Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/7914/msi-a88xme35-review



While the desktop PC industry has been reported as shrinking these last few quarters, the dichotomy rests in a drive towards the smaller form factors while the large under-the-desk systems market remains steady. This would suggest a split between mini-ITX and ATX users, leaving micro-ATX platforms stranded in the middle. Is there still room in the market for this form factor?  Today we review MSI’s take on FM2+ and micro-ATX with the A88XM-E35.

MSI A88XM-E35 Overview

In our recent FM2+ motherboard reviews [1,2], one of the common themes has been the ability of the motherboard power delivery to cope with temperature. When the power delivery is too hot, the system may cease to function or various benchmarks fail. Over-engineering the power delivery to be efficient has benefits, but increases the cost of the product. When I pulled the A88XM-E35 out of the box and saw no heatsink present, I was worried that the same issue would rear its head, and it did. Without additional VRM cooling, the A88XM-E35 caused an instant reboot on some of our more strenuous benchmarks (Agisoft, Handbrake). Therefore it should be noted that the results of this review were taken with an additional fan on the VRM cooling, and users of the A88XM-E35 should bare this in mind.

With that aside, the A88XM-E35 sits as a $68 FM2+ motherboard with two DRAM slots, a PCIe x16, x1 and PCI slot, six SATA 6 Gbps ports, HDMI output and support for four USB 3.0 connectors. The Ethernet and audio codec are made by Realtek, and the board has three fan headers, two of which are 4-pin. Even at $68 there is some styling, with the PCB in black and single color slots except for the PCIe 3.0 x16.

Over the last couple of MSI motherboard reviews, I have been critical of the lack of development in the BIOS and some issues in the software. These are starting to be addressed with the MSI A88XM-E35, and given the nature of software, I would imagine on other MSI FM2+ products as well. This includes navigation guidance in the BIOS, retaining the fan controls, and disabling the ability to ramp up the CPU to 1.8 volts in the operating system with a simple mouse movement. We still have access to the RAMDisk and OC Genie as part of the software, as well as the visual fan controls and system browser in the BIOS. The next stage would be better organization of the overclock options in the BIOS, however MSI has disabled voltage control on this motherboard. This is probably due to the low cost nature of the system.

MSI rated this motherboard as Military Class 4 (optimized components, better chokes and capacitors) but, rather amusingly, when installing the wallpapers from the CD, the Military Class III wallpaper shows up. With the Live Update 5 software we still have one of the best audio-updating systems, but we still need MSI to add in download sizes before selecting what to download. I mention this as the updated chipset drivers from MSI were 620 megabytes, and Live Update 5 did not recognize that I had the same ones installed. The latest version of Live Update 5 has issues with FM2+, and thus the version on the CD is recommended.

Performance (with the extra fan on the power delivery) from the MSI motherboard has it fighting each benchmark with the bigger, more expensive products. The benchmark scores overall seemed around average, although WinRAR was actually particularly low. The ALC887 audio codec shares performance with the ALC892 on the bigger motherboards, but is limited to 2.1 speaker setups. Despite being a smaller motherboard there is no reduction in power consumption at idle, and USB performance is lower than average.

Compared with the $105 motherboards we have tested previously, we have to consider if paying an extra $37 (~54%) makes sense for better power delivery and a few extra features. But for $68, as a motherboard to put an APU in, 16GB of DRAM and the MSI software ecosystem, as long as you add an extra fan, it does seem to offer good value.

Visual Inspection

The first thing I noticed when taking the motherboard out of the anti-static bag was the lack of a power delivery heatsink. Perhaps it is because I have been reviewing motherboards >$85 for the past three years, but to see a motherboard without such a heatsink seems almost alien. MSI are using a simple 4+1 phase design, but given the heat generation issues we have seen with Kaveri so far, I would have preferred at least a $0.50 effort rather than the attempt to make the motherboard look cleaner with a black PCB finish.

As always, the AMD socket area is actually quite big. The lack of a heatsink does offer more room for larger, more intrusive CPU coolers. At this point I would suggest one that does blow over the heatsinks, given the issues we encountered. We are right up against the two DRAM slots on the right, which both use dual-sided latch mechanisms. Normally on cheaper products we end up with the thinner DRAM memory slots, but MSI are using the thicker studier ones on the A88XM-E35.

