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MSI A88XM GAMING: Premium FM2+ Motherboard

The MSI A88XM GAMING is unusual: It’s a premium motherboard for a budget socket. It sports big heatsinks, plenty of SATA 6 Gbps and USB 3.0 ports, a shielded/isolated audio chip with headphone amplifier and the full gamut of enthusiast BIOS controls. All this at a price far below comparable Intel offerings.

May 22, 2014 by Lawrence Lee

Product
MSI A88XM GAMING
FM2/FM2+ mATX Motherboard
Manufacturer
MSI
Street Price
US$110

AMD’s FM2/FM2+ socket is positioned as their mainstream budget platform for the masses. Rather than world beating performance, their desktop APUs offer decent integrated graphics, energy efficiency, and affordability. Their quad core chips are particularly popular as Intel has nothing comparable at anywhere near the US$100 price-point. AMD’s motherboards are cheaper as well, by about US$20 on average, as determined in our A8-7600 review. High-end boards often go for twice the average or more and are jam-packed with every feature you can imagine and may include frivolous bonuses. For a budget socket like FM2+, premium models are somewhat more reserved.


The MSI A88XM GAMING.

At US$110, the MSI A88XM GAMING is one of the most expensive FM2+ boards on the market, and is easily the priciest microATX model (the smaller form factor is often reserved for more basic fare). Compared to the few FM2/FM2+ boards we’ve used in the past, the A88XM has a more professional appearance and formidable looking heatsinks. MSI designates it as Military Class 4, that is to say, they claim it’s manufactured with higher quality components that run cooler and more efficiently.

MSI A88XM GAMING: Specifications
(from the product
web page
)
CPU AMD Socket FM2+/ FM2 A-Series/Athlon™ Processors
* Please refer to CPU Support for compatible CPU; the above description is for reference only.
Chipset AMD® A88X Chipset
Main Memory 4 x DDR3 memory slots support up to 32GB
• Supports DDR3 1333/ 1600/ 1866/ 2133/ 2400(OC) MHz
• Dual channel memory architecture
• Supports non-ECC, un-buffered memory
• Supports AMD Memory Profile (AMP)
• Supports Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
* For the support status of AMP/XMP memory modules, please take MSI’s Memory Support list as reference.
Slots • 2 x PCIe x16 slots
– PCI_E1 supports up to PCIe 3.0 x16 speed*
– PCI_E4 supports up to PCIe 3.0 x8 speed*
• 2 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slots
* Only FM2+ processors can support PCIe 3.0
Graphics 1 x VGA port, supporting a maximum resolution of 1920×1200 @60Hz, 24bpp
• 1 x DVI-D port, supporting the maximum resolutions of 2560×1600@60Hz, 24bpp/ 1920×1200 @ 60Hz, 24bpp
• 1 x HDMI port, supporting the maximum resolutions of 4096×2160@24Hz, 36bpp*/ 3840×2160@30Hz, 36bpp*/1920×1200@120Hz, 36bpp and 1920×1200@60Hz, 36bpp
• 1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096×2160@24HZ, 24bpp**
** The DisplayPort does not support “Hot-plug”.
On-Board SATA AMD® A88X Chipset
– 8 x SATA 6Gb/s ports
– Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID5 and RAID 10
USB • AMD® A88X Chipset
– 4 x USB 3.0 ports (2 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB connectors)
– 8 x USB 2.0 ports (2 ports on the back panel, 6 ports available through the internal USB connectors)
• VIA VL806 Chipset
– 2 x USB 3.0 ports on the back panel*
* These USB 3.0 ports do not support M-Flash recovery function.
Audio • Realtek® ALC1150 Codec
– 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
– Supports S/PDIF output
LAN Killer E2205 Gigabit LAN controller*
-1 x LAN port on the backpanel
* The Killer Network Manager is only available for Windows 7 and Windows 8 currently. The supported drivers for other operating systems would be available on the website if provided by vendor.
Internal I/O Connectors 1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse combo port
– 2 x USB 2.0 ports
– 4 x USB 3.0 ports
– 1 x VGA port
– 1 x DVI-D port
– 1 x HDMI port
– 1 x DisplayPort
– 1 x Optical S/PDIF-Out connector
– 1 x LAN (RJ45) port
– 6 x OFC audio jackss
* This platform supports dual-display function (HDMI+VGA, HDMI+DVI, VGA+DVI) and triple-display function (HDMI+VGA+DVI)
MSI Reminds You…
• The graphic output can only work with CPUs with GPUs core inside.
Dimension 9.6 in. x 9.6 in. (24.4 cm x 24.4 cm) Micro-ATX Form Factor
Mounting 6 mounting holes

