- Review Price: £31.57
“Intel G31” you’re doubtless thinking, “wow that’s a crusty old chipset” and you’d be right so you may be surprised to learn that the MSI G31M-F is worth considering if you’re building an Intel-CPU based PC.
We first reviewed G31 a year ago when we looked at the Gigabyte GA-G31MX-S2 the performance was nothing to write home about but it offered the basic features that you need in a PC at a low price. Since then a great deal of water has passed under the bridge, including the launch of the Intel G45 chipset (see:Intel DG45ID and Nvidia’s new GeForce 9300 (see:Asus P5N7A-VM}
These new IGPs make Intel G31 look positively limp when it comes to gaming or HD movie playback but the fact is that there are plenty of people who don’t play games and who have no intention of installing a Blu-ray drive in their budget PC. We’re talking about mainstream users both at home and at work who carry out mundane work/e-mail/web tasks and who want a PC that is cheap to build and cheap to run. These people will prick up their ears when we tell them that the MSI G31M-F costs a tiny £31.57 including VAT.
This MSI board supports an enormous range of LGA775 processors from Pentium 4 up to the Core 2 Extreme QX9650 so there’s no reason why your budget PC should be lacking in grunt as you can go to town with the processor and back it up with two modules of dual channel DDR2 memory (giving you up to 4GB total memory).
When we tested the Gigabyte GA-G31MX-S2 we used a Core 2 Duo E6750 which runs at 2.67GHz on a 1,333MHz front side bus with 4MB of cache at a cost of £149. Today we’re using a Core 2 Duo E8500 with 6MB of cache and a clock speed of 3.16GHz which sells for the same price as the E6750 did so there’s a natural escalation of performance but of course the MSI is still limited by the GMA 3100 graphics.
The GMA 3100 graphics core is fabricated with the same 90nm process as the rest of the chipset and has four pixel shaders that run at a lowly 400MHz. In the BIOS you can choose to dedicate either 1MB or 8MB of system memory for the graphics.
In the past year Intel has worked on its graphics drivers which helps performance slightly but we’re still only talking about a 3DMark06 score of 324 marks. Not to worry as the G31M3-F still has enough oomph to put a picture on your screen, move windows around smoothly and display web pages correctly – what more do you need?
The features on this motherboard are unimpressive however they cover the most important areas. There are two legacy PS/2 ports, one Serial port and one Parallel port, four USB 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet and three mini jacks that can provide HD audio thanks to the wonders of the Realtek ALC888 chip. A more expensive version of the G31M comes with six mini jacks.
You can boost the four USB ports by hooking up case mounted ports to the two headers on the board but MSI doesn’t include a bracket in the package. This is more of a problem than it may at first seem as two of the USB ports are next to the graphics port which takes up a fair amount of space and that makes it difficult fit a chunky TV tuner or memory key.
The single biggest issue is that GMA 3100 graphics don’t support a digital output so the only output is VGA. There are plenty of decent analogue TFT displays from the likes of Acer but you’ll need to be sure that your display is compatible or you’ll be forced to install a graphics card in the PCI Express slot which would raise the cost of your PC build significantly.
The Southbridge of the chipset is an Intel ICH7 so there is no RAID to join the four SATA II connectors which is no loss at all on a budget PC. You do, however, get a native ATA100 controller. When we saw that we went all misty eyed with nostalgia.
Despite the fact that there are very few ports and connectors on this board, we were diappointed to note the layout is still quite poor. Especially as the Micro-ATX form factor doesn’t leave a lot of room for manoeuvre. For instance a long graphics card will block the memory retention latches, the CPU fan connector is located between the memory slots and the CPU socket, so it’s difficult to reach, and the ATX 12V connector isn’t neatly placed at the edge of the board where we usually like to find it.
Close to the passively cooled Southbridge there’s a screened area that is ready for an optional JMicron Firewire chip and header that comes with the more expensive models of MSI G31M.
During our testing the MSI behaved itself flawlessly although we have to confess that we didn’t bother trying to overclock the Core 2 E8500 and left it running on default settings.
The maximum memory speed with this chipset is limited to 800MHz and it was noticeable that the memory, CPU cooler and passive coolers on the chipset all remained cool to the touch. With the system idling on the Windows desktop the MSI draws 10W less than the Intel DG45ID and with the system under load the differential grows to 25W. What’s more, provided you select your CPU cooler and power supply with some care you could use the MSI to build a PC that is effectively silent.
Movie buffs may sneer at the graphics in the G31 chipset but the MSI is so incredibly cheap that it deserves a good long look when you build a new PC for friends or family.
Score in detail
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