Review: AMD is back, MSI board is spectacular
After some heavy benchmarking, today we can proudly present the results of the new MSI 790FX-GD90 and the new Phenom II 955 Black Edition. While we could have released the board review much earlier, MSI invested some time and listened to our comments regarding the BIOS and finally they did it in a very good way.
With regards to Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, there is nothing new to tell you. It's clocked 3200MHz and has additional DDR3 support and uses socket AM3 but it also works with DDR2 memory and fits to socket AM2+. Nothing else changed compared to the "older" Phenom II X4 940. The combo DDR3 and DDR2 support is a great idea as well as AM2+ backward compatibility.
4+1 phase integrated MOSFET VRM
2x Realtek RTL8111DL PCIe Gb LAN controller
JMicro JMB322 SATA II RAID 0, 1 port multiplier
VIA VT1315N PCIe Firewire controller
Fintek F71889FG super I/O controller
RTM880N clock generator
passive cooling of chipsets/VRM
8Mb BIOS, version 1.1, 1.2b4, 1.3b2, 1.3b3, 1.3b5, 1.3b6RC
Mainboard Revision: 1.00
4x PCIe 2.0 x16
1x PCIe x1
4x Dual-Channel DDR3-slots for PC2-10667U memory up to 8GB
5-Port SATA II featuring RAID 0, 1, 5, 0+1, JBOD
2-Port SATA II RAID 0, 1, JBOD
1x PS/2 keyboard
1x PS/2 mouse
2x Gb LAN
5x USB 2.0
1x eSATA II
1x Firewire 400
7.1 analog output
1x digital audio optical out
1x digital audio coaxial out
4x SATA cable with clips
1x IDE cable
1x 2-port USB 2.0 bracket
2x HDD-power to SATA-power
1x MSI M-connector package
2x Crossfire Bridges
Bus Speeds: Auto, 200MHz to 600MHz in 1MHz increments
Memory Ratios: Auto, 667, 800, 1066, 1333, 1600
HT Link Speeds: Auto, x1 to x20 in x1 increments
Adjust PCIe Speed: 100MHz to 150MHz in 1MHz increments
DRAM command rate: Auto, 1T, 2T
DRAM timing control: Auto, manual
CPU Clock Multiplier: Auto, 4x to 32.5x in 0.5x increments
CPU NB Clock Multiplier: Auto, 4x to 20x in 1x increments
CPU Voltage: Auto, 1.100V to 2.000V in 0.01V increments
CPU VDD Voltage: Auto, 1.1000V to 1.5500V in 0.01 increments, depanding on CPU
CPU PLL Voltage: various
CPU NB Voltage: Auto, 1.1000V to 1.5500V in 0.01V increments
DRAM Voltage: Auto, 1.50V to 2.00V in 0.05V increments, 2.20V, 2.30V
Northbridge Voltage: Auto, 1.10V to 1.60V in 0.05V increments
HT Link Voltage: Auto, 1.10V to 1.50V in 0.05V increments
MSI 790GX-GD70 (provided by MSI)
MSI DKA790GX (provided by MSI)
ECS Elitegroup A790GXM-AD3 (provided by Elitegroup)
AMD Phenom II 720BE (provided by AMD)
AMD Phenom II 810 (provided by AMD)
AMD Phenom II 940BE (provided by AMD)
AMD Phenom II 955BE (provided by AMD)
Scythe Andy Kabuto (provided by Scythe-Europe)
Kingston 3GB Kit (only 2 used) PC3-16000U KHX16000D3T1K3/3GX (provided by Kingston)
CL7-7-7-20 CR1T at 1.50V or mainboard default
MSI R4850-2D1G-OC (provided by MSI)
PC Power & Cooling Silencer 500W (provided by PC Power & Cooling)
Western Digital WD4000KD (provided by Ditech)
SilenX iXtrema Pro 14dB(A) (provided by PC-Cooling.at)
Cooler Master Stacker 831 Lite (provided by Cooler Master)
Because we don't like broken operating systems such as Vista, all tests are performed with XP SP3. While 64-bit software is still not very common, we also stick with the 32-bit version.
As with most so called "high-end" boards this one comes with a black PCB with black and blue slots. The aluminium cooling solution with heatpipe gives it a nice touch.
