Specifications, Firmware & Software
In my previous installment, covering AMD's A78 chipset, I looked at boards from MSI and Gigabyte and was quite pleased at their performance compared to the higher-end A88X chipset as well as Intel's H81 budget offering. Given the target audience of the A78 chipset, this solution will work perfectly for entry-level enthusiasts or builders wanting to construct an AMD-based HTPC.
To the uninitiated, A78 is AMD's "media-class" chipset for the company's FM2+ APUs. Though this chipset lacks a second PCIe x16 slot and retains less RAID capability, it appears to be potent enough to fit many builders' needs. I've been scratching my head over this topic lately, and I just can't think of a reason why I would use an A88X over the A78. If I am going to buy an AMD APU, I don't necessarily need a GPU, let alone a CrossFire configuration. Plus, if I had aspirations to do CrossFire, wouldn't it be more logical to upgrade to an AM3+ board and get some real horsepower? If the AMD APU is truly meant for HTPC, office and casual gaming tasks, shouldn't I look for the smallest, most efficient motherboard I can find? Sure, with the higher-end, A88X boards we get better components, access to more features and peripheral connectivity, but some of the A78 boards I've looked at show plenty of potential.
|PCI Express||1x16 / 2x8||1x16||1x16||1x16 / 2x8||1x16||1x16|
|SATA (6Gb/s)||8 (8)||6 (6)||6 (0)||8 (8)||6 (6)||4 (4)|
|RAID||0, 1, 5, 10||0, 1, 10||0, 1, 10||0, 1, 5, 10||0, 1, 10||0, 1,10|
|RAID Driver||Promise||Promise||Promise||Dot Hill||Dot Hill||Dot Hill|
|USB (3.0)||14 (4)||14 (4)||14 (0)||14 (4)||14 (4)||10 (2)|
* Per AMD's site - FM2 Easy upgrade path featuring latest USB and SATA technologies. FM2+ Backwards compatible, future-ready and PCIe Gen3.0 ready.
To round out my analysis of the chipset, ASRock has provided me with two samples to run through the test suite. Though they have the same chipset, they each have different features that can be useful for both target business segments.
Firmware & Software
ASRock's UEFI is a familiar sight to the Tom's Hardware crew — it has that old-fashioned BIOS feel that I know and am comfortable using. The two motherboards in this review show similar options, so I'll be grouping them together for a brief overview.
The opening screen has the usual memory and APU information listed, and a row of icons for various sections, such as OC Tweaker, Boot and H/W Monitor. ASRock made it fairly easy to navigate to the main areas of interest, and provides a brief description on the right side of the screen of what each selection can do. This might seem irrelevant to the advanced tuner, but some of the options can become quite confusing as we are led further down the rabbit hole.
For my purposes, OC Tweaker and Advanced screens are the most interesting, since those screens are where most tweaking occurs. OC Tweaker provides access to the APU/PCIe clock, processor multiplier and voltage, and APU load-line calibration. Going a few options further, DRAM timing is accessible, and users can tweak for maximum effectiveness. For the purposes of this review, default memory timings are used, and the XMP profile is applied for overclocking stability tests.
With the Advanced menu, even more detailed features are available. Cool 'n' Quiet, Thermal Throttle, Dual Graphics and Onboard HD Audio options are listed (when applicable) and can help achieve system-specific settings that will enhance the target application.
Both boards offer ASRock's A-Tuning utility, but the ITX+ does offer a couple of other features worth mentioning, such as HDMI-In and HomeCloud. In order to utilize HDMI-In, A-Tuning must be installed and the option switched from Onboard to HDMI from within the OS. Once HDMI-In is enabled, or when the system is off or in standby mode, the motherboard acts as an HDMI pass-thru and will output whatever device is connected through the motherboard onto the PC monitor. I was hoping to see this behave more as a TV tuner card given the lack of expandability on the board, but perhaps some third-party tools will enable such a feature. HomeCloud (through Sunlogin) can be installed to give remote devices such as tablets and smartphones access to control the client. This could be incredibly handy for users who need to start their PCs on the go or download files from their computers, or for parents who need help turning on that one video that their child loves but is buried in a maze of folders.