In terms of fan headers, this motherboard has three all within reach of the socket area. The CPU fan header is a 4-pin and found at the top of the motherboard beside the DRAM slots. There is also a 4-pin SYS header beneath the 24-pin ATX connector, and a 3-pin SYS header to the bottom left of the socket.

On the right hand side of the motherboard, alongside the 24-pin ATX connector and 4-pin fan header are the six SATA 6 Gbps ports. Normally we find these arranged at right angles to the motherboard, but due to cost saving these are individually planted perpendicular. There is no alternating mechanism to allow right angled SATA connectors apart from the far edge, and users with triple slot GPUs will have issues with three of the SATA connectors, but for the intended market we have plenty to play with.

Along the bottom of the motherboard we have the audio header (Realtek ALC887), a printer port header, two USB 2.0 headers, a blue USB 3.0 header and the front panel header. The PCIe layout gives one full Gen 3.0 x16 lane in blue and a PCIe 2.0 x1 from the chipset, followed by a PCI port. Above these ports is a TPM header along with a COM header.

Given the price point of the motherboard, the rear IO is expected to be sparse, but we do get separate PS/2 connectors for a mouse and keyboard, four USB 2.0 ports, DVI-D/VGA/HDMI outputs, two USB 3.0 ports, a gigabit Ethernet port (Realtek) and audio jacks.

Board Features

MSI A88XM-E35
Price Link
Size Micro-ATX
CPU Interface FM2+
Chipset AMD A88X (Bolton D4)
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1333-2133 MHz
Video Outputs D-Sub
DVI-D
HDMI
Onboard LAN Realtek
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC887
Expansion Slots PCIe 3.0 x16
PCIe 2.0 x1
PCI
Onboard SATA/RAID 6 x SATA 6 Gbps, RAID 0,1,5,10
USB 3.0 4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 2 via headers]
Onboard 6 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
2 x USB 3.0 Headers
3 x Fan Headers
1 x LPT Header
1 x COM Header
1 x TPM Header
Front Panel Header
Front Audio Header
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 4-pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
2 x SYS (4-pin, 3-pin)
IO Panel PS/2 Mouse Port
PS/2 Keyboard Port
4 x USB 2.0
2 x USB 3.0
D-Sub
DVI-D
HDMI
Realtek NIC
Realtek Audio
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

Given the low price point, I was not expecting anything spectacular in terms of connectivity, so the single NIC and normal chipset SATA/USB connectors are understandable. The chipset should afford eight SATA 6 Gbps ports, but only six were present – it might have been worthwhile adding a pair of eSATA ports on the back. I would have also liked to see a clear CMOS button, even a very basic one. I am sure MSI buys these in bulk and it would not have been too hard to implement.



MSI A88XM-E35 BIOS

The MSI graphical BIOS has been a continual evolution for a couple of generations. Initially it started with putting games in the BIOS, and then moved to a sleeker display. While MSI was giving us a good amount of information, there were still a number of tweaks to be made. Users were not able to determine which part of the BIOS they were in from a screenshot, and there was no immediate help screen. Compiled on this, the overclocking options were a hodge-podge jumble with no structured order. I am glad to say that MSI has listened to its customers (or reviewers), and several of these adjustments have been made. I will point them out as we go through.

The first screen shown is the Main screen, with the persistent information bar along the top. This tells us lots of important info no matter where we are in the BIOS – the motherboard name, the motherboard BIOS version, the CPU installed, the speed of the CPU, the DRAM size and speed and the CPU temperature. This is about 85% of what I would like – something alongside CPU voltage and fan speeds might also be worthwhile.

MSI’s BIOS philosophy is to keep the tabs on the main screen constant and offer the change to different options in the middle. This is different to almost every other motherboard manufacturer – most tend to change most of the screen with every different tab.

Moving into the Settings tab gives most of the advanced options not related to overclocking. In this tab we see the right hand side change to a help menu, and as we move through the advanced menus, the central screen shows the location of where we are in the BIOS. I have wanted this change for over a year, so I am rather glad to see it!

The Advanced option in the Settings tab brings up the regular array of peripheral submenus as well as fast boot options for Windows 8 users. Users needing to change the LPT or COM settings will need to look in the Super IO Configuration menu, and storage settings should navigate to the Integrated Peripherals.

