We look at two mATX motherboards sporting integrated graphics which should make them well suited for a living room PC, but with different chipsets there may be more things that differs than you might think.
More and more people are purchasing computers for use in their living room in order to get more from their flat screen TVs than just regular broadcasts. For those who are dexterous and interested, building a HTPC is not a big challenge; it can however be hard to find the optimal components. One of the most important is the motherboard and its performance, interface, layout and price. We will test two motherboards that are suitable for this type of computers.
Foxconn is one of the bigger producers when it comes to OEM motherboards and the motherboard we will be testing is based on the NVIDIA MCP61P chipset. MCP61PM2MA-8EKRS2H is one of the longest product names we’ve come across and it’s not something you easily remember.
MSI K9AGM2-FIH is the other motherboard we will be testing and also make a comparison with. MSI K9AGM2-FIH is a mATX motherboard based on the AMD 690 chipset which makes the motherboard interesting not only for its performance. With a HTPC it can be important to have a motherboard with an integrated video card in order to minimize the number of components inside the HTPC-chassis and also to decrease the costs. MSI K9AGM2 has an integrated video card and also a HDMI port which makes it ideal to use in a HTPC – at least according to its specifications.
First out is the Foxconn board and we will begin with the specifications.
|CPU support||AMD Sempron™ , Athlon™ 64, Athlon™ 64×2, Socket AM2|
|Memory support||Dual channel DDR2
4 DIMM slots
|Expansion slots||1x PCIe x16 slot
1x PCIe x1 slot
2x PCI slots
4x SATA II (RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, JBOD)
|Internal connectors||2x USB 2.0 headers, support 4 ports
1x Intel Azalia Header
1x COM2 header
1x Front panel
1x IRDA header
1x SPDIF out header
|External connectors||1x PS/2 keyboard
1x PS/2 mouse
1x 1394a (reserve)
1x VGA Port
4x USB 2.0
1x Parallel Port
1x Serial Port
1 set 7.1 channel Audio jacks (6 jacks)
24.4 x 24.4 (cm x cm)
Foxconn has, alongside with the really difficult name, chosen to equip this motherboard with both a parallel port and a serial one. Something rare today as most manufacturers tend to skip them.
Sadly enough Foxconn also chose to equip this motherboard with a standard VGA port whereas we would’ve found the presence of a digital video port such as DVI or HDMI much more appealing.
Although we highly appreciate that Foxconn has equipped the motherboard with a total of four DIMM slots. Fitting, as the board supports a maximum of 4GB RAM.
The question now is what kind of extras Foxconn supplies the motherboard with. Let’s have a look.
Considering the price tag on the motherboard we didn’t expect too much in terms of extras. Surely enough we find the basics, a user manual, a CD with the necessary drivers, a PATA cable, a floppy cable, along with a SATA cable, an adapter for converting molex to a SATA power connector and an I/O shield.
An interesting detail to notice is that Foxconn has folded a poster within the user manual. The poster is shown above with a CD cover to give you a sense of the size of the poster. Not the best way to do it, but at least you get a good overview.
It’s now time for us to examine the layout of the motherboard.
The Foxconn MCP61PM2MA-8EKRS2H is a micro-ATX motherboard, measuring only 24.4×24.4cm. The motherboard’s equipped with passive cooling for the northbridge, which does wonders for the sound level, as passive coolers usually aren’t too loud.
Underneath the northbridge cooler we find, not so surprisingly, the northbridge. The northbridge in question is NVIDIA’s MCP61P circuit. MCP61P differs from NVIDIA’s previous 61xx series by being a single chip, not two chips. In addition to that, VIA’s supplying the firewire support on this motherboard.
Something every motherboard manufacturer of today should think about is the handy CMOS jumper. Instead of being an ordinary jumper this one has an extension which enables the user easily grab the jumper between his thumb and forefinger. Making it real easy both to attach and pull off.
The motherboard features four SATA ports which we find is acceptable and surely enough if it’s going to be used as a HTPC. The connectors for the power switch, HDD LED connector and so on has got a very nice design, making it very easy to understand which connector is positive and which one’s negative. This is done by marking the plastic bottom of the connector with a plus if it’s positive.
Again, the motherboard only comes with a standard analogue VGA port on the I/O-panel, the preferred DVI/HDMI connector is nowhere to be seen. Other than the VGA connector we find four USB ports, one firewire port, a serial port and the old parallel port along with the PS/2 ports, GBit LAN and the sound ports.
Next we’ll go through the most important functions in the BIOS on this motherboard.
Foxconn has equipped the motherboard BIOS with numerous settings to tamper with, which of course is something good, although enthusiast functions and settings often aren’t used as many overclockers prefer the full ATX-boards instead.
