Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI tackle AMD’s 890FX chipset

The desire to find the sweet spot runs deep within the enthusiast community. Predictably, then, we spend a lot of our time seeking out the best possible values here at TR. For motherboards, the middle of the pack is usually where it’s at. High-end boards are rarely faster than their mid-range counterparts, and they seldom offer dramatically different feature sets. The fact there are so many good enthusiast-oriented boards at around $150 only further fuels cynicism toward mobos well north of the $200 mark.

Still, beneath even my growing crotchety old-manness lies a juvenile lust for over-the-top excess. I love finding that perfect value when it’s time to spend my own money, but I’m just as interested to see what can be done when cost constraints aren’t so tight. Besides, uber mobos typically debut new features and capabilities that will eventually trickle down to the more affordable ones.

Our latest look at bleeding-edge motherboards focuses on AMD’s 890FX chipset, which serves as a launch vehicle of sorts for the new six-core Phenom II X6 1090T. At around $300 online, the hexa-core CPU formerly known as Thuban isn’t the same class of processor as Intel’s thousand-dollar-plus Core i7-980X. High-end 890FX boards are considerably cheaper than their Intel-based equivalents, too. Of the three flagships we’ve gathered from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI, not one costs more than $250. Premium P55 and X58 boards, by contrast, regularly sell for between $300 and $400.

Don’t think these 890FX boards cut corners, though. Asus’ Crosshair IV Formula is loaded with all sorts of Republic of Gamers goodness. Gigabyte’s 890FXA-UD7 has a whopping six PCI Express x16 slots. And MSI’s 890FXA-GD70 has electrical components that meet military standards. High-end excess all around.

The key to all of these boards is a pair of chips known collectively as the 890FX chipset. The newest element in this core-logic tag team is its RD890 component. This chip has a HyperTransport 3.0 processor interface that’s compatible with a wide range of past and present AMD CPUs. The RD890 also features an Input/Output Memory Management Unit (IOMMU) that gives system devices access to virtual memory addressing. AMD says this feature can improve performance in virtualized environments by allowing devices to use their native drivers. The IOMMU is exclusive to the 890FX and unavailable on AMD’s other 800-series chipsets.

Otherwise, the RD890 is a massive PCI Express hub. The chip offers 42 PCIe lanes spread across 11 PCIe “engines.” 32 lanes are reserved for graphics cards and can be split into a dual-x16 config or a four-way-x8 setup, allowing for all sorts of CrossFire flexibility. Of the remaining 10 lanes, four are reserved for a single x4 connection, while six are available as separate x1 links.

Besides being the answer to life, the universe, and everything, 42 also happens to be the exact same number of PCIe lanes available in the old 790FX—not that the 890FX needs more. The natural competition, Intel’s X58 Express, offers only 36 lanes of second-gen PCI Express.

The RD890 bandwidth bandwagon doesn’t stop there. The chip features a four-lane A-Link interconnect to the south bridge with 4GB/s of bidirectional bandwidth—double the throughput of Intel’s DMI interconnect. The A-Link interconnect seems to be a collection of thinly disguised, dedicated PCI Express Gen2 lanes, for what it’s worth.

An 890FX block diagram. Source: AMD

The SB850 south bridge first arrived a couple of months ago as part of AMD’s jack-of-all-trades 890GX chipset. This all-new chip is a big improvement over the SB750, whose roots can be traced all the way back to the notoriously problematic SB600. The SB850 sports a couple of PCI Express lanes for expansion devices, and those run at a full Gen2 rate of 5GT/s, unlike the 5-series Intel chipsets stuck at half that. Happily, motherboard makers shouldn’t have to resort to PCIe bridge chips to ensure sufficient bandwidth for auxiliary USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps controllers.

Of course, the SB850 doesn’t need outside help on the SATA front. The chip has a six-port, 6Gbps Serial ATA controller of AMD’s own design. All the usual RAID configurations are supported, making this the most complete and up-to-date storage controller you can find in a core-logic chipset. Lest you think AMD’s forgotten the stubborn few who are still hanging onto IDE burners, the SB850 includes an old-school ATA controller, too.

The SB850’s USB logic isn’t quite so progressive: it offers 14 ports at 2.0 speeds. The company says 6Gbps SATA support was a higher priority, which strikes me as a little odd considering users are more likely to benefit from a faster USB interface. Not even the current crop of crazy-fast SSDs can sustain transfer rates high enough to saturate 3Gbps SATA, but just about everyone these days has a 2.5″ external hard drive that can easily exceed USB 2.0 speeds.

On the networking front, the SB850 has a Gigabit Ethernet MAC that most mobo makers will probably ignore in favor of discrete networking controllers from Realtek and the like. Throw in PCI and HD audio interfaces, and that pretty much sums up the SB850.

TSMC fabricates both elements of the 890FX on a 65-nano process. The RD890 has a maximum TDP rating of 9.6W, while the SB850 has a 6W TDP. For reference, the 890GX, which has 22 PCIe lanes and an integrated Radeon, has a TDP of 25W.

The 890FX three ways

We’ll dive into much greater detail on each motherboard in a moment, but first, let’s see how they stack up side by side.

Asus Crosshair IV Formula Gigabyte 890FXA-UD7 MSI 890FXA-GD70
Power phases 8+2+2 8+2 4+1
Expansion slots 4 PCIe x16
2 PCI
6 PCIe x16
1 PCI
5 PCIe x16
1 PCIe x1

1 PCI

Gigabit Ethernet Marvell 88E8059 2 x Realtek RTL8111D 2 x Realtek RTL8111DL
Auxiliary SATA JMicron JMB363 Gigabyte GSATA2 JMicron JMB363
USB 3.0 NEC D720200F1 NEC D720200F1 NEC D720200F1
Audio Creative SupremeFX X-Fi
Via VT2020
Realtek ALC889 Realtek ALC889
FireWire VIA VT6315N Texas Instruments
TSB42AB23
VIA VT6315N
Warranty length Three years Three years Three years
Price


$229.99


$249.99


$199.99

The MSI board’s lower price tag suggests it might be the most subdued of the bunch, but the GD70 certainly isn’t lacking for expansion slots and integrated peripherals. It is working with half the number of CPU power phases as the other boards, although it still has enough juice to feed a six-core Phenom II.

The Asus and Gigabyte boards ring in a good $30 and $50 more than the MSI. Neither offers substantially more slots or integrated peripherals, but there are hints about where the extra money went. The Crosshair, for example, comes with Creative SupremeFX X-Fi software that piles all sorts of 3D audio goodness on top of a vanilla Via codec. The Gigabyte, well, it’s the first desktop board we’ve seen with a cool half-dozen PCI Express x16 slots.

Asus’ Crosshair IV Formula motherboard
Remote access for the Republic of Gamers

Manufacturer Asus
Model Crosshair IV Formula
Price (Street)
$229.99
Availability Now

Asus has a long history of producing high-end motherboards. Years ago, the company’s more exotic offerings really loaded up on integrated peripherals and extraneous gadgets. These days, overclocking has become more of a central focus. The Crosshair IV Formula is the latest addition to a family of Republic of Gamers products aimed specifically at the hard-core gaming and overclocking crowds. Asus says this republic is committed to delivering innovative products, and at least on one front, the Crosshair delivers in spades.

By far the most unique element of the Crosshair is its ROG Connect feature. Targeted at extreme overclockers, the ROG Connect application is designed to run on a second system that talks to the motherboard via a USB cable. The software can be used to tweak clock speeds and voltages remotely, or to monitor a mobo’s POST codes, voltages, clock speeds, and temperatures. If you’d rather overclock locally, ROG Connect’s ability to control the board remotely during a BIOS update might still prove useful.

Gamers and overclockers aren’t usually known for their sense of style, but the Crosshair has definite aesthetic appeal. The board sticks to a simple palette and relatively subtle touches, making for an attractive overall package with a menacing edge thanks to angular heatsinks that wouldn’t look out of place on a stealthy assault rifle.

