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An update on AMD 790FX motherboards


Asus and MSI take a shot at AMD's latest chipset
— 11:13 AM on December 27, 2007

We weren't particularly impressed with AMD's 790FX chipset when we took our first look at it last month. The Gigabyte GA-MA790FX-DQ6 motherboard we tested had numerous issues, including BIOS quirks and relatively high power consumption. The chipset itself appeared flawed, as well, exhibiting slow USB and PCI performance and compatibility problems between Windows Vista and Serial ATA drives running in AHCI mode.

To gather a broader impression of the 790FX, we've rounded up new motherboards based on the chipset from Asus and MSI to see how they compare with Gigabyte's initial offering. We've also dug deeper into the SB600's support for AHCI in Vista, discovering some troubling performance characteristics along the way. Keep reading for a quick look at the current 790FX motherboard landscape.

New boards from Asus and MSI
With a street price hovering around $265, Gigabyte's GA-MA790FX-DQ6 comes in at the very high end of the 790FX motherboard spectrum. There, it's joined by Asus' M3A32-MVP Deluxe WiFi-AP Edition, which can be had for about $35 less. At the other end of the map we find MSI's K9A2 Platinum selling for as little as $156—clearly the bargain of the three. Time constraints prevent us from giving these boards a full work-up. We've run them through our full chipset test suite, though, and have a complete set of results to report.


Asus' M3A32-MVP Deluxe WiFi-AP Edition

These boards are pretty much what you'd expect from their respective manufacturers. The Asus is packed to the gills with onboard peripherals, including an 802.11g Wi-Fi module. Asus manages to squeeze four PCIe x16 slots onto the board while ensuring that monster graphics cards won't obscure access to onboard ports, as well.


Asus bundles an intricate memory cooler in the box

Adding to the recent trend toward elaborate chipset coolers, Asus bundles a memory cooling module with the board that links memory modules to the chipset heatpipe network. This adjustable memory heatsink is designed to be used in lieu of traditional DIMM heat spreaders, but it only works with two modules at a time.


MSI's K9A2 Platinum motherboard

As one might expect, the MSI board is quite a bit more subdued, lacking Wi-Fi and fancy memory cooling. MSI still manages to squeeze in four PCIe x16 slots, though, and they're spaced to allow for four double-wide graphics cards. However, longer double-wide cards installed in the second PCIe x16 slot will obscure acess to some, if not all, of the board's SATA ports. Note that the K9A2 Platinum locates the north bridge chip slightly to the left of the CPU socket rather than directly below it.

Specifications compared
To allow for quick comparison, we've summarized the specifications of the M3A32-MVP Deluxe and K9A2 Platinum below.

Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe WiFi-AP Edition MSI K9A2 Platinum
CPU support Socket AM2/AM2+ Phenom, Athlon X2 processors Socket AM2/AM2+ Phenom, Athlon X2 processors
North bridge AMD 790FX AMD 790FX
South bridge AMD SB600 AMD SB600
Interconnect PCIe x4 (2GB/s) PCIe x4 (2GB/s)
Expansion slots 4 PCI Express x16
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
4 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI
Memory 4 240-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8GB of DDR2-667/800/1066 SDRAM
4 240-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 8GB of DDR2-667/800/1066 SDRAM
Storage I/O Floppy disk
1 channel ATA/133
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 10 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via Marvell 6121
Floppy disk
1 channel ATA/133
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 10 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via Promise T3
Audio 8-channel HD audio via SB600 and Analog Devices AD1988B codec 8-channel HD audio via SB600 and Realtek ALC888 codec
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard
6
USB 2.0 with headers for 4 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8056
1 802.11g Wi-Fi via AzureWave AW-NA830
1 1394a Firewire via Agere L-FW3227 with header for 1 more
1 eSATA via Marvell 6121

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 digital coaxial S/PDIF output
1 digital TOS-Link S/PDIF output
1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
4
USB 2.0 with headers for 6 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Realtek RTL8111B
1 1394a Firewire via VIA VT6308P with header for 1 more
2 eSATA via Promise T3

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 digital TOS-Link S/PDIF output

Given the price difference between the boards, the MSI's specs certainly look promising. About the only integrated peripheral it lacks is Wi-Fi, and it even manages one more expansion slot than the M3A32-MVP. The boards use different chips to provide auxiliary storage, Firewire, and Gigabit Ethernet, though. As you'll see in a moment, there are clear differences in peripheral performance between them.

Neither the Asus nor the MSI board exhibited any BIOS irregularities during testing. The M3A32-MVP does provide a slightly more extensive array of overclocking options, though.

Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe WiFi-AP Edition MSI K9A2 Platinum
Bus speeds HT: 200-600MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM: 400, 533, 667, 800MHz
PCIe: 100-150MHz in 1MHz increments
HT link: 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000MHz
HT: 200-600MHz in 1MHz increments
PCIe: 100-150MHz in 1MHz increments
HT link: 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000MHz
Bus multipliers CPU: 5x-13x in 1x increments (Athlon X2 5200+) CPU: 5x-13x in 0.5x increments (Athlon X2 5200+)
HT link: 1x-13x in 1x increments
Bus dividers NA HT:DRAM: 1:1, 1:1.22, 1:1.66, 1:2
Voltages CPU: 0.8-1.6875V in 0.0125V increments
DRAM: 1.8-2.5V in 0.02V increments
PCIe: 1.1-1.4V in 0.02V increments
NB PCIe: 1.8-2.1V in 0.1V increments
SB: 1.2-1.4V in 0.02V increments
HT: 1.2-1.5V in 0.1V increments
CPU NB: 0.8-1.6875 in 0.0125V increments
CPU: 1.318-1.587V in 0.038V increments
DRAM: 1.8-3.1V in 0.05V increments
NB: 1.125-1.525V in 0.025V increments
HT: 1.125-1.525V in 0.025V increments
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed control CPU CPU

The Asus BIOS's advantage comes in the voltage department, where it provides access to a much greater range of CPU overvolting options. It's also possible to tweak a greater number of M3A32-MVP voltage variables. However, the K9A2 is better equipped for memory overclocking thanks to its higher memory voltage ceiling. MSI's processor fan speed control is a little better than what you get with the Asus board, too, thanks to the ability to set a temperature target and fan speed percentage arbitrarily.