Choosing the Best H55/H57 Motherboard, Part 2by Rajinder Gill on February 22, 2010 2:00 AM EST
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It's finally ready: part 2 of our H55/H57 coverage. After battling it out with eight motherboards, we decide which ones we'd be happy to live with on a daily basis. If you missed part 1, we'll take this opportunity to re-direct you.
The short recap is that we found a couple of good candidates in part 1, namely the ASRock H55M-Pro and the P7H55D-M Evo. The late January BIOS releases for both of these boards delivered good all round performance and functionality, with only a couple of things needing improvement or change. For ASUS, we felt their board was a touch too pricey at $134; ASUS have since dropped the MSRP of the H55 Evo $119. In a typical Newegg maneuver, the board retails at $124 with a shipping cost of $2.99, while boards from other vendors are shipped at MSRP + $7.87 with the same delivery deal—strange.
Meanwhile, ASRock managed to add a touch more overclocking headroom for 8GB memory configurations by adding support for Quick Path Interconnect multiplier changes, delivering a great all around performer at an asking price of $95. The other two boards from part one are the ASUS P7H57D-V Evo and the MSI H55M-ED55. ASUS' H57 is simply too expensive at $200 in our opinion; we'd put $100 towards a discrete GPU rather than fork out the extra money for a full size ATX board offering SATA 6G at this stage (at least until SATA 6G peripherals are affordable). MSI's H55M-ED55 hasn't received a new BIOS since our last test (nor can we find it on sale in the States), and remains a little finicky to set up in comparison to boards from ASUS and Gigabyte.
Part two's line-up consists of two very attractively priced boards from Gigabyte, the H55-USB3 and H57M-USB3 models coming in at ($110 and $119), together with ECS's super cheap stock runner called the H55H-V1.0 ($80). Finally, we just about managed to squeeze BIOSTAR's TH55XE ($115) into the fray after it arrived late in our labs this week. All of these boards have a head-start of sorts over the boards we tested in part 1, as they had an extra four weeks for vendors to get to grips with the H55/H57 chipsets and tackle some of the common issues that plague chipset launches. And it's the subject of issues that leads us nicely into our summary section before we delve deeper into the workings of each board.
Board Summary and Overview
BIOSTAR have a tough sale on their hands; you've got product from ASUS and Gigabyte straddling the $115 mark while offering USB3 as a key feature. That means BIOSTAR have to do something a little bit better to justify their price-point. We looked hard, but have yet to find it. PCI-E slot layout is an oddity, because the PCI-E x4 slot sits too close to the x16 PEG connector, limiting upgrade options if you choose to go with a discrete GPU. Overclocking performance is not class leading in any department either. High memory speeds are possible, but S3 resume is limited somewhere between 160~165 BCLK if you try to keep a grip on memory controller performance. Boards from all other vendors do better in this department, with most cruising over 180 BCLK with high QPI speeds intact. In its current state, we think ASRock's H55M-Pro is a better all round buy if you don't need USB 3.0, and it's hard to ignore boards that are priced similarly to the TH55XE with more features.
No budget oriented motherboard roundup is complete without taking a look at a board from ECS. The H55H-V1.0 is the kind of board that suits a person who is not interested in overclocking and wants bare-bones functionality and low cost. At $80, that's exactly what you get, from package contents to onboard features—it's all "light". There are a couple of areas we think ECS skinned the H55H-V1.0 too far. Firstly, there's no HDMI output connector; you'll need to buy a DVI-to-HDMI adaptor for HTPC use. Analog audio output is limited to 2 channels, so HDMI audio out is a must for multi-channel setups. Secondly, you only get two DIMM slots when it would not have cost ECS much to provide four. Overclocking is also limited by a very basic BIOS that can be rather frustrating to use at times. When you look at what ASRock are offering at $95, it makes the $80 that ECS are asking for the H55H-V1.0 seem expensive.
Gigabyte were already on the F3 BIOS releases when the H55M-USB3 touched down in our test labs. We flashed over to that BIOS straight away expecting good all-round functionality. We hit a snag pretty quickly though, finding that setting SATA ports to AHCI mode for the Intel H55 PCH resulting in our DVD drive failing to be recognized as a valid boot device unless all ports were set to IDE. Our Pioneer DVR-215BK works fine with AHCI mode selected on all other vendor boards, so it was a simple case of Gigabyte needing to update their BIOS (again). Another point of contention was firstly pointed out to us by an AnandTech reader who discovered that Gigabyte's bundled Dolby Home Theatre package would not work with Windows 7. It turned out that Gigabyte had forgotten to enter the BIOS string to unlock the Dolby software package. It's the kind of stuff that shouldn't make it out of the test lab really—assuming vendors properly validate BIOSes before public release.
The F3 BIOS was pulled and replaced with F4 a couple of days later fixing the Dolby software and AHCI optical drive issues. The F3 BIOS release did have a couple of redeeming qualities, in that memory clocking on the H55M-USB3 seemed to be the most consistent of any H55 board we've tested to date. F4 and later releases continue this trend, and now that the other fixes are in place, this board is the strongest contender out of today's test subjects.
When this board touched base with us, we felt it was going to be the board to beat. We think Gigabyte nailed everyone on pricing by offering H57 and USB3 features at $119—a perfect fit for Clarkdale. Unfortunately, the H57 hasn't received the same level of BIOS attention as Gigabyte's H55M-USB3 and is still prey to the AHCI optical drive issue we experienced on the H55 model when using the latest F4 BIOS release. Our Pioneer optical drive won't boot our Windows installation disk when we set AHCI mode in BIOS. The only way to get the drive to boot is to select IDE mode for all SATA ports, which makes installing an operating system painful if you want to take advantage of AHCI features for SSDs/HDDs. The fix is probably a five minute affair for Gigabyte, but it's not here yet.
Moving on to other areas, although stock operation with memory and processors is fine, the H57-USB3 needs some attention for 8GB memory overclocking. It doesn't seem to handle higher memory frequencies with the ease displayed by the H55M-USB3 when using the same components and BIOS settings. If overclocking is important to you, we'd advise you to consider the H55M-USB3 or boards from other vendors until these areas are improved.