MSI X48 Platinum
The X48 Platinum features the same circuit board as previously seen on MSI's X38 Diamond, where boxed accessories had put its Diamond series a cut above same-generation Platinums. Added parts aside, the X48 Express Northbridge's higher validated bus frequency could put the X48 Platinum ahead of its accessorized predecessor.
MSI goes well beyond the competing parts of this comparison in graphics card support, by providing four PCI Express x16 slots. Located just below the Southbridge, an added IDT 89HPES16T7ZH PCI Express hub is responsible for managing the extra slot.
Slot bandwidth is a different matter, as only the two top slots support PCI Express 2.0 mode and the full sixteen PCI Express pathways. The bottom two slots each provide x4 transfer mode, and furthermore must share a combined four pathways on the other side of the hub. The hub is responsible for prioritizing data, so that most or all of the bandwidth can be directed to either slot dynamically.
Fitting all those slots on a 7-slot ATX layout required MSI to take a tip from the past and put the uppermost x16 slot in the highest possible slot position. This in turn required traditional placement of the memory slots near the motherboard's top edge, so that long graphics cards would clear the DIMM latches. These design moves are a sharp contrast to those of other manufacturers, who have recently moved their memory slots "southward" in an effort to shorten trace lengths for improved high-frequency stability. MSI's design is far more convenient - as long as it works.
MSI couldn't space all of its PCI Express x16 slots three spaces apart, since the ATX standard supports only seven slots total. The top two are positioned three spaces apart for optimal cooling, but the space between the second and third slots is barely enough to support a double-thickness cooler. The bottom graphics card slot is just a single space below the third, so using all four slots with graphics cards requires at least two of the cards to have single-slot coolers.
We're a bit perplexed about how a system builder might use the third and forth x16-length slots, since they share a combined x4 pathway through the PCI Express hub. These might prove useful for some lower-bandwidth cards such as a mid-market RAID or multi-port Ethernet controller, but the most likely intended use is with a lower-performance ATI graphics card functioning as a physics engine, if that's still possible. Builders are also welcome to add any number of consumer-level PCI Express x1 cards in the bottom two x16 slots, or to use the slots to enable additional displays at lower performance levels.
A single PCI slot sits immediately beneath the second full-bandwidth graphics card slot, but would be blocked off by the coolers of most high-performance graphics cards. Two more PCI Express x1 slots are found in positions 2 and 3, but using these requires the bottom two slots to drop to x1 mode.
Four of the ICH9R's SATA ports are designed to host internal drives, but their forward-facing connectors could be blocked by the hard drive cages of some "tight" ATX chassis models. Likewise, the CPU socket is located close to the X48 Platinum's top edge, which could prevent the use of some oversized CPU coolers in tight chassis. Both of these potential problems are alleviated by using a spacious case, which is appropriate for the X48 Platinum's high-end target market.
The problems with oversized CPU coolers aren't limited to how far they extend beyond the X48 Platinum's top edge, however. MSI's Circu-Pipe northbridge sink is tall enough to potentially prevent the use of large, flat coolers such as Zalman's CNPS7700 series. Our CNPS9700 fit well, though, due to its perpendicular design.
Two additional SATA 2.0 ports attached to the Marvel 88SE6111 controller point outward, but these could potentially be blocked off by the cooler of a long second graphics card. The Marvel controller also provides the Ultra ATA interface, which like the four Intel SATA internal ports, points toward the X48 Platinum's front edge.
MSI's X48 Platinum front-panel audio header placement is nearly as convenient as Gigabyte's design: MSI put it just above the rear edge of the second PCI Express x16 slot. This allows easier cabling to the top-mounted and mid-mounted front-panel connectors of most cases, while still allowing adequate room for double-thick graphics coolers.
One of MSI's more annoying layout decisions was its placement of the floppy header at the X48 Platinum's bottom edge, beneath the lowest PCI Express slot. While most builders dread putting a floppy in any modern system, the drive is needed to load SATA or AHCI drivers during Windows XP setup. Windows Vista doesn't have the floppy drive requirement, yet Microsoft's flagship OS has failed to capture the interest of the majority of gaming system builders for whom the X48 Platinum is designed.