From a feature standpoint, the board is well equipped and has some interesting extras. The A88X chipset allows for eight SATA 6 Gbps ports, and MSI threw in an additional VIA controller to bring the USB 3.0 port count up to four at the back with an additional two available for front connectivity. Two PCI-E 3.0 16x slots are provided (reverts to PCI-E 2.0 for FM2 chips) though the bottom slot is 8x and its positioning almost guarantees you’ll need an ATX case for a two-way CrossFire GPU configuration. The board sports “Audio Boost” which means the integrated sound chip is shielded from EMI, its signal traces are isolated from the rest of the board circuitry to cut down interference, and an 600 ohm headphone amplifier has been added for extra aural damage. The onboard gigabit ethernet adapter is a Killer E2205, based on the polarizing Killer NIC that claimed to reduce gaming latency and improve framerates. One of the chief complaints of the Killer NIC was its outrageous price (over US$200) so it’s amusing to see the technology built into a US$110 motherboard.


The box.


Accessories.

The A88XM GAMING comes with the usual assortment of accessories including a user guide, driver/utility disc, I/O shield, and four SATA cables. They’ve also thrown in an oversized case badge, a somewhat ironic “do not disturb sign” for your door, and a report summarizing the benchmark results filled out by an MSI employee, suggesting each board is hand-tested before being shipped out.

PHYSICAL DETAILS

The MSI A88XM GAMING has a relatively traditional layout for a microATX motherboard, though a few features stand out prominently, namely, the onboard buttons, the large heatpipe cooler servicing the voltage regulators, and the lighting around the audio chip.


The area surrounding the CPU socket is very orderly with capacitors on the inside, followed by the chokes, and the MOSFETs sitting under the VRM heatsink.


The heatpipe cooler is shaped like a dragon with most of the heat dissipation area on the red exterior portion. The highest point measures 33 mm above the PCB surface.


Overclockers often configure and test system settings outside of the case so physical power and reset buttons can come in handy. The large OC Genie button activates automated overclocking. The “DIP” switch toggles between two different overclocking gears, while the “SLOW_1” switch enables a slower boot process which apparently alleviates booting uses when using low temperature cooling solutions (liquid nitrogen).


The eight SATA 6 Gbps ports are located next to the slim FCH heatsink and are side-facing to prevent interference with long expansion cards. These 6 Gbps ports are powered by the native AMD controller and support RAID 0/1/5/10.


A high-end board isn’t complete without a bit of color. A twisting red line lights up like a trail of lava around the audio chip, designated the segregation of its circuitry. The EMI shielding also has a hot pink decal. MSI claims this helps deliver a cleaner sound but we couldn’t hear the difference during a brief comparison with other models.


The board’s heatsinks are secured with spring-loaded screws rather than the plastic pushpins of cheaper models.


On the back panel, all four common display outputs are accounted for, with the HDMI and DisplayPort connectors both supporting 4K resolutions provided an FM2+ APU is used. Surprisingly, only two USB 2.0 ports are offered, with the other four being of the USB 3.0 variety, one pair powered by the native AMD controller, the other by an additional VIA chip. Of course, 6 additional USB 2.0 ports are available through the internal USB headers.

BIOS/UEFI

The A88XM GAMING’s BIOS has a unique look and feel distinct from other manufacturers. It has a windowed interface with the active menu appearing in the center. A brief overview of the components, boot order, and temperature information appear at the top, while the clickable sections are on either side.


Main menu.


