Redefining Price/Performance with AMD Motherboards

MSI has released a fully featured FM2+ board with features galore!

Motherboards are fascinating to me.  They always have been.  I remember voraciously reading motherboard reviews in the mid-90s.  I simply could not get enough of them.  Some new chipset from SiS, VIA, or ALi?  I scoured the internet for information on them and what new features they would bring to the table.  Back then motherboards did not have the retail presence they do now.  The manufacturers were starting to learn to differentiate their products and cater to the enthusiasts who would not only buy and support these products, but also recommend them to friends/family/the world.

Today motherboards are really the foundation for any PC build.  Choosing a motherboard is no longer just picking up some whitebox board that has a 440 BX chipset.  Now users are much more active in debating what kind of features they need, what kind of feedback has this manufacturer received from consumers, what kind of ratings the board has on Amazon or Newegg.  Features like build quality or overclocking performance sway users from company to company and product to product.

In the past 15 years or so we have seen some pretty rigid guidelines for pricing of motherboards.  The super cheap “PC Chips” style motherboards existed below the $90 range.  The decent, but unexciting motherboards with the bare minimum of features would go from $90 to $150.  The $150 and beyond products were typically considered enthusiast class motherboards with expanded features, better build quality, and more robust power delivery options.  Thankfully for consumers, this model is being shaken up by the latest generation of products from AMD.

MSI insures that everything is nicely packed and protected in their black and red box.

I mentioned in the previous Gigabyte G1.Sniper.A88X review that AMD and its partners do not have the luxury of offering a $150 and above FM2+ motherboard due to the nature (and pricing) of the latest FM2+ APUs.  I am fairly sure the amount of people willing to spend $200 on a motherboard to house a $179 APU that seemingly overclocks as well on a cheap board as it does a more expensive one (meaning, not very well at all) is pretty low.  If there is one bright side to the latest Kaveri APUs, it is that the graphics portion is extremely robust in both graphics and OpenCL applications.  The hope for AMD and users alike is that HSA will in fact take off and provide a significant performance boost in a wide variety of applications that typically require quite a bit of horsepower.

Until that day comes, AMD and their partners have really addressed the challenge of differentiating their products all the while keeping prices down.  The A88X I/O hub is apparently quite inexpensive, but is relatively feature packed.  This chip gives a very solid foundation for motherboards which integrate it.

MSI has taken this chip and applied their “Gaming” treatment to it.  This has resulted in what is arguably the most high end FM2+ board to hit the streets.  It is one of the higher priced FM2+ offerings, but at $109 US it is not considered expensive for what it offers.  Let us dive a little deeper into what MSI has brought to market.


Board Features

MSI has not been skimping on components for some time.  We are now up to their “Military Class 4” series of components which include Dark (solid) Capacitors, Hi-C Caps, and Super Ferrite Chokes.  These components are rated for around 10 years of use at standard operating voltages and temperatures.  MSI had a very bad reputation some 15 years back due to exploding caps, and they have certainly worked hard to rectify that situation.  It has been a long time since I last saw a burst cap on a retail motherboard.

The board is rather striking.  The black and red color scheme are nicely implemented, giving the board a clean and mean appearance.

The power array for the APU is really about average in terms of complexity.  It is a 4 + 2 phase unit, which is the same number seen on the Gigabyte G1.Sniper board.  Some boards feature 6 + 2 units, such as ASRock.  It is debatable if the higher number of phases for the 100 watt TDP rated FM2+ socket is really worthwhile.  As we will see later, there is some merit to the argument that more does not necessarily equal better.  MSI uses all those fancy Mil Class 4 components throughout the phases, so they should provide plenty of clean power to the socket.

MSI did not stop with just the power phases when it comes to delivering clean power to sensitive components.  The USB-Audio power draws directly from the ATX power plug, rather than being routed through a common plane.  Now, this could simply be marketing as I have no real way to check.  Considering how USB and audio are big pushes for motherboards these days, I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.  This design is to provide as clean of power as possible for both the onboard audio portion as well as the USB ports.  The idea behind the USB ports receiving a steady 5V line is that with voltage drops there is the possibility of data loss.  It is unlikely, but not impossible.  Such an implementation will decrease the chances of this happening.

Speaking of audio, MSI has given this portion the treatment as well.  MSI brands theirs “Audio Boost” and it follows along the lines of what Gigabyte, Asus, and others have done.  The main goal is to isolate the audio circuitry, utilize high quality capacitors throughout the design, and amplify the output for high resistance headphone use.  MSI has done all of these steps.  The USB/Audio power provides clean current to the audio portion.  They use the RealTek ALC 1150 codec which supports 24 bit and 192 kHz output with a high 115 dB SNR (signal to noise ratio).  The unit also uses Hippon Chemi-con capacitors throughout the audio portion, these are considered fairly high end audio capacitors in the industry.  It also features the TI OPA1652 OPAMP.  Unlike the Gigabyte board, the A88X-G45 does not features swappable OPAMPS.  It is unclear in documentation, but I believe that this design features two amplifiers for both the rear stereo output as well as the front panel output.

The bundle is not excessive, but it is not bare-bones either.  It is a nicely fleshed out bundle that accentuates the low, low price this board is sold at.

The hardware portion seems like a solid design that does not cost a fortune to implement.  The components are nicely spec’d out and well laid out.  The codec and amplifier(s) are protected from EMI by a fashionable metal cover placed over them.  The Realtek drivers need to be installed first, but then MSI offers the user the choice to use the SoundBlaster Cinema software layer to potentially improve the sound output, or at least the ability to more adequately shape the sound to the user’s preferences.  It also offers 3D surround (HRTF) functionality, but of course it uses the host CPU to process the effects rather than a DSP on the sound chip.  It is certainly a value added feature that can be customized to the user’s liking.

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