MSI Big Bang Fuzion Motherboard

Madana Prathap 2010-05-22
78 Good
Price: Rs 24,000

Full Review

MSI has quite a few innovative and well-designed products to their credit, and this P55 motherboard is one of them. The claim to fame of the MSI Big Bang Fuzion is its ability to run graphics cards from opposing camps (NVidia and AMD) in parallel using its “Hydra Engine”. Apart from that, it is a nice motherboard targeted at the higher mid-range segment considering all the extras contained within the box. It supports the LGA1156 socket which means all mainstream Intel Core i5/i7 processors.

A USP of the MSI Fuzion, is its so-called “Hydra Engine”. This embedded Lucid Hydra 200 chip is supposed to be able to simultaneously support discreet graphics cards from competing camps (AMD and NVidia).

Design and Features
Despite the full-ATX form factor, and a great layout the board still feels chock-full. This is unlike most full-ATX motherboards that feel large and spacious, but this is not a negative thing. The Big Bang Fuzion just has so much to offer that it could not have been any other way. The board is colored black, with dashes of blue seen on certain heatsinks and slots. The thermals are not a problem at all with heatsinks placed in all the right places, and heatpipes connecting them. The heatsinks bunched around the processor socket may hinder installation of a few high-end after-market coolers though. Components like solid capacitor ferrite core chokes used on the Fuzion are nice for durability (lives longer) and stability (reliability improves with no inexplicable crashes).

As we saw with MSI’s P55-GD80 motherboard earlier, there are a number of LED activity indicators. A small LED is located near the processor, to display the number of power phases currently in use, where 8 is the maximum number. MSI offers a so-called “Easy Button 2” touch panel which is useful for enthusiasts who would like to switch their system on/off without having to short pins on the board. This panel is located at the bottom-right, consisting of three electro-magnetic touch-sensitive buttons – green power, reset, and power on/off. It might sound like fantasy and amazingly different from what you’re used to, but there is no physical button! Additional buttons on the motherboard are the “Clear CMOS” and “OC Genie” for overclockers.

The storage sub-system is well taken care of by 10 SATA ports that support RAID modes, one PATA (also called IDE) port on the board and 2 eSATA ports at the backpanel. Since the Intel P55 chipset does not natively support SATA 6Gbps and there aren’t many hard drives supporting this standard just yet, the absence of next-gen SATA 6Gbps may not be a problem. Four of those SATA ports are provided using two JMicron JMB322 controllers. The 4 dual-channel RAM slots allow for upto 16GB of memory, at speeds of upto 2133 MHz.

The back panel is populated with the following input/output ports – 8 USB, two PS/2, two Gigabit Ethernet (LAN), two eSATA, one FireWire (IEEE1394) port and a connector for plugging in MSI’s “OC Dashboard” (more about this later). Headers are present for adding an additional FireWire port, 4 USB ports, and for powering 4 system fans. A separate PCI-Express x1 card is provided for audio. It is not a dedicated sound card though, it is just an application layer add-on. The motherboard’s integrated Realtek 889 chipset still handles sound, although it is enhanced by Creative with a software layer. The so-called “Quantum Wave” audio card supports THX and EAX audio, offers 6 audio output ports for 7.1 channel HD audio, and two S/PDIF sockets (one analog and one digital). This card will occupy one of the two PCI-E x1 expansion slots. The other PCI-E x1 slot becomes unusable if you use a dual-slot graphics card so you are left only with the two normal PCI slots for any expansion cards.

The layout of the motherboard’s ports is well thought-out. Even if you were to use all three PCI-Express graphics slots, with high-end graphic cards that are wider and longer than the usual ones, atleast one PCI slot still remains usable. All the storage ports remain accessible, and don’t get hidden under the graphics cards. This has been achieved because one PATA port and 6 of the SATA ports are angled to the side.

The package contents of the Fuzion clearly marks out the premium, enthusiast class to which it belongs. There is a lot of documentation to address various special features of the board, including pictorial representations that will help you overclock and setup X-mode Hydra graphics in a jiffy. In addition to a quick guide for the motherboard itself, documentation provided includes a quick installation guide, Fuzion user guide, OC Genie manual, WINKI user guide, Control Center user guide, HDD backup user guide, OC Dashboard user guide, OverClocking guide, Hydra quick guide, and a solitary paper with the Hydra Graphics Card Combination Table. Three discs are bundled – drivers for the Quantum Wave sound card and Lucid Hydra 200 chip, and one as the motherboard chipset’s drivers and utilities. Brackets are provided for installation of additional ports at the back, including one USB bracket (2 ports) and one eSATA bracket (provides two eSATA and one molex power connector). So called “V-check” cables are provided to help test voltage if you have a power meter. A lot of cables are bundled, including 7 SATA cables, 1 PATA cable, and 2 Molex-to-SATA power cables.

The “OC Dashboard” supplied by MSI also performs functions that used to be provided by their D-LED bracket (POST error codes). This “dashboard” is a small device about the size of an external memory card reader, with two buttons and has a single-line display that can be used for various purposes including overclocking and system diagnostics. It connects to the Fuzion’s backpanel using a 14-pin connector cable and is powered by a mini-USB cable bundled with it. With this motherboard you can over-clock (run your computer beyond its rated speed) your processor in three ways – the OC Genie, the buttons on the OC Dashboard, and the old hardcore method of puttering with the “Core Cell” menu within the BIOS. The BIOS is great for tweakers, and the extensive hardware overrides for voltages to various system parts allow for coaxing every last bit of performance out of them.

