Here at Tom's Hardware, we have a lot of fun testing the most expensive, highest-end gear. So can we really get excited about £50 motherboards?
Top-tier tech is simply alluring. Whether we're talking about benchmark bragging rights, multi-GPU rigs with high refresh monitors or eight-core CPUs for hardcore number-crunching, we love exploring premium components. But the cold truth is that a vast majority of enthusiasts don't buy those flagship components. Quite frankly, most of us don't even need the latest and greatest. Yeah, yeah, that's heresy. But put away the torches and pitchforks for a second. How many of you have built computers for family or friends? And how many of those builds were for simple office use? How many parents have pieced together a mini rig for little Jimmy? How many would like to have a cheap project computer to tinker with? And really, how many people simply have tight budgets, but still want something as a daily driver that runs more than just Excel and PowerPoint?
In the Q3 and Q4 2014 System Builder Marathons, Paul Henningsen explored some low-budget LGA 1150 motherboards that supported unofficial CPU overclocking. We received encouraging feedback on those stories, along with requests to do more. So, Tom's Hardware sent out invitations hoping to identify a few "sleeper" motherboards. The rules were simple: we wanted LGA 1150 boards that sold for £50 or less that unlocked CPU multipliers. These boards also needed publicly-available firmware, not beta builds cooked up specifically for our story. Three companies let us know they had hardware that qualified.
|Chipset||Intel B85||Intel H81||Intel H81||Intel H81|
|100.0MHz BCLK||99.94 (-0.06%)||99.94 (-0.06%)||99.98 (-0.02%)||99.98 (-0.02%)|
|I/O Panel Connectors|
|Digital Audio Out||No||No||No||No|
|Digital Audio In||No||No||No||No|
|Video Out||VGA, DVI-D||VGA, DVI-D, HDMI||VGA, DVI-D||VGA, DVI-D, HDMI|
|PCIe 3.0 x16||1||0||0||0|
|PCIe 2.0 x16||0||1||1||1|
|PCIe 2.0 x1||1||1||2||2|
|SATA 6.0 Gb/s||4||2||2||2|
|SATA 3.0 Gb/s||0||2||2||2|
|Front Panel Audio||1||1||1||1|
|Mass Storage Controllers|
|Chipset SATA||4x SATA 6Gb/s||2x SATA 6Gb/s|
2x SATA 3Gb/s
|2x SATA 6Gb/s|
2x SATA 3Gb/s
|2x SATA 6Gb/s|
2x SATA 3Gb/s
|Chipset RAID Modes||None||None||None||None|
|Add-in USB 3.0||None||ASMedia ASM1042||None||VIA VL805|
|LAN Controller||Realtek RTL8111GR Gigabit||Realtek RTL8111G Gigabit||Realtek RTL8111G Gigabit||Realtek RTL8111G Gigabit|
|HD Audio Codec||ALC662||ALC662||ALC887||ALC887|
|Warranty||One year||One year||Three years||Three years|
The Limitations Of H81/B85
These are all H81- and B85-based boards. That means you give up a few features you otherwise may not think about with a Z87/97 or even H87/97 board. Until now, the biggest limitation of a non-Z chipset was the locked CPU multiplier. But the boards we're testing were selected specifically for overclocking, so that's no longer a limiting factor.
I did run into one common problem with these platforms, though: OS- and application-level overclocking. Changing the CPU multipliers in each company's overclock utility imposed significant restrictions and more than a little funny behavior. I'll get into more detail later, but suffice it to say that any overclocking and tuning done on these boards should be done in the UEFI and not through software. We contacted ASRock, Asus and MSI about these problems and they all said basically the same thing. While you can bypass the multiplier lockdown on H81 and B85 through software, there are limits to how you can do it. This applies to all chipsets in the 8- and 9-series outside the Z and X lines.
While this constraint is something to consider, I won't hold it against a £50 motherboard. Each of today's contenders is admirable in its overclocking capabilities. None of them have near the power regulation circuitry that premium Z models sport, so I'm not recommending you crank a Core i7-4790K to the max in one of these. And speaking of VRMs, none of today's contenders include a heat sink or fan cooling those hot components. That means downdraft coolers are your friend. As the Pentium G3258's stock cooler is the same model bundled with the Core i7, featuring a big copper slug, there's usually no reason to swap it out.
If a G3258 and single PCIe x16 slot don't turn you off, then the lack of Small Business Advantage and Rapid Storage probably isn't a concern either. The table below outlines the differences between H81, B85, H87 and Z87. The H97 and Z97 chipsets add support for M.2, SATA Express and Thunderbolt, as well as baked-in support for Intel's Haswell refresh.
|Chipset PCIe Lanes (from PCH Controller)||6||8||8||8<|
|Supported PCIe Lane Configurations(from CPU PCIe controller)||1 x 16||1 x 16||1 x 16||1 x 16|
2 x 8
x 8/x 4 /x 4
|No. of Displays (iGPU)||2||3||3||3|
|No. of DIMMs per channel / Maximum DIMMs||1/2||2/4||2/4||2/4|
|SATA Ports / SATA 6Gb/s Ports||4/2||6/4||6/6||6/6|
|USB Ports / USB3 Ports||10/2||12/4||14/6||14/6|
|Supported CPU PCIe Revision *||2.0||3.0||3.0||3.0|
|Rapid Storage Technology||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Smart Response Technology||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Small Business Advantage||No||Yes||Yes||No|
|Rapid Start Technology||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
*Per Intel's site, "The processor's actual PCI Express revision will be determined or limited by the value of this chipset attribute, even if the processor is designed to a higher revision."
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