The board itself is simple and cleanly laid out. Everything appears to be very regular if you take a quick look at it. You can't really go wrong with a black PCB and it's definitely a good looker, in our eyes, even despite the lack of overall theme. The components are easily differentiated by their separate colours, but it's not garish and in your face like some other motherboards. Again, it’s simple: IDE is yellow, SATA is blue, Firewire is green, memory channel A is lime green, channel B is orange and the PCI/PCI-Express slots are all white. It’s simple and it works well.
Despite the fact this is a budget board, MSI still include heatsinks on the power regulation components to increase stability and promote better overclocking. After all, it’s still a CrossFire board designed for gamers and enthusiasts. The northbridge and southbridge are also passively cooled, and they don’t require bigger heatsinks than they already have. Unlike ATI's RD600 northbridge and many of NVIDIA's chipsets, the 580X and SB600 run very cool.
Again, MSI does its own thing and colour memory slots according to memory channel, rather than where a pair of DIMMs need to be plugged into. Usually, most motherboards colour memory slots alternately so as people know to plug in two modules into the same colour, but on this MSI board you have to plug one DIMM into orange and the other into green to enable dual channel. We still think this is more confusing than the commonly accepted method used elsewhere: people don’t need to know about channels, they just need to be guided where to plug things in, and the common consensus is “fill by colour”.
Only four SATA 3Gbps ports come with the SB600 southbridge. I say “only”, but four is more than enough for many people considering you can buy a few Terabytes of space with just this many connections. The SB600 southbridge still supports RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 as well as JBOD but no RAID 5. Not that we’d ever recommend RAID 5 without using a separate add-in controller anyway.
The front panel pin-out is colour coordinated to aid ease of use, but it's coloured very similarly to the USB 2.0 pins right next to it which can cause some confusion. The six extra USB 2.0 ports are placed along the bottom of the board and are also colour coordinated so that you can work out which way around the plug goes if you have front USB ports on your case. The Firewire pins are just in a green shroud and aren’t colour coordinated in the same way, but it’s assumed you will use the provided keyed PCI backplate if you want an extra Firewire socket.
The CPU socket is quite close to the memory slots and the heatsinks on both the northbridge and PWMs are in close proximity too, but they shouldn't pose a problem if you're looking to install one of the larger heatsinks available. If that's the case though, things might get a little fiddly and tight.
There are two PCI slots on the board, but one of them is lost if you install a pair of dual-slot Radeons for CrossFire. You won't lose the PCI slots if you're using single slot cards like the Radeon X1650-series or Radeon X1950 Pro. There is nothing in the line of either PCI-Express graphics slot to get in the way if you're using long graphics cards, and the memory slots are far enough above the upper x16 slot so that memory can be removed without removing the graphics card. The two PCI-Express x1 slots are probably not needed by most of us, but they serve as a decent gap between the two graphics slots, allowing optimal airflow.
MSI has cheated a little bit, because it has included both PCI and PCI-Express Gigabit Ethernet controllers, instead of two PCI-Express based controllers that would offer better performance, however PCI is cheaper. With that said though, most gamers are only going to use the one PCI-Express Gigabit Ethernet controller, so it's probably more of a shrewd cost cutting exercise more than anything else.
It's possible to disable either or both in the BIOS if you wish, saving system resources if you aren’t going to use one/both of them. The 580X CrossFire chipset supports teaming like NVIDIA's SLI chipsets, but having two different chipsets won't give you particularly good performance, especially with one of them being a PCI-based controller.
The Realtek ALC883 High-Definition audio codec is about as basic as it gets - there are no Dolby features like Dolby Live or Dolby Headphone. If you’re a gamer (which we'd expect if you’re considering a CrossFire mobo), we would recommend investing in a PCI soundcard. It’s not that the ALC883 offers poor quality audio by any stretch of the imagination (it'll do the job just fine in most cases), but it has quite a poor typical signal to noise ratio.
Finally, MSI has included its patented CoreCell technology to aid with overclocking and system tweaking, which is a very welcome inclusion. Although, with it being soldered to the motherboard, it does mean you can't swap out the BIOS chip if you fail with a BIOS flash, and MSI doesn't include any sort of redundancy if such a thing happened, either.