Ever since the launch of the Bulldozer range and 9-series motherboards, the initial reviews of the processors were not encouraging to say the least.  Since then, AMD has decided to pull out of the enthusiast end of the CPU market, to focus in on the mainstream and low power processors.  This is despite the fact that Windows 7 (and Windows 8, natively) is now receiving updates so the operating system can understand the processor architecture a little better, and hopefully boost performance.  This gives a second wind to those owning (or thinking of owning) a Bulldozer based processor, and in turn, a 900-series motherboard.  With the updates in hand, today we are looking at five 990FX boards that may feature on the consumer or system builders’ radar.  This roundup has been on the cards for a long time, but unfortunately has had to be continually pushed back and then retests applied with latest BIOS updates – but as belated as it might be (and as deeply apologetic as I am), here it is!

9-Series Overview

In a trend of compatibility, today’s Bulldozer architecture and Zambezi processors are all wrapped up in our 942-pin AM3+ socket, coupled with either the 990FX, 990X or 970 chipsets.  For all intents and purposes, these chipsets are identical to their 800-series brethren, with two differences: guaranteed support of processors based on the Bulldozer architecture (BIOS update may be required), and SLI licensing for motherboards that can take advantage of multi-GPU setups.

  990FX 990X 970
PCIe Lanes 32 16 16
PCIe Configuration x16/x16
x16/x8/x8
x8/x8/x8/x8
x16 or x8/x8 x16
TDP 19.6 W 14 W 13.6 W
South Bridge SB950 SB950 SB950 or SB920
SATA 6 Gbps
(from South Bridge)
6 6 6
SLI Yes Yes No
CrossFire Yes Yes On a single card

The 990FX chipset is our focus today, which comes with 32 lanes for graphics (usually in x16/x16, x16/x8/x8 or x8/x8/x8/x8 distributions) and is paired up with the SB950 Southbridge.  This Southbridge makes sure that all the motherboards come with six SATA 6 Gbps ports with RAID 0/1/5/10 support and 14 USB 2.0 ports (USB 3.0 comes from controllers) for only another 6 watts of power consumption.

We are still limited to dual channel memory, compared to AMD’s high end server offerings which give quad channel and Intel’s various memory channel designs.  This is partly cost, keeping AMD chipsets relatively cheaper, and design – moving to a larger number of memory channels would require more pins and routes from the CPU, and thus a new CPU socket. 

Speaking of sockets, the AM3+ (or AM3r2) and 942-pin design is still with us for the near future.  The second generation Bulldozer (Bulldozer Enhanced) and FX processors will still be on the same pin layout and 900 series boards will work with them – the processor should merely benefit from a workload throughput increase.  The third generation FX processor, codename Steamroller, is still reported (not confirmed) to use AM3+, meaning that there are still quite a few years left in this platform when taking the AMD route.

By default the 890FX and 990FX HyperTransport 3.0 should enjoy transfer rates of up to 5.2 GT/s, unless you use an appropriate processor when HyperTransport 3.1 kicks in to give a 6.4 GT/s transfer rate. With the 900-series, users now have access to a graphical UEFI BIOS, similar to recent Intel chipsets, and also have full support of 2.2+ TB devices.

With all that in mind, for this article we are testing and reviewing the following products and prices:

$215 - ASUS Crosshair V Formula
$185 - ASUS Sabertooth 990FX
$180 - Gigabyte 990FXA-UD5
$195 - MSI 990FXA-GD80
$130 - Biostar TA990FXE

These boards will be tested with both a previous generation Thuban processor (the X6 1100T) and a high end Bulldozer processor (FX-8150), under AMD’s all-in-one liquid cooling solution (which is made by Asetek, and is essentially their take on the Corsair H80).  With a wide range of price points and feature sets, let us see what they can do, starting with the ASUS Republic of Gamers Crosshair V Formula.

ASUS Crosshair V Formula – Overview and Visual Inspection
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  • IanCutress - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately we don't have an infinite amount of kit to review with. We're individual reviewers here, not all working in a big office. Obviously we can't all request top end kit from manufacturers either. Plus for every time we do use new high end kit, we also get comments about testing something 'more realistic' to most users. In that circumstance, we can't win and please everyone, but we do try and be as consistent as possible.

