ASUS F2A85-V Pro Review: A Look at FM2 with A85Xby Ian Cutress on October 10, 2012 11:20 AM EST
The new release of Trinity processors on the desktop opens up a cascade of issues when it comes to choosing a new motherboard for your Trinity system. The main point of confusion comes in the face of chipsets, whereby multiple sockets and processor families can use the same chipsets and each motherboard manufacturer has a different naming scheme in order to differentiate the two. Both Intel and AMD have been guilty of this in the past, but in the past 18 months we had no real cause for concern - until now.
From the beginning, let us lay down a few facts on PC components. When a user buys a processor, the design of that processor and the pin layout determines the socket for that processor. Thus if I purchase an i7-3960X today, I know that it will fit into Socket 2011 based motherboards - similarly with the i5-2500K, it will fit into Socket 1155 motherboards. Out of the motherboards that have this socket, two main avenues are available to decide which model is suitable - the chipset, and the additional functionality.
With AMD and socket AM3+, we had choices of the 990FX, 990X and 970 chipsets. With Sandy Bridge there was P67, H67 and Z68 with some extra business level chipsets, and Ivy Bridge gets Z77, H77, B75 and others. The beauty of Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge is that all the consumer level chipsets are interchangeable and with BIOS updates, all motherboards in that space will work with both processors. I know that if I buy any Z68 motherboard I can fit either my Sandy Bridge processors or Ivy Bridge processors in them.
Trinity and the FM2 socket turn the above situation on its head, so to speak. If I went out and bought a Llano processor on an FM1 socket, I have a choice of either A55 or A75 chipsets. However, for FM2, I have a choice also of A55 or A75, alongside the newer A85X chipset. This means I cannot blindly look at the chipset just for a particular processor socket - it also means that motherboard manufacturers have to be static and clear with their naming structure to avoid confusion. But then again, each manufacturer has a different naming structure, which serves to confuse even more.
In terms of naming strategies, the major motherboard manufacturers have the following scheme:
ASUS: F2A85-V Pro - the initial F2 is for Trinity
Gigabyte: F2A85X-UP4 - the initial F2 is for Trinity
ASRock: FM2A75 Pro4 - the initial FM2 is for Trinity
MSI: FM2-A85XA-G65 - the initial FM2 is for Trinity
ECS: A85F2-A Deluxe - First chipset, then FM2 socket
Zotac: A75-ITX WiFi - No mention of FM2 (as per what was shown at Computex)
Biostar: A75MH2 - No direct mention of FM2 (again, from Computex)
So the key is to look for F2 or FM2 on most of the motherboard manufacturers. Failing this, look for the A85X chipset (such as the Biostar HiFi A85X) which should be specifically for FM2 and Trinity processors.
With the naming side of things out of the way, it is important we know how each chipset differs in its functionality. This is primarily summed up in the image above - the newer A85X chipset boasts eight SATA 6 Gbps ports native to the chipset. This is a key differentiator in the AMD vs. Intel battle over chipsets, with Intel only supporting two SATA 6 Gbps (and four SATA 3 Gbps) as native. Complimentary to this change, A85X also supports RAID 5, whereas A75 does not. This opens up low powered Trinity units, with onboard graphics, for use in what I would call 'typical SOHO' NAS environments - no discrete GPU with RAID 5 for redundant storage capabilities.
Also worthy of note is the graphics side of the motherboards we will be testing as part of our Trinity coverage. On A55 and A75, we are limited to a single x16 PCIe 2.0 according to the official documentation - this is despite that A75 on Llano allowed x8/x8 functionality as shown by our review of the ASRock A75 Extreme6 at launch. Whether this is a minor change for FM2 to drive users to Trinity or something else, I am not sure. However, moving to A85X does allow for a rated discrete dual x8/x8 lane allocation.
The board we are looking at today has come with a very handy chipset diagram to show exactly what is going on:
Normally on the Intel side of things, we see four lanes of PCIe 2.0 being exposed by the chipset, which would lead to x16/x4 or x8/x8/x4 lane allocations, with that final x4 lane being crippled both by the chipset routing and the bandwidth. However when it comes to Trinity, we actually have 20 PCIe 2.0 lanes coming from the APU to power PCIe devices. This gives each board using an FM2 APU the ability to do at least x16/x4 or x8/x8/x4 (with A85X) without the cripple we see with Intel. In Intel's variation, we saw Crossfire work but SLI not, due to the odd combination of SLI certification required. Chances are that if we do see SLI certification on an FM2/A85X product, then this x4 should be included, though it will be crippled if bandwidth is an issue.