The VRM is an analog 4+1 phase design driven by an STMicroelectronics L6740L. This is a controller made for AMD split-plane CPUs, so you won't find this on any Intel board. The VRM consists of five highly integrated MOSFETs from ON Semiconductors, each capable of supplying up to 40A, so even a 140W TDP CPU is handled easily. As you can see, the chipset itself is smaller compared to one MOSFET.
The memory slots are too close to the CPU socket. For some reasons MSI decided you have to put the first memory in slot 1 or use slot one and two for dual channel. So you have to be very careful selecting the CPU-cooler, also if you are using memory-modules with big heatsinks, such as Corsair Dominators. MSI engineers didn't quite think that through. Below the memory slots resides the ATX 2.2 power connector.
On this board the slots are special. You get four PCIe x16 slots, which will run of course only with x8 speed if you are using quad Crossfire. Otherwise you can use put any other PCIe x1 card in and it will work. The PCIe x1 slot is quite useless, because most graphics cards come in a two slot configuration anyways. Quad users also need a big case, because the last PCIe x16 slot is on the edge of the board, so make sure your case fits. Between the slots you find an Port80 diagnostic LED which is a really good idea to have. We only think the location is badly chosen, because any Crossfire configuration will block this LED.
For some reason all vendors go for the cheapest PCIe Gb LAN solution on the market, which is the newly introduced Realtek RTL8111DL. It's an improvement over the RTL8111C and now supports 9k Jumbo Frames, but still Realtek is not known for very good performance, especially the I/O load is quite weak. A Marvell, Broadcom or Intel chip would have been a better choice, but of course opting for a better chip would also have increased costs. At least on high-end boards we should expect something better. Audio is also provided by a Realtek chip: the ALC889. The Fintek chip is a super I/O controller, for all legacy devices, such as floppy, LPT and COM ports and system fan/temperature management. Also the clock generator is a Realtek chip, but clock chips do all work the same. An VIA PCIe Firewire controller give you high throughput for video cameras or even external hard-drives.
The SATA connectors are on the edge of the board and four of them are angled at 90°. This is the best solution available because the connectors won't interfere with any cards. Also the PATA connector is angled, very good. The board has only one eSATA port which has been taken from the JMB322 which is not an host controller but multiplies existing ports from the south-bridge. Still plenty of controllers to connect storage to. This part of the board is perfect.
As usual all boards feature CMOS Clear, Reset and Power-On Button. While there would have been lots of space on the backpanel, for some reason the CMOS Clear button is not there, which would have been a better solution. MSI thought it's a wise idea to implement their green-power button on the board as well. While we still insist that the most benefit for all customers would be to enable "Green Power" by default in the BIOS, at least a button accessible from the outside would have been the second best choice. Another gimmick is the virtual FSB knob, which decreases or increases the virtual FSB. We can't think of any good reason to use such a feature. First, when you increase the virtual FSB, you do also overclock the HT-bus which will result in crashes if it goes too high, or otherwise you have to apply increased voltages in the BIOS to keep the system stable. Increasing voltages if you don't need them would only increase power-consumptions. So for real overclockers this feature is a waste of time and money. MSI should concentrate on useful stuff, not on gimmicks for some kids who don't know to overclock anyways. It's not always a good idea to copy features from other manufactures. In our opinion the best place to overclock is the BIOS, no software or gimmick can compete with that.
MSI is using an AMI 1MB BIOS. We have ranted about some stupid BIOS settings in the past, and guess what, they listend. We were heavily involved in the beta testing and while changes in the past took weeks, they managed to do them in one day. Kudos to the MSI BIOS team.
While overclocking the virtual FSB, any other BIOS, so far we know, disables the Cool'n'Quiet feature. On our request MSI enabled the feature, which now is auto, enabled and disabled. Up to a FSB of ~280MHz, depanding on the CPU, Cool'n'Quiet is now usable. This means, you can save about 20W when idling on the desktop. The new 1.3 BIOS with this feature should be available next week.
While we had always trouble getting over 270MHz, this board manages going over 300MHz easily. All our tests were done with the 1.3b5 BIOS, which adds 0.5MHz to any clock. The 1.3 BIOS does not have this behaviour.
With a Black Edition you don't need to overclock via FSB, just increase the multiplier and there you go. But even if you choose to get a standard edition, you can combine higher FSB to achieve impressive results.