The overclocking menu is still is a mélange of options with a general order but nothing concrete to help users navigate better. It starts with the CPU options, followed by the memory and power adjustments.

One point users might immediately notice is the lack of voltage controls. MSI has decided to remove them from this motherboard. Given the nature of the motherboard (limited power delivery, price point) we could understand that MSI wants this motherboard to not be the focus of any overclocking performance testing. Nevertheless, users can adjust clock speeds, IGP frequencies and DRAM settings.

The cTDP option used for Kaveri APUs that have different thermal limit settings, such as the A8-7600, is found in the CPU Features sub-menu in the overclocking tab.

One of the features I remarked on in the last MSI Z87 review was the Hardware Monitor, offering a different take on fan controls. It appears here on the A88XM-E35, and allows users to adjust the points on the fan gradient and see a graphical representation of their adjustment. The BIOS states ‘fan speed’ but actually means ‘fan power’, and power is not directly proportional to speed. As noted in previous reviews, some fans will have a minimum speed up until a power %, or not enable until a power percentage %. This is still an inaccurate representation of the physics behind fans, but the graphical representation is a step in the right direction.

The final part of the BIOS is the Board Explorer, a feature now exhibited on several motherboard manufacturers’ products. It shows a top down image of the motherboard and several areas that the user can mouse over to see what is installed. This is useful for determining if a stick of memory is not working, or if a SATA device has come loose.



MSI A88XM-E35 Software

The software package from MSI has had some good points over the last few generations, though in terms of evolution there has been a subtle movement away from Control Center and towards Command Center. This is evident with their FM2+ offering which does away with Control Center completely. Command Center includes options for overclocking, fan controls and also a RAMDisk. We still have Live Update 5 for users to update the drivers and software from the motherboard.

Video Genie

The Video Genie software is a software tool designed by MSI to adjust the monitor settings on the fly for various on-screen visuals. Thus in a dark scene on a film it will attempt to provide an auto-HDR type effect, or as shown below will attempt to adjust the screen for a more ‘lively’ feel. This type of feature is arguably a software replacement for some of the more hardware based solutions.

Teaming Genie

A feature that used to be prevalent on Intel chipsets from MSI was Teaming Genie, which seems to now be relegated to AMD platforms. This software aims to help users who add extra 802.3ad capable network ports via the expansion slots and combine them to increase throughput across a home network.

Network Genie

When using a Realtek network interface controller, Realtek will also license out their software that allows users to prioritize certain programs over others (games over social media, browsing over downloads). MSI includes this with the A88XM-E35, using its own skinned version. This software has several modes to choose from, or users can manually adjust each program for a custom setting.

Live Update 5

The big plus in the MSI package is from Live Update 5 (LU5). With LU5 the system will connect to the internet, detect the current platform, get a list of available software on the MSI servers, and then compare this to the software it can detect on the system. If there is a discrepancy in the version, it offers a download. Alongside the software available, the system also checks BIOS versions against the latest available on the servers. The only issue for me is that the program does not tell you the size of the download until you are actually downloading it, which could be an issue for limited bandwidth users if they end up downloading 200 MB of audio drivers rather than 5 MB of other software.

There was also an additional issue with Live Update 5 – the latest version from the website failed to work with the A88XM-E35, but the version on the bundled CD did. LU5 failed to recognize the AMD chipset drivers installed and offered to download new ones, although these were 640MB in size and compounds the issue that the software does not tell the user the size of the software until it is being downloaded.

MSI Fast Boot

With motherboards now allowing for hardware enhancements to improve POST time to Windows 8, it can be difficult for users to get into the BIOS if the system bypasses the ‘Press F2 to enter BIOS’. For overclockers the solution is easy with ‘Go2BIOS’ buttons now being implemented on MSI motherboards. However if the system is in a case, there has to be a software solution, and MSI provide Fast Boot for this, with a Go2BIOS option.

MSI Command Center

The last piece of the MSI software stack is our upgraded version of Command Center. Previous iterations were fairly complex with lots of information in a large interface (a bit like XTU) but visually did not disrupt the user experience. The new version of CC is of a similar ilk, however the settings are divided up to be easier to handle. For example, here is the first screen giving simple overclock and fan control options:

MSI has tried to split up the various sections of CPU/DRAM/GPU into menus, however users can navigate left and right. This puts CC in the firing line for an upgraded smartphone app in the future. With CC users can adjust fan controls and frequencies. As mentioned in the BIOS section, MSI has disabled adjusting the CPU voltage on this motherboard, so this option is greyed out here.

