Articles: Mainboards

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If you’re interested in the Socket FM2+ platform, you may want to read our AMD A10-7850K (Kaveri) review first as it covers the new processors in detail and compares them with their predecessors and competitors. Unfortunately, the latest desktop processors from both AMD and Intel leave us disappointed to some degree. Yes, it’s good that the Kaveri processors are manufactured on a more advanced 28nm tech process and their Steamroller microarchitecture is more energy efficient than the Piledriver. The bad news is that these innovations translate into small performance benefits but the processor die has got more complex and can’t even be clocked at the same frequency as its predecessor. It is no wonder then that the new FM2+ processors are still inferior to their Intel opponents. More disappointingly, they are occasionally slower than their Socket FM2 predecessors. The heterogeneous computing architecture HSA with hUMA and hQ technologies can theoretically make the Kaveri faster, but we’ll probably have other processors by the time it gets widely implemented in practice.

It is the integrated graphics core that is the single indisputable advantage of the new processors. It used to be good enough already but now has become even faster and better overall. Although it can’t compare with top-end or midrange discrete graphics cards, it is indeed unrivalled in its own class. So if your requirements are not high and your budget is rather limited, you may want to prefer the new processors for their allowing to build an entry-level gaming desktop without an external graphics card. This opportunity may be interesting for some of our readers, so we are going to test a few Socket FM2+ mainboards in our labs. Top-end products of this class will not be widely demanded whereas low-end ones are likely to disappoint. That’s why we’ve picked up midrange offers for this review: ASUS’s A88XM-Plus and Gigabyte’s GA-F2A88XM-D3H. With comparable prices and specs, they are both based on the AMD A88X chipset and designed in the micro-ATX form-factor which is perfect for entry-level desktop PCs. Now let’s see how comparable they are in terms of real-life performance and functionality.

ASUS A88XM-Plus: Overview

Some mainboard makers have different packaging for AMD and Intel-based mainboards. Sometimes even specific platforms are differentiated. ASUS, on the contrary, prefers uniformity in its product packaging. There’s the model name and logotypes of processors, chipset and technologies on the front of the box. On the back, you can see a picture of the mainboard together with a list of its specs and a description of some features. Apart from the logos and model name, the packaging looks the same as the Z87M-Plus’s, for example.

The 5X Protection badge on the front of the box indicates that the mainboard supports the corresponding technology. 5X Protection covers a number of engineering solutions that make the mainboard more reliable and long-lasting such as protection against overloads, short circuits and electrostatic discharges. The digital voltage regulator DIGI+ delivers stable power while the solid-state capacitors and the steel I/O Shield coated with a thin layer of chromium oxide (to prevent corrosion) increase the service life of the mainboard.

The box with the ASUS mainboard is slimmer than usual thanks to the special way of contents packing. The sheet of cardboard that separates the mainboard and its accessories is long and bends at the end, forming a compartment for the rather thick SATA cables. The other accessories and documentation are at the bottom of the box, below the mainboard. As a result, the box is smaller than standard packaging, which must have some positive environmental impact.

The mainboard comes with just the necessary minimum of accessories:

  • Two SATA 6 Gbit/s cables with metallic locks (one with two straight connectors and another with one straight and one L-shaped connector)
  • I/O Shield
  • User manual
  • Installation guide
  • Safety warning
  • DVD with software and drivers
  • “Powered by ASUS” sticker for your computer case

The exterior design of the A88XM-Plus looks familiar as well because all regular mainboards from ASUS currently use the same color scheme. The yellow elements bring about associations with gold. And, being a noble metal, gold is supposed to emphasize the high quality, reliability, performance and advanced technologies of ASUS mainboards. The coloring has some practical function, too. For example, if you've got only two memory modules, you should install them into the two yellow-colored slots. The main graphics slot is color-coded as well.

The 4+2-phase digital power system DIGI+ supports both new Socket FM2+ and old Socket FM2 processors. The processor is going to be powered via a single 4-pin ATX12V connector, yet the hot components of the power system are cooled by an additional heatsink secured with spring-loaded locks. The main graphics slot PCIe 3.0/2.0 x16 will only use the third version of the protocol with the new processors. The second graphics slot (PCI Express 2.0 x16) is based on the chipset's PCIe lanes and works at x4 speed, allowing to build CrossFireX configurations out of two graphics cards. There are also one PCIe 2.0 x1 and one PCI slot on the mainboard. With eight SATA 6 Gbit/s ports on board, you can easily connect all of your storage devices.

The back panel is underpopulated as is typical of entry-level mainboards. We can see the following connectors here:

  • Two PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse
  • HDMI, D-Sub and DVI-D video outputs
  • Four USB 2.0 ports (with six more via three onboard headers)
  • Two USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors, based on the AMD A88X chipset, with two more available via a single onboard header)
  • Gigabit Ethernet connector (based on a Realtek RTL8111G controller)
  • Three analog audio outputs (based on an 8-channel Realtek ALC887 codec)

The mainboard’s schematic also shows LPT and COM ports, three 4-pin fan connectors, a MemOK! button (for starting up safely in case of some memory-related problems), and a GPU Boost switch (to overclock the processor-integrated graphics core automatically). The A88XM-Plus has only one of the Q-Design features which facilitate system assembly and use: it's got large and handy latches on the graphics slots (Q-Slot).

We’ll wait with our final opinion about the ASUS A88XM-Plus until we compare its functionality with that of its Gigabyte opponent.

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