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MSI 970 GAMING AMD AM3+ Motherboard Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Due to what we can only describe as stagnating CPU development and a palpable lack of reader interest, we haven't actually reviewed an AMD AM3+ motherboard since all the way back in May 2011. Surprisingly - and regrettably - there really hasn't been any huge advancements since then. The processors are still fundamentally based on the Bulldozer microarchitecture, there is still no support for PCI Express 3.0, and the SB950 southbridge is still being used so high speed connectivity is limited to SATA 6Gb/s and USB 3.0. Overall then, there isn't a whole lot to get excited about. However, today we are reviewing a uniquely popular motherboard that features a chipset that we've never actually tested before, the mainstream AMD 970.

The motherboard in question is the MSI 970 GAMING, which is obviously part of MSI's popular gaming-oriented graphics card and motherboard series. As you would expect from a gaming motherboard, it features a fairly stereotypical black and red colour scheme, but on the plus side that means that it will match many of the Radeon GPUs on the market.

When it comes to specs, this model features six SATA 6Gb/s ports, one PCI-E x16 slot and one PCI-E x8 slot, support for 2-way CrossFire and 2-way SLI, two PCI slots, eight USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports plus an internal header, a gaming-oriented Killer E2205 LAN controller, a Realtek-based Audio Boost audio solution, and some automatic overclocking functionality in the form of OC Genie.

While none of these features might appear groundbreaking, the fact that MSI that was able to add support for two GPUs is actually quite noteworthy since the 970 chipset was designed to only support a single PCI-E x16 slot. Overall, at first glance anyways, for the money - a mere $100USD/$125CAD - this motherboard seems like a solid choice for anyone needing to replace their AM3+ motherboard or wanting to build a very affordable AMD-based system.

Let's find out if our first impressions are correct.

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SKYMTL

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Specifications & Features

Specifications & Features


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Before we get up-close and personal with this 970 GAMING motherboard through pictures, testing, and analysis, let’s take a look at this motherboard's specifications as per MSI's website. It is worth focusing on the fact that this motherboard supports all AM3 and AM3+ processors released since 2009, which equals to amount 140 different models. The exception to this is the flagship FX-9590 due to its extremely high 220W TDP. However, we will be testing out that particular chip later on in the review.


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Despite its low cost this motherboard has a few noteworthy features, and we will be examining some of them in-depth in the coming pages, especially the intriguing Audio Boost onboard audio and the OC Genie overclocking feature.
 

SKYMTL

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Packaging & Accessories

Packaging & Accessories


Now that we have gone over the 970 Gaming's features and specifications, it is time to examine the new packaging and then crack open the box to take a look at the accessories bundle. Let's check it out:

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As should come as no surprise, this motherboard's packaging features the same Gaming Series design that MSI has been using for a few years now with their gaming-oriented products. Particularly prevalent is the unmistakable dragon that is the centerpiece of the brand's logo.

The rear of the box lists some rudimentary specifications and highlights a few of this model's unique gaming-oriented features, namely those focused on the audio improvements. The packaging doesn't breathe fire at us, but it is overall well executed.

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Once you open the packaging, you are greeted with an inner box that contains two separate sections, the top half holds the motherboard in an anti-static bag and the bottom half contains the software, documentation, a door hanger, and cable labeling stickers. By the way, we are pleased to report that the user guide (and online manual) are extremely detailed, with a handy block diagram detailing all the interfaces and controllers, as well as a PCI-E bandwidth table explaining the unique manner in which PCI-E lanes are divided depending on how many graphics cards are installed. MSI always excelled in this area, so we have to give them credit where credit is due.

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The accessories bundle starts off with a unique colour scheme matching I/O shield, an MSI Gaming Series sticker, two SATA 6Gb/s cables, a 2-way SLI connector, as well as the aforementioned door hanger and cable labeling stickers.
 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the MSI 970 GAMING

A Closer Look at the MSI 970 GAMING


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In keeping with tradition, MSI have built this model with a matte black PCB and red accents everywhere, matching the colour scheme of the rest of their GAMING series products. Since it is now so common it's hard for us to get excited about this particular aesthetic, but you have to remember that this is a budget model...and yet it absolutely doesn't look like one. It is a properly good looking motherboard.

