The layout of the TA790GX XE isn't ideal, which may be due to the space limitations of the Micro-ATX form factor. The Northbridge is located on one corner of the CPU in line with the four-phase power regulation hardware while the frame for the CPU heatsink is squeezed between the passive cooler on the Northbridge and the memory slots, and the cooler looks worryingly small. We found that our Zalman CNPS9500 cooler overshadowed the first memory slot and meant that we couldn't install a module of Corsair Dominator memory in that slot.
The two micro buttons for Power and Reset are located in one corner of the board with the six SATA ports located inboard of the buttons. Along the foot of the board there are front panel headers along with headers for six case mounted USB ports and then we come to an array of legacy connectors with a header for a Serial port, another for a Parallel port and finally we have a floppy connector.
Our first job when we tested the Biostar was to download a BIOS update. It's a two-stage process where you install a Windows based utility which in turn downloads and installs the BIOS file.
Once we'd done that we raised the memory speed from the default 800MHz to 1,066MHz which involves a small amount of dabbling in the overclocking section of the BIOS and we were ready to put the Biostar through its paces. With the Phenom II X4 810 running at standard clock speed the Biostar is noticeably slower than the MSI 790GX-G65 when you use the integrated graphics. Plug in a Radeon HD 4890 and the scores in 3D Mark Vantage level out but in PCMark05 the Biostar pulls ahead of the MSI by a narrow margin. It appears that the MSI works better with the integrated graphics thanks to its use of DDR3 system memory.
Even at standard clock speed we found the temperature of the chipset was higher than we liked so we installed a case fan to ensure there was airflow across the passive cooler.
Overclocking with the Biostar is a fairly simple process. We stuck with the traditional method of working in the BIOS rather than using the Biostar Windows utility as the BIOS offered all the features that we needed. We disabled Cool ‘n Quiet, increased the CPU and Uncore voltages and then raised the base clock speed in a series of steps. We were able to overclock our 2.6GHz CPU to 3.45GHz with a base clock speed of 265MHz which is fairly impressive however when we went to 270MHz the system froze and we had to clear the BIOS.
Overall we found that the TA790GX XE delivered impressive performance but we were unconvinced by the list of features on this Micro-ATX motherboard. It will serve reasonably well in a basic desktop PC, especially if you have case mounted USB ports, but it doesn't seem to be much cop if you're building a Media Centre as the passive cooler on the chipset is too small and the lack of digital audio is a surprising oversight.
Biostar has delivered a strange mishmash of a motherboard in the TA790GX XE, mainly because it lacks some basic features and doesn't have a great layout. However, while we're not entirely won over by its charms there is no denying that it is very cheap and is still perfectly capable.