AMD's FM2 platform is a great choice when you want decent graphical performance but either do not have the space or do not want to spend the money on a discrete video card. Since AMD purchased ATI in 2006, AMD has held an onboard video performance lead over Intel by integrating both a CPU and GPU onto one chip (dubbed an APU or Accelerated Processing Unit). Since this allows for low-end gaming systems to be bundled in a single compact package, you would expect motherboard manufacturers to offer a variety of small form factor FM2 motherboards. Unfortunately, while there are many micro-ATX motherboards available, the only mini-ITX boards with decent availability currently are the ASRock FM2A75M-ITX and the MSI FM2-A75IA-E53.
Today we will be looking at the MSI FM2-A75IA-E53 to determine if it is a board we would like to add to our product line; specifically to update our Echo line of systems. On paper, this motherboard is a great all-in-one package with onboard WiFi, Bluetooth, USB 3.0, and SATA 6Gb/s. Specifications are not everything, however, and every motherboard we carry must pass a rigorous testing and qualification process. This process will reveal any unexpected problems and help us determine if this motherboard is something we want to offer our customers.
The BIOS on the MSI FM2-A75IA-E53 is a visual BIOS that allows the use of either the mouse or keyboard, or a combination of both. The very middle of the screen is the area that changes based on what section you have selected, while the left/right sides have buttons that take you to the different sections of the BIOS (settings, overclocking, etc.). The top of the screen has some nice information including the CPU/chipset temperature, current time, and the boot priority that is constant no matter what section of the BIOS you navigate to. The nice thing about the boot priority selector in this area is that you can simply drag and drop the icons with the mouse to change the boot order.
On the left side of the screen are the buttons for Settings, OC and ECO. Settings includes options such as SATA mode, enabling/disabling WiFi and Bluetooth, ACPI Standby State, and Smart Fan settings. The main Settings page is also where you go if you want to save the BIOS settings or exit the BIOS (or you can hit F10 to save the current settings and reboot). OC is where you apply any overclocking settings, configure the RAM setting (frequency, voltage, and timings) and save/load a BIOS overclocking profile. Contrary to their name, these profiles are not just for overclocking, but are also a great way to have a backup of the BIOS in case the BIOS gets reset due to an unexpected power loss. In our testing, we confirmed that every BIOS setting is saved/loaded in these profiles (including boot priority, RAM settings, Smart Fan settings, etc.) and that the profiles themselves are not cleared if the CMOS gets reset.
The buttons on the right side of the screen are for the BIOS-based web browser, Utilities, and Security. Security is about what you would expect, allowing you to set BIOS level passwords and other security settings. Utilities has the option for "HDD Backup", "Live Update", and "M-Flash". HDD Backup and Live Update - as well as the browser - require the Winki software to be installed in Windows and are not functional without said software. M-Flash, however, does not require any additional software and allows you to update or save the BIOS via a USB key.
In a nutshell, Winki is a Linux based operating system that is separate from your main OS. From the BIOS, you can launch a web browser, HDD Backup software, and Live Update that allows you to update the BIOS directly from the internet. Just like a WUBI install of Ubuntu, it creates a folder on your C: drive that it uses to boot when launched from the BIOS. The point of Winki is to give you a quick way to load up a browser to check something on the web, update the BIOS without the need for an operating system to be installed, or to backup the hard drive.
|Select the drive to load Winki from||Confirm that you want to run Winki||Persistent splash screen we saw when trying to run the Browser|
This is great in theory, but really none of these features are all that useful. First of all, since it requires an OS to be installed in order to get it working, Winki is not useful as a way to update the BIOS prior to installing the main operating system. Second, the software itself is very buggy and unpolished. For example, when we tried to run the web browser from the BIOS all we got was a splash screen that never continued on to the browser. We did get it to load correctly once, but never a second time.