Some items require more screen space and expand over the outer portions of the GUI. If you can’t remember exactly what’s plugged into your system and are too lazy to look, the Board Explorer gives you a rundown of all the peripherals.


Boot order options aren’t usually noteworthy, but this board’s list is excessively long and all 13 options and non-options are presented graphically at the top.


Minimum and maximum fan speeds and temperatures for each header are adjustable in the fan control options. It’s certainly capable but the design needs some work, especially the hideous chart tat tries to keep track of everything in one graphic. The CPU fan supports PWM control only, while the two system fans use voltage control. As a result, the two system fans have a higher minimum fan speed of 50%.



Overclocking settings with maximum values entered. If you’re looking to eke out better energy efficiency, the CPU base frequency can be lowered down to 90 MHz and the CPU voltage set to a minimum of -0.10V.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Setup:


Test configuration device listing.

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Video Test Clips


1080p | 24fps | ~22 mbps

H.264/MKV 1080p: A custom 1080p H.264 encoded clip inside an Matroska container.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~2.3 mbps

Flash 1080p: The Dark Knight Rises Official Trailer #3, a YouTube HD trailer in 1080p.

 

Estimating DC Power

The following power efficiency figures were obtained for the
Seasonic SS-400ET used in our test system:

Seasonic SS-400ET Test Results
DC Output (W)
21.2
41.6
60.2
81.9
104.7
124.1
145.2
AC Input (W)
32.0
58.0
78.0
102.0
128.0
150.0
175.0
Efficiency
66.3%
71.7%
77.1%
80.3%
81.8%
82.8%
83.0%

This data is enough to give us a very good estimate of DC demand in our test
system. We extrapolate the DC power output from the measured AC power input
based on this data. We won’t go through the math; it’s easy enough to figure
out for yourself if you really want to.

Testing Procedures

Certain services/features
like Indexing, Superfetch, System Restore, and Windows Defender are disabled
to prevent them from causing spikes in CPU/HDD usage. We also make note if energy
saving features like Cool’n’Quiet, SpeedStep or S3 suspend-to-RAM do not function
properly.

Our main test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power consumption
at various states. To stress the CPU, we use either Prime95 (large FFTs setting) or CPUBurn depending on which produces higher system power consumption. After 10~15 minutes of load (when temperatures stabilize), We also measure the hottest points on the external heatsinks using an infrared thermometer. To stress the IGP, We use FurMark, an OpenGL benchmarking and stability testing utility.

TEST RESULTS

Power Consumption

Compared to three previously tested FM2/FM2+ motherboards, the A88XM is the most energy efficient overall, whether under light or heavy load. It won or tied every test state except for playing Flash video.

Unfortunately it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much of the energy draw
is generated by the processor alone, as the amount of power pulled from the
AUX12V/EPS12V connector depends on how board power regulation has been implemented. The A88XM GAMING only relies heavily on the +12V line when under heavy load like video encoding.

Cooling

To test the board’s cooling, the CPU was stressed for ~15 minutes with Prime95. Temperatures of the boards’ chipset heatsinks were recorded using a spot thermometer. The highest temperatures were taken for comparison.

As the A88XM is the only FM2/FM2+ board we’ve tested with significant cooling (ie, heatsinks that aren’t weeny), it won our thermal challenge handily by double-digits. The FCH heatsink was 12~15°C cooler than the competition, while the VRM cooler had an advantage of well over 20°C.

Software & Fan Control

The Command Center utility gives users the ability to fine-tune their system from the comfort of the Windows desktop or from a mobile app if the system is connected to the same network via WiFi. In regards to overclocking, many of the more detailed settings are hidden in the advanced menu which gives the application a clean, simple look. It’s easy to get lost in the latest versions of AI Suite and EasyTune (by ASUS and Gigabyte respectively) which bombard you with a ridiculous number of settings — MSI’s solution is very succinct by comparison. It could use some extra work though, as there are oddities like the fan controls being shoehorned into the default (CPU) menu.

As in the BIOS, each fan header can be controlled separately and there is a fan tuning option that puts the connected fans through their paces to determine their operating range. Smart mode only allows you to assign two temperature/fan speed points on the graph.

