse us. To begin, it has all of those PCIe 3.0 switches that its competitors couldn’t afford to add, which enable combinations like three-way SLI and PCIe 3.0 M.2. The company then adds six more USB 3.0 ports through two add-in controllers, increasing the total port count (including two front-panel headers) to twelve, while competitors limit their USB 3.0 port count to six on any X99 model under $240. Did we mention that the X99S SLI Plus is usually available somewhere for less than $200? Hence our confusion. Does MSI lose money on these?

You’ll find a lighted CLR_CMOS button on the I/O panel in addition to the basic stuff. Sliding down the edge a little we also find another unusual feature (by budget-oriented board standards): a row of voltage detection points including both DIMM rails, CPU I/O, CPU core and PCH voltages. MSI doesn’t even mention this feature in its X99S SLI Plus user manual. As with the X99S SLI Plus’ ability to run a fourth PCIe x16 graphics card, it’s an “Easter egg”.

One capability that we always thought would be standard on ATX-based X99 motherboards is the second set of DIMM slots corresponding to each of the platform’s four channels. That’s eight slots. The only competing sub-$200 X99 board has four. Perhaps someone else thinks that buyers who can’t afford more than $200 for a motherboard won’t use more than four DIMMs. Perhaps they’re right. But any of us can appreciate the added expense of including the full set of slots.

Other internal features include a PCIe connector that extends the bottom two (outward-facing) SATA ports into SATA-Express, a dual-BIOS switch (next to the SATA-E interface), Power/Reset/OC Genie buttons just below the last PCIe slot and a total of five four-pin PWM-style fan headers. The OC-Genie button engages MSI’s automatic overclocking and validation routine without installing the bundled software application that does the same thing.

Two of the fan headers are found near the front and back of the bottom edge, two are near the front of the top edge and one is placed between the rear DIMM slots and I/O panel connectors to serve a case fan. Builders with two intake fans may need an extension cable to reach the farthest bottom connection.

Speaking of extension cables, I’ve never seen one for front-panel audio. That’s a shame, since the front-panel cables of some cases are just a little too short to reach the FP-Audio header in the X99S SLI Plus’ bottom-rear corner. This placement was specified by Intel around eighteen years ago, so builders who experience this problem should send a strongly-worded letter to their case manufacturer.

MSI places one front-panel USB 3.0 header above the top graphics card, along the front edge, so that it won’t get in the way. The company faces its second USB 3.0 header forward, so that its cable can tuck under the card. Eight of the ten SATA 6GB/s ports also face forward for the same reason.

MSI recommends that builders with 40-lane CPUs use the lowest slot to enable three-way SLI with x16-x16-x8 connections, though doing so has several drawbacks. First, there’s a good chance that a long graphics card in that slot will block the SATA-Express port (or the two SATA cables you might use there instead). Second, the same type of card will block the dual-BIOS switch, which might be a problem if you overclock too far. Third, a long graphics card probably won’t fit with a fan plugged into the bottom-rear fan connector. And other front-panel cables will likely need to be smashed flat against the tops of their connectors to seat that card. Finally, since the bottom slot shares four lanes with the M.2 connector, the connector’s PCIe 3.0 interface gets disabled. MSI still beats competitors by providing two back-up M.2 connections, PCIe 2.0 x2 and SATA 6Gb/s x2 (both through the X99 PCH). But there is a better option available. Instead of using the fourth x16-length slot for a third graphics card, we recommend using the third.

Why? The third PCIe x16 slot gets eight lanes from the first slot. That’s what makes it possible for a 28-lane CPU (the Core i7-5820K) to have three-way SLI (x8-x8-x8 mode) and PCIe 3.0 M.2 (x4 mode) simultaneously. Users of 40-lane processors would get the “odd” configuration of x8-x16-x8 with this card placement, but if that doesn’t bother you it doesn’t bother us either. The x8 slot is still your “limit”, whether you have one or two cards using it. And, at PCIe 3.0’s high transfer rate, we’ve yet to measure a limit from a x8 slot (or, in this case, two).

Unlike most reduced-cost motherboards, the X99S SLI Plus includes six SATA cables. On the other hand, it also has only one SLI bridge. Power users who want three-way SLI will need to find another one.

X99S SLI Plus Software And Firmware

The X99S SLI Plus includes MSI’s full utility suite, with applications to reboot directly to firmware, update your drivers and firmware from an MSI server, reduce power by disabling fans and ports and quick-charge your portable devices.

MSI Command Center still looks the same, but without as many disabled features as I’ve seen in the past. Keyed-in values next to CPU ratio and base clock frequency actually worked this time, where previously I could only change those values through plus and minus buttons.

