GIGABYTE F2A85X-UP4 Socket FM2 Motherboard Review

GIGABYTE's F2A85X-UP4 brings AMD's "Trinity" APU to the desktop arena with a new chipset and a solid feature set at a nice price. But is that enough to make it compelling for enthusiasts?

Introduction

Founded in 1986 GIGABYTE is well known in the computer industry as one of the leaders in motherboard manufacturing and design. In recent years it has branched out in a lot of directions such as graphics cards, cases, various peripherals, laptops, network communications and other things but motherboards remain the focus of its business. As a result of its design innovation and quality, GIGABYTE has been a brand well known in enthusiast circles for years.

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The GIGABYTE F2A85X-UP4 is based on AMD's A85X chipset which is a brand new chipset offering designed to support AMD's A10 "Trinity" APU processors. The Trinity CPU itself has an integrated north bridge and thus the actual chipset we'll see on Trinity compatible motherboards are actually all "south bridges" in traditional terms. Specifically AMD uses the term "FCH" or "Fusion Controller Hub." Joining the earlier A55 and A75 chipsets, A85X simply expands on the feature set of these earlier chipsets with some new features of its own.

The main difference between these is that the A55 and A75 do not support more than 6 SATA devices while the A85X supports 8. This allows for any combination of SATA ports including eSATA. All of which are SATA III 6Gb/s capable. In addition A75 and A85X support FIS-based switching while A55 does not. Essentially eSATA ports can be multiplexed without causing issues with things like NCQ. A55 does not support USB 3.0 while A75 and A85X do. RAID-5 operation is now supported on the new A85X chipset but not A55 or A75. Unfortunately there is no PCI-Express 3.0 or Thunderbolt support. This is not surprising and not a big deal given the budget classification this chipset has in the grand scheme of things. What A85X does offer is the ability to divide the PCI-Express lanes of Trinity's PCIe controller and support CrossFireX the same way Intel's LGA1155 chipsets do. Like Z77, DisplayPort connectivity is provided as well. On paper in most respects the AMD A85X actually stacks up against the Intel Z77 well, despite its very different price brackets.

In a sense the chipset and the Trinity APU itself are designed to be an enthusiast on a budget platform of sorts. AMD has taken a book from Intel's page and designated any multiplier unlocked parts with a "K" suffix just as Intel does. It's obvious that these parts are poised as "enthusiast parts" of some sort but given the relatively poor single threaded performance of Trinity vs. Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge CPUs from Intel, this positioning is dubious at best. While the CPU portion of Trinity isn't all that impressive as it does little to improve over Llano in terms of power usage or IPC performance, the graphics portion of the CPU or APU as AMD calls it has improved immensely. This improved graphics performance over Llano and over Intel's HD 3000 graphics certainly is welcome in mobile markets but it has little calling in the desktop market outside of extreme budget offerings where a discreet video card or GPU will likely not be utilized.

AMD also breaks its general policy of socket compatibility over multiple generations. Many of us paying attention to the rumors about how short lived socket FM1 would be are probably not surprised by the news that Trinity APUs are all going to be socket FM2 only on the desktop. The FM2 socket has 904 pins vs. FM1's 905 pins and a different pin-keying arrangement. So early adopters of the FM1 socket are basically screwed with regard to APU upgrades. The FM2 socket is also not compatible with Llano APUs so bargain hunters who might be tempted to grab the latest motherboard and last generations CPU on clearance with the intent of upgrading the CPU down the line will be out of luck as well. In other words FM1 and FM2 are totally incompatible. The only thing that is compatible are existing thermal solutions which are identical to those used on AM2, AM2+, AM3, AM3+ and FM1 socket based systems.

As for the GIGABYTE F2A85X-UP4 itself, the board is an example of an enthusiast class Trinity based motherboard. Generally speaking GIGABYTE's motherboard boxes are covered with marketing speak about 2oz. copper PCB's, humidity protection, digital power, and "ultra-durable" components. The bulk of that isn't as impressive as it might sound, once you get past the marketing jargon. What is impressive is the Ultra-Durable 5 components. As we saw with the Z77X-UP4-TH, the new IR3550 IC's are rated at 60amps each for impressive power delivery. Indeed that board had some of the most stable power I've ever seen on a motherboard, and all GIGABYTE's claims about the board running cooler than other boards seemed justified. Aside from that the board is rather unremarkable making use of little beyond what's built into the chipset. You won't find the F2A85X-UP4 overflowing with RAID controllers, network solutions, or any gimmicks. This will no doubt please any minimalist. Beyond that I don't think anyone would want to pay for a ton of expensive motherboard features and then pair such a board with a budget CPU like the A10-5800K.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The GIGABYTE F2A85X-UP4 ships in the same basic cardboard box that the rest of its current offerings generally use. The box is adorned with all kinds of marketing stuff causing it to resemble a billboard. Marketing terms abound everywhere. However the box was certainly sufficient protection for the board which allowed it to be delivered undamaged with all accessories accounted for. Inside the box you won't find a whole lot. Included are the following items: User's manual, quick installation guidebook, driver disc, 3 SATA cables and an I/O shield.

Board Layout

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The F2A85X-UP4 is laid out extremely well. Often times I find budget oriented offerings are designed without as much thought or attention to details. This particular board has no major issues I can think of.

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Of course the CPU socket is too close to the DIMM slots, but everything with an integrated memory controller seems to suffer from this problem. I can't really blame GIGABYTE here. And as I've stated before, the proliferation of self-contained water cooling units and low profile DIMM options makes these non-issues for many. I am somewhat disappointed that AMD didn't update the mounting hardware or change the bolt pattern for the holes as the introduction of a new socket would be a good time to do so. Though given the niche market type penetration I think this platform will ultimately have, it was probably wise for AMD not to update the thermal solution ensuring no one had to put fourth any more money than they'd have to or depend on aftermarket heat sink companies to develop new hardware for a platform which may not end up being all that popular.

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There are four color coded DIMM slots denoting the proper configuration for dual channel memory mode operation. A maximum of 64GB using 1.5v DDR3 modules is supported by the A85X chipset. Probably far more than anyone would ever actually install in a Trinity based system.

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Given that many of the traditional chipset functions have been integrated into the Trinity APU itself, the A85X chipset is a single chip solution located where the south bridge was traditionally found. It is cooled by a passive heat sink which has a low profile allowing for the use of longer expansion cards to be installed without creating clearance problems. Directly in front of that you'll find the board's SATA ports which are all SATA III 6Gb/s capable thus eliminating the need for color coding them.

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The expansion slot area shows as much forethought as more expensive boards do. The only complaint I can really make here is with regard to the location of the CMOS battery which is frankly in a terrible place. Not a huge deal breaker as few people actually keep boards long enough anymore to run these out to the point of needing replacements. The board can operate one discreet graphics card at x16 speeds, two at x8 speeds. When the second PCIe x16 slot is occupied the third slot drops to PCIe x1 speeds as the two share bandwidth. Otherwise it operates as an x4 slot.

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The I/O panel area is packed with connectivity options. These include a single PS/2 port for a mouse or keyboard, 4 USB 3.0 ports, 2 USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-45 port, optical out, DisplayPort, HDMI, dual-link DVI-D, VGA, eSATA and 6 mini-stereo jacks.


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