Since it's not quite jam-packed with features, MSI have managed to keep the 970 GAMING within the standard ATX form factor (30.5 cm x 24.4 cm / 12.0-in x 9.6-in), so there shouldn't be any issues whatsoever when it comes to installing this motherboard into any properly designed case. All the ports, headers, and connectors are properly located on the edge of the motherboard, except for the 8-pin CPU power connector which is squeezed between the rear I/O panel and the MOSFET heatsink. That is the only sore spot in what is otherwise a very nice layout.

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As you can see on the right hand picture, once you remove the stock heatsink bracket, this motherboard has one of most unobstructed CPU socket areas that we have ever seen. The MOSFET and northbridge heatsinks also do not pose any clearance issues, so you should have no problems installing a huge heatsink, or waterblock, or even insulating the PCB for sub-zero cooling. This would be an awesome motherboard on which to learn the basics of extreme overclocking. As you will see in our Overclocking Results section, it's definitely more capable than you might assume due to its price point.


The beefy MOSFET heatsink not only looks good and cools well, but it hides this motherboard's biggest surprise. Once you remove the heatsink, you will find that MSI have outfitted this model with a 6 + 2 phase power design. This might seem paltry compared to the 8 + 2 phase designs found on most 990FX motherboards, but you have to keep in mind that most competing 970 models feature a 4+1 design. When you combine these extra phases with the high quality Military Class 4 components - super ferrite chokes and polymer capacitors everywhere - you end up with a motherboard that has not been compromised in order to reach a low price point.

In fact, as we demonstrate in the Overclocking Results section, this motherboard has zero problems handling the extreme 220W TDP of the flagship FX-9590...a processor that is way more demanding that the 125W TDP models that this motherboard is officially certified for.

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As you would expect, the northbridge heatsink perfectly matches the MOSFET one and it is similarly a nice chunky piece of metal. It does a great job at cooling the AMD 970 northbridge, despite it's fairly high 13.6 Watt TDP. When we removed the heatsink, we saw that there was a good quantity of thermal paste on the die itself, which is also a very nice touch.

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Although the 970 chipset only officially supports DDR3 memory speeds support up to DDR3-1866, MSI have validated this motherboard for overclocked operation up DDR3-2133. We tested this upper limit and the motherboard worked flawlessly as you'll see later on in the review. The 2-phase power design for the memory slots is more than adequate for handling this type of load. Usually, we are glad to see a manufacturer use memory slots which are clip-less on one end since they tend to make it easier to remove the memory modules when there is a graphics card installed. However, as you will see in the Installation Section, we found these particular slots very tight which made RAM removal quite difficult. As we come to expect, the 24-pin ATX power connector is on the edge of the motherboard, exactly where it should be.

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The Slow mode booting switch is mostly used while doing extreme overclocking, it drops the CPU multiplier while booting to enhance system stability.

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The six black SATA 6Gb/s ports come from the SB950 southbridge and support RAID 0, RAID1, RAID5 and RAID 10. It's not a ton of connectivity compared to most motherboards that we review, but realistically it's more than most people will end up using in their average system, especially at this price point.

The southbridge heatsink features a large Gaming series symbol, but is not particularly large itself. It doesn't really have much surface area nor does have any fins per se, but the chipset doesn't run hot at all so cooling is not an issue. We removed the heatsink to reveal the tiny 50mm x 70mm SB950 southbridge which draws less than one watt at idle.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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A Closer Look at the MSI 970 GAMING pt.2

A Closer Look at the MSI 970 GAMING pt.2


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In the lower right-hand corner are two front panel headers, with JFP2 being the extra header designed to hook up your old case's buzzer or speaker. To the left are three simultaneous USB 2.0 headers, and the USB 3.0 header. To the bottom left of the southbridge heatsink is one of two VIA VL806 USB 3.0 host controllers, this one being responsible for the aforementioned internal USB 3.0 header.

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As mentioned on the introduction, the mainstream 970 chipset was designed for affordable single GPU systems, with a single PCI-E x16 slot and a companion PCI-E x4 slot for expansion cards. However, on this model, MSI was able to add support for two GPUs in an x8/x8 configuration by adding a series of ASMedia ASM1480 switches that redirect eight of the PCI-E lanes from the primary to the secondary mechanical PCI-E x16 slot. While these are PCI-Express 3.0 capable switches, this chipset still only supports the PCI-Express 2.0 standard, so it has quite a bit less bandwidth than we are used to seeing on Intel systems, but even x8 2.0 should be able to provide enough throughput for all but the highest end graphics cards. Thanks to these newly added capabilities, MSI was able to certify this model for both 2-way CrossFire and 2-way SLI.