A new element to CC is the addition of RAMDisk software, similar to ASRock’s XFast RAM:

If a user has a large pool of memory to use, any amount could be used to open up a RAM Disk and use it as a cache for some of the more readily used programs, such as web browsers, temp files or even page files.



MSI A88XM-E35 In The Box

Extra contents in a motherboard box can be fun or help reduce the overall cost of a build. Motherboard manufacturers are able to purchase in bulk, meaning that the overall additional cost to the end user should be minimal. However, on a motherboard this inexpensive, we should not hold out for much:

Driver CD
Manual
Rear Panel Guard
Two SATA Cables

It might make sense that users who go for this motherboard might not be using more than two SATA devices, but I would imagine that the self-build community might be looking at three – a boot SSD, a storage HDD and perhaps an optical media drive. I was not expecting more than two SATA cables, but I could hope that in the future four cables becomes the standard.

MSI A88XM-E35 Overclocking

Experience with MSI A88XM-E35

As mentioned in the BIOS and Software sections of this review, MSI has decided that users should not be adjusting the voltage on Kaveri on the A88XM-E35. This is a double edged sword, as there are some users who might want to reduce the voltage in order to remove extra heat from the CPU. As a result the only option we have is to adjust the CPU multiplier or the base clock. Given that we had restart issues at stock frequencies when the power delivery had no additional cooling, anyone overclocking Kaveri on this motherboard should use a good fan pointed at that area.

Methodology:

Our standard overclocking methodology is as follows. We select the automatic overclock options and test for stability with PovRay and OCCT to simulate high-end workloads. These stability tests aim to catch any immediate causes for memory or CPU errors.

For manual overclocks, based on the information gathered from previous testing, starts off at a nominal voltage and CPU multiplier, and the multiplier is increased until the stability tests are failed. The CPU voltage is increased gradually until the stability tests are passed, and the process repeated until the motherboard reduces the multiplier automatically (due to safety protocol) or the CPU temperature reaches a stupidly high level (100ºC+). Our test bed is not in a case, which should push overclocks higher with fresher (cooler) air.

Manual Overclock:

Due to the voltage limitations, our peak overclock was only 4.0 GHz for all cores:



Many thanks to...

We must thank the following companies for kindly providing hardware for our test bed:

Thank you to OCZ for providing us with 1250W Gold Power Supplies and SSDs.
Thank you to AMD, G.Skill and ADATA for providing us with memory kits.
Thank you to Corsair for providing us with an AX1200i PSU, Corsair H80i CLC and 16GB 2400C10 memory.
Thank you to ASUS for providing us with the AMD HD7970 GPUs and some IO Testing kit.
Thank you to MSI for providing us with the NVIDIA GTX 770 Lightning GPUs.
Thank you to Rosewill for providing us with the 500W Platinum Power Supply for mITX testing, BlackHawk Ultra, and 1600W Hercules PSU for extreme dual CPU + quad GPU testing, and RK-9100 keyboards.
Thank you to ASRock for providing us with the 802.11ac wireless router for testing.

Test Setup

Test Setup
Processor AMD A10-7850K (ES)
2 Modules, 4 Threads
Motherboards MSI A88XM-E35
Cooling Corsair H80i
Thermalright TRUE Copper
Power Supply OCZ 1250W Gold ZX Series
Corsair AX1200i Platinum PSU
Memory AMD Gaming 2x8GB DDR3-2133 10-11-11 Kit
2 x Corsair Vengeance Pro 2x8 GB DDR3-2400 10-12-12 Kit
Memory Settings XMP
Video Cards MSI GTX 770 Lightning 2GB (1150/1202 Boost)
ASUS HD7970 3GB (Reference)
Video Drivers Catalyst 13.12
NVIDIA Drivers 332.21
Hard Drive OCZ Vertex 3 256GB
Optical Drive LG GH22NS50
Case Open Test Bed
Operating System Windows 7 64-bit SP1
USB 2/3 Testing OCZ Vertex 3 240GB with SATA->USB Adaptor
WiFi Testing D-Link DIR-865L 802.11ac Dual Band Router

Power Consumption

Power consumption was tested on the system as a whole with a wall meter connected to the OCZ 1250W power supply, while in a single MSI GTX 770 Lightning GPU configuration. This power supply is Gold rated, and as I am in the UK on a 230-240 V supply, leads to ~75% efficiency > 50W, and 90%+ efficiency at 250W, which is suitable for both idle and multi-GPU loading. This method of power reading allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency. These are the real world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.

