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ASUS M4A88TD-M/USB3 & M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 AM3 Motherboards Review

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raxen

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Time and time again we find ourselves mentioning the advantages of owning an AMD system. While it isn’t possible to build the fastest consumer system available using AMD parts, you can bet that whatever components you bought will be the best bang for your buck.

AMD’s marketing strategy is simple: sell CPUs which range from $50 dollars to $350 dollars and make motherboards which are compatible with all of those processors.
When the consumer wants to upgrade their system, they simply replace their CPU. There is no need to buy additional ram or a new motherboard. The same scenario in the Intel camp could potentially have the consumer shelling out top dollar for more new parts just to upgrade from a LGA 1156 to a 1366, 1155 or soon to be released 2011 processor.

Keeping in mind the current instabilities faced by economies around the world, AMD’s pricing strategy is clearly geared towards the budget consumer market. As a result, AMD motherboards offered by manufacturers usually cost significantly less than their Intel counterparts.

Back in December 2009, we had reviewed two $100 ASUS 785G/SB710 motherboards – the M4A785TD-M EVO and the M4A785TD-V EVO – and were very impressed with the price and performance of these two boards. Today, we are going to look at the “updated” versions – the M4A88TD-M/USB3 and the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3. Both boards are equipped with an 880G/SB850 chipset combo, bringing to the table USB 3.0, SATA 6Gbps, Radeon 4250 integrated graphics processors, and much much more. To make matters even more interesting, the retail price for the mATX version is under the $100 mark while the larger, fully decked out ATX board costs about $110.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into these budget-level boards!

ASUS.jpg
 
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raxen

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880G Features and Motherboard Specifications

880G Features and Motherboard Specifications


Over the past few months we’ve reviewed a few AMD motherboards featuring 800-series chipsets, from the Gigabyte 870A-UD3 with the low-end 870, to the ASUS Crosshair IV Formula with the most powerful 890FX northbridge. Today we’re looking in-depth at the 880G northbridge, a low-to-mid range chipset designed to offer on-board integrated graphics, Hybrid CrossfireX, and even CrossfireX support at 16x/4x speeds for ATX-sized boards.

880G.jpg
SB850.jpg

The AMD 880G northbridge is an updated version of the 785G chipset featured on motherboards manufactured in 2009. Features-wise the two chipsets are almost identical. There’s support for 22 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes, DirectX 10.1, Hybrid Crossfire, AVIVO HD (UVD 2.0), and DVI, HDMI, Display Port, and d-Sub video outputs. The new Radeon HD 4250 Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP) in the 880G features a higher clock speed which is set at 560Mhz.

Most of the new features found on the two motherboards reviewed today are actually implemented on the SB850 southbridge, which gives the M4A88TD-M and the M4A88TD-V EVO SATA 6Gbps and RAID 5 capabilities. However, like all other motherboards on the market, USB 3.0 functionality is provided through the use of the NEC Superspeed P720200 controller.

Let’s first take a look at the features of the ASUS M4A88TD-M/USB3, a mini-ATX motherboard featuring the 880G/SB850 chipset combo, and the features of the ASUS M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3, the full-sized ATX version featuring the same chipset.

M4A88TD-M/USB3
Specs1.jpg

Specs2.jpg

M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3
Specs1.jpg

Specs2.jpg
 
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raxen

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


Box1.jpg
Box2.jpg

Let’s first take a look at the packaging and goodies contained in the boxes of these two motherboards. Firstly, the box design is strikingly similar between the two motherboards. Both advertise compatibility for AM3 Phenom II processors up to the 6-core series, Windows 7 and DDR3-2000 support, “Core Unlocker,” and CrossfireX support (although this is misleading for the M4A88TD-M as it technically supports only Hybrid CrossfireX technology). Naturally, both boards also offer USB 3.0 capabilities.

Box1.jpg
Box2.jpg

On the back of the boxes, we get an in-depth look at the other features both motherboards have to offer. In general, they bring the same things to the table, such as the 880G/SB850 chipset combo, SATA 6Gbps support, Realtek Gigabit LAN, “GPU Boost” overclocking support for the ATI Radeon 4250 IGP, and “MemOK!”

