Articles: Mainboards

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You may already know about flagship Socket AM3 mainboards based on the latest AMD chipset (including AMD 890FX North and SB850 South Bridges) from our recent article. We liked both mainboards, ASUS Crosshair IV Formula and Gigabyte GA-890FXA-UD7, because each has very rich functionality and a numerous features. However, both are enthusiast-targeted products and therefore they are pretty expensive, so in many cases, it may be not a reasonable purchase after all. One of the key advantages of AMD processors is their rather low prices, so purchasing an expensive mainboard may negate this advantage if you consider the total cost of the computer. Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a top-end mainboard to enjoy the advantages of AMD 890FX chipset. Today we will take a look at a few mainboards that are functional enough but come at affordable prices and thus target a wider user audience.

These are ASRock 890FX Deluxe3, ASUS M4A89TD Pro and ASUS M4A89TD Pro/USB3, Biostar TA890FXE, Gigabyte GA-890FXA-UD5 and MSI 890FXA-GD70. We want to see what these mainboards can do and which of them are better than others. We will compare their specs, BIOS options, overclockability, performance, and power consumption.

Testing Participants

ASRock 890FX Deluxe3

The first impression from ASRock 890FX Deluxe3 was highly positive due to active cooling system on the North Bridge and the CPU voltage regulator. The two heatsinks connected with a heat pipe get help from a small 40x40x10 mm fan. Once we used to be glad that heat pipes could let us get rid of such small and annoyingly buzzing fans, but heatsinks on 890FX-based mainboards get so hot that active cooling is most welcome here.

The fan is rotating at 5200 RPM and, despite such a high speed, is quiet. You can limit its speed to a lower level using the corresponding BIOS options. Of course, a small fan like that cannot cool an overclocked mainboard efficiently however high its speed may be. Therefore, like with the other mainboards in this roundup, we additionally used an 80mm fan to blow at the heatsinks during our test session. On the other hand, a small single fan is quite sufficient for cooling the mainboard in its nominal operation mode.

The two blue PCI Express x16 slots work in full-speed x16 mode whereas the third one in x4 mode. The South Bridge supports six SATA 6 Gbps ports. One of them turns off if you use the back-panel eSATA. Yes, the mainboard’s eSATA supports a data-transfer rate of 6 Gbps. The Biostar mainboard we are going to discuss below has the same capability. ASRock 890FX Deluxe3 features a POST code indicator and glowing Power, Reset and Clear CMOS buttons. It offers floppy drive and COM connectors.

As for additional controllers, there are two SATA 6 Gbps ports provided by a Marvell SE9123 chip but these ports are located somewhat oddly and inconveniently in a bottom left corner of the PCB. A combined VIA VT6330 controller supports two IEEE 1394 ports (one is at the back panel and another is an onboard pin-connector) and two PATA devices. Like on most modern mainboards, USB 3.0 is implemented via NEC D720200F1 controller. However, it is for the first time that we see two such controllers at the same time, offering four USB 3.0 ports on the back panel. Thus, it has a total of 12 USB ports: four USB 3.0 and four USB 2.0 ones on the back panel and another four USB 2.0 ports available in the form of two onboard pin-connectors.

In the mainboard BIOS we can note an original reflashing system called Instant Flash. The attached storage devices are scanned automatically and you only have to pick the necessary firmware version out of the found ones. This is simple and handy and there is no need for a file manager. The utility cannot save the current firmware but other mainboards, e.g. the one from Biostar, have the same downside.

There is no BIOS option to increase the CPU frequency multiplier for the Turbo technology. Instead, the mainboard offers the opportunity to select individual multipliers for each of the CPU cores which is not available with the rest of the tested products. You can save up to three profiles with full BIOS settings. The mainboard offers an automatic CPU overclocking option which can accelerate your CPU by as much as 50% above the default frequency (if the CPU is capable of that), but these operational modes are hardly suitable for long-term use because in this case all processor power-saving technologies are disabled. We were also pleased at first when we found an option called Dync OC. It overclocks the CPU dynamically by up to 20%. MSI was the inventor of this technique: the CPU normally works at its default frequency and only speeds up under high loads when necessary. However, ASRock’s dynamic overclocking seems to be completely different. The Dync OC option simply overclocks the CPU: its frequency is always increased under any load. The only difference from the automatic CPU overclocking is that the CPU and North Bridge voltages are not increased at the same time. We couldn’t detect any changes when we switched from the Auto mode into Optimized or when we loaded Power Saving Setup Default mode.

The Turbo UCC feature can overclock the system a little while keeping all the power-saving technologies intact. You should press the “X” button on your keyboard when starting up your system to enable it. The mainboard will then reboot, overclocking the CPU automatically. In our test, the base clock rate was increased from 200 to 215 MHz. The manufacturer claims the mainboard can unlock disabled CPU cores, but our six-core AMD Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition has none, so we couldn’t check this out. By the way, every other mainboard in this review can unlock disabled CPU cores, too.

We encountered some problems during CPU overclocking on this mainboard as we could not reach the maximum possible result. We were not successful even when we tried to overclock by increasing the CPU frequency multiplier. After some experiments, we found out that ASRock mainboard needed higher CPU voltage than the other boards, yet it would shut down after some tests at a voltage of 1.5 V. Therefore, we had to limit the CPU voltage to 1.475 V and overclocked the CPU to 3.9 GHz (rather than to 4.1 GHz as on most other mainboards).

So, our impression of the ASRock mainboard remained good only until we began to use it seriously. It comes first on our list according to alphabetic order but we tested it last because our tests were interrupted by various problems. Unfortunately, it has become a common situation with ASRock products recently: when we take an ASRock mainboard for our tests, we often face problems and leave it aside, hoping that those problems will be solved by upcoming BIOS updates. And when an update is released (which is not always the case), we see that nothing has changed substantially and take the mainboard off our testbed again. If we are lucky and can get our hands on another sample of the same mainboard model, we always check whether the problems are typical of the specific unit, but so far this has never been the case, either. Eventually, we have to test it even though the mainboard’s performance may be far from acceptable. From our recent experience it seems that ASRock releases quickly made and unfinished products. Moreover, the company doesn’t try to polish them off later, releasing new unfinished products instead. There are a lot of pretty marketing terms and attractive sounding innovative technologies, but the end-result is often quite disappointing.

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