Don’t expect to find much spare room on any of these 890FX boards; they’re all packed to the gills with slots, ports, buttons, and the like. The Crosshair has a particularly generous array of onboard extras, such as voltage probe points and actual buttons for core unlocking and automatic overclocking. Amazingly, Asus’ board designers have made room for everything without introducing potential clearance conflicts.

The Crosshair’s DIMM slots snug right up next to the CPU socket, which is a common configuration for AMD-based mobos. If you’re planning on running memory modules with taller heatsinks, you’d do well to avoid CPU coolers that fan out from the socket. Standard-height DIMMs shouldn’t pose any clearance problems, and neither will the 890FX and VRM heatsinks.

Asus neatly clusters all six of the SB850’s SATA ports along the edge of the board, out of the way of longer graphics cards, but access to those ports could prove tricky extremely cramped enclosures. That one black SATA port stems from a JMicron controller that also fuels the eSATA connectivity in the port cluster. You’ll have to sacrifice the internal port when running a lengthy double-wide CrossFire config, but the SATA ports connected to the south bridge should be faster, anyway.

Yes, even with four PCI Express x16 slots, the Crosshair has fewer than the Gigabyte and MSI boards. The top three PCIe slots can be configured in an x16/x8x/x8 setup for a ménage à CrossFire. You can also load the second slot up with 16 lanes for a pair of Radeons. The bottom x16 slot only has four lanes of electrical connectivity, though.

Motherboard makers have found a new way to differentiate their products: the number, size, shape, and color of onboard buttons. Asus clusters a chunky set right below the slot stack, providing the usual start and reset buttons in addition to toggle switches for automatic overclocking and core unlocking.

More buttons can be found at the rear, this time to control ROG connectivity and clear the CMOS. All the staples of a modern port cluster make an appearance, as well, including a couple of blue USB 3.0 ports, a hybrid eSATA/USB connector, and a digital S/PDIF output.

An unlikely duo powers the Crosshair’s twisted take on integrated audio: VIA’s VT2020 codec provides an output conduit for Creative’s SupremeFX X-Fi software. This virtual X-Fi adds all sorts of capabilities you don’t usually get with motherboard audio, such as support for EAX 4.0 effects, CMSS-3D surround virtualization and up-mixing, and Creative’s ALchemy software, which improves 3D audio compatibility with old games in Windows 7.

The days of overstuffed motherboard bundles are thankfully behind us. However, Asus has still thrown in a few extras with the Crosshair. The most notable of these is a sheet of 12 color-coded labels for SATA cables. I’m also a big fan of the little front-panel jumper blocks that Asus includes in with just about every mobo.

As one would expect from any high-end motherboard BIOS bearing Asus’ name, the Crosshair’s loaded with overclocking and tweaking options. Even extreme overclockers should be happy with what the BIOS has to offer, but there are features for normal folks, too. A handy auto-overclocking tool is built right in, for example, and the fan-speed controls are the best I’ve seen in a very long time. Users can set a temperature threshold and high and low duty cycles for both the CPU and system fans. Only slightly more limited control is available for the board’s four additional fan headers, which can abide by high and low temperature thresholds. An adjustable fixed-speed mode is available for each onboard fan header, as well.

Gigabyte’s 890FXA-UD7 motherboard
PCI Express x16 times six

Manufacturer Gigabyte
Model 890FXA-UD7
Price (MSRP) $249.99
Availability Soon

The 890FXA-UD7 is the most expensive board of the bunch, which is interesting given that Gigabyte has recently been undercutting Asus in a bid to win North American market share. Then again, the UD7 does have a few perks you won’t find on the Republic of Gamers board, including fifth and sixth PCI Express x16 slots. This is the first desktop board to pass through our labs with a half-dozen x16 slots, although calling the UD7 a desktop board is a bit of a stretch—literally.

Most desktop motherboards adhere to the ATX form factor, which measures 305 mm long and 244 mm wide. The UD7 maintains that 244-mm width, but it has grown to 325 mm wide to accommodate the mass of PCIe slots. As a result, you might have a hard time squeezing the board into smaller mid-tower enclosures. For those who are already measuring their cases for clearance, the extra height is tacked onto the bottom edge of the board rather than the top, if you’re thinking vertically for mounting in a tower case.

Even with the additional area, the UD7’s layout is still crowded. There are no major clearance problems to speak of, though. Gigabyte has even put the IDE port in a convenient location for optical drives.

Like the other boards in this round-up, the UD7 uses higher-grade electrical components than one might find on more budget fare. The board also has two-ounce copper layers—a trait it shares with the Crosshair.

Gigabyte strays from the competition when it comes to chipset cooling. Low-profile chipset and VRM heatsinks flank the socket on two sides, but they’re short enough to avoid interfering with larger CPU coolers. The default heatsink on the 890FX has a couple of barbs that can be plugged into a water-cooling system, transforming it into a water block.

Those who would rather not have liquid flowing around inside their systems can opt to attach the included massive-and-passive cooler that screws onto the top of the 890FX’s heatsink. This Silent Pipe behemoth is probably overkill of the highest degree, but that’s what the UD7 is all about. Besides, the optional cooler isn’t as imposing as it looks. Even with the Silent Pipe installed, the board still has plenty of clearance for both a larger CPU cooler and a graphics card in the first x16 slot.

Four-way CrossFire configs seem to be the UD7’s raison d’être, so it only makes sense that all of the board’s SATA ports neatly line one edge. This arrangement leaves loads of room for monster graphics cards to stretch out, although longer cards installed in the top slot can interfere with the clear CMOS switch. With a Radeon HD 5870 installed in the first slot, we were unable to remove the plastic cap that prevents users from accidentally clearing the CMOS. You’ll want to take the cap off before building a system and be careful when installing a graphics card to make sure you don’t wipe the CMOS accidentally.

There they are: six PCI Express x16 slots. Slots one and five have up to 16 lanes of connectivity each. If two Radeons aren’t enough, slots one, three, five, and six can be run in a quad-x8 config for four-way CrossFire. The spacing even allows four double-wide cards to be run side by side.

Although they’re physically x16, the second and fourth PCIe slots must make do with only four PCIe lanes each. The fourth slot has to share that bandwidth with the board’s auxiliary GSATA storage controller, as well. When the GSATA controller is enabled in the BIOS, the fourth x16 slot drops to a single lane of bandwidth.

Now that’s a crowded port cluster. Gigabyte spares no expense here, throwing in two flavors of FireWire and S/PDIF alongside dual eSATA/USB and USB 3.0 ports. The standard USB 2.0 ports have a little extra flavor, too; Gigabyte makes three times the normal current available through each port, which the company says can improve compatibility with crappy USB cables. The extra current will also allow users to charge their iPads while the tablets are on, which takes more power than standard USB 2.0 ports provide.

The Crosshair might have bundled X-Fi software, but the UD7’s integrated Realtek ALC889 codec can pull one trick that the Asus board can’t: real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding. This capability encodes 3D positional audio output from games into the standard, multi-channel digital audio format. Sound streams encoded in this way can be piped directly into a DDL-capable amplifier via the board’s S/PDIF outputs, bypassing the Realtek’s lower-quality onboard digital-to-analog converters.

Another motherboard round-up, another Gigabyte BIOS that puts far too much emphasis on overclocking and tweaking and not nearly enough on fan speed controls. Overclockers will find more than enough options related to clock speeds, multipliers, and voltages. Core unlocking is built right into the BIOS, too, as is every memory timing under the sun.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pleaded with Gigabyte to include better BIOS-level fan speed controls, but my constant entreaties seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The UD7’s BIOS pretty much only lets you turn automatic fan speed control on or off for the CPU and system fan headers. There’s no way to adjust temperature thresholds, fan speeds, tolerances, or any other variables that might affect fan behavior. Better fan speed controls are available to Windows users who run Gigabyte’s software, but I’d rather not have to do so, especially considering that both Asus and MSI offer significantly superior BIOS-level fan controls.

