With its onboard 880G graphics, support for USB 3.0 and (hopefully) further dips in pricing, the Asus M4A88T-M motherboard for AMD-based computers could be the new mainstream choice for AM3 desktop PCs. It does give SATA 6Gbps ports a miss, but that's not a huge concern for now in this price bracket.
The AMD 880G chipset is meant to be the choice of mainstream motherboards for users of AMD processors on the desktop. With good graphics for an integrated solution, and support for six-core AMD processors, the Asus M4A88T-M is a good option for those who want a better motherboard than the basic ones.
There is plenty of good stuff about this board, even though it's priced at a fairly economical price. It may not be the choice of the most high-end users, but users building moderately high-end PCs with the Asus M4A88T-M motherboard as the foundation are not likely to be disappointed. Note that playing the latest games may require toning down all the settings, but HTPC users (Home Theatre PC) will be quite glad with what the Asus M4A88T-M gives.
For HTPC purposes, and to be able to fit into smaller cabinets, the Asus M4A88T-M motherboard has a micro-ATX form factor. Asus has used its usual colour scheme for this board - black base with blue slots. For increased reliability, solid capacitors have been used all over, which hypothetically translates to an increased working lifespan. There is a blue heat sink to passively cool the integrated graphics.
The Asus M4A88T-M's layout, though feature-packed, is thoughtful and allows for uncluttered connections and cabling. SATA ports are thankfully located at sufficient distance, such that they are accessible even when using a discreet high-end graphics card with a dual-slot cooler. The Asus M4A88T-M's four memory slots mark it out as a relatively higher-end product among motherboards of the micro-ATX type.
The Asus M4A88T-M motherboard is based on the AMD 880G chipset, meaning pretty good integrated graphics with the Radeon 4250, although AMD's own 890GX chipset and Intel's SandyBridge processors offer better performance. Up to 1GB of memory can be assigned for graphics, and those who run with plenty of RAM and a 64bit OS will be glad to know that the BIOS allows for setting the graphics frame buffer location below or above 4GB.
If you add a discrete AMD graphics card, you have the option of running the onboard graphics together with CrossFireX, to add performance and reduce power consumption in scenarios where the onboard graphics is sufficient. Video output ports provided, are VGA, DVI and HDMI.
The number of storage devices that can be connected, the audio options and the good IGP of the 880G make the Asus M4A88T-M a pretty good choice for HTPCs.
The Asus M4A88T-M motherboard offers an AMD AM3 processor socket. Four dual-channel DDR3 RAM slots are present, supporting up to 16GB memory at speeds up to 1,866MHz. It uses the SB710 chipset for the SouthBridge, presumably to reduce costs. Therefore you get one PATA port and six SATA 3Gbps ports, with support to run four of them in RAID modes. At the back panel, are six analogue (8 channel) audio, one S/PDIF, one Gigabit Ethernet, four USB 2.0, two USB 3.0 and one PS/2 port.
The input/output ports at the back proves that the Asus M4A88T-M is not a low-end product. Crucially, there are two blue USB 3.0 ports.
The input/output ports at the back of the Asus M4A88T-M motherboard. Note the two blue USB ports (USB 3.0)
Expansion slots on the board include one PCI-E 2.0 x16 for a graphics card, two PCI-E x1 and one PCI slot. Three USB 2.0 headers are present, to allow for an additional six USB ports, which you can use through your cabinet's front panel, memory card reader or a mounted USB bracket.
The contents of the boxed package were standard - quick start guide, user guide, driver/software CD, back-panel for the rear I/O ports, one PATA and two SATA cables. Asus offers a three-year warranty on this motherboard.
The Asus M4A88T-M's Bios offered all the features one would expect, including overclocking. Asus provides Turbo-V software, for live overclocking from within Windows. An interesting mode that Asus calls 'Unleashing', will allow for uneven clock speeds among the cores, to gain all the performance possible.
Turbo Core is an AMD feature supported by the M4A88T-M, whereby the processor disables some cores to operate at a frequency of almost 500 MHz extra beyond the default clock speed. Advanced Clock Calibration (ACC) is supported, as is Core Unlocker. An 'Active CPU Cores' setting allows for enabling/disabling specific cores. Like with a lot of Asus motherboards, this one also offers support for Express Gate, a quick-boot version of Linux.
To prevent bottlenecks and preserve comparability, our colleagues at PC World India tested the performance of this motherboard using the following components: 3.4GHz AMD Phenom II X4 965 processor, AMD Radeon 5970 graphics card, 8GB of Silicon Power DDR3 RAM, Intel X25-M 80GB SSD, Asus Blu-Ray drive, Tagan BZ-1300W PSU and Windows 7 Ultimate 64bit edition.
The first half of the Asus M4A88T-M's tests consisted of real-world and subjective performance. As expected, the OS worked smoothly with everyday productivity applications and internet browsing barely stressing any component. High-definition and high-bitrate 1080p movie rips played just fine with no jerks or screen artefacts, which can be attributed to the raw speed of the processor used.
Blu-Ray discs played without a hitch, whether while using the processor alone, or while using the IGP acceleration to take load away from the processor. Hard-disk speed was on par with the best motherboards we have tested (for example, 249MBps random read speed on the Intel SSD). So we infer that the storage controller on the chipset is good. Memory performance remained consistent in benchmarks that stress memory, while using discrete graphics as well as while using the IGP. All of these are good signs.
The second half consisted of synthetic benchmarks. These are objective and give firm numbers that can be reproduced on demand and be used to compare performance. We take into account diverse tests, ranging from the simple (Windows Experience Index), to the standard system tests (World Bench 6, PC Mark) which carry out many tests including video encoding. Seeing as this motherboard includes an IGP, we included gaming as well (Crysis, Far Cry 2, Unreal Tournament 3).
There isn't a lot of performance drop compared to the 890GX, which will be the top IGP at least until Intel's SandyBridge processors are released. The 880G's single PCI-E graphics card slot does not inhibit the Radeon 5970 from flexing its muscles either.
Overclocking and temperatures
We could overclock the processor from its default 3,415MHz to 3,720MHz (15x248) despite the limitations of the HT bus, CPU cooler used and frequency of the RAM modules used. With slightly above average use, we saw the processor temperature hover at 51 degrees Celsius and motherboard sensor measured about 45 degrees. These numbers aren't bad at all.
The Asus M4A88T-M motherboard is a successor to the ones based on an AMD 785G chipset. If anything, our only complaint is that Asus did not use the newer SB850 for this board, thus leaving out SATA 6Gbps support. Also, this board is not for gamers, unless they are willing to turn off almost all visual eye-candy and make the game look very drab. Yet the integrated graphics (IGP - Radeon 4250) on this motherboard is the best in the mainstream price range. The Intel graphics integrated into the recent Core i5/i3 manages to give it tough competition, but even that is not ahead by much of a margin. In such a case, the price is the clincher for the Asus M4A88T-M, if you're looking for an AMD motherboard.