    Ian
    Reply
  • phocean - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    I bought the Sabertooth a few weeks ago... and it throws an annoying buzzing sound in the speakers, especially when a USB port is used (in other words, all the time).
    It is the sign of an isolation issue between chipsets and shows poor design and testing from Asus.
    Needless to say that the support was of no help (and no willing to help).
    So don't buy it, unless you don't plug any speaker in it.
    Reply
  • richaron - Friday, April 06, 2012 - link

    Mine doesn't have this problem. You either got an unlucky board, or your psu is funky. Reply
  • extide - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Seem to me like you were probably using a bit too much voltage for the BD. I would assume that is why you had so many issues with thermal runaway. 1.4-1.45ish would probably be a better place to stay with an air cooler :) Reply
  • extide - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    EDIT: Nevermind I forgot you are using the AMD kit watercooler, which is better than straight air cooling but I'd think it would take more of a fully custom built water setup to run 1.5v vCore. Reply
  • Hrel - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    I was going to build a new computer based on Ivy Bridge this Fall, I'm still running a Core 2 Duo E8400. But I've decided I'm not building myself a new computer until the motherboard has USB 3.0 and ONLY USB 3.0. A LOT of them, EVERYWHERE!

    I just built a guy a Z68 based computer with an i7 2700K but I had to order a VERY hard to find adapter card to plug in the USB 3.0 based memory card reader and the USB 3.0 on the front of the Fractal Design case. Because the Asus motherboard has ZERO USB 3.0 headers on it. It never even occurred to me that was a possibility. Not only has USB 3.0 been out for years now, but it was released WAY over-due. WTF is the hold up. Make the switch. USB 2.0 is for the 2000's decade, it's 2012. I am done with USB 2.0. I shouldn't have to buy an add-in card for BRAND NEW motherboard to support basic accesories, like a memory card reader and front usb port.

    This is related to this article because I think if AMD was actually competitive with Intel AT ALL, like they were with Athlon XP/64/64 X2, then Intel would step up their game all around. Or maybe I wouldn't even have to buy Intel because they constantly make shit decisions like this, and changing the motherboard socket constantly, and charging 300 dollars for a quad core with HT. Their shit is endless and I really don't want to buy their products but AMD is simply not an option; if I wanted something that slow I'd just put a quad core Penryn based CPU in my current rig and save a bunch of money.
    Reply
  • ggathagan - Friday, April 06, 2012 - link

    There are only two Asus Z68 boards that don't have the USB 3 header, but somehow it's *Intel's* fault that Asus didn't use a USB 3 header on the board you bought?
    Huh...
    Maybe you should have been a little more attentive when board shopping.
    Reply
  • IanCutress - Friday, April 06, 2012 - link

    Hi Hrel,

    I actually like USB 2.0 on my boards. If you have solely USB 3.0 and use them all, there's a big chance of a bottleneck in the bus somewhere. Also, I install a fresh operating system on every board I test via USB as it is a lot quicker than CD. Unfortunately during the install program, it doesn't process anything through the USB 3.0 ports - mouse, keyboard, or even the USB stick with the OS on. So I ideally like to have three USB 2.0 ports for that purpose. It's more a fault of Windows7 than the chipset, but otherwise if a board only has two USB 2.0 ports, I have to disconnect the mouse and use the keyboard and USB install drive only. Saying that, I have a board in that is solely USB 3.0, so it's going to be fun to install an OS on that... :/

    Ian
    Reply
  • fic2 - Friday, April 06, 2012 - link

    I have a Dell keyboard that has 2 USB ports on it. That would solve your problem with a 2 x USB 2 mb. I currently have the mouse daisy chained off the keyboard. Reply
  • B - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Your article should note that sound blaster provides a software overlay, but under that aluminum skin overlay lies a Realtek chip. I was fooled by this marketing and very disappointed after configuring this motherboard and discovering this fact. You don't get soudblasters hardware acceleration or the crystalizer. You should note this in any article about the asus line with x-fi2. Had I known I would have done things differently. Reply

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