The EVO series from Asus typically provide a few extra features and better overclocking control and headroom.  The M5A97 features the previously mentioned AMD 970/SB950 chipset.  As such it is priced in the lower range of enthusiast motherboards.  The EVO version is retailing for around $119 US.

The board features 2 x PEG slots, though the second only features 4x PCI-E lanes.  This allows for the system to actually run in Crossfire mode, but I would personally not suggest doing so.  Not only is there significantly less bandwidth available to the second video card, there is an extra jump due to the PCI-E lanes running through the southbridge, then through the northbridge, then onto the CPU.  The primary PEG slot is directly connected to the northbridge.  While the extra latency is not much, it does have a negative overall effect on performance as compared to the 990X and 990FX solutions.  This is also a board that does not support SLI.

Asus did not skimp on this board even though it is aimed at the budget enthusiast.  Nearly everything a user who only wants to use one video card is included.  Power is provided by the redesigned array, but it is slightly different from previous versions.  This is a 6+2 setup rather than the more common 8+2 or 4+1 of the previous generations of boards.  AMD did tweak the power delivery specification for their processors, and these changes have supposedly made it “more efficient”.  Apparently it will also be more responsive to the power needs of the upcoming Bulldozer processors.  This is a DIGI+ power unit, which essentially means that the power is digitally controlled and has more granular adjustments over the phases as well as fast response times to CPU power needs.

USB 3.0 is provided by the ASMedia chip made by Asus.  It powers two external plus as well as provide two more ports for an internal USB 3.0 header.  To use the header though, either a USB 3.0 compliant case (read: very new) or a break-out box with USB 3.0 ports must be installed.  Older USB 2.0 adapters and backplates will not work (nor should they even be attempted to be plugged in) with the USB 3.0 header pins.  Realtek provides the Gig-E and sound duties, and I would consider them adequate for the job.  VIA powers the Firewire/IEEE 1394 ports (one external and one internal header).  A J-Micron SATA 3G chip controls the two E-SATA ports on the back of the board.  Of interest here are the custom ASICs from Asus that power the EPU and TPU processors.  These two chips control the power delivery for the system when running in either Green Power mode (low power, underclocking) as well as high performance mode (greater overclocking headroom and stability).  These two chips can either be activated (separately) through two toggle switches on the board, or in the UEFI BIOS.

The board itself is well built and nicely laid out.  I found no major issues with clearances or tolerances.  The DIMM slots are still fairly close to the CPU, but that is the case for pretty much every AM3/AM3+ board.  Asus provided a good cooler for the mosfets and the chipset.  During use none of the heatsinks really got very warm.  Next to the DIMM slots is the “Memory-OK” button which resets the memory speeds and timings to very low levels for maximum compatibility if anything goes wrong.

If there was one area where Asus really was ahead of the crowd, it would be their UEFI BIOS implementation.  While others are chugging along and slowly releasing improved versions, Asus had a very smart and snappy solution pretty much right off the bat.  This board does feature the full EUFI implementation, and setting it up is a breeze.  Mouse support is great, there is no lag or performance issues when browsing around the BIOS, and all settings are easily accessed and changed if needed.  All of the major settings (and most minor ones as well) are available in BIOS, and the tweaking that is offered can provide nearly infinite combinations for users interested in getting their hands dirty.  The BIOS also recognizes XMP memory profiles, and when O.C.M.P. is enabled in BIOS, the user can choose which XMP memory profile they want to use from a drop down list for each DIMM.

There are eight USB 2.0 ports on the back, as well as another 6 provided by internal headers.  Again we see the 2 USB 3.0 ports on the back, with the other two provided for on the internal header.  7.1 channel audio ports are available, as well as the single Firewire connection, single PS/2 port, and an optical audio connection.

The board is populated with polymer caps throughout, as well as solid ferrite chokes.  Build quality is very typical Asus, which means that it is good and parts are not falling off.  Solder quality is above average and component placement is just about perfect for such a solution.

The board functions with Asus’ proprietary Ai Suite II, which is the OS environment software which controls the motherboard’s low level hardware settings.  It also provides realtime results in usage and termperature for a variety of components around the board.  I have previously used Ai Suite II and was very impressed by its look, functionality, and usability.

The bundle included with the board is very minimal.  This is not surprising considering the price point of the product.  Several SATA cables, a standard I/O backplate (not padded/insulated like the higher end Asus models), the manual, and driver CD are all that are included.

There are no fancy buttons or voltage measuring points on this board.  It really is a focused motherboard for the budget market.  This is not to say that it is barren, but it does not have all the bells and whistles of higher end models.  Compare this to a motherboard from 10 years ago, and it looks like even the kitchen sink is included.  I guess we tend to get spoiled that way.

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