While this method for power measurement may not be ideal, and you feel these numbers are not representative due to the high wattage power supply being used (we use the same PSU to remain consistent over a series of reviews, and the fact that some boards on our test bed get tested with three or four high powered GPUs), the important point to take away is the relationship between the numbers. These boards are all under the same conditions, and thus the differences between them should be easy to spot.

Power Consumption - Long IdlePower Consumption - IdlePower Consumption - OCCT

Despite being a small motherboard with few extra components and Military Class 4 styling, the MSI A88XM-E35 uses more power than the IR355x ICs on the GIGABYTE motherboard, known for their high efficiency.

Windows 7 POST Time

Different motherboards have different POST sequences before an operating system is initialized. A lot of this is dependent on the board itself, and POST boot time is determined by the controllers on board (and the sequence of how those extras are organized). As part of our testing, we are now going to look at the POST Boot Time - this is the time from pressing the ON button on the computer to when Windows 7 starts loading. (We discount Windows loading as it is highly variable given Windows specific features.)  These results are subject to human error, so please allow +/- 1 second in these results.

POST (Power-On Self-Test) Time - Single MSI GTX 770

Motherboard manufacturers ultimately spend more time optimizing their more expensive products. With the A88XM-E35 sitting so low on the product stack, POST optimization is an afterthought.



System Benchmarks

Rightmark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5

The premise behind Rightmark:AA is to test the input and output of the audio system to determine noise levels, range, harmonic distortion, stereo crosstalk and so forth. Rightmark:AA should indicate how well the sound system is built and isolated from electrical interference (either internally or externally). For this test we connect the Line Out to the Line In using a short six inch 3.5mm to 3.5mm high-quality jack, turn the OS speaker volume to 100%, and run the Rightmark default test suite at 192 kHz, 24-bit. The OS is tuned to 192 kHz/24-bit input and output, and the Line-In volume is adjusted until we have the best RMAA value in the mini-pretest. We look specifically at the Dynamic Range of the audio codec used on board, as well as the Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise.

Dynamic Range of the MSI A88XM-E35

Rightmark: AA, Dynamic Range, 24-bit / 192 kHz

Rightmark: AA, THD+N, 24-bit / 192 kHz

As mentioned in the first page of this review, the ALC887 is a cut down version of the ALC892, offering only 2.1 audio rather than 5.1 or 7.1 while keeping roughly the same dynamic range and distortion.

USB Backup

For this benchmark, we run CrystalDiskMark to determine the ideal sequential read and write speeds for the USB port using our 240 GB OCZ Vertex3 SSD with a SATA 6 Gbps to USB 3.0 converter. Then we transfer a set size of files from the SSD to the USB drive using DiskBench, which monitors the time taken to transfer. The files transferred are a 1.52 GB set of 2867 files across 320 folders – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are the videos used in the WinRAR test. In an update to pre-Z87 testing, we also run MaxCPU to load up one of the threads during the test which improves general performance up to 15% by causing all the internal pathways to run at full speed.

USB 2.0 Copy Times

USB 3.0 Copy Times

MSI’s USB performance at stock settings has historically been a series of ups and downs. While the A88XM-E35 is not breaking any records soon, it does not stray too far from other motherboard performances. However for significant data transfer there are better options available.

DPC Latency

Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing. In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority. Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests, such as audio, will be further down the line. So if the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled. If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time, resulting in an empty audio buffer – this leads to characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks. Having a bigger buffer and correctly implemented system drivers obviously helps in this regard. The DPC latency checker measures how much time is processing DPCs from driver invocation – the lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes. Results are measured in microseconds and taken as the peak latency while cycling through a series of short HD videos - less than 500 microseconds usually gets the green light, but the lower the better.

DPC Latency Maximum

As one might imagine a $63 motherboard is not the best choice when it comes to a DAW. The lack of optimization on the cheaper products in the stack means the A88XM-E35 comes out at 242 microseconds on the DPC Latency test. While for most users this will not feel any different to everyday usage, users that need a sub-150 or sub-100 motherboard will have to look elsewhere.



