MSI, also known as Microstar International to some, has been around for a long time. In fact, they were one of the first companies to have a working Athlon motherboard back in the heady days of AMD and the Slot A CPU. Unfortunately somewhere between then and now MSI sort of dropped off the radar. We had the chance to talk with them at CES and they told us that they had some big plans moving forward (Including their Big Bang line-up).
But MSI let us know that they were not just going to push out top end (and expensive) products; one of their goals was to bring enthusiast class features to their entire product range. These are things like OC Genie, HDD backup and XHD (Auto build RAID 0). We have had their H55 Express based motherboard, the H55M-ED55, in the lab and can tell you just how well these features work on this entry level board.
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
The H55M-ED55 comes in a purple and white box that draws the eyes and also shows off some of the major features of the board. One of the first items that will draw your eyes is the large OC-GENIE sticker on the bottom right with the caption "1 sec overclocking". That is quite a claim and something that we aim to try out later.
The back of the box is the usual jumble of images and text that describe (in PR speak) just how good the H55M-ED5 is.
Inside the box you will find (in addition to the motherboard) the usual components. The one I found interesting was the WinKi guide. MSI has included this OS on the Drivers and Utilities CD-ROM as a quick boot OS for you to use (it is a LIVE-CD style OS).
As with most H55 Express based boards, the H55M-ED55 is based around a Micro-ATX form factor. This is a difficult form factor to work with due to its obvious lack of space.
MSI has not done a bad job of keeping things clean, but unfortunately they have have had to make some concessions due to the size of the board.
In the CPU/RAM space, the board looks normal, The layout follows the same style and spacing as any ATX board. One difference here is the inclusion of the OC Genie controls. Here is a single button to begin the 1 second overclock that MSI talked about on the box. There is also a pair of buttons ( + and - ) that can allow you to quickly adjust the BClock up or down.
Frustratingly, MSI has placed a 4-pin 12-V AUX power connector in a very small space between the two power regulator heatsinks. This puts this connector into a very difficult to reach place when installed (unless you use an extension cable).
At the lower half of the board MSI has placed a pair of x16 mechanical (x8 electrical) PCI-e slots with a single PCIe x1 and PCI 2.0 slot. This is not a bad number of slots for the entry-level/mainstream board. However, each choice has its compromises. If you need to use the PCIe x1 slot you will have to make sure that your primary GPU is a single slot in height or use the second PCIe slot (which will prevent the use of the single PCI slot. If you need to use the single PCI slot, you have to be careful with its height also as it can interfere with the PATA port.
The six SATA II ports are setup in an odd configuration; four are at a 90-dgree angle while the final two are normal. One other odd item is that MSI did not choose to use different colour blocks to denote different headers on the board. For example, the USB headers use the same black block as does the front panel header. This makes it harder to connect things once it is all installed in a case (even with the quick connectors included).
The MSI H55M-ED55 has the usual ports that are found on the typical H55 Express based motherboard.
The overall layout of the MSI H55M-ED55 is not bad, but they could have spent a little more time on it and gotten better results in our opinion. There are just too many hard choices to make regarding what peripheral slots you can use.
BIOS and Overclocking
MSI uses an AMI BIOS for the H55M-ED55. As such, it follows that layout and has the typical pages. For the MSI H55M-ED55 there are a few notable exceptions to the otherwise very familiar AMI BIOS. These are the Cell Menu, M-Flash, Overclocking Profile and Green Power.
We are starting off with the Cell Menu simply because this is where you will spend most of your time while overclocking or tweaking the system. The options here are pretty straight forward, but you do have to dive into some sub-menus to find all of the settings.
If you are thinking about pushing the HD GMA GPU that is on your Clarkdale, you will have to head over to Advanced Features. Here you can find the adjustments for GPU clock speed, RAM and DVMT. You will have to head back to the Cell Menu to bump up the IGP voltage, though.
The Green Power menu contains only two settings, but these are very important if you are looking to build a power friendly system.