Command Center would be a capable application… if it worked. Unfortunately, on our sample, it was incredibly buggy, crashing so often in the fan control section as to be practically unusable. Once switched to manual mode, it stopped responding if we went back to smart mode without fan tuning first. After that, we could not switch back to manual mode. We have no screenshots of the advanced menu because we never managed to access it. The same issue was reported on MSI’s support forum and a BIOS update was suggested as a solution, but neither the latest official 1.11 update or the beta 1.21 update posted in the thread resolved this issue.

Usually SpeedFan is a solid alternative, even if the manufacturer’s utility works, but the latest version (4.49) isn’t yet compatible with the A88XM’s controller chip.

Another example of lackluster design are the DRAM and IGP sections, which are both clickable, but share the same menu.

Surprisingly there is a built-in RAMDisk option that allows users to use a portion of system memory to function as a high performance flash drive for browser caches and temporary files created in Windows. We’ve only seen this on one previous motherboard, the premium US$200+ ASUS Maximus VI Impact. However, until Command Center is patched to be more stable, it’s probably not wise to use this feature.

Boot Performance

To test boot time, the BIOS/UEFI was optimized by setting the hard drive recognition and other delays set to minimum, taking care not to disable common functionality like full USB support, POST messages, etc. and measured the time it takes to reach the Windows loading screen (we stop here because this is the point where the O/S and drive become factors).

The A88XM has a “fast boot” and a “MSI fast boot” option in the BIOS that eliminates any unnecessary delays, etc. to get the system booted up as soon as possible. We couldn’t tell the difference between the two, and neither setting disabled anything major like recognition of USB peripherals/drivers. The system reached the Windows loading screen in just under 12 seconds which is more or less average for a FM2/FM2+ motherboard.

Network Performance

Our brief networking performance test involves a simple timed manual file transfer of a batch of 99 files of various sizes totaling 1738MB, performed three times each way, with the results averaged. To ensure there was no drive bottleneck, high speed SSDs were used, a Samsung 840 Pro
connected to the test board/system, and an ADATA XPG SX910 to a reference machine in our lab which has an integrated Intel 82579V gigabit ethernet adapter which has proven to be reliably fast. The two computers were networked with a consumer grade D-Link unmanaged switch.

We can’t comment on the Killer NIC’s claimed latency benefits, but we can say it’s the fastest network adapter with which we’ve performed our real world file transfer test. Both the average downstream and upstream speed was a shade above 95 MB/s (762 mbps).

FINAL THOUGHTS

With the A88XM GAMING, MSI succeeded in building a high-end FM2+ motherboard. The frequency/voltage options in the BIOS will satisfy the majority of overclockers, as will the physical buttons and switches on the board itself. AMD’s current crop of APUs aren’t terribly demanding so cooling is rarely an issue, but the heatsinks employed are absolutely top-notch, producing much lower temperatures than previous bpoards. Excellent energy efficiency, a capable network adapter, and the presence of eight 6-Gbps SATA ports, make it an excellent server candidate as well. The fan control capabilities are above average but they’re not quite as customizable as Gigabyte and ASUS’ latest offerings.

Aside from some questionable UI choices in the BIOS and in their software, the one serious disappointment was the Command Center utility itself. Usually something like this would warrant just a brief side-note but Command Center managed to distinguish itself by spectacularly crashing almost every time we clicked on anything in the fan control section. The bright side is that all its core functionality is replicated in the BIOS, and though it’s not as convenient to access, most users set the fan controls once or twice during system assembly and rarely thereafter, so the flaw is not a deal-breaker.

MSI managed to load the A88XM GAMING with features, but as FM2+ is a budget platform, they didn’t go overboard. While it’s not clear whether Audio Boost or the Killer NIC offer tangible benefits, the additions obviously didn’t add too much too the cost of the product. It’s an expensive motherboard only when compared to other FM2/FM2+ models. You get a lot for the US$110 price tag.

Our thanks to MSI for the A88XM GAMING motherboard sample.

* * *


MSI A88XM GAMING
is Recommended by SPCR

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