MSI’s 890FXA-GD70 motherboard
A more affordable alternative

Manufacturer MSI
Model 890FXA-GD70
Price (Street)
$199.99
Availability Now

Although $200 certainly can’t be considered cheap, MSI’s 890FXA-GD70 is easily the most affordable option in our trio of 890FX boards. In a sense, the GD70 is less extravagant than the Asus and Gigabyte boards. MSI hasn’t piled on extras like ROG Connect or X-Fi audio software. The GD70 doesn’t employ exotic chipset coolers or a larger-than-standard footprint, either. But maybe it doesn’t need to.

After all, the GD70 still looks the part of a high-end mobo. The black board is peppered with blue slots, ports, and heatsink accents. Only white SATA ports deviate from the black-and-blue palette, but they don’t look out of place, perhaps because the socket itself already adds a splash or white to the mix.

In order to accommodate seven expansion slots without deviating from standard ATX dimensions, MSI has placed the 890FX chip in an unconventional spot, between the CPU socket and the rear port cluster. The first PCIe x16 slot still sits close to the socket, but MSI has taken steps to avoid any clearance conflicts that might cause. For example, the DIMM slots only have retention tabs on one side, allowing for easy memory swapping even with a graphics card installed.

As one might expect, the GD70 uses solid-state capacitors and other fancy electrical components throughout. MSI goes one step further than Asus and Gigabyte on this front, surrounding the CPU socket with tantalum-core “Hi-c” capacitors that the company claims last eight times longer than traditional solid-state caps. The Hi-c caps purportedly meet the US Department of Defense’s MIL-PRF-39003L spec, which no doubt served as inspiration for the “Military Class” branding that accompanies the GD70. Military Class refers to the use of Hi-c caps, “Icy” ferrite-core chokes that supposedly run 20°C cooler than normal designs, and traditional solid-state capacitors.

Edge-mounted SATA ports have become the norm for high-end motherboards, and rightly so. Even the IDE port is neatly tucked out of the way of outstretched graphics cards. The blue SATA port tied to the board’s auxiliary JMicron controller is not, but you’re better off using the white SATA ports connected to the SB850, anyway.

MSI’s take on motherboard buttons almost does away with the physical buttons completely. These “easy” buttons require little more than a light tap of the PCB to activate, and they can be used to control the onboard LEDs, power and reset functionality, and the overclocking dial. I was a little wary that inadvertent contact could trigger the easy buttons, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem, even when turning the overclocking dial with my sausage fingers. The dial can be used to increase or decrease the base clock speed in increments set in the BIOS. Competitive overclockers might see value in such a feature. I’m guessing most folks will manipulate the base clock through the BIOS or Windows software, though.

The GD70 may not match the UD7’s six PCIe x16 slots, but it comes close. There are five x16 slots in total, with the third limited to only four lanes of bandwidth. The remaining four slots can be run in either a dual-x16 config or a quad-x8 for complete CrossFire excess. MSI has spaced the slots to allow four double-wide graphics cards to be run together, too.

Around back, the GD70’s port cluster is conspicuously missing FireWire connectivity. There are two FireWire headers on the board powered by a VIA controller, but you’ll need to provide a PCI-back-plate or front-panel port to actually use them. Otherwise, the port cluster looks pretty complete. Dual USB 3.0 ports make an appearance, alongside plenty of audio jacks, a hybrid eSATA/USB port, and a handy clear CMOS switch.

The same Realtek ALC889 codec on the Gigabyte board can also be found on the GD70. However, while Gigabyte takes advantage of the chip’s optional Dolby Digital Live encoding capabilities, MSI does not. The GD70 is still capable of outputting multi-channel digital audio, but it can only do so with content that has pre-encoded tracks—on-the-fly encoding, which is essential for games, isn’t supported.

Strictly in terms of the options they provide, I think the Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI BIOSes are on pretty even footing when it comes to overclocking and tweaking options. Each BIOS has a slightly different mix of options and ranges at its disposal, but all three will let you push a Socket AM3 CPU to its limits. They all feature integrated BIOS flashing utilities and support for multiple user profiles, as well.

Like Gigabyte, MSI includes a core-unlocking switch in its BIOS. However, MSI doesn’t cut any corners on the fan control front. Users can set a minimum speed for the CPU fan and define a target processor temperature. Temperature-based fan speed control isn’t available for the system fans, but either of them can be set to run at 50, 75, or 100% of full speed.

The big table o’ specs

This wouldn’t be TR motherboard coverage without a painstakingly detailed assessment of each board’s BIOS options and specifications. These details don’t exactly lend themselves to eloquent prose, but you should be able to find what you need in the tables below.

Asus Crosshair IV Formula Gigabyte 890FXA-UD7 MSI 890FXA-GD70
Clock speeds Base: 100-600MHz in 1MHz
steps

PCIe:
100-150MHz in 1MHz steps
DRAM: 800, 1066, 1333, 1600MHz
NB:
1400-4200MHz in 200MHz steps
HT: 200-2600Mhz in 200MHz steps
Base: 200-500MHz in 1MHz
steps

PCIe:
100-150MHz in 1MHz steps
Base: 190-690MHz in 1MHz
steps

PCIe:
90-190MHz in 1MHz steps
Multipliers CPU: 4X-39.5X in 0.5X steps CPU: 5X-35X in 0.5X steps
CPU NB: 5X-20X
in 1X steps
DRAM: 2-4X in 0.66X steps
HT: 1X-13X in 1X steps
CPU: 4X-32.5X in 0.5X steps
CPU NB: 8X-20X
in 1X steps
DRAM: 2-4X in 0.66X steps
HT: 1X-13X in 1X steps
Voltages CPU: 0.625-2.025V in
0.003125V steps

CPU NB: 0.45-1.85V in 0.003125V steps

CPU VDDA: 2.2-3.1875V in
0.0125V steps


DRAM: 1.2-2.9V in 0.0125V steps

DRAM CTRL: 0.395-0.63x in
0.005x steps
DRAM DATA: 0.395-0.63x in 0.005x steps

HT: 0.8-2.0V in 0.0125V steps
NB: 0.8-2.0V in 0.0125V steps
NB 1.8:
1.802-3.00775V in 0.01325V steps
SB: 1.113-1.802V in 0.01325V steps

VDDR: 1.20575-1.802V in 0.01325V steps
VDDPCIE: 1.113-2.00075V in 0.01325V steps

CPU: +/- 0.6V in
0.025V steps

CPU NB: +/- 0.6V in
0.025V steps


CPU PLL: 2.2-3.1V in
0.02-0.04V steps

DRAM: 1.21-2.41V
in 0.02-0.1V steps

NB:
0.95-1.45V in 0.02-0.05V steps
NB PCIe PLL: 1.1-1.46V in 0.02-0.1V steps

HT: 1.1-1.46V in 0.02-0.1V steps

CPU: 0.706-2.321V in
0.001-0.34V steps

CPU VDD: 1.1-1.55V in 0.125V steps

CPU PLL: 1.702-3.132V in
0.01-0.05V steps

CPU NB: 0.83-1.78V
in 0.01-0.05V steps

CPU NB VDD:
1.1-1.55V in 0.0125V steps
CPU DDR: 0.7-1.83V in 0.005-0.26V steps

DRAM: 0.987-2.485V in 0.06-0.08V steps
DRAM VREF: 0.565-1.241 in
0.005-0.25V steps
DRAM VREF: 0.565-1.241 in 0.005-0.25V steps
NB:
0.884-1.393V in 0.05-0.07V steps
NB PCIe: 1.136-3.974V in 0.034-0.171V
steps
HT: 0.8-1.83V in 0.01-0.05V steps
SB: 0.95-1.58V in 0.03V steps

Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and
temperature
Voltage, fan status, and
temperature
Voltage, fan status, and
temperature
Fan speed control CPU, system CPU, system CPU, system

As you can see, each board offers more clock speed, multiplier, and voltage options than most seasoned overclockers would know what to do with. Asus prefers to express things in terms of clock speeds, while Gigabyte and MSI stick mostly to multipliers.

