iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Mid-End Motherboard Roundup

Socket AM2+ motherboard market analysis.

December 31, 2008

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What motherboards are the most popular in our target price range? We can get a formal answer just by typing names of all chipsets one by one in a search engine, like price.ru, to find out the number of offers for each motherboard. From this long list we selected motherboards, which characteristics match our Mid-End criteria. These are mostly full-size motherboards for $80-100.

Motherboard Chipset On-board video outputs Expansion slots Max. CPU TDP, W SATA USB FireWire HDA codec, S/PDIF Size, mm
ECS EliteGroup GF8200A GeForce 8200 VGA, HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 95 5 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1, and 5), 1 eSATA300 6+6 - IDT 92HD206 305x220 (ATX)
ASUS M3N78 GeForce 8200 DVI-D, VGA, HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 140 5 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1, and 5), 1 eSATA300 6+6 - VT1708B, opt SPDIF Out 305x245 (ATX)
ASUS M3N-H HDMI GeForce 8300 HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 125 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1, and 5) 6+6 1+1 ALC1200, coax SPDIF Out 305x245 (ATX)
ASUS M3N78 PRO GeForce 8300 HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 140 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1, and 5) 6+6 1+1 ALC1200, coax SPDIF Out 305x245 (ATX)
ECS EliteGroup A780GM-A AMD 780G + SB700 VGA, HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 95 5 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, and 0+1), 1 eSATA300 6+6 - IDT 92HD206 305x220 (ATX)
ASUS M3A78-EH AMD 780G + SB700 - 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 95 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, and 0+1) 4+8 - ALC883 306x225 (ATX)
ASUS M3A-H/HDMI AMD 780G + SB700 VGA, HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 125 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, and 0+1) 4+8 - ALC1200, coax SPDIF Out 305x218 (ATX)
Gigabyte MA78G-DS3H AMD 780G + SB700 DVI-D, VGA, HDMI 2 PCIEx16, 3 PCIEx1, 2 PCI 140 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 4+8 1+2 ALC889A, opt SPDIF Out 305x228 (ATX)
ASRock A780FullDisplayPort AMD 780G + SB700 D-Sub, DVI-D (HDMI), DisplayPort 1 PCIEx16, 1 PCIEx1, 2 PCI 125 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 6+4 1+1 ALC662 245x245 (microATX)
Gigabyte MA78GPM-DS2H AMD 780G + SB700 DVI-D, VGA, HDMI 1 PCIEx16, 1 PCIEx1, 2 PCI 140 5 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1), 1 eSATA300 4+8 1+1 ALC889A, opt SPDIF Out 245x245 (microATX)
ASRock A770CrossFire AMD 770 + SB700 - 2 PCIEx16, 1 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 140 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1), 1 eSATA300 (shared) 6+4 - ALC888, coax & opt SPDIF Out 305x245 (ATX)
Foxconn A78AX-K AMD 770 + SB700 - 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 95 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 4+6 - ALC662 305x208 (ATX)
MSI K9A2 Neo-F AMD 770 + SB600 - 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 2 PCI 125 4 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 4+6 - ALC888 305x220 (ATX)
Biostar TA770-A2+ AMD 770 + SB600 - 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 125 4 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1), 2 eSATA300 6+4 - ALC888 305x245 (ATX)
ASUS M3A AMD 770 + SB600 - 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 95 4 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 4+6 - ALC883, coax SPDIF Out 305x218 (ATX)
ASUS M3A78 AMD 770 + SB700 - 1 PCIEx16, 2 PCIEx1, 3 PCI 140 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 6+6 - VT1708B, opt SPDIF Out 305x245 (ATX)
Gigabyte MA770-DS3 AMD 770 + SB700 - 1 PCIEx16, 4 PCIEx1, 2 PCI 140 6 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1) 8+4 2+1 ALC888, coax & opt SPDIF Out 305x210 (ATX)
MSI K9A2 CF-F AMD 790X + SB600 - 2 PCIEx16, 1 PCIEx1, 2 PCI 125 4 SATA300 RAID (0, 1, 0+1), eSATA300 (optional) 4+6 - ALC888 305x220 (ATX)