Real World CPU Benchmarks

Readers of our motherboard review section will have noted the trend in modern motherboards to implement a form of MultiCore Enhancement / Acceleration / Turbo (read our report here) on their motherboards. This does several things – better benchmark results at stock settings (not entirely needed if overclocking is an end-user goal), at the expense of heat and temperature, but also gives in essence an automatic overclock which may be against what the user wants. Our testing methodology is ‘out-of-the-box’, with the latest public BIOS installed and XMP enabled, and thus subject to the whims of this feature. It is ultimately up to the motherboard manufacturer to take this risk – and manufacturers taking risks in the setup is something they do on every product (think C-state settings, USB priority, DPC Latency / monitoring priority, memory subtimings at JEDEC). Processor speed change is part of that risk which is clearly visible, and ultimately if no overclocking is planned, some motherboards will affect how fast that shiny new processor goes and can be an important factor in the purchase.

For reference, the MSI A88XM-E35 does not implement any form of Multi-Core Turbo.

Rendering – Adobe After Effects CS6: link

Published by Adobe, After Effects is a digital motion graphics, visual effects and compositing software package used in the post-production process of filmmaking and television production. For our benchmark we downloaded a common scene in use on the AE forums for benchmarks and placed it under our own circumstances for a repeatable benchmark. We generate 152 frames of the scene and present the time to do so based purely on CPU calculations.

Adobe After Effects CS6: 152 Frames

Compression – WinRAR 5.0.1: link

Our WinRAR test from 2013 is updated to the latest version of WinRAR at the start of 2014. We compress a set of 2867 files across 320 folders totaling 1.52 GB in size – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are small 30 second 720p videos.

WinRAR 5.01

Image Manipulation – FastStone Image Viewer 4.9: link

Similarly to WinRAR, the FastStone test us updated for 2014 to the latest version. FastStone is the program I use to perform quick or bulk actions on images, such as resizing, adjusting for color and cropping. In our test we take a series of 170 images in various sizes and formats and convert them all into 640x480 .gif files, maintaining the aspect ratio. FastStone does not use multithreading for this test, and thus single threaded performance is often the winner.

FastStone Image Viewer 4.9

Video Conversion – Xilisoft Video Converter 7: link

The XVC test I normally do is updated to the full version of the software, and this time a different test as well. Here we take two different videos: a double UHD (3840x4320) clip of 10 minutes and a 640x266 DVD rip of a 2h20 film and convert both to iPod suitable formats. The reasoning here is simple – when frames are small enough to fit into memory, the algorithm has more chance to apply work between threads and process the video quicker. Results shown are in seconds and time taken to encode.

Xilisoft VC 7.5 Film CPU Only

Xilisoft VC 7.5 2x4K CPU Only

Video Conversion – Handbrake v0.9.9: link

Handbrake is a media conversion tool that was initially designed to help DVD ISOs and Video CDs into more common video formats. The principle today is still the same, primarily as an output for H.264 + AAC/MP3 audio within an MKV container. In our test we use the same videos as in the Xilisoft test, and results are given in frames per second.

HandBrake v0.9.9 Film CPU Only

HandBrake v0.9.9 2x4K CPU Only

Rendering – PovRay 3.7: link

The Persistence of Vision RayTracer, or PovRay, is a freeware package for as the name suggests, ray tracing. It is a pure renderer, rather than modeling software, but the latest beta version contains a handy benchmark for stressing all processing threads on a platform. We have been using this test in motherboard reviews to test memory stability at various CPU speeds to good effect – if it passes the test, the IMC in the CPU is stable for a given CPU speed. As a CPU test, it runs for approximately 2-3 minutes on high end platforms.

PovRay 3.7 beta



Scientific and Synthetic Benchmarks

2D to 3D Rendering Agisoft PhotoScan v1.0: link

Agisoft Photoscan creates 3D models from 2D images, a process which is very computationally expensive. The algorithm is split into four distinct phases, and different phases of the model reconstruction require either fast memory, fast IPC, more cores, or even OpenCL compute devices to hand. Agisoft supplied us with a special version of the software to script the process, where we take 50 images of a stately home and convert it into a medium quality model. This benchmark typically takes around 15-20 minutes on a high end PC on the CPU alone, with GPUs reducing the time.