And now for the board specs.

Asus Crosshair IV Formula Gigabyte 890FXA-UD7 MSI 890FXA-GD70
CPU power 8+2+2 8+2 4+1
DIMM slots 4 DDR3-1333 4 DDR3-1333 4 DDR3-1333
Expansion slots 4 PCIe x16
2 PCI
6 PCIe x16
1 PCI
5 PCIe x16
1 PCIe x1

1 PCI

Storage I/O
6 6Gbps SATA RAID 0, 1, 10, 5
1 3Gbps SATA

Floppy disk

1 ATA/133

6 6Gbps SATA RAID 0, 1, 10, 5
2 3Gbps SATA RAID 0, 1

1 ATA/133

6 6Gbps SATA RAID 0, 1, 10, 5
1 3Gbps SATA RAID

Audio 8-channel HD 8-channel HD 8-channel HD
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard
7
USB
2.0 w/ 5 headers

2 USB 3.0
1 FireWire w/ 1 header
1 eSATA/USB

1 RJ45

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 S/PDIF out (TOS-Link)

1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
6
USB
2.0 w/ 4 headers

2 USB 3.0
2 FireWire w/ 1 header
2 eSATA/USB

2 RJ45

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 S/PDIF out (RCA)

1 digital S/PDIF out (TOS-Link)

1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse

5 USB
2.0 w/ 6 headers

2 USB 3.0
2 FireWire headers
1 eSATA/USB

2 RJ45

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 S/PDIF out (RCA)

1 digital S/PDIF out (TOS-Link)

Get all that? Good. There will be a quiz later.

Our testing methods

Strictly speaking, the 890FX’s natural competition is Intel’s X58 Express chipset, which is the only one compatible with six-core Gulftown CPUs. If you look at performance and pricing, a good argument can also be made that an eight-thread Core i7 paired with the P55 Express chipset is a more appropriate foil for AMD’s latest flagship platform. To cover all our bases, we’ve included both for comparison. And for good measure, I’ve thrown in a board based on AMD’s mid-range 890GX chipset, too.

Although we’ve tried to level the playing field wherever possible, my Core i7-920 is an engineering sample CPU that can only run its memory at 1066MHz. The i7-920 does have an extra memory channel and an additional 2GB of RAM to work with, though. I don’t expect the extra memory to improve performance with the sort of tests we’ll be looking at today.

With the exception of power consumption, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of the scores produced. We used the following system configuration for testing:

Processor

AMD Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz


Intel Core i7-870 2.93GHz


Core i7-920 2.66GHz

Motherboard


Asus Crosshair IV Formula

Gigabyte 890FXA-UD7


MSI 890FXA-GD70


Gigabyte P55A-UD4P


Gigabyte EX58-UD4p
Bios revision 602 DJ 1.0B29 F8 F13

Platform hub
AMD 890FX AMD 890FX AMD 890FX Intel H55 Express Intel X58 Express

South bridge
AMD SB850 AMD SB850 AMD SB850 Intel ICH10R
Chipset drivers Chipset: Catalyst 10.3
AHCI:
1.2.0.164
Chipset: Catalyst 10.3
AHCI:
1.2.0.164
Chipset: Catalyst 10.3
AHCI:
1.2.0.164
Chipset: 9.1.1.1025
AHCI:
9.6.0.1014
Chipset: 9.1.1.1025
AHCI:
9.6.0.1014
Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 6GB
(3 DIMMs)

Memory type

OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz

OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz

OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz

OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz

OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz
Memory timings 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-20-1T

Audio
Realtek ALC892 with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC892 with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC889 with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC889 with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC889 with 2.42
drivers
Graphics

Asus EAH5870 1GB
with Catalyst 10.3b drivers
Hard drive
Western Raptor X 150GB
Power Supply

PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W
OS

Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64

Thanks to Western Digital for supplying Raptor WD1500ADFD hard drives for our test rigs.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

Most of the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Gaming with CrossFire and Eyefinity

By far the biggest difference between mid-range and high-end chipsets is the number of PCI Express lanes available for multi-GPU setups. The 890FX and X58 Express both have enough PCIe connectivity to supply each Radeon in a CrossFire duo with 16 lanes of bandwidth, but the 890GX and P55 Express can only power CrossFire combos with a dual-x8 config.

The question, of course, is whether one really needs the additional bandwidth. To find out, we ran a number of gaming tests on a three-screen Eyefinity array with a display resolution of 5760×1080. This setup has 50% more pixels than a typical 30″ LCD monitor, and it exceeds the limits of AMD’s CrossFire interconnect, so frame data shared between the cards must be passed via PCIe. That should make it a good test case for whether extra PCIe bandwidth really matters in games.

Our Eyefinity display array was powered by Asus’ new EAH5870 graphics cards, which have an 850MHz GPU clock and 1GB of GDDR5 memory at 4.8 GT/s. These cards feature a custom cooling solution with a larger fan that maintains temperatures 17% lower than AMD’s stock Batmobile-style cooler, according to Asus. It’s nice and quiet at idle, too. Those are are more interested in performance than silence can use the bundled Asus software to overclock and overvolt the GPU.

We ran each chipset (using the Asus board to represent the 890FX) through a quartet of 3D performance tests with a single 5870 and a two-way CrossFire tandem. FRAPS was used to capture frame rates in Modern Warfare 2 and Bad Company 2, while we relied on the built-in benchmarking features of DiRT 2 and the Unigine Heaven demo. Each test was run at 5760×1080 at the highest available detail levels with 4X antialiasing. The only exception was the Unigine Heaven demo, which was run without antialiasing and with only “normal” tessellation.

CrossFire provides a nice performance boost in everything but Modern Warfare 2, which doesn’t benefit from having an extra Radeon installed. We’re using a slightly older version of Modern Warfare 2 that might not be recognized by AMD’s CrossFire profiles, though.

Even the games that do see substantial frame-rate increases from CrossFire don’t show a preference for high-end chipsets. The P55 Express and 890GX are competitive enough with the X58 Express and 890FX to suggest that, at least with this particular display configuration, eight lanes is plenty of bandwidth for each card in a CrossFire pair. Of course, only the X58 and 890FX chipsets have enough PCIe lanes to enable CrossFire configurations with three and four graphics cards.

Serial ATA performance

The next chipset element that might affect system performance is the storage controller. We’ll begin our storage tests with IOMeter, which subjects our systems to increasing I/O loads. We used IOMeter’s workstation and database test patterns, since those are more relevant to desktop systems than the file or web server test patterns. This particular test makes good use of the Native Command Queuing capability built into the AHCI specification.

Drives capable of taking advantage of the SB850’s 6Gbps SATA controller are few and far between. The best candidate is currently Crucial’s new RealSSD C300, which is the first 6Gbps solid-state drive to hit The Benchmarking Sweatshop. Unfortunately, that drive’s currently waiting on a firmware update to address performance issues, so we’ve used Western Digital’s latest VelociRaptor VR200M instead. The ‘raptor also has a 6Gbps SATA interface, although the drive can’t sustain transfer rates high enough to really exploit the next-gen interface.

The AMD chipsets shadow their Intel counterparts in our IOMeter transaction rate tests. However, performance doesn’t scale well beyond 32 concurrent I/O requests with any of these chipsets. 32 just happens to be the depth of the AHCI command queue.

Interestingly, we’ve seen previous Intel drivers offer higher transaction rates with more than 32 concurrent requests. The Microsoft AHCI driver embedded in Windows 7 yields similar performance not only with Intel chipsets, but also with those from AMD.

