The SL75-MRN-L is based upon NVIDIA's nForce2 chipset, which was released late last year to much critical acclaim. It's one of the most popular Athlon chipsets on the market today. Recently, NVIDIA introduced the nForce2 400 Ultra and nForce2 400 providing support for AMD's 400MHz FSB CPUs. Unfortunately, the MRN-L isn't based upon this chipset.
North Bridge duties are handled by NVIDIA's Integrated Graphics Processor. This takes the place of the System Platform Processor found on the SL75-FRN-L. It handles the System Bus support of 200/266/333 AGP4x/8x interface, integrated Geforce4 MX graphics accelerator, and DDR266/DDR333 support, with an enhanced support for DDR400 memory.
South Bridge duties are handled by NVIDIA's MCP-T chip. This chip works with the IGP to handle the sound processing, the USB V2.0 support, ATA133 support, LAN interface, audio AC'97 interface. It also fully supports AMD's Hyper-Transport initiative, providing 800MB/second of system throughput to all of the various devices. You can read about the platform processing architecture including the MCP and IGP nForce Platform Processors by clicking the link.
The MRN-L supports AMD CPUs based upon the Duron, Athlon, and Athlon XP including Barton core CPU's. The board supports CPUs with 200/266/333 FSB (Front Side Bus). Soltek says that there are no plans for a 400MHz FSB board with integrated graphics, which is confirmed by NVIDIA's Brian Del Rizzo. On Soltek's website, however, is a note on the latest BIOS for this board that suggests that the MRN-L might support 400MHz, just not officially.
The board supports up to 3GB of DDR memory. Three 184-pin slots for DDR266/DDR333/DDR400 are provided with each slot supporting up to 1GB of registered unbuffered DDR memory. The MRN-L is certified up to DDR400 memory, which is signified by a sticker covering the RAM slots when the box is first opened.
The back panel has 2 USB ports, 1 RJC-45 jack for LAN, PS/2 Mouse and Keyboard connectors, a Game/MIDI port, COM1 port, 15-pin VGA connector, LPT1 port, and 3 sound jacks Front speaker/ Rear speaker/Center subwoofer jacks. All are clearly labeled in the excellent manual and hard to mess up if you keep track of the speaker wires coming out of your speakers.
The board is a standard 305mm by 245mm ATX form factor motherboard. It fit easily into my mid-tower ATX case without needing any adjustment to the case or cabling that is out of the ordinary. The included back I/O plate easily fit onto my case and there were zero issues with cabling.
The integrated LAN is a NVIDIA based RJ45 port. It supports up to 10/100 megabit Ethernet and is standard fare on nForce2 boards with a NIC (Network Interface card). Testing of the network connection found that I maintained a constant 150KBps download rate and 17KBps upload rate, which is consistent with my rated speed (my line is rated for 1.5 down/128 up).
Soltek is generally very sparse in the included cables and hardware extras in their bundles. This is both a good and bad thing. It's good, because it helps keep the costs down, which is passed to the consumer in the form of less expensive prices. It's bad, because if you need those components, you need to purchase extra optional supplies.
For instance, there are only 2 USB ports on the motherboard. Soltek does support up to the 6 ports that the nForce2 chipset supports, however, in order to get the full 6 ports you need to purchase the extra USB cables. Otherwise you're stuck with the 2 onboard, unless you buy a USB hub or the USB device you use has a extra port.
The included ATA133 and floppy cable are standard. I would have liked to have seen 2 ATA133 cables included with the package. Too many manufacturers don't include 2 ATA133 cables with their bundle. Two cables would have added to the cost (ATA133 cables run for around $5 at my local PC shop) and probably increased the cost at retail as well.
Soltek goes all out in their printed manuals included with the package. The motherboard manual is well laid-out with pictures and descriptions of the step-by-step instructions for installing the motherboard, CPU, memory video card etc. Further, Soltek includes a manual for the included software that makes up for the value of this motherboard. Both manuals are well laid out and very comprehensive. To top it off, Soltek includes a quick installation guide which got me up and running 15 minutes after installing the components for my system.
