MSI 970 Gaming Motherboard Review: AM3+ Gets Something New for a Change!
MSI Redefines AM3+ Value
It is no secret that AMD’s AM3+ motherboard ecosystem has languished for the past year or so, with very few examples of new products hitting the scene. This is understandable since AMD has not updated the chipset options for AM3+, and only recently did they release updated processors in the form of the FX-8370 and FX-8370e. It has been two years since the release of the original FX-8350 and another year since the high TDP FX-9000 series of parts. For better or for worse, AMD is pushing their APUs far harder to consumers than the aging AM3+ platform.
MSI has refined their "Gaming" series of products with a distinctive look that catches the eye.
This does not mean that the AM3+ ecosystem is non-viable to both AMD and consumers. While Intel has stayed ahead of AMD in terms of IPC, TDP, and process technology the overall competitiveness of the latest AM3+ parts are still quite good when considering price. Yes, these CPUs will run hotter and pull more power than the Intel parts they are directly competing against, but when we look at the prices of comparable motherboards and the CPUs themselves, AMD still holds a price/performance advantage. The AM3+ processors that feature six and eight cores (3 and 4 modules) are solid performers in a wide variety of applications. The top end eight core products compete well against the latest Intel parts in many gaming scenarios, as well as productivity applications which leverage multiple threads.
When the Vishera based FX processors were initially introduced we saw an influx of new AM3+ designs that would support these new processors, as well as the planned 220 watt TDP variants that would emerge later. From that point on we have only seen a smattering of new products based on AM3+. From all the available roadmaps from AMD that we have seen, we do not expect there to be new products based on Steamroller or Excavator architectures on the AM3+ platform. AMD is relying on their HSA enabled APUs to retain marketshare and hopefully drive new software technologies that will leverage these products. The Future really is Fusion…
MSI is bucking this trend. The company still sees value in the AM3+ market, and they are introducing a new product that looks to more adequately fit the financial realities of that marketplace. We already have high end boards from MSI, ASRock, Asus, and Gigabyte that are feature packed and go for a relatively low price for enthusiast motherboards. On the other end of the spectrum we have barebone motherboards based on even older chipsets (SB710/750 based). In between we often see AMD 970 based boards that offer a tolerable mix of features attached to a low price.
The bundle is fair, but not exciting. It offers the basics to get a user up and running quickly.
The MSI 970 Gaming motherboard is a different beast as compared to the rest of the market. It is a Gaming branded board which offers a host of features that can be considered high end, but at the same time being offered for a price less than $100 US. MSI looks to explore this sweet spot with a motherboard that far outpunches its weight class. This board is a classic balance of price vs. features, but it addresses this balance in a rather unique way. Part of it might be marketing, but a good chunk of it is smart and solid engineering.
The MSI 970 Gaming
This motherboard is based on the quite mature AMD 970 chipset. The 970 is supposed to have a single x16 PCI-E 2.0 connection plus a single x4 as well as two addition x1 lanes. This does not include the 4 lanes that attach to the southbridge. So the chip has 22 PCI-E 2.0 lanes available for use. MSI has skirted around the rules for this chip by using a 3rd party solution to split the single x16 PEG into 2 x8. When one graphics card is used, then the first PEG slot is a full x16 implementation. It is a flexible scheme that seems to work well. The board supports both CrossFire and SLI implementations, but it is only “certified” for CrossFire.
The board looks mean and lean with a nice blend of functionality and aesthetics. Overall component spacing is good, but if a second dual slot video card is installed it can cause routing issues with audio and USB connections.
The SB950 southbridge powers the I/O of this board. This chip supports a max of six SATA-6G ports as well as 14 USB 2.0 ports. This is again a relatively old southbridge that does not support USB 3.0. MSI uses the VIA VL806 USB 3.0 chip which supplies four USB 3.0 ports for use. The rear panel has two of these ports while the internal USB 3.0 plug handles that duty for cases with front panel 3.0 support. The southbridge also supports RAID 0,1,5, and 10 functionality. The SB950 has aged relatively well thanks mainly to the inability of the SATA people to push I/O speeds in an economical way. SATA Express may be the next generation I/O, but we have seen no actual storage devices for sale that utilize that connection. M.2 has fared a little better, but it is still a relatively niche market that has not gained as much traction as manufacturers have hoped. While the SB950 is not cutting edge, it is not holding the platform back due to a wide availability of good USB 3.0 controllers.
Something that has snuck out with some of the latest boards and BIOS updates is that the FX processors from AMD now support up to 2133 MHz DDR-3 speeds. Initially the Vishera based parts were specified for DDR-3 1866 use. This is a small boost in performance, primarily because the latest FX processors all have copious amounts of L2 and L3 cache. The FX-8000 and 9000 series all sport 8 MB of L2 and 8 MB of L3. The small bump in main memory speeds will help in some situations, but the FX chips are not exactly starved of bandwidth at 1866 speeds.
Here we see the 6+2 power phase array. This is something that MSI is not entirely keen on promiting for this board. It does not seem to hold it back, but it does have some negatives attached to it.
MSI focused on pushing as many high end features onto this board as possible without exploding the price. The design follows the latest Gaming platforms with a board that features all black components with red accents. This is a very masculine look without being garish. It just looks solid and mean. They have implemented what they consider a high end audio solution in addition to bundling audio software that *should* improve a users experience. Finally they implemented the Killer Ethernet solution from Qualcomm.
The Audio Boost 2 implementation relies on a high SNR codec based on the Realtek ALC1150. This chip features a front DAC output of 115 dB SNR, while the rest of the outputs are at a much lower 96 dB SNR. The PCB area for the sound is as isolated as possible from the rest of the board. This should improve audio as there will be less interference as well as a drop in things such as electrical ringing by sharing the same power and ground planes as the rest of the board. Power and ground can be filtered going to this isolated PCB area, but I am unsure if MSI implemented it as such due to cost concerns. The actual CODEC chip itself is protected by a snazzy looking EMI cover that is illuminated from behind. The combination of this illumination as well as the “red line” delineating where the sound portion is isolated from the rest of the PCB makes this a nice looking motherboard when displayed in a windowed case.