Summary: After a lackluster start with their first SFF system, MSI is back with their second-generation generation SFF, the MEGA 180. Based on the nForce2 chipset, the MEGA 180 offers built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi, an AM/FM radio tuner, Dolby Digital 5.1 SRS audio, a slick new remote control unit and color LED display, and all the performance you'd expect from a desktop system. But how does it stack up to the competition? Find out in today's review!
This was enough in the early days of small form factor when there were only a handful of players, with Shuttle being the predominant leader, but today nearly every motherboard manufacturer has a small form factor product, or a SFF design that’s in development. The result was a crowded field, with little originality among products.
Then MSI spiced the SFF market up with its MEGA announcement. MEGA, short for MSI Entertainment Gaming Appliance was just that. Rather than follow everyone else’s lead with another small form factor PC, MSI went one step further, transforming the SFF PC into a fully-fledged entertainment device. The idea was to take SFF from the office/den into the living room or the rack in your home entertainment center. MSI set out to blur the lines between the conventional PC and traditional home theater equipment, with gaming capability to boot.
The MEGA concept wasn’t merely to build another small form factor; it was to build an entirely new class of consumer electronics devices.
Gamers and enthusiasts everywhere were giddy with anticipation, if MSI delivered on this concept, MEGA would be the most innovative SFF PC since the idea of a small form factor PC was first conceived. College students in dorm rooms would have the perfect solution for their situation – a small, portable PC that could do it all, and serve as an entertainment device. Drop in a TV tuner card and it could even double as a television! But unfortunately, the final product didn’t quite live up to everyone’s lofty expectations.
For starters, MSI’s original MEGA-651 relied on SiS’ outdated SiS651 chipset. SiS651 lacked support for Hyper-Threading, and worse yet, relied on a 533MHz system bus. This paled in comparison to the 800MHz bus that had been launched a few months earlier for Intel’s Pentium 4 “C” processors. The CPU was also strapped for bandwidth by SiS651’s single-channel memory controller, while the chipset also lacked support for Serial ATA drives.
To its credit, MEGA-651 was originally envisioned before these technologies became the norm, but due to product delays it shipped months behind schedule. The chassis’ grey-on-orange look also didn’t help matters, especially for a device that was intended to be showcased in a home theater system. It had an appearance only its mother could love. The end result was a product with lots of promise, but ultimately never took off because of these factors.
Now MSI is back with its second generation MEGA SFF, the MEGA 180. MSI has tried to address the MEGA-651’s shortcomings with the MEGA-180, and added a few new features to round out the package.
The nForce2 IGP
South Bridge and other features
MSI has elected to pair the nForce2 IGP North Bridge with NVIDIA’s MCP-T South Bridge. MCP-T is NVIDIA’s midrange offering, providing Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. MSI equips the MEGA 180 with an optical input and output for maximum flexibility. Unfortunately, due to its age, the MCP-T lacks native Serial ATA support, and MSI has elected not to integrate an external Serial ATA controller to provide this functionality, so the MEGA 180 relies on conventional parallel ATA hard drives. This does put the MEGA 180 at a disadvantage to Biostar’s iDEQ 200N, which does provide Serial ATA capability, but matches the capabilities of Shuttle’s popular XPC line, which don’t offer Serial ATA support.
MSI provides a wealth of connectivity options on the MEGA 180. Besides the aforementioned dual VGA and S-Video out, the front panel provides one mic input, a headphone jack, both 4-pin (mini-1394) and 6-pin IEE-1394, two USB 2.0 ports, and a SPDIF input. The panel itself is hidden behind a door, ensuring that the front of the MEGA 180 remains uncluttered. The door is opened via button rather than by hand, after all, you wouldn’t want to get your messy fingerprints all over the MEGA 180’s shiny mirror finish! Just press the button for the front panel door and the door will swing down, revealing the ports.
Visually, MSI’s MEGA 180 chassis looks stunning. Gone is the downright ugly silver and orange chassis featured on the MEGA 651. It has been replaced with a black and blue scheme, giving the MEGA 180 a very distinctive look that will fit right in with the rest of the A/V components on your home theater rack, a task which the MEGA 651 just couldn’t accomplish.
For added flair, MSI has added a mirror finish to the MEGA 180’s front plate, giving the front of the chassis reflective properties. You’ll also notice that the 3.5” floppy drive bay has been replaced by a 6-in-1 card reader. This is an optional feature that is found on Deluxe MEGA 180 models, so if you’d rather populate that space with a floppy, you can remove the card reader. Considering the added capacity of today’s Compact Flash, Memory Stick, and Secure Digital cards though, we can’t imagine why anyone would want to do this (remember, there’s no Serial ATA or RAID driver to install for the MEGA 180, so no need for a floppy for your Windows XP install).