CPU and system fans can be set to automated profiles, to manually configured temperature/RPM curves or to a fixed RPM. MSI Fan tune allows the X99S SLI Plus to determine potentially better fan profiles through an automated test routine.

CPU and DRAM voltage adjustments work within the limits of firmware, which is a nice feature to access from Windows. The DRAM Frequency menu has no controls, since changing this ratio requires a reboot.

Integrated graphics controls that are meant for LGA 1150-based motherboards are greyed-out on products that lack integrated graphics, such as the X99S SLI Plus. MSI’s RAMDisk utility still works as expected.

MSI OC Genie runs a firmware stability and overclock test routine, regardless of whether it’s enabled through software or an on-board button. The benefit of the button is that it can be disabled more quickly (as long as the button isn’t covered by a graphics card).

The program pushed our CPU to a stable 3.7GHz at 1.05V. That’s a cool-running, energy-conserving overclock!

Command Center’s “Advanced”, “Settings” and “Information” tabs reveals popups for advanced voltage settings that work, DRAM timings that don’t work, redundant fan controls, health monitoring and temperature/fan/voltage alarms. The most you can expect from the “DRAM Timings” menu is a Command Center application crash.

Can’t find the exact setting you want? MSI also adds its logo to Intel’s XTU (Extreme Tuning Utility) software.

Like the low-cost ASRock motherboard that went before it, MSI’s X99 SLI Plus pushed our CPU to a maximum stable frequency of 4.4GHz at 1.28V. Better-overclocking boards have gotten this same CPU to 4.45GHz. The question is, how much is an extra 50MHz worth to you?

MSI skips the non-working 11x memory multiplier and jumps straight from DDR4-2666 (10 x 100MHz x 4/3 x 2) to DDR4-3200 (12 x 100MHz x 4/3 x 2). Both of those settings use a 4/3 integrated memory controller to CPU core ratio, and the data rate is twice the clock rate.

Fortunately, MSI’s DDR4-3200 setting works with our DRAM, eventually pushing it to a stable 3233 MT/s after we added 1MHz to the base clock.

The CPU core voltage setting was close to spot-on, but we had to use a 1.32V setting to get the DRAM to our desired 1.350 to 1.355V level. That’s particularly important on our specific CPU-integrated memory controller, which becomes slightly less stable at 1.37V (give or take a few millivolts).

The X99S SLI Plus includes a full range of primary, secondary and tertiary memory timing controls.

Advanced voltage controls include “Vdroop Offset”, though we didn’t experience voltage drops at default settings.

Other firmware features include a report of default DRAM timings, CPU power controls, six registers to store your custom firmware settings as importable/exportable overclocking profiles, user-configurable maps for all five fan headers and a “board explorer” illustration to show which interfaces are connected to devices.

How We Test

Because our first X99 round-up had $240-300 motherboards, our most recent round of testing focuses on boards that cost less than $240. ASRock’s X99 Extreme4 qualified for both rounds after dropping from $241 to $211, yet it still represents the most expensive product to which MSI’s X99S SLI Plus must be compared. Retaining the older model without a lengthy retest required us to use the same hardware configuration as our first X99 round-up. No problem, we’ve used it all along!

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Synthetic Benchmarks

Synthetic benchmarks might not represent any specific real-world program, but they do help us look for configuration flaws by focusing on the performance of individual components. The only way to get a substantial win is to sneak in an overclock, which we don’t allow since we like to control our overclocks. Similarly, significant losses can only be attributed to misconfiguration.

A tight race in synthetics is a great indication that each competitor is operating as-expected. MSI does take a slight win in memory bandwidth at default timings, but secondary and tertiary timings are really the only place a company can optimize for performance without blatant cheating.

3D Gaming

Game benchmarks are only truly meaningful when comparing different GPUs (Battlefield 4, Far Cry 3), CPUs (Arma 3), or memory (Grid 2). Readers still request these in motherboard reviews on occasion, and the tests add only around 30 minutes to a single-board evaluation.

ASRock’s X99 Extreme3 falls slightly but unnoticeably (in actual game play) behind in Arma 3, and MSI’s X99S SLI Plus pulls slightly but unnoticeably ahead at Grid 2’s most memory-bottlenecked setting.

Non-Gaming Applications

Our encoding, creativity, productivity and compression benchmarks are extremely useful for comparing processors, memory configurations and the OpenCL capabilities of graphics cards. None of those results change in a motherboard comparison. Then again, our automated process runs these benchmarks while we’re busy doing other things.

Lower might be better in a timed test, but less is more when it comes to motherboard evaluation. That’s because close results prevent lengthy investigations.