The Central Control Unit is what you’re looking for if your into overclocking, as all the overclocking settings can be found here. Just as every other motherboard overclocking is done by changing the CPUs front side bus. There’s also an option for changing the HTT multiplier, as this is needed during extreme overclocking, making the system more stable. If you on the other hand like to fiddle with memory latencies there’s quite a lot of settings to get the computer to show a black screen once the settings are saved and the computers restarted. Good thing there’s a handy CMOS jumper available.
The motherboard also features the most standard monitoring options, ranging from temperatures to voltages to fan speeds.
Now it’s time to head over to the other motherboard of the review, namely the MSI K9AGM2-FIH.
|CPU support||AMD Athlon 64 X2, Athlon 64, Athlon FX and Sempron in the Socket AM2|
and SB600 Chipset
|Memory||Dual channel DDR2|
|Expansion slots|| 1x PCIe x16 slot|
1x PCIe x1 slot
2x PCI slots
|Storage|| 1x Floppy|
4x SATA II (RAID 0, 1, 0+1)
|Internal connectors|| 1x Front panel audio connector|
1x Front panel connector
1x CD-in connector
1x IEEE1394 connector support additional 1 port
1x USB 2.0 connector support additional 6 ports
|External connectors|| 1x Parallel port |
1x HDMI port
1x PS/2 keyboard
1x PS/2 mouse
1x IEEE1394 Port
1x 6 in 1 audio jack
4x USB 2.0 ports
1x RJ45 LAN jack
1x VGA port
24.4 x 21.5 (cm x cm)
MSI has chosen to equip the motherboard with a parallel port – just like Foxconn – but it has chosen not to include the serial port.
The motherboard is also equipped with an HDMI connection which makes it a good choice for an HTPC. It also supports 4 GB of RAM through its two DIMM slots.
So what things has MSI bundled with this motherboard?
The MSI motherboard belongs to the same price range as Foxconn and is even somewhat cheaper. The accessories that come with it are almost identical to the ones included in Foxconn’s box, excluding the floppy cable not being in MSI’s bundle..
Something worth noting if buying this board for using it with a flat screen TV with an HDMI input is that an HDMI cable is not included with the board.
Let’s take a closer look at the motherboard.
MSI has chosen a red color for the motherboard and the memory slots are colored in orange and in green. K9AGM2-FIH, just like Foxconn’s motherboard, belongs to the micro-ATX family of form factors, even if it is somewhat smaller in size.
Just as the specifications show us, one can clearly see that it is AMD that has supplied the motherboard with its chipset by looking at the north bridge’s passive cooling where AMD’s well-known logo is placed.
The passive cooling makes its mark and should be capable enough to disperse the heat that AMD’s chipset dissipates. If this motherboard is placed in smaller case, it could use an additional case fan to assist in the heat diversion.
The internal graphics card on this motherboard consists of ATi’s X1250 graphics chipset, a fairly newly produced chip. It supports HDCP through the HDMI port on the motherboard.
The board is equipped with four SATA ports and considering this is a mATX board, it’s quite enough. As with Foxconn’s motherboard – this one’s internal connectors for the power switch and so on are designed to show the user which pins are the positive ones and which ones that are the negative ones. A useful detail that more manufacturers should follow.
The IDE connector is placed next to a 24 pin ATX connector, which could result in some problems with space at the time of assembly. If you just make sure to plug in the IDE cable before the ATX cable, you won’t have any trouble.
In addition to the regular interfaces on the I/O plate, we can also see the HDMI connector, which not many motherboards have been equipped with so far. Something that you hardly can get too many of on a motherboard are the USB ports. The MSI board has four of them, which is acceptable.
Let’s go on by taking a look at the motherboard’s BIOS.
The BIOS for a motherboard that’s probably going to be placed in an HTPC is probably not the most important feature, but it could be of interest to tweak some settings to see what possibilities are that are offered. We won’t cover the BIOS completely – instead we’ll focus on the most important details.
The first picture that we are greeted by is a common one in BIOS, and makes us recognize how to navigate it. MSI has trimmed down the settings available and the only menu where we can change stuff is under Advanced Chipset Features. In this menu, we can alter the memory timings and the amount of memory that will be dedicated to the internal graphics card.
We will also include a picture of the monitoring features available in MSI’s BIOS. In this case, it’s the most important ones, like CPU temperature, system temperature, the CPU fan’s speed, the system fan’s speed as well as the most common voltages.
There are no settings to be found for overclocking, and it will probably not be especially missed on a motherboard that is surely going to be put in a living room PC.
We’ll go on to the testing system’s setup and the tests that will be conducted.
