Articles: Mainboards

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Operational and Overclocking Specifics

As expected, we had no problems assembling our testbed configuration around the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 mainboard. Unlike ASUS products, it shows a list of active hotkeys on its startup screen.

You can enter its BIOS by pressing F2 or Del. The F6 key launches the integrated Instant Flash tool to update firmware. F11 can be pressed to show a list of devices to boot from and the Tab key removes the startup picture itself so that you could check out basic system information including CPU clock rate and memory amount. You will also learn about some other hotkeys if you press Tab.

We’ll see more examples of such great attention to users later in this review, but at this time we would like to dwell on the X-Boost icon that you can see in the top right corner of the startup screen. You can launch this feature by pressing the “X” key during the startup process. ASRock claims this new technology ensures a 15% and higher performance boost but only for specific CPU models and in specific applications. The point is that the CPU frequency multiplier is always increased to its maximum (as defined by Turbo Core technology), which is x42 with our CPU. The BIOS of the Gigabyte GA-F2A85X-UP4 mainboard has an option called Turbo CPB which serves the same purpose but there is one significant difference between the two.

The AMD A10-5800K processor has a base clock rate of 3.8 GHz but you won’t often see it working at that frequency. At low loads the Turbo Core technology will bump up its clock frequency multiplier to x42 and at high loads the clock rate will be adjusted dynamically, mostly around 4 GHz. The problem is that at very high loads the CPU may slow down to below its nominal clock rate. So, it doesn’t really matter that the Gigabyte mainboard’s Turbo CPB option can increase the CPU frequency to 4.2 GHz or that the ASUS F2A85-V PRO can increase it to 4.3 GHz using the OC Tuner feature because the effect will only be noticeable in relatively light-weight applications. ASRock’s X-Boost technology, on the contrary, can solve the main downside of AMD Turbo Core so that the CPU frequency multiplier is always at its maximum irrespective of CPU load. Great job, ASRock!

There is one option in the BIOS of the ASUS and Gigabyte mainboards that enables/disables AMD Turbo Core whereas the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 has two. Besides the AMD Turbo Core Technology option, it offers AMD Application Power Management which purpose is explained in detail as follows:

The CPU frequency multiplier won’t drop at high loads not only when the ASRock X-Boost feature is enabled but also when you manually change the CPU clock rate or use predefined overclock profiles (EZ OC Mode). However, you can re-enable AMD Application Power Management at any time, checking it out via the Current APM Status parameter. ASRock should be given credit for eliminating a downside on the CPU side but unfortunately, Cool’n’Quiet technology is turned off when you overclock the CPU on the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6.

When the CPU is idle, its frequency multiplier is still lowered to x14 but its voltage doesn’t drop. We’ve known for a while that MSI mainboards for Intel CPUs are unable to overclock without disabling power-saving technologies. Recently, we’ve found EVGA mainboards to behave in the same way. But we couldn’t have expected ASRock’s mainboards for AMD Socket FM2 CPUs will join list. That’s a real pity.

Wrapping up our description of the ASRock X-Boost technology, we can tell you that it is easy to turn off. You just have to press the “D” key while starting your system up – you'll see a prompt on the startup picture.

We’ve noted in our reviews that modern mainboards start up so fast that you have to react very quickly to press the key to access their BIOS. That's why some manufacturers startd to implement special buttons to automatically evoke the BIOS interface. Or you can enable a startup delay in BIOS options. For example, Setup Prompt Timeout in the BIOS of the FM2A85X Extreme6 can be used to specify a pause before the mainboard proceeds to booting the OS. ASRock provides no dedicated button for launching the BIOS but it does offer the Restart to UEFI utility. Hardware solutions are usually viewed as preferable to software ones, but not in this case. It is easy to press an actual button on the PCB when the mainboard is easily accessible. But when it's inside a closed computer case, you won't find this easy. The software utility, on the contrary, is always accessible. It is small and simple, its window only having two switches and one button. One switch allows you to automatically launch the BIOS interface on the next system startup or reboot. The same switch can be used to undo your decision. The other switch reboots the computer immediately while the button applies your choice.

We had to use the Restart to UEFI utility quite often during our tests of the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 mainboard. It is exceptionally convenient and we really wish it could support other makers' mainboards. We hope other manufacturers will offer utilities like that too irrespective of whether their solutions have a hardware BIOS button or not. These two ways of accessing the mainboard’s BIOS will complement each other perfectly.

Going on with our discussion of the mainboard’s configuration and overclocking capabilities, we can say that it is impeccable in terms of tweaking the clock rate of the CPU-integrated graphics core. Like the ASUS F2A85-V PRO, the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 offers actual clock rate values. The process is different on the Gigabyte GA-F2A85X-UP4 which BIOS allows choosing any value with 1 MHz increment but the clock generator sets the clock rate with a variable increment, so you have to look for working values by a trial-and-error method. We have already discussed the CPU overclocking above. It’s fantastic that the CPU frequency multiplier doesn’t drop at high loads even when you use the automatic overclocking feature, but it’s a real pity that you can’t avoid losing Cool’n’Quiet technology.

Memory subsystem settings leave an ambiguous impression, too. MSI mainboards seem to be the first to display memory modules’ SPD information right in the BIOS interface but now other makers’ mainboards offer the same capability. Well, it is not really important who the first one was to come out with this feature, because the implementations do not differ much: memory timings are adjusted in one BIOS section while the recommended values are shown in a different section. The ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6, on the contrary, shows the SPD information in the same section where you actually change your memory timings. So, depending on the selected memory frequency, you can easily choose correct timings, referencing the memory maker’s recommendations. It seems to be the only normal and more logical implementation, so it is really strange that no one has thought about this obvious approach before.

