MSI 990FXA-GD80 990FX Chipset Motherboard Review

AMD’s new 990FX chipset supports the upcoming Q3 Bulldozer release and now have motherboard manufacturers clamoring to put out new product designed for the Zambezi desktop processors. MSI is no exception and as a result it is introducing its 990FXA-GD80. Sans Zambezi.

Introduction

Many of you have been expecting Zambezi processors from AMD based on the new Bulldozer architecture and much internal documentation has shown us that was upcoming in Q211. We believe those parts have slipped to Q311 with AMD's focus being on Fusion products currently. The chipsets and mainboards that support socket AM3+ are still here will us today though...sans Zambezi. Still these products are backwards compatible with current Phenom II processors so that is what we have to show to you today.

MSI or Micro Star International is a well established brand name in the motherboard market. It offers a wide range of products from motherboards to laptops to consumer electronics. Though it has been doing so for awhile, its motherboards are generally what the company is known for in enthusiast circles. MSI has a diverse product portfolio of motherboard offerings with vastly different price ranges from the low end to the high end. MSI of course has established itself as an industry leader with features like its OC Genie which no other manufacturer has been able to match.

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The MSI 990FXA-GD80 is based on AMD’s 990FX / SB950 chipset. I’d have called it "brand new" but that isn’t really the case. The 990FX chipset is simply a rebranded / rebadged 890FX chipset. Why did AMD choose to do this? Ultimately this represents a marketing decision I’d imagine. This allows it to match a new chipset with its upcoming Bulldozer parts. Essentially if you purchase a 990FX based board you know you’ll be able to use Bulldozer based CPUs and gain access to all their power saving features. Older socket AM3 boards will need a BIOS update in order to support Zambezi at the very least. So again, it’s all about marketing strategy here. There is no new technology to speak of in terms of the motherboard itself aside from a minor specifications change to the HyperTransport bus which is now on version 3.1.

On the bright side hell froze over a little while ago and NVIDIA is now allowing SLI functionality on the 990FX chipset. So motherboard manufacturers can now license SLI support. This is something that seemed relatively unlikely but given NVIDIA’s lack of focus on the chipset business it seems like a smart move despite it seeming like unnatural cooperation with the enemy. This is of course great for the enthusiast as some people may like AMD chipset based boards and processors, but loathe their video cards. Of course this is only relevant in the context of multi-GPU configurations. However rational or odd it may seem to some, such individuals would either have to tolerate AMD multi-GPU solutions on their AMD based setups or go with an Intel based setup with NVIDIA graphics hardware. No longer will you have to make such a choice. Now any mixture of multi-GPU hardware can be used with either platform which is how it should have been to begin with. On that topic the 990FXA-GD80 supports SLI, 3-Way SLI and Quad-SLI using dual GPU graphics cards. Crossfire is supported in 2, 3, and 4-Way configurations. Dual GPU cards are of course only supported in pairs just as is the case with SLI.

So what’s MSI done here? Well the 990FXA-GD80 is a new higher end offering which brings some new features to the table as well as providing a more optimal platform for Zambezi in anticipation of those CPUs finally hitting the market. The board mainly has updates for some of MSI’s own features such as improvements to the OC Genie. On earlier boards core unlocking and overclocking were two separate functions, but with this board both core unlocking and overclocking can be accomplished with the push of the same button in one easy step. This board also continues the industry trend of touting military grade components. Specifically MSI calls this Military Class II. This is also known as MIL-STED-810G which encompasses 7 tests including temperature, pressure, humidity, vibration and shock tests.

