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MSI K9A2 Platinum AMD 790FX Motherboard
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Date: Jan 31, 2008
Section:Motherboards
Author: Jeff Bouton
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Introduction and Specifications

In mid-Q4 2007, AMD released their 790FX, 790X and 770 chipsets, the final pieces required to complete their Spider platform.  As the backbone of the new platform, the 700 series chipsets were designed with new feature sets to take full advantage of the Phenom processor's capabilities.  With up to 42 PCI Express lanes, support for four-way graphics, and lower power consumption then previous chipsets, AMD delivered a competitive new chipset to back their new CPUs and graphics cards.

In November, we took a detailed look at the Spider platform coupled with a Phenom processor to see how it compared to its peers.  In the end, Intel still had a leg up on AMD in terms of overall performance, but the new platform was impressive.

Today, we're going to take a look at the latest 790FX based motherboard to hit our test bench, namely, the MSI K9A2 Platinum Motherboard.  Built around AMD's 790FX chipset, the K9A2 Platinum brings four-way CrossFire capability, support for HyperTransport 3.0 and PCI Express 2.0 while MSI adds additional customizations to help raise the board to "Platinum" status.  Whether looking to upgrade the foundation of your current Athlon based system or want to go all out for the full Spider experience, MSI thinks it has a solid candidate for your consideration.  Let's find if they're correct in their assumption, shall we?



MSI K9A2 Platinum 790FX Motherboard
Specifications and Features

CPU
Supports 64-bit AMD® Phenom FX / Phenom processor (Socket AM2+)
Supports Phenom FX CPU: FX-82
Supports Phenom CPU: 9700, 9600, 9500 & 8000 Series
Supports 64-bit AMD® Athlon 64FX / Athlon 64 X2 / Athlon 64 processor (Socket AM2)
Supports Athlon 64 CPU: 3500+, 3800+
Supports Athlon 64FX CPU: FX-62
Supports Athlon 64 X2 CPU: 3800+, 4000+, 4200, 4400+, 4600+, 4800+, 5000+, 5200+, 5400+, 6000+, 6400+
      
Chipset
AMD 790FX (AMD RD790) Chipset
HyperTransport connection to AMD Phenom/Athlon processor
HyperTransport supporting speed up to 2.6GHz (5200mt/s)
Supports 4 PCI-E x 16, & 1 PCI-E X 1
      
ATI SB600 Chipset
Supports SATAII controllers for four drives
Supports single channel Ultra DMA 66/100/133 master mode EIDE controller
ACPI & PC2001 compliant enhanced power managment
Supports Hi-Speed (USB2.0) controller 480 mbsec transfer rate up to 10 ports
      
Main Memory    
Supports 4 240-pin DDR2 SDRAMs up to 8GB memory size
Supports Dual Channel DDR2 800/1066 DDR2 SDRAM
Supports 1.8v DDR2 SDRAM DIMM
Due to the High Performance Memory design, motherboards or system configurations may or may not operate smoothly at the JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) standard settings (BIOS Default on the motherboard) such as DDR2 voltage, memory speeds and memory timing. Please confirm and adjust your memory setting in the BIOS accordingly for better system stability.
Example: Kingston HyperX DDR2-800 PC-6400 operates at 2.0V, 4-4-4-12.
For more information about specification of high performance memory modules, please check with your Memory Manufactures for more details.
      
On-Board IDE/SATA 
An IDE controller on the ATI SB600 chipset provides IDE HDD/CD-ROM with PIO, Bus Master and Ultra DMA133/100/66 operation modes.
Can connect up to 2 IDE devices
SB600 supports 4 SATA II ports (SATA1-4). Transfer rate is up to 300MB/s.
Supports up to 4 SATA
RAID 0 or 1, 0+1 is supported
RAID function` work w/ SATA/SATAII HDDs


Promise T3 controller supports 2 SATAII (SATA5/6)(SAS ready) & 2eSATA ports
RAID 0, 1, or 0+1 is supported
RAID function work with SATA/eSATA HDDs


Slots

Four PCI Express X16 slots , support ATI CrossFire Technology (PCI Express Bus Specification v2.0 compliant)
{Slot configurations: Dual CrossFire (16X+16X), Triple CrossFire (16X+8X+8X), Quad CrossFire (8X+8X+8X+8X)}
One PCI Express X1 slot
Two 32-bit PCI slots (3.3v/5v PCI Bus Master slots)


BIOS

The mainboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
The mainboard provides a Desktop Management Interface (DMI) function which records your mainboard specifications.
Supports boot from LAN, USB Device 1.1 & 2.0 and SATA HDD
      
Audio
8 Channel software audio codec Realtek ALC888
Compliance with Azalia v1.0 spec.
Flexible 8-channel audio with jack sensing
      
LAN
Realtek® 8111B LAN chip
Supports 10Mb/s, 100Mb/s and 1000Mb/s
Compliance with PCI-Express v1.0a
      
IEEE1394
VIA VT6308P controller
Support up to 2 IEEE 1394 ports (rear x 1 / front x 1)
Transfer rate up to 400 mbps.
      