Those who do not want to run their components beyond the rated spec can just use the defaults, though that would be a shame on such a mobo like the Fuzion. This motherboard is based on the P55 chipset so it will automatically use the TurboBoost feature on supported Core i5/i7 processors. When not all cores are being utilized, TurboBoost will disable half of them on the fly, and the remaining cores will run at a higher speed - when an app wants more cores, TurboBoost will set the processor back to normal.

All tests were run using an Intel Core i7 870 (2.93 GHz quad-core with HT) processor with the stock CPU cooler, Intel X25-M 80GB SSD, 2GB of DDR3 Kingston HyperX RAM, Radeon HD4870X2 graphics card, powered by a Tagan BZ-1300 PSU with Windows 7 Ultimate Edition. The board obtained a WorldBench 6 score of 129. It got 12,361 points in PC Mark Vantage, and 13,993 points in PC Mark 05. In the Multiprocessor rendering part of CineBench R10, it saw 14,264 CB-CPU points. In the game Crysis with settings of 1024x768, Ultra High and no anti-aliasing, it gave 58.2 fps (frames per second).

All the performance numbers seen above are good, and are normal scores in line with what is expected from the given system components of the test rig. Benchmarks for the memory and storage sub-systems returned normal numbers, proving these components of this motherboard are at least as good as other P55-based boards. You can get more information from the “Performance” tab of this review.

We managed to overclock to a stable 4.06 GHz on plain air-cooling, using the stock heatsink and fan of our processor. This was done using an open testbed in an AC room, so heat conditions within a cabinet are likely to be different, just as using a high-end after-market CPU cooler or liquid-cooling would be. While over-clocking, note that power consumption of a processor can shoot up by over 50 per cent beyond its normal TDP rating.

Lucid Hydra
A big USP of the MSI Fuzion, is its so-called “Hydra Engine”. This embedded Lucid Hydra 200 chip is supposed to be able to simultaneously support discreet graphics cards from competing camps (AMD and NVidia). In theory, this would make it easy for you to purchase two or three graphic cards from any vendor you choose and make all of them work together.

Using this controller allows MSI to provide three graphics card slots (PCI-Express), in a segment where two slots is the standard. Not only that, the slots even offer acceptable speed – one PCI-E x16, and two PCI-E x8 slots each, which translates to less of a bottleneck than motherboards from competitors. The 3 PCI-Express slots go through Hydra, so theoretically the Fuzion can scale up to 3 cards whenever the driver software is updated. Made by a company named Lucid, the Hydra software can be enabled/disabled right from your system tray. Its control panel is fairly simple as seen below.

Lucid Hydra Control Panel

Hydra can operate in three modes – N, A, and X. What you will read below is a quick summary.
N Mode: Two GeForce 9000 or G200 series graphics cards.
This was initially what Lucid seems to have been working towards. It scales fairly acceptably. But why MSI did not include official support for full-blown Nvidia SLI in the Fuzion, we do not know.
A Mode: Two Radeon 4000 or 5000 series newer graphics cards.
A little pointless since the P55 already supports CrossFire for AMD cards. We were not satisfied by the scaling. Just putting two cards together with a CrossFireX (CFX) connector was a better option in the end, but that disables Hydra.
X Mode: A supported Radeon and GeForce card together.
This is the holy grail, sadly botched at present. By far the biggest feature that differentiates the MSI Fuzion from others, we shall have to suffice saying it had major issues in our tests – even while using the latest Lucid drivers and the few titles supported by Hydra X-Mode. Let us know (there is a Contact Us link at the bottom of this page) if you’d like to know the sordid details, which would run into many pages.

The fact that you have to rely on Lucid to update their driver to support the latest applications or games, is a downer for gaming enthusiasts. A lot of people want to play, and finish playing, a new game within a week or two of its release. If the driver needs time and is ready after that period, it is as good as pointless. This happens to be a problem faced by SLI/CFX gamers too, who need a game profile created by the vendor or a third-party. Multi-GPU support is complex, but Nvidia/AMD mitigate this to an extent, by the frequency of beta driver releases to support newly released games. Lucid on the other hand takes more time sometimes, possibly because of the sheer variety of environments they will have to cater to. Another hobbling factor, is that pairing a less powerful card with a better one, drags down the overall performance.

MSI Fuzion Hydra error

The error dialog box above, is seen with too many combinations of graphics cards for comfort.

And then there are some concerns that owners of a high-end rig such as the Fuzion, would have. You can use X-mode only in Windows 7. In Lucid Hydra X-Mode you cannot use PhysX or Nvidia Anti-Aliasing modes. In X-Mode you cannot access the proprietary control panel of the primary graphics card. Hydra does not support multi-GPU for DirectX 11 currently. Hydra does not support dual-GPU single-cards (such as the Radeon 4870X2, Radeon 5970 or GeForce GTX295). There is negligible CPU overhead. You can run Hydra only with supported AMD Catalyst or Nvidia ForceWare driver versions. The howlers that are actually technically sound but verge on the point of being ridiculous are the following instructions, quoted from MSI’s website for the Big Bang Fuzion motherboard:
* For HYDRA driver ver 1.3.105 we recommend you install NVIDIA graphic card to the first PCI-E X16 slot while running X mode.
* For HYDRA driver ver 1.5.106 we recommend you install ATI graphic card to the first PCI-E X16 slot while running X mode.

Bottom Line

Lucid Hydra is an exciting technology to play around with, hopefully future updates make it more useful. On the whole, the MSI Big Bang Fuzion is a well-featured motherboard for PC hardware enthusiasts. It is priced for a niche, and the inclusion of SLI support, USB 3.0 ports, and SATA 6Gbps ports would have been nice.

Update: Price has been updated.

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