When we asked about the behavior of its new drivers, Intel told us changes were made to improve performance in “common client workloads,” and that the new revision would offer better performance in PCMark Vantage. The changes may have the “side effect” of impacting performance in conditions with large numbers of outstanding I/O requests, which is what we’re seeing in IOMeter. I suspect AMD has made a similar optimization in its AHCI drivers for the SB850.

CPU utilization is quite low in IOMeter across the board. I should note, however, that comparing CPU utilization across different processor platforms is made somewhat problematic by power-saving features that can lower clock speeds while these peripheral tests are taking place. An idling Phenom might appear to have higher CPU utilization than an equivalent Core i7 because Cool’n’Quiet drops the Phenom to a lower idle clock rate than SpeedStep does with the Intel CPUs.

TR DriveBench

TR DriveBench simulates disk-intensive multitasking sessions by playing back pre-recorded traces of all disk activity associated with different workloads. You can read more about this test in on this page of our latest SSD round-up. We’re only using the file copy and virus scanning traces today, since they’re the most demanding of the workloads we’ve concocted.

Our VelociRaptor appears to be the limiting factor here, which is a good sign for the SB850. Keeping pace with Intel storage controllers that have long been regarded as the gold standard for core-logic chipsets is no trivial feat.

HD Tach

We used HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone test to measure basic SATA throughput and latency.

While burst speeds should be dictated by the storage controller and little else, we’ve seen motherboards based on the same chipset deliver markedly different results in this HD Tach test. We’ll see how the three 890FX boards compare in a moment, but I’ll tell you right now that the Crosshair, which represents the 890FX throughout our chipset performance testing, has faster burst speeds than the Gigabyte and MSI boards. The VelociRaptor’s cache is apparently quick enough to make use of the SB850’s 6Gbps SATA pipe, if only briefly.

The 890FX is competitive in the read speed test, but interestingly, the X58 Express has a much higher sustained write speed than all the other chipsets. I’m at a loss to explain the discrepancy, although it’s one we’ve seen in the past.

The results of HD Tach’s access time test are too close too call. I wouldn’t make much of the differences in CPU utilization, either. HD Tach’s margin of error in the CPU utilization test is +/- 2%, plus we’re dealing with three very different CPUs.

USB performance

Moving from internal to external connectivity, our chipset testing continues with a look at USB performance. Our USB transfer speed tests were conducted with a USB 2.0/FireWire external hard drive enclosure connected to a 7,200-RPM Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 hard drive. We tested with HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.

The SB850’s USB controller looks much better now than it did two months ago for the 890GX launch. I’m unsure whether driver or BIOS updates deserve the credit for the improved USB performance we’re seeing with the Asus 890GX board, but I’m not complaining. The special sauce seems to be working just as well for the 890FX, whose overall USB performance is competitive with Intel’s top-of-the-line X58 Express.

PCI Express performance

We used NTttcp to test PCI Express Ethernet throughput using a Marvell 88E8052-based PCI Express x1 Gigabit Ethernet card.

PCI performance

To test PCI performance, we used the same NTttcp test methods and a PCI Intel GigE NIC.

Our Gigabit Ethernet card doesn’t really stretch the bandwidth available to a current-generation x1 slot, but then neither do a lot of the PCIe peripherals you’ll find on a modern motherboard. GigE is enough to stress the PCI bus, as our lower throughput scores indicate. The AMD chipsets don’t offer quite as much PCI throughput as their Intel counterparts. However, if you’re really concerned with peripheral bandwidth, you’ll want to be using PCIe, anyway.

Memory performance

We’ve now reached the conclusion of our chipset testing. Next up: motherboard performance. We’ll start with a look at memory performance. Thanks to the advent of integrated memory controllers, that’s now largely determined by one’s CPU choice. However, motherboard makers do have some freedom to tune the on-die memory controllers in new AMD and Intel processors, and our memory performance tests should tell us whether those efforts have any bearing on available bandwidth or access latencies.

Interestingly, the 890FX boards offer slightly higher bandwidth than our lone 890GX model. Of the three, the Asus and MSI boards boast slightly more bandwidth than the Gigabyte. Neither is quick enough to catch the Gigabyte P55 board, though.

CPU-Z measures memory latency in cycles, which must then be converted to nanoseconds based on the processor’s clock speed. Unfortunately, thanks to Turbo Boost and Turbo Core, we don’t know the exact CPU clock speed of each platform during the actual test. The latencies above were calculated using the peak turbo speed for each CPU.

A slower memory clock speed clearly hampers our X58 board, while the others are only separated by five nanoseconds. Note how each 890FX board scores slightly differently in this test. The Asus 890FX and GX boards are locked in a dead heat, suggesting that Asus may be using the same memory optimizations with each.

Power consumption

We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Readings were taken at idle and under a load consisting of a Cinebench 11.5 render alongside the rthdribl HDR lighting demo. We tested with Windows 7’s High Performance and Balanced power plans.

Motherboard makers usually ship their boards with energy-saving software that’s supposed to lower power consumption without impeding performance. We’ve tested each board with and without this software installed. Gigabyte’s X58 and P55 boards use Dynamic Energy Saver software, while the company’s 890FX offering uses a new app called EasySaver. The Asus boards use an EPU app that must be configured in “auto” mode to avoid performance-sapping clock throttling.

MSI makes a point of the fact that you don’t need auxiliary Windows software to enjoy the power-saving features of its 890FX board. The board’s default configuration already has phase switching enabled, and we also tested the GD70 in its push-button GreenPower mode, which disables all the onboard LEDs to further conserve power.

At idle, the GD70 has the lowest power draw of all the 890FX boards. The Asus isn’t far behind, but Gigabyte’s take on the 890FX pulls 10-15W more, depending on whether the EasySaver software is running. Of course, none of the AMD platforms can match lower power draw of our P55-based system.

Despite sparingly sipping power at idle, the MSI board has nearly the highest power draw of the lot under load. The GD70’s relatively modest 4+1 power-phase arrangement looks to be considerably less efficient when all six of our Phenom’s cores are fully utilized.

Of the three 890FX boards, the Asus clearly has the lowest power draw under load. You don’t even need to bother with Asus’ EPU software, which at best only knocks off a couple of watts. Gigabyte’s EasySaver app, on the other hand, shaves a good 20W off the UD7’s power draw under load. If only those power savings could be realized without keeping the EasySaver app running in the background.

Overclocking

The Asus and Gigabyte 890FX boards didn’t arrive in the Benchmarking Sweatshop until late last week, and the MSI didn’t show its face until Monday, leaving me with precious little time for testing. Or weekends. I was, however, able to spend a little time playing with some of the overclocking options available on each board. Anyone shelling out $200 or more for one of these boards is probably going to drop in a Black Edition CPU with an unlocked upper multiplier and overclock using AMD’s Overdrive software. I know I would. However, jacking up the multiplier tells us more about a CPU’s available headroom than it does about a motherboard’s overclocking potential.

To explore what these motherboards bring to the overclocking table, I pushed the base clock speed of each as high as it would go. For this test, I lowered the CPU, memory, and other system multipliers to further isolate the motherboard. I also gave each board’s automatic CPU overclocking scheme a try, testing for stability in all cases with a six-core Prime95 load.

The MSI GD70 was up first, and it only made it up to a 245MHz base clock speed. The system would post with a 250MHz base clock… but never made it to Windows. Extra voltage didn’t help, either.

Next, I gave MSI’s BIOS-level OC Genie Lite auto-overclocker a shot. OC Genie only took a couple of minutes to settle on a 249MHz base clock speed that, with a 16X multiplier, yielded nearly 4GHz. That would’ve been an impressive result had it been stable under load, but one of the cores wasn’t. MSI suggests lowering the base clock speed if OC Genie doesn’t produce stable results. However, I’d rather see an auto-overclocking scheme hone in on the highest stable clock speed and let users push upward from there.

In any case, the fact that OC Genie also failed to reach a 250MHz base clock speed suggests that the GD70’s BIOS-level support for setting base clock speeds up to 690MHz might be a tad optimistic.