Power, Heat And Efficiency

MSI’s X99S SLI Plus runs mid-pack in both power and heat, compared to similarly-priced models. Our overall performance and efficiency charts are slightly different in that they contain the results of all 12 boards we’ve reviewed since the X99 launch.

Because less expensive motherboards have fewer features, we find all three of the boards in the MSI X99S SLI Plus comparison producing higher efficiency numbers compared to the overall average. Getting more specific, the X99S SLI Plus falls between the two most closely-priced models in both power and efficiency.

BIOS Frequency And Voltage Settings For Overclocking

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MSI’s X99S SLI Plus includes a reasonably broad range of voltage and clock settings at relatively small intervals, yet produces a CPU clock that’s on par with the other sub-$200 motherboard, ASRock’s X99 Extreme3. Ask a golfer: par can be a good thing.

Moreover, the X99S SLI Plus produces a far superior DRAM overclock. Of course, secondary and tertiary memory timings play a role in that exceptional stability, and we’ve added an extra chart for non-stock DRAM data rates to see how aggressive—or conservative—those settings really are.

It appears that MSI gets its grand DRAM overclock by using conservative timings. If you want top memory performance on the X99S SLI Plus, your best bet is to buy fast RAM and set it to XMP defaults.

Value

Is the X99S SLI Plus the best solution for budget buyers? MSI thinks so, and put quite a bit of technology into this product to prove its worth. We’re still trying to figure out how one manufacturer can add four two-lane PCIe 3.0 switches to enable three-way SLI on Intel’s Core i7-5820K, while all of its competitors believe this is too costly for an entry-level X99 motherboard. As if anything X99 can be classified as entry-level.

But MSI doesn't stop with three-way SLI support. The company also adds a couple more switches to enable PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 SSDs, or a graphics card in the fourth slot and PCIe 2.0 x2 M.2, or SATA 6Gb/s x2 M.2. That’s a lot of M.2 options. And users who don’t like M.2 can still get top SSD performance in an off-motherboard drive via SATA-Express, which is also missing from competitively-priced products. You can’t run SATA M.2 and SATA-Express, or run the M.2 slot in PCIe 2.0 x2 mode with SATA-Express, since those connections are shared, but even high-end boards with both interfaces have that restriction.

So, does this make the X99S SLI Plus a high-end board at an entry-level price? The six added-in USB 3.0 ports might have us thinking this, had we not already been blown away by all the PCIe 3.0 interface options. MSI even equips the board with twice as many DIMM slots as its closest competitor. It appears the only high-end features we don't get are a “Port 80” status code display and a secondary network interface. Those value-adds aren't missed much. We also aren't bothered by MSI's use of a previous-generation ALC892 codec where competitors have upgraded to the ALC1150.

Two final things that are missing (though not from the motherboard itself) are the second SLI bridge required to enable three-way SLI and 50MHz. Wait, what? In overclocking, the X99S SLI Plus came up 50MHz shy of most high-end boards using the same settings. Then again, so did its closest competitor. On the other hand, this is also the only moderately-priced motherboard to support our memory at data rates beyond DDR4-3200.

Performance-per-dollar appears a perfect match between the X99 Extreme3 and MSI’s X99S SLI Plus. But this chart is based on the running price of both products compared to the average of all 12 X99 motherboards we’ve tested in the past six months. If we were to instead use the temporary promotional price of $179 listed at Newegg, the X99S SLI Plus achieves a supreme value rating of 141%. Oh, and if you believe in rebate cards, Newegg even offers one for an additional $20 discount.

Conclusion

All of this means we’d be nuts not to give MSI’s X99S SLI Plus an award. But which one? Our Approved recognition simply means a product slightly exceeded our expectations. Recommended means that it’s also a better-than-average value. Our 2015 Choice award replaces last year’s Elite and generally indicates that a product is remarkably better than everything else in its class. But does price alone define this motherboard’s class?

The nice thing about the word Choice is that it’s a little less elitist than Elite. We can probably use it when referring to the ultimate reduced-cost X99 board. A less expensive audio codec and ordinary overclock aren’t enough to distract us from this product’s vast array of extra features. And besides, the X99S SLI Plus really is our choice for moderately-priced LGA 2011-v3 builds.

MSI now offers a revised version of the X99S SLI Plus featuring USB 3.1. Called the X99A SLI Plus, it replaces this board's ASM1042 controller with  an ASM1142 USB 3.1 controller via two PCIe 2.0 lanes. The entire 10Gbps bandwidth can be dedicated to a single device or shared over two ports, and MSI states that this adds only $10 to the X99A SLI Plus MSRP. The steep discounts found with the X99S SLI Plus are not available for the X99A SLI Plus, so we'd still pick the original model in our search for value.