However, there is one downside pertaining to the memory settings adjustment process, and it may in fact be more significant than it seems at first sight. Every mainboard can set up memory timings automatically just because it has to start up successfully for the first time. Differences arise only when you need to adjust those timings. The easiest way is when Auto is selected by default for each parameter. In this case you can change only some of the timings, leaving the others at their defaults. Unfortunately, in some mainboards every single timing has to be set up manually if you elect to adjust at least one of them manually. As opposed to most mainboards, including ASRock’s own mainboards for Intel CPUs, the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 makes you set up each timing manually because they lack the Auto value. The mainboard can configure them automatically but only after an additional reboot. Let me explain with a few examples. First, we open the DRAM Timing Control page. We can see parameter names on the left. Then there is a column with their current values. On the right you set up values to be applied after a restart.

So, we change the memory frequency from the original 1333 MHz to 1867 MHz. It doesn't matter if we do this manually or by loading an XMP profile. In the latter case we leave the timings at their defaults but need to change Command Rate from 2T to 1T. We enter the DRAM Timing Control subsection but still see the timings for the memory frequency of 1333 MHz. If we choose 1T for Command Rate right now, the mainboard won't be able start up or boot the OS since the timings are not suitable for 1867 MHz. So, we have to restart the mainboard, enter the BIOS again, go to the DRAM Timing Control page to see correct timings, and only then we can change something.

An extra reboot just to see correct timings could be quite an inconvenience. Hopefully, it’s just a flaw to be corrected rather than a deliberate solution.

Now let’s talk about the mainboard’s capabilities in terms of fan regulation. Mainboards from ASRock and Gigabyte have retained the capability to adjust the rotation speed of CPU fans with 3-pin connection. Products from other brands have long lost this feature, so we always point it out in our reviews. And we used to criticize ASRock mainboards for their slow reaction to variations in CPU temperature. It is a firmware flaw because the fan speed is still adjusted, as we saw in our tests of the ASRock Z77 OC Formula mainboard. The latter comes with a bundled Formula Drive utility for fan calibration. After calibration, the correlation between fan speed and temperature is almost perfect. The speed is low when the system is idle, making the computer noiseless, but the fan quickly reacts to increased CPU load. However, ASRock offers another tool for its mainstream mainboards (it is called ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility), which lacks calibration, so you have to put up with a long delay between any changes in CPU load and temperature and the mainboard’s reaction to these changes.  

We didn’t focus on this area of concern because it may even be viewed as an advantage in some situations. The quick reaction of other mainboards to changes in CPU load may lead to sudden changes in the noise level, which may be uncomfortable. ASRock mainboards, on the contrary, make the change slow and gradual, so this kind of regulation is even preferable unless the CPU load is extremely high. We even used the automatic regulation during our overclocking experiments, after raising the minimum fan speed limit in the BIOS. However, ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 cannot adjust the rotation speed of its fans automatically at all. As opposed to the ASUS mainboard, it allows reducing the speed of a 3-pin fan but the speed is going to be constant irrespective of CPU load and temperature.

This was quite acceptable for the system working at its nominal settings as we used a high-performance Noctua NH-D14 cooler. But we had to manually increase the speed of the cooler fans to the maximum during overclocking because the mainboard couldn't do that automatically. We didn’t worry much about the CPU because we couldn’t know its temperature accurately. AMD has never implemented and calibrated the temperature sensors in their Socket FM2 processors. But we were alarmed by the high temperature of the heatsink mounted over the voltage regulator components. It was over 60°C under heavy operational load. Although far from critical level, that temperature was observed at the maximum speed of the CPU cooling fans (which cooled the VRM heatsink as well) and we hadn’t seen temperatures like that on any other mainboards.

Except a few above mentioned nuances, the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 was flawless when working with nominal and overclocked settings. Like the two mainboards we tested earlier, it helped us increase the GPU clock rate to 1086 MHz, the CPU clock rate to 4.5 GHz and the memory clock rate to 1867 MHz. We also adjusted memory timings.

Everything is just like with the other mainboards, except in the idle mode. The ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 turns off Cool’n’Quiet technology when the CPU is overclocked. As a result, the frequency multiplier is lowered, as in the nominal mode, but the voltage doesn't drop and remains high.

Summing up this part of our review, we want to make it clear that we do not recommend overclocking Socket FM2 CPUs period. As we explained in our review of the Gigabyte GA-F2A85X-UP4 mainboard, raising the clock rate of the integrated GPU doesn't increase the system power consumption much, yet this increase is permanent and sticks  in the idle mode. This overclocking may lead to a performance reduction in computing tasks, and there are no significant benefits in terms of 3D graphics performance. Overclocking the CPU itself doesn’t improve performance much in computing tasks, either, and is useless for 3D applications and games, but the higher clock rate and voltage result in an exceedingly high power consumption of the overclocked system. Therefore we recommend avoiding to overclock the CPU, both - its x86 and graphics cores, but do recommend to increase the memory clock rate. This won’t affect the computer power draw but will have a positive effect on performance in every type of applications, especially in games.

We only overclock all system components in our tests because we want to check out every capability of the reviewed mainboard. Our report wouldn’t be complete without information about overclockability. Moreover, overclocking helps to test a mainboard efficiently. If it works without any problems with nonstandard settings, we can guarantee that it's going to ensure stable and problem-free operation for a long time in the nominal mode. Overclocking all components is not a goal but a means to test a mainboard comprehensively. So again, we recommend you to only overclock system memory on Socket FM2 platforms and leave the other clock rates at their nominal values.

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