On-Board Peripherals
1 floppy port supports 1 FDD with 360K, 720K, 1.2M, 1.44M and 2.88Mbytes
1 serial port (supported by pin-out)
1 audio jack (5-in-1), coaxial/fibre SPDIF out
10 USB 2.0 ports (Rear x 4 / Front x 6)
1 RJ45 LAN jack
2 eSATA ports
2 IEEE 1394 a connectors (Rear x 1/ Front x 1)
1 CD-in pinheader
      
Dimension
12 in (L) x 9.75 in(W) ATX Form Factor
      
Mounting
9 mounting holes


MSI complements the K9A2 Platinum with a solid collection of extra components to help take full advantage of the mainboard's features.  The package include the customary Quick Installation Guide, User's Manual, and a poster sized Quick Guide for a detailed overview of the motherboard main components and layout.  There is also a Drivers/Setup CD that includes all necessary drivers needed for proper functionality.  The package included four SATA cables, an 80-Pin IDE cable and a single Floppy cable.  MSI provided two Molex to SATA power adapters, a two-port USB bracket and a single-port FireWire bracket as well.  Lastly, a custom I/O shield is provided (not pictured).
 

     

 
An item that we are seeing more and more of lately are adapters for connecting a case's Power and Reset Switches, and Power and HDD LEDs, as well as custom plugs for the board's additioanl USB, Front Panel Audio, and FireWire headers.  These make it much simpler to connect the individual plugs to an adapter outside the case, then plug the whole assembly into the mainboard in a single motion.  Rounding out the package are two CrossFire bridge connectors.
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The MSI K9A2 Platinum: Up Close
 
Upon first inspection, the K9A2 Platinum grabs your attention with its custom "Circu-Pipe" heat pipe cooler, which straddles the Northbridge, Southbridge and power circuitry.  The next items to stand out are the four PCI-E X16 graphics slots.  Nestled between the first two PCI-E X16 slots is a PCI-E X1 slot while two standard PCI slots are situated adjacent to the third and fourth PCI-E X16 slot. 
Naturally, the board has an AM2+ socket to support the new Phenoms, but it's also backward compatible with all AM2 based Athlon 64, Athlon 64 X2 and Athlon 64 FX processors as well.  The board supports up to 8GB of memory across four DIMM slots, officially supporting DDR2 800 and 1066 speeds.
 

     


For storage needs, the K9A2 Platinum features an ATI SB600 Southbridge that drives one IDE UDMA 133 port for up to two devices and four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1 and 0+1.  Additionally, a Promise T3 chips drives two additional SATA II ports and two external eSATA ports, with RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 available across all four ports.  A floppy port is also included for those still working with floppy drives.
  For integrated audio, the K9A2 Platinum is equipped with a Realtek ALC888 audio codec for 8 channel audio.  The rear I/I panel also includes one Gigabit LAN connector driven by a Realtek 8111B chip.  A VIA VT6308P chip powers two FireWire ports, one on the rear and one through a header and included bracket mentioned on page one.  The system also supports 10 USB 2.0 ports, four on the rear and the remainder through headers.  Lastly, a serial port is available through a header, but no bracket is included to take advantage of the feature.