The M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 does offer a few more bells and whistles, such as 16x/4x Hybrid CrossfireX technology, a dedicated “Turbo Key II” overclocking switch, and Firewire 1394 capabilities. Both motherboards come with the standard 3-year warranty.

Box3.jpg
Box3.jpg

Opening up the two boxes, we’re greeted with the same accessories for both motherboards, namely the standard Instruction Manual and driver DVD, two SATA 6Gbps cables, one IDE cable, a foam-backed I/O shield, and ASUS’ patented Q-connect pin-header extensions for the case switches, LEDs, and USB front panel connectors.


Now that we’ve explored the boxes and accessories for both motherboards, let’s turn our attention to the smaller of the two brothers, the mATX-sized M4A88TD-M/USB3.
 
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raxen

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A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-M/USB3

A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-M/USB3


M4A88TD-M.jpg
1.jpg

The M4A88TD-M/USB3 is a mini-ATX motherboard designed to be used in HTPC or small form factor cases. Starting at the top edge of the board, we see a 4-pin 12V power connector and a CPU-fan header in the usual locations. At the top right we have the COM pin header in an unusual spot, but it remains unobstructed and poses no interference to surrounding components.

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Continuing on the right edge of the motherboard, there is the standard ITE IT8721F controller commonly found on many other boards including the high-end ASUS Crosshair IV Formula. This controller provides temperature, fan and voltage monitoring and is fully compatible with third-party programs like HWMonitor.

Next to the controller is a set of LPT pin headers, the MemOK! button, a 24-pin ATX connector, and a port for IDE connections.

For the readers who are unfamiliar with the MemOK! Button, it is a useful function which can resolve memory compatibility issues. It does so by loosening RAM timings until the system can boot properly. Because some RAM modules require increased voltages to reach stability at a certain speed, this feature is extremely useful as it allows the user to enter the BIOS menu, and adjust the necessary parameters to get the system running to spec.

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At the bottom right of the motherboard, are few things of interest. Firstly, ASUS has implemented a VIA VT6415 IDE controller to provide UltraDMA 133/100 IDE support for up to 2 devices. Just below that we have a BIOS chip and the clear CMOS header at an easily accessible location. There are also 6 SATA 6Gbps ports connected directly to the SB850 southbridge, supporting RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10.

It is important to note that the two rows of SATA ports are a mirror image of each other. ASUS has designed this so that the use of 90-degree angled SATA cables will not block any ports. In between the ports themselves is a green LED which simply tells the user whether the board is powered or not.

5.jpg

The bottom edge of the ASUS M4A88TD-M/USB3 has the usual case headers for the power and reset switch, LEDs, and speaker. There are also 4 sets of USB pin headers that support USB 2.0.

Continuing along the edge we find a toggle switch that controls the “Core Unlocker” function. This is another feature which was found on the high-end Crosshair IV Formula motherboard we reviewed earlier. Briefly speaking, this toggle switch allows the user to quickly unlock any disabled cores on Athlon II and Phenom II dual-core or triple-core processors. To do the same on competitor motherboards, the user would have to enter the BIOS menu and enable the function. In the case of ASUS motherboards, a simple flick of this switch is all that is needed. Unfortunately, this function is not supported on-the-fly. Enabling “Core Unlocker” while the computer is powered on will not result in any changes to the system. The user must power-off the computer for this function to work.

Beside the “Core Unlocker” switch we have SPDIF and AAFP (Analog Audio Front Panel) pin headers.

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8-channel audio and Gigabit LAN are provided by the Realtek ALC892 and RTL8111E chips respectively. These two chips are situated at the bottom left of the motherboard. Behind the rear audio headers we find the usual NEC D720200F1 USB 3.0 controller and a 3-pin fan header for a chassis fan.

8.jpg

Looking at the rear I/O panel, there are various connection ports including a PS/2 keyboard port, 4 USB 2.0 and 2 USB 3.0 ports, DSUB, DVI, HDMI, TOSLINK, Gigabit LAN, and audio plugs supporting 8-channel audio.
 
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raxen

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A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-M/USB3 Pt. 2

In this section we dive into the more important parts of the motherboard. In addition, we’ll explore any clearance issues which may arise when installing larger CPU heatsinks, RAM modules with tall heat spreaders, or extremely long video cards.

