Summary: Do you have an older Athlon system with GeForce2 MX graphics and you're looking to upgrade without emptying your wallet? MSI's K7N2G-ILSR may be the perfect solution for you! With its nForce2 IGP, the K7N2G-ILSR offers integrated GeForce4 MX graphics, and the MCP-T brings Dolby Digital audio straight to your PC. And don't forget other goodies like Serial ATA, AGP 8X, and FireWire. See how this board performs in today's review!
The integrated graphics market
Since their inception, integrated chipsets have traditionally been considered anemic, especially among gamers and hardware enthusiasts. This is largely because chipset manufacturers have been slow to adopt the latest hardware technologies in their products. For instance, industry leader Intel utilized its i752 graphics for years in its integrated chipsets. This graphics core was only updated recently with 845GE, despite the fact that it’s based on technology that is over four years old.
GeForce graphics inside
When NVIDIA unveiled its nForce chipset in 2001, all the so-called “rules” of integrated chipsets were changed. The nForce integrated graphics processor (IGP) utilized a variant of NVIDIA’s GeForce2 MX graphics core, a DirectX 7 part with hardware transformation and lighting among its list of features. This put the nForce IGP one graphics generation behind the desktop in terms of feature set when it was launched, significantly narrowing the gap between desktop graphics and integrated graphics. For the first time in the history of integrated chipsets, 3D performance was a significant selling factor.
One of the key features of the K7N2G-ILSR is the integrated graphics supported by the nForce2 IGP North Bridge. Since the nForce2 IGP is based on the GeForce4 MX, the graphics core is largely the same as that used on the original nForce chipset. That means you’ll get the same dual pixel pipeline architecture, with the ability to process four texels per clock cycle as the GeForce2 MX family.
The key additions that you get with the nForce2 IGP are the GeForce4 MX’s crossbar memory architecture as well as the integrated video processing engine, which includes the integrated TV encoder that was mentioned previously. The GPU also runs at 200MHz, with 334MHz memory, placing it somewhere between the GeForce4 MX 420 and GeForce4 MX440 in terms of overall performance. While this may be a little weak for hardcore gamers, keep in mind that this is light years ahead of anyone else in integrated graphics performance. And if an OEM or motherboard manufacturer decides to implement it, the nForce2 IGP can drive two different displays simultaneously.
Besides the integrated graphics, the other feature that really turns heads with nForce2 is its Dolby Digital six channel audio. This capability is provided by the MCP-T chip, which is located just below the AGP slot. Realtek’s ALC650 is the physical layer that handles the sound output, and is a popular solution among nForce2 motherboard manufacturers.
Besides the 5.1 audio, the MCP-T is also responsible for networking and connectivity. Up to six USB 2.0 ports are supported by nForce2 (two external brackets are used to connect all six ports) as is IEEE-1394 (FireWire), which supports up to two devices. For networking duties, the MCP-T offers 10/100 Fast Ethernet.
Serial ATA, D-LED
In addition to these features, MSI includes a few additional goodies of their own. For supporting the next generation of Serial ATA hard drives, Promise’s PDC20376 controller is integrated onboard. Up to two Serial ATA drives can be connected to the controller, or the controller can be used to connect an additional parallel ATA drive.
In following with MSI tradition, the K7N2G-ILSR sports a red PCB. In fact, not only is the board itself red, so is the AGP slot. This gives the board a snazzier look than the tan or green motherboards we’re used to seeing, and really looks good when paired with a red ATI or MSI card. If you really want to get your color coordination on, you can go with Muskin’s high performance PC3200 memory, which utilizes a red heat spreader.
Unfortunately, this is a dilemma that we’ve noticed on many nForce2 motherboards, so the K7N2G-ILSR is not unique, but at the very least we would preferred to see the ATX power connector on the other side of the CPU socket. Preferably MSI should have placed the connector on the right edge of the motherboard, behind the DIMM sockets.
Looking around the CPU interface itself, you can see a bank of capacitors that reside very close to the CPU socket. Fortunately, there’s just enough room to install larger heatsinks, and we also see that MSI has placed heatsinks on its voltage regulators. This is an added bonus that you don’t see on many motherboards and should come in handy when the system is under additional load, say for instance when overclocking.
MSI has also implemented an active cooling solution on the nForce2 IGP, keeping temperatures in check around the upper portion of the motherboard. With even the SPP variant of the nForce2 chipset getting fairly hot under load, we can only imagine how much hotter the IGP chip gets with its integrated graphics controller. With a hot device like the CPU right next to it, and the graphics card (another hot component) beneath, the active cooler on the IGP is a very good feature for MSI to include on the K7N2G-ILSR.