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Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware, covering Cases, Cooling, Memory and Motherboards. Follow him on Twitter.

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25 comments
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  • dor_nob
    I think "mainstream" is something difficult to define. There are a lot of variables to consider when selecting a motherboard for a build (a big one being price), and the selection is made based on the needs of the individual who the build is being done for. "Mainstream" for a gamer or video editor will be different than "mainstream" for a casual internet browser. I think there is no single mainstream part(s).
  • mapesdhs
    "... The -5820K's frequency is 25% slower and it has 12 of its PCIe 3.0 lanes disabled. ..."

    This notion of selling crippled parts is extremely annoying. It would bother me less if the CPU was designed from the ground-up to be a 28-lane part, hence less transistors, less heat & power usage, more oc headroom, etc. But selling something that's deliberately hobbled in this way is a step backwards IMO. It also makes the 4820K a rather peculiar chip, since that does have 40 lanes. There's clearly no reason for the 5820K to be restricted, it's just a lockout, most likely done with dies that have faults in the relevant silicon. Tell ya what, let's market cars with one broken wheel as 3-wheelers, because that's a good idea.

    I'll be benching a 4820K soon with some 980s, anyone care to make predictions on how it'll compare to a 5820K for typical results? (3DMark11/13, etc.)

    IMO the entire 5K lineup is wrong, and it's only the way it is because there's no competition. The 5820K should be a 6-core with full lanes (40, whatever), the 5930K should be 8 core with the same no. of lanes, the 5960X should be 8 or 10 core at a higher clock with a lot more lanes (64, 80, etc.), enough for full 4-way x16 with plenty to spare for M.2, priced accordingly high to make it attractive to those happy to pay oodles for something really groundbreaking, rather than the lame 3GHz lapdog we have atm which IMO is not remotely the woohaa 8-core I was hoping for.

    Remember, the 3930K was an 8-core chip with 2 cores disabled, so we know Intel can easily produce affordable 8-core dies. The XEON line shows there are no technical hurdles to this (the specs of the 2687W v3 and 2697 v3 suggest the 5960X could easily have been made to run at 3.6+ base clock, they use the same lithography). Instead, it's now 2 generations past when we could have had a mid-range consumer 8-core, but we don't because Intel still doesn't need to make one.

    I hope AMD can get back into the game if for no other reason than to force Intel to stop messing around and finally push the tech forward in the manner we all know it's perfectly capable of doing. Enough with the tech crippling already!

    Ian.

    PS. Likewise, I'm tired of the mainstream chipset still only havng 16 lanes (ie. Z97 atm), resulting in all sorts of faffing around with SLI/CF tradeoffs vs. M.2/etc. usage. It's the mainstream chipset which needs to be more like 28 lanes by now, not the bottom of the high end.
  • vertexx
    Crash - for 2-way SLI, can you use slots 1 and 3 if you want the spacing for better cooling? Would that be running x8/x8? I think the documentation recommends using slots 1 and 2 for dual, which has held me back from buying this board.
  • tical2399
    Quote:
    Crash - for 2-way SLI, can you use slots 1 and 3 if you want the spacing for better cooling? Would that be running x8/x8? I think the documentation recommends using slots 1 and 2 for dual, which has held me back from buying this board.


    Yea cause pcie 3.0 8x is really going to hurt you performance. Sarcasm aside. There is not a card in existence that going to be bottlenecked by pcie 3.0 8x. Titan x included.
  • danlw
    Even with the tight spacing in the bottom two slots, I suppose you could run 4 cards if they had water blocks on them.
  • medu5a
    The benchmark charts for 3D gaming show a 4970K CPU, I think that's a typo.
  • Crashman
    523798 said:
    The benchmark charts for 3D gaming show a 4970K CPU, I think that's a typo.
    Yes, I'm trying to find these wherever I can and fix them before they get published. One chart gets copied to the same test on another spreadsheet but doesn't always get the hardware updated in the title.
  • RedJaron
    MSI has really been impressing me lately. This is a preeminent example of sensible feature tradeoffs for great performance / price.
  • baazing
    Quote:
    Crash - for 2-way SLI, can you use slots 1 and 3 if you want the spacing for better cooling? Would that be running x8/x8? I think the documentation recommends using slots 1 and 2 for dual, which has held me back from buying this board.