The board auto-detects 1333MHz with our ram modules, but you should set the timings yourself. We tried if we could run the board with 1600MHz memory, which was possible with our two modules. Due the bug in the AMD DDR3 memory controller, four modules may not be stable even at 1333MHz.
While testing the BIOS we saw the LED is doing nothing after booting into the OS. So we thought it's a good idea to request a new feature, which should show the CPU temperature on the LED. MSI was really fast, because within three days we received the 1.3b5 BIOS with has this nice feature, which will also be available for any customers with the official 1.3 BIOS release. Temperature was never an issue, beside the overclocked Phenom II 955 BE which spiked at 65°C with CPU-intensive tests. All other CPUs run always below 60°C overclocked and about 45°C not overclocked under full load.
Phenom II 955 Black-Edition overclocking:
While AMD claims you can go to, or over, 4GHz, we reached the same result as with the "old" Phenom II 940, 3.80GHz was the best we could do, without jeopardizing our CPU. Generally we recommend not to go over 1.475V on air-cooling, besides higher voltages do not show much effect anyways.
The most important changes happened the last year and starting this year with the x264 development. While you would expect they would optimize for the new i7 platform, they also did this for the new Phenom II. And the results speak for itself. It's the first time AMD can keep at the same pace as any Core 2 Duo/Quad. So software-optimizing does matter, but there are no other programs we are aware of they do optimizing for AMD, as you can see with CineBench R10. Of course Intel E7200 and E8400 are not triple-core, but to keep charts simpler, we did it this way. To make the comparability more fair, we decided that the Intel i7 series have to run with only their native cores and Turbo disabled.
3DMark & FarCry 2:
3DMark 2003 run at 1600x1200, 3DMark 2006 used defaults. As you can see, more CPU does not really help. AMD has positioned the Triple-Cores against Intel's Dual Core offers, and as you can see in FarCry2 the third CPU does help to keep Intel in check, even when this game is clearly not optimized for AMD.
To merely test power consumption is not enough any more and because you dear readers gave us positive feedback. So we measured power-consumption with CineBench and set them in perspective with the results. Please note our results are peak values but that's ok for comparison purposes. Power-Consumption tests for overall consumption where made with Cool'n'Quiet enabled.
AMD Phenom II X4:
With prices so low for any Phenom II, there is no reason not to consider buying one when you have to update your system. While the most efficient CPU is still the Intel Core 2 Quad 9000 series, in our opinion Phenom II X4 955 offers similar performance, especially with AMD optimized software. Also, it's much easier to overclock any Phenom II compared to Intel Core 2 Quads.
We do also do not recommend the Intel Core i7 series, because they also get extremely hot, they use more energy compared to their predecessors and the boards are very expensive. If you lucky you can gain additional value from Phenom II X3 Triple-Cores when the BIOS of some mainboard supports unlocking the fourth core. This works in many cases and can get you a great quad for the price of the three core. The only downside of Phenom II is the higher energy-consumption, but in idle mode they are very close to Intel. Triple-Cores are available for about €107,- while the cheapest Quad-Core costs about €148,-, you can find all the CPU prices here. Phenom II X4 955 with an overclock to a stable 3.8GHz is a great CPU for €225, and we can recommend it. Of course, we would be happier to see 4+GHz.
For some time we did not see a real AMD high-end board. This board of course is not perfect as we have discussed in the layout section, but despite that, MSI really improved BIOS, even adding features after a product was already released making it fantastic. Of course DDR3 is still not that cheap compared to DDR2, but when planning to upgrade an old system and want to be future-proof, this board is a perfect choice. MSI offers the best analog VRM around, with highly integrated parts which increase costs but keeps power-consumption down.
We are not fans of annoying knobs and buttons, but the overclocking capabilities of this board speak for itself. Even with non-Black Edition CPUs you can get the virtual FSB in regions where you gain the most increase while still able to use Cool'n'Quiet to save power. All our overclocking results where achieved by only increasing CPU voltage, only above 300MHz you may be required to increase the CPU NB voltage, so even inexperienced overclockers are able to achieve good results.
The board is already available for about €158,- which is fair price for such a board.
We hope in future MSI will improve their layout, so a debug LED can also be used on Crossfire platforms and we hope to see an official BIOS which does unlock all X2 and X3s unofficially. We will keep you informed if that has happened with new BIOS versions. Besides that, there is no reason not to recommend this board.