At the top of the chassis lies the 5.25” drive bay. The drive bay itself is covered by a spring-loaded door, this is a feature first introduced to the SFF world with MSI’s original MEGA-651. Unlike bay doors on other SFF systems, the door on the MEGA 180 is tied to the IDE interface. This means when you press the eject button on the MEGA’s front panel (or within Windows or the system’s bundled remote), the door to your CD or DVD drive opens, pushing down the MEGA 180’s drive bay door and revealing the drive’s tray. Press the eject button again and the drive closes, closing the MEGA drive bay door as well.
On other SFF systems with bay doors, the eject button is physically tied to the CD/DVD drive’s eject button, so it must make physical contact with the drive’s eject button in order to open/close the drive. Drive placement is critical in these SFF systems, if you don’t place the drive at the right distance and angle, the eject button won’t get enough pressure to work properly. It can sometimes be a frustrating experience finding this sweet spot.
Thanks to MSI’s IDE eject button implementation, this hassle isn’t necessary. When you press the eject button, you know the drive will open or close properly 100% of the time, even when the system is powered off and running in Hi-Fi mode (which we’ll discuss on the next page). This is just another example of MSI’s attention to detail with the MEGA 180.
Unfortunately like other bay door systems, MSI’s system isn’t compatible with all optical drives; some drive tray faces are just too large to work properly. MSI provides a list of compatible drives, but unfortunately the list is only populated with optical drives manufactured by MSI! We threw Mitsumi and Teac drives in the MEGA 180 with no problems, so we think most drives should work with the MEGA 180’s drive bay door.
The feature that really sets the MEGA 180 apart from other SFF systems is its Hi-Fi audio mode.
In Hi-Fi mode, the MEGA 180 can be used to listen to audio CDs or even the radio without turning on your system. In fact, the Hi-Fi mode works without the processor and other system components installed! This saves end users the hassle of having to boot into the operating system to perform these functions (and saves your ears from the associated noise of having the system powered up).
Simply press the “HiFi” button while the system is powered off to enter Hi-Fi mode. The MEGA 180’s LED will then switch from displaying the current time (clock mode) to Hi-Fi mode. Next, the MEGA 180 will scan the optical drive to look for an audio CD, if one is present, it will begin playing the first track from the CD; otherwise it will turn on the radio.
The whole procedure works seamlessly, in a matter of seconds you can be listening to audio CDs or FM/AM stations on the radio! You can switch between FM/AM/CD modes with the “mode” button, which is located on the front of the MEGA 180. The radio provides autoscan capability and supports up to six presets. MSI bundles the MEGA 180 with a small antenna and base (which connects to the back of the MEGA 180), so everything works out of the box.
In practice, our radio reception was good, but not great. About what you’d get out of an older clock radio. If you have an antenna from your stereo handy, it may not be a bad idea to swap it out with the MEGA’s standard antenna. MSI also includes a remote control unit with the MEGA 180, which can be used to control the radio or CD player in Hi-Fi mode. Buttons for channel and volume control are present, as well as switching between modes. The remote also has buttons for launching other applications such as TV tuning and navigating DVD menus (among a host of other buttons).
The MSI remote is IR-based, so you will need line-of-sight with the MEGA 180 in order to operate it, but we don’t think this will be a problem for most users. The remote is slim, powered by a 3V lithium battery (which is included) and stylish enough to fit right in with the other remotes in your home theater system.
If you don’t want to use the MEGA 180’s remote, the front panel of the MEGA 180 has all the buttons you’ll need to manipulate the system in Hi-Fi mode. A large volume knob is located just below the Hi-Fi button, while buttons for play/pause, stop/eject, and fast-forward/rewind are provided. For controlling the radio, the fast-forward and rewind buttons are used to adjust the channels, while the play/pause button is used to program them. The MEGA 180’s graphics equalizer (which can also be controlled via the remote) has four presets (normal, pop, classic, and jazz), and SRS stereo enhancement is also available. Like a typical CD player, the MEGA 180 also supports track/disc replay, and provides a shuffle mode for those of you who have already memorized the order of tracks on the disc.
The color display MSI has integrated on the front of the MEGA 180 looks straight out of a high-end car stereo and works well in a variety of lighting conditions. Numbers are easy to read and can be viewed from a distance, although it’s a little more difficult to read which EQ mode you’re in. Unfortunately CDDB isn’t supported, so it won’t recognize the title of tracks you’re listening to, but other track information is provided by the display. It would also be nice if the display had a dim mode, or the ability to turn itself off. This would be helpful for using the MEGA 180 in dorm room environments, where the bright display may distract you from sleeping. An alarm mode would be another nice addition if it could be done without adding too many buttons to the MEGA 180’s front panel.