The hard drive backup utility loaded just fine, but it does not allow you to backup the partition that has the Winki software installed. In other words, you cannot backup your C: drive, which greatly limits its usefulness. Live Update was about the only feature that worked as we would expect. It connected to the internet (with the option to manually set your IP if you are not using DHCP) and in our case found no BIOS updates since we were already running the latest version. The only problem here is that the onboard wireless is not supported, so you have to be connected to your network with a physical cable.
|Hit the Winki button to go to the main Winki OS||All of the features available through the BIOS are present plus much more||The web browser launches correctly through the main Winki OS|
Another sign that Winki is not a finished feature is the fact that Winki can do much more than what is just available through the BIOS. In actuality it is a full Linux OS with a file browser, IM client, Skype, photo viewer, document/spreadsheet editor, calendar and more. The problem is that the only way we found to access the main Winki OS was to run Live Update or HDD Backup and click the "Return to Winki" button. Since all of the Winki features in the BIOS are available through the main Winki OS, we would much rather see the Browser button in the BIOS replaced with a Winki button that took you directly to the main Winki OS.
Overall, we would recommend not bothering with Winki. It requires a Windows OS to be already installed, takes longer to boot than a Windows OS, does not support the onboard wireless, and is overall unpolished and buggy. The only feature that worked as intended was the BIOS Live Update, but even then it would be easier to install the Windows-based Live Update software and use that instead.
Click BIOS II
While the Winki software is not something we would recommend using, this MSI motherboard has another software package that we really like: Click BIOS II. What this software does is give you access to almost the entire BIOS through Windows. This is a great feature for a number of reasons. First, if you are making BIOS changes based on something online (matching the system's original BIOS screenshots for example) this means you can do so without the need for a second computer. Second, this provides an easy way for a support technician to view and modify the BIOS directly. Normally this would require a remote management module like the ASMB6-iKVM which is only compatible with a few motherboards. With Click BIOS II, however, a technician can simply remote in with software like TeamViewer and make changes to the BIOS themselves.
Another great feature of Click BIOS II is that you can directly import/export profiles to and from your hard drive. This way, you can make a backup of the BIOS settings and if you ever need to reload the BIOS, you can do so easily from within Windows. Unfortunately, there is no way to save or load an Overclocking profile from the Click BIOS II software, so you either have to manually set the BIOS settings or use a Windows-based profile.
|Loading screen||Main BIOS screen||Changing RAM voltage|
|Advanced settings||Importing a BIOS profile||Settings are applied upon reboot|
The only issues we found with Click BIOS II was that it takes a fairly long time for the software to load and that you cannot use it to directly update the BIOS. To update the BIOS you either have to enter the actual BIOS and update from there or install the Live Update 5 software from MSI.
Connectivity covers the external ports on the I/O panel, the internal headers, the PCI-E slots on the motherboard, as well as the networking options. Since this motherboard only has a single PCIe 2.0 x16 slot, we will be skipping the PCIe slot portion of our qualification. With that said, let's take a look at what external/internal ports and headers are available on this motherboard:
Most of the ports are fairly standard, but there are a few that we want to specifically point out. First, as with most modern AMD motherboards, all of the internal SATA ports are SATA 6Gb/s ports, so there will be no problems pairing this board with a fast SSD. Second, WiFi and Bluetooth are both integrated onto this motherboard which means that a separate Wifi/Bluetooth module may not be necessary. The only reason you would need to use a separate WiFi module is if you need more speed than the Atheros AR9271 is able to provide. Unfortunately, MSI does not list the maximum speed of this WiFi module, but based on the fact that it is 2.4GHz and only has a single antenna (which suggests only a single MIMO stream) we would expect a maximum speed of 72.2 Mbps. For more information on wireless, we recommend reading our Introduction to PC Wireless Networking article.
The biggest negative when it comes to the ports and headers on this motherboard is the lack of a DVI display connector and the fact that there is only a single internal USB 2.0 header. Also, while the audio controller does support 8.1 audio, there are only 3 audio jacks, so the only way to utilize more than 2.1 audio is to use either HDMI or the optical SPDIF port.
After reviewing the layout of the motherboard, there are only two things that we do not like. The first is that, just like the Intel DH77DF Mini-ITX motherboard, the CMOS battery is not actually on the motherboard itself but is taped to the back of the VGA/HDMI ports and connected to the motherboard via a wire. While this is not too big of a deal, it makes it much harder to replace the battery if/when the charge eventually runs out. Instead of being able to go to any store that sells small batteries to get a replacement, you instead need to get an exact replacement from the manufacturer. The one upside is that this battery is in fact identical to the battery on the Intel DH77DF so if you need a replacement, you can get one from either MSI or Intel.