Rounding out the expansion connectivity are two PCI-E x1 slots and two old school PCI slots for any legacy components that you might be carrying over from an older system.


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MSI have outfitted the 970-GAMING with an impressive onboard audio solution given this model's very low price point. As a starting point, it is based on the familiar Realtek ALC1150 ten-channel HD audio CODEC that is covered by an electromagnetic interference (EMI) shield. Next to the bank of Nichicon solid polymer capacitors is where you will find one of the two Texas Instruments OP1652 operational amplifiers (op-amps), which act as a dedicated headphone amplifier that can power 600 ohm headphones through the red audio jack on the rear I/O panel. There is an isolation line surrounds the audio section of the PCB and protects it from the rest of the system. All of this serves to help to preserve the signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio and thus ensure the highest possible sound quality.


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The Fintek F71878AD Super I/O controller not only provides support for legacy devices (like the PS/2 port), but also system monitoring and fan control capabilities. The single GbE LAN port is powered by a Qualcomm Atheros Killer E2205 network processing unit (NPU). Thanks to the included Killer Network Manager it is more versatile when it comes to managing the types of data packets used when gaming or streaming, but it is definitely higher performing than standard Realtek controller(s) when it comes to pure throughput or CPU utilization.

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On the rear I/O panel, there is PS/2 port, two special Gaming Device USB 2.0 ports that support a high 1000Hz polling rate and PS/2 N-Key rollover on operating systems that don't natively support it, an S/PDIF optical output, four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a Gigabit LAN port, two USB 2.0 ports, and six analog audio outputs.

While the eight USB 2.0 ports are supplied by the SB950 southbridge chipset, MSI expanded and improved the USB connectivity with a pair of VIA VL806 USB 3.0 host controllers that power the two USB 3.0 ports and the internal USB 3.0 header. Although we cover it better in the Installation section, the 8-pin CPU power connector is right between the rear I/O panel and is caught the MOSFET heatsink. It's a problematic location due to the fact that once you plug in the power cable the clip is almost impossible to release without using a tool.

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Lastly, on the rear of the motherboard we also get a good look at some of the little LEDs that illuminate the PCB isolation line that surrounds the audio sub-system, and they help give a pretty cool look to your system.
 
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SKYMTL

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


In the Hardware Installation section we examine how major components fit on the motherboard, and whether there are any serious issues that may affect installation and general functionality. Specifically, we are interested in determining whether there is adequate clearance in all critical areas.

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The 970-GAMING has a very low profile cooling system and a clutter-free CPU socket area, so there really shouldn’t be any issues when installing even the largest CPU cooler or even LN2 pot. As on all AM3+ motherboards, it is very easy to remove the stock heatsink retention components are replace them with those included with your aftermarket cooler.


Because of the way in which CPU coolers must be installed on AM3/AM3+ motherboards, the installation of memory modules with tall heatspreaders is a definite issue with the 970-GAMING...and nearly every other AMD motherboard that we've reviewed. As you can see, in this orientation the CPU cooler overhangs the first memory slot and even slightly overhangs the second slot. The end result was that we couldn’t install our G.Skill Trident X modules on this motherboard without first removing the fin on top. Thankfully, that's an option with these modules, but its not a possibility with most memory kits. You will need to use memory modules that are no taller than 42.5 millimeters or 1.67 inches if your CPU cooler has a similar footprint as our old school Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme.

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There is a huge gap between the back of the graphics card and the memory slots, so the use of memory slots with clips on only one side weren't really necessary. We found removing memory modules from this motherboard to be exceptionally difficult. The side without the clip really help on to the memory stick and we had to pull hard to dislodge it. The 24-pin ATX power connector is ideally placed so that makes assembling and disassembling the system just a tad easier, but the 8-pin CPU power connector is oriented in such a way that the little clip is far too close to the MOSFET heatsink. We could not user our fingers to release the clip, and had to resort to a screwdriver...which is something that we have never had to do before.