Unfortunately, MSI only includes two fan headers on the K7N2G-ILSR board, and one of those headers is used for the aforementioned fan on the nForce2 IGP. This leaves end users with one fan header, which must be used for the CPU cooler. As a result, this board effectively ships without any additional cooling support.
Fortunately, MSI provides a wealth of space between the DIMM sockets and the AGP slot. In comparison to other motherboards we’ve seen, you could taxi a 747 between the devices. MSI has placed the IDE connectors across from the last three PCI slots, which means you will have to stretch your IDE cables a little more than normal.
SIDEBAR: MSI also offers the K7N2G-L, which ships without the MCP-T and Serial ATA for a lower price.
nForce2 motherboards tend to offer many of the same settings in BIOS, regardless of the manufacture of the motherboard. Not only are many of the parameters identical, but in most cases the available settings themselves are also similar, if not the same. For instance, nForce2 motherboards offer an incredible degree of flexibility in tweaking memory timings. Practically every function is adjustable in ranges from the very minimum, all the way to the fastest timings.
As a result, the only area motherboard manufacturers tend to differentiate themselves is in their integrated peripherals section of BIOS (i.e. some motherboards come with more integrated features than others, in the case of the K7N2G-ILSR one of those features would be the Serial ATA controller), voltage adjustment, and the system bus settings themselves.
Lets go over what MSI brings to the table with the K7N2G-ILSR’s BIOS.
In our testing with older MSI motherboards, we’ve found that they tend to play it safe in the amount of tweaking available in BIOS, and the K7N2G-ILSR is no exception. For instance, voltages are adjustable to 1.80V in 0.025V increments. This is a bit on the conservative side, as we’ve seen many motherboards with settings up to 1.85V, and FIC and Epox boards with settings even higher than that. MSI does have a large number of OEM customers that may not want their users tweaking their CPU voltage too much, or it’s also possible that MSI just wants its end users to play it safe, as excessive voltage can damage your CPU, especially over time. We’re not really certain what the answer is, but it’s likely that this will disappoint many of the hardcore hardware enthusiasts.
MSI also offers settings for manually setting the speed of the AGP bus, as well as its voltage (up to 1.7V) in addition to system memory, which can be set as high as 2.7V. For bus speeds, settings from 100MHz-200MHz are available in 1MHz increments, so MSI offers a nice amount of flexibility in this department.
Like other nForce2 boards, memory bus settings for DDR200, DDR266, DDR333, and DDR400 are available, and the memory bus and system bus can operate asynchronously, meaning you can run your memory bus at 333MHz while your system bus operates at 266MHz. We have however found that the nForce2 chipset performs best when both buses are running in synch with each other, so we ran all our tests with both the system and memory buses at 333MHz.
Going back and forth from external to integrated graphics is seamless both from a hardware perspective (i.e. there are no jumpers to pull) and from the aspect of software (BIOS). All you have to do is plug in your discrete graphics card, or if you plan on using the nForce2 IGP, connect your monitor to the VGA connector on the back plane of the K7N2G-ILSR motherboard itself. The nForce2 chipset automatically determines the active signal and performs appropriately.
SIDEBAR: For the SPP, MSI recently unveiled its K7N2 Delta, which adds the MCP-T to the K7N2 platform we tested earlier this year.
Unreal Tournament 2003
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch
The integrated graphics in the nForce2 IGP offers double the performance of NVIDIA’s GeForce2 MX400 card in some situations, this is pretty remarkable considering that GeForce2 MX400 was the leader in the value segment 16 months ago. However, the integrated GPU isn’t quite able to keep up with the GeForce4 MX 440.
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
The IGP-based K7N2G-ILSR isn’t quite able to keep up with the SPP nForce2 boards in Serious Sam 2 at lower resolutions. We’re not sure if this is because of the chipset itself, or perhaps the BIOS on the board needs a bit more tuning. Fortunately, the margin isn’t greater than 4%, so its unlikely that end users will feel the performance difference between either setup.
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
We see the same performance trends repeat in Quake 3, and while the margin has opened up slightly, it still rounds up to 4%. Again, it’s possible that the nForce2 IGP isn’t quite as fast as the SPP, as we found that MSI’s SPP board was just as fast as the competition from ASUS.
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
Even in UT2003 we see the same margins between the IGP-based MSI motherboard and the SPP boards, 4%.
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
Business Winstone 2002
Content Creation Winstone 2002
The MSI board takes the crown in Business and Content Creation Winstone 2002, although the memory bandwidth advantage easily goes to the SPP boards.
Board layout: While the layout of the K7N2G-ILSR is pretty good, it does have some drawbacks. For instance, the location of the ATX power connector is far from ideal. In its current position it comes dangerously close to the CPU interface and constricts airflow near the upper portion of the board. The presence of only two fan headers is also a real setback.
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