While the MSI P965 Neo is based on Intel's new Broadwater platform, its use of the standard 'lite' chipset formula - P965 MCH paired with the basic, suffix-less ICH8 - creates a slim motherboard without any real standout features besides the official support of DDR2-800 memory and more USB 2.0 slots. The P965 Neo is a standard PCI Express motherboard sporting one PCIe x16 interface with a decent mix of two PCIe x1 and three PCI slots for expansion capabilities. However, storage functionality and performance turns out to be rather limited as the ICH8 Southbridge has no support for AHCI, NCQ or RAID, even though it supports fast SATA 3.0Gbps transfer rates.
The good thing about the board is that MSI tries to make up for its core deficiencies. The P965 Neo comes with a secondary JMicron SATA/IDE controller (JMB361) that provides the board with an extra SATA and IDE channel each. The JMB361 is also compliant with AHCI standards and supports NCQ. Because the ICH8 has no advanced performance features and coupled with the fact that Intel chose to remove IDE support altogether, it is not surprising to find that MSI favors the JMicron controller as primary storage. Of course, if you do intend to use the JMB361 with your main OS HDD, remember to get ready an AHCI driver disk for Windows installation.
The rest of the board's features are pretty decent as well. Audio is controlled by a Realtek ALC883 8-channel HD Audio CODEC with full analog ports, but missing S/PDIF. In order to lower costs further, the P965 Neo uses a dedicated single-chip Gigabit network controller instead of relying on the onboard Gigabit MAC. Although still technically a Gigabit controller, the Realtek RTL8110SC is a PCI device and not PCIe, thus network throughput might be throttled if you've heavy LAN loads. FireWire, not surprisingly, is a feature that is not included on the board.
Unlike some of the entry-level motherboards we've reviewed recently, the MSI P965 Neo is designed around a full ATX PCB. Now that's a healthy dose of PCB real estate to play with and MSI chose to have some fun with component placement. As a result, we have a board with a clean layout, but not exactly free from problems. We love how much room the DIMM and expansion slots enjoy, but our chief complaint is with the middle of the board. Both main and auxiliary ATX power connectors are located towards the back in the middle, close to the MCH heatsink, which in itself is a problem. After installation, we find that the combination makes it a little hard to access the CPU cooler retention clips in that corner.
The P965 Neo has a severely limited BIOS with almost no overclocking features at all. Simple memory timing, voltage and core frequencies are just about all you can tweak and the absence of voltage controls for both CPU and chipset will tell you just where the board stands. Of course, we decided to go ahead and overclock it anyway, this being a review and all. Surprise, surprise! Coupled with our unlocked Core 2 Extreme X6800 processors, the P965 Neo was actually able to reach its maximum FSB limit in the BIOS - an impressive 333MHz without requiring any voltage boosts. This is actually quite an impressive score as Intel's quad-pumped bus will give you a final 1333MHz PSB. This makes the P965 Neo a higher overclocker than most LGA775 motherboards with an Intel chipset prior to the P965 and puts it in a similar league as the Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6. Too bad the board is intentionally limited by its BIOS.