The M-Flash menu allows you to flash your board as well as backup your BIOS to your HDD or to an external drive (like a USB Flash Drive).
A "new" feature that is showing up at all levels of motherboards is the ability to overclock with a single button or a simple tool. On the MSI H55M-ED55 it is called OC Genie and can be run from inside the OS or by simply pressing the OC Genie button on the motherboard. Using the OC Genie button we were able to get an overclock of 3.9GHz (178x22). With manual controls we hit a high of 4.0GHz (156x16). We left Turbo and Hyper-Threading on for our overclocking testing even though the OC Genie went for the higher BClK by adjusting the multiplier down.
You can see the validation for the i5 661 using the OC Genie here and the Manual OC here.
As all overclocking results are dependent on the hardware you use, your results may vary.
Results of our overclocking tests are included in the performance section with the stock scores.
Important Editor Note: Our maximum overclocking result is the best result we managed in our limited time of testing the motherboard. Due to time constraints we weren't able to tweak the motherboard to the absolute maximum and find the highest possible FSB, as this could take days to find properly. We do however spend at least a few hours overclocking every motherboard to try and find the highest possible overclock in that time frame. You may or may not be able to overclock higher if you spend more time tweaking or as new BIOS updates are released. "Burn-in" time might also come into play if you believe in that.
Test System Setup and Comments
Processor: Intel Core i5 661
Mainboard MSI H55M-ED55 (Supplied by MSI)
Memory: 4GB Kingston KHX12800D3T1K3/6GX (Supplied by Kingston)
Hard Disk: Kingston SSD Now M (Intel X25-M 80GB SSD) (Supplied by Kingston)
Graphics Card: Zotac GTX 285 AMP! Edition 1GB (flashed to stock BIOS) (Supplied by Zotac)
Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 212 (with an extra fan) (Supplied by Cooler Master)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Drivers: Intel INF 188.8.131.525, ForceWare 195.62
My time with the MSI H55M-ED55 was not too bad. I did fond that the combination of angled and straight SATA ports was not ideal. If you are using an SFF case it can become a truly annoying task to plug in a new SATA drive with the board mounted in a case. The same can be said for the PATA port at the bottom of the board. It is in an awkward place on its own and is even worse if you have a card in the single PCI slot.
The pin-headers are another problem. They all look identical; the USB headers look just like the front panel header, the com-port header and almost all of the others on the board. I think that MSI needs to think about using different color blocks to help the headers stand out better to someone building a system.
Synthetic Tests - Part I
With any system you will want to see a combination of synthetic testing and real-world. Synthetics give you a static, easily repeatable testing method that can be compared across multiple platforms. For our synthetic tests we use Everest Ultimate, Sisoft Sandra, Futuremark's 3DMark Vantage and PCMark Vantage, Cinebench as well as HyperPi. Each of these covers a different aspect of performance or a different angle of a certain type of performance.
Memory is a big part of current system performance. In most systems slow or flakey memory performance will impact almost every type of application you run. To test memory we use a combination of Sisoft Sandra, Everest and HyperPi 0.99.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2010c 1626
Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
Product Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
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Again, memory bandwidth is not much different from the other H5x boards that we have tested. After all, we are using the exact same CPU and IMC (Internal Memory Controller). Unless there is a serious BIOS or board design issue, the numbers here should not be too different.
Version and / or Patch Used: 5.30.1983
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
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Everest Ultimate is a suite of tests and utilities that can be used for system diagnostics and testing. For our purposes here we use their memory bandwidth test and see what the theoretical performance is.
Everest backs up what Sandra showed us. The MSI H55M-ED55 performs right where it should in terms of memory bandwidth.
Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99
Developer Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Product Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
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HyperPi is a front end for SuperPi that allows for multiple concurrent instances of SuperPi to be run on each core recognized by the system. It is very dependent on CPU to memory to HDD speed. The faster these components, the faster it is able to figure out the number Pi to the selected length.