Agisoft PhotoScan Benchmark - Total Time

Console Emulation Dolphin Benchmark: link

At the start of 2014 I was emailed with a link to a new emulation benchmark based on the Dolphin Emulator. The issue with emulators tends to be two-fold: game licensing and raw CPU power required for the emulation. As a result, many emulators are often bound by single thread CPU performance, and general reports tended to suggest that Haswell provided a significant post to emulator performance. This benchmark runs a Wii program that raytraces a complex 3D scene inside the Dolphin Wii emulator. Performance on this benchmark is a good proxy of the speed of Dolphin CPU emulation, which is an intensive single core task using most aspects of a CPU. Results are given in minutes, where the Wii itself scores 17.53; meaning that anything above this is faster than an actual Wii for processing Wii code, albeit emulated.

Dolphin Benchmark

Point Calculations – 3D Movement Algorithm Test: link

3DPM is a self-penned benchmark, taking basic 3D movement algorithms used in Brownian Motion simulations and testing them for speed. High floating point performance, MHz and IPC wins in the single thread version, whereas the multithread version has to handle the threads and loves more cores.

3D Particle Movement: Single Threaded

3D Particle Movement: MultiThreaded

Encryption TrueCrypt v0.7.1a: link

TrueCrypt is an off the shelf open source encryption tool for files and folders. For our test we run the benchmark mode using a 1GB buffer and take the mean result from AES encryption.

TrueCrypt 7.1a AES

Synthetic – 7-Zip 9.2: link

As an open source compression tool, 7-Zip is a popular tool for making sets of files easier to handle and transfer. The software offers up its own benchmark, to which we report the result.

7-Zip MIPS



F1 2013

First up is F1 2013 by Codemasters. I am a big Formula 1 fan in my spare time, and nothing makes me happier than carving up the field in a Caterham, waving to the Red Bulls as I drive by (because I play on easy and take shortcuts). F1 2013 uses the EGO Engine, and like other Codemasters games ends up being very playable on old hardware quite easily. In order to beef up the benchmark a bit, we devised the following scenario for the benchmark mode: one lap of Spa-Francorchamps in the heavy wet, the benchmark follows Jenson Button in the McLaren who starts on the grid in 22nd place, with the field made up of 11 Williams cars, 5 Marussia and 5 Caterham in that order. This puts emphasis on the CPU to handle the AI in the wet, and allows for a good amount of overtaking during the automated benchmark. We test at 1920x1080 on Ultra graphical settings.

F1 2013: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

F1 2013, 1080p Max
  NVIDIA AMD
Average Frame Rates
Minimum Frame Rates

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite was Zero Punctuation’s Game of the Year for 2013, uses the Unreal Engine 3, and is designed to scale with both cores and graphical prowess. We test the benchmark using the Adrenaline benchmark tool and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.

Bioshock Infinite: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Bioshock Infinite, 1080p Max
  NVIDIA AMD
Average Frame Rates
Minimum Frame Rates

Tomb Raider

The next benchmark in our test is Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider is an AMD optimized game, lauded for its use of TressFX creating dynamic hair to increase the immersion in game. Tomb Raider uses a modified version of the Crystal Engine, and enjoys raw horsepower. We test the benchmark using the Adrenaline benchmark tool and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.

Tomb Raider: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Tomb Raider, 1080p Max
  NVIDIA AMD
Average Frame Rates
Minimum Frame Rates


Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs is a benchmarking wet dream – a highly complex benchmark that can bring the toughest setup and high resolutions down into single figures. Having an extreme SSAO setting can do that, but at the right settings Sleeping Dogs is highly playable and enjoyable. We run the basic benchmark program laid out in the Adrenaline benchmark tool, and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.

Sleeping Dogs: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Sleeping Dogs, 1080p Max
  NVIDIA AMD
Average Frame Rates
Minimum Frame Rates

Company of Heroes 2

Company of Heroes 2 also can bring a top end GPU to its knees, even at very basic benchmark settings. To get an average 30 FPS using a normal GPU is a challenge, let alone a minimum frame rate of 30 FPS. For this benchmark I use modified versions of Ryan’s batch files at 1920x1080 on High. COH2 is a little odd in that it does not scale with more GPUs with the drivers we use.