AMD Athlon64 X2 5000+
Corsair XMS2 8500 (2x512MB)
Integrated graphics card
XFX Geforce 7800GT
Enermax EG651P-VE 550W
Windows XP (SP2)
|Graphics drivers (7800GT)||
Nvidia Forceware 93.71 WHQL
SiSoft Sandra 2007
Media Player Classic + ffdshow
Both motherboards are tested with the integrated graphics circuit, as well as with the XFX 7800GT.
Let’s start with the memory and CPU tests.
Even thpigh they are two completely different chipsets there is no greater
difference them. The greatest difference was
found with the writing speed in AIDA32 where Foxconn has the edge.
AMD Athlon64 X2 5000+ (2600MHz)
Something most interesting with the SuperPi-tests was the fact
that MSI performed slightly better than Foxconn. This was even
though Foxconn’s defaults runs the CPU at 2617,5MHz compared to MSI’s
defaults that run the CPU at exactly 2600MHz. In theory Foxconn should
have slightly better result than MSI. The reason is ascribed to AMD’s
MSI wins with a small but clear margin over Foxconn when we tests
WinRAR’s built-in benchmark.
Even if the lead is small, MSI wins when it comes to CPU+Memory.
Over to the synthetics tests, 3DMark and PCMark.
We have included the results we get with a separate GeForce 7800GT installed on each of the motherboards to get a better perspective of the motherboards’ performance. With each new version of the 3DMark series, the importance of the video card increases. The integrated graphics of the MSI board is, in ATI language, called X1250 and the Foxconn integrated graphics can be compared to a Geforce 6100. The MSI integrated graphics has, with a relatively clear margin, the best performance. In the PCMark tests, the Foxconns however wins with a small margin.
On to the game tests.
Even if none of these integrated graphics circuits are intended for games, it’s interesting to see how they perform when compared to each other. The MSI motherboard performs better both with the integrated and with a separate video card in all of the games but one. MSI claims another victory in these tests. If you have to play games using the integrated video card, you must lower the resolution and the rest of the video settings in order to get acceptable playing.
Time to sum up.
Packaging and first impression
MSI stands out a bit more than Foxconn if we are to judge a book by its cover. Foxconn has chosen a more discrete approach compared to MSI, which on the other hand also can be a good thing. Both motherboards cost relatively little and are both very suitable for computer builders with limited budgets.
Layout, Design and Accessories
As both motherboards are in the lower price ranges we didn’t expect that many accessories. Both manufacturers has bundled the most vital cables and information and considering the prices of the boards we feel that this OK. When it comes to the layout and design there are pros and cons with both boards. MSI has the edge with its HDMI output and somewhat smaller format. Although, Foxconn has a better placing of the components and four DIMM slots. Other than that they are quite equal. That both parallel and serial ports are still around is a bit surprising as neither are used to any significant degree today, and we would’ve preferred more USB ports instead.
These motherboards are not for the hardcore die-hard overclockers and enthusiasts that will tweak their computers to the extreme, which you can also clearly see from the limited BIOS MSI has chosen to use. MSI limits the user’s possibilities quite a lot, you can only change the most basic settings and we imagine that the BIOS of the MSI K9AGM2-FIH will remain untouched in most cases.
Foxconn on the other hand has filled its BIOS with tons of settings for, e.g., memories and even overclocking, so if you want access to these settings the choice is quite simple. But if your just looking for the basic board for a HTPC both bards will be able to do the job just fine without entering the BIOS at all.
MSI has based its board on the AMD 690 chipset, while Foxconn uses NVIDIA’s MCP61P chipset. Practically all benchmarks show that AMD’s chipset combined with ATi’s graphics on the MSI K9AGM2-FIH can deliver better performance than the NVIDIA chipset of the Foxconn MCP61PM2MA-8EKRS2H. The overall difference in performance is rather small, which means that both NVIDIA and AMD have designed two good chipsets. We hope to return with HD playback test, which should be quite interesting now that both HD-DVD and Blu-ray have emerged.
If you have plans to build a living room PC to use with your TV both formfactor and size are crucial parameters. Picking a micro-ATX motherboards is a good start. in this review we’ve compared two different mATX boards that should be well suited for use in a HTPC. Most of the new TVs sold today have digital inputs, which means that if your about to build a HTPC you should have an equivalent output. Not the least be certain to support the copy protection/encryption HDCP, which is used by HD material. Foxconn and MSI are not equal when it comes to the outputs, MSI has an HDMI port and Foxconn only a VGA port. This and an overall slightly better performance and a newer chipset makes MSI K9AGM2-FIH the winner of this review. Foxconn can’t quite keep up with MSI here, but a handy person can even things out with the better BIOS of the Foxconn MCP61PM2MA-8EKRS2H.
+ Digital video output (HDMI)
|Cons||– BIOS||– Lack of digital video output|
We wish to thank both MSI and Foxconn for the supplying these