This board will hold two dual-slot graphics cards without issue. The cards overhang the motherboard, but the edge-mounted SATA connectors and various headers are still easily accessible. Unlike on most motherboards, if you install a dual-slot expansion card in the bottom PCI-E x16 slot it will not block the headers at the very bottom of the motherboards.

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The six right-angle SATA ports are obviously accessible no matter how many graphics cards are installed.

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As on all AM3+ motherboards, it is very easy to remove the stock heatsink backplate and there is nothing on the back of the motherboard that would give us cause for concern regarding clearance issues with an aftermarket CPU cooler mounting bracket.
 

SKYMTL

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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown


The 970 Gaming's UEFI BIOS implementation is basically identical to that of all their other GAMING series models, which should not be surprising since they are both based on the latest Click BIOS 4 version. This is good news since it represents a significant improvement over the version found on their previous Z87 motherboards. The layout and quantity of settings are not only enhanced, but the overall smoothness and mouse support are noticeably better as well.

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Unlike with some companies, there is no simple or advanced mode in MSI's implementation. What you see is what you get, which for some will certainly alleviate any potential confusion. The top left corner is where you will find the buttons for enabling/disabling the OC Genie feature and the XMP memory profile.

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The Settings menu is the section where you will find the bulk of the BIOS's settings. The System Status sub-menu lists some basic system information, including the date and time, standard storage devices, BIOS version, a few processor cache tidbits and the amount of memory installed. The Advanced sub-menu is also where you can enable/disable or just find all the various settings and options for all the onboard devices like the audio, LAN, USB 3.0, SATA ports, etc. The Boot sub-menu is essentially where you set storage device priority, select the boot drive, enable/disable the full screen logo, and ton of other boot settings that can help with the installation or troubleshooting of various OS installations. The Security sub-menu is where you can set the administrator and individual user passwords, as well as enable or disable chassis intrusion feature. There is also a Save & Exit option but that seems redundant since you can just hit the F10 key instead.


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The OC menu is where all the fun happens. You will find all of the essential system clocks: CPU FSB frequency, CPU multiplier, CPU-NB multiplier, Turbo Core settings with all-core and per-core options, memory frequency, memory timing options, HT Link speed, and all the voltage options. The only obvious thing missing is that there is no Load-Line Calibration (LLC) setting, but as you will see in our Voltage Regulation section that's not really a problem on this board.

As its name suggests, the Advanced DRAM Configuration section is where you will find all the memory-related settings. Within this section you can select and change all the memory settings, and each memory channel has its own section, from which you can alter the primary and secondary timings. It has just about every memory modifier that an enthusiast or overclocker would need to fine-tune their modules.

The CPU Specifications sub-section is where you can find all of the extensions that the processor you have installed supports, while the Memory-Z lists most of the important memory timings for each module you have installed. The CPU features section is where you can enable or disable all the CPU-specific features like AMD Cool 'n' Quiet, C1E, Virtualization, Core C6 State, and High Performance Computing mode.
 

SKYMTL

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BIOS Rundown pt.2

BIOS Rundown pt.2


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The M-Flash section is the built-in utility that greatly simplifies the BIOS updating process. You can easily update your BIOS from a ROM file located on your hard drive(s) or USB flash drive(s). It's quick, painless, and it takes the worry out of BIOS flashing.

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The OC Profile feature gives users the option to save and switch between BIOS profiles, for example an everyday profile and a benchmarking profile. Not only is this infinitely quicker than manually inserting every setting, but the profiles can be saved and shared among other 970 Gaming owners.

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The Hardware Monitor section is dedicated to the monitoring of the various voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds. This whole section is quite comprehensive, it has all the essential temperature and voltage readouts that you would expect. It also has improved fan control functionality thanks to real-time fan speed graphs with four manually adjustable RPM points. For those that prefer a more hands-off approach, there is also a Smart Fan Mode that can intelligently managed fan speeds based on CPU and/or system temperatures.

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One of the unique aspects of MSI's BIOS is the Board Explorer feature, which has been improved to now show which fan headers, USB ports, and SATA ports are in use. It's actually a pretty neat trick.

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By pressing the F1 key or by clicking on the little heart icon in the top right corner you are brought to the new and somewhat hidden Favorites section. This basically mirrors what we have seen on ASUS motherboards, and it basically allows you to have all your most useful or most used settings in one place, so you no longer have to search through the whole bios to find what you need time and time again.
 