The board features super ferrite chokes, solid electrolytic capacitors, and HI-c Capacitors. MSI claims up to 30% more power with its super ferrite chokes. They also boast about tantalum capacitors which provide more current with less electrical leakage. According to their documentation, MSI has rated these for up to 125c operating temperatures. Of course MSI is also continuing the use of their Driver IC + MOSFET (Dr. MOS) which they claim offers 2x higher current (up to 40A vs. 20A) and 96% power efficiency.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

MSI uses these boxes with this glossy finish which changes color as you angle them. I’ve never liked that as it makes photographing the packaging more difficult. However it looks fine in person and more importantly the box is built well enough to protect the motherboard and all the included accessories during transit to either your home or retail store of choice. The board shown here was not a retail board so it doesn’t have the normal driver DVD and the versions of the software on those retail disks may be different than the ones in our sample. Additionally the manual was misplaced (Editor's Note: It is sitting on my desk, right where I left it, before I handed the board off to Dan for additional testing.) and is therefore not pictured. Included in the box are user guides, quick start manuals, HDD backup manual, driver DVD, various length SLI bridges, SATA data and power cables, MSI M-Connectors, USB 3.0 I/O bracket and an I/O shield.

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Board Layout

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The MSI 990FXA-GD80 has a good layout with regard to everything but the CPU socket area. As usual with AMD boards, the DIMM slots are far too close to the CPU. The north bridge of the 990FX chipset is tiny and doesn’t really have much hardware in it. It is cooled by the same heat pipe cooler which handles the cooling needs of the boards PWMs. From a cooling stand point the cooling solution worked fairly well at least when it comes to the "touch" test. From a aesthetic perspective it looks good.

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Somewhere there is an unwritten law that all AMD processor compatible motherboards have to have a terrible layout at least when it comes to the CPU socket area. Well maybe it isn’t so much unwritten as it is a technical requirement. It is generally believed that this is due to signaling constraints between the memory controller in the CPU and the RAM slots themselves. Every AMD board I’ve reviewed since the S939 days has always had its RAM slots too close to the CPU without exception. This particular board seems to be a particularly horrendous offender in this area. I was forced to use a Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme due to issues with my water block. Test fitting didn’t look good initially and when I fit the Thermalright to the board my worst fears were confirmed as the orientation you are forced to use with this board prevent you from installing RAM in the first or second slots. Effectively this would only allow for single channel operation with that heat sink. It’s partly an issue with the Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme’s very poor AMD mounting bracket which forces the heat sink to sit In the worst possible orientation. I switched to a Corsair A70 which allowed me to get through the review, although the clearances are unacceptably tight in my opinion. It also forces the heat sink to sit again at an orientation I’m not quite fond of.

In short the layout of this CPU socket area is practically a deal breaker for air cooled systems. I can imagine issues with some water blocks here as well. It’s been a little while since I reviewed an AMD processor compatible motherboard, but I don’t remember any of them being this bad. They all are bad with DIMM slot placement, but again I don’t remember it being to this degree. Partly it’s a failing of AMD’s current CPU / Chipsets which forces motherboard manufacturers to do things this way. So I won’t place the blame entirely on MSI here.

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The color coding of the DIMM slots is standard fair. Which is of course a good thing. The color scheme is easy to follow in order to ensure proper dual channel memory mode operation. The slots are too damn close to the CPU socket, but I’ve ranted about that enough for now.

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The south bridge is cooled by a simple blue and silver, passive heatsink which is flat enough to help avoid expansion card clearance issues. Indeed my dual GTX 480 SLI setup fit over it without any problems.

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The expansion slot area is nicely designed. The layout here is good as you have one usable PCIe x1 slot free and the legacy PCI slot can be used even with dual graphics cards installed as the optimal positioning of two cards is in slots 1 and 3. As stated before the 990FXA-GD80 supports CrossFireX as well as SLI/3-Way SLI/Quad-SLI. Cards are supported in a 16x16 configuration or a 16x8x8, and for 4-Way Crossfire only, 16x8x8x4. There are no complaints in regard to the expansion slot area. It almost makes up for the terrible CPU socket area. (Almost)

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The I/O shield / back panel area is also pretty standard stuff. The I/O panel area has dedicated PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, clear CMOS button, S/PDIF out, optical out, IEEE1394a port, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 4 USB 1.1/2.0 ports, 2 combination eSATA and USB 2.0 ports, RJ-45 ports, and six-mini-stereo jacks for audio output.