One thing also to note is the lack of PCIe 3.0 functionality. AMD have had PCIe 3.0 enabled video cards for a while now, and the specification has been done and dusted for even longer. Given that the move from Llano to Trinity was an architecture jump (Stars to Piledriver modules), one would expect the shift to have occurred at this point. But for now we are still 'limited' to PCIe 2.0. I use quotation marks on the basis that for most users the jump from PCIe 2.0 to PCIe 3.0 has no influence on normal settings, but for some extreme and limited cases, PCIe 3.0 can help. There is a chance that PCIe 3.0 could be part of the new architecture, but disabled until the next family of processors are launched on FM2. Failing that, FM3 will be a more likely stomping ground for PCIe 3.0. We may have to wait until the APUs use GCN rather than VLIW-4 for their graphics cores.
With all this being said, let us move on to the first of our FM2 and Trinity reviews, with a look at the A85X chipset in the form of the ASUS F2A85-V Pro.
ASUS F2A85-V Pro Overview
The first review using a new processor family and a new chipset family is often difficult. The problem is multi-faceted in the sense that knowledge of a platform is often less than ideal, and the final outcome and conclusion of the board could be tainted by the processor or APU performance in comparison to previous chipsets. This is doubly compounded for this review, whereby for the first time in a long time we are dealing with a middling performance processor (in the absolute sense) in comparison to anything previous over the past 12 months. Since our last foray into this space with Llano and Zacate, our benchmark suite has changed for the most part (such as GPU testing at 2560x1440), but there are some common tests from which we can draw conclusions. Also worth noting is that the first review of a new chipset often leaves few comparison points to be made to the rest of the motherboards in that chipset, given no testing has been performed on the others.
Nevertheless, ASUS did send us the F2A85-V Pro and overall impressions with the motherboard itself are positive. Power delivery heatsinks are sufficient for the Trinity platform, but bolstered by heatpipe connections to the chipset heatsink. Despite the numerous SATA and USB ports offered by the chipset, the board offers an additional ASMedia USB 3.0 controller with the board to take advantage of UASP protocols in USB 3.0 throughput. The board also comes with ASUS Digital Power Delivery options (DIGI+) for CPU and memory, should that be of use to the user for pushing the limits of the board or keeping power consumption down.
Connectivity on the board gives us access to PS/2, USB 2.0, all four common video outputs (VGA, DVI-D, HDMI, Displayport), eSATA, USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet and PCI connectors on board. Memory is connected via T-Topology rather than Daisy Chain, which in principle should aid in four DIMM memory overclocking. The main areas ASUS like to push with their products is the software, such as Network iControl for program priority of networking traffic, and Fan Xpert 2 which gives the user complete control of all the fan headers (five) on board through the OS including auto tuning. We also get three-way PCIe device functionality onboard, and access to ASUS' USB BIOS Flashback, which allows updating the BIOS via USB without a CPU, memory or video card connected.
Downsides are few, though I would like to know why the single sided latch system ASUS put on their Intel boards for memory is not present here. In the box I would have liked to have seen a front facing USB panel, though as time goes on we only seem to find this in products with two USB 3.0 headers on board. From a personal perspective, I enjoy having a two-digit debug in order to diagnose motherboard issues but ASUS have instead put onboard their Q-LED system which indicates where in the POST process there are issues (while nice, I do not find it fine-grained enough). In a similar ilk, there are no power/reset buttons on board, but like the two-digit debug, these have very few roles when the system is in a case and working smoothly.
Performance wise, it is hard to get past the performance of the Trinity when compared to Ivy Bridge and the like. From a practical standpoint, the lack of floating point units in the CPU gives cause for concern as not everyone codes in hex or integer style (my own personal software all uses FP – INT would be confusing to code for me for negligible gain on most architectures). As this is the first FM2 board we are testing, there are very few comparative conclusions we can draw of the board compared to the competition. We can say that ASUS are still pushing their USB 3.0 boost which gives some distinct read/write improvement numbers, but the copy times for both chipset based and controller based USB 3.0 ports are not as good as Intel offerings. One point of concern is the DPC latency, which for this product jumped around from ~100 microseconds to 600+ microseconds. Usually these jumps are attributed to monitoring software, however there was none loaded into the system. The DPC test should ideally score less than 200 microseconds, but under 500 microseconds is still a pass – for the F2A85-V Pro to score worse than 500 is a little disappointing if audio processing is the main reason to purchase this product. I suspect this could be fixed with a minor BIOS update.
I will be blunt as well as fair - in my opinion, mid range boards seem to lack a level of aesthetic finesse that we get with higher end products. Case in point, I recently fitted a new $100 micro ATX board into my brothers new machine and it was not as pretty as the equivalent high end model I had in my machine. We see something of this mid-range aesthetics on the ASUS F2A85-V Pro. This is by no means negative, but on the higher end niche products, the handling and feel of the PCB just seems cleaner and more efficient, presumably due to consolidation of some of the onboard chips through a higher budget. It is an interesting point to consider. Despite this, everything that can be brought down gratis from the higher end models will end up in the mid range (routing, BIOS, efficiency).