Gigabyte’s UD7 proved more comfortable at higher base clock speeds, reaching 260MHz with stock voltages all around. Bumping the CPU voltage by 100mV allowed the UD7 to cruise up to 290MHz without sacrificing stability, but 300MHz proved elusive with the smidgen of extra voltage I was willing to apply.

Gigabyte’s Easy Boost software provides automatic overclocking for Black Edition CPUs. This app appears to only adjust the CPU multiplier, and it takes quite a long time testing for stability with each 0.5X step up the ladder. After crunching away for several hours, the app disappeared from the desktop abruptly, having apparently crashed without settling on a final clock speed. Time didn’t permit waiting several more hours for Easy Boost to take another shot at the system.

In my experience, if a Gigabyte motherboard hits a 290MHz base clock speed, the equivalent Asus model will do 300 or maybe 310MHz. The Crosshair proved far more ambitious, sailing up to a perfectly stable 360MHz base clock speed without so much as an extra millivolt. 360MHz proved to be the limit, at least with the modest voltage bumps I was willing to apply to the board.

Asus offers two auto-overclocking options with the Crosshair: Windows software that combines iterative clock speed increases with stability testing, and a BIOS-level OC Tuner option that looks to be more equivalent to MSI’s OC Genie Lite. I tried out the latter to see how it would compare, and the system settled on a 232MHz base clock speed good for 3.7GHz. OC Genie was far more aggressive but ultimately unstable. The Crosshair was perfectly happy crunching Prime95 on all six cores at this speed.

Motherboard peripheral performance

To provide a closer look at the peripheral performance you can expect from these motherboards, we’ve compiled Ethernet, Serial ATA, USB 3.0, FireWire, and audio performance results below.

HD Tach
FireWire performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus 890FX
31.9 28.3 15.0 3

Asus 890GX
40.2 34.6 16.4 5

Gigabyte 890FX
40.1 35.4 23.6 2

Gigabyte P55
40.8 34.4 21.9 3

Gigabyte X58
29.7 27.5 15.5 1

MSI 890FX
31.7 28.3 14.3 2

Of the three 890FX boards, only the Gigabyte has a Texas Instruments FireWire chip. The other two use the same VIA FireWire controller, which offers slower throughput for both reads and writes.

HD Tach
USB 2.0 performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus 890FX
32.5 31.6 31.9 4

Asus 890GX
32.5 30.8 29.6 7

Gigabyte 890FX
32.8 31.0 31.2 5

Gigabyte P55
34.3 30.8 24.8 3

Gigabyte X58
33.9 32.6 28.7 2

MSI 890FX
32.6 31.0 30.5 4

There’s little difference in USB performance between our three 890FX boards.

HD Tach
USB 3.0 performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus 890FX
137.3 114.1 65.9 11

Asus 890GX
130.3 112.2 91.5 11

Gigabyte 890FX
157.8 117.1 94.8 11

Gigabyte P55
103.6 104.3 75.6 3

MSI 890FX
158.3 113.3 65.9 9

However, the Gigabyte scored better than the others in our USB 3.0 performance tests. What makes these results particularly interesting is the fact that all five mobos use the same NEC controller chip. Some implementations are clearly superior to others.

HD Tach
Serial ATA performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)

Random access time
(ms)

CPU utilization

(%)


Asus 890FX
348.2 133.5 88.5 6.9 6

Asus 890FX (JMicron)
117.0 86.5 37.6 7.1 8

Asus 890GX
280.1 131.8 85.5 7.0 5

Gigabyte 890FX
312.4 134.4 88.8 6.9 3

Gigabyte 890FX (GSATA)
127.1 88.2 50.6 6.9 6

Gigabyte P55
186.6 115.2 93.2 7.2 6

Gigabyte P55 (GSATA)
257.1 124.7 67.1 7.2 2

Gigabyte X58
246.6 136.2 134.4 6.8 1

Gigabyte X58 (GSATA)
128.4 104.7 71.7 6.9 2

MSI 890FX
218.0 132.0 82.0 7.0 7

MSI 890FX (JMicron)
124.2 88.2 59.5 7.0 4

Asus has the fastest 890FX board when it comes to SATA performance, but only if you’re using the SB850. The Crosshair’s JMicron controller is substantially slower, and I’d avoid it unless you’re otherwise completely out of internal Serial ATA ports.

Note how each 890FX board’s native SATA ports yields a different burst speed in HD Tach. The Asus and Gigabyte both eclipse 300MB/s, while the MSI wallows in the low 200s.

NTttcp Ethernet
performance
Throughput (MBps)
CPU utilization
(%)

Asus 890FX
941.8 8.1

Asus 890GX
940.0 9.2

Gigabyte 890FX (1)
941.0 9.2

Gigabyte 890FX (2)
940.4 9.2

Gigabyte P55 (1)
944.6 2.4

Gigabyte P55 (2)
946.3 2.2

Gigabyte X58
942.6 2.4

MSI 890FX (1)
933.3 9.6

MSI 890FX (2)
940.0 8.8

You won’t find much in the way of meaningful performance differences here (remember that CPU utilization results should only be compared across like processor platforms). However, it’s important to point out that the Crosshair only has one Gigabit Ethernet port, which seems a little stingy for an ostensibly high-end motherboard. The Gigabyte and MSI 890FX models both feature dual GigE controllers.

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality

Overall score

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz

Asus 890FX
4 5 4 4 5 3 4 5 4

Asus 890GX
4 5 4 4 5 3 5 5 5

Gigabyte 890FX
5 5 5 5 5 3 5 5 5

Gigabyte P55
5 5 5 5 5 3 5 5 5

Gigabyte X58
5 5 5 5 5 4 5 4 5

MSI 890FX
5 4 5 4 4 5 3 5 5

The X-Fi audio software bundled with Asus’ 890FX board might add more 3D audio effects to games, but it doesn’t help the Crosshair’s analog output signal quality. The Asus 890FX actually scores lower than the Gigabyte and MSI models in our RightMark Audio Analyzer signal quality test.

Conclusions

I’m just going to come out and say it: the 890FX is the best high-end desktop chipset on the market right now. That might seem like an easy call to make on the surface. After all, the 890FX has gobs more PCIe connectivity than Intel’s X58 and P55 Express chipsets, which don’t offer native 6Gbps SATA support. But I’m actually more impressed by the fact that AMD seems to have ironed AHCI and USB performance issues that plagued its previous chipsets. Those might not be particularly flashy developments, but they address key weaknesses in AMD’s older core-logic platforms.

That said, the 890FX is probably overkill even for most enthusiasts. The extra PCIe lanes it provides don’t appear to improve performance with two-way CrossFire configs, and you can get the same south bridge on much cheaper 890GX boards. AMD says the 890FX is a better overclocker than the 890GX, and while that might be true, we still hit a 300MHz base clock on an Asus 890GX board.

High-end motherboards like the ones we’ve looked at today aren’t about carefully considered value judgments, though. These are products fueled by desire rather than need—lust rather than logic.

The bargain hunter in me appreciates the fact that MSI’s 890FXA-GD70 rings in at just under $200. The GD70 is a solid mobo, offering plenty of PCIe slots, adequate BIOS-level fan speed controls, and modest idle power draw. However, the board is particularly power-hungry under load, and it doesn’t seem capable of hitting base clock speeds higher than 250MHz. The lack of a physical FireWire port on a $200 motherboard irks me, too.

Gigabyte’s 890FXA-UD7 will cost a good $50 more than the GD70 when it hits store shelves. The extra scratch buys you a faster FireWire chip, integrated audio capable of encoding Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the fly, and more base-clock headroom than on the MSI board. The UD7 also has a sixth PCIe x16 slot, which in turn necessitates a larger board that might not squeeze into mid-tower enclosures. Ultimately, though, I’m more concerned by the UD7’s relatively high power draw—that and Gigabyte’s apparent disinterest in providing enthusiasts with meaningful BIOS-level fan speed controls, even on its premium motherboards.