9.jpg

Firstly, looking at the MOSFET area, it seems that ASUS neglected to supply a heatsink to cool the power regulation transistors. However, comparable motherboards from other manufacturers also exclude a heatsink for mATX boards. At normal operating temperatures, these MOSFETs run extremely cool and will not generate enough heat to warrant a heatsink.

However, when overclocking a 140W processor, additional voltages will easily push these MOSFETs to their temperature limits. In a later section of this review, we will explore the temperatures of these transistors at normal operating voltages and at extreme voltages.

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On the other side of the CPU socket, we find four DIMM slots which are rated to support speeds up to DDR3-2000. It is important to note that DDR3-2000 can only be reached by overclocking the bus frequency. In other words, there is no ram multiplier which would set DDR3-2000 automatically.

Another thing to note is the alternating colours of the DIMM slots. To take advantage of dual-channel operation, the user must install the RAM into slots of the same colour.

Unfortunately, as shown in the picture below, the combination of a large CPU heatsink and RAM modules with heatsinks more than one inch tall creates significant problems by blocking a DIMM slot of each colour.


The northbridge heatsink allows for ample clearance for the PCI-E 1x and 16x slots. In additional, the southbridge heatsink is low-profile to prevent any blockage for longer video cards.

In terms of clearing the SATA ports, video cards 9.5 inches or longer will interfere with the top row of SATA ports. Fortunately, the clear CMOS jumper remains relatively unobstructed.
 
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raxen

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A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3

A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3


Now that we’ve taken a look at the M4A88TD-M/USB3, let’s take a look at the bigger ATX brother – the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3.

M4A88TD-V.jpg
1.jpg

There are quite a few similarities between this board and its M-ATX sibling we looked at on previous pages. Naturally, the ATX version has a few more features which are designed to allow for additional flexibility in terms of overclocking and overall performance but for the most part, both share quite a bit in common.

Starting at the top edge of the board, we have an 8-pin 12v power connector instead of a 4-pin on the M4A88TD-M/USB3. There is also a standard 4-pin CPU fan header.

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On the right hand side, are two toggle switches which activate “Turbo Key II” and “Core Unlocker.” We have already discussed the functions of “Turbo Key II” before in our Crosshair IV Formula review. Basically, it uses proprietary ASUS technology to automatically overclock the system with a flip of a switch. The performance achieved via overclocking using “Turbo Key II” is nowhere near what can be potentially achieved through manual tuning of a system, but for beginners who want a hassle-free boost, the “Turbo Key II” works quite well. Please see our Crosshair IV Formula review if you are interested in learning more about the capabilities of this function.

Going back to the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3, we also have the “MemOK!” button, a 3-pin fan header, and the 24-pin ATX connector next to the “Turbo Key II” switch.

Next on the list are five SATA 6Gbps ports at an unusual location in the middle of the motherboard. The two rows of ports are a mirror image of each other just like the M4A88TD-M/USB3, which means that they do not obstruct each other. It is unfortunate that there are only 5 SATA ports instead of the usual 6. So where did the 6th SATA port go? We’ll discover it again later in the review. Below the SATA ports is a BIOS chip and battery at an easily accessible location.

At the corner of the board, we run into an IDE connector port that is awkwardly placed and supported by a VIA VT6330 controller. A keen reader may notice that this controller is a lower model than the VT6415 found on the M4A88TD-M/USB3. However, the VT6330 actually has an extra ace up its sleeve. It is a combined IDE and Firewire 1394a controller, which would explain why there is a black 1394a connector at the bottom edge of the motherboard beside the case pin headers.

4.jpg
5.jpg

Looking at the bottom edge and starting from the right, are pin headers for the case switches and LEDs, 1394a, USB 2.0, COM, and SPDIF connectors for audio.

Easily missed along this edge is the CMOS jumper hidden behind the rightmost of the USB connectors. The location of this jumper is extremely inconvenient in tight-fitting cases. It is nearly impossible to wrap your fingers around the jumper to move it once the motherboard is installed.

