Articles: Mainboards

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ASRock Company has been very aggressive lately trying to move away from the image of a budget solution provider and establish themselves as a manufacturer of enthusiast-friendly products. So far they have been partially successful with that, but their Mini-ITX mainboard for AMD A-series processors doesn’t fit into this concept at all. ASRock A75M-ITX is an extremely affordable product selling for less than $90. That is why when we first got this board, it immediately reminded us of the ASRock mainboards from back 3-4 years ago. We can clearly see how they managed to keep the price of this product so low: the processor voltage regulator circuitry has no cooling of any kind, the cooler retention frame is attached with plastic push-pins and has no backplate, and the PCB textolite hasn’t been cleaned up well after the soldering process.

Of course, low price point also had its impact on the mainboard features. ASRock A75M-ITX has a minimum number of additional controllers, so most of its functionality is implemented in the chipset, although they decided to go with far not the cheapest AM75 chipset. As a result, the board supports current SATA 6 Gbps and USB 3.0 interfaces.

ASRock engineers decided to use the available number of ports as follows. All four USB 3.0 ports supported by the chipset are brought to the back panel, therefore, there are no onboard pin-connectors for the USB 3.0 ports on the case front panel. However, there are two pin-connectors for four USB 2.0 ports in addition to two USB 2.0 ports already laid out on the back panel. A75M-ITX has four SATA-600 channels and one more eSATA 6 Gbps port on the back panel.

Besides eSATA and USB, the back panel comes with five analogue audio jacks implemented via Realtek ALC892 codec, an optical SPDIF out, PS/2 mouse/keyboard connector, Gigabit network port implemented via Realtek RTL8111E controller and a pair of monitor outs. I have to admit that ASRock engineers put together a very strange combination of video outs: analogue D-Sub and digital HDMI. There is enough room on the back panel for at least one more out, but it remains unused. Therefore the maximum screen resolution this mainboard supports is 1920x1200.

The PCB layout of ASRock A75M-ITX shows very well how difficult it is to design Socket FM1 products in Mini-ITX form-factor. In terms of their functionality, Llano processors are a good fit for systems like that: they have limited heat dissipation and a powerful graphics core, but their geometrical dimensions and pretty large retention mechanism for default coolers force mainboard makers to use all sorts of tricks when designing miniature mainboards for them.

An excellent example of the non-traditional approach to mainboard design is the location of the three DDR3 DIMM slots, which have been rotated by 90 degrees from what their typical orientation would be. As a result, ASRock A75M-ITX mainboard had to sacrifice even part of its back panel. although it didn’t really have any serious consequences for the external devices connectivity, but all other mainboard units were in acceptable places: I doubt you will encounter any serious problems during the system assembly with ASRock A75M-ITX inside.

The mainboard has three fan connectors, but two of them, related to the CPU, are paralleled together. These parallel connectors have different number of pins and can accommodate a CPU cooler with either a three-pin or a four-pin fan. The rotation speed control will work in both cases. Note that you will need a cooler that generates sufficient airflow for the area around the processor socket, because the processor voltage regulator components on ASRock A75M-ITX don’t have even the most primitive heatsinks on them. The chipset is topped with a small heatsink attached using plastic push-pins with springs.

The processor voltage regulator circuitry has four phases and according to the manufacturer, it should be compatible with the entire Socket FM1 CPU range including 100 W models, too.

The accessories bundled with ASRock A75M-ITX are not particularly generous. Besides the traditional I/O Shield for the back panel, there are also two SATA cables and a short audio-cable.

Although ASRock A75M-ITX is an entry-level product, it has a fully functional UEFI BIOS. It not only has contemporary graphics interface, but also offers overclocking-friendly tools and options.  There are special options for adjusting the clock multiplier, base clock generator frequency and major voltages.



There is only one limitation: the maximum base clock generator frequency is limited by 136 MHz, which is actually more than enough for a Mini-ITX mainboard. However, we will face some other obstacles way before we hit the maximum during overclocking involving integrated graphics. For example, during our practical tests ASRock A75M-ITX remained stable only with the base clock generator frequency increased to 116 MHz with an HDMI monitor. If you use an analogue D-Sub monitor , then your overclocking experiments will stall even sooner: at 107 MHz BCLK.

Although there is an option that allows changing the frequency of the graphics core integrated into the processor, it is impossible to overclock it independently. GPU frequency increases in proportion to the base clock generator frequency, and the special setting in the BIOS doesn’t affect anything at all.

Besides overclocking, ASRock A75M-ITX allows using the CPU and memory at lower voltages, which is a very demanded feature for compact systems. However, this feature hasn’t been implemented fully. The voltages are set as absolute values, which means that since we adjust them manually, the mainboard stops lowering the voltages automatically in power-saving modes.

Overall, ASRock A75M-ITX could be a pretty good solution for compact systems based on AMD A8, A6 and A4 series processors, especially if we consider its price. However, we were disappointed with the reliability of this product. Because of some BIOS errors the mainboard corrupts its own BIOS, which makes it fully non-operational and forces the user to turn to technical support for help. There are numerous reports of the issue in multiple hardware forums, and we also were lucky enough to experience it to the fullest: only the second mainboard sample made through the entire test session successfully.

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