Asus Crosshair IV Formula
April 2010

So we’re left with Asus’ Crosshair IV Formula, whose BIOS offers the best fan speed controls I’ve seen in years. Despite its $230 asking price, the Crosshair actually offers a little bit less than the others; there’s only one GigE port and the board doesn’t support four-way CrossFire. The former is a more serious omission than the latter, but innovative features like ROG Connect go a long way toward making up the difference. Furthermore, the Crosshair is the most power efficient of the bunch, and it looks to have by far the most overclocking potential.

I may not need a high-end motherboard based on the 890FX chipset, but of the three we’ve looked at today, the Crosshair IV Formula is the one I want—and our Editor’s Choice.

Comments closed
    • swaaye
    • 10 years ago

    CPU Level Up!

    I think I most enjoyed the MSI Ferris wheel / rollercoaster heatpipe cooler mobo from the P35 days. And where did Gigabyte’s fruity white/blue/orange/yellow go? Oh the good ‘ol days….

    • clone
    • 10 years ago

    I’ll wait a little longer and see if Gigabyte can sort out it’s board with some BIOS updates and possibly another revision.

    the Asus board is functionally great but feature weak….. nothing serious but weak nonetheless.

    the MSI I’m reluctant to consider… I’ve had bad luck with MSI’s long ago and stopped buying them like 8 years ago….. I’ve sold 1 790 chipset about a year ago that is still running but no interest and todays result don’t make them compelling.

    since AMD released a mainstream priced 6 core I don’t even notice what Intel’s got… literally stopped pricing a new Intel board and cpu and began looking at the new AMD 6 cores and a new mobo to go with 8gb’s of ram.

    • fidof650
    • 10 years ago

    I’d like to see a review of the GA-890FXA-UD5 and the ASUS M4A89TD PRO. These boards are in the price range of typical AMD customers. I have purchased the GA-890FXA-UD5 in spite of being ignored by the reviewers. Heck I can’t even find a UD7 for sale in the US!!!
    I had to download the owners manuals for the UD7 & UD5 to do a side by side comparison in order to try and figure out what I can expect from the UD5. Fortunately the boards are relatively close aside from the obvious differences. The choice between ASUS and Gigabyte was obvious by the way, the Gigabyte had fewer bells and whistles but a better Audio solution. Most of the fancy switches on the ASUS simply duplicate what can be done in BIOS. Now for fan control… are you kidding me? Get a fan controller and be done with it. For me the real competition is between the UD5 and the Crosshair IV and the winner is still the Gigabyte with a savings of $50 to boot!!! The UD7 looses by default for stepping out-of-bounds. (XL-ATX)

    • Mr Bill
    • 10 years ago

    My experience with MSI’s 790FX board is that, you have to actively cool the chipset/VRM heatsink to get a stable overclock.

    • vongreek
    • 10 years ago

    Let’s not forget the fact that the Intel Core i7-920 is operating at a stock 2.6 ghz compared to 3.2 ghz for the AMD 1090T. Even if turbo boost is enabled (2.8 ghz) the Intel 920 leads almost all tests.

      • StuG
      • 9 years ago

      WTF are you smoking.

    • Drago
    • 10 years ago

    Two errors in the review, which may be of important / substantial nature.

    The Asus Crosshair Formula does NOT have an IDE and a Floppy connector (look at the specifications’ table and consider that also when doing your quiz later on)!

    Greetings,
    Drago

      • Krogoth
      • 10 years ago

      Floppies are already dead. Most modern motherboards allow you to do low-level flashing from thumb drives.

      As for the lack of PATA ports. It is getting harder to find a PATA HDD and PATA optical drive. 7/Vista and *nix can upload third-party controller drivers (if you want to run AHCI/RAID) on the fly from multiple sources. If you are stuck on something older like 2000, XP and 2003. You can stripstream a copy that incorporates the drivers.

      IMO, neither interface is going to be missed. PCI is about to meet the same fate.

        • Meadows
        • 10 years ago

        g{

          • Krogoth
          • 10 years ago

          It is already happening.

          Notice how all the new HDDs are SATA and SAS? Take an extra note and see how there are no PATA SSDs on the market?

          Optical drives are going the same route. The vast majority of Blue-ray drives are SATA.

          Laptops and its cousins have already ditched PATA.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            That’s not what you initially said. You said it’s getting more difficult to find PATA hard- or optical drives. That’s not true, you can buy them just as fast and easily as ever. They’re not hard to find.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Pedantic troll is pedantic.

            • NeelyCam
            • 10 years ago

            Yet pedantic troll is absolutely correct.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Lots of old stuff is ‘still available’ if you want to take that phrase literally only. Web searches are great for that. Even large vendors have old stuff sometimes, Newegg has listed OEM s478 CPUs within the last year. But when you look at whats’ available for PATA there’s nothing *new* and the numbers are dwindling. Anyone other than Meadowstroll understands that was the point Krogoth was making.

            • Krogoth
            • 10 years ago

            The subtle hint that PATA devices are going to EOL was loss on you.

            EOL = manufacturers are no longer producing them.

            There is a fixed supply on the market. It is just a matter of time before the supply dries up.

            That is why it is starting to get more difficult to find PATA devices. Any of the major etailers already have a dwindled selection and inventory of PATA devices.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            If they have a selection, then it’s not hard to find it.

    • Captain Ned
    • 10 years ago

    Has any current mobo maker listened to Dissonance’s plea and given us BIOS-level fan speed controls like we used to get from Abit (the reason I’ve yet to ditch the IP 35 Pro)?

      • Damage
      • 10 years ago

      Yep, Asus pretty much has, as noted in the article.

    • herothezero
    • 10 years ago

    TR motherboard reviews have no equal. This is the sort of review that sets TR apart from the noise.

    • NeelyCam
    • 10 years ago

    l[

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 10 years ago

      It’s even more insanely pointless? :p

        • shank15217
        • 10 years ago

        Its the exact same chipset as their socket g34 workstation platform. Just cause you may not know what to do with the feature set doesn’t mean its pointless.

          • OneArmedScissor
          • 10 years ago

          Aaah, ok…so because it has the same south bridge as a potentially four socket, 48 core server, and also two other types of cheaper desktop boards, its sole unique attribute of having over 9,000 PCIe lanes is somehow guaranteed to be legitimately useful in a desktop.

          To quote the late, great, Mitch Hedberg, “SEE I DID NOT KNOW THAT!”

            • shank15217
            • 9 years ago

            Im actually talking about the northbridge, who cares about the southbridge..

      • Dissonance
      • 10 years ago

      The 890FX has double the interconnect bandwidth, eight more gen2 PCIe lanes, and 6Gbps SATA support over the X58 Express. It even has a lower TDP.

      As for performance differences, the only big one is with HD Tach’s SATA write speed test. If you discount CPU utilization, which isn’t comparable due to differences in core counts and throttled CPU speeds, the two are on pretty even footing.

      Keep in mind that that the X58 is pushing a year and a half old now.

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      Fanboy.

        • NeelyCam
        • 10 years ago

        You or him?

          • Meadows
          • 10 years ago

          You of course. Your comment didn’t make too much sense.

            • NeelyCam
            • 10 years ago

            Of course it did. Did you even read my comment?

      • Krogoth
      • 10 years ago

      You mean practically “identical” performance? 😉

      • Voldenuit
      • 10 years ago

      AT tested AMD vs intel on SSDs with 6 Gbps SATA, and praised the performance of the 890GX compared to the X58 SATA 3 Gbps or a Marvell 6 Gbps controller (although the intel controller was still faster than the AMD one with SATA 3 Gbps drives).

    • blubje
    • 10 years ago

    So the Asus 890GX beats the FX boards in most of the tests, while costing significantly less, and it doesn’t get recommended?

