With the recent introduction of USB3 and SATA3 and the way that they have found their way onto pretty much all new motherboards released, we thought we'd be waiting until the next round of hardware (X59 or whatever) before we saw anything change. Certainly any major leaps forward rather than an extra LAN port or similar.
However MSI have introduced a theoretically fantastic piece of hardware that will allow you to use both an ATI and a nVidia card on the same system. The Lucid Hydra chip which means that this P55a motherboard gets the "Fuzion" subtitle. If you'll recall the Lucid chip was first used on the MSI Big Bang P55 motherboard, but like all first versions of such radical hardware it was beset with problems. So this vastly updated version is likely to make or break the Lucid HYDRA concept. But we'll be looking closer at Fuzion in a couple of pages.
So for now, we know this is a P55 motherboard with all the stuff you'd expect, but one enormous trick up its silicon sleeve. Of course as this comes complete with the OC Genie that we awarded our Innovation award to when we tested the P55 GD85 then it isn't just a bog standard P55. So let's see what we have.
As you can see from the specifications, the real talking point of the MSI P55a Fuzion is the inclusion of the Lucid LT22102 chip. We can barely contain ourselves in anticipation of putting it on the bench rig and getting down and dirty.
|CPU (Max Support)||G6950/i3/i5/i7|
|FSB / Hyper Transport Bus||6.4GT/s|
|Chipset||Intel® P55+Lucid® LT22102|
|DDR3 Memory||DDR3 1066/1333/1600*/2000*/2133*(OC)|
|Max Memory (GB)||16|
|PCI-E Gen||Gen2 (1x16, 1x16)|
|USB 3.0 ports (Rear)||1|
|USB 2.0 ports (Rear)||6|
|Audio ports (Rear)||6+Coaxial SPDIF/Optical SPDIF|
|1394 ports (Rear)||1|
A Close Look
If the key to a products packaging is to make it distinctive and eye-catching, the Fuzion has it absolutely nailed. Big product name, the major key feature in a little information panel, and a nice subtle logo that neatly shows the merger between teams red and green (ATI and nVidia) in a cross. One could almost say a fusion of the two technologies.
The rear of the box still rightly gives most of its attention to the Fuzion side of things, leaving the bottom half to cover the power phases, military class chokes etc.
Opening up the box we find quite a small supply of accessories. The fairly standard SATA cables and IO Shield, along with the motherboard manual, and a separate manual for the Lucid chip.
Taking look at the board itself we see that MSI have stuck to the gorgeous black and blue look, with gun-metal .. umm.. metal. It really does look fabulous in the flesh and is such a change from the standard red and black it's just nice to see something different.
There are two main PCI-e x16 slots a good distance apart, which should make sure that even a huge tri-slot cooler like the Toxic we recently reviewed will happily fit without fouling against the second card. Besides those two we have a couple of PCI-e x1 slots and a couple of legacy PCI ones. Below there are the usual headers we'd expect to see, and the power/reset switches. These are very strange as normally there are either actual buttons (similar to the OC Genie one just to the right) or the motherboard has the power and reset symbols printed on. These are totally blank, but still work just as you'd expect.
On the bottom right hand corner are three USB headers, front panel connections etc. The front panel follows the seemingly standard MSI plan of being neither colour-coded nor labelled. I don't know how many of us have the manual to hand when swapping motherboards around, but the addition of some method of 'at a glance' identification would go a long way.
On backplate we have the fairly standard headers for keyboard and mouse, SPDIF, USB3.0, LAN. It's nice to see a CMOS clear between the PS2 and SPDIF. Just another little touch for those times when you've built the rig into your case but still need to clear the CMOS without wanting to pull your rig apart.
Finally on the right we have the OC Genie chip that does all the magic when you press the button on the board for the auto-overclock.
Lucid and Fuzion
All manufacturers of anything are looking for a Unique Selling Point. That thing their product does that nobody elses does. MSI have got probably the biggest one around. The only thing we can think of that would be more impressive is if a company produced a motherboard that could handle every socket type. But enough pre-amble.
The MSI P55a Fuzion has a Lucid chip on board. This has one major benefit. Until now if you owned an nVidia card you would have to purchase another nVidia card and run in SLI. Similarly if you currently owned an ATI card, then Crossfire was your only choice.
This is made especially irritating because of nVidias bizarre practise of not allowing PhysX to work when an ATI card is in the system, accidentally released beta drivers notwithstanding. So if you owned an 8800, and then upgraded to a 4 or 5 series ATI, your previous card was all-but useless.