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SKYMTL

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Included Software

Included Software


Command Center

The most important utility in MSI's software suite is the Command Center. Although MSI still has a few standalone apps for different functions, the CC can be used for a wide ranging number of tasks. This system management utility is the hub from which you can monitor system clock speeds, voltages, temperatures, and fan rotation but more importantly it allows users to do both automatic and manual overclocking from within Windows.

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The Command Center initially opens to the CPU section, where you can see the current CPU multiplier(s) and the BCLK frequency.You can manually change the multiplier for any one or all of the cores, as well as increase or decrease both the base clock and CPU core voltage on-the-fly. The DRAM section allows you to change the memory frequency, as well as alter the DRAM voltage (for each channel). The IGP section is a weird addition, which clearly highlights that this is just a lightly modified version of the utility bundled with other motherboards. You can even setup a RAMDisk if you are so inclined. The OC Genie section is where you will find the automatic overclocking feature, though we prefer using the one-click button in the BIOS. As you will see in our Overclocking Results section, it is nowhere as versatile or aggressive as ASUS's implementation, but it does work.


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There are even additional sections at the bottom of each section which allow you to launch further capabilities. In the Advanced section, you can manually change most system voltages, finely tune all system fans, or even tweak most of the crucial DRAM timings.


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The Settings section is where you can record system voltages, fan speeds, and system temperatures. You can also establish high or low voltage, fan speed, and system temperature warnings. The Mobile Control panel is where you setup remote access to overclocking and monitoring functions, as well configure your mobile device as a remote for your system's media playback.


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The Information section is - as its name suggests - just some fundamental information about the specifications of the motherboard, the processor, and the system memory. There is also a Hardware Monitor that allows you to monitor system voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures.


Live Update 6

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The Live Update 6 utility is where you can automatically or manually update all the included motherboard-specific software, and also download and flash the latest BIOS. You can also install or uninstall any of the software suites from this app as well.


FastBoot

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Fast Boot is utility that allows for an easy and automatic way to enter into the BIOS immediately after a restart. This is extremely handy for overclockers who tend to reboot their systems quite a bit as they dial in clock speeds. Unlike many others, this program also allows you to turn on or off MSI’s FastBoot option without having to enter the BIOS first.


Killer Network Manager

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The Killer Network Manager is the software control interface for the Killer E2205 network processing unit (NPU) that is installed along with the drivers. This utility provides users with a lot of control and monitoring capabilities over every application that is accessing the network. It displays CPU usage, NPU usage, ICMP and UDP average ping, and the network utilization of every system process and program. This tool also allows you give priority to certain applications, and throttle or block others to free network resources for other applications. It is your one-stop tool for monitoring and controlling all network traffic.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,840
Location
Montreal
Test Setups & Methodology

Test Setups & Methodology



For this review, we are going to be testing the performance of the ASUS X99-A in three configurations: default settings, automatic overclock settings, and manual overclock settings. The components and software are the same across all three, and aside from manually selecting the frequencies, timings, and voltages in the manual overclock configuration, every option in the BIOS was at its default setting.

AMD 'Vishera' AM3+ Test Setup​
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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.

C)To ensure consistent results, a few tweaks are applied to Windows 7 and the NVIDIA control panel:
  • UAC – Disabled
  • Indexing – Disabled
  • Superfetch – 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
  • V-Sync – Off

D) All available Windows updates are then installed.

E) All programs are installed and then updated, followed by a defragment.

F) Benchmarks are each run three to eight times, and unless otherwise stated, the results are then averaged.

Here is a full list of the applications that we utilized in our benchmarking suite:
  • 3DMark Vantage Professional Edition v1.1.3
  • 3DMark11 Professional Edition v1.0.132.0
  • 3DMark 2013 Professional Edition v1.4.828
  • AIDA64 Extreme Edition v3.00.2536 Beta
  • Cinebench R11.529 64-bit
  • SuperPi Mod v1.9 WP
  • MaxxMEM² - PreView v2.01
  • Sisoft Sandra 2014.SP3 20.28
  • Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark v1.0.0.0
  • wPRIME version v2.10
  • X3: Terran Conflict Demo v1.0
That is about all you need to know methodology wise, so let's get to the good stuff!
 

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