The number of ports and slots for peripheral devices and storage drives, provided in this table, hardly requires any comments (you can put two and two together on your own). The number of USB and FireWire ports is published as a total number of ports on the rear panel and brackets. The number of SATA ports is determined by the chipset support (Southbridge), all the motherboards offer as many ports as their chipsets support. Additional controllers are rarely used in this segment (mostly for eSATA), but there is no practical need for them: 4-6 ports are quite enough. All motherboards can boast of the sterling integrated PATA channel (for two PATA133 devices). Fortunately, they did not experiment with AMD users here.

All motherboards support processors for Socket AM2 and AM2+ (HT bus complies with the Standard 3.0, so it may operate at up to 2600 MHz with a Phenom processor). TDP of most AMD processors does not exceed 95W, only several Phenoms X4 and top Athlons X2 and FX have TDP=125W, and 140W is typical only of the first revision of Phenom 9950 (now you can find the model marked HD995ZXAJ4BGH with the TDP reduced to 125W). A full list of processors with key specifications is published on this page. However, a safety margin here will contribute to stability and long service life of a motherboard. So an on-board voltage regulator had better provide higher power capacity than required for a given processor (for example, processors with TDP 45-89W need motherboards that can supply 95W. And what concerns 95-W processors, you should choose a motherboard that can supply up to 125W).

Maximum memory capacity, mentioned in specifications, varies from 4GB to 32GB. But it's determined not only by technical parameters, but also by a given manufacturer (DDR2-1066 is officially supported in all cases). For example, ECS specifies 32GB for all motherboards, but there is a note saying that compatibility tests were run with memory modules up to 2GB only. On the contrary, ASUS sticks to the conservative policy and announces support for 8GB even in expensive models. Maximum capacity of memory modules that can be found in stores reaches 4GB now. For example, we've recently tested Qimonda DDR2-800 4GB. So we can install four 4GB modules to get 16GB of memory. This very memory capacity is supported by Gigabyte, ASRock and Biostar motherboards. And the minimum value of4GB is declared by Foxconn for the A78AX-K.

In practice, intentional memory size restrictions are not used very often, and the memory controller in any processor for Socket AM2 and AM2+ can work with any DDR2 memory capacity. There are no limitations on maximum memory size in modern chipsets for the AMD platform. High-capacity memory modules have the two-bank organization, so the load on a memory controller differs little from the situation with memory modules below 2GB. If modules have the standard voltage and timings, there is no need to alter any BIOS settings. Only if you deal with memory modules for overclockers (regardless of their capacity), you should specify the recommended voltage in BIOS setup, as such modules often require non-standard voltage, and a motherboard may have no idea of this feature, which may lead to instabilities.

There is also no need to mention the way a gigabit network controller is installed -- it's either PHY (NVIDIA chipsets) or PCIE. From the point of view of a user, both options offer similar performance. And what concerns old proprietary functions of NVIDIA chipsets, modern models retain only traffic shaping and failover. But if you really need these functions, it's much more convenient to use universal software tools, as they will generate only minimum CPU load. What's much more important, manufacturers abandoned the PCI design for their network controllers even in the cheapest motherboards, which looked really out of place with gigabit speeds (however, this solution was wide spread a year ago).

Motherboards with GeForce 8200/8300 and AMD 780G can pool resources of the integrated graphics core and a graphics card (in case of GeForce 8400/8500 and Radeon HD 3450/3470) in Hybrid CrossFire mode. For some motherboards without on-board video outputs it's the only way to use the chipset resources. However, owners of full-size motherboards with integrated chipsets usually don't use this feature. Users can be divided into two groups here: those who use the integrated core only (mostly AMD 780G), or those who intend to install a graphics card, which is always more powerful than any integrated solution.