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 10 years ago

      To be fair, they said that 890FXs in general are borderline senseless, but yeah, I still have to wonder why there’d be any reason to bother “recommending” one at all. That leans a bit to the hypocritical side of things.

      • Freon
      • 10 years ago

      That’s not what they’re selling today, silly.

      • Damage
      • 10 years ago

      To be clear, we selected the Asus 890FX board for an Editor’s Choice award because it was a very good mobo and the best of the three 890FX-based boards we tested for the “890FX motherboard roundup” aspect of this review.

      The 890GX and the Intel P55 and X58 boards we used in the chipset comparison weren’t competing in that particular contest. Our selection of the Asus 890FX board was not intended to be over and against the 890GX, P55, or X58 mobos, especially since we’re dealing with different price ranges and segments of the market.

      Granted, we could have explained that better, especially because articles like this one are complex and have several big things going on at once–chipset comparison, mobo roundup, etc. We’ll try to make the stakes and terms of these things clearer in the future.

      Still, I think Geoff did a nice job of pointing out the 890FX’s positioning and dealing with the fact that less expensive boards may have a broader appeal. If that’s somehow unclear to you, you’ll find a larger-picture view of our overall system building recommendations in our system guides, updated every other month. Those provide more context for a particular mobo selection, which can be helpful.

    • cas2010
    • 10 years ago

    why are they all putting the SATA ports on the edge of the motherboard?

    the horizontal orientation makes plugging in cables a real PITA and, worse, makes it difficult to fit a hot-swap drive cage (such as the Lian Li EXH34B) into even a huge case like the Antec 1200….as i found out recently. I had to mount it so that the drive cage sticks out the front of the case by about 1.5cm, and even that barely leaves enough room between the back of the cage and the m/b’s SATA port to actually plug in the cables.

    what’s wrong with the vertical oriented SATA ports that we used to get? are they 0.00001 cents more expensive or something?

      • insulin_junkie72
      • 10 years ago

      When I switched from a vertical SATA-plug board to a edge-mounted board in my P182, I found it much easier to stash the SATA cables for a cleaner look (and better airflow) with the edge-mounted plugs.

      Likely that’s one reason. Potential interference w/ monster videocards could be another.

    • anotherengineer
    • 10 years ago

    Hey Geoff. I see gigabyte has a new revision mobo out for the 890gx mobo and bios.

    I think the boys at TR should re-review the 890gx mobo’s with the new rev gigabyte mobo and the full atx MSI mobo 🙂

    *waits eagarly*

    • MadManOriginal
    • 10 years ago

    All over the MSI board overview page: ‘solid-state caps’…>_<

    /nerd rage

      • Freon
      • 10 years ago

      They’re JDM capacitors, overnighted from Japan.

    • albundy
    • 10 years ago

    bah! i thought the MSI board would come out on top! i’m sure it was the legacy stuff on their board that lost them the title. congrats to asus, but MSI still has the price advantage.

    • paulsz28
    • 10 years ago

    WHAT ABOUT RAID TEST!!??!?!!?

    Man, that was the critical test I was looking forward to in this review. Wondering if AMD has fixed their RAID issues.

      • flip-mode
      • 10 years ago

      +1 I’d like it if TR did a RAID roundup too.

        • shank15217
        • 10 years ago

        The number of variables in a RAID test is really too large; also motherboard raid systems are software assisted, not hardware accelerated. You need to be more clear on what you want tested.

          • OneArmedScissor
          • 10 years ago

          A RAID 10 array of Sandforce SSDs running the Facebook database, of course.

          • paulsz28
          • 10 years ago

          What we want tested:

          1) RAID 0 on a new SB800 mobo as an average would configure it

          2) Using mechanical HDDs mostly, although one pass with SSDs for reference wouldn’t hurt

          3) Run through a handful of “standard” storage tests already in the mobo reviews, but choose the tests that are perhaps more applicable to RAID 0

          4) Use Microsoft and AMD RAID drivers and comment on the differences

          5) Comment on how easy/hard configuring RAID on a particular board may be, i.e., intuitive/complex method, number of steps, screen shots, RAID limitations, etc.

      • MRFS
      • 10 years ago

      FYI: we’ve taken a counter-intuitive approach to
      RAID testing of SATA/6G channels, due to the
      current shortage of storage devices that support
      that interface speed.

      We wired 2 x WD 1TB SATA/6G HDDs to
      1 x ASUS PCIE GEN2 SATA6G controller (only $20)
      and ran PerformanceTest with a very small file size —
      small enough to fit entirely within the hardware caches
      of each HDD.

      This test needs to be repeated several times
      until the speed graph reaches its plateau or asymptote:
      this means that the test is reading ONLY from the
      HDDs’ hardware caches and NOT doing any platter accesses.

      We recorded 232.7 MB/second using a XP’s software RAID 0
      with those 2 x SATA/6G HDDs, each formatted as “dynamic disks”
      with an Intel E5300 CPU installed in the ASUS P5Q Deluxe.

      Here’s that graph:

      §[< http://www.supremelaw.org/systems/io.tests/ASUS.PCIE.GEN2.SATA6G.96MB.read.2xHDD6G.XP.RAID0.bmp<]§ MRFS

    • Ockham
    • 10 years ago

    I am picturing a quartet of Eyefinity6 Radeon HD5970s (yes, I know they don’t exist) pushing 24x 24in monitors aboard the Gigabyte. 12,800 stream processors, anyone? Maybe those ridiculous kilowatt power supplies are good for something.

    In other news, never thought I’d be so taken with a RoG mainboard. That Crosshair Formula is a silver bullet in the overclocking department… Maybe it’s time to replace ye olde A8N32-SLI and it’s Athlon X2 4200+.

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 10 years ago

    Wow, finally, AMD boards that actually let you adjust voltages.

    But what I am really wondering about are the 880Gs. Yeah, these make the manufacturers money and they want to spam them at reviewers, but I can’t imagine hardly anyone buys them.

    • matic
    • 10 years ago

    l[

      • swaaye
      • 10 years ago

      I see it happen with Intel chipsets too and those have nice built-in Intel GigE NICs! Something must be a few cents cheaper when going with Realtek.

      I don’t have any complaints about Realtek stuff though. It’s better than some of what NVIDIA has put out over the years!

        • Prototyped
        • 10 years ago

        The chipsets only integrate half of the GigE network interface — the MAC. The PHY — physical layer portion — has to be sourced separately, and I’m guessing that a RealTek MAC + PHY costs less than the corresponding Intel PHY.

    • Ryhadar
    • 10 years ago

    I just gotta say, I love TR’s motherboard/core logic reviews. You guys go into far more detail than most, and believe me when I say it is very much appreciated. Thanks for the review.

    Glad to see AMD’s chipset is not only on par, but in many cases exceeded Intel’s offerings.

    • DancinJack
    • 10 years ago

    I can’t wait til some lower priced 890X and FX boards come out. Hopefully i’ll be grabbing one of those come Q4 this year.

    • no51
    • 10 years ago

    Regarding the Gigabyte board. Will it fit on a regular case? Arent most midtower atx cases have room for 7 expansion slots and that Gigabyte one has 8 (1st slot is missing though).

      • wira020
      • 10 years ago

      I dont understand either. Does it mean that using the passive heatsink would mean I need a case with 8 expansion slot?…

        • grantmeaname
        • 10 years ago

        No, the circuit board doesn’t magically grow or shrink if you add or take away the cooler. It’s always that big.

    • grantmeaname
    • 10 years ago

    Does ASUS EPU increase the load power draw?

      • Dissonance
      • 10 years ago

      On the FX board, yes. But not on the GX.

        • grantmeaname
        • 10 years ago

        oh, that explains it. Go go gadget reading comprehension!

    • grantmeaname
    • 10 years ago

    Frist pots!

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      MadManOriginal would be proud.

        • SubSeven
        • 10 years ago

        About what? About being first or all this exiciting talk of pot?

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