MSI H81M-E35 V2 Motherboard Review

Today we're taking a look at another mainstream LGA1150 board: MSI's H81M-E35 V2. We'll determine what an enthusiast might give up by choosing a low-cost platform.

Introduction

Today's sample uses the basic H81 Express chipset and sells for $59.99 at Newegg, just at the edge of our $60-$80 budget range. The H81M-E35 V2 is a microATX board with a mere 2+1 power phases, but it has the ability to overclock Intel's unlocked Pentium G3258, and MSI's QVL even includes higher-end 84W CPUs. Noting the absence of ports on some competing H81 boards, is this perhaps an example of H81 done right? Let's find out.

Technical Specifications

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If you've ever worked on a budget-oriented system, you'll be pleased to find better features on this particular platform than what you might have expected. Rather than the woefully inadequate two SATA ports, MSI gives you four. There is also front- and rear-accessible USB 3.0. The ALC887 is a better mainstream codec than the ALC662 more commonly found on cheap boards. And at this price point, we don't consider a lack of wireless networking as "missing". Fortunately, there are plenty of slot and ports available to add your own Wi-Fi adapter.

In The Box

As is typical for this price range, the H81M-E35 V2 includes minimal accessories. You get the board, a compact manual, a driver CD, an I/O shield and a couple of SATA 6Gb/s cables. As usual, we'll mention that another cable would have been nice, though that's not a significant omission at this price point.

We didn't care much for the manual. It is tiny, measuring a mere 4x6 inches, and you can forget about it staying open to a page. The font looks like eight-point type. Eight languages are covered, including English, French, German, Russian and four other Asian languages, but not Spanish or Dutch. The manual appears to contain a suitable amount of information for a board of this class, but a separate sheet with a much larger image of the front panel (and possibly other) connectors might have been helpful.

The board's layout is logical enough. The only obvious blockage we saw was the first PCIe x1 slot, which would be covered by a dual-slot video card. This is common though, so it's really not an issue. If you need multiple expansion slots, perhaps a full ATX board would be more appropriate for your application. Similarly, a long enthusiast-oriented graphics card (which we don't think would be a natural fit for this low-cost motherboard anyway) might overlap the SATA 6Gb/s ports. They face forward though, so they wouldn't be rendered unusable. If you use cables with clips on them, both clips will face up, so you need to remove the top cable to get to the one below it. Nothing blocks the CR2032 battery, and pin headers are reachable and mostly near edges. The one that isn't, a fan header, would most likely be used with a rear-facing fan, presenting no need to route cables across the board.

There is plenty of room between the RAM slots and the back of a graphics card, allowing the latches to be opened without clearance issues. The CLRCMOS1 header does not include a jumper block. It's on the other side of the chipset rather than being near the battery, but is readily accessible. The four-pin CPU power cable is near the right edge, with nothing between it and the edge that would interfere with cable management. All capacitors are solid, and chokes are a type of ferrite core that MSI calls "Dark Chokes". The front-panel header is in its usual place on the bottom-left, and there is a speaker header there as well so you can hear BIOS error beeps if you plug a speaker in. The audio header is in the back-left, and it isn't right up against anything that would make access difficult. Missing are any LEDs on the board, including +5VSB or diagnostic indicators. Just be extra sure you've switched your PSU off or unplugged it before adding or removing expansion cards.

Firmware

Hopping into the BIOS, this first screen gives us basic information, including the build number (currently v.22.4). We applied this latest update in an attempt to fix an issue where our board would not save BIOS screen shots. We tried several different storage devices in all of the board's ports. Although it may be worth noting that the rear-panel USB 3.0 ports are attached to an add-in controller, the USB 2.0 ports are native and they did not work either. Fortunately, an MSI rep was kind enough to provide the BIOS images in our story. He used a higher-end host processor on his build, so you'll notice differences in the specs.