Company Of Heroes 2: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Company of Heroes 2, 1080p Max
  NVIDIA AMD
Average Frame Rates
Minimum Frame Rates

Battlefield 4

The EA/DICE series that has taken countless hours of my life away is back for another iteration, using the Frostbite 3 engine. AMD is also piling its resources into BF4 with the new Mantle API for developers, designed to cut the time required for the CPU to dispatch commands to the graphical sub-system. For our test we use the in-game benchmarking tools and record the frame time for the first ~70 seconds of the Tashgar single player mission, which is an on-rails generation of and rendering of objects and textures. We test at 1920x1080 at Ultra settings.

Battlefield 4: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Battlefield 4, 1080p Max
  NVIDIA AMD
Average Frame Rates
99th Percentile Frame Rates


MSI A88XM-E35 Conclusion

Markets in the technology industry go through cycles. At the beginning we start with dozens of companies with lots of ideas trying to get the attention of end-users. Consolidation occurs as one company buys another, or some of the less successful ideas cause companies to fold. Once a base level of performance has been reached, the market has a race to the bottom where margins are low but volumes are high. Once users are fed up with all the cheap hardware, some manufacturers start focusing on the enthusiasts and the high-end, trying to deliver everything that anyone would ever want (within certain limits). The market then balances out, and the final 4-6 manufacturers fight each other on both fronts – the low margin/high volume parts, and the more profitable / low volume parts. The halo effect of having the best high end product can have an effect of sales lower down the product stack in this era. Many of the tech industries are currently going through this process, with some having reached the final point in our current expectations of the industry. We have seen this general trend occur (or start to occur) in motherboards, memory, monitors, tablets, notebooks, graphics cards, storage and so on.

So where does this place the A88XM-E35?  This is clearly a low margin/high volume part, destined for users and system integrators that want to develop small form factor systems within a PC environment. The line here is clearly being blurred – even with a $68 motherboard like the A88XM-E35, putting a full system together (plus monitor, OS) can still be $350 or so, right where Windows tablets are picking up the pace.  The upside of a desktop system can be the free reign of power consumption, giving rise to better performance.  For Kaveri, this might also mean access to HSA.

The A88XM-E35 does have one significant flaw. This is the lack of power delivery heatsinks, which when using a high-end Kaveri APU can result in restarts during heavy CPU loading. For this review we had to use an extra fan specifically pointed at this area of the motherboard, and for users purchasing this product we recommend similar action. This need for an extra fan on the power delivery seems to be a trend on FM2+ motherboards that we have reviewed, which usually points to a potential flaw in the general design.

However when using the fan on the power delivery, the A88XM-E35 comes across as a nice inexpensive motherboard. FM2+ products range from around $68 all the way up to $123, meaning that if all you need is something to run an OS on it can be as cheap-as-chips. There are no extras on the motherboard, but one PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, a USB 3.0 header, six SATA 6 Gbps ports, four USB 2.0 ports on the rear panel, two USB 3.0 ports on the rear panel and basic networking/audio is all a family computer might need.

Performance is consummate with other FM2+ motherboards we have come across, and MSI’s software package is slowly improving. The BIOS is being updated to make it easier to use, including a graphical representation of fan controls as well as improved navigation. The Windows software installation comically uses Military Class III wallpapers despite being a Military Class 4 motherboard, but we still get favorites like Live Update 5. There are a couple of software issues (latest Live Update 5 from the web does not work, still no indication of file size until it starts downloading) but nothing mission critical.

I guess I should not be surprised that this $68 MSI motherboard works as well as it does. It is a piece of hardware designed to do a job, and a lot of the tweaks to make it feel like a premium product are all in software. There are some things you cannot avoid in hardware, and a cheaper product does not get the optimizations (e.g. POST time, USB speed) that the higher end products, but if you need something to get up and go with AMD, MSI has you covered with the A88XM-E35.

Given everything that has been said, I should be giving this motherboard an award for its price point and experience. It should be receiving a recommended level award, but as it stands the lack of a power delivery heatsink leading to restart issues is a critical flaw. Given the issues we have had with our FM2+ reviews up until this point, I wonder if a $0.50 or $1 heatsink would have made much difference. But because MSI has not added one (of their design), I cannot make the comparison. Should a user have enough budget to aim a fan at this area, then the motherboard can be recommended – but that adds another $4-$10 on the overall cost.

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