Soltek includes 5 major pieces of software with the MRN-L. The software is: PowerQuest's Partition Magic 6.0, PowerQuest's Drive Image 4.0, Farstone's Virtual Drive 7, PCCillin 2002, and Farstone's Restore IT 3. Taken together, these 5 pieces of software are worth about $325 in price, if purchased separately. Of course, they're included with the motherboard, which makes the SL75-MRN-L an excellent value.
Partition Magic is an excellent partitioning program. If you want to change the size of your hard drive partitions on the fly, allows several different partitions to be made for different operating systems (i.e. Linux, Windows XP, and Windows ME on one hard drive) and is a indispensable tool to the reviewer of a motherboard. As I haven't used anything but Windows XP for 2 years, there really isn't much of a need for me for Partition Magic.
Drive Image 6.0 is the PowerQuest equivalent to Norton's Ghost. The program can take a image of the current hard drive, and when needed restore that image, thus returning your hard drive to an earlier time. Without reinstalling all the programs one by one, Drive Image uses Smart Sector to do an image, instead of a file by file replace program.
Virtual Drive 7 is Farstone's CD/DVD player without a CD/DVD drive player. Basically, you can copy the CD to the hard disk and play it using Virtual Drive 7. It's rather useful for those that want to copy a copy of their games to the hard drive without needing to keep the CD in when playing the game. It's also useful for those that want to run multiple CD programs at one time, as Virtual drive allows up to 23 Virtual CD players at one time.
PCCillin 2002 is last year's Anti Virus program from Trend Micro. Trend Micro; along with other AV writers keep the engine up to date for the latest virus definitions, even after the next version or two is released. Therefore, PCCillin 2002 is still a viable AV program today, even with the availability of PCCillin 2003. Personally, however, I prefer Norton's AntiVirus.
Farsstone's RestoreIT is a restoration program much like Windows' System Restore utility or Goback. When RestoreIT is installed, the program makes a protected image computer's default settings called a static restore point. After that if your system crashes due to a virus or other problem, you can restore the prior working default settings and act like it never happened. It's much more robust than System Restore, but personally, I prefer Goback.
Soltek Hardware Monitor and ABS II
Soltek includes a hardware monitor on their driver CD that's helpful to seeing how hot the CPU die is, the external CPU temperature, the fan speeds and the voltages fpr the CPU, 12V, -12V, -5V, 5V, 5VSB, Battery and 3.3V (i.e. AGP) while in Windows. The interface is a little corny, but it's extremely useful as a tool.
The temperature sensor has 2 readings, the CPU Die and RT1. ABSII (Anti Burn System II) reads the thermal diode temperature through the I/O sensor. On my system the CPU Die reading is constantly 52C or less. The RT1 temperature detects the CPU external temperature. On my system, this temperature read 40-42C throughout my testing. This is indispensable to me as a reviewer and for those who overclock.
The other feature that this application provides is fan speeds. Each of 3 possible fans has speed indicators on the Hardware Monitor program and all are monitored as long as the application is running and the fans are attached. The standard retail Athlon fan on the 2200+ XP I'm using in this review keeps a constant 5400-5800 RPM at all times. This is great to make sure the Heat sink/fan is correctly operating.
ABS II stands for Anti-Burn Shield II. It's Soltek's proprietary design to prevent overheating of the CPU which has a protective thermal diode. All of the latest AMD Athlon XP CPUs have this diode to read the temperature of the CPU. The default shutdown temperature of ABS II is 85C/185F. This can, however be modified in the BIOS setup screen. The first time I installed the motherboard, I installed the HSF off-center and ABS II shut down the PC right away. Very much chagrined for making a silly mistake, I reseated the HSF and everything was great.
Realtek's ALC650 chipset is used for the onboard sound. This provides 6-channel AC'97 sound. It's a little unfortunate that Soltek decided not to go with NVIDIA"s full Soundstorm solution for sound like several other nForce2 boards, but that solution is more expensive to implement and since this is a relatively inexpensive model, which is understandable.