     

 
From an overall layout and design perspective, there is much to like about the K9A2 Platinum.  The ATX power connectors are placed optimally, the board comes with three chassis fan headers on top of the CPU fan header, and component placement was well balanced.  However, there was one minor issue that we didn't care for.  Note with the first graphics slot how the copper tubing wraps around the rear of the slot before terminating at the Southbridge.  With our test bed, this tubing was high enough that our video card hit the tubing before being fully seated in the slot.  While pressing firmly on the card seemed to seat it properly, we are concerned that over time a card may slowly rise out of the slot and cause potential video issues.  The slot itself doesn't have a definitive locking mechanism, so there is the potential for issues, however, we did not encounter any problems while testing the board.  Like we said, we feel this is a minor issue, but were a little surprised by this design oversight and wanted to make you aware of it.
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BIOS Features and Overclocking

The K9A2 Platinum comes outfitted with an American Megatrends, Inc BIOS that has ample features and offers maximum system control.  The thrust of the performance settings are located under the Cell Menu, where CPU, Memory, Voltages and other key items can be manipulated.  Atop the menu is the D.O.T. profiles where the system can be set to overclock 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, or 15% automatically.  Additionally, this setting can be left disabled and the settings can be manually configured to the user's liking.
 

     


The CPU Frequency could be keyed in from 200 up to an unrealistic 600MHz.  The HyperTransport link offered multiplier settings from 1x-13x with a frequency range of 200-2600MHz with our CPU.  The CPU ratio was typical, bottoming out at 4.5x and topping out at the CPU maximum, in this case 13x.


Memory Timings could be left on Auto or configured manually as well.  CAS Latency ranged from 3-7 while TRCD and TRP both ranged from 3-6 CLK.  tRTP could be set for 2-4 CLK or 3-5 CLK and TRAS offered options from 5-18 CLK in 1 CLK increments.  There is also a Memory divider which ranged from 1:1 (400MHz), 1:1.33 (533MHz), 1:1.66 (667MHz) or 1:2 (800MHz).
 

     


Rounding out the advanced settings are voltage controls for CPU and Memory.  CPU voltages can be set from a minimum of 1.334v to a maximum of 1.607v.  Memory also offered decent voltage options, ranging from 1.8v to a top setting of 3.10v.
 

     


Next, we put some of these settings to the test to see how well the system could overclock.  To eliminate our CPU or memory as a weak point, the CPU multiplier was dropped to 5x and the memory set to a ratio of 1:1 (400MHz).  We then raised the CPU frequency until instability was detected.  We managed to hit 330MHz and boot into Windows without issue.  However, when we exceeded 330MHz the system would not boot into Windows and 340MHz caused the system to not post at all.  When this occurred, we rebooted the system while holding down the insert key in an attempt to recover the failed overclock.  Upon booting, we received a warning message stating that the previous performance of overclocking failed and the system was restored to the defaults and to press any key other than delete to enter Setup.  Apparantly, when the defaults are restored, USB support stops, so our USB keyboard would not respond and pressing a key did nothing.  The only way we could circumvent this message was to remove power and manually reset the bios.  This proved rather annoying and we hope a future BIOS update will correct this issue so overclockers will be able to recover their system without having to open up their case to do so.
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Test System and PCMark Vantage

How we configured our test systems: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for either DDR2-800 with 5,6,6,15 timings.  The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows Vista Ultimate was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
  

 HotHardware's Test Systems
 AMD - Dual-Core 

System 1:
AMD Athlon X2 5200+
(2.6GHz - Dual-Core)

MSI K9A2 Platinum
(AMD 790FX Chipset)

2x1GB OCZ Gold XTC PC2 8800
CL 5-6-6-15 - DDR2-800

Sapphire RX2600XT
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD740 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Ultimate
Catalyst 7.12
DirectX Redist (November 2007)

System 2:
AMD Athlon X2 5200+
(2.6GHz - Dual-Core)

Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5
(NVIDIA nForce 590 SLI Chipset)

2x1GB OCZ Gold XTC PC2 8800
CL 5-6-6-15 - DDR2-800

Sapphire RX2600XT
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD740 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Ultimate
Catalyst 7.12
DirectX Redist (November 2007)

 Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Synthetic Benchmarks

For our first round of benchmarks, we ran all of the modules built into Futuremark's PCMark Vantage test suite.  Vantage is a new benchmarking tool that we've incorporated into our arsenal of tests here at HotHardware.  Here's how Futuremark positions their new benchmarking tool:

"The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD test sets with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Vista Consumer scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes CPU, Graphics, Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and a subset of Consumer Suite tests."




Overall, the tried and true nForce 590 chipset posted a better result than the AMD 790FX.  Naturally, we would expect the tables to be reversed when tested with a Phenom processor since the 790FX would have an advantage over the 590 in that area.  As we proceed to break down the overall score, we'll get a clearer picture as to what areas of the the tests favor one chipset vs. the other.
 