    I can verify that this will work. I have this mobo with a 5820k and 2 780 ti's with nzxt kraken g10 mounted coolers which forced me to place the second card in the 3rd pcie x16 slot, as they're 3 slot coolers. I verified that both cards get pcie 3.0 x8 bandwidth through the utility in gpuz.
  • ykki
    This board's pricing (w.r.t. its features) really confused the heck out of me. How much of a profit is MSI making with these boards?
  • Crashman
    1427918 said:
    This board's pricing (w.r.t. its features) really confused the heck out of me. How much of a profit is MSI making with these boards?

    It's pretty crazy, hence the craziness of giving it the top award :)
  • rdc85
    Quote:
    ... It's pretty crazy, hence the craziness of giving it the top award :)


    Hope they don't play foul by releasing revision board (rev. 1.1, 2.0, ...) with cheaper component or such..

    Some companies does..
  • vertexx
    1581485 said:
    Quote:
    Crash - for 2-way SLI, can you use slots 1 and 3 if you want the spacing for better cooling? Would that be running x8/x8? I think the documentation recommends using slots 1 and 2 for dual, which has held me back from buying this board.
    I can verify that this will work. I have this mobo with a 5820k and 2 780 ti's with nzxt kraken g10 mounted coolers which forced me to place the second card in the 3rd pcie x16 slot, as they're 3 slot coolers. I verified that both cards get pcie 3.0 x8 bandwidth through the utility in gpuz.


    Great - thanks. So the next X99 board that allows for 3xSLI plus M.2 x4 with a 5820K is the ASRock X99 Formula at $260 or the Professional at $266 after rebates.

    I've been going back and forth between this MSI X99 SLI and the ASRock X99 Formula. The MSI gives me over $100 back for graphics or a bigger SSD.

    For the extra $100, the X99 Professional would give perhaps a slightly better overclock (~200MHz if I'm lucky?), dual M.2, dual LAN, probably a slightly better sound implementation, and the ability to go 4xSLI if I ever upgrade from the 5820K (not likely).
  • roastmaster
    MSI really stepped up their game and should be consider one of the best of the best MB maker out there. I want to see more GPU from MSI as their video card is also awesome!
  • tical2399
    I bought this board in November before I saw any reviews based on the full speed m.2 and 8 slots. Glad to see it get big props. If only the board was black and blue it'd be perfect.
  • farlp
    At work we bought a significant number of these board to act as headless Linux servers - it backfired to the extreme. From PXE problems to the absolute inability to boot without a GPU, combined with abysmal tech support, we have lost money by not going immediately with a different brand/model.
    But, it might be the answer for the more pragmatical windows/mainstream users. Good luck!
  • Shiftnplay
    The new X99A SLI PLUS has usb 3.1. My X99s SLI PLUS hasn't.
    My system took 2 mins in the bios to up the 5820k cpu from 3.30GHz to 4.40GHz stable and air cooled.
  • Shiftnplay
    No complaints at all. When going into the Bios to adjust the multiplier and core voltage, I expected it to take a lot longer and have problems booting, but it was straight forward and I'm really pleased with it.
  • LostAlone
    Quote:
    You either invest or not. Considering I would not buy a £65 H97 board off those guys cos I cant be bothered rebuilding a 4460/270x build 2 months/ 2 years down the line or messing about setting it up I deffo wouldnt waste time and effort with their stuff on a big socket build.. Save (what %age?) on a 2 grand pc? Its not for me. You can buy a Skoda vehicle; it will have a VW engine, VW gearbox, VW brakes and differential etc,but it was still built on the cheap by a workforce with no edjumacation in a barn using plastic seat covers and goat spit adhesive. Some things its better to just pay for.


    So I take it you've had a bad experience with MSI? Do you want to explain what happened instead of just shouting your mouth off?
  • mapesdhs
    Have to say, when people ask, I normally recommend ASUS or Asrock. The latter inparticular have really good support, at one point even sending me custom BIOS releases to help with RAID card issues on P55 builds.

    Ian.
  • oinkypig
    dhs. to me it seems u love to right the same story for every article.
  • mapesdhs
    43539 said:
    dhs. to me it seems u love to right the same story for every article.


    Glad you like reading all my posts then. :D

    Ian.
  • vertexx
    At first, I was happy to see this review, but now the price of this board has jumped by $30-40 since. It was sitting around $190-200. Now it's at $230. Thanks Crash.....
  • tical2399
    1293856 said:
    At first, I was happy to see this review, but now the price of this board has jumped by $30-40 since. It was sitting around $190-200. Now it's at $230. Thanks Crash.....


    I kinda figured that would happen. When it first came out it was like $220 or something like that. Then I saw it for a long time in that $180 range. As soon as I saw this positive review I knew that was a done deal.