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Four LGA-1150 Motherboards Under $60

MSI H81M-E34

Overview

MSI's H81M-E34 is simultaneously our most and least expensive entry. Officially listed for $62 and up online, you can often find it for around $50. This is an exceptional bargain for what you get.

Once again, the VRM and EPS power jack are at the top, and the four-pin CPU cooler fan header is over by the DIMMs. Below the VRM and left of the CPU interface is a VIA VL805 USB 3.0 controller for the internal header. The front edge sports a three-pin fan header, the ATX power plug and a USB 3.0 header right above the PCIe slot.

Just above that slot you'll find a third fan header; this one has four pins. And like Asus' board, you get two PCIe x1 slots (and again, the first one doesn't matter if you install a double-slot graphics card).

The bottom edge of the board, from left to right, hosts the HD Audio header, a serial port connector, a TPM header, the case speaker header, front-panel connectivity, two USB 2.0 headers and two SATA 3Gb/s ports. Easily accessible above the SATA ports are the chassis intrusion and CLR_CMOS headers. The bottom of the front edge sports two forward-facing SATA 6Gb/s ports, too.

Around back you'll find a fairly comprehensive I/O panel. MSI taps that VIA controller for a second set of USB ports. The -E34 also has two PS/2 ports; two USB 2.0 ports; VGA, DVI-D and HDMI for accessing the on-die graphics engine; along with audio and networking from Realtek. Like Asus, MSI uses the ALC887 codec.

Box contents include two angled SATA cables, an installation CD, a rather detailed instruction manual and an I/O shield. MSI also gets style points for its two-tone cables.

At the end of the day, I like the -E34 not for any one big feature, but for a lot of little things that show extra thought. It seems to take the best from the other two H81 models and add even more. The HDMI port, the internal USB 3.0 header, an easily accessible CMOS reset jumper and the two extra rear USB 3.0 ports improve the board's functionality. A second PCIe x1 slot is of questionable value, but at least it's there if you need it. 

Then there are the clearly labeled USB headers and forward-facing SATA ports. While they may seem insignificant, these are the subtle touches that experienced system builders appreciate because they help simplify assembly.

Firmware

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MSI's UEFI layout and interface are a little wonky at first. The six panes on the sides differ from the tabs across the top that most of us are accustomed to.

When you click on a setting in many other UEFIs, either a pick list is displayed or the text highlight changes color, showing it's editable. MSI doesn't do this. Instead, the company relies on the + and – keys to change values. Once you adapt to this, however, you find that nearly every setting is incredibly granular, with many voltages and offsets incrementing in steps of 0.001. Also, whereas both ASRock and Asus have long lists of settings on just about every page, MSI groups its options together in more subsections. There's more clicking as a result, but much less scrolling and searching. After a little adjustment, I like it.

The OC page contains the most common settings on one page, with no scrolling required. Other options are available on subpages under menu items marked with ">". Some of them are greyed out depending on other settings, and this can be confusing. Help text on the right tries to clear it up, telling you which settings are dependent on others.

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Across the top you have a graphical boot order slider, similar to the Asus board. A dedicated BIOS flash page replaces the usual Tools section. There's no Internet BIOS flash option, but MSI does give you the ability to export your configuration to a USB stick for backup or transfer, so that's nice.

The OC Profile tab also gives you six slots for storing and loading different configurations. Finally, MSI includes a Board Explorer page with an interactive map of the motherboard, highlighting each major component or port and telling you what it is and what is currently plugged into it.

Like its X99S big brother, the -E34 includes a branded version of Intel Extreme Tuning Utility and MSI's own Command Center. As we've come to expect, most of Command Center is locked down when it comes to CPU multipliers. The OC Genie will overclock your iGPU, but nothing else. But while the competing software suites only let you fiddle with system voltages, MSI lets you change RAM timings as well. There's also a fan auto-tuner and RAMDisk utility, as well as monitoring features. Command Center can pop up small monitoring windows dedicated to motherboards stats, CPU info, RAM, fans and so on.

The ETU has a hot-swap feature able to switch between overclock profiles, depending on what application you're running. It's much like a programmable mouse or keyboard that can change keymaps when you launch a game. Unfortunately, this feature is useless on the -E34 since CPU multipliers can't be dynamically dialed in. 

Overclocking

I'm three for three hitting 4.2GHz on these affordable motherboards. But with MSI's more granular controls, I quietly hoped that 4.3GHz might finally be attainable. Hope springs eternal, right? As usual, I started with 40x and a voltage setting of Auto. This time, I encountered an issue where the frequency stayed at 3.2GHz. I went back, forced the CPU to a fixed multiplier and static voltage, booted back up and saw the issue had resolved itself. Not wanting to waste time, I dove straight into a 4.2GHz clock rate at 1.215V. Stability was solid, and my temperatures held to a reasonably low 73 degrees C on the CPU and 53 degrees C on the VRM.

It looked like I had enough headroom, so I tried again for 4.3GHz. First I used a 1.235V setting, but that didn't work. 1.24V? Nope. 1.245V? Still nothing, and thermals weren't my issue. I started wondering if my issue was the CPU and not these motherboards. Unfortunately, that question has to go unanswered for a while.

I then turned my attention to the weird fixed-frequency glitch., experimenting with a lot of setting combinations to isolate exactly the cause. Although I wasn't able to nail down the exact cause, going back to 4.2GHz with a dynamic clock worked just fine. After contacting MSI, I discovered this happens when you alter the CPU multiplier immediately after clearing the CMOS. The fix is to first enter the UEFI immediately after resetting and saving the settings without changing anything. Changes made after that point are applied correctly. MSI says it is working to fix this  behavior.

Testing the stock RAM voltage at 1.5V showed the -E34 had a 0.01V cheat going on. The extra-granular controls I mentioned before came in handy though, as I was able to pick 1.54V and not the usual 1.55V most drop-down lists would have presented. As expected, 7-7-7-21 timings at 1400 MT/s and 1.55V were perfectly stable.