Typically, a difference of $5 between motherboards isn't a big deal. However at the low-end of the spectrum, five bucks is a bigger percentage of total cost. So you want to get as much for that money as possible. How do these boards rank, then? Let's start at the bottom.
All four platforms have problems with their Windows-based overclocking utilities. If that's a deal-breaker, then none of these boards will satisfy you. And really, that goes for anything shy of a Z-series chipset. If Windows overclocking is not important, though, all of today's entries are equally penalized for their issues, so no one offering stands out.
Asus' H81M-E wins the efficiency race, but struggles in the thermal department. Some extra fan tuning could fix that, except this board only has one system fan header. Power adapter cables and a fan controller would help, but this is supposed to be a low-budget motherboard. And that's to say nothing of the missing internal USB 3.0 header. I simply won't buy a board without front-panel USB 3.0 connectivity just like I won't buy a case without the corresponding ports. Considering MSI's H81M-E34 has everything you get from Asus' model plus four more USB 3.0 ports, an extra fan header and HDMI output, I can't see the Asus as competitive.
ASRock's H81M-HDS has the highest street price, but you don't get anything extra except a hotter VRM and a bigger power appetite. Even if you can eke out a better overclock with the four-phase VRM, bad front-panel and fan header placement are just too much to overcome. Again, the -E34 offers more than the -HDS for less money. Even at its full price of $62, I'd still pick MSI's offering.
That leaves the ASRock B85M-DGS and MSI H81M-E34 battling it out in a close match. The -DGS sets a high mark; it's a borderline great board for the price. While all H81-based platforms are limited to PCIe 2.0 and two 6Gb/s SATA ports, B85 Express gives you PCIe 3.0, four 6Gb/s SATA ports and an internal USB 3.0 header without the need for a third-party controller. Decent power efficiency and low temperatures only sweeten the deal. It does make one mistake: its fan header is too close to the graphics card slot.
The -E34 lacks some of the -DGS' connectivity, but counters with two additional USB 3.0 ports and a lower price. On top of that, you get a better audio codec, forward-facing SATA ports and a CLR_CMOS jumper that doesn't require tweezers to reach. And unlike every other entry here, the -E34 doesn't suffer any glaring flaws.
Either motherboard would work for a typical home or office PC, and they're both deserving of awards for the enthusiast crowd. Only $2 separates them, so price isn't enough to dictate our winner. In the end, our choice comes down to what's more useful in real life, not in a lab. Two extra SATA 6Gb/s ports only matter if you plan to use more than two SSDs, and a 16-lane PCIe 3.0 slot doesn't yield an appreciable benefit over PCIe 2.0 when you're using one graphics card. The -E34's two extra USB 3.0 ports slightly tilt the scale in MSI's favor.
The deciding factors are layout and creature comforts. The -DGS is already behind, and its poorly-placed fan header does it no favors. That's a shame because everything else about this board is great. Still, it deserves our Tom's Hardware Approved award for excellence otherwise.
MSI's offering, on the other hand, sports a nearly flawless layout with its forward-facing SATA ports and convenient CLR_CMOS jumper. As a board designed for overclocking, the occasional BIOS reset needs to be considered. Small nods to enthusiasts like this add up to a more polished piece of hardware. So, MSI's H81M-E34 wins today's round-up and our Tom's Hardware Recommended award.
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