Gigabyte's GA-H55M-USB3 motherboard
Set for SuperSpeed
Gigabyte has scaled the motherboard market in recent years and is now on relatively equal footing with long-time industry leader Asus. Like Asus, Gigabyte has spun up four flavors of the H55 Express. The one we're looking at today is the GA-H55M-USB3, which rings in at a good $27 cheaper than the P7H55D-M EVO. That's no accidentGigabyte has been undercutting Asus motherboard prices for quite some time now in a bid to improve its North American market share.
So the H55M-USB3 gets a gold star in the price column, but what about the board itself? Things look good at first glance, with the H55M-USB3 wearing the same blue-and-white color scheme as high-end Gigabyte offerings. The layout is nice and clean, too, although this board is a little more densely populated than the EVO.
Among the onboard components are solid-state capacitors, low RDS(On) MOSFETs, and ferrite-core chokesthe same sort of upgraded electrical components that you'll find on the Asus board. The H55M-USB3 also features two-ounce copper layers which, along with the fancy components, make this board part of the Ultra Durable 3 family.
Gigabyte spreads a total of seven power phases across the board, four of which flank the CPU socket. You won't find the voltage circuitry heatsinks usually expected from enthusiast-oriented boards, but the USB3 seems to get by just fine without them, at least at stock speeds. The lack of taller hardware around the socket ensures that the board should have plenty of clearance for just about any aftermarket cooler, including those that fan out radically from the base.
Somewhat surprisingly, the H55M-USB3 hosts this round-up's lone floppy port. It's also the only board to use an auxiliary storage controllerin this case a GSATA-branded 3Gbps chipto feed internal Serial ATA ports. The GSATA chip adds a measure of RAID support, but because it only has two ports, you're limited to RAID 0, 1, and JBOD arrays.
The internal SATA ports are nicely clustered in the bottom right-hand corner of the board, so they won't interfere with larger graphics cards installed in either x16 slot. That's right; the board has not one but two PCI Express x16 slots.
To be fair, only the top slot is connected to 16 lanes of PCIe 2.0 from the CPU. The second one is driven by a half-speed PCIe x1 link to the PCH, which isn't quick enough to allow the board to run a pair of graphics cards in CrossFire. AMD requires at least four lanes of PCIe connectivity for the second card in a CrossFire tandem.
While its utility for graphics cards may be limited, the x16 slot will also accept expansion cards with x8, x4, and x1 connectors. Those cards will still be limited to a single lane of what amounts to gen-one PCIe bandwidth, though.
The H55M-USB3's port cluster plays out much like the EVO's, but with a couple of additional perks. You can plug either a keyboard or a mouse into the solitary PS/2 port, although I can't imagine anyone actually busting out an old ball-driven PS/2 mouse. The DisplayPort connector could prove considerably more useful for folks relying on Clarkdale's integrated Graphics Media Accelerator.
True to its name, the H55M-USB3 has a couple of blue USB 3.0 ports. The new USB standard supports transfer rates up to 600MB/s, although the NEC chip's single-lane PCIe 2.0 interface tops out at 500MB/s. Still, that's double what one of the H55's PCIe lanes can handle, so PCIe bandwidth is potentially a major bottleneck. The H55M-USB3 and EVO solve this dilemma in the same manner: by linking the SuperSpeed controller to a true PCIe 2.0 lane from the CPU. This approach requires that the boards' primary x16 slots are empty, so you'll have to make do with integrated graphics to get more than 250MB/s out of next-gen USB devices. Kudos to Asus and Gigabyte for at least giving users the option.
Like Asus, Gigabyte has done a good job of ensuring that the BIOSes on its less expensive motherboards measure up to enthusiast scrutiny. Indeed, the H55M-USB3's BIOS offers a diverse range of overclocking and tweaking options, including even more voltage controls than the EVO. A profile configuration manager and flashing utility are built right into the BIOS, as well. Despite these modern conveniences, however, the H55M-USB3's BIOS-level fan speed controls are sorely lacking. Users can toggle between three- and four-pin modes for the CPU fan, but there's no way to further tune the CPU fan's profile and no automatic speed control at all for the system fan.
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