Gigabyte GA-F2A88XM-D3H: Working in Default and Overclocked Mode
We assembled our configuration with the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XM-D3H easily. We only needed to install our CPU with its cooler, add memory modules and connect power. The mainboard didn't start up, though. Our sample had an early BIOS version which didn't support Socket FM2+ processors, so we needed a Socket FM one to update its firmware.
You may be aware of this problem if you’re an old-time AMD user. AMD’s new chipsets often appear a few months earlier, so mainboards turn out to be incompatible with new processors without a firmware update. It is especially for such situations that AMD developed its USB BIOS Flashback feature which lets you update firmware without assembling your computer. You don’t even need a CPU or memory modules for that. Just connect power to the mainboard. By the way, the ASUS A88XM-Plus doesn't support USB BIOS Flashback, so we were lucky it came to us with a new BIOS version that already supported Socket FM2+ processors.
It’s not a problem for a system assembler or a hardware reviewer to get a required processor for a while to update a mainboard’s firmware, but what about ordinary users? Are they supposed to contact the manufacturer’s tech support or return the mainboard to the store?
It must also be noted that Gigabyte’s BIOS-based Q-Flash utility doesn’t work in this case. It will just issue a warning message that it is outdated. So, in order to update your firmware, you have to manually create a bootable USB flash drive and unpack the archive with the new BIOS version to it. Then, you start up your mainboard, press F12, choose the flash drive in the menu that opens, and wait for the update process to complete. The firmware will be written to both the main and backup BIOS chips, making your mainboard ready for AMD’s newest processors.
When booting up, the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XM-D3H shows us a familiar picture with information about active hotkeys. You can enter the BIOS interface by pressing the Del key. The F9 key will open up a system info window, the same as you get when you press the same key in the BIOS. F12 shows a list of devices you can boot from. The End key launches the integrated BIOS update tool Q-Flash.
The Tab key, which usually removes the boot picture, is not listed here. Although you can turn the picture off in the BIOS, there is no point in doing so. The mainboard won’t tell anything about the startup procedure anyway. It is hardly a downside because today's mainboards start up very fast and you can’t read anything from the screen. To make the process even faster, you can enable Fast Boot in the BIOS.
The latest official firmware (version F5) was more like a beta version. The North Bridge clock rate wouldn’t be lowered with it whereas monitoring tools couldn’t even identify memory timings. After we upgraded to the beta version F6c, these problems disappeared and there were new BIOS parameters available. So we did most of our tests with firmware F6c and it is this version's screenshots that you can see in the BIOS capabilities section of our review.
As opposed to the ASUS mainboard, the BIOS offers no automatic overclocking features for the processor, its graphics core or system memory. There are no extras like ASUS’s GPU Boost switch, so you have to do everything manually. You only need to select an XMP profile to apply it to your memory modules. That's how it should work, so you don’t have to increase memory voltage or anything. It is extremely inconvenient, however, to adjust the clock rate of the integrated graphics core although, unlike on the ASUS A88XM-Plus, the power-saving technology lowers that clock rate in idle mode even when the graphics core is overclocked. The frequency adjustment is done in the same way as on Gigabyte's Socket FM2 mainboards over a year ago. The BIOS has an option called Processor Graphics Clock you can set at 300 to 2000 MHz stepping 1 MHz. The problem is that the resulting frequency is likely to be different from what you've specified, sometimes very different, because it can only take certain values. It is hard to guess those values, so we looked them up in the ASUS's BIOS.
Well, the real problem occurred when we tried to overclock the processor because its clock rate would drop to the default 3700 MHz or even lower, to 3500 MHz, at high loads even at the default settings. That’s a well-known problem, actually. AMD APUs aren’t very fast, so the manufacturer sets too high default clock rates for them to make up for the poor performance. The processor can’t work at that clock rate if the load is high. In other words, AMD’s processors are heavily overclocked even in their specified operating mode.
There’s no point in overclocking if the processor can’t keep its clock rate stable. Whatever clock rate you set, it is just going to be dropped at high loads. Earlier, you had to disable Core Performance Boost to overclock Socket FM2 processors. In that case, their clock rate was constant. It didn't go up above the default level but didn't drop below it, either. This method doesn't work with our Socket FM2+ processor: the clock rate doesn’t reach 4 GHz (as it would in Turbo mode) but drops to 3.5 GHz easily instead of remaining constant at the standard 3.7 GHz.
To notice this frequency drop, it is easier to keep track of the processor voltage because these parameters are interrelated. In idle mode, when the power-saving technologies lower the processor’s clock rate to 1700 MHz, the voltage is below 1 volt. At high loads, when the Core Performance Boost feature increases the clock rate above the standard 3700 MHz, the voltage rises above 1.3 volts. So if the voltage drops below 1.3 volts at high loads, you can be sure that the clock rate has dropped to the default level or even lower, too. Monitoring tools will spot this frequency drop with some delay, so voltage monitoring is a faster way.
After some experimenting, we found out that we could avoid the frequency drop by disabling Application Power Management in the mainboard's BIOS. However, when we got down to testing the overclocked mainboard's stability with the Prime95 utility, the GA-F2A88XM-D3H would abort the test with an error or even restart automatically 15 to 30 minutes into the test.
The mainboard could only pass the stability check at the default processor frequency of 3700 MHz. We couldn’t overclock it even to 3800 MHz. We tried to use the firmware version F5, but it was even worse. We couldn’t avoid the frequency drop with that BIOS version and had to get back to version F6c. Then we tried to overclock the same computer configuration with another Gigabyte mainboard (its review is going to be posted on our site later on) and easily reached a frequency of 4.4 GHz. So, our verdict goes like this: the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XM-D3H cannot overclock processors.