The Lucid chip has two major benefits. Let's say you like to keep up with the very latest hardware and so you brought a 5870 when it was released. Then nVidia finally released the GTX480 and so you brought one of those. Instead of just having one card in your system, thanks to the Lucid chip and HYDRA engine, you can use both of them together in a Hybrid-X configuration. The secondary benefit is if you're like the above example you can use your old nVidia card together with your new ATI card and get PhysX on your ATI.
Installation is mind-blowingly simple. Insert both cards, install both drivers, install the HYDRA software and reboot. Upon reboot you gain a little utility with a small-footprint in your system tray. As you can see from the second screenshot not every game you can think of takes advantage of the Lucid chip. In fact of our standard benchmarking suite only Crysis and 3D Mark Vantage are compatible. However many other very popular games are, with more being added all the time.
Yes indeed this really is an ATI HD5870 next to a GeForce GTX480 in the same system. And yes, as you can see from the FluidMark screenshot on the right, both cards are detected and utilised.
Of course this isn't just about the Lucid chip, so let's pull ourselves back to see how the MSI P55a Fuzion performs as a motherboard, before returning to see if the HYDRA has any benefits.
As with all overclocking of LGA1156 the first thing is to get the highest possible stable BCLK. With a little tweak to the voltage we managed to obtain a very satisfactory 218MHz. Then it was just a case of trying to obtain stability whilst still having a CPU multiplier than would enable good clock speeds.
On the left we have the overclock that the MSI produced when the OC Genie button was enabled. Very nearly 4GHz. It's curious to see that it used a high BCLK to obtain this rather than going all out with the multiplier, but regardless 4GHz for just pressing a button is highly impressive.
Turning the OC Genie off and going back to the manual BIOS method of overclocking we saw an absolutely stunning 4.33GHz. As with nearly all overclocks as you start to get higher on the multiplier the quickly has to be reduced sharply to retain stability. Nonetheless with 1.37v on the CPU Core (not shown in CPU-Z as it hasn't been updated for this motherboard yet) we had a massive overclock that was stable enough to be used all the time.
The MSI comes complete with the AMI BIOS and has all the useful features and information we've come to expect from the American Megatrends effort.
One small bug exists which is something we've not come across before. If you try and enter the CPU Technology screen, as shown on the left, the BIOS crashes. Thankfully this screen is pretty much a duplicate of information available elsewhere and the BIOS is otherwise bulletproof.
Besides that little foible everything is exactly where you'd expect it to be and as easy to use as we've come to expect. One of the features we love most is the auto-reboot after 3 attempts at a failed overclock. One of those additions to modern BIOS' that would have saved us months of our lives if it was available a few years ago.
Our test setup today is the setup we use to test all of our LGA1156 setups. The major difference is using a GTX480 as the graphics card, which wont affect 90% of the tests, and using both a 480 and a 5870 for our 3D tests which we will come to in a minute.
CPU : Intel i7 870 @ 2.93GHz stock and 4GHz overclocked.
GPU : ASUS GTX480
RAM : G.Skill Trident 2000MHz CL9 4GB
PSU : Cougar 1000CM
HDD : Samsung Spinpoint 1TB
Motherboard : MSI P55a Fuzion
OS : Windows 7 64
Cooling : Thermalright MUX-120 with Arctic Cooling MX-3
As this is very similar to the great MSI P55 GD85 we tested recently we will be putting the two up against each other to see if the "a" variant has any benefits and if the Lucid chip brings any performance overheads. Both systems use identical hardware clocked to identical speeds.
Straight out of the gate we have a turn up for the books with the Fuzion romping into a handy lead over its GD85 brethren. The CPU Queen result in particular is breathtaking as the stock Fuzion bested the overclocked GD85. That result aside though it's clear that the Fuzion definitely has some optimisations under the hood.
The memory tests are much closer with all the results within testings variances apart from the copy test in which the GD85 has a slender lead. This could be just due to the extra drivers needed to run the Lucid chip on the Fuzion system taking up a little more behind the scenes.
Maxons CineBench R11.5 gives us a exceptionally linear result. At stock both systems are identical with the Fuzion taking a handy lead when overclocked in both OpenGL and CPU testing.
Further confirming the results we obtained on the previous page, SiSoft's Sandra has the stock systems neck and neck but once again the P55a Fuzion has clearly been honed over the original P55 and produced much better results in an overclocked state.
wPrime should be very interesting as it's something that benefits from both clockspeed, which the Fuzion has the edge on, and memory speed, which Everest gave the nod to the GD85. Whatever changes have been made to the circuitry on the P55a definitely bring benefits across the board (heh) as it is faster than the GD85 in both the 32M and 1024M tests. Impressive.
