- Review Price: £144.99
We’ve already taken a look at AMD’s new, high-end 890FX chipset with the ASRock 890FX Deluxe3, which offered an exclusive four USB 3.0 ports. Let’s see what MSI makes of it with its latest and greatest GD70-series gaming-oriented AM3 motherboard, the 890FX-GD70 (not to be confused with MSI’s cheaper 790FX-GD70).
So what’s special about this GD70? On the hardware side, SATA 6Gb/s is natively supported by AMD’s most recent SB850 chipset, two USB 3.0 ports are provided courtesy of the usual NEC controller, and physical power, reset and ClearCMOS buttons are nothing out of the ordinary at the high end. A few less common features are a powered eSATA/USB combi port, a physical overclocking dial and Green Power button, and no fewer than five PCI Express x16 slots. It also sports dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, which are becoming quite rare these days.
We found the previous MSI motherboard we reviewed, the GD65, to be one of the more visually attractive boards around, and we’re glad to see the company hasn’t broken this design philosophy with the GD70. It still sports the same great combination of black PCB, black and blue slots and silver heatsink cooling, now with added metallic blue highlighting. Only the white SATA 6Gb/s ports spoil the effect a tad – surely they could have been done in black?
MSI’s ‘flat heatpipe’ passive cooling looks very impressive indeed – there’s as much metal on this motherboard as on any we’ve seen, though the 890FX (and the lower end GX, for that matter) do seem to need quite a bit of cooling. MSI does use a selection of “military class components” for endurance and stability, but don’t expect ruggedness on a level with the Asus Sabertooth 55i TUF.
While not too bad, the 890FX-GD70’s included bundle is somewhat sub-par for a high-end product. Essentially it hasn’t changed much since last year’s GD65: one CrossFire bridge, two four-pin molex to SATA power adapters, four straight SATA cables and an EIDE cable, with some handy pin header adapters and a two-port USB 2.0 bracket thrown in for good measure. One unfortunate similarity with the ASRock 890FX Deluxe3 is that the data cables do not in any way match the board. These ones are red, which clashes almost as badly as ASRock’s orange ones did with that board’s largely comparable colouring.
Board layout on the 890FX-GD70 is good, though the two-character LED readout panel will be obscured if you install an all-out CrossFire setup. MSI has thankfully gone for RAM slots with only a single clip on one side (similar to those used by Asus for a while now), making it easier to install and remove memory. The 890FX-GD70 supports DDR3 up to 2,133Mhz, which is behind Asus but ahead of most of the pack. Memory slots are logically colour-coded though not staggered.
Below the memory slots we find six angled SATA 6Gb/s ports, which is pretty much standard – though ASRock managed eight on its 890FX Deluxe3. Though only the fastest SSDs will push beyond what SATA 3Gb/s (also known as SATA II) can provide, they will only get faster and the newer standard provides a good amount of future proofing.
A seventh onboard ‘last generation’ SATA port is provided by a separate jMicron controller, which also facilitates the powered eSATA and EIDE ports. This might be useful for connecting an optical drive, but to be honest we wish MSI had chosen to go with a second eSATA port, that being the most common high-speed transfer standard until USB 3.0 gathers momentum. Though EIDE is on board, thankfully there’s no sign of a floppy drive connector.
When it comes to expansion card slots, you’re spoilt for choice as MSI provides a PCIe 1x and regular PCI slot (both coloured black) in addition to the aforementioned five PCIe x16 slots. Since they are fed 36 lanes of bandwidth, you can get two cards running at full x16 speed or four cards at up to 8x. The fifth slot is limited to 4x and will be obscured by the second graphics card, and we wonder why it’s even there as its potential is very limited.
One other thing to keep in mind when running Quad CrossFire with four physical cards (you can also run it using two dual-chip cards such as the Radeon HD 5970) is that the motherboard’s three USB 2.0 and two FireWire (IEEE 1934) headers will also be obscured, not to mention the touch-sensitive power, reset, overclocking and Green Power buttons. These are all perfectly sensitive by the way, but can be difficult to spot as they’re physically indistinguishable from the rest of the motherboard and not backlit – their blue LEDs only light up if you touch them.
Wrapping up the connections and features is the rear I/O panel, which is stuffed with goodies. For data and peripherals there is a pair of PS2 ports, six USB 2.0 ports (one of which doubles as powered eSATA) and of course two USB 3.0 ports in their blue livery. Audio outputs come in the form of six analogue 3.5mm jacks and both co-axial and optical digital outputs. Dual Gigabit Ethernet is becoming increasingly rare, but is (arguably) still a desirable feature. The ClearCMOS switch is tiny and recessed making it difficult to press, but at least you’ll never accidentally wipe your BIOS settings while trying to plug in a cable round your PC’s back.
MSI’s BIOS is pretty decent, as you would expect considering the company’s motherboard pedigree. Layout and menu headings are intuitive – once you know that Cell is where you find overclocking options. H/W Monitor gives you access to variable fan settings (for one CPU and two system fan headers) as well as providing the usual temperature, fan-speed and voltage readouts.
Quick Booting is enabled by default (most competitors offer an equivalent but don’t have it activated) and there’s a noticeable positive impact on boot times (there’s also an instant-on linux OS but it’s not embedded on onboard memory and needs to be installed to the hard drive).
M-Flash lets you back up your BIOS to external storage or even boot from an external BIOS. MSI also offers six overclocking profiles onboard, and in the Cell Menu you can try to wring maximum performance out of your parts with all the usual settings for frequency, clocks and voltages logically subdivided. This is also where you’ll find the Core Unlock feature, which if you’re very lucky in your choice of processor may allow you to enable latent/binned cores, turning your tri-core into a quad-core, etc.
As with any enthusiast motherboard, there is a wealth of overclocking options. The lowest and hence most stable of these is OC Genie Lite (activated from the BIOS or within Windows), which as the name implies is a more restrained version of MSI’s full-fat OC Genie. It overclocked our Phenom II X4 810 from its stock 2,600MHz to 2,717MHz, and upped the CPU voltage in the process. We’re not very impressed by this to be honest: the ASRock 890FX Deluxe3‘s Turbo UCC managed 2,800MHz while enabling power savings, and the Asus M4A89GTD Pro/USB3‘s Turbo Key II gave us 2,830MHz.
Using MSI’s Control Center software gave far better results, pushing the CPU up to a stable 2,947MHz without voltage alterations (surprisingly we didn’t manage much more than this in our ‘brute force’ BIOS test, where instabilities and crashes occurred under stress at above 2,950MHz). Letting Control Center increase the voltages, we achieved an impressive 3,288MHz without any hiccups, despite the 890FX-GD70’s five-phase (rather than the 10-phase provided by many competitors) power setup. A direct comparison with overclocking on other boards is not completely fair because of the increased voltage, but it really shows off MSI’s excellent software. It also makes MSI’s OC Dial – a volume-like wheel with notched feedback found in amongst the board’s touch-sensitive buttons, which can over (or under)-clock on the fly in Windows – somewhat redundant, especially as adjustments take slightly longer to apply themselves.
When it comes to value, the £145 890FX-GD70 is in a difficult position. The main question we would ask is if it’s worth the extra £20 over ASRock’s high-end equivalent? If you’re installing quad-card CrossFire then MSI is the obvious choice, but if you can spend that much you wouldn’t necessarily be looking at a board this affordable in the first place. Overall, we reckon the cheaper 890FX Deluxe3 wins out with its extra USB 3.0 ports and slightly better stability.
A great-looking motherboard and one of a few to offer four graphics slots at its price point, but if neither of these are important to you there are cheaper alternatives.
Score in detail
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