Sound on the Soltek motherboard is pretty good. The Realtek chipset fully implements AC'97 V2.2 standards. The driver from Soltek's page installs a simple to use interface called Sound Effect Manager that easily sets up the soundcard and gives the ability to test tones for sound once that setup is complete. The available speaker setups are headphones, 2 channel output for stereo speaker output, 4 channel output for 4.1 speaker output, 5 channel output for 5.1 speaker output.
To test the audio the SEM has a picture of a PC with 5 speakers arranged around the "person" in the middle. Simply click each speaker in turn and either a sound will play out of your speakers or it doesn't work. In my case, after the drivers were installed for the Realtek ALC650, I set the speakers to the 5 channel output for 5.1 speaker output (my speakers are Creative Labs Inspire 5300 5.1 speakers) and tested each channel. Every channel outputted a clear sound signal.
Testing audio is always a subjective experience, the sound was crisp, clear and without artifacts when using the TV tuner or when playing audio. In games, EAX was detected correctly by Serious Sam the Second Encounter's audio detection program. Also detected was DirectSound, which is Microsoft's audio version of DirectX.
Integrated Graphics Processor and Performance
NVIDIA gives motherboard manufacturer the option of using either the Integrated Graphics Processor or the System Platform Processor with the nForce2 line of cards. What's interesting is that the manufacturer has 3 choices: SPP, integrated graphics with Geforce2 MX (same as last year's nForce) or integrated graphics with GEFORCE 4 MX. The SL75-MRN-L comes with an integrated GEFORCE 4 MX.
Early last year, NVIDIA introduced 2 classes of chips for the desktop arena, GEFORCE 4 Titanium and the GEFORCE 4 MX. The Titanium series which includes the Ti4200, 4400 and 4600, supports DirectX 8.1 pixel and vertex shaders up to version 1.3 and 1.1, respectively. The GEFORCE 4 MX supports DirectX 7.0 features including Hardware T+L, 2 bone vertex blending and cube bump mapping but not pixel shaders ala GEFORCE 4 Ti4200 or better.
In addition, the GEFORCE 4 MX supports Intellisample antialiasing, with up to 4XS mode. 4XS mode stands for 4 eXtended Sample multisample antialiasing. Multisample antialiasing takes several samples from a pixel, blends the result and renders the final image. Previous cards used Supersample antialiasing. Supersampling ups the rendered resolution by 2 on the horizontal and 2 on the vertical and downsamples the image to provide the final image.
Further, the GEFORCE 4 supports dual monitors, and there are in fact nForce2 motherboards on the market with dual VGA connectors. However, Soltek only included one VGA connector on this motherboard. Not a big thing, as integrated video with one connector is better than without, but it's necessary to indicate that it's supported by the chipset.
So how does the integrated graphics perform? One of the big features of the nForce2 IGP is the ability to use dual channel DDR memory. For purposes of this test, I've gotten 2 sticks of DDR300 and 2 sticks of DDR400 memory. To show performance differences, I've thrown in a GEFORCE 4 Ti4200, as well as the integrated GEFORCE 4 MX. This is to show the relative performance of the integrated card with 128MB SC (1x128MB), 256 DC (2x128MB), 256 SC (1x256MB), 512MB DC (2x 256). I'll also provide results for the 256MB sticks in both 266MHz memory speed and 333MHz memory speed in Quake3. Why use Quake3, because it is still a good relative benchmark that runs the same on all platforms relatively.
It's quite clear, from the results what the benefits of dual channel and 333MHz DDR are over single channel and 266 MHz when the integrated graphics is used in Quake3. In every case, the benchmarks are in-line with memory bandwidth. Increasing memory bandwidth 25% from 266MHz to 333MHz shows a 19-22% increase in frame rate. Going from single channel DDR to double channel DDR shows a performance difference up to 50% in a lot of situations.
What's less clear is when discrete video cards are used, such as a RADEON 9700 Pro or our standard GEFORCE 4 Ti4200 8x. In those cases, there is a small difference going from single to dual channel, but 333MHz memory clock results in slower performance. This is due to the Athlon 2200+ XP and graphics card not using both channels of memory in dual channel mode at 333MHz, but using it to the fullest in 266MHz mode.