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On the left hand edge are the same two Realtek ALC892 and RTL8111E found on the M4A88TD-M/USB3 is also found on the bigger brother. These two chips are responsible for 8-channel audio and Gigabit LAN respectively. Lastly, we also have the NEC D720200F1 USB 3.0 controller, AAFP front panel audio pin header, and a 3-pin rear case fan header in the area.

8.jpg

The rear I/O panel of the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 features a pretty interesting port selection. There is the usual PS/2 keyboard connector, four USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit LAN, DSUB, DVI, HDMI, TOSLINK for audio, and 8-channel audio. Unlike the M-ATX version, there is also a Firewire 1394a connector and a eSATA port, which explains why this motherboard only has five internal SATA connectors.
 
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raxen

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A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 Part 2

A Closer Look at the M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 Part 2


9.jpg
10.jpg

The area around the CPU has sufficient clearance to accommodate the behemoth CPU coolers on the market today. The included MOSFET heatsink provides ample cooling, and the Northbridge cooler is efficient enough to make sure chip temperatures are well within thermal limits.

Unfortunately, like the M4A88TD-M/USB3, the ram slots are easily blocked by larger CPU coolers.


Another significant issue with the layout of this motherboard is the location of the IDE port. Unlike other boards which have the IDE port near the 24-pin power connector, ASUS engineers decided to place the port at the bottom right corner. With this awkward location it becomes really difficult to keep certain cables tidy inside the case.
 
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raxen

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BIOS Breakdown

BIOS Breakdown


In general, the BIOS settings offered by the ASUS M4A88TD-M/USB3 and the ASUS M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 are extremely similar. As a result, we are going to focus on the screenshots of the M4A88TD-M/USB3 and point out any differences along the way.

BIOS1.jpg

The first screen simply displays the System Time, Date. Of most use to users will be the SATA Configuration area where you can set IDE, ACHI or RAID options for your hard drives. Let’s quickly move to the more interesting menus.

BIOS2.jpg
BIOS3.jpg

In the AI Tweaker section, users can control all the multiplier, frequency, and voltage settings used for overclocking. In addition, users can also overclock the integrated GPU in this menu.

For voltage controls, ASUS has included two options to increase the CPU and CPU-NB voltages: Offset or Manual. You can either apply a voltage offset (+0.1v, 0.15v, etc) or manually enter voltages directly (1.3v, 1.35v, etc) depending on your personal preference. In this menu, you can also set the voltage delivered to other components on the motherboard, such as the Northbridge, Southbridge, RAM.

It is definitely surprising to find Load-Line Calibration of the CPU and CPU-NB voltages on these two low-end motherboards.

BIOS4.jpg
BIOS5.jpg

Just like the Crosshair IV Formula, the M4A88TD-M and M4A88TD-V feature a DRAM Timing and Driving configuration pages. In these areas, you can fine-tune your ram to your heart’s delight by playing around with various RAM timings and drive settings to push your system to the absolute limit.

BIOS6.jpg
BIOS7.jpg

In the “Advanced” menu, there are a few things to make note of. Firstly, under the “CPU Configuration” menu, we can enable Cool n Quiet, C1E Support, and most importantly, ASUS Core Unlocker technology and CPU Core Activation – two important functions used to enable/disable hidden cores on certain Athlon II and Phenom II processors.

BIOS8.jpg
BIOS9.jpg

In the “Chipset” menu, options dedicated for the Internal Graphics can be accessed. There isn’t much to do here for the M4A88TD-M/USB3, but for the larger M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3, we can overclock the included 128MB of sideport memory under this menu.

The “Power” menu also presents us with some interesting options. The “HW Monitor Configuration” area is where you would set fan speeds to reduce the overall noise of your computer. Something new that ASUS included in the M4A88TD-M and M4A88TD-V is the “Anti Surge Support” function, which ASUS says will help protect your computer in the event of power surges.
 
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raxen

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Included Software

Included Software


Now that we have the motherboard unpacked and installed, it is time to take a look at some of the software utilities that ASUS has included with the M4A88TD-M and M4A88TD-V. The DVD contains all the drivers or ASUS-specific utilities that you will need to get your system up & running. However, we obviously recommend that you visit the ASUS website to get the very latest software revisions.

PC Probe II

PcProbe.jpg

PC Probe II is a system monitoring utility that displays information regarding fan speeds, component temperatures and voltages, as well as alerting users once preset thresholds have been surpassed.