The MEGA 180’s Hi-Fi mode only works when the system is turned off. Once you boot up, you’ll have to rely on the audio playback software that you have installed on your hard drive. Keep in mind however that the color display isn’t compatible with third-party software, including Windows Media Player. For listening to the radio within Windows, MSI provides its Media Center Deluxe III software. MSI Media Center Deluxe III can be used to perform a wide variety of functions: watch TV (if you have a TV tuner card installed) and DVDs, listen to audio files and CDs, look at photos, listen to the radio, and playback video clips. The MEGA 180’s remote has been integrated to work with Media Center Deluxe, with buttons for all of these functions (including timeshifting) and even a karaoke mode!
Once you’re ready to get some work done, you power up the MEGA 180 by pressing the “PC” button. From this mode the front panel display can be used to present system information such as CPU and system temperatures and fan RPMs.
In order to provide this functionality, you’ll need to install MSI’s PC Alert 4 software, which comes bundled with the MEGA 180. When PC Alert 4 launches, the display automatically switches from “clock” mode to “system info” mode. The color display will then cycle repeatedly through PC Alert 4’s system information in roughly three second intervals until PC Alert 4 is closed or the system is shut down.
As great as the color display is now, we’d love to see MSI add programmability and additional skins to its repertoire. A perfect example of this is the Matrix Orbital, which can be programmed to return stock tickers, RSS feeds, and even weather forecasts for your area. With RSS support for instance, you could read FiringSquad news headlines right from the front panel of your MEGA 180!
The MEGA 180’s Hi-Fi mode is limited to CD playback and listening to the radio. You can’t for instance, use it to watch DVDs or any other form of video. To perform these functions you’ll have to boot up the PC.
MEGA 180 cooling
For keeping the processor cool, MSI relies on a robust CPU heatsink/fan unit and a little bit of ducting. Holes are drilled into the sides of the MEGA 180, providing cool, fresh air for the system components.
The problem is, the CPU’s dual fan system also relies on this ventilation to help keep the processor cool. The CPU cooling system works with two fans, one fan provides intake, while the second, smaller fan acts as an exhaust fan. Air from within the case is sucked in by the intake fan, passes over the MEGA 180’s copper heatsink, and exits out the exhaust fan where it then goes outside the MEGA 180 system. If the fan is obstructed by an external graphics card, or worse yet, an external graphics card that generates a lot of heat, the dual fan system isn’t able to cool the processor as effectively, as it doesn’t have a fresh supply of cool air.
As a result, we ran into stability problems keeping the system cool if a high-end RADEON 9800 XT or RADEON 9700 PRO card was installed. Applications would run fine for 15-35 minutes, but slowly the system would begin to overheat and eventually shut itself down. Fortunately, ATI’s X800 PRO fared much better in the MEGA 180, as did the RADEON 9600 XT. We were able to run these cards with no problems.
This problem could probably be alleviated if the MEGA 180’s fans would kick into a higher mode. As of right now, the fans are limited to approximately 3500 RPMs maximum in order to keep noise level down. Considering the small size of these fans, this is just too low. Either MSI needs to increase the RPMs or increase the physical size of the cooler’s fans, as right now the heatsink/fan unit could benefit from a little more power.
Complicating matters still is the diminutive size of the MEGA 180, there just isn’t a lot of room for keeping everything cool. Once the system is populated with a processor, graphics card, memory, optical drive, and hard drive, things get cramped, and, as a result, temperatures really begin to pick up.
Fortunately this is one problem we can report that MSI appears to have solved (or at least addressed) in its larger third generation MEGA unit, which MSI had on display at Computex last month. But this doesn’t help the MEGA 180 today.
Besides the Hi-Fi mode, one additional feature that helps the MEGA 180 stand out from other nForce2 SFF systems on the market is its integrated 802.11b Wi-Fi support, which comes standard with Deluxe models of the MEGA 180. This is provided by a mini-PCI slot, which is nestled underneath the drive bay for the media card reader, right next to the AM/FM tuner.
In order to accommodate dual-slot graphics cards, such as the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra/6800 Ultra, MSI reverses the location of the AGP and PCI slots, with the PCI slot located alongside the right edge of the motherboard. This provides just enough clearance to slip in a dual-slot card, but considering the heat generated by one of these boards we wouldn’t recommend configuring a MEGA 180 system like this. You should also keep in mind that this configuration makes it a little more difficult to install even a small AGP card like the RADEON 9600 PRO than on a regular SFF system, as you have to reach further into the chassis. But, this makes it a little easier to install PCI cards.
Memory installation is a snap thanks to the convenient location of the DIMM modules, which are placed on the opposite end of the motherboard just above the nForce 2 North Bridge.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Call of Duty – OpenGL
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2004
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Halo – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Timing: Today, NVIDIA’s nForce2 IGP chipset is well over a year old, while the MEGA-180 is months behind MSI’s scheduled release date of Fall 2003. MSI has used the extra time to add 802.11b, but missed adding other features such as Serial ATA, which is beginning to gain a significant foothold, especially in the SFF market.