With the F2A85-V Pro we have a standard AMD sized socket for the processor, which in comparison to the competition is a large area to set aside for the processor and a hangover from AM2 requirements. As processors become more efficient, I would like to see AMD redesign the socket area for efficiency and size, which will allow motherboard manufacturers more real estate and room to innovate in the area. Nevertheless, due to the size of the power delivery heatsinks there is plenty of room for even the beefiest air coolers on this motherboard - at a stretch (without directly testing due to lack of equipment), it could be possible that Noctua NH-D14 users may be limited in memory module space with the first slot being covered.
The socket area has four fan headers within easy reach - two 4-pin headers above the socket (one CPU, one chassis), a 4-pin chassis header underneath the power delivery to the bottom left, and another 4-pin chassis header below the USB 3.0 header to the right of the board. The final 4-pin chassis header is found at the bottom of the board next to the onboard audio.
Along the right hand side, the first feature of note is the MemOK! Button - a handy device useful if you set the memory too high. I use it quite regularly when pushing the memory in conjunction with a CPU overclock. Underneath we get the 24-pin ATX power connector, a USB 3.0 header (from the chipset), a fan header, then our SATA ports. As the AMD A85X chipset allows up to eight SATA 6 Gbps ports, chances are we will only see extra SATA controllers on a motherboard if the controller affords special functionality. ASUS have decided to directly use seven ports on this side of the board, with the eighth port being the eSATA port on the IO panel. These SATA ports are capable of RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10. Following this is the BIOS Flashback button on board (rather than an IO panel button as seen on previous iterations).
The chipset heatsink covers the A85X chip, which according to specifications can consume up to 7.8 watts. With this heatsink being connected via heatpipe, the main function is to aid in the power delivery cooling, even if the heatsink design does not seem to maximize surface area.
On the bottom of the board are various ports available from use. From left to right we get the front panel audio, a 4-pin fan header, a COM header, four USB 2.0 headers, the TPU switch and then the front panel header. The PCIe layout is reasonable for a two way GPU setup with room for either a PCIe x1, PCI or PCIe x4 card. From top to bottom we get a PCIe x1, PCIe x16 (x8 in dual), x1, PCI, x8, PCI, x4.
One extra switch on the board is related a lot to the first Intel X79 board I reviewed. On that board we were given a switch on the IO panel that when activated would send the user to the BIOS on the next boot. We have a similar technology here on the F2A85-V Pro in the form of a DirectKey button above the TPU switch along the bottom. When pressed in the OS, it will shut down the system and on the next boot go straight into BIOS. When pressed if the system is off, it will start up the system and boot into the BIOS. This is highly useful for overclockers and reviewers such that we do not have to hold down the Del button on boot to access the BIOS. This is not an ASUS specific feature for FM2 and A85X as I have seen it on other products, but I reckon it is a good feature to have nonetheless, even if it seems odd to include it without having power/reset buttons or a Debug LED.
The rear IO panel gives us PS/2 functionality in a combination port, two USB 2.0 in black, optical S/PDIF output, all four VGA outputs (HDMI, DP, D-Sub, DVI-D), eSATA 6 Gbps (in red), four USB 3.0 (in blue, two from an ASMedia controller, two from chipset), gigabit Ethernet (Realtek 8111F) and audio jacks (Realtek ALC892).
|ASUS F2A85-V Pro
Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 64 GB
Dual Channel, 1066-1866MHz
1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x8 in dual)
1 x PCIe 2.0 x8
1 x PCIe 2.0 x4
2 x PCIe 2.0 x1
2 x PCI
7 x SATA 6 Gbps (FCH), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
1 x eSATA 6 Gbps (FCH)
4 x USB 3.0 (FCH) [2 back panel, 2 onboard]
2 x USB 3.0 (ASMedia) [2 back panel]
10 x USB 2.0 (FCH) [2 back panel, 8 onboard]
7 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
4 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x COM Header
1 x Front Panel Audio
5 x Fan Headers
1 x MemOK! Button
1 x USB BIOS Flashback Button
1 x DirectKey Button
1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
1 x CPU (4-pin)
4 x CHA (4-pin)
1 x PS/2 Combination Port
1 x VGA
1 x DVI-D
1 x HDMI
1 x DP
2 x USB 2.0
2 x USB 3.0 (Chipset)
2 x USB 3.0 (ASMedia)
1 x GbE (Realtek 8111F)
1 x Optical S/PDIF Output
Audio Jacks (Realtek ALC892) `
The F2A85-V Pro currently retails at launch for $140, which is around $20 more expensive than the most powerful FM2 processor. This price comparison usually means that the board should provide all the functionality a user would need. So our limitations to Realtek audio and NIC is more due to the fact this is AMD rather than Intel (Gigabyte could call on Atheros for their products), though the decision to use an ALC892 rather than the ALC898 is a little odd. Perhaps dual NIC would have been nice, or the fact that the Pro board in Z77 has the combination WiFi/Bluetooth module on board makes me wonder how much of a price increase that would have caused for a product like this.