What concerns the classic CrossFire support (two graphics cards), you can actually find motherboards with two graphics ports in this price range -- original products with AMD 780G and 770 chipsets (two models from Gigabyte and ASRock are especially popular) or with 790X. In the nearest future we'll also get 790GX-based products. Such retail offers are rapidly growing, prices are dropping, and these motherboards demonstrate attractive characteristics. So if you are interested in CrossFire, it can make sense to pay extra money for such product even now. Inexpensive motherboards do not support SLI, as cheap chipsets from the NVIDIA series do not allow to add the second graphics port due to the insufficient number of PCI Express lanes. Only chipsets with official SLI support allow to redistribute lanes from the main port, and they are rather expensive.

What concerns audio codecs, 8-channel models from Realtek dominate in this market segment. Only ASUS experiments with VIA codecs from time to time (better than the old experiments with ADI codecs). And ECS uses IDT codecs (this is not the best choice according to our test results, it's apparently determined by the need to save on production costs). On the good side, we get S/PDIF Outs much more often than a year ago, usually both optical and coaxial. Besides, many motherboards with integrated graphics cores offer a competition to S/PDIF for wide TV sets and home entertainment centers -- HDMI. If you appreciate high analog audio quality, you will still want a PCI sound card (or PCIE). In the Mid-End segment such sound cards are often taken from older computers, because sound cards are developing very slowly.


ASUS offers the maximum number of models in its product lines in combination with traditionally high activity of its distributors. Small wonder that the company takes up the most positions in our summary table. Moreover, we could have formally added another popular motherboard with AMD 780G (M3A78 PRO). Its price is only a little higher than $100, and unlike the M3A-H/HDMI it has a 140-W voltage regulator.

Gigabyte is fortifying its position in the market, although it offers a narrower choice of products. However, its best products are often spread wider than similar models from ASUS. And its growing popularity is supported by technical characteristics.

ASRock made a real breakthrough to the local market. A year ago we could find only stray shipments of relatively old models in our stores. But now you can easily find any popular product from this manufacturer. Only two motherboards made it to our table with the most popular products, but that's also a success. It's a pity that our retail stores have missed a very interesting A780GXE/128M. However, that's partially our mistake. We missed a change in the shipment policy and failed to attract attention to products from this manufacturer. We'll mend our manners!

Unfortunately, MSI has been delaying new products of late, and it's more difficult to win the old positions back than to stand its ground. Besides, inexpensive motherboards from MSI cannot boast of any specially attractive features to lure users from Gigabyte products, for example. The same can be said about Foxconn, which have original offers in a more expensive price range (with the 790GX and 790FX chipsets).

On the contrary, ECS is one of the first companies to roll out motherboards with the new chipsets in the market. And they are probably making good sales. However, even non-entry-level motherboards are competitive mostly owing to their price. Their technical image is the least attractive among all contenders. Biostar is also trying to keep up its line of motherboards with the new chipsets. But popular models from this company are also very cheap. And the only motherboard that made it to our rating is actually hors concours (we included this product just to cover all manufacturers that offer their products in our parts, but it's not widely spread in retail stores). And from the technical point of view its only interesting feature is two eSATA ports.


Several years ago a typical motherboard for a custom-built Mid-End computer used to be a full-size ATX model with a discrete chipset (that is without an integrated graphics core). Although such motherboards are still popular, the typical portrait has changed noticeably these days. It might have been a total surprise even to manufacturers, but full-size boards with an integrated graphics core have got a really warm welcome. Our top chart already included several such motherboards last year. And now that we all know what to expect from them, such models have appeared in products lines from all manufacturers. And they are ready to take over half of the summary table. Even though many of such boards are treated by users just as an inexpensive solution for a computer with a graphics card, more and more people are going to use the graphics feature of these chipsets, which are growing faster. This is probably the main tendency, which is sure to progress in future.

A ghost of the second tendency is only starting to take its form: some manufacturers are really disposed to work on the stereotype that a microATX board must be very cheap, rigged up to minimum, and fit only for an office PC. There already exist several exceptions to this rule, but such mobos were used mostly in media centers and compact desktops. As for now, some compact models are so attractive in functional terms that people tend to close their eyes to fewer expansion slots. Users pay attention to such motherboards, even when they assemble generic computers. And we have all grounds to say that the number of such models will grow in a year.

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