For our testing we use the 32M run. This means that each of the four physical and four logical cores for the i7 and the four physical cores of the i5 is trying to calculate the number Pi out to 32 million decimal places. Each "run" is a comparative to ensure accuracy and any stability or performance issues in the loop mentioned above will cause errors in calculation.
In our HyperPi testing the MSI H55M does fairly well, but still falls behind the other H5x boards that we have tested by a handful of seconds.
Synthetic Tests - Part II
Disk Drive Controller
The system drive controller is an important part of system performance. In most modern boards your drive controller will run off of the PCI-e bus. The PCI-e bus performance can be affected by poor trace layout as well as many other design choices that show up on different boards.
For testing we use Sisoft's Sandra and Everest.
The H55M-ED55 shows us slower HDD performance by roughly 10MB/s. This could hurt it and also is more than likely the reason for the slower HyperPi performance.
The slower HDD performance is again present in our Everest testing. Hopefully MSI can fix this minor slowdown with a BIOS update and get the HDD read performance back to where it should be.
Synthetic Tests - Part III
Overall System performance and Gaming
Here is where we dig out the FutureMark tests.
Version and / or Patch Used: 184.108.40.206
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
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For overall system performance we use PCMark Vantage. This is run in both x86 and x64 mode to give the best indication of performance.
MSI again shows a few performance issues coming in behind other boards in its group.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
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For synthetic gaming tests we used the industry standard and overlockers bragging tool 3DMark Vantage. This is a test that strives to mimic the impact modern games have on a system. Futuremark went a long way to change from the early days of graphics driven tests to a broader approach including physics, AI and more advanced graphics simulations. 3DMark Vantage uses the DX10 API in addition to having support for PhysX. Due to the PhysX support and our use of an NVIDIA GPU, we run with PhysX enabled and disabled to give you the best indication of real system performance. For testing we use the Performance test run.
The MSI H55M-ED55 does rather well for an H55 Express based board considering the IGP that is in use here.
Cinebench R10 x64
Version and / or Patch Used: R10
Developer Homepage: http://www.maxon.net/
Product Homepage: www.maxon.net
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Cinebench is a synthetic rendering tool developed by Maxon. Maxon is the same company that developed Cinema4D, another industry leading 3D Animation application. Cinebench R10 tests your systems ability to render across a single and multiple CPU cores. It also tests your systems ability to process OpenGL information.
In Cinebench the H55M-ED55 performs well in single core rendering with the exception of the ASUS P7H57; it outperforms the other H5x boards in our testing group. However, once the test shifts to multi-core rendering, the MSI board drops back to last place behind even the ASRock H55.
Real-World Tests - Part I
Real-world testing allows us to see how well a product will perform when used in the same manner as it would be in your house or office. It is an important side to performance testing as it can uncover hidden glitches in the way a product performs.
It is especially true when testing a mainboard; there are so many components of a board that have to interact that any problems between parts can cause a failure of the whole.
For real-world testing we use some common applications and functions. We test with LightWave 3D for rendering performance, AutoGK for transcoding from DVD to AVI and two games for gaming testing.
Rendering of 3D Animation is a system intensive endeavor. You need a good CPU, memory and HDD speed to get good rendering times. For our testing we use LightWave 3D. This software from Newtek is an industry standard and has several pre-loaded scenes for us to use.
Version and / or Patch Used: 9.6
Developer Homepage: http://www.newtek.com
Product Homepage: http://www.newtek.com/lightwave/
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Strangely enough, the MSI H55M-ED55 does quite well when it comes to rendering in LightWave 3D 9.6. It managed to render our test frame two seconds faster than the next board.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.55
Developer Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Product Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
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AutoGK stands for Auto Gordian Knot; it is a suite of transcoding tools that are compiled into an easy to install and use utility. It allows you to transcode non-protected DVDs and other media to Xvid or Divx format. For our testing purposes we use a non-DRM restricted movie that is roughly 2 hours in length. This is transcoded to a single Xvid AVI at 100% quality.