Pressing <Enter> on the CPU Ratio's Auto setting does nothing; you have to use the numeric [+] key to count up from eight to where you want to go. We stopped at 42 to remain consistent with our other board tests, and our Pentium was perfectly happy to run at 4.2GHz. We're less sure about the board's receptiveness to a higher frequency, though. In a couple of the tests you'll see, it actually lost performance when the Pentium was overclocked. We have not seen that behavior from any other platform.

How We Tested

As before, this motherboard was set up on an open-bed test case. All components were the same as those used in our recent reviews.

Test System Configuration

CPU CoolerBoxed Cooler
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking

Software

GraphicsNvidia 347.25

For comparison purposes, our results are compared to those from the recent three-board mini-ITX review, which you can read here.

Benchmark Suite

PCMark 8Version: 2.3.293, Work, Home, and Creative Benchmarks
SiSoftware SandraVersion: 2015.01.21.15, Memory Bandwidth
Crystal DiskMark 3.03Sequential Read
Unigine Heaven 4.0Version 4.0, Built-in Benchmark
DirectX 9, Low Detail, 1280x720, 2xAA, No Tessellation

As before, stock and overclocked settings are needed to generate comparative data. Spoiler: they're fairly bland. We used a Kill A Watt meter rather than the readout of the UPS. With the system off, the UPS on its own draws about 6W.

We're only running the sequential test in CrystalDiskMark because we're interested in testing the chipset's SATA interface and USB 3.0 throughput, not the attached drives. Similarly, we looked for bandwidth differences in the RAM only. This time, we did throw in the additional custom Heaven setting we used before. While it's not explicitly relevant to motherboards, we decided it was useful enough to show that even minimal tweaking can be worthwhile.

Benchmarks

We've seen this before; there is little difference between the boards. Overclocking does provide around 10 percent better scores.

The differences are not significant, although overclocking moves today's board from last into a tie for first place with a boost of less than three percent.

Only an unrealistically pinched scale would make the one percent difference look significant. It is perhaps worth noting that the test board's SATA 6Gb/s performance was lower when overclocked, although its USB 3.0 performance was a little higher.

Today's board is tied for last place in its stock trim on the DX9 basic settings, and it falls to dead last in DX11. Overclocking shifts it to first place under DX9, but fails to move the needle in DX11. In any case, the difference is less than one percent, which is hardly noticeable.

MSI's power consumption surfaces in the middle of the pack, though it drops a little while running Heaven. Saving power there is offset by higher usage under a pure CPU load like Prime95. This is especially true when overclocked, but it's worth noting that idle draw didn't budge. Just be aware that power use did fluctuate during testing.

The placing in our CPU temperature testing mirrors what we saw from power consumption. Over the long term, we wouldn't want to see readings in excess of 70 degrees Celsius, which is what the Pentium hit under Prime95. But we'd expect that additional tweaking or a better cooler could bring this figure down.

Overclocking

We reached 4.2GHz with the G3258 we’re using for our tests. It's the second one we obtained after our first sample was unstable over 4GHz on any board I tried. My successful overclock was achieved with one manual setting: changing the CPU Ratio from Auto to 4200MHz. We did try the OC Genie and were a little disappointed that it did nothing.

Given that a few benchmarks showed lower results after the overclock, and since we could not record BIOS screen shots, we cannot rule out the possibility of some sort of firmware bug.

Conclusion

We want to like this board for its intended target market, the typical budget-conscious home user who probably won't do much tweaking. It certainly beats the miserably minimalist big-box offerings, with their insufficient ports and substandard components.

MSI identifies this board as "Military Class 4", which, along with a generous three-year guarantee, implies it will be reliable. Still, even some cheaper boards with similar port counts offer that same warranty period. So, while platform isn't a bad choice by any means, it's going to lose in the award category because more affordable competitors (see Eric Van der Linden's round-up) serve up comparable capabilities at a substantially lower price.

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Joe Trott is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Motherboards.

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