February 21, 2005

Review: MSI K8T Neo2-FIR motherboard

Author: Jem Matzan

With last summer's introduction of AMD's 939-pin Athlon 64 processor came a demand for motherboards that will support it. There are only a handful of boards on the market designed for the socket 939 Athlon 64 CPU that are equipped with an AGP 8X interface; the new trend is to use PCI Express instead of AGP, in spite of the anemic video card selection. MicroStar International's K8T Neo2-FIR offers the best of both worlds, accommodating new technology while continuing to support the old -- and it works great with GNU/Linux.

The more capable socket 939 design is meant to eventually replace the first-generation Athlon 64 in the 754-pin package, adding more on-die cache memory, more HyperTransport links, and a more spacious upgrade path. If you're considering building or buying a single-CPU AMD64 system, the socket 939 design is the best choice for performance and upgradability.

The Athlon 64 processor is able to run both 32-bit x86 and 64-bit AMD64 (or x86_64, as it is sometimes called in the Linux realm) binaries natively, so computers based on the MSI K8T Neo2-FIR are not limited to just 64-bit operating systems. GNU/Linux, in the form of Gentoo, SUSE, Mandrake, and Red Hat, has matured to the point that you can use a 64-bit OS without sacrificing functionality or -- with the exception of ATI video cards -- device support.

The K8T Neo2-FIR comprises parts that have open source hardware drivers that compile and work perfectly in either 32-bit or 64-bit mode. The sound chip is the Realtek ALC850, and the gigabit LAN processor is a Realtek 8110S, both of which have native open source Linux drivers included in recent versions of the 2.6 kernel. The disk controller is the VIA VT8237, which supports up to four parallel ATA drives (ATA133) and two serial ATA drives, and can accommodate RAID modes 0 or 1. Also onboard is the Promise 20579 SATA RAID controller, which supports up to two parallel ATA and two SATA drives either standalone, or in 1, 0, or 0+1 RAID arrays as well as JBOD. The RAM limit is effectively just over 3GB using four 1GB sticks (the difference in size has to do with a southbridge chip problem), but you'd only be able to use that much memory with a 64-bit kernel.

At the heart of the K8T Neo2-FIR is the VIA K8T800 Pro, an improved version of the vendor's original K8T800 chipset for the Athlon 64 and Opteron processors. The Pro edition ups the HyperTransport link frequency to 1GHz from 800MHz; the bus architecture is asynchronous instead of synchronous; and the HyperTransport link between the northbridge and southbridge chips is double the speed (1066MHz).

On the I/O backplane, this motherboard has four USB 2.0 connectors with headers on the motherboard for up to four more through a rear-mounted bracket or front panel. Two FireWire connectors -- one of each size -- are hardwired to the backplane. The audio connectors are pretty fancy -- five standard jacks for microphone and surround sound (this is a much better solution than one employed by some other motherboards that re-use the mic and line jacks for surround functions, meaning you can have either surround sound or a microphone, but not both), and one S/PDIF out jack. There's also an infrared port for supported IrDA devices, as well as the standard PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, and single 9-pin serial and 25-pin parallel ports.

For those who like to overclock, the BIOS has options for manually fine-tuning the memory voltage and CPU frequency. Alternatively you can let the BIOS overclock itself with the Dynamic Overclocking function. This has four levels of performance, ranging from a 1% to a 7% overclock.


MSI's nomenclature describes the options that each model includes. In addition to the fully-featured FIR model, there is also an F model that is essentially the same motherboard minus the RAID controllers and IEEE 1394 (FireWire) support. This of course makes the F model cheaper than the FIR, which is an advantage for those who have their own PCI hardware for FireWire and/or RAID, and those who do not need these functions.

Everything on this motherboard works excellently in GNU/Linux, using either a 64-bit or 32-bit kernel. It's kind of a shame to use this motherboard with a 32-bit operating system, but if you're looking to make the jump, its high degree of compatibility, performance, device support, and the general reliability of MSI's manufacturing process make the K8T Neo2-FIR an excellent choice for high-powered desktop users looking to explore the world of 64-bit computing.

Device Motherboard
Manufacturer MicroStar International
OS Support GNU/Linux, Windows 9.x/2K/XP. Will work with *BSD, but device driver problems are possible with some BSD OSes.
Market Gamers, high-powered desktop enthusiasts
Price (retail) $89 to $113
Product Web site Click here
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