The first specific test we'll cover is the PCMark Vantage "Memories" suite which is comprised of the following tests:

Memories 1 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU image manipulation and HDD picture import
Memories 2 - Two simultaneous threads, GPU image manipulation and HDD video editing
Memories 3 - Video Transcoding: DV to portable device
Memories 4
- Video Transcoding: media server archive to portable device



With our Athlon X2 5200+, the Gigabute GA-M59SLI-55 posted more efficient memory scores than the K9A2 Platinum.  We logged a variance of 155 points, which equates to a lead of 5.3% for the Gigabyte board.
 
 

Vantage TV and Movies suite includes the following tests:

TV and Movies 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback: HD DVD w/ additional lower bitrate HD content from HDD, as downloaded from the net
TV and Movies 2 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback, HD MPEG-2: 19.39 Mbps terrestrial HDTV playback

TV and Movies 3 - HDD Media Center

TV and Movies 4 - Video transcoding: media server archive to portable device, Video playback, HD MPEG-2: 48 Mbps Blu-ray playback




With Vantage's 'TV and Movies' test, the Gigabyte board managed a small lead over the K9A2 Platinum, topping it by 16 points, or 1.5% overall.

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PCMark Vantage Continued

We continue our test coverage with a few more modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks, specifically Gaming, Music and Communications.


 Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Synthetic Benchmarks


Courtesy of Futuremark:  "Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment for all ages. Today’s games demand high performance graphics cards and CPUs to avoid delays and sluggish performance while playing. Loading screens in games are yesterday’s news. Streaming data from an HDD in games – such as Alan Wake™ – allows for massive worlds and riveting non-stop action. CPUs with many cores give a performance advantage to gamers in real-time strategy and massively multiplayer games. Gaming Suite includes the following tests: "

Gaming 1 - GPU game test
Gaming 2 - HDD: game HDD
Gaming 3 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU game test, Data decompression: level loading
Gaming 4 - Three simultaneous threads, GPU game test, CPU game test, HDD: game HDD



PCMark Vantage's 'Gaming' test also reported the nforce 590 based Gigabyte board to have a higher score than the MSI K9A2 Platinum.  The margins favored the GA-M59SLI-S5 by 1.5%, which is very close in the overall scheme of things.





Vantage Music suite includes the following tests:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Web page rendering – w/ music shop content, Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
Music 2 - Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless
Music 3
- Audio transcoding: MP3 -> WMA
Music 4
- Two simultaneous threads, Audio transcoding: WMA -> WMA, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player





PCMark Vantage's Music benchmark leaned heavily in favor of the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5.




Vantage Communications suite includes the following tests:

Communications 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Data compression, Web page rendering: graphics content, 1024x768, windowed
Communications 2 - Three simultaneous threads. Web page rendering: open various news pages from IE 7 Favorites in separate tabs, close them one by one, Data decryption: CNG AES CBC, HDD: Windows Defender
Communications 3 - Windows Mail: Search
Communications 4  - Two simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Audio transcoding: WMA -> WMA - to simulate VOIP





With the Communications test, the scores were more in-line with one another, with the Gigabyte model topping the MSI K9A2 Platinum by 1.6%.
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PCMark Vantage Continued & 3DMark06

 
 Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Synthetic Benchmarks

Vantage Productivity suite includes the following tests:

Productivity 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Text editing, HDD: application loading
Productivity 2 - Two simultaneous threads, Windows Contacts: search, HDD: Windows Defender
Productivity 3 - HDD: Windows Vista start-up
Productivity 4 - Three simultaneous threads, Windows Contacts: search, Windows Mail: Run Message Rules, Web page rendering: simultaneously open various pages from IE7 Favorites in separate tabs, close them one by one





The Productivity test was the first that the K9A2 Platinum took the lead in, and it was a strong lead at that.  Here the K9A2 managed to top the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5 by 198 points, which measures up to 5.6%.
 


 
The Vantage HDD suite includes the following tests:

HDD 1 - HDD: Windows Defender
HDD 2 - HDD: game HDD
HDD 3 - HDD: importing pictures
HDD 4 - HDD: Windows Vista start-up
HDD 5 - HDD: video editing
HDD 6 - HDD: Media Center
HDD 7 - HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player





PCMark Vantage's HDD test was another strong showing for the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5.  Here we recorded a wide margin of 8% over the 790FX, or 339 points.
 

 Futuremark 3DMark06 - CPU Test
 Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

 
3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance.  Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering.  The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.