The MSI H55-ED55 again shows its strength in real-world testing. We see it come in first in our transcoding tests (at stock speeds).
Real-World Tests - Part II
Here we have our real gaming tests. Each of the games we chose use multiple cores and GPUs. They are able to stress the system through use of good AI. Both have decent positional audio that adds impact to the sound subsystem of the board. We ran each game through the level or parts listed and recorded frames per second using FRAPS. This brings the whole game into play.
As most IGPs are not meant for high-end gaming, we have swapped out one of our First Person Shooters for a more mainstream game. We have also adjusted down the testing resolution from 1920x1200 to 1280x960. In order to keep full measure of the board, we return to 1920x1200 when we test the board with our GTX 285.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0
Timedemo or Level Used: Ten Minutes of Game Play in Sunset Valley
Developer Homepage: http://www.ea.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.thesims3.com/
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The SIMS 3 is the third complete edition of this popular game. In it you create a personality for use in a virtual world. The town we chose was Sunset Valley; we created a basic character and off we went. We performed as many actions as we were able to to give the board and GPU as much to think about as we could. The settings we used are shown below.
SIMS 3 performs well on the MSI H55M-ED55 at 1280x960. We found very playable frame rates for this popular mainstream game.
Far Cry 2
Version and / or Patch Used: V1.00
Timedemo or Level Used: Clearing the Safe house through to the Rescue
Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com
Product Homepage: http://farcry.us.ubi.com
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Far Cry 2 is a large sandbox style game. There are no levels here so as you move about the island you are on you do not have to wait for the "loading" sign to go away. It is mission driven so each mission is what you would normally think of as the next "level".
In the game you take the role of a mercenary who has been sent to kill the Jackal. Unfortunately your malaria kicks in and you end up being found by him. Long story short, you become the errand boy for a local militia leader and run all over the island doing his bidding. The settings we used for testing are shown below.
No big surprise here as we find the IGP is unable to handle the much more demanding engine in Far Cry 2. However, once we drop in a capable GPU then the numbers are more than acceptable.
As we have noted before, the H5x boards are not meant as high-performance gaming rigs when using the IGP on the Clarkdale. They are able to handle many popular mainstream titles and can offer the casual and mainstream gamer great performance at lower resolutions.
We have also seen that the IGP on the Clarkdale does not hinder performance when a discrete GPU is placed in the system; this fact alone can give you an expensive gaming platform with little trouble. Of course, if you are going this route you have other options for boards and CPUs without an IGP. Overall though, it looks like the MSI H55M-ED55 and Core i5 661 combination is good for the casual and mainstream gamer.
Power Usage and Heat Tests
We are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into an AC wall socket).
The H55M-ED55's power draw from the wall is very low. Even when under full load the board did not pull over 83 Watts. This was lower than the next closest board by 7 Watts.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboard; this being the Northbridge, Southbridge (if it contains one) as well as the Mosfets around the CPU. The results are recorded at idle and load during the power consumption tests.
The H55M-ED55 did generate more heat than the other boards, but this has more to do with the minimal heatsink over the chipset than power running through the system.
MSI has some work to do on the H55M-ED55, not necessarily in terms of performance (although they do need some work there), but more in board design and ease of installation and use. They also need to take a look at HDD performance and see if they can bring it up to where it needs to be.
When setting up the system, we found that MSI has not included a general installer for drivers. This forces the user to install each on its own (and reboot after each install). Now, this may sound like a minor issue, but when the average user gets ahold of it then this could make the difference between keeping and returning the board.
The OC Genie is a nice touch to the H55M-ED55; it does what it says it does. This is to allow a user to overclock their CPU in a matter of seconds. We would like to tell you if this board is a good deal for the performance or not, however we were not able to find it for sale on any e-tailers at this time of this writing.
Overall, the MSI H55M-ED55 is a pretty good board. It is not going to win you any records, but it will give you stable performance for entry level and mainstream gaming and multi-media use.
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