The second issue is the location of the 4-pin ATX power header (JPWR2 on the schematic). Rather than being at the top edge of the motherboard near the 24-pin ATX power header, it is near the bottom of the board just above the PCI-E slot. This location means that in some small chassis, such as the Antec ISK-110, you will need to use an extension cable in order for the power cable to reach.
Other than that, the only header that is not along the top of the board is the rarely used COM port header (JCOM1 on the schematic) and the front audio header which is just below the 4-pin ATX power header (JAUD1 on the schematic). Everything else is in great locations and should not have any issues in almost any chassis.
Stability and Compatibility Testing
Our extended testing procedure for motherboards (see below) may at first glance seem short, but in actuality is very extensive. What you need to keep in mind is that the very first item - running the test system through our standard build process - is in itself a 98-point checklist.
The majority of the other checkpoints are designed to verify that the motherboard will function properly with a wide range of hardware. For that reason, we test using onboard video, NVIDIA Geforce, AMD Radeon HD and NVIDIA Quadro based video cards. We also test the motherboard with the largest quantity of RAM we can (2 x 8GB sticks) and with the fastest RAM currently offered by Puget Systems (DDR3-1600MHz).
|Run test system through the Puget Systems build process with both Windows 7 and Window 8|
|Review Device Manager to ensure all drivers loaded correctly|
|Loop test system through >50 reboot loops|
|Loop test system through >50 standby loops|
|Verify standby functionality using onboard video, NVIDIA Geforce, AMD Radeon HD, and NVIDIA Quadro GPUs|
|Run 3D graphics testing using onboard video, NVIDIA Geforce, AMD Radeon HD, and NVIDIA Quadro GPUs|
|Test all internal SATA controllers|
|Verify stability with the largest quantity/size of RAM available|
|Verify stability with the fastest RAM offered by Puget Systems|
|Review Event Log for any unexpected warnings/errors|
|Verify basic functionality with latest version of Ubuntu (12.10)|
Simply put, we had no major issues come up at any point in our testing. The system passed every benchmark we threw at it, and easily completely our standby and reboot loops. In fact, the test designed specifically to cause a motherboard to break so we could see how gracefully it fails (cutting power during POST and boot) did not result in any problems. The BIOS did not revert to defaults and no settings were lost.
Drivers in both Windows 7 and Windows 8 installed without any major surprises (although we had to use the Windows 7 wireless driver since no Windows 8 driver was listed) and the system was rock solid using any GPU or RAM combination. The only driver issue we saw was in Linux. Until we installed the AMD video driver, we had some minor video artifacting. Once we got the driver in, however, the artifacting disappeared completely. So if you are installing Linux on this motherboard, don't panic when you see video corruption until after you have the video driver installed.
Besides the video driver issue, Ubuntu worked great with the Wifi, Bluetooth and audio all working properly without any special attention.
The MSI FM2-A75IA-E53 motherboard has a few blemishes but overall passes our qualification process. The main problems are the lack of a DVI video port, only a single internal USB 2.0 header, the poor location of the 4-pin ATX power header, and the unpolished Winki software that is needed for some unimportant BIOS features. The BIOS itself has everything you would expect, including mouse support, overclocking profiles and the ability to update the BIOS from a USB key. Drivers installed with no problems in Windows, and while we had to use a beta video driver in Ubuntu, that is more of an AMD problem than a MSI driver issue.
We rarely use software provided by motherboard manufactures, but the Click BIOS II software performs great, allowing you to control almost every BIOS setting from within Windows. But at the same time, the Winki software (which allows you to run the Browser, HDD Backup and Live Update utilities in the BIOS) is extremely buggy and unpolished. Fortunately, Winki is not needed for normal BIOS operation, so as long as you simply ignore it you will be just fine.
The FM2 platform is a great platform when you need more onboard graphical power than is possible with an Intel platform, so we are pleased to find a motherboard that passes our strict qualification process. Look for this motherboard to appear on our AMD Echo I and Echo II systems in the very near future, and feel free to let us know your thoughts on this motherboard in the comments section below.