PC Mark Vantage
Before we move on to the 3D testing, PC Mark gives us a slightly different result to our other tests. This time the overclocked Fuzion holds pace with the GD85, but at stock the P55a Fuzion has a noticable lead over the stock P55 GD85.
For our 3D benchmarks we'll leave the GD85 at home and concentrate on the Fuzion. We will be running with a single GTX480 at stock and overclocked speeds, and also testing the Lucid chip out by combining the Asus GTX480 with a XFX 5870 XXX to see if the chip really can do all that is claimed.
Wow. I think it's fair to say the Lucid HYDRA on the MSI P55a Fuzion really does exactly what it claims. We'd expect to see larger overheads from the Hybrid setup than we'd see from a pure CrossfireX or SLI arrangement, mainly due to the need to get two different drivers to talk to each other and every CPU instruction being passed through the Lucid chip first. Even allowing for that it's clear that the benefits are enormous. The maximum frame-rate nearly goes off the chart and the average frame-rate is almost double that of the single card.
Pushing the cards harder by implementing 8xAA actually exaggerates the difference the extra card makes. The stock and overclocked GTX480 start to close up at the GPU becomes the limiting factor at these extreme settings, but with the 5870 in place too we see nearly double the average frame-rate.
3D Mark Vantage
Vantage is very sensitive to any changes because it's such a worldwide standard benchmark and so needs to demonstrate a result of even the smallest adjustment to available performance. Still when we compare the results of our twin setup to the results we obtained in our recent Gigabyte UD9 test it's clear how powerful this P55a Fuzion is. A single GTX480 is 3, THREE, points behind the score we obtained on the UD9, and using the 5870 in Hybrid mode we're only 2000 points behind the score from a pure GTX480 SLI setup.
Moving to High settings the single 480 is 26 points behind the X58 based UD9 and again we see a drop of 2000 points when we have two cards. Regardless of how it compares to the much more expensive board, we can see how brilliant this Fuzion is. 22000 points in a 3D Mark Vantage High is great in anyones book.
Finally we wanted to test one of the HYDRA compatible games we have, and what would be better than Crysis? We really wanted to push the system hard and so we ramped everything up to Enthusiast and included 8 times Anti-Aliasing. An image quality that would have had even the greatest systems playing a slide-show last year.
Understandably the Hybrid twin card setup doesn't give quite the performance boost we saw above, but this is less about the difference between the single and twin card, and more that a) it works and b) we get an average of 45FPS even at this insane settings.
Let's cut straight to the chase. This MSI P55a Fuzion is hugely impressive.
When the Big Bang P55 was released the Lucid technology seemed so fantastical that very few of us expected it to work at all. Unfortunately it barely did. Driver issues and a swathe of issues meant that although it clearly had some potential there were more wrinkles to be ironed out than a shirt at the bottom of your suitcase.
Those wrinkles have most definitely been ironed out and whilst it's true to say that it wont be compatible with every game in your collection, that is true of many complicated technologies. If you were with us a couple of weeks ago you'll have seen how nVidias 3D Vision certainly didn't work with all titles. The Lucid chip works with most of the major current titles and driver updates are being released all the time that improve compatibility.
Of course if you're one of these people who are so fiercely loyal to a certain brand that the thought of having the other one sullying your motherboard is abhorrent you'll still have a standard motherboard that supports SLI or CrossfireX. So it has to deliver on all the other standard elements too.
Deliver it most certainly does. The a suffix to the model name indicates a revision of the standard P55 motherboard that we saw with the GD85, and in comparison to that this Fuzion not only overclocks higher, easier, but also has greater performance even at stock.
It looks great in its deep blue and black colour scheme. It has all the latest USB3.0 and SATA3 goodies. The OC Genie performs very well. Even without the Lucid chip this would be an easy recommendation. With it, it's almost a no brainer. Finally the possiblity of running whatever graphics card you like is upon us, with the bugs ironed out and a good compatibility list.
Pricing is currently unavailable but rumours are this will ship around the £230-250 bracket. Not the cheapest P55 by any stretch but with such a comprehensive feature set and amazing overclocking ability it still should be on anyones short list.
We're delighted to be able to award it our OC3D Gold award for being one of the finest P55 motherboards on the market. Also although it isn't the first appearance of the Lucid chip, it's the first time it's been genuinely jaw-dropping and for that reason we also award the MSI P55a Fuzion our Innovation award.
Many thanks to MSI for sending us the P55a Fuzion for review. Discuss in our forums.