Turbo V

TurboV1.jpg
TurboV3.jpg

Turbo V is ASUS’ popular overclocking tool. This application allows users to adjust all overclocking settings like the base clock frequency, CPU Multiplier, CPU voltage, CPU-NB voltage, memory voltage, and even the SB, HT, CPU VDDA voltage, when you click on “more settings”. All these settings can be tweaked without the need to reboot.

This program also allows users to also save profiles and load them from within Windows. One shortcoming of Turbo V is the inability to adjust CPU-NB and HT multipliers – a function ASUS definitely needs to include in the next version.

TurboV2.jpg
TurboV4.jpg

In this version of Turbo V, ASUS has included an automatic tuning function. By choosing your desired “performance”, “voltage parameters” and “ram divider”, the TurboV will automatically begin tuning your computer. We will benchmark the Turbo V tuned computer later in the review to test whether it can match the performance of a manually tuned system.

In addition to the automatic tuning function, ASUS has also included “Turbo Unlocker” into the program. Turbo Unlocker is analogous to AMD Turbo Boost, a built-in function for AMD Phenom II X6 processors which automatically increases the clock speed of the cores under load. However, Turbo Unlocker’s selling point is that it would work with any Phenom II processor, unlike AMD’s Turbo Boost which is only featured on Phenom II X6 processors.

While the features of Turbo V are innovative and useful, the software can be heavily improved upon. Firstly, the automatic tuning function is similar to the OC button in that it only increases CPU bus speed for overclocking. The software needs to recognize that a Black Edition processor is installed and increase the CPU multiplier instead.

Secondly, even when “Flexible Voltage” is selected, the program does not increase CPU voltage. Instead, it increments the CPU-NB voltage until a stable overclock is reached. This limits the potential overclock of the system.

Last but not least, Turbo V is missing the ability to change ram timings on-the-fly – a feature which would make it into an amazing overclocking tool.

As an add-on for motherboards with an integrated GPU, TurboV also supports on-the-fly GPU overclocking and voltage controls. This basic tool works exactly like overclocking the CPU, with a simple slider interface that the user adjusts to increase/decrease frequencies and voltages.
 
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raxen

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Test Setup and Methodology

Test Setup and Methodology



The following hardware configuration was used for all benchmarking:

Components.jpg

Temperature testing was done using a Mastercraft 52-0052-2 Digital Multimeter and a K-type Thermocouple.

Power consumption testing was done using a Blue Planet 052-8851-2 Electronic Energy Meter.

For all of the benchmarks, appropriate lengths are taken to ensure an equal comparison through methodical setup, installation, and testing. The following outlines our testing methodology:

A) Windows is installed using a full format.

B) Chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) are installed followed by a reboot.

C) To ensure consistent results, a few tweaks were applied to Windows 7:
  • Sidebar – Disabled
  • UAC – Disabled
  • System Protection/Restore – Disabled
  • Problem & Error Reporting – Disabled
  • Remote Desktop/Assistance - Disabled
  • Windows Security Center Alerts – Disabled
  • Windows Defender – Disabled
  • Screensaver – Disabled
  • Power Plan - High Performance

D) Programs and games are then installed & updated.

E) Windows updates are then completed installing all available updates.

F) Benchmarks are each run three times after a clean reboot for every iteration of the benchmark and the results are then averaged. If they were any clearly anomalous results, the 3-loop run was repeated. If they remained, we mentioned it in the individual benchmark write-up.

Here is a full list of the applications that we utilized in our benchmarking suite:
  • 3DMark06 Professional v1.2.0
  • 3DMark Vantage Professional Edition v1.0.2
  • Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
  • Crysis Benchmarking Tool (Retail build 6156)
  • HyperPi 0.99b
  • wPRIME 2.03
  • Lavalys Everest Ultimate v5.50.2143 Beta
  • Left 4 Dead 2
  • PCMark Vantage Advanced 64-Bit Edition (1.0.1)
  • ScienceMark 2.0 Build 21MAR05
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R Call of Pripyat Benchmarking Tool
  • WinRAR 3.8.0
  • x264 HD Benchmark v1.0
 
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