Which A88X Motherboard Is Best?
The best board for fans of AMD's Kaveri architecture is a matter of perspective, since each buyer has different needs. It might surprise you, however, that price is not a major factor in this round-up. All of the boards cost between $105 and $120, and the most expensive model includes a game voucher worth at least as much as its price difference.
Anyone who doesn’t care about that game (and to be honest, it hasn't received the most flattering reviews) might be tempted by the chart above. But that purely objective graph also doesn't include the cost of added features, or what those extra capabilities might add to your experience beyond benchmarked performance. Incidentally, besides the included game code, MSI’s A88X-G45 Gaming also has the most inclusive feature set.
In fact, the least extravagant feature set doesn’t even belong to the cheapest board in this round-up. For $110, ASRock’s FM2A88X+ Killer doesn't support a third graphics card. For most folks, that won't be any sort of issue. After all, we're talking about AMD's mainstream APUs here, and any attempt to build a multi-GPU gaming platform is going to be an exercise in imbalance. But the factor still needs to be considered in a value comparison. ASRock does give you the higher-end Qualcomm Atheros Killer GbE controller, but so does MSI's A88X-G45 Gaming.
With its combination of premium integrated networking, three-way graphics card support, extra I/O panel-based USB 3.0 ports, and handy bench testing features, MSI’s A88X-G45 Gaming could have been our top choice for award recognition, and it is a great choice for a mainstream gaming platform with one or two discrete graphics card. It's telling, though, that something as minor as a single USB 3.0 header under the third graphics card slot is what complicates our decision. Not price. Not power. Not performance. But rather, layout.
Gigabyte’s F2A88X-UP4 nearly matches MSI’s feature set, and the Gigabyte board is also the least-expensive in today’s round-up. You do get a larger voltage regulator, if that matters to you, though our tests didn't expose any apparent benefits. Gigabyte also shares MSI’s triple-card USB 3.0 header conflict, but only with the F2A88X-UP4's second front-panel USB 3.0 header. That's right, the motherboard offers two. On the other hand, the F2A88X-UP4 has an issue where it shares one of only two remaining PCI Express slots with the third graphics card slot. As staunch opposition of slot sharing, that affects our judgement, too.
The final contender, Asus’ A88X-Pro, doesn’t have any of those problems. It also comes up shorter on features, though most of the missing capabilities are buttons that get hidden once your machine is buttoned up inside of a case. Asus even takes the precaution of moving its front-panel audio header forward by about an inch, compensating for the design issue of too many cases with leads that are too short. And the middle slot that Gigabyte loses? Asus replaces it with a PCI slot.
Most of us probably don’t care for legacy PCI, but it’s hard to deny an award to the only board in this round-up that doesn't come up noticeably short on features or land on our test bench with a significant design compromise. Even after tacking-on an extra $5 for Asus-exclusive features that many users like (but don’t want to pay for), and even coming up 50 MHz short of our top CPU overclock, Asus’ trouble-free $115 A88X-Pro takes the win.
Update: 3/20/2014: We love constructive feedback, and many of our readers let us know that the slow third x16-length slot offered by Asus, MSI, and Gigabyte isn’t an important consideration in their purchase decision. Configurations where the extra slot might be important, such as digital signage and crypto-currency mining, usually don’t need front-panel USB 3.0 (blocked on the A88X-G45) or an extra x1 slot (disabled in the F2A88X-UP4). The A88X-Pro retains its higher honor for enabling rarely-used hardware configurations, but the boards that don’t are equally viable to just about everyone. With that in mind, we’re adding our stamp of approval to the F2A88X-UP4 and A88X-G45 Gaming.
Even beyond price, ATX seems pointless with a Kaveri APU. Myself, I'm waiting for the A8-7600 to build a very small (< 3 liters) ITX HTPC running the APU in 45W mode. Although I'm very excited about doing that build, I can't see any use case that makes sense for a Kaveri APU in an ATX form factor. Perhaps the A88x chipset has some feature benefit for building something using the 750 or 760k CPU in a budget build. But the only build I would even think about using a Kaveri APU in would be a mini-ITX PC/HTPC or laptop.
Beyond that, I would love to see Lian-Li come out with a tiny case like the PC-Q02, PC-Q09 or PC-Q12, but with the design for a single 120mm CLC and a 300W SFX PSU to allow a decent overclock on a 7850k APU with the smallest form factor possible (i.e. < 8 liters). That type of build might get me jazzed up for the 7850k.