When it comes to raw CPU performance, the K9A2 Platinum took a small lead over the elder 590 chipset, bordering on negligible.  In this test we saw a 14 point lead overall, which is three quarters of a percentage point.

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Cinebench R10 and Kribibench v1.1


 Cinebench R10 Performance Tests
 3D Modeling & Rendering Tests


Our next test will focus on Rendering with Cinebench R10.  This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below, listed in seconds.






Rendering tests are an excellent tool for measuring processor performance since they are inherently CPU dependent.  In the end, neither test bed showed a strong advantage over the other, with the K9A2 Platinum having a 1 second edge in dual-core rendering while single-core rendering favored the GA-M59SLI-S5 by 2 seconds.

Kribibench v1.1
Details: www.adeptdevelopment.com


For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, another 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development.  Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where
a 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU and the average frame rate is reported.

We used two of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and the test suite's "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.





With Kribibench, we saw slightly broader results than with Cinebench R10, with the K9A2 topping the GA-M59SLI-S5 by .39FPS in the Sponge Explode Model.  This may seem like a small lead, but when you measure it percentage wise, it equals 5.6%, which is a respectable difference.  When we ratcheted up the workload with the Ultra Model, both boards were virtually tied in performance.
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Gaming Tests with Crysis and Company of Heroes

Benchmarks with Crysis SP Demo and Company of Heroes v1.71
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance

Our final two tests are gaming benchmarks configured to test CPU and memory performance rather than graphics performance.  This is done by reducing the image quality and resolution so the graphics subsystem is no longer the performance bottleneck, virtually eliminating the graphics card from the equation.  The first test we used was Crysis followed by Company of Heroes.










The Crysis test tracked closely to the 3DMark06 CPU testing, showing a very small lead for the K9A2 Platinum equalling less than 1 % overall.  With Company of Heroes v1.71, the differences were almost the same, falling just shy of 1%.  In both cases, neither variation would be detectable by the user in real world usage.
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Performance Analysis & Final Thoughts

Performance Summary: 
Our benchmark results were somewhat of a see-saw battle between the nForce 590 SLI and AMD 790FX chipsets.  With respect to the PCMark Vantage test suite, the Gigabyte motherboard we tested won all but the Productivity test.  When we shifted our attention to more real-world tests, however, the K9A2 Platinum topped the Gigabyte GA-M590SLI-S5 in each test, but not by the same type of margins we recorded with PCMark Vantage.  3DMark06's CPU test results can be considered a tie, as they were so close, while the K9A2 Platinum pulled out in front in the Cinebench, Crysis and Company of Heroes tests by less than a percentage point.  The biggest lead we recorded was with the Kribibench Sponge Explode test, where the K9A2 Platinum took a 5.6% lead, which incidentally was identical to the Vantage Productivity test delta.





We were pleased with the features and performance of the MSI K9A2 Platinum motherboard.  For those users looking to take advantage of AMD's Spider platform, that don't have the budget for a new motherboard, CPU and graphics card in a single purchase, this 790FX based board proved to be a solid performer with an Athlon X2 processor installed in its socket.  Some features of the 790FX can't be taken advantage of without a Phenom processor and Radeon 3xx0 series graphics card, but the board will be ready when it comes time to upgrade. For those running an Athlon 64 X2 processor, it's unlikely you would notice much of a performance difference compared to a system powered by an older chipset, such as a nForce 590 SLI.  In our benchmarks for example, we saw the nForce 590 SLI and 790FX go back and forth, but in real world usage, we believe it's doubtful anyone would actually perceive the performance differences.  In the end, those looking to take advantage of the Spider platform have little to fear from running legacy hardware with the new board.

Furthermore, as we demonstrated in our original introduction to Spider, there is a nice gain to be realized by dropping in a quad core Phenom or Radeon 3xx0 graphics card into a 790FX board.  The K9A2 Platinum is well equipped, offering four PCI-E X16 slots, a host of integrated components, dual eSATA ports with RAID capability, and more.  Aside from having to hard reset the BIOS after a failed overclock and the chipset heat-pipe potentially touching a graphics card, we were quite pleased with the K9A2 Platinum and feel comfortable recommending this motherboard to anyone planning to make the move to AMD's Spider platform.





  • Good Feature set
  • Solid Overclocking
  • Complete BIOS
  • Competitive Performance
  • Four Graphics Slots
  • Good Retail Bundle
  • Chipset Heatpipe May Hit Graphics Card
  • BIOS Requires Hard Reset with failed Overclock
 


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